Last year, in his narration of Blue Planet II, Sir David Attenborough calmly explained the brutal impact of plastic pollution on our oceans and its potentially devastating consequences. If we don’t act now, he warned, by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
To my partner and I who were watching the documentary, it was not exactly a shock; we live three streets back from a beach where we frequently find ourselves picking up all sorts of plastics. But it did stir something within us.
So, we took matters into our own hands and committed to reducing the amount of plastic we consume, with the goal of eventually living plastic-free. 11 months later, we’re still working on our objective, but the steps we’ve taken have done more for us than we originally imagined. They’ve made us more mindful, forcing us to embrace a slower way of life and change how we think about many aspects of our lives.
1. How to approach quitting single-use plastics
Food and drink
The most obvious place to start cutting out single-use plastics is food. There are probably many single-use plastic items in your fridge and pantry (a tub of margarine, a plastic bottle of ketchup, a plastic punnet of fruit, etc.) that might seem unavoidable, but your kitchen is actually the easiest place to cut single-use plastics from.
Research grocers, markets, and bulk stores near you where you can fill your own reusable containers with dry goods. If there are any, start using them, but don’t panic if there aren’t. Instead, take reusable bags for fruit and vegetables with you on your weekly grocery run so that you don’t have to buy them wrapped in plastic, and try to replace items that normally come in plastic packaging with ones that come in paper, cardboard, glass, or even steel containers.
Despite our best efforts, plastic is sometimes the only option — we still can’t find milk in cardboard cartons or glass bottles in our area — but, most of the time, there’ll be a reasonably priced version of what you normally buy in more sustainable packaging.
Every single toothbrush ever used is still somewhere on our planet. It’s gross and completely avoidable. Replacing your plastic toothbrush with a bamboo, compostable one is an easy step toward making your bathroom a single-use, plastic-free zone, as is replacing any single-use plastic razors with stainless steel alternatives.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much in terms of sustainable packaging for cosmetics, and what’s available is often expensive. That said, try to find out if any of your favorite brands offer a refill program (plenty do, and normally at a discount), or whether they have a recycling service. Garnier, for example, has partnered with TerraCycle and DoSomething.org on their Rinse, Recycle, Repeat program which aims to keep empty bottles out of landfills.
On the go
It’s easy for traveling to result in plenty of needless plastic consumption, whether it’s from bottles of water purchased in airports or discarded cups from much-needed coffee on long drives. Fortunately, reducing this single-use plastic consumption is easy — all it requires is a bit of forward planning.
Put together a kit of everything you need to avoid spontaneous single-use plastic purchases. If you can’t get by without caffeine, for example, invest in a reusable tumbler (you’ll find plenty of coffee shops will offer a small discount as a result). Add to this a good quality stainless steel water bottle and a portable cutlery set and you’ll have everything you need to avoid single-use plastics when you’re on the go.
2. How it’ll change your life
You’ll embrace the slow-food movement.
Take a moment to think about how frequently single-use plastics appear in the average meal you have. For most households, staple items like pasta come from a packet, as do tortilla wraps, bread, and countless sauces and mixes. Cutting out single-use plastics means avoiding all of these packaged items.
So, if you want to keep eating these meals without creating waste, you’re going to have to make them from scratch. Yes, it’s a process, but it’s a rewarding one. Few things are more satisfactory than finally perfecting homemade pasta or the smell of homemade bread as it rises in the oven.
With this satisfaction also comes a new approach to food. You’ll find yourself appreciating the time and effort that goes into growing/buying/cooking food and respecting ingredients more as a result.
You’ll become more aware of the seasons.
Wherever you shop, avoiding food that comes wrapped in plastic inevitably means avoiding foods that have been shipped in from other parts of the world, and eating more local, seasonal produce instead. You’ll find yourself experimenting in the kitchen with produce you never thought you’d use.
If you have space, or if there are allotments near you, growing a veggie garden will make getting package-free veggies much easier. Learning to grow our own produce has not only reinforced our appreciation for “slow-food,” but it has also made us understand the work and resources that go into growing and harvesting fruit and vegetables.
You’ll eat less processed food.
More than half of the average American’s diet is made up from processed foods, a lot of which come in plastic packaging. Consequently, when you start cutting out single-use plastics, you also reduce the amount of processed foods in your diet and become healthier.
You’ll appreciate shopping locally.
The benefits of cutting out single-use plastic extend to your community. Whether you find yourself exploring a local food market, researching locally-made beauty products, or digging through vintage shops, you’ll get to know the items you buy and the people who make them.
11 months after we first started, we have our shopping routine sorted to the extent that we know almost everyone we’re buying our food from, and almost everything about it, even down to the names of the chickens who laid our eggs.
You’ll become more organized.
Single-use plastic shopping requires planning and forethought — not convenience. It requires things like making snacks before work so that you can avoid a plastic-wrapped lunch and remembering to take a reusable water bottle into airport lounges.