Who can forget the line from The Graduate when Dustin Hoffman (Ben) is told by Walter Brooke (Mr. McGuire) that plastics hold great opportunities for the future. Indeed, back in 1967 when the film was released, use of plastics was growing by leaps and bounds.
Today we are nearly covered in plastics, from our computer casings and contact lenses to our shoes. Plastics are in our food, cosmetics, health products, water, and medicines. We sleep on it, wear it, breathe it, drive it, build with it, eat off of it, and pay our bills with it. Much of it is disposable, tossed into landfills, waterways, highways, empty lots, and parks. Millions of tons of it wash up on shores, float in the oceans in state-sized heaps, strangle marine life, clog sewer lines, produce off-gases that have a negative impact on our health, and more.
This daunting mount of plastic makes us wonder how we can live plastic-free in a world where this material seems to be ubiquitous. However, plastic can be divested of some of its power if we, the public, create an outcry and say “no” to many of the more common and pollution- and health-affecting plastics in society.
You can begin right now by making the following changes in your life and that of your family. Every effort helps, and you can teach by example as well as by sharing this article with them.
Water bottles. Say adios to plastic water bottles and hola to stainless steel, glass, or aluminum bottles. These permanent bottles also hold ice to keep your beverages cold and also help reduce the number of plastic bottles that are disposed of every day. People are now buying one million plastic bottles every minute around the world, and only about nine percent of them are recycled.
BYOB. Yes, this can stand for bring your own bottle, but substitute “bag” for “bottle” and you alone could save as many as 400 or more plastic bags per year. Cloth, canvas, net, and other types of reusable bags are perfect not only for groceries but for other shopping trips as well. They are sturdy, washable, environmentally friendly, and most important, they aren’t plastic! Many community expos, companies, and organizations hand them out for free, and you can pick them up at thrift stores as well.
Straws. Plastic straws are currently the latest plastic product on the chopping block, and for good reason. These objects are a problem for many recycling companies because they can get caught in their machinery. In the environment, straws are a huge hazard for marine life who swallow or get tangled in them. Say “no thank you” in restaurants when offered a straw; you can bring your own stainless steel or glass one from home if you want to use one. Paper, compostable and bamboo straws are other alternatives.
Plastic food containers. Storage containers for food should be made of glass, ceramic, or stainless steel. You especially do not ever want to reheat food in a plastic container in the microwave, because chemicals from the plastic can leach into your food.
Take out containers. A simple idea is to always bring a takeout container with you from home so you don’t ever have to use a plastic or foam takeout container from a restaurant.
To-go cups. A slowly growing number of coffee shops are offering a discount on coffee or tea if you bring in your own ceramic or stainless steel mug. Even if you don’t get a discount, you will be taking a stand against unnecessary waste. Coffee and tea always taste better in ceramic or stainless steel containers anyway. Be bold and bring your ceramic mug to any coffee shop and ask if they want to save money and the environment at the same time.
Disposable utensils. You deserve to enjoy your food with stainless steel, bamboo, compostable or other permanent utensils. Carry them with you in a small case wherever you go so you will always be ready.
Smoking. Unless you smoke filter-less cigarettes, every butt you toss away is adding more plastic to the environment. In addition, if you use a disposable plastic lighter, you are contributing more plastic. These lighters are especially hazardous to marine life because they perceive the colorful objects as food.
Plastic wrap. Among the unpleasant characteristics of plastic wrap are the potentially hazardous chemicals they contain and leach into food and the fact it is not recyclable. Instead of wrapping leftovers or other foods in plastic wrap, put them in stainless steel, glass, or ceramic containers or fabric bags. You also may want to consider using beeswax paper.
Packing materials. Whether you use plastic “pillows,” bubble wrap, or foam peanuts, they are all forms of plastic. If you are wrapping items for moving purposes, then use your towels, linens, pillows, and even some clothing as packing materials. Washcloths, hand towels, and socks can be used for packing glassware and dishes. Towels and linens can cushion wall hangings, lamps, and pottery. When sending items via shipping companies, use newspaper or other recyclable materials.
Diapers. Ever since disposable diapers made their debut in 1948, our landfills have been collecting millions of tons of them. On average, 7,300 diapers are used by each child from birth to age 2.5 years, which is about when toilet training has been successful. The inner layers of disposable diapers typically are made of plastic (polypropylene) and take about 500 years to decompose in a landfill. The solution for those of you who want to take a firmer stance on avoiding plastic, is to switch to cloth diapers, many of which have plastic-free closures, and which will not only reduce waste but also save you lots of money.
Feminine Hygiene. Tampons with plastic applicators and pads in non-biodegradable plastic wrappers also contribute to plastic waste. A woman will use around 11.000 feminine hygiene products in her lifetime. That is a huge amount of plastic filling up landfills. Choose a more environmentally friendly option like tampons with a cardboard applicator, pads the are 100% cotton, or reusable cup. [Editor's Note: Our sponsor, Natracare offers 100% organic cotton and plastic free feminine hygiene products.
Bulk buy. You can significantly reduce the amount of plastic packaging that ends up in the landfill by making bulk purchases. Bring reusable containers from home, such as glass jars with lids. Look for products you can buy at refilling stations.
Disposable razors. Are you throwing away a plastic razor every few weeks or once a month? Why not get a permanent electric razor or one that lets you change the blades?