Five Ways to Cut Down on Plastic Usage Today
By now we've all seen enough scary Facebook posts, alarming documentaries, and devastating videos of sea turtles drowning in plastic that I don't feel the need to go into detail about *why* you might want to cut down on your consumption of plastics. If you need a little more info on that front, I'd recommend you start here. Now that we got the doomsday stuff out of the way, I want to talk about the easiest ways to make meaningful change to reduce the amount of plastic you throw away every day. I'm not about guilt tripping people into action, so please don't hide your plastics from me in shame. I'm not here to judge: I too use plastics every day, despite my best efforts not to, because we live in a society where it is nearly impossible to completely do away with waste. As much as I'd love to say that I'm some sort of plastic-free holier-than-though zero waste guru, that's not the case. My journey to eliminate disposable plastic from my life is very much a work in progress, one that I hope continues to develop as the system changes. My hope is that you've found this post because you see the problem, you want to be part of the solution, and you need to know where to start.
First off, I’d like to say that I recommend starting slow with your efforts to reduce your waste. Although it’s tempting to want to banish all single-use-plastics from your life all at once they day you become aware of their impact on the planet, it’s easy to burn out or give up if you take on too much at once. These are pretty manageable habits to adopt, but it's probably advisable to tackle them one at a time, starting with whichever one sounds like fun to you. Once you have gotten in a water bottle habit or you’ve found your perfect reusable coffee cup, it may be more manageable to think about taking on canvas bags or banishing straws from your drinks. Adopting these habits for life and sharing your love for your reusables with your friends will be much more valuable in the long term if you can stick with it instead of trying to quit everything at once and getting so overwhelmed or frustrated with the system that you give up on it after a few weeks.
That being said, it is not easy to completely eliminate plastic from all aspects of modern life, so don't feel guilty if you can't major changes all at once or you start to notice all the other plastic in your life that you find it hard to avoid. We live in a society where convenience rules, and most stores, restaurants, and companies are very used to accommodating those demands of their customers. It's up to us to show businesses that sustainability is important to us and we would much rather have a zero-waste solution than super-handy (and super-wasteful) packaging on everything we buy, so your impact will increase exponentially if you can have (gentle, helpful) conversations with your friends, families, and favorite business owners about their plastic habits. If you're the competitive type, maybe try making it a game with your partner or a friend. Establish some ground rules and keep score on who can avoid more pieces of plastic every week!
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If you're ready to start making meaningful changes in your life, read on for the 5 easiest ways to reduce your disposable plastic habit now, by replacing those throw-away items with reusable ones! 1. Carry a reusable bag everywhere you might buy things Plastic bags are so ubiquitous these days that it can be hard to carry something out of a store without one. But we use these things for an average of a few minutes before we mindlessly throw them away! Fortunately bag bans are becoming more and more common in ‘progressive’ towns and states. Hopefully that sentiment is catching on and we'll see a big reduction in plastic bag usage all over the country in the coming years. We not only take our canvas bags to the grocery store, but we bring them wherever we go shopping…. we even have one special canvas bag that got a little too ugly after 10-15 years of use (honestly I felt like the cashiers started judging me at the checkout at the fancy ‘organic’ grocery stores), so we designated it as the ‘hardware store bag'. We have taken that thing on more Home Depot, Lowe’s and Ace Hardware runs than I’d like to admit during the conversion of two vans, and saved a lot of plastic bags from entering the waste stream in the process. I find that saying 'no bag please' *before* the checker has a chance to put your stuff in the bag is the best way to avoid that nonsense altogether!
Canvas bags are my favorite because they are super durable, look nice, hold tons of stuff without ever breaking, and are easy to throw in the wash with sheets or towels when they get a bit funky. This giant Patagonia tote bag is pretty much my favorite thing ever and holds almost an entire farmer's market or grocery haul by itself most of the time. It also has a convenient little interior pocket where I can stash my phone, pen, grocery list, wallet, etc so it doesn't get lost at the bottom of the giant pile of goodies. The hardest thing I think for most people is actually remembering to bring their bags along to the market or grocery store. Honestly we don’t really have this issue at this point in our lives, as our home on wheels is generally just outside the store whenever we go shopping, although I do find myself frequently running back out to the parking lot to grab forgotten produce bags, bulk jars or my cup if I decide I want a smoothie while I shop. Taking the time to run outside instead of opting for the easy way out is the most important part--and maybe it will teach you a lesson so you'll remember next time! When we did have a stationary living situation, I’d always just make sure to throw the reusable bags back in the car as soon as I unloaded the groceries from them, so they were there in case I made an impromptu stop at the store. You can also designate a spot near the front door in your house where the bags ‘live’ so you are reminded to grab them on your way out to the car. Once you get used to bringing them with you everywhere, you’ll start to remember them without having to think about it! You can also put a reminder at the top of your grocery list. For me that looks like "BAGS!!!!!!" in all caps and lots of exclamation points and probably some arrows and squiggles, because yes, I still hand-write my shopping lists. if you’re more into a digital thing I suppose you could just type it at the top and make sure it's in bold! If you have already jumped on the reusable bag train, nice work! Can I give you a high five in the grocery store because honestly I have a social anxiety problem and I haaaate being the only one in the store with all my reusable gear. If you're ready to tackle the next step can I recommend these amazing little cotton bags that work soooo good for all sorts of produce, bread and bulk bins? We have both the mesh and muslin sets and I love having multiple sizes that work for everything! I wash these every few loads with the sheets and towels, just like my bigger canvas bags.
I’ll be putting together a future post with more ideas about how to grocery shop while reducing plastic waste, so you’ve got that to look forward to! I'll make sure to link back here when it's ready. 2. Bring your reusable water bottle of choice with you on all your adventures.
I'd say it's about darn time we stop with this whole ridiculous plastic water bottle thing. Are you with me!? Most of them don't even contain good water to begin with, not to mention the insane amount of trash they produce!
So I'm guessing most people have at least one reusable water bottle at home that you could go fill up out of the tap right now instead of grabbing a bottled water. But do you love it? Because the only way you're going to bring that thing with you everywhere, all day, every day is if you really really like drinking water out of it. And you should because water is life, people! And there is good tap water that you can refill your bottle with everywhere in this country. How lucky are we? I love that there are water fountains, dedicated refill stations, even water buttons on soda machines in restaurants and gas stations... If you have ever traveled to less-developed countries, you know how lucky we are to shower in water that you can literally open your mouth up and drink!
Cade has a classic red Kleen Kanteen 20 oz insulated bottle that he’s managed not to lose for years. My everyday bottle is a blue life factory glass bottle in a silicone sleeve. I love the way the bottle feels on my lips and the flavor of water is 'cleanest' to me when it comes out of glass. I'm also a big fan of how wide this bottle is and the fact that I can see when it's clean or needs a scrub. I also have a no-name stainless steel bottle that I take with me on short hikes where the glass bottle is a bit too heavy (we also dedicate it to Tala’s water if we are using Camelbacks for us on longer bike rides/hikes). We also have a huge Kleen Kanteen 64 oz bottle that I love when the little bottles just aren’t enough. It’s always filled with filtered water in the van as a backup in case we run out of drinking water, and I’ve carried it on river trips for long days in the sun, backpacking overnighters, and often fill it with Kombucha when I find some on draft locally.
Honestly, it doesn't matter if you have one bottle that you use for everything, or a few that serve different purposes like we do. The most important thing to remember is to bring it everywhere with you. Because most of us probably aren't drinking enough water every day, and this is the greenest way to do it. We bring ours not only on outdoor adventures, but to parties, coffee shops, restaurants, and anywhere else we might be thirsty!
3. Say ‘no straw’ please when you order a drink
Notice I said ‘when you order’, i.e. before whoever is making said drink has already plopped that straw in there, because we all know we can't exactly give those things back once they've touched your drink. I’ve found this is the best time to ask, but you may have to remind your server as those individually-wrapped straws are often pulled out of an apron as your drink is dropped off. This is a tricky one, and there are times when even if you ask nicely when you order, drinks still arrive with straws already inserted, or they get pulled out and thrown in the trash before drinks are delivered to your table if they forgot to specify. I spent many years working as a server and a bartender and unless the establishment (or locale) has a specific policy on straws, they often just automatically get stuck in a beverage regardless, just for efficiency sake. I have personally inserted thousands of straws into beverages over the years, and it drove me batty once I realized how bad straws are for the environment. I actually prefer to drink beverages straight from the vessel, but if you’re a straw person, there are stainless steel, bamboo, and even reusable silicone straws out there (along with all sorts of cleaning brushes and accessories) to bring along with you wherever you may drink. I cringe at the number of straws we would go through daily in the restaurants I worked at (not to mention plastic cups, styrofoam takeout containers and all the rest), and I think the only real way to make a dent in this one in a meaningful way is for establishments to get on the train of a ‘request-only’ policy, encouraging reusable container and straw usage, and discouraging employees from automatically inserting straws in drinks. Here's hoping the world will continue to catch on. Plastic straws suck!
4. Bring a reusable cup to the coffee shop, the juice bar, or anywhere beverages are sold.
Especially living in a van, it’s a big treat to have a smoothie or fresh juice when we’re out and about, and of course all people who live in vehicles frequent coffee shops due to their common association with free wifi (let’s be real, you know why you’re really there). But in all fairness, we make darn good coffee in the van every morning and the public library has faster wifi (and cleaner bathrooms! shhhh, this is our best kept secret). That being said, we do treat ourselves to a righteous cappuccino every so often and unfortunately, even those ‘paper’ cups at the coffee shop are lined in plastic, meaning they are extremely difficult to recycle and won’t break down in the landfill. My suggestion? Especially if you live in your vehicle, but just for life in general… Find a cup you love, because once you start carrying it, you will use it every day. And if you really really like drinking out of your cup, then you won’t even think about grabbing a flimsy plastic piece of trash for water again (you know what I mean, those restaurants that always seem to have nice reusable cups for 'paid' beverages but disposable plastic cups for free water.....I’ve never understood this, btw). We have 2 ceramic mugs that were lovingly crafted by a talented ceramicist friend that we use for our daily coffee ritual. For more 'to go' situations, Cade's mom got us these gorgeous Swell cups for Christmas a couple years ago that we get compliments on everywhere we drink!
5. Dine in or fill reusable containers (or beeswrap) instead of plastic or styrofoam to-go containers. And ditch the plastic silverware.
Ugh, styrofoam is the worst. Anyone with me? Generally the easiest way to avoid to-go containers is to not order food to go! Get all European on it and enjoy that restaurant atmosphere because it's not your same old tiny van or stuffy apartment, y'all. In all seriousness, we don't eat out all that often, and when we do, we try to avoid the whole takeaway thing because it's nearly impossible to avoid plastic if you go that route. Some amazing restaurants will accommodate you bringing your own containers to deposit a food order into, but at that point, I feel like we may as well just sit down and eat it there! But there are definitely situations where you have to get it to go (sick partner in the van, taking a meal to a pregnant friend, etc, I get it). Bring your own containers and ask nicely if they will accommodate your super sustainable request! If not, consider ordering it 'for here' and transferring it to your containers yourself.
A few years back, I told myself I'd do my best to stop using plastic silverware. There are cool sets of silverware made of bamboo or other materials that are made to be thrown in a bag or carried with you wherever we go. Honestly, we just grab our normal (thrift store) metal forks, spoons, and knives from the van and throw them in a bag or purse whenever we suspect a cafe or restaurant might use plastic silverware, even for eating in. Remember--you may have to specify that you don't want any plastic silverware when you order or check out, depending on the establishment.
We do frequently find ourselves in the situation of having food left over and wanting to take it to go (we also hate wasting good food, especially when we are treating ourselves to a good meal out!). We’ll run out to grab one of our glass containers out of the van (we love these ones and also some similar to these). Although they both have plastic lids, they are super handy and are oven-safe for convenient reheating. We also have a set of these stainless steel tiffins in the classic style of Indian delivery containers. These are great for picnics, lunch boxes, or leftovers and stack nicely in a cooler or cooler style fridge. Sometimes if we just need a quick fix, and have (solid) leftovers from a snack out, we just carry bees wrap in a bag, purse, or pocket so we can quickly and easily wrap leftovers up at least until we get home and transfer them into a more rigid container. Thanks to Naomi and Dustin from Cacti and Coconuts for the brilliant tip about beeswrap--we love this quick little sustainability hack. If you haven't checked out their blog (and their inspiring instagram accounts), I definitely recommend it. These guys are the real deal and have soooo many great tips and ideas!
And there you have it. Five ways to start reducing your impact today. If you have questions about any of these habits and how they relate to your situation, ideas for a better way to do things, or just want to talk sustainability, please feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. My nerdy green heart always loves to talk about the environment.
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