Single-use plastic like a water bottle, restaurant utensils, a straw or a grocery bag don’t seem harmless on their own but their environmental impact is tremendous. Globally, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute and up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used every year. Half of all plastic is designed to be used once and thrown away. Single-use plastic has become a major component of our everyday lives and we’re consuming at an alarming rate.
When I sat down to write this post and started thinking about all the plastic use in my life, I started getting overwhelmed. I hardly even register the majority of the plastic consumption in my home. It’s just part of our daily lives. My family has made some strides to decreasing single-use plastic consumption but there is much room for improvement.
Recycling helps but about 91% of all plastic is not even recycled. It ends up in landfills or in the environment. The average American family takes home almost 1500 plastic shopping bags a year. It takes 500 or more years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill because the bags do not break down completely. They become microplastics that absorb toxins and pollute the environment over time. That means plastic waste in the environment can stay for centuries. Not only is this catastrophic for the environment, but these tiny plastic particles are swallowed by fish and eventually end up in our dinner. They’re also found in tap water. They clog sewers and create breeding grounds for mosquitos and pests, thus contributing to the transmission of diseases like malaria.
Microplastics and the chemicals that are added to plastics during processing affect our health in major ways. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors and can cause hormonal imbalances, reproductive issues like infertility, and cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found the phthalate DEHP to be a probable human carcinogen. It is often added to plastic products like shower curtains and garden hoses. The data, although constantly evolving, is disturbing.
For these reasons and especially as a mom of two kids and one on the way, I have made it a priority in our home to reduce our use of disposal plastic. It’s not easy. Plastic is a huge convenience in our lives and one that I previously didn’t stop to think about often. Eliminating single-use plastic from daily life can be inconvenient and expensive but in the long run, it has saved us money since we don’t need to repurchase disposable goods on a steady basis.
A lot of our shifting plastic use has been a change of perspective. Instead of thinking of reusable bags as an inconvenience, I think of it as our small part to help the environment and it has become a great teachable moment with the kids. Even as toddlers, they had a protest at their preschool in which they advocated for the environment with self-made signs. It was a beautiful moment and sparked conversations in our home on what we can do to protect our earth. It’s also a great opportunity to evaluate the throwaway culture in which we live in. We’ve made it a priority to invest in durable products rather than one-time use goods. That goes for fashion too (the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution globally)!
How to decrease single-use plastic consumption, one day at a time
Glass storage containers
I started eliminating plastic containers when discovering research that plastic should not be put in the dishwasher due to the risk of potential toxins leaching when plastic is exposed to high heat. Out of laziness, I didn’t love the idea of hand washing plastic containers all the time so we gradually started replacing our plastic containers with glass alternatives.
When we moved into our house five years ago, we made the decision to not include a microwave and replace the empty space with a large drawer. In the beginning, it was tough not having a microwave in the house. It was always my go-to appliance for quickly warming up some food but gradually, we started not missing it at all. I warm up food in the oven or on the stove top now and don’t need to worry about microwaves or potential toxins leaching into food.
Use a Kraft paper roll instead of traditional wrapping paper
I ordered this brown paper roll December 2015 and I still have more than half left. I keep it in the corner of my office and use it as wrapping paper, for kid’s crafts, covering surfaces when the kids are painting, cheese and appetizer set-ups for parties, and anything else I can possibly think of. I originally purchased it to use as wrapping paper but it has become one of the most well-used items in our home.
Use regular towels instead of paper towels
This was probably the most difficult change for me. I don’t think we even realize how many paper towels we use in a day. I feel like we go through almost an entire roll every two days. Although this isn’t plastic, paper towels use resources such as trees and water and contribute to landfill accumulation. We’ve always had hand towels in the kitchen but I ordered a few more and keep them in a drawer by the sink. I often myself reaching for a paper towel, pausing and using a hand towel instead. We get a lot of eye-rolls when family visits and we ask them to minimize their paper towel use but gradually attitudes change over time.
Replace plastic Ziplock bags with reusable containers
We use these reusable snack bags from Amazon instead of the single use Ziplock bags. The kids love the fun designs and they’re dishwasher safe so easy to clean. I also use these silicone storage bags for kids’ lunches or to store food in the refrigerator. They come in different sizes and are easy to clean. They seal well so you don’t need to worry about leakage. There is an initial cost with getting these containers but in the long-run, we’re saving money since we’re not constantly buying more plastic bags and containers.
Buy from the bulk section
I’m working on implementing this change and it’s definitely a work in progress. Instead of getting a pre-packaged container of dried mango, I go to the bulk section and load up. Interestingly, the pre-packed snacks and bulk section are right across from each other at Whole Foods so it takes just a few steps in another direction to make the change.
Use metal or silicone straws
We all know how detrimental plastic straws are to the environment. According to the National Park Service, in the U.S. alone, an estimated 500 million straws are used daily. Another study estimated 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world’s beaches. At home, we use metal and silicone straws and when we’re out at a restaurant, I skip the straw. I haven’t gotten to the point that I bring my own but hopefully one day.
Use a reusable grocery bag instead of plastic grocery bags
We have two cold-contained reusable bags that we use when grocery shopping. They are most useful when we do Costco trips and can use the bags instead of loading up on boxes. Julian bought the bags years ago and I wasn’t excited at the idea of having MORE BAGS in the house. However, I admit that I was totally wrong. We keep the reusable bags in the car and have gotten so much use out of them. I like the ones that fold up and don’t take up too much space. I keep them in my trunk so they’re easily accessible when I go grocery shopping.
Use a refillable water bottle or straw cup instead of single-use water bottles
By now we all know the harmful effect plastic water bottles have on our environment. I’ve mostly eliminated them from my life by using reusable water bottles but there are times when I’m out and don’t have my water bottle so I’ll pick one up at the store out of convenience. I now try to carry my water bottle with me in my bag or leave one in the car.
The changes below are seemingly minor but they add up overtime and can make a difference in how much we all consume on a daily basis. I still feel guilty when I open packages (or when we order takeout) and see the amount of waste it produces so I’m working on tackling those issues gradually. One method I’m trying is to add to my Amazon cart and avoid checking out until I think I’m done ordering what we need for the week. Next on my list – you can find me brainstorming on how to remove all the plastic toys in our home.
Do you have any other tips on how to minimize single-use plastic consumption? Comment below!
Photo by Joe Mac