How to reduce plastic waste at home

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April 13, 2020
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How to reduce plastic waste at home

Hardly any home in the United States isn’t saturated with plastic. From toothbrushes and TV screens to cellphone cases and shampoo bottles, plastic is everywhere. But it doesn’t have to be that way—we’ve mined the numbers on plastic pollution and found 35 easy swaps for plastic items commonly used in homes across the United States.

The world’s very first piece of totally synthetic plastic arrived in 1907 courtesy of an American chemist named Leo Baekeland, who wanted to create an artificial stand-in for shellac to insulate electric lines becoming ubiquitous in the United States. He called his 100% synthetic creation, Bakelite, “the material of a thousand uses.” Plastic production ramped up in the 1950s with commercial polyethylene, polyolefins, and polypropylene. The first plastic bags were also introduced to the public in the 1950s for dry cleaning and to hold garbage, and Mobil Chemical rolled out single-use grocery bags in 1976.

Today, every single piece of plastic ever made is still in existence and is likely to outlive all of us. It can take up to an estimated 1,000 years for some kinds of plastic—including those cursed plastic bags—to decompose. Even then, they’ll never biodegrade. While all things will eventually break down, there’s a significant distinction between organic matter—which breaks down into soil that provides nutrients to plants—and plastic bottles—which degrade into minuscule particles over hundreds of years, absorb toxins along the way, and eventually poison or choke animals who inadvertently consume it.

Exacerbating the issue is the fact that much of the plastic we use at home is disposable, meaning it’s used just once or a few times before being tossed. Take a plastic fork’s life cycle, for instance, where crude oil is extracted, brought to a refinery to be turned into pellets, molded into shape, packaged, shipped, stocked, and sold—all to be used for a quick meal before meeting the garbage pail and being hauled to a landfill to slowly break apart.

To limit the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills, soil, and waterways, we have to rethink our role as consumers. Changing our shopping habits means less demand for plastic in general. Keep reading to discover 35 easy ways anyone can reduce plastic waste at home.

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Ditch plastic baggies

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates it takes around 12 million barrels of oil to produce the more than 380 billion plastic bags and wraps Americans use annually. A minuscule percentage of these get sent off for recycling. There are plenty of alternatives to plastic sandwich and freezer bags, including silicone pouches: They don’t release toxins when they break down, are dishwasher- and microwave-safe, and can be reused for years.

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Buy food in bulk

Food containers and packaging in 2017 comprised about 80.1 million tons of trash, or 29.9% of total municipal solid waste generation, according to the EPA. Plastic containers for food, from bags of rice and quinoa to nuts and dried fruit, easily get blown around before they reach a landfill and commonly end up in waterways. Buying in bulk with containers you bring from home is a great way to stop this kind of plastic waste in its tracks.

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Load up on Mason jars

Mason jars are one of the kitchen items with the most uses. They can be used for canning, drinking, storing condiments and leftovers, or buying in bulk. Just have the grocer weigh your jars before you fill them so you can subtract the difference. Thrift shops, eBay, Craigslist, and garage sales are all great places to find used jars in perfect condition. New lids, which need to be purchased periodically, come wrapped in cardboard—not plastic.

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Let your Tupperware go

Plastic containers leach chemicals into the foods they store. These containers also lose their durability over time—which means they're all eventually headed for landfills or recycling centers, the latter of which use massive amounts of resources to melt plastic down and turn into more plastic. As the need arises to replenish your existing containers, there are plenty of nonplastic options—from stainless steel to glass—that cost more up-front but will never need to be replaced and won't leach contaminants into the environment.

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Switch to stainless steel straws

Single-use plastic straws—which Americans go through at a rate of 500 million daily, by some estimates—create choking hazards for wildlife while polluting waterways and beaches. Get in the habit of asking for no straw when you order a drink—and invest in a set of stainless steel straws that will last you a lifetime.

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Say goodbye to plastic drink containers

Store-bought fruit juice can come as a concentrate mixed with water or fresh-squeezed, but the lion’s share of it is sold to the public in plastic containers. Keep those jugs from cluttering your recycling bin or piling up at landfills by buying the frozen concentrate in cardboard sleeves you can mix with water at home—or make your own juice with a stainless steel juicer.

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Make your own soda

Americans spend more on soft drinks than any other grocery item, according to a 2016 report by the USDA. By its own estimates, Coca-Cola alone produces approximately 117 billion plastic bottles annually. Combat the waste (and save a bundle) by making your own—SodaStream in 2018 made a totally plastic-free version of its product called the Crystal Titan.

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Invest in a reusable K-cup

Keurigs may have reduced coffee waste, but they also got a terrible rap for all the single-use, plastic K-cups they required—the cups already in landfills could wrap around Earth 10 times. This produced a need that many companies have answered: reusable coffee pods. Stainless steel K-cups are safe to use, won't leach chemicals into the hot water, and won't ever have to be replaced.

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Make your own condiments

Most condiments at the grocery store come in plastic containers. But making your own mayonnaise, mustard, salsa, hummus, and salad dressing—among dozens of others—couldn’t be easier. Most of the ingredients for these recipes can be made, bought from local farms (or grown in your own backyard), or purchased in bulk and stored in Mason jars.

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Rethink your kitchen sponge

Kitchen sponges are usually made of two artificial layers: Polyurethane (or other foamed plastic) and polyethylene mesh. Both materials are manufactured to mimic natural products that are just as easy to source, last longer, and can be composted when worn out. Look for 100% cellulose sponges (made from wood fibers) or those made with materials like loofah.

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Opt for sustainable scrub brushes

Most of the scrub brushes on the market are made out of nonrecyclable plastic and nylon bristles. After a handful of uses, these scrubbers get tossed in the garbage, only to wind up in a landfill for hundreds of years while slowly flaking apart into microplastics that can be ingested by birds, fish, and other animals. You’ll find plenty of sustainable scrub brushes on the market, from beechwood dish brushes to hemp scrub pads.

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Redefine food ‘waste’

Up to 40% of our trash is food waste, meaning more plastic trash bags to be hauled to a landfill. Not to mention food scraps can be used to make your own dirt for gardens or planters; so buying your own is yet another wasteful layer of plastic wrap being brought home. Stem both of these wastes by investing in a sturdy, steel compost bin that’s pretty enough to live on your kitchen counter. Scraps can be tossed in a compost bin out back or frozen in containers and delivered weekly to your local community garden.

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Protect your food with beeswax

Dow Chemical released Saran Wrap in 1949 as an easy way to protect leftover food; Americans have been using the product in excess ever since. As more is known about the effects of plastic leaching into food and the wastefulness of single-use items, alternatives have popped up—including eco-friendly, reusable food protectors made of beeswax that come in a variety of sizes and styles that last up to a year with proper care.

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Go zero-waste with your dish soap

Standard-sized dish soap comes in plastic containers that live on kitchen counters a few weeks before cluttering up recycling bins and, commonly, landfills. Disrupt the waste chain with a dishwash block or sign up for a dish soap subscription whereby you mail in the jug when you’re ready for a refill.

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Switch to a biodegradable phone case

The average person keeps his or her cell phone for 18–24 months. Meanwhile, the cases covering those phones are made of nonrenewable resources that will last for hundreds of years or more. Compostable phone cases can protect against dings and breaks and are made out of plant-based “flaxstic,” a combo of starch-based polymer and flax straw waste.

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Quit your disposable pen habit

The EPA estimates that 1.6 billion disposable pens are discarded each year. This scourge has led to renewed interest in old-school, refillable fountain pens and—if the former feels like too much work—refillable ballpoints.

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Transition to shampoo and conditioner bars

Up to half of all Americans don't recycle their personal care items, which leads to roughly 552 million plastic shampoo bottles (among other items) winding up in landfills each year—only to take from 70 to 450 years to decompose (depending on the environment and composition of the plastic). Shampoo and conditioner bars can help declutter shower space, pass easily through airport security, and are easy to find free of harmful chemicals and dyes.

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Make your own liquid hand soap

Similarly to dish soap, liquid hand soap is sold in small portions packaged in plastic. Break the cycle by investing in a beautiful glass jar with a pump or pour spout and making your own liquid hand soap out of old bar soap nubs or with fresh ingredients.

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Biodegradable toothbrush

It takes anywhere from 20 to 1,000 years for a plastic toothbrush to decompose. Like other plastics, a toothbrush doesn't actually biodegrade. Bamboo toothbrushes can compost organically in about six months, leaving nothing behind but soil.

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Abandon plastic toothpaste tubes once and for all

The durable packaging of our oral care items (e.g. toothpaste tubes, plastic dental floss containers, plastic toothbrushes themselves) will be littering landfills for lifetimes. Because many toothpaste tubes are made of aluminum, plastic, steel, and even nylon components, recycling them would require separating all these parts first. Alternative options abound; from natural toothpaste in an all-metal tube, bulk toothpaste in reusable glass jars, toothpaste tablets with zero-waste refills, and easy recipes to make your own toothpaste.

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Go natural with your dental floss

Dental floss is commonly made of Teflon or nylon and sold in a hard plastic case. But these days, it's easy to find natural flosses made of sustainable materials like bamboo charcoal fiber and wrapped in compostable packaging.

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Give your toilet brush a sustainable facelift

Plastic toilet brushes are another item in the catalog of plastic planned obsolescence. These large, cheap plastic items have been found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and do little to enhance the interior design of bathrooms. Wooden toilet brushes offer a more attractive, compostable alternative that you won't mind leaving out in the open.

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Make your own laundry soap

Like many items in this gallery, laundry soap comes in excessive plastic packaging. Luckily, laundry soap is easy (and incredibly cheap) to make yourself. If you’re short on time, check out laundry strips and zero-waste laundry paste.

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Switch to a plastic-free deodorant bar

The emissions from siloxane, an ingredient prevalent in many personal care products like shampoo and deodorant, cause as much air pollution as cars. That's in addition to a myriad of other toxins commonly found in deodorant, and the plastic packaging we toss as soon as the stick is used up. Natural stick deodorants sans plastic packaging have been gaining in popularity and are offered in an array of sizes, scents, and price points with none of the harmful chemicals or garbage to throw away.

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Invest in a lifetime stainless steel razor

The EPA estimates 2 billion disposable razors are thrown out in the U.S. each year. That's because on average, disposable razors only last about five weeks. Razors with disposable heads create less waste (and rechargeable razors less than that), but they still come wrapped in plastic packaging, the plastic heads still get thrown out, and rechargeables still require natural resources for their batteries, charging, and proper disposal. Instead of spending around $200 every year on something you throw away, safety razors offer a lifetime return on your investment at a fraction of the cost. And don’t forget the zero-waste shaving cream.


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Forego plastic in feminine hygiene products

Conventional sanitary pads are about 90% plastic, while most tampons come with excessive plastic packaging and applicators. Many companies today offer organic, plastic-free options, including Thinx, which makes underwear to replace disposable feminine hygiene products once and for all.


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Protect yourself from the sun without plastic

If it's not enough that the plastic packaging of most sunscreen never gets recycled and contributes to the waste in landfills and oceans, the majority of sunblock contains oxybenzone, a chemical that's toxic to reefs. Today, it's easy to find sunscreens derived from natural ingredients that are reef- and skin-safe, with packaging that's equally as harmless.


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Switch to a sustainable brush and comb

Hairbrushes are most commonly manufactured as unrecyclable plastic derived from virgin materials. Not so with bamboo brushes, made from sustainable wood that's 100% compostable. Wooden combs work in wet or dry conditions, won't damage the structure of your hair, and are small enough for travel or handbags.


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Get a lint roller that will last forever

Most lint brushes are plastic-based and need to be replaced regularly, costing hundreds over the course of a lifetime and adding high volumes of plastic to the waste stream. While a higher up-front investment, rubber lint brushes never need to be replaced and use natural rubber for bristles that are held together by copper to a wooden handle. There are also plastic-free lint rollers made from metal and wood that will last forever.


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Don’t make the planet suffer for your beauty

Many—but not all—makeups contain plastic microbeads, particularly blushes and foundations, so it can be difficult to suss out which cosmetics are environmentally destructive. If your makeup is not specifically designed to be eco-friendly or microbead-free, check the ingredients for things like polyethylene, nylon, polypropylene, or polymethyl methacrylate. Plenty of zero-waste makeup lines take things a step further with plastic-free packaging.


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Stop buying Q-tips

More than 20,000 liters of water are required to make 1 kilogram of cotton, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Plastic swabs can take about 20 years to decompose. Last Swab has solved both of these problems with a product that’s reusable, washable, and more durable than the swabs you’re used to.


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Think through what your clothing is made from

Next time you’re shopping for new clothes, be sure to check their materials. Nylon fabric will take 30–40 years to break down, and polyester 20–200 years. Wool, cotton, and other organic materials biodegrade (cotton in one to six months, wool in one to five years). Insisting on sustainable fabrics made of natural fibers is a great way to reduce your plastic consumption.


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Clean your home without plastic

Cleaners for your home are often comprised of toxins that are poisonous to animal and plant life, and are nonessentially packaged in plastic. With a glass spray bottle and some elbow grease, you can make your own home cleaning products with vinegar and other natural ingredients.


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Use wood for sweeping up

Traditional brooms can do everything plastic brooms can, with none of the waste. Rice straw brooms are lightweight, long-lasting, and sturdy enough for everyday sweeping—and will decompose naturally with no chemical residue. Plastic dustpans crack, chip, and create static electricity that can make dust stick, and they have to be replaced many times over the course of a lifetime. Swapping them out adds to the waste stream and your wallet. Not so with wooden dustpans, like this one by Harimi that's crafted of cardboard and bamboo and will look lovely hanging in your kitchen.


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Switch to biodegradable garbage bags

The majority of garbage bags today come from virgin plastic derived from natural resources, including oil or natural gas. This material prevents its contents from undergoing decomposition and contributes to the toxic plastic pollution plaguing the planet. Compostable garbage bags are as strong as their plastic counterparts but allow for decomposition. They're also plant-based, so manufacturing them doesn't create the same emissions as traditional garbage bags.

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