ILLUSTRATION BY ZEPHYR PFOTENHAUER
Eight steps towards reducing plastic use
Awareness of the problems created by plastic waste has been growing almost as fast as the great Pacific Garbage Patch itself. Like that vast tangle of trash and microplastics, our own contributions to it might be at once both impossibly small but yet significant. Plastics never decompose, really; they just break down into ever-smaller pieces, even beyond those that can be seen by the naked eye. These microscopic particles can now be found in everything from fish to seemingly pristine mountain streams, and their effect on human and animal health has only begun to be examined critically.
Plastics also are terribly convenient. They’re lightweight, cheap and cost a fraction of what a comparable container made of glass or metal might. In terms of manufacturing, plastics generate less environmental impact than alternative materials like cloth or paper. That’s one reason industries have maintained for years that the solution to the burgeoning “plastics problem” lies in increased recycling rather than decreased consumption.
However, countries like China have recently stopped importing our plastic waste, while the great churning wheels of global capitalism keep pumping out single-use plastics with no place but the landfill to dispose of them. This cost has yet to be reflected in the plastics themselves, though. And even before the recent changes, only 9% of plastics ever ended up recycled, no matter how many triangles were stamped on the bottom of those plastic food containers. It’s the kind of problem that can seem insurmountable on the individual level, and it is true that we need more local as well as national leadership to tackle the systemic barriers both to recycling, as well as regulating the sale, manufacturing and use of plastics.
But it’s also true that the public has more power than we realize. We just need to exercise it. Consumer choice is the engine that drives much of our economy. The first step in reducing plastic waste is to consume less plastic. Period. That can mean making changes both in the brands that we choose to support, as well as lifestyle changes, like bringing our own bags for buying bulk items, as well as grocery bags. Taken together, these small changes not only reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by each person, but they also lift the fog of helplessness that can settle at times on concerned citizens who feel that meaningful action is beyond them. In addition, these small changes and choices can send signals to companies both large and small. From grocery stores to dairies, beverage companies to farmers’ markets, consumer choice can be a powerful tool to influence policy and stocking decisions.
- Don’t buy bottled water. Carry your own water bottle, and fill it up. Invest in a filter, whether it’s a whole-house reverse osmosis system or a Brita filter you keep in the fridge. Plastic water bottles are one of the largest and most damaging sources of plastic waste. Take it another step further and call out public officials and other leaders who are seen using single-use water bottles. Advocate for free water “filling stations” in public spaces and businesses.
- Buy ingredients, rather than packaged products. Making your own condiments is easy and rewarding, and you can control levels of salt, fat, sugar and preservatives. Hummus, for instance, is simple and easy to make at home, either from whole dried beans or canned beans, whose packaging is more easily recycled. Homemade ketchup will blow your mind. Mustard is easy!
- Bring your own containers. Most of us now use reusable shopping bags, but still take home a significant amount of plastic in the form of produce bags and packaging for bulk items or condiments. The next step is to have an assortment of smaller cloth or mesh bags for produce and bulk items; they can be found in most local health food stores. If you prefer to use Mason jars or Tupperware for bulk items, have the checker weigh your jar when empty before purchase.
- Food to go! Bring a tiffin carrier or other container with you when going out to eat if you think you will want to take home leftovers. Let your local taco stand know that you have brought your own container for the salsa bar, and don’t need their small plastic containers with your order. When ordering sushi, let them know that no one really wants that little plastic square of fake grass, when they could have a fresh shiso leaf instead.
- Support brands that sell products in glass rather than plastic. Several quality dairy producers now offer this option for raw and pasteurized dairy products. When I don’t have time to make my own yogurt, I choose brands that package in glass quart jars rather than plastic tubs. Bonus: You can use the yogurt jars to store bulk items in, and some of the dairy jars can be returned to the store to reclaim a deposit. This is a system that enables the glass bottle to be reused over and over.
- Wash day! Choose detergents packaged in cardboard, instead of plastic. Refill dish soap, lotion, shampoo and conditioner bottles from bulk bottles. You can order your favorite brands online in gallon jugs if your local store can’t stock or order them for you.
- Store leftovers in reusable containers, or use a waxed fabric square to wrap fruits or cover casseroles (see recipe and instructions at right).
- Give feedback. This may be the most important tip of all. Let restaurants, grocery stores and producers know why you are making the choices that you are. Positive reinforcement is just as important as negative; let your favorite brands know that you appreciate their commitment to finding sustainable ways to package products. Remind other producers that the reason you are not choosing their product is the waste that it generates.