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Blog: Tips on reducing plastic in our lives

We all know we must reduce the amount of plastic we purchase or otherwise bring into our homes and lives. Let’s share tips on how to do that!
Buying from bulk item bins can reduce your use of plastic packaging. Photo by Alice Kaufman

We all know we must reduce the amount of plastic we purchase or otherwise bring into our homes and lives. Let’s share tips on how to do that!

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, most plastics aren’t recyclable. When we think we’re responsibly recycling our soda bottles and jugs of detergent, plastic is ubiquitous in our lives, so it’s pretty hard to avoid completely. But that doesn’t mean we can’t reduce our use of plastic and still make a difference. 

Before deciding that it’s just too much hassle to reduce your plastic consumption significantly, consider the fact that for all of history before the 1960s, life without plastic was just the norm. The plastic industry was born out of the fossil fuel industry’s desire to find a use for the byproducts from oil and gas production, and consumers enthusiastically adopted the products offered to them. Plastics have indeed made many technological advances possible, including medical devices, computers and cell phones. However, the ubiquitousness of disposable, single-use plastic in our everyday lives is not necessary, and it contributes to ocean pollution and the presence of microplastics throughout the ecosystem (including in our own bodies).

So what can we do about it? Here are some tips to get you started.

Avoid plastic shopping bags by bringing your own reusable bags to the store. If you forget, ask for paper bags, not plastic. Also, reduce your use of plastic produce bags by reusing them or using reusable mesh or fabric bags. I tend to simply reuse plastic produce bags – they can be washed, dried and used over and over again. Also, you don’t need a produce bag for all the produce you buy. That head of garlic or avocado doesn’t need its own bag. (Many people store all produce at home without plastic bags, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do that without it, resulting in limp cilantro and dried-out celery. If you have tips, tell me in the comments!)

Bring your own reusable water bottle or travel mug rather than buying bottled water or using a disposable coffee cup (which is lined with polyethylene to make it waterproof). Also, bring reusable utensils with you rather than accepting plastic utensils. (Note that several cities in San Mateo County have adopted disposable food service ware ordinances prohibiting restaurants from offering plastic utensils.) You can buy bamboo utensils, but I bring a set of metal utensils from home if I know I’m going to need them.

Decline offers of plastic that you don’t need. Even if you forgot your travel mug and need to accept a disposable coffee cup, maybe you don’t need the plastic lid if you’re drinking it in the coffee shop. Same for if you forgot your reusable shopping bag – do you really need a bag if you’re getting a few items?

Choose packaging that is recyclable or compostable. Should you buy soda in a plastic bottle or in aluminum cans? Cans are recyclable; plastic soda bottles only get recycled about 20% of the time. Hesitating between two different brands of pasta? If one of them is packaged in a cardboard box and the other in a plastic bag, go with the one in the cardboard. Also, consider using powdered laundry detergent that comes in a cardboard box rather than liquid detergent in a jug or those little detergent pods (which come in a plastic bag and have been accused of containing plastic film). 

Buy in bulk. This requires some advance planning, but it takes very little extra effort once you get into the habit. Many stores have bulk-item bins for certain food items, and there are stores devoted entirely to bulk-item shopping. In San Mateo, Byrd’s Filling Station has everything from rice and dried beans to shampoo and laundry detergent in bulk containers and pre-packaged items in compostable packaging.

Go easy on yourself. Remember, by attempting to avoid plastic, you are bucking an entire industry that spends tons of money trying to convince you that you need disposable plastic packaging and that reducing your plastic use is just too difficult and inconvenient for your busy lifestyle. You are a pioneer! Start by making just one small change in your buying habits, and then once that feels natural, make one more small change. If we all take a few small steps, together, we can make a big difference.

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