Dealing with existing plastic stuff is one of your first zero-waste dilemmas.
You’ve been living like the average consumer, wearing your fleece pullover to the grocery store where you fill your shopping cart up with plastic bags of apples on sale, greens stuffed into plastic produce bags, frozen fruit in plastic pouches, baggies for school or work lunches or both, plastic toothbrushes, the toothpaste and the floss to go with them (both in plastic), plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner and on and on and on.
Your cart—like the oceans—overfloweth (with plastic). Once home, you might use your plastic mixing bowls and other plastic kitchenware to make dinner—or to store the leftovers.
But you’ve seen the light.
“Be gone, plastic!”
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).
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.
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
Ideally, no organizations would use plastic but most still do. Like I said, these are imperfect solutions. Perhaps a food bank would be happy to have that partial box of unused plastic baggies you no longer want. Or a shelter or office or school.
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-now 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 daughter’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 we would all have been using reusable items all along but we haven’t and now we have to figure out how to clean up the 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 predisposition to weigh all of these factors.) Just do your best!
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
- Film canisters
- Film reels
- Plastic boxes/bins
- Bubble wrap
- Rubber tubing
- 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 does. 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!).
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 lifestyles require drastic changes not green bandaids.
Go forth and waste much less!