Making the decision to consciously decrease the amount of plastic waste you produce is a bit like going plant-based. When you cut animal products out of your daily life you suddenly realise just how many things have animal products hidden within them. Likewise, when you’re trying to live a less landfill-y life, you suddenly realise just how many things come wrapped in plastic, come in only disposable format, or come in other unnecessary packaging that could have been done without.
Campaigns like No Straw Please are doing wonders for making people more aware of the sheer volume of single-use plastic we’ve become accustomed to. A new piece of plastic in every drink, a new plastic water bottle every lunchtime, mini plastic carrier bags to gather vegetables in the supermarket.
But living a ‘normal’ life and being zero waste just don’t seem to go hand in hand – show me how I can make my own waterproof eyeliner instead of buying one in a plastic tube, and I’ll probably still show you the time deficit in my life for doing such things.
That said, there are some really easy ways to use less plastic. The following are a selection of the easier switches that can be made without the need for a totally DIY life.
Stop buying pre-packed veg
In an ideal world, this would be dead easy. There’d be market stalls within easy reach of all people, they’d be cheaper than Tesco and nobody would have to buy things wrapped in plastic ever again. Trouble is, it’s not that easy. A lot of supermarkets don’t even give you the option of plastic-free everything. So this is one where it’s a case of doing what you are able to do and can afford to do.
Reusable produce bags are my new homeboy – you can get a multipack off eBay for a couple of quid, and when you are somewhere that sells loose veg, baked goods etc, you can avoid having to gather your shopping in the little plastic bags you normally see by using lightweight, reusable mesh or fabric ones that won’t add extra weight at the checkout.
Price-wise, buying things loose usually works out cheaper – with the exception sometimes of non-seasonal veg or ‘exotic’ items that are priced by the item instead of by the weight. But the added bonus of shopping like this when you can is that it can also help you cut down on your food waste.
How many times has a multipack of veg left you with something mouldy in the salad drawer, or a dubious, squishy onion in the cupboard? Being able to load up a cloth bag with the amount of food you actually need instead of a set amount cuts out plastic, can cut your food bill and minimises the likelihood of waste too. Gotta be a win, right?
Carry a reusable bottle/cup
Plastic bottles are recyclable, and that is great. But a lot of them end up in landfill, or floating in the ocean, clogging up rivers – you name it, it’s got plastic rubbish in it. If you live in a place where the tap water isn’t drinkable that’s another story, but think about all the times you’ve been grabbing a lunchtime meal deal or been dashing from one place to the next and picked up a plastic bottle of drink at the station, when you could have had a bottle in your bag.
When you live in a country that has perfectly palatable tap water, not only does spending money on bottled stuff start to feel like a bit of a con, it’s also an easy way to create a lot of unnecessary waste.
I’m lucky enough to live in a city where loads of cafes and bars offer free water bottle refills (check out @refillnorwich on Instagram) but a lot of places who don’t advertise that service will still do it for you. My tactic is just to take a really big bottle out so there’s less fear of running out!
You can get bottles with filters and little tubes for sticking lemons and stuff in, all kinds of wizardry, though I’m currently using the simple-and-effective Ion8 reusable bottle in the fetching photo of my hand above. This is partly because it’s big enough to last without needing constant refills, and partly because it’s leakproof, which means there’s no worries about it bumping around in my bag!
The Ion8s are BPA-free if you’re worried about drinking out of plastic in the first place, but another brand I like are One Green Bottle, who make stainless steel flasks in various sizes as well as reusable coffee cups.
Get a reusable tote (or two…or three)
Like, I’m pretty sure everyone has about a dozen of these each now, but it bears repeating. The 5p plastic carrier bag charge coming in across the UK has done wonders for getting people to reuse bags instead of buying new ones, but even the sturdier ‘bags for life’ are no match for a fabric tote – take it from the half a dozen or so plastic ones with holes in sitting in the bag full of bags in my kitchen.
Fabric totes went from being generally considered quite cool to being just for hipsters very rapidly, but thankfully they have now pinged back into the realms of ‘no seriously, these are really good, I don’t know why you wouldn’t have one’ and they’re usually a nice way to support a local artist or independent store, as well as a plastic-decreaser.
The one in that photo was made by a Norwich/London illustrator called Katrine Macklin, and it won’t take 1,000 years to biodegrade like a plastic bag can. Everyone from Vans to Habitat to any band you’ll go see play has their own branded tote now, so get on it.
Avoid Plastic straws like the plague
‘But I like straws!’ I hear you cry. ‘Straws protect my lipstick/divert sugary beverages past most of my teeth/stop me having to put my mouth on a glass from a grubby bar!’ Well then it’s lucky for you that you can get ones that aren’t made of plastic.
Another gem of Norwich life is that the bars around here have been getting stuck in to the whole not-giving-out-a-piece-of-plastic-in-everyone’s-drink thing. The infamous Gonzo’s Tearoom made headlines last year when they rallied local venues to discourage plastic straw use, before adopting biodegradable alternatives for customers who do want to use them.
You may not have eco-warriors running nightlife venues near you, but that doesn’t have to stop you ditching plastic straws yourself. I invested in the bamboo number above from Zero Waste Club today – mine’s from Little Shop Of Vegans in Norwich, but if you’re elsewhere you can order them online.
500 million plastic straws are used and thrown away every day in the USA alone. That’s a lot of plastic that ends up in landfill sites and waterways that could be avoided if people either ditched straws or used reusable, sustainable versions.
Buy second hand where you can
Not everything can be bought second hand, but browsing junk shops / charity shops for housewares, clothes, appliances and so on is wayyyy more fun than ‘regular’ shopping, and you get to save some cash while buying things that not everybody else has.
Sites like Gumtree and eBay are great places to pick up things that have been ‘gently used’, just like scouting out car boot sales, where you can get things you need without the excess packaging they came in.
I’ve always liked buying housewares from strangers on the internet and from charity shops because I think you get cooler stuff that way, and it costs about 1/4 of the price of buying new.
You can skip the plastic waste that comes from buying films and music just by downloading digital content, but if you’re in need of a new TV or stereo to actually use that stuff on, check and see if there’s anything pre-loved in need of a new home before you splash out on something that’s been freshly made and packaged up.
Cut out seafood
46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets. A further chunk on top of that is other fishing paraphernalia. And all around the world in other oceans and coastlines, the story is the same – yes, there are single-use plastics harming sea life and washing up ashore, choking corals and doing all kinds of other nasty stuff. But the fishing industry is having a pretty disastrous impact on the planet in more ways than one.
I try to avoid anything that might come across as preachy or pushy in terms of diet – I went from pescatarian to vegetarian to vegan not because of people pushing me, but because I got there on my own, in the end. But if you really want to cut down your plastic waste and minimise the damage you do to the planet, I’d seriously suggest ditching seafood. That way, you know your money isn’t going to an industry that’s clogging up the oceans with waste that lasts for decades.
And some other ideas…
- Cook More. The more often you have leftovers to take to work for lunch, the less often you have to buy food that’s wrapped or served in/with plastic.
- Use travel bottles, not travel-sized toiletries. Why buy a tiny bottle of shampoo that you’ll throw away in a week when you could buy reusable bottles that will last for ages and just top them up from your ordinary toiletries between trips? The product to packaging ratio is always better when buying in bulk
- Anything else? Give me your ideas and let me know what else I could be doing in the comments!