Avoiding all plastic in our day to day lives is nearly impossible. BUT it is very important to make an effort to avoid what you can. The amount of plastic around us can seem extremely overwhelming, especially when you think about how less than 10% of plastic worldwide is sent to be recycled, and an even smaller percentage of that actually ends up going through the recycling process. Then, even after recycling, plastic can only be recycled so many times before it inevitably ends up in the landfill.
Most plastic waste will end up being sent to landfills, or worse, on the ground which will end up in our ecosystems and often our oceans. Plastics, even micro-plastics, will take hundreds of years to break down. When they sit in landfills, they add to greenhouse gas emissions as the toxic chemicals in plastics are given off while they try to decompose. Think about that, every toothbrush, plastic razor, plastic water bottle, or plastic shopping bag you have ever used is probably still out there in some sort. No wonder we see pictures of marine life trapped in plastic pretty often.
In all honesty, theres no easy or quick way to go about explaining every single type of plastic you will encounter and exactly how to get rid of them. In some situations, its almost impossible to get rid of certain plastics in your everyday life. This guide is made to help you easily determine where you use the most plastic, and the best way that you personally can make a change! The easiest way to avoid plastic pollution is to stop using what you don’t need, and to reuse what you can. After that, you should check your local area for what # recycling they accept (usually you can check on packaging items for a number surrounded by a recycling sign), and then recycle what you can. When you want to reuse items, Pinterest always has tons of DIY ideas for reusing recyclables! In this post you will find 5 broad categories of plastics; single use, microplastics, packaging, multi use, and biodegradable, and each category is followed by a series of questions to help you better understand each type and how you impact the earth by using them. There is also a short list of reusable switches, as well as a list of extra tips and sources at the end of this post.
Single use plastics
What are they? These are by far the easiest types of plastic to avoid in your everyday life! They also make up the majority of pollution. Think plastic straws, plastic cutlery, plastic shopping bags, plastic produce bags, zip lock bags, plastic plates or bowls, plastic cups or water bottles, styrofoam cups or togo boxes, with many other examples I’m sure you can find by looking around almost anywhere you go.
Where are they found? Usually single use plastics have to do with food. Think about how many plastic items you get from just one to-go meal: probably a plastic bag, silverware, styrofoam togo container, cup and straw. The rest of the single use plastics you will encounter will probably be while shopping, such as shopping bags. There are also a lot of beauty products that you only use once, such as plastic Q-Tips.
Can they be recycled? It really matters which kind you are talking about, but a lot of them are not recyclable. For instance, plastic straws and plastic bags cannot be recycled because they are too small and thin to go through recycling machines, and styrofoam is not recyclable at all. But, a lot of companies that use plastic bags will accept used plastic bags returned for reuse or recycling, such as Walmart! At most Walmart locations you can find a bags recycling box. For things like cutlery, plates or others (usually food items), you should check for a recycling symbol on the item. If your location accepts that number (you can find this information by googling what your area accepts) then you should make sure it is rinsed of any food particles, and then send it for recycling.
How to avoid: It’s very easy to avoid single use plastics with a little bit of effort! First, look at what you really don’t need, and start avoiding it. In all honesty, we don’t need straws. They are simply for our comfort. Do a sea turtle a favor and ask for no straw next time you’re out. When you’re at a restaurant, simply order your drink but specify no straw. This can seem nerve wracking at first, like you don’t want to annoy your server! But most servers will say something along the lines of “awesome! Save the sea turtles!” Also, its important to ask for no straw, not to simply leave the unopened straw on the table. The paper packaging around it will usually get ruined and the server will end up throwing them away anyways. When you get take out or to-go food, ask for no silverware and no straw. If you look in the bag and see them anyways, politely hand them back to whoever handed you your order and simply say you don’t need them. When someone hands you a plastic water bottle or if you want to buy one while you’re out, just say no. Plastic water bottles are often more expensive than how much it would cost to fill up a bottle with you’re own water from your home or a free fountain you see in public places, and they take more water to create than they do to fill. When you go grocery shopping, don’t even use produce bags! Most produce has this cool built in protective layer, you know, a peel. Plus, you most likely wash all your produce when you get ready to eat it. Instead of using shopping bags, buy a reusable bag at most grocery stores, ask for paper bags instead, or ask for no bag and load your groceries straight from cart to car in the parking lot, costco style. These may seem so small that they don’t matter, but think about how many straws you use everyday, and then think about how many other people in the world probably did the same thing. Making a small change makes a big difference!
Everyday substitutes: Think you want to go even further and give up single use plastics all together? There are easy substitutes for anything you can think of! Buy a metal reusable straw online or wherever you can find one, a reusable water bottle, a set of To-Go Ware reusable cutlery (my favorite!), and bring your own to go container to a restaurant to take home your left overs. You can find a reusable shopping bag for about $1 in pretty much any grocery store, theres even reusable ziplock bags and produce bags. You can find all of these things for relatively cheap on Amazon. Once you have the items you want to use, keep them somewhere you know you won’t forget, like keep a couple shopping bags in your car, or keep your straw and togo ware in your purse or center console. It gets easier once you’re used to it!
What are they? Microplastics are tiny, microscopic pieces of plastic that easily end up in ecosystems and food chains. They are so small that they can get into really anything, especially water ways. They are often washed down the drains and are too small to be filtered out. Many fish species at the bottom of the food web will mistake them for food such as plankton or algae, and end up eating them. Then, as bigger fish continue to eat these smaller fish as we move up the food chain, the amount of microplastics accumulate, since they don’t break down or digest very easily. Eventually, many fish end up on human’s plates, where the microplastics have the chance to accumulate in us as well. They can even accumulate into minerals such as salt, where they are so tiny they are undistinguishable from a salt crystal, and again we end up eating them as if they were a seasoning. High levels of microplastics can also lead to malnutrition in fish species, and later leading to them dying off.
Where are they found? Primarily, microplastics are found in self care products labeled as “exfoliating.” Those tiny colorful dots you see in face washes are often pieces of plastic meant to pull dirt out of your pores. Many self care products have begun to use sea salt, almond grounds, coffee grounds, or sugar crystals as the exfoliating property instead, which helps a great deal, and are much more natural for your skin. There are many harmful chemicals in plastics, and mattering on what kind you come in contact with, overexposure to plastics can be harmful to your health or skin care. Secondarily, microplastics can be created. As pieces of plastics enter oceans, for example, the plastic pollution is moved and tossed around, even making its way halfway around the world mattering on what currents it hits. As it goes through different environments, it is weathered down into smaller pieces. But, instead of decomposing, a single water bottle can break down into millions of microscopic pieces of plastic, which are almost impossible to remove once they get this small.
Can they be recycled? No! Not unless you recycle them before they get the chance to be broken down into tiny particles. But, the microplastics you may find in beauty products have no chance at being recycled because they are so small, and will end up going right down your drain.
How to avoid: Firstly, you should try to avoid exfoliating face washes that don’t state that they use all natural ingredients or that don’t specify what the scrubbing agent is. Secondly, you should make sure that your trash makes it to a trash can or recycling bin, not on the ground where it can eventually end up being broken down into microplastics.
Substitutes: Luckily there are great substitutes for exfoliating self care products! The most popular brand that I know of is the Nuetrogena exfoliating washes, which use both microplastics and very harmful chemicals, and they aren’t cruelty free either! If you want a specifically exfoliating wash, I love pretty much any exfoliating wash from Lush, but specifically the Herbalism scrub and the Cup O Coffee scrub and mask. My next favorite exfoliating product is the Tree Hut scrubs. Everything I have tried from them has been so amazing! Their firming shea sugar scrubs are unlike any other, and leave my skin so smooth and soft after showering. I get them from Ulta for about $8 for something thats lasts me at least a couple months using it once a week, but I have also seen them at Target and on Amazon. Another suggestion is to use exfoliating brushes instead of scrubs. So, instead of buying an exfoliating scrub, buy a normal face wash, and scrub it on your face using a wash cloth or a facial brush. Many facial exfoliating brushes are very expensive, and very mediocre, but I’ve actually found a great one for very inexpensive! This is the brush that I use, along with either my cruelty free skin care routine, or with my Pacifica Beauty kale detox face wash. It is only $23 on amazon and it comes with 7 different brush heads! I love this brush, it works really well with any head that I have used, and leaves my skin cleaner that I have ever seen. I also keep the box and plastic packaging that it comes in to store it, because it comes in kind of hefty plastic which can stand up to pulling the brush in and out everyday, keeping me organized and my brush clean instead of leaving it on the bathroom counter, and making it pretty much zero waste
What are they? Plastic packaging comes on nearly everything you buy, and is definitely one of the harder forms of plastic to avoid. It can range from really thin plastic to really thick plastic to styrofoam. Plastic packaging is also often only used once but it may be used for a long time before something is opened.
Where are they found? Just look around! Most of your belongings most likely came with plastic packaging of some sort. You can find plastic packaging around paper products, or as a waxy layer on paper items such as receipts, trash bags, food wrappers, household supplies, holding soda cans together, makeup containers, as safety seals around bottles, stickers on fruit, milk cartons (even paper cartons often have a waxy plastic layer to keep the liquids from spilling out), styrofoam keeping furniture or other bulky items safe, holding toys or small packages in place, and on anything else.
Can they be recycled? For the most part, yes. You should always check plastic items for a recycling logo with a number on it, and then check online to see if your area recycles them. Some plastic packaging is just too thin to recycle, because recycling machines can sometimes get jammed from thin items. If you can’t find a recycling number on your item, sometimes it is safest to either reuse it or throw it in the trash, because in some areas one wrong item can ruin an entire batch of recycling. Styrofoam unfortunately cannot be recycled at all.
How to avoid: This is where you have to start getting creative with avoiding plastics. Unfortunately, it is pretty hard to never have plastic packaging. For that to happen, there would have to be a huge uproar from consumers to companies for them to change their ways. Its not impossible! But its not currently happening, so its important to be conscious of your consumption. I find its easiest to start avoiding plastic packaging by just watching what I use and buy. If I collect all my plastic trash over a month and then look at it, its easy to see what I don’t really need. When I go to buy more things that I need, I first try to see if theres another option, for a similar price that comes with less plastic packaging, such as buying something that usually comes in a plastic bottle in a glass bottle instead. Then, I can also reuse that packaging as a means of storage. Sometimes, it is just unavoidable, which is okay if its something you really need. If its something that you don’t need, you might want to step back and evaluate if it is worth the pollution it will create. If it is a food item, I often try to see if it is available in bulk as well, and then I bring my own bulk jars and bags to fill up.
Substitutes: Some companies are coming up with great substitutes for plastic, such as biodegradable plastic packaging, or using paper instead when possible. As a consumer, you can refuse items that have unnecessary plastic, and even reach out to companies to tell them about your concerns. If you order a lot of things online, you will probably end up with extra plastic packaging, so try to either buy in person when possible or save plastic packages to reuse one day when you need to ship something out. You can also find compostable trash bags, sometimes at some Target store locations but also on Amazon!
What are they? Multi-use plastics are things you use all the time, and you will probably use for a while before throwing them away. Think household items. Many household items are made of sturdy plastics which can last for years, but most are designed to eventually break so that you have the need to buy a new one, and send the old to landfill.
Where are they found? Everywhere! Look around your home and you will probably see things like plastic toothbrushes, plastic machinery, hair brushes, razor handles, brooms and vacuums, plastic kitchen items, decorations, children’s toys, pots or bowls, boxes, chords, storage bins, hangers, spice shakers, movie cases, makeup cases, pieces of furniture, hefty gaming pieces, computer parts or other tech items, and many other items made of plastics!
Can they be recycled? Yes and no. It matters what kind of plastic it is. Too thin plastic can’t be recycled, but the same goes for too thick plastic. Check the item. Before throwing away the packaging it came in, check to see if it says please recycle. If you are going to throw the packaging away, try marking the item with a sharpie or duct tape to remind your self how it should eventually be thrown out. Reusing is another good option. If you are done with it but it hasn’t quite seen its last day, try giving it to a friend, or selling it on the “Let-Go” app, or even donating it to a thrift store. There are second hand stores for pretty much anything you can think of.
How to avoid: This is another type of plastic that is really hard to avoid. If it is household objects, furniture or decorations, try and find ones made from wood, cloth, metal or paper products as often as you can. Try not to impulsively buy things, think about your purchases and give the things you buy value. If it brings you joy or utility, then buy it, if it’ll only give you a week of use or a moment of joy before it is sent to landfill, think about if that is worth the years of decomposition and the possible litter it will create.
Substitutes: Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of substitutes and mattering on where you live, the substitutes may be even harder to find. Just try to look for things that aren’t made of plastic. One easy way to make a change is to switch your plastic toothbrush to a bamboo toothbrush, and then you can reuse your old toothbrush as a way to scrub clean small crevices in your dishes. You can also find a lot of other household or personal care items made from wood or paper products if you look past the first item you may see on a shelf. You can also find items that are meant to last a lifetime if given proper upkeep, like metal safety razors (just replace the metal blades). Its not easy to make these switches right away, but next time you need to buy something made from sturdy plastics like these, try looking for a different, more eco-friendly brand than the one you use. One tip for technology items made from plastics, like gaming consoles, is that any items that are broken or cannot be used anymore or resold, you can recycle them at your local Best Buy. When you first walk in, you may see 4 different compartmentalized bins for things like cell phones or charging chords. If you walk inside to either customer service, the geek squad, or the designated recycling section, they will take pretty much anything technology or metal wise! Keep an eye out at the stores you often shop at, such as Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Whole Foods, or other stores you frequent. Often towards one of the entrances, exits, or customer service areas you will find specific recycling bins for household items you may not otherwise be able to recycle. I’ve even found cork recycling at whole foods. I usually try to let these specific items accumulate, and take them in monthly.
“Biodegradable”/ “plant based”/ “compostable” / “recycled” plastic:
What are they? This type of plastic comes in many forms. Plastic labeled as “compostable” isn’t necessarily that easy. Unless it is naturally biodegradable, such as paper cups not lined in plastic or wax, it requires a machine to compost. So, if these are sold somewhere where there is not a designated compost trash bin, or they end up in the trash with everything else they won’t make any difference from the usual plastic cup. “Plant-based” or “biodegradable” plastics are a little bit better. Biodegradable are more often able to degrade on their own, but you should always check with the brand they are labeled as online. Plant-based plastics are often made from corn, but again you have to check if they will compost on their own. The ones that do are often able to break down in as little as 45 days. “Recycled” plastic is a great alternative from new plastic. New plastic is created everyday, when we have more than enough in recycling receptacles to make plastic for the next 50 years. By actually recycling plastics we keep more from coming out. It isn’t a perfect system, but its a better way to keep reusing plastic that needs to be recycled. Of course, plastic can only be recycled so many times, so recycled plastic will eventually end up as waste as well.
Where are they found? These are found mostly in food items, sometimes you will see compostable cups, cutlery and plates sold from small vendors. You can also buy compostable items such as plates if you are going somewhere like camping, usually at places such as health food stores, sometimes Target mattering on your location. There are also many beauty products packaged in recycled plastics. Preserve razors are made from recycled yogurt cups, and they’re probably the best razor I’ve ever used. LUSH containers are made from recycled plastic. There are tons of other options out there as well. Try googling things like “eco-friendly face wash” or whatever item it is you are looking for, and search for cruelty free, vegan, and recycled packaging items if you can’t get package less products like from LUSH and other stores.
Can they be recycled? For the most part, no. Some can be composted, which is a better alternative to recycling, but if the plastic has already been recycled there is a strong chance it isn’t recyclable again, unless it has a recycling logo on the container. Some compostable plastics are made from materials that cannot be recycled like normal, and need to be sent to compost facilities. In reality, I think most compostable plastics end up causing more confusion than they are worth. The recycled plastics are a great way to reuse plastic, and naturally biodegradable plastics are the best option. Bringing your own water bottle or cutlery is the best option past producing more waste.
How to avoid: Bring your own containers! Not all of these really need to be avoided, but its better to create less waste if you don’t need it. If you notice something you are using is made from compostable plastic, make sure it is thrown away properly. Remember: we are responsible for our trash! What do you think would happen if every person didn’t take care of their trash and littered. It is important to use these plastics wisely, otherwise their efforts don’t do very much.
Substitutes: The substitutes for these are mostly the same as all the other categories, as you may find a recycled or compostable plastic anywhere.
Quick list of substitutions:
WooBamboo bamboo compostable toothbrushes and flosses
Preserve Razors made from recycled plastic
LUSH naked products
Exfoliating Face wash brush- either an electronic one, keeping the packaging to organize it in and keep it clean, or a bamboo face and body brush for dead skin
Reusable shopping bags or buy for $1-$2 in most grocery stores
Humble Household wraps/ lids, these are one of my favorite eco-friendly switches away from clink wrap, I can put them over anything from a pot full of food to over half an onion.
Metal Reusable straw (the large straw in this set is perfectly sized for smoothies, milkshakes or Boba teas)
Togo ware or you can wrap a set of silverware you already own in a napkin and keep in your bag or car
Who Gives a Crap eco-friendly paper products (without plastic)
Pela Case phone case (most cases are made from plastic and thrown away after a few months, these can be returned for composting and recycling)
Try to follow the pyramid of waste: refuse what we do not need, reduce what we do need, reuse what we can, repair what we have, recycle and rot the rest.
Bring your own to go containers, most companies will be glad to accommodate. I try to keep a reusable shopping bag with a reusable bottle, silver ware, straw, togo container, and napkin with me wherever I go. It is easy to keep this plastic-free set in my car or keep the smaller items in my wallet or backpack when I’m on the go with friends.
Scope out restaurants as you enter to see what kind of plastic you may end up coming in contact with. Remember to ask for no straw or plastic silverware WHILE you are ordering, or the second you see your waiter, so that you don’t end up with unnecessary plastic that could’ve been avoided.
There is pretty much an eco-friendly version of anything, and usually if it costs a little bit more than the wasteful item, it will last longer. For example, buying reusable zip lock pouches costs more than buying a box of single use zip locks, BUT you will save tons of money in the future when you never have to buy zip locks again.
Some eco-friendly options may seem out of your reach, either financially or because of your location. I would suggest checking Amazon for a lot of these eco-friendly alternatives, at pretty low prices. Try not to buy the first item you see, search for something at a lower price or better quality. This sometimes requires shopping at multiple stores, but its a small price for the grander scheme of things.
There are always recycling options! First, get acquainted with your locations recycling numbers, and remember to wash anything not recyclable off of your waste before you risk ruining an entire batch of recycling. Second, for any items your area doesn’t recycle, either try to reduce your use of them, or find specific locations that will accept them, such as returning your used plastic bags to Target or Walmart, or bringing your corks to Whole Foods. Third, notice what you can sell! You can sell electronic items that still work at places such as EBay, best buy, second hand stores, or the seller you bought from. You can even sell things like bulk aluminum or bulk cardboard at recycling facilities, getting cash for each pound (this can really come in handy after moving or cooking holiday meals with lots of canned food and foil wrapped items). This may seem like a lot of work at first, but once you understand what your area has to offer, it becomes part of your habits.
Compost! This is obviously not something everyone can do mattering on where you live. And, this doesn’t have much to do with plastic, but it will save you food waste and end in you using less trash bags or zip lock bags. Keep food scraps (only plant-based, and ones that aren’t covered in oils) in a paper bag in your freezer to keep from smelling. Then, toss in your yard to use as a natural fertilizer and return nutrients to your soil, or start a compost pile. If there is a farmers market near you, most will be more than happy to accept free compost.
4Ocean– Ocean plastic recovery, organizes ocean cleanups, more info on plastic pollution, brand makes bracelets made of recovered plastics
NOAA– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more information on climates and oceans
National Geographic– environmental/ informative magazine, many online articles, resources and information
Plastic Pollution Coalition– information and news and extra resources
UN Environment– interactive link to the UN environmental page about plastic pollution.
You can email me off the “contact” page or comment on this post with any questions you have and I can try to address them the best I can, or I can send you more resources that will help.