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Tips for Reducing Plastic Waste

There are lots of environmental issues out there – but plastic is one of the more tangible pollutants. With stories in the news, like this one about a whale ingesting 88 pounds of plastic, our plastic problem is getting to big to ignore. I try to be conscious of the amount of plastic I use and put into the environment. This Earth Day I’m brainstorming ways to combat our growing plastics issue. I am by no means an expert in these matters but as I was researching some solutions I thought I would share. 

The solution to plastic waste is recycling, right?

Not quite. While recycling is better than not recycling, it isn’t the answer long term. The vast majority of our plastic for recycling was sent to China. They are no longer accepting our waste, causing many municipalities to do away with their recycling due to rising costs. Read more about that here. Locals in RVA: CVWMA is committed to continuing recycling programs, but it’s more important than ever to make sure things are properly recycled; read more about it here. Even if municipalities can find a market to sell our waste to, think about all of the energy required to ship it oversees and then reformat it into something else. Recycling helps to ensure physical waste isn’t building up in the environment, but preventing plastic use in the first place is even better.

What about all the plastic that’s already out there? 

Chances are you’ve heard about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and the boatload (see what I did there) of trash in our oceans and waterways. Plastic makes up a majority of the debris because it takes so long to break down (source). This article from National Geographic has a nice overview of the problem and presents solutions. The biggest thing we can do is prevent plastic from entering the environment in the first place.

By buying products made from recycled plastics, companies may realize there is a market for recycled materials and profit to be made. This could help to sustain recycling programs and potentially encourage the cleaning up of already contaminated environments. I haven’t used any of these products, but thought they were worth consideration. 

  • Method created a soap bottle made from recycled plastic.
  • Allbirds has sets of shoe laces made from recycled water bottles. They also make shoes from natural materials like wool and trees. 
  • Polywood uses recycled plastics to make durable outdoor furniture.
  • Green Toys is making children’s toys from recycled plastic and packaging them with minimal materials.
  • Architec is making kitchen tools like cutting boards, utensils, and bowls from recycled plastic, bamboo, glass and paper
  • Preserve has tableware, toothbrushes and razors made from recycled plastic. They also host a mail in toothbrush recycling program. 
  • Pilot has refillable pens that are made from recycled water bottles. 
Plastics from Food Packaging

The biggest source of plastic waste in our house is from food packaging. The Cheez-Its I’m snacking on as I type this have a plastic bag lining the cardboard box. Shredded cheese bags, meat packaging, and tortilla chip bags all get dumped in the trash. The less prepared food you consume, the less packaging there generally is. While I cook the majority of things from scratch, food packaging is still hard to avoid. Anyone have a good option for buying cheese that doesn’t have plastic waste? 

I ordered these reusable mesh produce bags over 3 years ago and use them every week. Kara is based out of Virginia Beach which helped reduce the energy involved in shipping to Richmond. They work well for produce, and for items, like nuts, out of the bulk section too. Catherine, at Catherine’s Joy, recommended these silicone straws. I got a set a few months ago and really like them for smoothies and cocktails. 

I bought garlic, zucchini and jalapenos at Aldi because they were a better price than Kroger. But they came in larger amounts and were packaged in plastic. I switched to buying them loose at Kroger to avoid the plastic. The bulk section is a place to look for products you use and can avoid plastic packaging.  

At home, we rarely use plastic sandwich bags and instead use mostly glass storage containers. The Huffington Post has a list of 12 Alternatives to Plastic Bags that has some good options as well. We started buying bagels for the week at Panera (tip: on Tuesday a baker’s dozen is only $7.16) but were struggling to store them without single use plastic. Two of these tall OXO Pop containers fit a baker’s dozen perfectly and look nice on your counter. Panera will put bagels straight into these and you can avoid the bulky cardboard box too! 

Apparel and Natural Fabrics

While researching companies that use recycled plastics in their products I came across lots of apparel companies. Workout gear and performance fabrics are often made from plastic fibers. It made sense. Polyester. Nylon (polyamide). Spandex (polyether-polyurea). All synthetic fabrics are polymers which contain durable chemical bonds that don’t readily break down. DNA and cotton are also polymers – but they break down.

I didn’t include any apparel in my list of products using recycled plastics because they pose issues. Synthetic fibers do not break down into constituent pieces that can be integrated back into the environment. Instead, they break down into smaller and smaller pieces of microplastic.

We just need to keep these fabrics out of the environment by donating them and we’re good right?

Unfortunately no. Keeping them out of the ocean still has to be better than dumping them there, but it isn’t enough. Just by washing these items hundreds of thousands of microplastic fibers can be released into the water supply; read more about that here. Washing machines aren’t equipped to catch these fibers, but there are products designed to help your washing machine out like the Coral Ball, and Lint LUV-R.

Rayon is made from cellulose, which is the same stuff that makes up cotton, so it’s biodegradable, but it does has other environmental concerns though, read about them here. Overall apparel made from natural fibers like cotton, linen, and wool are the best for keeping plastic, and microplastics, out of the environment.

The Bottom Line

Any bit of plastic you can prevent from entering the environment is a positive step forward. Pick up trash, recycle properly, and avoid plastic packaging.

“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Anne Marie Bonneau

What are your tips for reducing plastic waste?

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