I know I’m not alone when shocking headlines about how we only have until 2040 to get climate change under control send me into a major panic. When I moved to New York three months ago, I thought the move was my opportunity to change my habits and get my carbon footprint under control. But guess what? Moving required buying lots of products all packaged in plastic and left me feeling yet again defeated and helpless to do my part to help out Mama Earth.
So for Earth Month, I decided to actually make some major changes to reduce my plastic consumption.
In order to successfully make any lifestyle change – you need a strong why. For me, that meant I needed to really understand why plastic is so bad for the environment—after all, it’s recyclable right?
Well—kind of. A horrifying 91 percent of the plastic we responsibly place in recycling bins doesn’t get recycled. All that plastic we think we’re recycling ends up in landfills where it can take hundreds of years to decompose and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
3 steps I took to reduce my plastic consumption
1. Replace as you run out
There are plastic free alternatives to almost everything. I headed to Package Free Shop to check out some eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastic and was shocked by how thorough their product lines were. I was able to replace my shampoo, conditioner, face wash, moisturizer, deodorant, and floss all with plastic-free alternatives by buying a new product as the old products ran out.
For those of you in NYC, Package Free Shop has a brick and mortar shop in Brooklyn – but if you’re not local, they ship for free (and plastic-free) on all orders over $25.
2. BYO bag, jar, straw, etc.
Grocery shopping and eating out were definitely more overwhelming for me than tackling the bathroom cabinet, but once I was properly equipped it wasn’t that big of a deal. I started carrying around these items at all times and have been prepared for most scenarios:
- This bag that folds down and clips to your keys
- Produce bags
- A reusable straw
- A mason jar
- A water bottle
Unexpected grocery stop? I was able to grab grains, nuts, etc. from the bulk section in my mason jar, throw produce in bags, get my meat wrapped in paper from the butcher counter, and carry it all home in my super compact grocery bag.
Coffee run? I was nervous about asking the Starbucks barista to put my drink in a mason jar, but they didn’t mind and I even got a ten cent discount! I threw in my reusable straw and was all set for a plastic free caffeine fix.
3. DIY whenever possible
So, what can you do?
According to zero waste queen Bea Johnson, the best way to attack your waste is to “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (and only in that order).”
Don’t want to make plastic waste? Don’t use plastic. This is where the bulk of strategies come into play. Bring your own bags, shop the bulk section, DIY whenever possible, and find plastic free alternatives to the products you use.
Certain products are harder than others. For me, yogurt was the biggest challenge. Is there somewhere I can get bulk yogurt and bring my own jar? Almost definitely. Have I found it? Not yet. For the time being, I’m buying yogurt in plastic. A compromise I made to reduce the amount of plastic was buy one big container rather than lots of individually packaged containers.
Life happens. Sometimes after a crazy day you just need to Postmates dinner. An important part of a low waste lifestyle is to plan ahead and sometimes you don’t. You may find yourself at the grocery store without your produce bags. And some products, like medications, are going to be really hard (if not impossible) to find plastic-free.
Instead, pledge to reuse the plastic containers you can’t avoid buying. Wash takeout containers and use them as Tupperware. Use old medication bottles to store bulk spices. Save plastic produce bags and use them to clean up after your dog.
As previously mentioned, just because you throw something into a recycling bin doesn’t mean it’s getting recycled, so this is a last resort. If you do find yourself with single use plastic that you can’t repurpose, recycle it properly.
A big factor in the shockingly low rates of plastic actually getting recycled is user error. Read your local recycling laws so you know what types of plastic can actually be recycled and whether there’s anything you need to do to make sure it happens – rinsing plastic containers, separating a plastic cap from a glass bottle, etc. Assume that if you’re going to use it, you’re responsible for properly disposing of it. And sending a potentially recyclable product to landfill doesn’t count. Sorry.
Plastic isn’t compostable, but there are some biodegradable plastic mimicking materials on the market. So if you’re really drawn to those Ziploc bags, look into compostable alternatives to your favorite plastic products like these BioBags. And then learn to compost so that you can dispose of them properly.
What happened during my month of reducing my plastic waste?
It was hard. I wasn’t perfect by any means. Among other setbacks, I ordered takeout twice, bought a bag of pretzels, bought cauliflower wrapped in plastic, and used Ziploc bags. Interestingly, I found that I gave myself a free pass on weekends like many of us do when making major lifestyle changes. But guess what, just like that donut isn’t suddenly bursting with micronutrients come Saturday, plastic used on the weekend doesn’t break down any faster in a landfill than plastic used on Monday.
Despite the challenges, it got easier. The first time I grocery shopped it took me four hours – I’m not kidding. But the second time only took me 45 minutes and by the end of the month grocery shopping felt as easy as ever. And I ate better and wasted less food. Can’t buy anything packed in plastic? Guess what – the entire middle section of the grocery store is off limits. I found myself eating a lot more veggies and plant based proteins because they were just easier to buy. And unable to buy something quick and frozen I found myself turning to my leftovers more often and stopped letting them go bad in the back of my fridge.
Most importantly, I felt good. As I walked home from the farmer’s market, reusable bag over my shoulder, I felt so good about my purchases. The guilt I’ve felt for years every time I’ve tossed a plastic bottle in the trash drastically decreased. I was able to read horrifying headlines about the climate crisis without being hit by a wave of paralyzing helplessness.
Am I still scared of climate change? Absolutely. And that’s why I’m not done. I’m going to keep working on reducing my plastic consumption and turn to tackling other sources of waste. And who knows – maybe I’ll even find a way to buy plastic free yogurt.
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