Recycling isn’t working – here are 15 ways to shrink your plastic footprint
Only 9% of plastics get recycled, and significant reductions will require systemic change – but there are easy tips for individuals to cut back
Plastics are made from ethane gas extracted by oil companies, and they contribute to the rising temperatures behind the climate crisis. Illustration: Sonny Ross/The Guardian
As plastics corporations ramp up production, they are also promoting a failing recycling system.
Just 9% of plastics get recycled. Traditional plastics are made from extracted oil and gas, and they contribute to the rising temperatures behind the climate crisis.
Environment experts are increasingly calling for a reduction in plastic use, as the waste accumulates in the oceans, poor countries and even human bodies. Plastics are also burned, as China – which once accepted the bulk of America’s waste – has begun to refuse it. And more than a million Americans lived next to polluting incinerators.
Significant reductions will require systemic change, researchers say. But there are also some easy tips for individuals who want to cut back on plastics.
(If this list is overwhelming and you’re not sure where to start, collect your plastic waste for a month and conduct an audit. Cut back on what you find the most of.)
1 Carry a reusable bottle, fork/spoon and bag
Be sure to use these items as many times as possible so they are worth the resources they take to create.
2 Refuse the lid on your coffee cup
Take a few sips before you leave the shop so you can avoid spilling. (Some coffee shops will say they are required to give you a lid, citing possible liability for burns.)
3 Choose products in glass or cans if they are an option. Recycle those materials
Plastics recycling is largely failing, but you should still try to recycle your waste plastics if they are accepted in your community. Make sure you are recycling correctly with this guide.
Glass and aluminum cans are much more likely to be recycled. Glass is most efficient when reused (ie with returnable milk bottles).
4 When possible, eat in the restaurant instead of taking it to go
Unless you have a physical disability, let your server know in advance that you won’t need a straw.
5 If you order takeout or delivery, tell the restaurant you don’t want plastic utensils or straws
This is an option on some food delivery apps.
6 Opt for products with less packaging. Say no to bagged lemons, apples, onions and garlic, and tea that comes in plastic packets
Choose more fresh produce for snacks to avoid individual plastic wrappers.
7 Shop from the bulk section and use your own containers
Some grocery stores will let you use pretty much any container, as long as you verify the weight of the empty container in advance.
8 Use bars of soap (also available for shampoo and shaving) instead of bottles and skip the plastic loofah
Find bars that are wrapped in paper, and for an extra environmental benefit, avoid palm oil.
9 Use a razor that requires replacing only the individual blades
The upfront expense may be daunting, but if you can afford it, you will save money over time. Note that TSA does not allow passengers to fly with individual blades.
10 Use a bamboo toothbrush or one with a replaceable head
The market for these products is growing rapidly. Most bristles will still have synthetic fibers, but you can at least avoid throwing away the brush’s plastic arm every few months.
11 Buy concentrated cleaners that can be mixed with water in a reusable container.
You can find these in powder, gel and liquid form.
12 Choose frozen, concentrated juice that comes in cardboard tubes instead of the plastic jugs
Some of them taste good, and they are lighter to carry home.
13 Don’t buy bottled water. Filter your own
“Bottled water is no safer than filtered tap water, but the industry doesn’t have to disclose the results of its testing,” according to the Environmental Working Group. The advocacy organization’s Tap Water Database can help you select the best filter for your local water source.
14 Buy fewer clothes, or shop secondhand. Wash your clothes less so they last longer. Hang them to dry
15 When shopping online, group as many items together as possible, so you can receive fewer plastic envelopes
You can also choose slower shipping times, which could reduce the climate footprint of your purchase.