how to reduce plastic use
Zero Waste Living

Plastic Is Not The Enemy. Our Mindset Is.

Plastic has a bad reputation – one that grew exponentially in 2018. Companies and consumers worldwide came together to ban certain single-use plastic such as straws, plastic bags, and single-use silverware. Incredibly sad photos of sea creatures caught in plastic went viral around the interwebs, making people feel motivated to do even more. Many people rejoiced over the bans celebrating the movement forward, and I was one of them. Until…

I ended up at a Starbucks a few months ago post their infamous plastic straw ban with a friend. She ordered her drink, and we waited for it to be made. The barista slid is across the counter and called my friends name, and my face went blank. Yes, Starbucks banned plastic straws…

…in favor of a larger, most plastic intensive disposable lid.

I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t seem right – yes, they were getting rid of straws, but the single-use plastic was still prevalent. And wasn’t that the bigger issue at hand here? We were saving sea turtles (which I realize is incredibly important) in favor of adding even more plastic into the landfill (not good).

Let me say before we get too deep here that I am by no means a perfect example of someone who lives completely plastic free. At the risk of being completely vulnerable, my son still wears disposable pull-ups at night, and I have a hard time finding plastic-free grocery items sometimes. Please don’t think I’m sitting up on a judgy stool and looking down on everyone else. Not the case at all. I felt compelled to write this post because I wanted to share how I think we can make change in our own lives quickly and simply versus waiting for the world around us to change.

But I digress. Back to Starbucks.

I was commenting on the ‘new’ Starbucks cup to another friend about how it really wasn’t making a difference in the single-use plastic movement. She replied by saying:

‘Yeah, but it’s all about the mindset’.

As Oprah would say, that right there was an ‘aha-moment’.

Plastic is not the enemy, our single-use mindset is.

This is about our society’s single-use mindset, but banning certain single-use, disposable materials, is, in my opinion, is not always and necessarily the best option (which I’ll go into below).

My family and I have taken a cue from a friend and started picking up trash anytime we go on a hike. You know what 95% of the items we find are? Single-use plastic.

Related post: Plogging: What it is and how it can help the earth and your anxiety

Check out some of these startling statistics:

  • A plastic bottle takes 450 years to break down in the environment
  • A plastic bag takes 10-20 years to break down in the environment
  • A disposable diaper takes 450 years to break down in the environment
  • A glass bottle takes 1 MILLION years to break down

You probably know that plastic takes forever to break down in the environment. But more surprising is the length of time other materials take. Did you notice the glass bottle statistic? 1 million years?!

These statistics aren’t meant to make you feel guilty. I used to use a ton of single-use plastics because they were the items that were available and what my parents used. I didn’t know any different.

Our society values single-use, disposable items. And it’s easy to see why. They’re convenient, cheap, and make our lives easier (on the surface). When we throw them away, it is easy to get in the mindset of ‘away’. We don’t see where the items go, we don’t see the landfills, we don’t see the greenhouse gases being emitted, we don’t see all the waste and resources and emissions that go into manufacturing these products.

But they are not the enemy.

Our single use mindset is.

I’m going to let that truth bomb settle for a bit, and talk about why this is true. I’m going to do this by focusing on plastic since that seems to be the biggest enemy as of late.

single use plastic

Why single-use plastic is NOT the enemy

Plastics are necessary for certain industries and groups of people. The healthcare industry in particular uses plastics for lots of reasons.

“Plastic has greatly improved safety in the medical industry, where good hygiene is of paramount importance. The inherent sterility and inertness provided by plastic helps stop the spread of diseases in hospitals, so it’s no surprise that many different items found in the industry are plastic – bedpans, IV tubes, syringes and eye patches to name a few. Specifically, antimicrobial additives in the polymer can help to repel and kill bacteria on exposed surfaces. (source)”

I don’t know about you, but if I or any of my friends or family members are in the hospital, you bet I want things to be as sterile and clean as possible. And if that means using plastic, then so be it.

plastic for medical use

Another group of people that rely on plastic are disabled individuals – specifically when it comes to plastic straws.

NPR posted a great article about the need for disposable, plastic straws for certain people who are disabled, and why they can’t simply use reusable or straws made of non-plastic materials (an argument I see quite often in this debate).

“There are many alternatives to plastic straws — paper, biodegradable plastics and even reusable straws made from metal or silicone. But paper straws and similar biodegradable options often fall apart too quickly or are easy for people with limited jaw control to bite through. Silicone straws are often not flexible — one of the most important features for people with mobility challenges. Reusable straws need to be washed, which not all people with disabilities can do easily. And metal straws, which conduct heat and cold in addition to being hard and inflexible, can pose a safety risk.”

The article is really good and debunks a lot of the misconceptions about what disabled people ‘could do’ or ‘should do’ instead of using plastic straws. I highly recommend checking it out.

Want more? This post is a piece by someone who happens to be disabled, and she does a great job of talking about how she, as a disabled person, doesn’t have the luxury of living a plastic-free life.  

Regarding the plastic straw debate, she says this:

“Take the plastic straw debate, and the warning that baby wipes cause fatbergs. Along with many disabled people, I need both. Not as a lifestyle choice. Not as a luxury. I need straws that bend, ones that can handle all drinks, including medication, and all temperatures. I need straws that aren’t too fat, that won’t cause me to choke or be difficult for me to keep in my mouth.”

Why plastic is not the problem

Banning items the majority of society deems harmful to the environment because it’s simply easier than looking at our own single-use mindset is NOT the answer.

But what about recycling?

Recycling is a good step, but the overall mindset should be about refusing and reducing. If you don’t have another option, in the case of paper, glass, and aluminum, recycling can be a good option. But for plastic, the recycling rate isn’t so great.

Recycling plastic is difficult, and requires all like plastic types to be sorted, which is labor intensive. Additionally, if anything was ‘wish-cycled’ with the plastic and contaminates the batch, all the plastic (and other recyclable items in the batch) get thrown away.

One final thing about recycling plastic is that because the process is much more difficult than other materials, plastic items are often recycled into lower quality plastics, which don’t hold up over time and eventually the plastic ends up in the trash (source).

As for other materials? If any of them end up in the trash, well…you saw how long it takes glass to break down…1 MILLION YEARS.

Changing our single-use, disposable mindset with simple plastic-free swaps

So what’s the solution? Instead of waiting for companies and corporations to make the change to find a more sustainable option, we can work on changing our single-use, disposable mindset now, and slowly but surely put pressure on companies by reaching out and voting with our dollars.

By making slow and simple plastic-free swaps, you’ll start to get into a mindset around ‘reducing’, which will slowly start to flow into other areas of your life. You will also inspire others JUST by setting the example. Trust me, I’ve experienced it firsthand!

Below I’ve created a large list (but not exhaustive) of items that you can easily use to swap out single-use plastic items. The list may seem overwhelming, but don’t feel like you have to make all the changes at once!

Implement certain items and swaps one at a time and as you run out of a particular non-zero/low waste item. That way the process is slow and you won’t get overwhelmed.

One other thing to note: check your own items to see what you already have at home that you can use for the swaps. If you don’t have any at home, check around with friends and family, or look for an item second-hand. Not only is this a great for reducing waste, it is also super budget-friendly!

reduce plastic at home

Here are some suggestions:

  • Refuse: start refusing single-use plastic by using:
    • a reusable water bottle
    • reusable straws
    • reusable coffee mug
    • Reusable silverware
    • Your own takeout containers with you for leftovers or takeout
    • a reusable bag
    • reusable produce bags

  • Food packaging: this is an area that I struggle with as it can be hard to find affordable products with little to no packaging. Here is what I have done:
    • If you have access to bulk bins, price match pantry staples, spices, teas, nuts, and coffee and see if they are the same price or cheaper. I found that a large number of our staples were available for the same price (or cheaper) in bulk
    • Grow your own food!
    • Shop farmer’s markets and bring your own bags
    • Shop this online bulk directory from the blog Litterless

zero waste christmas events

  • Toiletries: Razors, shampoo and condition, body wash, lotions…the list goes on and on. All (if not most) are all made with single-use plastic. I am slowly still using up products from my pre-zero waste days, but as they run out, I am constantly looking for low/zero waste alternatives. The best part that I’ve found is that while some of the zero waste items may seem expensive (unless you’re making your own – then they’re super budget-friendly), they actually last a LOT longer so in the long run are much more budget friendly. Here are some resources:

  • Cleaning products: here is another area where it can be easy to reduce single-use plastic! Here are some ways I use in my own life:
    • Make your own cleaning recipes! Pinterest has TONS of recipes. Bonus: making your own is SUPER budget friendly!
    • Stop using paper towels and tissues. I purchased these bamboo towels and LOVE them, but you can use any old cloths or cut up clothes too (which is what I did for tissues).
    • Instead of dryer sheets, use dryer balls! There are ton of options out there, such as these wool dryer balls.

  • Kitchen products: we already talked about food packaging and using reusable containers for leftovers and/or takeout, but there are some other plastic-free swaps you can make in the kitchen! Here are some:

The list above is of course not exhaustive, and you may have some swaps you’re already doing that I didn’t list. That’s great! The idea is to slowly implement, and slowly start changing your mindset around using single-use plastic. The great news is that this WILL become second-nature.

So what can you do if you’ve made all the swaps? What can you do if maybe you’re slowly making swaps but feeling super motivated?

Start putting pressure on companies you follow and buy from by contacting them and letting them know you’d love to see them reduce their plastic use.

This WORKS. We’ve already seen it with Nestle, Lego, and Procter and Gamble, amongst other companies.

Notice your favorite local cafe using single-use plates and silverware for food? Let them know you’d love to see that changed.

Use your voice.

Additionally, vote with your dollars by supporting waste-conscious companies! Money speaks volumes, and you can easily showcase your stance on waste by frequenting companies that match your values.

Finally, put pressure on your local politicians! They work for you whether you voted for them or not. Call, email, send letters – let them know what you’d like to see in regards to reducing plastic at a local, state, and nationwide level.

I know it can be uncomfortable to reach out, but with recent climate change reports predicting massive changes in the next 10 years, now is the time to be uncomfortable and take action.

We can do this, and all it takes is a mindset change!

Interested in learning more about reducing waste? Check out two things you must do to reduce waste in 2019.

Want to learn how to adopt a reduction based lifestyle (through mindfulness, minimalism, anxiety management, and zero waste living but not sure where to start?

Take the quiz and find out!

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Alden Wicker
4 years ago

So, I love all the tips in here, but I was surprised at your swerve. I thought that you were going to talk about the mindset that has us going to Starbucks and getting a takeout container. After a year of traveling, whenever I think about the Starbucks problem, I think about the cultural problem that Americans have, which is that we don’t sit down for our coffee anymore! I don’t need to carry around a zero waste kit if I’m sitting down for my meals in countries where people sit down for their meals, or I’m sitting down for… Read more »

Carol S Bennett
Carol S Bennett
4 years ago

I would like to see ALL fast food restaurants and sit-down restaurants encourage you to bring your own mug to fill with their soda. I know they will balk at this, claiming they could be held liable somewhat if they serve something that reacts with whatever you may have lurking in your mug, but this can be dealt with somehow. (sign an agreement?)

Anna Martin
4 years ago

So… this is the exact opposite of my musings on single use plastics but… I love it. I never thought about our mindsets I just blindly felt the rage of seeing turtles with rings around their necks. thank you for broadening my horizons. This was a brilliant article.

4 years ago

Great ideas and tips! I’d never thought of the plastic straws for certain people, but it’s true. My Dad uses them at the home he lives in and wouldn’t be able to use anything else.

The Saltbox
4 years ago

What a wonderful piece that really dives deep into the issue of plastic pollution. You are absolutely right on education being the best way to overcome this. We wrote a similar piece about this on our website that looked at how widespread the issue is across the globe.


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