The environmental health of our planet extends beyond greenhouse gas emissions to the state of its cleanliness and its ability to function in the natural flow of life that it’s been accustomed to for the past 4.5 billion years.
Enter plastic, which has definitely changed the earth’s cleanliness and natural flow.
Before we get into how to reduce your plastic use (a very important endeavor), let’s start with a brief overview to provide some context…
The Background on Plastic
Plastic has been a boon for humans. As a substitute for metals, glass, and other natural, heavier materials, plastic has made things lighter, less breakable, and even more durable. These days, almost everything contains it: packaging, cars, electronics, medical equipment, toys, clothing, you name it.
For the environment, plastic has been a disaster. Plastic sits in our landfills and waterways where it takes from anywhere from 10 to 500+ years to break down.
And because it’s not organic, it never fully decomposes. As a result, it leeches chemicals and other toxins into the soil and water that can harm our health and the health of other living things. When plastic does separate, it breaks into microplastics, tiny beads that are consumed by fish and seafood that we, in turn, consume.
There’s even an area of discarded, degrading plastic so large in the Pacific Ocean that it’s been named The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Plastic Use on the Rise
Our use of plastic is increasing rapidly. In 2016, the world produced 436 million tons (396 million metric tons) of plastic, a number that’s expected to increase 40% to 610 million tons by 2030. This degrading plastic created 2.2 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions—6% of 2016’s total emissions!
Plastic use has also been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic through the increased use of disposable masks, restaurant takeout, and other pandemic lifestyle changes.
The question is how do you reconcile the convenience of plastic with the environmental damage that it causes?
Reduce Your Plastic Use
It’s the best solution to create a healthier environment.
Here are several ways you can make it happen.
Don’t Buy It
This is the most straightforward way to lessen your plastic use. If you don’t really need said item, just don’t buy it. Consuming less not only reduces your environmental impact but also saves you money!
Don’t Buy Items Made with Plastic
If you do need said item, the next option is to buy it made in a biodegradable or compostable material. Unlike plastic, these materials decompose naturally and quickly in the environment.
To help you put this into practice, follow this approach every time you need to buy anything:
1. Do an internet search to determine if there is a natural alternative to plastic that exists for the item and its packaging. If there is and the item is at a store near you, consider buying it at the store rather than increasing the amount of plastic waste through shipping (see more below).
If there isn’t a plastic alternative, try #2.
2. For non-food or personal care items, buy the item used. The goal is still to reduce your overall consumption using the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle).
Avoid Plastic Packaging and Bags
Plastic packaging and bags are everywhere. Here are some suggestions to reduce your dependency on them:
Eliminate your single-use plastics--plastics that are meant to be used only once--by using reusable items. For example, buy a reusable water bottle and carry it with you instead of buying single-use plastic water bottles. And use fabric face masks that can be washed and reworn rather than disposable masks to protect yourself from Covid-19
At grocery and retail stores, bring your own bags to put grocery produce in as well as for carrying purchased items out of the store
Choose packaging that’s biodegradable or compostable. Special logos or labels will be displayed to indicate these types of packaging
Bring your own reusable container to restaurants to take home leftovers when you dine in
For takeout dining, tell the restaurant or add a note in an online order that you don’t need utensils and then use your own
Shop with online stores, restaurants, or other services that use biodegradable or compostable packing and shipping options
Buy Food in Bulk
Bulk food bins are located in co-ops and some grocery stores and are a great way to buy grains and dried fruit and legumes without creating waste. Simply bring in reusable bags and fill each one with the food you need.
If your grocery store doesn’t have bulk food bins, buying foods in larger quantities or bags at wholesalers is another option for items that you consume quickly or that last a long time. Just make certain that these wholesale items aren’t a group individual packages wrapped together—that just adds to plastic waste!
Because it’s so pervasive, reducing your plastic use can take some time. To make the transition away from plastic more manageable, start by focusing on one tactic from the list above that you know will work for you and then branch out from there.