Plastic has insinuated itself into every aspect of everyday modern life. That much is clear. As I run through a mental list of my family’s daily activities, I am hard pressed to think of one that plastic is not somehow a part.
Today, we are learning more and more about the downsides of this ultra convenient material. First off, some chemicals found in plastic are now known to be carcinogenic and otherwise toxic to human health. Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, and only 10% is recycled. The average American throws away about 185 pounds of plastic each year. Much of it finds its way into rivers, lakes, and oceans. Plastic does not break down like natural materials, it only breaks apart. Tiny microscopic bits along with big bulky pieces are carried on the oceans currents and have pervaded all of the world’s marine food chains. 5 Gyres estimates there are 5.25 trillion particles of “plastic smog” weighing 270,000 tons in our oceans worldwide. This means that all that plastic and the hazardous chemicals that bond to these fragments, make their way up the food chains, causing damage as they go, eventually through the seafood we eat, into our bodies, wreaking havoc on our immune, digestive, neurological, and cardiovascular systems. Check out the documentary A Plastic Ocean on Netflix. The film demonstrates the enormity of the environmental problem with plastic, and balances the presentation with several notable technological advancements being made by people all over the world making strides to stem the plastic tide.
It’s about time we find ways to limit our dependence on plastic.
Plastic-free living is an extreme but powerful lifestyle trend. I am inspired by those on the cutting edge including bloggers on sites like Life Without Plastic and My Plastic Free Life. Many of us just aren’t able to divorce ourselves from plastic use completely yet, which is ok. Seeing the plastic problem for what it is can be a huge first step.
There are a bunch of easy-to-integrate lifestyle choices that can really make an impact on reducing plastic in our lives, communities, oceans, rivers and landfills.
I’ll start with one of my favorites.
Use reusable shopping bags. Everywhere. All the time. Everyone in the family. On a recent decluttering jag I counted over TWO DOZEN reusable shopping bags in our possession. None of them we paid for. I don’t think we are the exception, so peer into your car trunks and hall closets, dig out those tote bags, and put them out where they are handy as you go out the door everyday. Find the local stores that incentivize you for bringing your own bags – some hand out discounts or raffle tickets to customers using their own shopping bags.
When I find myself running into the store for something quick, without a reusable shopping tote, I simply carry out the items loose. I’d rather awkwardly juggle a couple of things out to the parking lot, then use a plastic bag for what seems like no good reason, especially considering that each year we Americans use over 300 bags each for an average of 12 minutes. Yet plastic bags have a life expectancy of up to 1,000 years.
Recycle plastic bags. Pesky plastic bags make their way into our homes no matter how hard we try to keep them out. Create a shopping bag recycling spot near the kitchen or somewhere convenient to gather them up. Every major grocery chain accepts these for recycling.
Recycle plastic packaging. Here’s a big bonus. There are a lot of other things that can get recycled along with the plastic grocery bags including garbage bags, lockable storage and sandwich bags, dry cleaners plastic, bread bags, cereal box liners, newspaper bags, clear produce bags, bubble wrap, and plastic shipping pouches. Recyclebank has a listing of all related plastic film products that can be recycled. When we started to recycle rather than toss out plastic, our garbage cans got significantly emptier.
As part of a year-long experiment in becoming greener and cleaner, our family avoided about 500 plastic grocery bags and recycled about twelve bags full of cling plastic. Multiply that by a whole town or community and we will be talking real impact!
Reuse re-closable storage bags. If you do find lockable storage bags useful in your home, wash and reuse them. When we have a half-used bag of frozen veggies, we throw them back in the freezer in a zip bag for another time. Washing these storage bags out and using them again keeps a whole lot of plastic out of the waste stream, not to mention saving us money.
Kick the bottled water habit. Invest in stainless steel water bottles and a filtered water pitcher at home. Ban the Bottle reports: “Last year, the average American used 167 disposable water bottles, but only recycled 38. Americans used about 50 billion plastic water bottles last year.” A family of four who makes this switch can save about $450 per year switching to tap water. Not to mention also avoiding unhealthy exposure to BPA that leaches from plastic bottles.
Find alternatives to the plastic you use the most. In my house, sending a child to school each day with a sandwich and a snack often involved zip sandwich bags, or cling wrap. Depending on the child (and his/her ability to lose things), there are a couple of good alternatives to move away from plastic baggies for school lunches. Biodegradable, compostable baggies, made from corn, FSC paper sandwich bags, and silicone reusable zip bags, are all good choices. If you grab lunch from a take out place during the work day to bring back to your desk, leave a set of utensils in your desk drawer, and ask the shop to skip the plastic ware.
Get active. I’m not necessarily talking about at the gym, but around your town and community. Clean Ocean Action Beach Sweeps happen in April for Earth Day and again in October and offer a great opportunity to clean up NJ’s beautiful beaches. Bills to curb single-use plastic bag use in New Jersey and New York, creating a 5-cent plastic bag charge have stalled, but are under consideration. Several local campaigns in towns including Longport, Princeton, and Little Silver have gained momentum to create plastic bag bans or fees. Longport is currently the only NJ town with a plastic bag ban in place. Supporting these campaigns is a great way to get involved.
What kind of changes have you made? What works best for you? Share your ideas in the comment area below – the more the better!