My aha moment for reducing plastic came at my kids’ elementary school playground when I noticed all the juice box straw wrappers. I picked up fistfuls of wrappers and threw them away and realized that when we give kids juice boxes – while they are convenient and cheap and kids really like them – we are giving them a half cup of juice that they will drink in thirty seconds and three pieces of trash that will take hundreds of years to decompose.
I stopped buying juice boxes.
Now I try every day to limit plastic purchasing and single-use items. If you’re thinking about how you can reduce plastic in your home, here are a few of the changes I made by following the four Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle.
Pack a litter-free lunch.
Although most lunch containers are plastic, they are easy to find and easy to care for and reuse. I already packed my own lunch and snacks for work in reusable containers, but I sometimes used plastic bags for the kids. After I bought a few half-cup containers, it was easy to eliminate the need for plastic snack bags or store-bought single-serving snack packs. My kids bring refillable water bottles with their lunches, which they can use throughout the day and after school.
Ditch the plastic in stores.
Until someone suggested it, it never occurred to me to say, “I don’t need a bag!” at a store. The refuse part of waste reduction is sometimes the most liberating to me. I don’t like having the plastic to begin with, which is why I have made a lot of changes in my shopping habits. If I had the time and money to buy more at farmers’ and natural markets, I would. The concept of the zero-waste market – where you take your containers and fill up on bulk items – is appealing to me. Check Litterless.com for where to shop in our area. My ultimate goal is to reduce packaging and energy waste when we shop, but the truth is, I find myself at a mainstream grocery store every week.
Before I bumped up my efforts to reduce single-use plastics, I only brought a few reusable bags with me on a shopping trip. Now my goal is zero plastic bags. If we do get a plastic bag, we find a practical use for it at home, or I recycle it back at the store. I use reusable mesh bags for produce and buy loose produce instead of pre-packaged items. I buy milk in glass bottles. I buy a larger size of a product – like hand soap refills or bags of shredded cheese – to minimize packaging when I can. I also stopped buying some products completely, like applesauce cups and juice boxes.
Reduce packaging on everyday home items.
We’ve made small changes at home with bathroom items, like bars for bath soap and shampoo (I’ve liked several goat’s milk bars from local vendors). Everyone in my family of four has a bamboo toothbrush, although my kids somehow always bring home plastic toothbrushes from school. I’m still looking for plastic-free alternatives to deodorant, sunblock, toothpaste, and skin care products that work for me, but not having shampoo bottles and body wash has reduced a lot of plastic in the bathroom.
Reduce plastic use on the go.
When I’m not at home, I carry a small pouch with a bamboo fork, knife, and a metal straw. I take reusable water bottles everywhere. Snacks are always carried in containers from home. We don’t eat out a lot, but we try to refuse straws and we bring our own containers for leftovers. My husband and I both use travel coffee mugs. I always have a tote bag in the car for unplanned shopping trips. And I have been known to bring recyclables home if there isn’t a bin for items on-site.
Make a bigger statement with your clothes.
Clothing production uses a lot of energy and water, and clothes made of plastic fibers wash out microplastics that end up in water sources. Generally, I’ve become more conscious of what our clothing choices mean for the health of the earth. We shop second-hand often, and gladly accept hand-me-downs. I cut down on buying cheaply made clothing, and if I have to buy new clothes or textiles, I buy natural materials like cotton. I rely on the concept of refuse a lot with clothes, too. Once I stopped buying just any $10 shirt I liked, it was only a short time before I stopped even looking when I walked by the racks.
Do it for and with the kids.
I don’t know what a zero-waste, non-plastic life looks like for a house with kids other than what’s described in the beginning chapters of Little House in the Big Woods. But my children are not playing with the pig’s bladder, or whatever it was that kept those Ingalls children occupied. So what works for reducing plastic for kids? Again, refuse has to be the big one. I won’t let my kids take balloons. I tell them that balloons are trash that you fill with air and give to people. If they have a choice between a plastic toy and candy, I let them have candy (which is probably not better for them, but it certainly puts the bamboo toothbrushes to the test). Buying second-hand is an option. I hand down their old toys and clothes that are in good condition, too.
Be okay with small steps.
Even with the best of intentions, you’ll still end up with a styrofoam package of food stuffed in a plastic bag with single-use cutlery that will live in a drawer until you throw it away in eight months. It happens! But even by taking small steps, you’ll reduce your plastic use by dozens of items a week. And that’s definitely better than not trying at all.
I was passionate about the environment when I was a kid. It’s natural for kids to care about the things they love, and they can see the impact of plastic pollution in their front yards. If your kids don’t understand why you’re saying no to plastic and wasteful items now, they will understand later, and I believe they will be grateful for the decisions you made. My family has big challenges in other areas of reducing energy use – like transportation and home updates – but concentrating on plastic and making small changes at home have cleared the path for making bigger and better choices. I believe every home can find a way to use a little less.
Photo: Scott Schwartzkopf