This oil-based, landfill-clogging menace lurks in lots of surprising places.
By Lorraine Chow, November 21, 2014
Plastic has an undoubtedly convenient but worrying presence in our lives. Everyday items such as wrappers, bottles and even chewing gum (yes, it’s made of plastic!) are thrown away without much thought. In fact, Americans discard 14.4 million tons of plastic a year, and only 13 percent of it is recycled.
This leads to a devastating problem, as the chemicals in plastics have been known to have adverse effects on our bodies as well as the planet. It’s gotten so bad that in the Pacific Ocean a plastic island has formed that’s twice the size of Texas — leaching chemicals, harming marine life and destroying ecosystems. However, you can help curb the impact of this environmentally hazardous material by implementing the following practices:
Give up buying beverages that come in plastic bottles. About 2.4 million tons of this plastic — known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) — is discarded annually, with 75 percent going straight to the landfill. Invest in a stainless- steel bottle or opt for soda or other beverages that come in glass bottles or paper cartons.
Stop using disposable cups. From Styrofoam to Solo cups to plastic-lined paper cups, these beverage holders have a lifespan of about half an hour. This is why you should make it a habit of bringing your thermos or tumbler every time you hit the coffee shop or a fast food restaurant.
And since you’re now going to use your own beverage container, you can also ditch those single-use straws, stirrers and lids.
If the coffee shop uses plastic cups or cutlery but doesn’t have a recycling bin, take these items home with you and recycle them yourself.
Repurpose the plastic that you already have. Cups and yogurt tubs make great planters, and bags can be woven into baskets or mats. The tops of water bottles can be sliced off to make awesome seals for bags of food.
Skip the freezer section. While TV dinners may be convenient, they tend to come wrapped in excessive packaging.
Choose loose fruits and vegetables instead of bagged produce, such as carrots, apples and lemons. By doing so you avoid using plastic and it allows you to buy only what you need, so there’s less food that could spoil and go to waste. Even better? You might save money, too.
Fill up on grains, cereals, nuts and other kitchen staples at the bulk bin. Be sure to bring your own bags or containers from home when purchasing these items.
Shop local. Frequent farmers’ markets for fresh produce and eggs, bakeries for bread and butchers for meats since they often use less packaging to wrap items.
Plastic containers can be re-purposed as planters
Later on, return all your plastics — baskets, containers and jars — to the farmers’ market vendors for reuse. (They’re bound to appreciate your action.)
You probably know this already, but it bears repeating: Say no to plastic bags. Why is it so important to take your reusable tote (preferably made of canvas, cotton or hemp, not vinyl or polyester) each time you head to the supermarket? It takes 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture the 102 billion plastic bags that Americans use annually,according to the United Nations. So keep several reusables in your car or handbag, and if you must use a plastic bag, remember to recycle it later on. It’s easy to do, since many grocery stores have their own bag-collection bins.
Try growing your own food at home. Salad vegetables and herbs are really easy to grow in the garden, a hanging basket or on a windowsill. By doing so, you avoid buying produce that comes in plastic packaging.
Buy detergent that comes in cardboard boxes instead of plastic containers. Better yet, pop in a few soap nuts (a magical dried berry that works as an all-natural cleaner). Or if you like to DIY, try this homemade three-ingredient laundry detergent.
Clean your home with all-natural ingredients that you might find in your kitchen — baking soda, lemons, vinegar — rather than buying bottles of toilet cleaner and bleach.
At the dry cleaners, bring your own garment bag for pickups or ask for your clothes to be returned free of plastic wrap.
Line your garbage bins with paper bags or biodegradable trash bags instead of buying plastic trash bags. Earn extra eco-points by starting a compost heap for your organic waste.
For condiments such as ketchup, mustard and salad dressing, choose varieties that come in glass jars instead of squeeze bottles.
Swap your synthetic sponge for a cotton washcloth or try doing your dishes with one of the cellulose varieties, which are made of wood fiber.
Cork bottle stoppers are biodegradable.
For parties or at work, avoid using disposable cups and plastic utensils. Use real silverware and cups and wash them later or purchase compostable ones.
Stick to wines that have cork stoppers instead of synthetic stoppers, since the natural material is completely biodegradable.
Place a lid or a plate on top of leftovers instead of reaching for plastic wrap. Mason jars or ceramic containers are also a great alternative to Tupperware and Ziploc baggies.
Wrap food in aluminum foil or try beeswax-coated food wraps that can be used repeatedly.
Reuse the bags that hold baked goods like bread for cleaning up after your dog.
Swear off single-use coffee pods. We know they are convenient, but if you care about the planet, an old-fashioned coffee machine with a reusable filter works just as well.
Wear natural, organic textiles instead of synthetic ones such as nylon, acrylic or polyester. Did you know that in an average wash, 1,900 fibers come off a single synthetic article of clothing and that this is one of the most common types of plastic pollution in our oceans?
Try to use soaps, lotions and shampoos that come in solid bars instead of liquid form in a bottle.
Avoid cosmetic products with microbeads (which might be included in the ingredients list as polyethylene or polypropylene). These tiny plastic beads are causing big environmental problems in our Great Lakes.
For hair care, skin care and other beauty products, find varieties that come in glass or metal containers. Believe it or not, but there are even plastic-free options for products such as mascara and deodorant, which seem to only come in plastic tubes.
Use paper tape instead of Scotch tape when mailing large items.
Buy cloth diapers instead of disposable ones. They might be messier, but they create much less waste compared with disposables, which don’t decompose and amount to a stunning 4 million tons of landfill waste per year.
Electronics account for millions of tons of waste.
Unload old electronics in a responsible manner. A large portion of plastic waste comes from discarded televisions, fax machines, keyboards, cell phones and other tech gear. According to the EPA, 37 million tons of electronic waste was tossed in 2009 (an amount that’s surely increased since then). You don’t need the latest smartphone if the one you have works perfectly well. And if your device is acting a little wonky, try repairing it. Take electronics that are no longer functioning to e-waste facilities that can dispose of them.
For difficult-to-recycle plastics (toothbrushes, cigarette butts, food wraps, beauty products, etc.) that are usually landfill-bound, check out TerraCycle. You’ll be surprised what items this innovative company repurposes.
Use matches or invest in refillable metal lighters such as Zippo instead of disposable ones that aren’t recyclable.
Shave with razors that have replaceable blades, not whole disposable ones. Or consider using a safety razor that you can simply sharpen.
Opt for wood or cloth toys, rather than plastic.
Be mindful of the material used in toys. Plastic varieties might contain BPAs, phthalates and other harmful chemicals that could harm young children and pets. For kids, choose wood or cloth-based toys, and for pets, buy catnip for cats and squeaky stuffed animals or large ropes for dogs.
Burn candles (soy or beeswax, not paraffin) or incense, instead of buying air fresheners in plastic holders.
Lastly, learn how to correctly recycle plastic. Get familiar with the triangle-shaped recycling symbol on the bottom of most bottles and containers. As we previously reported, most recycling centers will collect Nos. 1, 2 and 5 plastics such as water bottles and Tupperware. Plastics that are Nos. 3, 4 and 6, like disposable cups and vinyl shower curtains, are moderately recyclable. This leaves plastic No. 7, which is nearly impossible to recycle because it’s made of a combination of all types of plastic (which means you should avoid using it if possible).