Plastic is one of the highest produced materials — and the least recycled. In 2018, only 8.6% of plastic created was recycled (1).
With everything from your shampoo to your bag of lettuce being wrapped in plastic, it might seem impossible to avoid it. But there are a number of ways to reduce the amount of plastic that you use on a regular basis.
If you’re looking to reduce your plastic waste to protect the environment and even save some of your hard-earned cash, try some of these helpful tips.
Environmental and human health are affected at each stage of plastic production: the extraction of the raw materials needed to make it, the processing of plastics, and the release of microplastics into the air and water (2).
And, since the world produces over 400 million tons of plastic each year, there are a lot of resources being used and pollution created. In the United States, it’s estimated that each person generates more than 286 pounds of plastic waste each year (3, 4).
One concern all that waste poses? Microplastics.
Microplastics are plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size that can be found in the water, in the air, and on land. This pollution is detrimental to the environment, animals, and human health (
Plus, making plastic requires the use of non-renewable fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels sends poisonous gasses like nitrogen and ammonia into the atmosphere, contributing to smog and acid rain (6).
Not to mention, making plastic drains our planet’s natural resources.
Four percent of the world’s petroleum is used to make plastic, and another 4% is used to power the manufacturing of that plastic. With single-use plastic making up 40% of all plastic produced, the waste of resources adds up quickly (7, 8).
Since plastic isn’t biodegradable, the only ways to get rid of it is to let it sit in landfills — where it heats up and breaks down into microplastics, polluting the air and water — or to burn it.
Burning plastic emits toxic gasses into the environment, which then settle into waterways, crops, and eventually our bodies (9).
Using less plastic reduces the need to create plastic, preserves fossil fuels, limits the emissions of dangerous gasses, and keeps waste from ending up in the air, waterways, and land.
Global corporations contribute to plastic waste, too
While it’s a great idea to curb your plastic use and engage in other sustainability efforts at home, remember that individual consumers aren’t solely to blame for plastic overconsumption and other issues affecting the Earth.
A 2019 report found that just 20 corporations produced more than half of the planet’s single-use plastic waste. What’s more, many international banks and world governments support these companies’ practices.
Activists argue that making eco-friendly changes in our daily lives is a great start — especially since shifting our habits may encourage companies to adjust their practices — but ultimately insufficient. They say we need to hold leaders accountable for protecting the planet.
Some ways to champion environmental protections include engaging with nonprofits dedicated to sustainability, divesting from companies that don’t align with your sustainable values, and urging elected representatives to take action.
If your grocery haul comes with a surplus of plastic bags that inevitably end up in the trash, it might be time to invest in some alternatives.
It’s estimated that 5 trillion plastic bags are used each year (3, 10)
The impact of plastic bags on the environment has become so severe that a number of states have imposed bans on single-use plastic bags. Several other states have focused on implementing more effective recycling programs (3, 10).
Switch to a shopping bag that you can reuse over and over again. Reusable bags made from cotton, hemp, or burlap are the best choices, as they’re more easily up-cycled or recycled when their lifetime of hauling your groceries is over.
If you often buy loose fruits and vegetables, skip the plastic produce bags. Instead, use reusable mesh produce bags or make your own by sewing or pinning a flour sack into a make-shift bag.
If your trash can is filling up with plastic silverware, cups, straws, and plates, then you’re not only adding plastic to the landfills and waterways but throwing your money away with it.
Plastic disposables have been used for years as the ultimate convenience tool. Everything can just be tossed and forgotten about instead of washed and put away.
The 2019 International Coastal Cleanup organized by the Ocean Conservancy picked up 23,333,816 pounds of trash off of coasts and waterways. This included over 2.6 million pieces of plastic cutlery, cups, and plates (11).
The popularity of plastic disposables ramped up exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Up to August 2021, there was an estimated 8.4 million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste produced (12).
Because many businesses turned to disposables to avoid contamination from reusable utensils and plates, eating out led to more plastic waste than it had before (12).
Instead of buying one-time-use dinnerware, invest in cups, plates, straws, and silverware that can be washed and used again and again.
While doing the dishes or loading and unloading the dishwasher isn’t always fun, it keeps plastic out of landfills and off the beaches.
When eating out, pack a fork or chopsticks and a reusable straw in your bag. Just wrap it in a cloth to keep it clean and politely turn down any plastic options offered to you.
In most grocery stores, it’s impossible to get away with a plastic-free trip. Unless you’re fortunate enough to live near a bulk foods store, your groceries — from produce to bread, meat, peanut butter, and cheese — all comes wrapped in plastic.
Plastic does make things more convenient when shopping, but the conveniences comes at the cost of extra waste.
When buying produce, choose loose items and pack them in your own reusable bag. And when given the choice between a loose head of lettuce or a bag of pre-chopped washed greens, consider the less convenient but plastic-free option.
When buying packaged foods, choose ones sold in glass, paper, or aluminum packaging if possible. These alternative food packages are more easily reused and recycled than plastic (13).
When it comes to your beauty routine, how much plastic is sitting in your drawers, on your bathroom counter, or in your shower?
The zero-waste and sustainable living movements have been building momentum in recent years and have brought with them a wave of more sustainable beauty and hygiene products.
Swap plastic soap and shampoo bottles for bars that come wrapped in paper. And, when that time of the month comes around, consider skipping the pads or tampons and investing in a reusable menstrual cup.
Not only do these swaps save on plastic waste, but they also add up to big money and space savings.
If you’re getting your eight glasses a day from plastic bottles, your water habits — while good for you — could be harming the environment.
While bottled water can be a lifeline for people who otherwise don’t have access to safe water due to disaster, location, or other circumstances, it’s become an everyday consumable for many people that poses environmental risks (
There’s some evidence that water bottled in plastic might not be great for our bodies, either. Bottled water from 11 different brands, purchased from 19 different locations in 9 countries, was tested and discovered to contain microplastics (
The study authors said that while we don’t know a lot about how microplastic consumption may affect human health andt that more research is needed, there may be good reasons to limit bottled water use if possible (
With 70 million disposable water bottles being used and tossed each day, microplastics are continuously filling up landfills and waterways (16).
From manufacturing and shipping to the cost of waste, bottled water comes with an environmental price. Researchers in Spain found that the environmental impact of bottled water is 1400–3500 times greater than tap water (17).
To do your part, drink from the tap.
If you have concerns over the taste or safety of your water, have it checked by your municipal agency and install a filter or use a pitcher with a water filter attached. You’ll save plastic waste and have access to great-tasting water at your fingertips.
Consider investing in a water bottle that’s fun and easy to carry with you. Choose one slim enough to fit in your car or bike cup holder, that closes tight to prevent leaks, and has a handle to make carrying it easy.
If purchasing water on the go is a must, try an alternative like Boxed Water, which claims to have a 36% lower carbon footprint than plastic bottled water and can easily be refilled and reused (18).
While most plastic claims to be recyclable, the fact is that most of it ends up in landfills, the oceans, or other parts of the environment, contributing to plastic pollution.
You can do your part to fight plastic pollution by making small changes at home. For example, consider swapping single-use plastics like grocery bags and water bottles for reusable options.
Just one thing
Try this today: Microplastics are harmful to the environment, but you may wonder if they have the potential to harm your body as well. Learn more about microplastics and how they affect your health.