Pre-Existing Plastic Conditions: What Is the Cure?

food stored in jars reduces food waste because you can see what you have on hand

Dealing with existing plastic stuff is one of your first zero-waste dilemmas.

You’ve converted to the Church of Zero Waste (welcome!). You have banished all new single-use plastic from your home. You’ve made your first pilgrimage (to the bulk bins), done penance (a beach cleanup) and donated to charity (Plastic Pollution Coalition). Perhaps you’ve even begun to preach (via your new zero-waste themed Instagram account).

“Be gone, plastic!”

But what do you do with the existing plastic, the stuff you accumulated in your previous life? All of us who have decided to go plastic-free or low-waste or zero-waste—or whatever you want to call this lifestyle—have faced this dilemma. 

Sadly, I have no magic spell to make all of this stuff disappear. If I did, we could simply wave away the plastic pollution choking our oceans. But I do have some imperfect ideas for dealing with the plastic you’ve already amassed.

Use it until it wears out

We have some durable plastics that I had bought well before we went plastic-free, such as my food processor with its plastic bowl. In an ideal world, I suppose I could use a mortar and pestle for foods like pesto or perhaps a stainless steel food processor designed for a commercial kitchen. These things aren’t happening—for now at least. I’ll continue to use my food processor with its plastic bowl until it finally completely breaks down (it’s getting there). Then I’ll try to figure out how to dispose of the thing responsibly.

use some plastic stuff like a food processor until it wears out
Pesto in the plastic bowl of my food processor

You could continue to use your plastic baggies to store food in the freezer or elsewhere until they break down. Or, if you’re concerned with the potentially harmful chemicals in plastics coming into contact with your food, use them to store non-food items until the plastic breaks down. 

Donate it to an organization that will use it

You may feel as though you are passing your trash onto someone else but lots of organizations use plastic so they may as well use the plastic that you no longer want and buy that much less. Like I said, these are imperfect solutions. Perhaps a food bank, shelter, office or school would be happy to have that partial box of unused plastic baggies you no longer want.

Contact your local waste management department and ask questions

You may be surprised by what your city picks up. I didn’t realize until recently that mine picks up Tetra Paks. Still, I will not buy these. Refusing plastic at its source eliminates the what-do-I-do-with-this dilemma that, as a new disciple, you now face. But I’m discussing how to responsibly dispose of the plastic stuff you accumulated before your conversion. 

My sister’s city (Kawartha Lakes, Ontario) picks up plastic bags for recycling. Mine (Mountain View, California) does not. Some municipalities may not pick up certain items at the curb but will accept them if you drop them off. Search online for what your city accepts or call your waste management department and ask.

Send your plastic stuff to Terracycle

From the Canadian Terracycle site (I’m in Canada at the moment and this information applies to the company worldwide):

Whether it’s coffee capsules from your home, pens from a school, or plastic gloves from a manufacturing facility, TerraCycle can collect and recycle almost any form of waste. We partner with individual collectors such as yourself, as well as major consumer product companies, retailers, manufacturers, municipalities, and small businesses across 20 different countries. With your help, we are able to divert millions of pounds of waste from landfills and incinerators each month.

Some programs cost nothing. Others, such as the zero-waste boxes, are expensive.

As I’ve written on here in the past, recycling is a last resort. But the plastic exists already and much like a nuclear meltdown or oil spill, we have to deal with the man-made (may I simply start saying corporate-made?) disaster as best as we can. Ideally corporations would have been packaging their wares in reusable items all along but they package everything in single-use plastic and refuse to clean up their mess.

Wash your synthetic clothing less often

Wait, what? I thought we were discussing plastic baggies, not my wardrobe.

Synthetic fabrics go by many different names (kind of the way sugar does): polyester, rayon, acrylic, nylon and so on. When you wash these, they shed microscopic plastic fibers—microplastics—into our waterways. A typical load can shed 700,000 of these tiny plastic fibers.

You could donate unwanted synthetics to Goodwill. However, then someone else will just wash them and you’ve essentially offshored your plastic microfiber waste. On the other hand, that person buying the synthetic clothing will buy other synthetic clothing anyway. So you’ll have to weigh all of these factors. Donating synthetics adds more synthetics to the pipeline but I have donated some myself. (Having been raised in a very strict Catholic home, I’m pre-dispositioned to weigh all of these factors.) Just do your best!

(Go here for more info on low-waste, efficient laundering.)

Look for a creative reuse center near you to take your plastic stuff

These centers accept all kinds of materials that artists, schools and other makers can reuse for their art or craft.

In Montreal, Concordia University’s Centre for Creative Reuse (CUCCR), for example, accepts donations from within the university for a variety of items—including certain plastic items—that you may not know what to do with:

  • Packaging corners
  • Vinyl signs
  • Buckets
  • Film canisters
  • Film reels
  • Slides
  • Plastic boxes/bins
  • Plexiglas
  • Bubble wrap
  • Rubber tubing
  • CD’s
  • Cassette tapes
  • Crystal cases

No this is not a dream. You read that list correctly. CUCCR takes bubble wrap and crystal cases. OMG.

Now, you may not habitez à Montréal let alone attend or work at Concordia but your city may have a similar program in place. SCRAP in San Francisco has been diverting useful materials from landfills for over 40 years. Check out this list of what SCRAP accepts.

Look for a reuse center in your city (or a city near you that you visit regularly). These centers won’t, however, take just anything like a garbage dump. So ask what they do accept before you drop off your stuff. You may also have to schedule your donation. Every center varies.

Find a support group for your waste dilemmas

I spoke earlier this week about zero-waste living in Toronto to a very engaged (and sold-out!) crowd. The amazing Roncy Reduces initiative hosted me. During the Q&A, audience members shared all kinds of helpful information—where to find plastic-free bathroom tissue, where to buy bulk vinegar or how to brush your teeth if you have a bamboo allergy (use a miswak, a type of twig).

If you have a zero-waste dilemma, many other low-wasters have faced the same one and someone out there has figured out how to minimize or solve the problem. Plus, you’ll meet the nicest people (just as I did on Tuesday night!).

Meeting some of my people in Toronto, left to right: @refusereuse, @50shadesofgreentoronto, me, @sustainable.suburbs, @suburbangreeneffort and @yourecofriend. Photo credit: @50shadesofgreentoronto

I hope this blog post doesn’t give the impression that there is an away for all the plastic the world produces or that we can recycle everything—that is simply not true. (Go here for more on how recycling works.) These are last-ditch attempts to responsibly dispose of existing plastic, not reasons to buy more of it.

And speaking of buying, you will want and need some reusable items as you start down the zero-waste path. But throwing out all of your plastic stuff to replace it with all new reusable stuff not only clogs landfills and costs a small fortune, it doesn’t address the root of our waste problem—consumerism. A greener version of consumerism is consumerism wearing a halo. Our governments, industries and lifestyles require drastic changes not green bandaids.

Go forth and waste less.

13 Replies to “Pre-Existing Plastic Conditions: What Is the Cure?”

  1. Great suggestions! Im definitely in the use them up camp. It seems to be the first thing folk who “see the light” do is dump their plastics and spend huge money buying “environmentally friendly” equivalents…maybe it feels virtuous but its a tad counterproductive

    1. Thank you 🙂 We’re so conditioned to shop our way out of our problems or throw money at them, even when the problem is overconsumption.

  2. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    Ah the voice of reason! So many people are posting ‘insta-perfect’ pictures of all the so-called-green stuff they’ve bought after happily pushing the problem of their plastic purchases onto someone else by giving it all away. Not long ago I threw out a thirty year old plastic colander that was too broken to use – they really made things to last back then!

    My biggest dilemma is that I bought old polyester blankets to use as dogs bedding before I knew about the micro plastics issue. I thought I was giving a new life to old stuff, and avoiding buying new. Now that I know about the micro plastic I have thrown out all but one blanket which is an extra in case of emergency – eg a sick dog. It felt terrible to send stuff to landfill but there really does not seem to be any other option. As a side issue, I have now realised that my dogs (and probably us also) were inhaling micro plastic particles every time they moved!


    1. The polyester is so horrible. There are no good options. It’s like hazardous waste (someone will take me to task for saying that). And we do breathe in the stuff when we wear it!

      I was on an eco-panel recently at a high school, along with a few other people, including the VP of Sustainability at a major American clothing manufacturer. At one point, he said (I’m paraphrasing), “You’re all saying you’ll give up plastic straws and water bottles but what about that polar fleece you’re wearing?” He basically told the kids to stop buying clothes.

  3. When your food processor reaches its end of life could you drill holes in it and use it as a planter? My garden has become quite quirky over the years, with a cracked crockpot added this Spring!

    1. Hi Ellen,
      Thanks for the idea! It would make a good planter and I love the idea of a quirky garden–and pretty much quirky anything 🙂
      ~ Anne Marie

  4. Yes. When it comes to plastic we need to reduce reuse and then recycle. But recycle is the most crucial as per my opinion. The reason behind this is its biodegradability.

  5. I have loads of Tupperware(the real stuff) this is where I store my bulk dry foods. Glass containers will not work for 4 kg of sugar or flour( I bake a lot) However I don’t store cooked foods in plastic for that I have the glasslock containers, I got most of them from the thrift store.
    For the odds and ends of the plastic containers( too small for storage) my husband uses them for his workroom…nails,screws and other odds and ends.

  6. Was there at the talk in High Park- foun dit very funny and inspiring – unfortunately had to dash out with my kiddo who neede the sleep!

    1. Hi Bruixa,
      Thank you so much for coming! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was a bit late for the kiddos. I had a blast 🙂
      ~ Anne Marie

  7. I never thought about the shedding of plastics from washing synthetic fiber clothing thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  8. Hey there this is a great read . This is one article that talk on how practically we should get rid of plastic. And ultimately not pile them in the landfills. Great work. We at NATIVEKEEPS also talk on ecofriendly lifestyle and waste management. Similar article on how to get rid of all the plastics in your bathroom is linked below. Kindly give it a read.

    Super work and very prompt website. Cheers 🙂

  9. Is there any way that currently exists to ethically and sustainably get rid of synthetic clothing? I’m wondering if there is an up-cycle project or system in place yet that can repurpose these… hmmmm

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