After decades of sharply increasing plastic production, it’s nearly impossible to avoid it in our daily lives: From our first sip of to-go coffee in the morning to tapping on our laptops at work to prepping dinner, we touch these fossil fuel-derived polymers constantly.
But it’s still possible to reduce the amount of plastic we use and cut down on the amount we dispose of—which more often than not will head to landfills and the ecosystems around us, where it emits powerful climate-warming greenhouse gasses and imperils the lives of people and wildlife. Here’s how:
How to reduce your plastic waste
To tackle our mountains of plastic refuse, we need to put pressure on the companies and governments responsible to make less and manage it better. But we as consumers can also make meaningful changes. “It is often easier to say that either companies or consumers should do more for effective recycling and reducing plastic waste,” says Myriam Ertz, a professor of marketing who has researched consumer recycling behavior at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi in Canada. “The thing is that they both contribute significantly but in different ways and at different stages of a product’s lifetime.”
We as spenders can send a clear message with what Ertz calls “private-sphere” behavior in our households. These actions can include opting to buy products that use little to no plastic, or those made from recycled plastics. We can also make sure that we properly clean and sort plastics to ensure the recycling process goes smoothly once our waste is picked up from the curb.
But it’s also important to extend the push beyond our individual behavior, she says, and engage in “public-sphere” actions. Consumers should feel empowered to take to social media and demand companies take steps such as developing plastic alternatives and more advanced recycling technologies, as well as introducing take-back programs where we can send in or drop off old products to be recycled.
We can also advocate for policy change. You can, for example, demand local legislation to ban or reduce single-use plastics in your community. Such regulation has already been rolled out in nearly 100 towns, cities, and counties across the country. On the federal level, you can reach out to your state representatives to call for nationwide plastic industry regulation.
While all this may sound daunting, you can take these simple steps to get started on cutting down the plastic waste in your life
Reduce plastic waste in your home
Drink filtered tap water instead of bottled
Each day, more than 60 million plastic bottles end up in U.S. landfills and incinerators. Instead of buying lots of bottled water on grocery trips, you can buy a sink filter or filtered pitcher for regular use.
Grow your own food
Even if you don’t have a yard, you can still grow some fruits and veggies, such as kale and tomatoes, at home. This will help you avoid unnecessary plastic packaging waste at your local shop. Here’s how to nurture your green thumb even in small spaces.
Use your own containers and reusable cutlery
Try to opt for reusable containers and cutlery whenever possible. You might even save a buck: Reusable options last longer if they’re made of glass or stainless steel, which ends up being cheaper over time. These options are also healthier for you, since many of the chemicals in plastics have been associated with hormonal imbalances, reproductive issues and cancer.
Switch from disposable diapers to cloth
Every year, around 20 billion disposable diapers head to U.S. landfills, creating around 3.5 million tons of waste that may take five centuries to break down.1 You can avoid piling on to these smelly mounds and save money in the process by buying washable cloth diapers.
Skip the disposable razor
Disposable razors, and even the refillable heads, are pretty darn expensive. Plus, billions of them end up in landfills annually. But a one-time purchase of a safety razor, and occasional blade replacements, could be much easier on your wallet.
Avoid tea bags and use a tea strainer
For those who love a nice warm cuppa, it’s best to buy a reusable strainer. A plastic tea bag can release a startling 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion smaller nanoplastic particles into your mug.2
Reduce plastic waste when shopping
Buy secondhand items
Thrifting clothes and other items often made from plastic (hello, polyester!) offers a fun shopping challenge to tackle with friends. It’s particularly important because the global fashion industry runs through 342 million barrels of oil each year to make plastic-based fibers like polyester and nylon. Make sure to shop secondhand responsibly by thinking practically and considering the items your community members may need.
Avoid microbeads in your cosmetics
Microbeads are a form of microplastic put into products like scrubs and shampoos. While the federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 technically forbids companies from making and distributing rinse-off cosmetics with microbeads, manufacturers still put them into items like lotions, makeup, and deodorants. These pollute the environment and harm wildlife. They’re also potentially detrimental to human health: Microbeads and other microplastics can mess with our hormones and immune systems, among other issues.3 If you’re super into scrubs, you can make a DIY natural alternative that’s free of microbeads.
Buy in bulk from local markets and low-waste shops
Get your mason jars or vessels of choice ready! Zero-waste stores typically offer goods in refill stations that you can dispense in your desired amount. You can even end up saving money in the long-term by filling them with goods like nuts, detergent, and coffee. Overall, though, it isn’t entirely clear whether these stores prove better for the environment in the long-run due to tricky logistics like shipping and recycling.
Carry a reusable shopping bag
Plastic bags can be tough to recycle, and reusable bags can prove sturdier and longer-lasting. Some cities have started charging extra to purchase paper bags at the store, so this tip can also help you save some dough over time. Just don’t go overboard with the quantity of your totes or you could do more harm than good.
Avoid excessive packaging
While it may seem convenient, try not to buy individually wrapped items like produce or single-serving mini bags of snacks. You could always use a glass or metal container to take small portions to go.
Reduce plastic waste when eating out
Bring a reusable water bottle
Grabbing lunch to go? Skip the single-serve bottles of water by keeping a reusable bottle handy. Many cafes and restaurants—even bars—will top you off without any issues.
Take a reusable coffee cup
Not only to reusable coffee cups do a better job keeping your cuppa warm, but they’re also a salve for one of our biggest waste woes. The U.S. runs through 136 million take-out paper-based coffee cups daily (which, by the way, are often lined with plastic coating to keep drinks hot).4 Starbucks alone dispenses more than four billion cups a year, which generally aren’t recyclable due to the plastic lining.
In fact, some cafés offer a discount for customers who bring their own cup. While reusable cups have raised cleanliness concerns amid the Covid-19 pandemic, they should generally be safe if we keep things sanitary.
Reduce plastic waste in your community
Talk to your friends & neighbors about plastic pollution
Talking to your community about waste is a crucial way to boost recycling and plastic reduction. Messaging matters here, Ertz says. Keep your statements simple and avoid guilting people, which can lead them to feeling disengaged and resistant to change.
Remember that these things take time. “Changing deep-rooted behavior is usually a process,” she says. “It is important to acknowledge that consumers need time and will change their habits one at a time.” So even suggesting a simple change, like drinking out of a reusable water bottle to avoid the pollution (and high costs over time) from single-use drinks, could be a good start.
Push companies and officials for change
While it’s easy to feel hopeless, ordinary consumers have the power to influence how policymakers and manufacturers move forward—and it’s more critical now than ever. When considering our plastic future, it’s important to note that collective action by consumers is just one part of the broader plastic ecosystem that also includes manufacturers, Ertz says.
“Consumers can change their habits and push for change, while the impact of manufacturers is larger because they control the production and distribution of plastic,” Ertz says. “Coordinating consumers’ and companies’ actions is thus crucial, given their interconnected ties.”
Can the plastic crisis be solved?
While our global plastic pollution problems are immense, some analyses suggest that we’ve not yet hit the point of no return. To effectively take on our plastic problem, a growing movement is calling for the reduction or even elimination of plastic production altogether.5
If we put out all the stops to curb plastic pollution, such as improving recycling and replacing plastic with alternative materials, one 2020 study claims that we could address about 80 percent of pollution over the next 20 years.6 Still, new and effective actions will be needed: Around 710 million metric tons of plastic waste could still make their way into land and water, according to the same study.
- Recent technologies for treatment and recycling of used disposable baby diapers, Process Safety and Environmental Protection, Mar. 2019 ↩︎
- Plastic teabags release billions of microparticles and nanoparticles into tea, Environmental Science & Technology, Sep. 2019 ↩︎
- Potential health impact of microplastics: A review of environmental distribution, human exposure, and toxic effect, Environmental Health, Aug. 2023 ↩︎
- The future of single-use paper coffee cups: Current progress and outlook, BioResources, 2020 ↩︎
- A global plastic treaty must cap production, Science, Apr. 2022 ↩︎
- Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution, Science, Jul. 2020