Instead, I’ll discuss changes we can make in our own lives. Individual choices may not seem like much in the face of this disaster but with more and more of us making these changes, industry will also have to adapt.
If you still haven’t settled on a new year’s resolution, may I suggest one?
Cut your plastic consumption in
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For the average American, just thinking back on how much plastic you’ve consumed so far today, you may wonder, how can I possibly do this? I present a roadmap of six steps in this post. Some steps may take you a few days to a week to tackle and others you may work on for two weeks, a month or longer. We needed at least two months to adjust to our new routine and it continues to evolve today, over six years later.
Step 1: Conduct an Audit
You don’t know how to address an issue if you don’t measure it. Think of dieting. You would likely stand on a scale or try on your favorite pair of jeans to determine if you’ve gained a great deal of weight. (“I weigh what?!”) Here, you’ll measure your plastic diet. (“I threw out how many to-go coffee cups?!”)
You may want to conduct your audit for a day, a few days or a week. Track the plastic trash you generate—those to-go coffee cups (lined with plastic) and lids; the plastic lining of a box of cereal; plastic produce bags; soda bottles; straws; disposable razors. Some may be recyclable, you say. Recycling delays plastic’s transit to landfill. It does not prevent it. Plastic, unlike metal or glass, can be recycled a limited number of times only, as the process degrades the material and results in lower quality plastic, which eventually goes to the dump.
You can jot down what you generated or save the stuff up for the week and take a picture. This audit will give you an idea of both how much plastic you consume and what kinds of products you’ll need to avoid or replace. When we first went plastic-free, my daughter participated in Beth Terry’s plastic-free challenge and it helped us realize what kind of plastic we had been consuming. (You can read MK’s entries here.) The vast majority of it consisted of food packaging. I’m willing to bet you will discover the same thing (hence the food-centric blog).
Step 2: Say No
To eliminate your plastic, you have to learn to say no often (a useful life skill in and of itself but that’s another post). No to that bottle of water someone hands you automatically at a conference. No to all the swag at that same conference. “No straw” to servers before they can put one in your drink (some will put one in your drink…keep trying). No to the plastic bag the grocery store cashier puts your package-free soap into before putting that into your cloth shopping bag (jars and containers and soap can mix in there and you will not die). No to anything in a red Solo cup. No to bags of potato chips. No to candy bars.
Many women—the majority of my blog readers—find saying no difficult. As you continue on your quest, this step will become easier. And don’t worry, going plastic-free is not an exercise in self-denial. I eat much more delicious food now than I used to. (Read more on that here.)
Step 3: Build Up Your Reusable Arsenal
You’ll more easily say no to plastic if you equip yourself with some basic gear. You could spend a fortune on reusable items but you don’t have to and besides, we can’t shop our way out of climate change. Some of the items you’ll need on your quest are:
Reusable cloth shopping bags. Opt for natural fibers, not synthetic (read: plastic), which shed plastic microfibers into the ocean when you wash them.
Reusable cloth produce bags. I sew very basic bags the same size as the rectangular ones at the grocery store. Here is the “pattern” I use. If you don’t like to/want to sew these, buy them.
Glass jars. I use these for everything. Ask your neighbors for their castoffs. You’ll save them a trip to the recycling bin.
Something to drink out of when you’re away from home. You could spring for an expensive Klean Kanteen water bottle or you could just bring a mug from home to the office or café. I lost an expensive stainless steel water bottle this fall but I have a gazillion glass flip-top bottles I can use instead. A few of these are old kombucha bottles from the days before I started brewing the stuff.
Something to eat with when you’re away from home. Keep a bag handy that you’ve packed with utensils, a cloth napkin and a container for leftovers.
Other reusables. This transition won’t happen overnight. As you reduce your plastic, you’ll find dilemmas that you’ll need to address:
- How will I drink without a plastic straw? I vote for ditching the straws completely. If you prefer to drink your thick smoothies with a straw or have a medical condition like my older daughter does, for which a straw makes drinking easier, you can buy reusable metal or glass straws.
- How do I brush my teeth? A bamboo toothbrush and homemade toothpaste.
- How do I shave? A reusable safety razor.
- How do I menstruate? (Well, you see, every month, your body releases an egg…) Use a cup, reusable cloth pads, natural sea sponges or a combination of these.
- My prescription medication comes in a plastic bottle. Should I stop taking it? Keep taking your meds and focus on the big, easy stuff.
Step 4: Go Shopping
No, I’m not advocating rampant consumerism here.
Our shopping routine changed dramatically after we cut the plastic packaging. We had to change how we shopped, where we shopped and what we bought, from bathroom tissue (loose rolls wrapped in paper) to bread (loose bread from a bakery or bulk flour for baking) to onions (loose from the farmers market in a cloth produce bag).
Now that you have reached Step 4, you have likely begun to realize that in order to cut your plastic, you will improve your diet as a side effect—that’s a bonus resolution you don’t even have to make—by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and less (none actually) packaged junk food.
Where can you buy food without all the packaging?
1. The farmers’ market. Hit the market for fresh fruit and vegetables with very little packaging, if any. I can even bring my own cartons for loose pastured eggs at one of my local farmers markets. Find your farmers market in the US through Local Harvest. In Canada, search through Farms.com.
2. Bulk bins. I fill up on staples at the bulk bins—flour, sugar, nuts, dried fruit, beans, rice, popcorn, oils, nut butters, baking soda, maple syrup, olives, spices, tea and so on. Yes, these foods came to the store in packaging but in large packaging. I help send that packaging to landfill but if I bought my own little package every time I needed something rather than filling up at the bulk bins, I would send much more packaging to landfill. Until I buy my farm and grow everything myself, I will contribute trash.
And yes, I live in temperate Northern California and have access to amazing farmers markets, several stores with decent bulk bins and one with amazing bulk bins. Even without access to these though, anyone can reduce their waste. I wrote about that here: “Good, Better, Best Zero-Waste Shopping.”
Step 5: Go Your First Day Without Eating Food Packaged in Plastic
You’re ready! You’ve figured out where the plastic has been coming from, you’ve learned to say no and refuse plastic, you’ve armed yourself with your reusables and you’ve found the stores and markets to shop in. Now it’s time to eat plastic-free for the entire day. Meal planning for your day will help prevent plastic snafus. I wrote a post on that here (it includes a meal planner).
What will you eat? All sorts of delicious food.
On this blog, I have tried to figure out replacements for the foods that the majority of us today buy processed and packaged. If you have been looking for a replacement for something, I may have already added it to my recipe index here. If not, please let me know what food you crave. If I haven’t already put it on my long to-blog list, I will (depending…I’m not a big fan of beef jerky, for example).
Step 6: Replace Personal Care Products
The Big Three plastic-free personal care hurdles:
- Toothpaste. Let me first say that I am not a dentist. I ran out of homemade toothpaste and have no homemade tooth powder on hand so I’ve been using baking soda recently.
- Deodorant. I have used my homemade deodorant since 2011. I will never go back. This stuff works and you need only a little bit. It consists of baking soda and cornstarch, with coconut oil as a delivery agent.
- Shampoo. Use a shampoo bar, followed by a vinegar rinse. Or wash with baking soda, followed by a vinegar rinse. If you really don’t like how those leave your hair, you may be able to buy shampoo and conditioner in bulk where you live.
Really, my beauty routine consists of yoga early in the morning but I guess you could call the following a beauty routine (or anti-routine):
- Facial wash. I wash my face with water. Years ago, I bought face cleanser. I don’t notice a difference.
- Moisturizer. Dab on a bit of good olive oil around your eyes or anywhere else you need some moisture. I rub olive oil or coconut oil into my hands if, when I’m cooking, a bit gets on me.
- Hair dye. I don’t. That’s just me.
Bonus Step 7: Reward Yourself
Neither skip this step nor beat yourself up if you fall short. You will fall short. Reward yourself for your efforts. Have a cookie at the local café where you now take your own mug. Or sit down to a movie you’ve wanted to watch, and enjoy it along with a giant bowl of stove-top popcorn (we eat a lot of this…and I’m making a batch as soon as I finish this post).
Happy new year!