Plastic Free July: Cut These Top 4 Single-Use Plastics

Purple produce bag upcycled from a donated linen sheet, filled with avocados

If you don’t know where to even begin when embarking on a month without plastic, start by cutting what the Plastic Free July website refers to as the “top four” single-use plastic items:

  • Plastic bags
  • Water bottles
  • Takeaway coffee cups
  • Plastic straws

You’ll eliminate a great deal of plastic from your life when you refuse these four ubiquitous plastics.

Why start?

If you’ve arrived on my blog, you likely already know about the horrors of plastic pollution so I don’t need to go on about that here. Industry has promoted recycling as the ideal solution to plastic pollution. This push to recycle more shifts the responsibility and cost of cleanup onto consumers and municipalities that played no role in producing the waste and diverts attention away from the true source of the problem—production (well, that and psychotic greed). Corporations produce more plastic than our waste management systems can possibly absorb. (Read more about recycling here and here.)

Reducing production is the best solution to plastic pollution.

While regulation of industry will lead to the kinds of sweeping changes necessary to address the plastic pollution crisis, we need individual actions as well. Actions from the bottom usher in the kind of zeitgeist that effects change at the top.

As you start: Do not feel guilty about a supply chain that you did not create

Our economic system revolves around the extraction, refining and burning of fossil fuels—and their transformation into materials such as plastic. (Big Oil has big plans to produce even bigger amounts of plastic.) Vast amounts of oil-derived, single-use plastic make their way onto grocery store shelves in the form of food packaging. The modern supermarket would look much different—and likely much smaller—without single-use plastic to package the myriad shelf-stable, highly processed convenience foods. These foods enable the on-the-go lifestyles demanded by a system bent on productivity and growth at all costs, including the health of our planet, its life-support systems and all inhabitants.

In other words, our plastic-dependent, industrialized food system makes drastically reducing plastic difficult—but not impossible! Just do your best. Like the term “zero waste,” the term “plastic free” merely represents a goal. Although we may never reach the “zero” in zero waste or the “free” in plastic free, we can achieve the goal of Plastic Free July—to consume less single-use plastic.

Start with the Top Four

You’ll find swapping these top four single-use plastic items for plastic-free alternatives quite painless.

1. Plastic bags

In the US, we use 14,000,000,000 single-use plastic bags per year. Some stores get around plastic bag bans by offering very thick plastic bags, claiming that people will use them more than once. But handing out more plastic bags defeats the purpose of plastic bag bans—to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to the store.

Buy or make some simple cloth produce bags

I have used cloth shopping bags since I was in my early twenties (I now have grown daughters) but I did not religiously shop with cloth produce bags until going plastic-free in 2011. If we can adjust to using cloth shopping bags—and millions and millions have—we can adjust to using cloth produce bags as well.

You can buy cloth produce bags at health food co-ops, eco-friendly shops and online. You can also make the simple produce bags pictured above. My sewing bee sewed the 500 bags in that stack, using donated, unwanted, surplus fabric and we hand these out at the farmers’ market. As of the posting this blog, we have given away 3,074 bags. Used just once a week, these can replace 159,848 single-use plastic produce bags in a year (3,074 x 52). And the bags last for years.

Stash your produce bags in your shopping bags. Store the bags within bags near the front door, in your car or anywhere else that will help you remember to take them with you when you go shopping. Just as you wouldn’t leave home without your keys, you won’t leave home without all of your reusable bags.

2. Water bottles

In the US, we consume 1,500 plastic water bottles every second for something that most of us can get free from our taps. Keep your money in your bank account and out of the coffers of corporations like Nestlé, which, during our current extreme drought in California, continues to steal millions of gallons of our water to sell in single-use plastic bottles. This bottled water, like that of other top-selling brands, may contain up to twice as much microplastic as tap water. (Microplastics are small pieces of plastic up to five millimeters in length.)

Of course, you can’t drink unsafe water. But clever marketing, not actual need, motivates most Americans to buy bottled water. And according to Food & Water Watch, 64 percent of bottled water is merely filtered municipal tap water.

To avoid buying bottled water, take a reusable water bottle or mason jar with you wherever you go.

3. Takeaway coffee cups

Thin plastic lines the inside of paper to-go cups in order to prevent coffee and tea from leaking all over the place. Again, a mason jar works wonders. To prevent burning your hand, wrap a few rubber bands around the jar or sew a cloth sleeve for it out of scrap fabric or a worn-out sock. Or bring a ceramic mug with you to your café. Although I’m quite minimalist, my cupboard overflows with mugs. If you also have many mugs, keep one packed in your zero-waste kit, one in your car, one at the office (if your office doesn’t have real mugs, in which case, consider working on changing that) and so on. If you need to buy mugs, your thrift shop may have a large shelf full of them.

The café I frequented for almost exactly seven years has never offered ceramic, for-here cups and suspended its bring-your-own-cup program during Covid. I haven’t been for over a year. When I called recently to ask if I could now bring in my own cup, I learned that the BYOC program will not likely return. Disappointed, I stumbled upon a different café that serves hot drinks in ceramic cups and brews possibly the best pu-erh tea I’ve ever tasted (cacao nibs enhance the incredible aroma of my new favorite café’s blend). So I now treat myself to that occasionally and mostly drink tea I brew myself at home (which saves a small fortune).

4. It’s not just a straw

Anti anti-plastic people like to claim that eliminating straws won’t make a difference. However, even the lowest estimate of just over 170,000,000 plastic straws used per day in the US is excessive. And though people who want to reduce the impact of plastic in our world may start by refusing plastic straws, they won’t stop there. Most likely, they will become more aware of plastic pollution and more active in addressing the problem. Straws are a gateway to reducing more plastic, as are each of the Top Four plastic items.

Of course, no one advocates for taking straws away from anyone with disabilities who needs them. But for those of us who can drink without a straw, we can either lift the glass or cup to our lips or buy reusable metal or glass straws. I don’t need or want these myself but I know that many people love theirs.

Starting down the plastic-free path is hard. You can’t change your routine overnight and sometimes, just when you get your routine down, new obstacles will pop up (hello, Covid). But the point is to use less plastic. If you do that, you’ll succeed this Plastic Free July.

One more fairly painless step while you’re here: Contact your representatives

If you live in the US, please urge your representatives to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. This groundbreaking legislation shifts responsibility for waste management onto the corporations that have created the plastic pollution crisis. It proposes a national beverage container refund program, sets minimum recycled content standards and phases out unrecyclable materials. If passed, the legislation would also prohibit the export of our plastic waste to developing countries.

To write, tweet and call your representatives, please go here. The Plastic Pollution Coalition has made the call incredibly easy to make—simply click the phone icon you’ll see in the link in order to connect to your reps. 

If you ordered my book, first of all, thank you very much. I hope you are enjoying it. If you ordered it from Amazon, will you please write a review? (Goodreads also works!) Thank you for your support!

7 Replies to “Plastic Free July: Cut These Top 4 Single-Use Plastics”

  1. Always good tips! My to-go coffee place has not restarted filling bring-in reusable cups, but will return to soon, I”m told!

    1. Oh that’s great news, Dorothy. Enjoy!

  2. Which cafe has the puerh tea with nibs?! I think I don’t live that far from you and I am so tired of disposable cups. Thanks for writing this article with compassion.

    1. Hi Easter,
      Thank you for the kind words. The cafe is Cafe Venetia on University Avenue in Palo Alto. The tea is fabulous. The food is very good too. And the wine!
      ~ Anne-Marie

  3. Great tips as always…most places here are happy to fill your own cups 🙂

    1. Thank you, Carol. That’s great about the cups where you live. I hope it happens here. People want to use their reusables!
      ~ Anne-Marie

  4. I go to a boba tea place in my neighborhood, know them past 5+ years, I take my own steel reusable coffee mug, and they fill it with boba tea, I don’t even take straw, I use a steel spoon and scoop boba..feel bad seeing so many plastic cups + straws in recycle/trash and don’t know if they really gets recycled..I also take steel water bottle to my work place past 10+ years so I don’t use paper water cups and throw them away!

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