9 Ways to Ditch Plastic

Since about half of the plastic in municipal solid waste in the U.S. is generated by residential sources, your actions can make a difference.

If the sight of the massive Great Pacific Garbage Patch —twice the size of Texas—and its 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic isn’t enough to make you rethink your personal plastic use, maybe you need to pay attention to turtles, birds, and fish. More than one million seabirds and 100,000 marine animals die each year because of plastic in the ocean and 100% of baby sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs.

In the United States, residential and commercial sources are equally responsible for the plastic found in municipal solid waste, says Dr. Jim Palardy, project director for conservation science for the Pew Charitable Trusts and one of Pew’s leading experts on plastic pollution.

“Importantly, few individuals and businesses have a good understanding of how they contribute to the problem,” Palardy says. “Corporations often have a poor understanding not only of their own plastic footprint but also of their exposure to business risks associated with plastic use. Increased transparency and disclosure on this front are critical to effectively address the environmental impact of plastics from commercial use.”

For consumers, plastics have become so common because of their utility that people rarely notice them anymore, Palardy says.

9 ways to ditch the plastic

“Once you start looking for plastic in your life, though, it’s easier to understand how to minimize your use and reduce your household’s plastic footprint,” he says. 

Consumers are more aware than ever of the plastic pollution crisis, says Melissa Valliant, communications director at Beyond Plastics , a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end plastic pollution. 

A 2023 Oceana poll found that most Republican and Democratic voters are concerned about single-use plastics and support reducing both the production and use of these products. According to the poll, 82% of American voters support reducing the federal government's use of single-use plastic.

“The plastics industry has established a throwaway culture in which consumers can't avoid plastic even when they want to, which is why it's so important that policymakers pass laws requiring companies to reduce their production and use of plastic, especially single-use plastic and plastic packaging,” Valliant says. “It's impossible to curb the plastic pollution crisis without companies taking responsibility for the mess they created—by paying for the cleanup of plastic waste and using less of the material in the first place—but consumers can participate in the movement to reduce plastic pollution by focusing on the two Rs that don't get as much attention as recycling: reduce and reuse.”

Start with Advocacy

There are many opportunities to reduce plastic use and plastic pollution in our daily lives, Palardy says.

“It’s important to remember that people have a voice and can help change the practices of the businesses they buy products from, as well as the ways that their workplace, school and other locations they frequent interact with plastic,” he says. “Ask these institutions to reduce their plastic exposure and applaud those brands and institutions that actually do.”

Consumers can proactively transform their communities into plastic-free zones, Valliant says.

“The plastics and petrochemical industries have long blamed the plastic pollution problem on consumers as a way to distract from the fact that their constant reliance on plastic is causing the environmental crisis,” Valliant says. “This distraction has led to 50 years of steadily increasing pollution with no corporate accountability.”

Next, Ditch the Plastic

Gathering plastic grocery bags and recycling them at your local store may feel as if you’re doing something to lower your plastic footprint, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to what needs to be done.

“It’s important to remember that the environmental impacts of plastics don’t only include end-of-life pollution,” Palardy says. “Since most plastics are made from oil and other petrochemicals, reducing one’s use of plastic is much more important than recycling in limiting the environmental footprint of plastic.”

Pew’s research suggests that about 47% of the solution to global environmental plastic pollution will come from reducing and substituting away from unnecessary plastic, Palardy says.

“As individuals, there are many cases in which one can simply remove plastic, no substitute needed,” Palardy says. “Per person, we use about twice as much plastic in the USA as is used in Europe, so it can be done.”

Simple substitution for single-use plastic items just takes a little preparation. For example, buy a reusable water bottle, a thermos and reusable shopping bags, and use reusable metal or bamboo cutlery instead of plastic.

“Think about what you wear and purchase long-lasting clothing made from natural fibers rather than synthetics,” Palardy says. “Walk, take public transit or ride your bike rather than drive. The more you recognize the unnecessary plastic in your life, the easier it is to avoid using it.”

Consumers can also purchase products from brands that use less plastic than others to reduce their use of plastic, Valliant says.

“PVC plastic is unfortunately very common in American homes, where it presents risks to human health,” Valliant says. “If individuals have the option, they should opt for recycled copper and stainless steel pipes instead of PVC plastic pipes for their drinking water. Products like shower curtains can also be purchased without PVC plastic, which is made with the known human carcinogen vinyl chloride.”

Reuse and Recycle

After you avoid using plastic whenever possible, the next step is to reuse and recycle what you’re unable to avoid.

 “To help make recycling effective, it’s important to recycle properly: know what is accepted locally, and keep recyclables clean and free of food waste,” Palardy says. 

Here are 9 ways to reuse and recycle plastic from Puracy , a manufacturer of plant-based cleaning and personal care products:

  1. Refill your soap dispensers, shampoo bottles, and cleaning products from refill pouches.
  2. Reuse plastic storage containers from takeout food for packed lunches or to store leftovers instead of single-use plastic food storage bags.
  3. Choose reusable pods instead of disposable coffee pods, or better yet, opt for a French press.
  4. Use biodegradable leaf bags in the garden.
  5. Buy plants in biodegradable containers or clay pots rather than plastic.
  6. Use biodegradable paper or reusable metal straws – or none at all.
  7. Use cloth instead of paper towels, which are packaged in plastic.
  8. Buy metal or ceramic dishes for your pets instead of plastic.
  9. Switch to a bamboo toothbrush or at least choose a toothbrush with a reusable handle.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for consumers to actively reduce their use of plastic when manufacturers have found ways to incorporate it into so many everyday products, Valliant says. However, she says: “Plastic isn't cool anymore—it's a threat to the environment, the climate, human health, and environmental justice—and Americans aren't as interested in contributing to the plastics industry's prioritization of profit over people and planet.”

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Homeowner Campaign Sponsors: Whirlpool. Whirlpool takes sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource intensive.

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