If there’s one material we can’t seem to live without, it’s plastic. And there’s a reason for that: It's cheap, durable, and lightweight, making it perfect for everything from iPhones to eyewear.
But what makes plastic so useful for humans is exactly what makes it a nasty environmental contaminate—it spreads easily and takes forever to degrade, finding its way to our lands and oceans where it wreaks havoc on wildlife. To date, at least 700 species of marine animals, including shorebirds, have been entangled by plastic or mistaken it for food. The result is often suffocation or starvation.
Since the 1950s, we've generated 8.3 billion metric tons of the stuff, of which a scant nine percent has been recycled. And by 2050, scientists predict the oceans will stock more plastic than fish.
But as problematic and worrisome as all of this is, completely cutting plastic from our lives is impossible at this point. Reducing your plastic use, however, is surprisingly easy and pain-free. You’re not going to end the problem overnight, but here are some simple tricks to waste less.
1. Cut Out Plastic Cutlery—Especially When Ordering In
Have you ever tried to cut a piece of broccoli with a plastic fork? Yeah, not fun. And yet Americans use 100 million plastic utensils everyday, much of which comes wrapped in even more plastic.
When ordering food online, opt out of receiving plastic utensils—it’s often as easy as just checking (or unchecking) a box. That's it. And if you’re ordering takeout in person or over the phone, ask the restaurant to skip the plastic flatware.
Better yet: Try cooking for yourself. Although the idea is radical, home-cooked food is often healthier and produces way less waste.
2. Party Plastic-Free
Let’s be honest, no post-college party needs those red Solo cups, which may take 450 years to decompose. So why not use real cups?
Whether you’re hosting a dinner party or bridal shower, one great way to reduce plastic waste is to simply use real tableware. If you don’t have enough, ask friends to bring extras (people tend to care more about food than whether or not the plates match).
The downside, of course, is cleanup, but there are even guides for that! And if you’ve got a dishwasher, well, you’ve really got no excuses.
If you still feel that the burden of cleanup is too great (or you’re serving booze, which might lead to wobbly hands), avoid the plastic tableware and at least opt for sustainable products instead.
3. Say Bye Bye to Balloons
Many balloons are made of plastic, and when they get away, they can travel for thousands of miles before touching down. Some birds mistake them for food, and others mistake them (or their ribbons) for nesting material.
“We see this all of the time,” says Steve Kress, executive director of Audubon Project Puffin. “One time, I found a ribbon tangled around a puffin in its burrow. It said on the balloon, ‘Angry Birds.’”
Birds aren't the only animals that balloons harm either; they pose dangers to all other manners of wildlife. So go ahead and ditch the balloons at your next big celebration. And if you're worried about deflating the fun, try some other options. If you’re feeling crafty, make tissue garlands or paper lanterns. And if you’re feeling lazy, just buy a banner instead—non-plastic, of course.
4. Take Advantage of Tap Water
Evian. Fuji. Smart Water. They all sound special—but are they really any healthier or tastier than tap?
Not really. In most parts of the world with public, potable water, tap is just as safe to drink as the stuff that comes in plastic. It’s also often as tasty—or tastier. Globally, we spend more than $100 billion each year on bottled water, a sharp contrast to the pennies you pay to turn on a faucet. Yet another reason to love tap.
So how can you take advantage of this incredible public resource? Find a reusable bottle that you love, and don’t let it leave your side. If you have trouble finding a place to refill it, check out WeTap or Dopper, Smartphone tap maps.
If you still occasionally fall victim to Big Water's advertising ploys—who doesn’t want Jennifer Aniston’s Smart Water glow?—try to reuse the bottles as much as possible. No one will ever know.
5. Skip the Plastic Straws
Ah, the humble straw: American staple, transporter of sodas and iced coffee, an entertaining bubble machine—and also a major threat to wildlife, as anyone who’s seen an impaled sea turtle can attest.
Ridding straws from your life is no easy feat. Americans alone use 500 million of them each day, after all. Most of the time they are provided without consent and thrown out thoughtlessly. But they can also be necessary—especially if you suffer from certain medical conditions.
If you don’t need these suckers, don’t use them. Tell your server to skip the straws as soon as you sit down at a restaurant, or use a refillable cup at your local coffee shop. And if you do need to use a straw, try a sustainable alternative. There are straws made of bamboo and paper, stainless steel and titanium. Heck, there are even straws made of straw!
But my personal favorite is pasta straws. Bloody Mary, anyone?
6. Buy Bulk Foods
Food and packaging containers account for nearly half of all trash in landfills, according to the EPA, and buying bulk can help stem that stream.
So go ahead, instead of picking up that small jar of peanut butter, spring for five pounds of the salty goodness. If you do, you’ll save money, trips to the grocery store, and plastic waste. According to NC State University, buying peanut butter in bulk, for example, can save families seven pounds of landfill waste per year. Other items that will yield large savings in plastic waste when bought in bulk include staples such as noodles, rice, and beans, according to One Green Planet.
7. Get Better at Recycling
While everyone knows they should be recycling by now, even the best of us still don't always get it right.
Turns out, we recycle only a fraction of the plastic waste we produce, and that’s partly due to poor recycling techniques. You do, in fact, need to rinse out your containers, for example. Otherwise they might contaminate plastics around them and end up in a landfill. Also, avoid tossing out recycling in a used plastic bag. What might seem like a smart twofer turns out to be potentially damaging to recycling machinery.
And now that China stopped accepting our recycling, try to avoid buying plastics numbered 3-7, which include common food products like single-serving yogurt cups (another reason to buy bulk!). Many U.S. municipalities can no longer recycle them.
“People think that they’ve done their good deed for the day by throwing plastic in the blue bin,” says Shilpi Chhotray, the senior communications officer for Break Free From Plastic. But in reality, she says, much of that “recycling” just ends up as trash due to human error.
8. Actually Remember Your Reusable Bag
Look, you probably already have plenty of reusable bags, but the tricky part is remembering to take them anywhere.
“Bringing your own bags is a no-brainer, but a lot of people don’t do it,” Kress says. “And those little plastic bags are a big problem.”
Here's your solve: Store one in everything you take with you—your purse, backpack, gym bag—and if you drive to the store, in your car. You want bags everywhere. There’s just one hard part: When you return from home, don’t forget to put them back.
And if you’re still worried you’ll forget them, just add “reusable bag” to your shopping list.
Take It to the Next Level
If you’ve already mastered these tips, it might be time to up your plastic-free game. Chhotray calls this the culture of “leveling up.”
These tips are “a good place to start,” she says, “but a terrible place to stop.”
If your favorite restaurant gives out single-use plastics, for example, ask them to switch to sustainable alternatives. If that doesn’t work, try circulating a petition in your community. The next step is to engage at the civil level to put local laws on the books that reduce plastic waste. (In July, for example, Seattle will enact a ban on plastic straws and cutlery.)
“Take your practice and get people involved in your cause,” she says. “The idea is that we have to move away from individual change to this culture of leveling up.”