10 Free and Easy Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution

A bouquet of fresh vegetables wrapped in burlap sits on a wooden background

Plastic Free July may end soon but these painless—and free—ideas to reduce plastic will keep you motivated to continue.

Learn or hone a practical skill

Corporations profit from passive, pacified consumers. Become an active maker by learning a skill that can also help reduce plastic waste: bread baking (sourdough or bread made with active dry yeast), mending clothing or keeping a vegetable patch alive.

Eat all the food you buy

Chances are some of the food you buy comes in plastic packages. By eating all of the food you buy instead of tossing some and buying more, you’ll buy less food overall—and bring home fewer plastic packages. (Reducing plastic is the goal. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t eliminate all of it.) This tip not only costs nothing, it will actually save money. Yearly, the average US family of four spends $1,800 on food they don’t eat.

A bouquet of fresh vegetables wrapped in burlap sits on a wooden background
Beautiful vegetables from Soul Farmer I received after a talk at the Belvedere Tiburon Library

Make scrap vinegar for cleaning

Skip the plastic bottles filled with harsh cleaners and those blue toilet pucks by opting for natural cleaning products like free, homemade vinegar.

To make a batch of scrap vinegar, stuff apple peels and cores (or scraps from stone fruit, berries or pineapples) into a jar, sprinkle on a spoonful of sugar, pour in just enough water to cover the fruit, cover the jar with a secure cloth, stir daily, wait, strain and use. Go here for the full recipe.

Dine out less

While some restaurants do allow BYO containers for to-go food, many do not. The more meals you eat at home, the fewer plastic containers or utensils or sachets you’ll throw away. But you still have to eat. So perhaps this tip doesn’t belong on a “free stuff” list—or does it? Go here for free (or inexpensive) sources of food.

I used to work on my laptop at my favorite café two or three days a week before Covid. Even after scientists determined that Covid doesn’t spread on surfaces, this café still would now allow me to bring my own mug for the tea that I loved. So I didn’t have any for at least two years. (I saved a lot of money.)

I found a new café committed to zero waste and tried their puerh. OMG. It was amazing. I looked at the menu and discovered it contained cocoa nibs and so started adding those to my puerh at home. I drink a few cups of this combo every morning. Once my previously favorite café again allowed BYO mugs, I returned. Well, I couldn’t believe it—my tea tastes better!

Three jars sitting on a wooden background. Two contain puerh tea. The top right jar contains cacao nibs.
Top left, clockwise: puerh, cacao nibs, large-leaf puerh

Carry utensils from home

But when you do dine out, enjoy your food with your own utensils if the restaurant opts for plastic ones. A metal knife, fork and spoon don’t take up much space in a purse or bag. You could wrap them in a cloth napkin or if you want something more elaborate, sew one of these utensil rolls out of scrap fabric.

Reduce plastic at school or work

Your school may qualify for a subsidy from Plastic Free Restaurants to swap out single-use plastics for reusables in the cafeteria. If your office or school provides bottled water, push for refill stations. These kinds of changes would reduce piles of plastic almost overnight.

Join a Buy Nothing group

When you need something new-to-you, you may be able to find it through your local Buy Nothing group. You’ll keep items out of the waste stream and your secondhand item won’t likely have any packaging whatsoever—much less plastic packaging. Even if it does, you haven’t given a business a reason to order more shrink-wrapped merchandise shipped to its location in yet more plastic.

Send a letter or email

Is your city’s parks and recreation department proposing to install synthetic, microplastic-shedding turf in its parks like mine is? Write to the city council and explain why this is a terrible idea.

Or contact a business you frequent. Use the Remark app to grade local restaurants and grocery stores on their plastic footprint. The app will write a diplomatically worded email for you that outlines how the business can improve. Get the app here.

Read up on plastic pollution

The more you know, the less you’ll want to participate in the plastic industrial complex. (We all must participate to a degree—the supply chain is full of plastic.) Borrow books from the library on the topic, such as:

Spread the word

You could give a talk at your school, church or workplace on the plastic pollution problem and—this part is very important—the solutions to it (there are many). Or talk to your friends and family. But avoid preaching, droning on and on about the depressing plastic waste statistics or shaming people. The best way to sell people on something is by telling them how they benefit—they’ll save money, avoid toxins and probably have fun too.

I’ve found doing my thing (i.e., showing) to be very effective. People around me often ask questions—How did you make those produce bags? Where did you find bar shampoo? How did you get the salsa smell out of this jar?—and they make changes.

Various empty jars and a bottle sit on a dark wood table with a white wall in the background. A quote by Paulo Coelho across the tops reads "The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion."

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5 Replies to “10 Free and Easy Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution”

  1. Thank you for your ideas. I liked learn a skill the most. Because it enrichs my life and gives me much pleasure.

    1. Thank you for checking them out and I’m glad you like the list. Learning a skill brings so much satisfaction. That is also one of my favorites. (I love making things.)

  2. I’ll have to check out the Remark app; that sounds great!

    1. Thanks! Glad you found them useful!

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