10 Ways to Go Plastic-Free: Tips for a Cleaner and Greener Environment
Once hailed as a "wonder material," plastic is now a serious worldwide environmental and health concern, essentially due to its non-biodegradable nature. According to The Marine Conservancy, it is estimated that a foam plastic cup will take 50 years, a plastic beverage holder will take 400 years, disposable diaper will take 450 years, and fishing line will take 600 years to degrade. These items are dumped in landfills. But because landfills lack oxygen and light, these plastics release chemicals that can unfavorably affect lands, waterways, and oceans.
The above-mentioned plastic items are just a few of the many plastic products that we, consumers, purchase and use every single day of our existence. Take plastic bags or plastic packaging, for example. These are the "single-use" or "use-and-throw" plastics which are ubiquitous. They are literally everywhere—from the supermarkets down to the curbs and the narrowest corners, if not on the streets, of any town. They basically dominate our lives . . . unless we put a stop to it and start taking responsibility for our actions.
Like many others, I, too, have become aware of the horrors that plastics bring into people's lives, into the lives of the non-human beings that we share this planet with, and into the environment. This awareness has led me to live a life plastic-less, if not plastic-free.
Here are ten ways to reduce or eliminate plastic items in your households:
1. Stitch Your Own Cloth Bags
In many countries, and in some states in India, plastic bags are banned. Well, banning is one thing, the penalty for not following the ban is another thing, not using plastic bags is the toughest one!
But you don't really need to wait for a ban to take place to make the change. You can immediately start carrying cloth bags wherever you go.
Cloth bags are washable; hence reusable. If strong and sturdy, they could last for years. Discarding them is easy because they are biodegradable. You don't need to wait years for them to rot. But the best thing about cloth bags is, you don't need to buy them!
Old cotton bed sheets, pillowcases, curtains, jeans pants, etc. are the best candidates for making reusable bags. You can stitch them or have them stitched. You can double the fabric to ensure durability. You can make them in different sizes and different styles, with or without pockets, wide-open or with pull-up strings.
You can keep one or two in your office bag in case you will need one on your way home. You can even keep a few in your car. But during your usual marketing, bring more or ask for a cardboard box. Boxes such as this are recyclable and biodegradable.
Make it a habit. You may forget once or twice or thrice, but with a little effort you'll never go out without them.
During the first few weeks of using cloth bags, I folded the smaller bags and kept them in one of the bigger bags (I now have five of them), and I placed them in a conspicuous area of my house, usually near the door. Soon, taking them became a habit and I never leave the house without one.
2. Use Steel Bottles
Plastic bottled water is everywhere. It is convenient and easy to grab—a use-and-throw item. Though these plastic bottles are collected and recycled, not all will land in recycling facilities. Many of them will be lying around the streets, washed off into canals causing blockage, and some could end up floating in the oceans among other plastic debris.
Use steel bottles, instead. Fill it with tap water. Tap water is much more regulated than bottled water. If the tap water in your area is questionable, consider boiling it or installing a home filtration system or using a portable filter.
Non-plastic reusable water bottles such as stainless steel and glass are now very easy to find. They are even available online. They eliminate plastic waste, reduce exposure to toxins, and save you money because they are a one-time investment that appears costly at first but save you a lot later on.
Aside from bottles, steel containers such as lunch boxes, food containers, jars, etc. are also widely available. Choose a quality type of steel containers. If taken care of properly, they last a lifetime.
3. Drift Away From Plastic Packaging
Plastic itself is not safe, and when it is in contact with your food, it can be dangerous. So avoid plastic-wrapped food such as those 'ready-to-drop-into-trolley' kind of food items or 'styro-packed-plastic-covered' fruits and vegetables. Instead, buy them in heaps or in kilo or in pieces and put them directly into your cloth bag. You just need to put the hard items in one bag and the soft ones in another.
When buying from a farmers' market, do not allow any vendors to place your purchased goods into a plastic bag. Instead, insist that you have a cloth bag and encourage them to demand cloth bags or any other non-plastic reusable bags from the customers or suggest to keep non-plastic reusable bags or containers with them and offer them to customers for payment.
A farmer offering a plastic bag to customers or a customer keeping his or her goods in a plastic bag forfeits the idea of organic.
Also, grocery items which are plastic covered or foil sealed have longer shelf-life, but they definitely make your life shorter, not longer. It's better to avoid them.
Not many countries have grocery stores where you can get your boxes or jars and fill them with the items you want. When I buy lentils or beans or rice or wheat flour (anything that can be purchased loosely or per kilo), I offer my smaller bags for these items. Then I transfer them to our steel containers back home. You can do the same.
Choose grocery goods which are in jars, too.
4. Change the Take-Out Image
Take outs are mostly unplanned. But planned ones are the easy ones. You can list the items you want to take and bring a non-plastic container for each item. The unplanned ones are the tricky ones. They give you the opportunity to justify the act of getting your items in plastic containers. Don't fall for this. Rather, consider bringing one or a few non-plastic boxes where you can keep all the items you wish to buy. You can keep them in your car or keep one in your office in case you suddenly need it.
My husband and I had done this when we were still into eating bakery items. We had a rectangular reusable plastic box that we used to carry along. We would then ask the bakery attendants to put our chosen items into that box. A few purchases like this can give them a new perspective about doing business in an eco-friendly way.
5. Buy Clothing and Shoe Items Made of Natural Fibers
Discarding your wearable clothes and working shoes or sandals is ridiculous. Wear them till they can no longer be used. There are many DIY projects for old clothing such as crocheted rag rugs, stitched blankets or quilts, etc.
Giving them away does not also make sense. Just because your things are not with you it doesn't mean that you are doing the right thing. Try to use them as much as you can then dispose of them properly. Making others do this does not guarantee their proper disposal.
Plant-based items are now widely available. Choose them whenever possible.
6. Pack a Waste-Free Baon
Baon is a Filipino term for a provision or supply of food taken to school or office or on a journey. Whether or not your food is cooked, keep it in a non-plastic box. It reduces plastic use and is safe from toxicity since plastic could leech out chemical compounds which are hazardous to health.
If you need to take food from a restaurant or small hotel or canteen where food items are kept in a plastic bag, carry your own bowl or empty lunch boxes and place your chosen food item in them. Or, there is always an option of dining in. Though avoid dining in fast food chains like McDonald's, KFC, Jollibee, etc. unless you can make the attendants serve your food in non-plastic utensils and cutlery.
If you are one of those parents who like celebrating birthdays of your kids in school, don't bring food in styrofoams. Instead, bring food items casseroles and have your kid request his or her classmates to bring their own plate, spoon, or fork a day before the birthday. This way, you are not only eliminating plastics on your child's birthday, but you are also instilling proper values to your child and to the rest of the school children. Be an example of right values.
When I was in elementary school I used to pack my lunch in a banana leaf and eat my food by hand. The only thing left to do after finishing my food was washing my mouth and tearing the banana leaf into pieces.
7. Have a Plastic-Free Potluck
Small gatherings are fun and rejuvenating but not when, after the end of the meeting, you ended up with so many paper plates and plastic cups and plastic water bottles.
Potluck can be organized plastic-free. Food can be brought in a non-plastic reusable box and kept in a cloth bag or a basket. Every participant can carry their own non-plastic utensils. Perhaps, this part of the potluck can be assigned to someone. For example, someone is tasked to provide a jug of water for everyone and the rest will just carry their own glass to use for drinking.
Encourage a zero plastic gathering where even a piece of plastic packaging is not allowed.
Also, consider a group contribution. Money can be collected to purchase steel plates, spoons, forks, and glasses. Have someone to secure them so that every time there is a potluck they can easily be gathered, taken, and used by fellow members of the group.
This can be true to any gathering like parties or birthdays or simply a meeting for fun and pleasure.
8. Ditch Soaps and Shampoos
Soaps and shampoos are two of the many pollutant-causing agents in the world that don't only kill the good bacteria in your body, but also kill water-dwelling creatures. While shampoos are stored in large bottles and are recyclable and soaps are wrapped in paper boxes, they still contain toxic chemicals that aren't good for your skin and the environment.
The statement, "I will smell if I will not use them," is a myth. You smell already! You are just hiding it through the scent of the soaps and shampoos that you are using. The frequent you use them, the more you will require to use them. So ditch them!
Crazy idea? No way! The human body is a self-regulating system. Fuel it with the right fuel (food) and the smell goes away.
There are now eco-friendly products available in the market or you can make them yourself or you can just simply forget shampooing and soaping. Water alone is enough.
I myself have been shampoo and soap-free for four years and I don't smell. My husband's first and last use of them was in 1993 when he was 16 years old. But don't just take my words for it. Try it yourself. Your hair, skin, and body will thank you for ditching shampoos and soaps.
Most importantly, going soap and shampoo-free means you out-slave yourself from capitalism, part of it at least.
9. Say NO to Straws
Straws are among the worst plastic pollution culprits. Like bags, single-use utensils are usually used once for a few minutes, and then recycled or thrown away. But there is really no such thing as “away”; it simply means landfill, environment or pollution-causing incinerator.
If you are at a bar or at a cafe where you order something that might need a straw, just tell the waiter or attendant not to put a straw in your glass. Drink your beverage directly from the glass or cup. If, however, you are concerned about hygiene or cleanliness, think about the food item that you ordered first and ask yourself whether it's clean or not, healthy or not.
The only way to ensure the cleanliness or safety of the food or drink that you take to cook or prepare it yourself.
In a country like the Philippines, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, or any other big gatherings are never complete without small bottles of soft drinks. I guessed that people have forgotten that they have mouths to sip through any beverages and that they don't need straws to drink them. After all, humans are not hummingbirds!
10. Save Those Plastic Food Packaging
Oats covers or pistachio, cashews, and almond packets, among others, are thick and colorful. Are they collected for recycling? I am not sure. But if they are, it's good. If not, there's no need to panic. These plastic covers can be shredded into thin but long or short pieces and used as fillings for cushions or pillows. School teachers use these ideas as craft projects.
Although the best solution is buying these types of products in bulk, such facilities aren't available everywhere. So save those plastic packets, make some projects out of them, or keep them because they can be collected and used in road construction.
While I strive for a life without plastic, there are times when plastic use is unavoidable. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Plastic bottles, boxes, jars, etc. have codes developed by the plastic industry to facilitate recycling. They are numbered from 1 to 7. But these codes do not guarantee recyclability. They also do not indicate toxicity or safety. Out of seven types of plastics, only one through six are explicitly identified. Code #7 is essentially the category for every other type of plastic.
When you use a plastic container for your food and drink, codes 2, 4, and 5 are fine for limited use. Keeping hot items in a plastic container should be avoided at all costs. Avoid 1, 3, 6, and 7 altogether.