5 Ways to Persuade People to Break Free from Plastic

Perhaps you recently watched Blue Planet II and learned about the catastrophic effects of plastic pollution on our oceans and marine wildlife, you heard a story on the radio about plastic microfibers in almost all drinking water or you read today’s British report which predicts that plastic debris in the oceans will increase by threefold within the next seven years.

Whatever motivated you, you’ve taken steps to get off of plastic. You shop with reusable produce bags, you cook more of your meals at home and you haven’t bought bottled water in months. Good for you!

But you soon feel discouraged. Your teenager believes that the only effective personal care products in existence come in plastic tubes and containers. Your best friend constantly raves about the (overpackaged) subscription meal kit delivery service she signed up for. Your coworkers use a Keurig. Made with bottled water. And cooled down with bottled water because they can’t wait for the coffee to cool on its own (yes I have witnessed this).

How can you convince those around you to change their ways?

1. Do, don’t preach

Of all the steps I’ve listed here, I’ve found that this one has worked the best for me. If you preach, drone on and on about the many depressing statistics on plastic waste or berate your family, your friends and your coworkers for their plastic consumption, no one will listen to you. Most people dislike being told what to do. Even if you’re right. Even if they know you’re right.

I just do my own thing, people ask questions about it and they often make changes. Some of my habits have rubbed off at the office, for example. My boss now buys milk in returnable glass bottles and always saves her lunchtime compost for me, another coworker stopped using plastic baggies in her son’s lunches and another threw her son a plastic-free birthday party.

2. Do something

If you want to see change, you usually have to take the initiative to make that change. Leave a jar of homemade deodorant in the bathroom for your consumer-product-loving teenager. She may just use it. Diplomatically offer to teach your meal kit-loving friend how to cook a simple meal (I doubt many people who can cook sign up for these expensive subscriptions).

Bring in a reusable Keurig coffee pod to the office and keep a running tally of the number of pods you and your coworkers keep out of landfill. Bring an appropriately sized jar for the coffee grounds and track that volume too (take these home to compost or to dump directly onto plants outside). People need to hear about successes, not just failures. And people love to watch their numbers—pretty much any numbers—climb. Just ask your coworker who says to you every morning, “Have you liked my Instagram post yet?”

3. Show, don’t tell

A common maxim in creative writing textbooks, this rule can also apply to your efforts to educate your audience about plastic pollution. If you think your teenager is open to it, show her Blue Planet 2, A Plastic Ocean, Trashed or Bag It. If the people around you resist learning about the problem, don’t push it, otherwise your efforts may backfire and they’ll go shopping at Walmart for cases of bottled water merely to spite you. Just keep doing number 1 (do, don’t preach) and your values may eventually rub off on others, even rebellious teenagers.

4. Give them steps to take

Once interested in reducing their plastic footprint, people generally have no idea where to start. It seems impossible to kick the stuff because it’s everywhere and we use it for everything. So give them some steps to take and some easy wins. Here are my top three ways to break up with plastic, along with their alternatives:

  • Eat real food, not processed food wrapped in plastic. Processed food, convenience food and to-go food almost always come in shiny plastic wrappers and containers. Real food you cook yourself does not.
  • Ban the bottle. Instead of buying expensive bottled water, drink tap water and carry a reusable bottle. Replace sugary beverages such as soda, energy drinks and juice with homemade kombucha or ginger beer (so, so delicious!).
  • Refuse single-use plastic. Use cloth shopping bags and cloth produce bags instead of plastic ones. If you must use a straw, get a metal one. Carry metal utensils with you to use in place of plastic ones. Bring a reusable mug with you to your café (you’ll often get a discount).

5. Stay positive

Often, if you focus on environmental doom and gloom—and there is plenty of it—people’s eyes tend to glaze over. They may feel terrified or paralyzed to do anything or both. “If we’re already screwed,” they may think, “then why bother?” I’m not suggested you stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is just fine. Yes, we’re in big trouble. But focusing on solutions may bring more people on board.

I try to do this here on my blog. I show people what they can do in their lives to reduce waste. And I can tell you that a post like “Captain Charles Moore’s 10th Voyage to the North Pacific Gyre,” a post about horrifying ocean plastic pollution, unfortunately doesn’t get nearly as many views as a post like “How to Freeze Food Without Using Plastic” (my most popular post of all time). People don’t want to hear the depressing stuff. At least not from me. Not that they shouldn’t know what’s happening. I’m just explaining what works here.

Tell people what they get—the benefits. So, rather than saying “I’ve been vegan for five years and you should stop eating meat because it consumes too many resources and is always packaged in plastic and you don’t want that stuff touching your food…” say something like, “This nutritious lentil dal tastes delicious, the bulk ingredients I bought for it cost very little and I’ve lost five pounds since I started eating it regularly [if that’s true]. Here, have a taste…” People don’t respond well to guilt trips or to admonitions of “Don’t do this,” “Don’t do that” and “You must give up X, Y or Z.”

Persuading people to make changes is difficult. You’ll convert more of them if you offer encouragement and support.

15 Replies to “5 Ways to Persuade People to Break Free from Plastic”

  1. Amen to all these tips! Last night I followed the ‘do something’ tip — hosted my first fermentation workshop for three friends. I shared your website with them, along w/ your fine fermentation FAQs. And today, I started my first batch of kombucha. Keep up the good work, and THANK YOU .

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Janice,
      That’s awesome and sounds like so much fun. Thanks for sharing my site and FAQs. Enjoy your fermented goodies 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  2. Nice post. I like the Paul Coelho quote. And yours too: “Most people dislike being told what to do. Even if you’re right. Even if they know you’re right.”

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hahaha. Thank you! It’s not nearly as poetic as Coelho but I’m glad you liked it 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  3. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    You have hit the nail on the head – show don’t tell. Bringing delicious food to work to share is a great way to show. Often someone will ask for a recipe, or even for me to show them how to cook something I’ve made.

    I have taken a thermos and lunch box to work my whole working life, and although at times I have been subjected to friendly mocking, these days people are more likely to say ‘where did you get that cool lunch box?’

    Talking about the financial benefits is also useful as many people want to know, what’s in it for me?

    Madeleine.x

    PS I clicked on the link for your deodorant recipe and just wondered what is the purpose of the cornflower? I usually just use coconut oil, bi-carb, stevia and essential oils but wondered if your recipe is more effective.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Madeleine,

      This all sounds very familiar, including the friendly mocking. I get that a lot. But then those same people will often later adopt some of my “crazy” habits (resistance is futile! Mwah hah hah). Talking about financial benefits does work. I helped my dad build a solar heater for our pool in the 80s (our neighbors all laughed at us, by the way). He did it to save $1000 every summer in oil costs. I liked it because it didn’t burn any oil. I think the experience made a huge impression on me too. As for the deodorant, my daughter first made it for me and added cornstarch. It’s absorbent. But I think the bi-carb is the most important ingredient. It would work without the cornstarch (as you have found). Bi-carb on its own just dusted under your arms would work but I find that messy. The oil is merely a bi-carb application agent 😉 ~ Anne Marie

  4. This is a great article on so many levels!! You’re tips and techniques can be applied to almost anything one might want to change or teach. Thanks Anne Marie! Slow and steady, small changes – better than no changes … I’m on it!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Amy 🙂

  5. Melinda Koethe says: Reply

    That you so much for this article – I downloaded all the titles from your suggestion of Show, don’t tell and we watched “A Plastic Ocean” last night. As you have obviously experienced, one of us is a little reluctant to get “on board” this mission, but after watching last night, my husband turned to me and said “Ok, I’ll quit asking for the straws in my daily Starbucks”. I thought I had just won a marathon I was so delighted at his reaction. One small step…..

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Melinda,

      That’s wonderful! When people see those images, they can’t help but want to make changes. Good for you and for your husband! Yay!

      ~ Anne Marie

  6. So agree with what you’ve said. I attend a knitting group once a week for about 2 years. Slowly be surely more and more of them have started to use reusable coffee cups and one has even started shopping for clothes in charity shops. I’m careful not to use that awful word ‘should’. I think showing people how to make changes and showing that it works for you is the best route.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for the addition! I remember long ago in a writing class our teacher said “don’t use ‘should’.” That always stuck with me. No one ever wants to hear “What you should do is…” Good for you to stealthily influence your group 😉

  7. I actually have a post about “cause fatigue” brewing in my mind ever since a conversation with a friend last week after she watched “A Plastic Ocean.” We were talking about how hard it is to maintain the motivation to make changes when it feels like we’re all just screwed and nothing we do will make a difference. You do such a great job of focusing on the small (and large) changes we can make, and making it feel doable and worthwhile! I’ve got a list of incremental changes I want to make… One step at a time…

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Margaret,
      Thank you for the kind words. I am familiar with “cause fatigue”! The news is so dire. And we’re bombarded with bad news constantly. Doing something helps keep me sane. Doing nothing makes me feel worse. And our actions have ripple effects. I think one step at a time is the best way. Trying to do it all at once is overwhelming.
      ~ Anne Marie

      1. It’s so true that actually taking the small steps can help us feel better about the situation. It’s pretty much just good mental health self-care if you think about it! 🙂

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