The year was 2003. I was a junior in college studying abroad in Granada, Spain. Being the coffee-loving American college student I was, I was thrilled to see a little coffee stand at the University of Granada where I was studying. I walked over and ordered a cafe au lait. I eagerly awaited my delicious cup of energy and was taken back by what was handed back to me.
A hot coffee in a plastic cup. "Huh?!," I thought. The guy next to me looked right at me and quipped, "how about a little plastic in your coffee this morning?"
A few of us had a conversation later that day about the strange plastic coffee cups and how we didn't want to drink plastic.
At first, I focused on reducing plastic for mostly health reasons. However, as I traveled more and learned how completely awful our global plastic problem has become, I now focus on it for the health of Mama Earth.
I immediately felt chills up my arms and down my spine when I saw this image last week (thanks for posting, @peaceful_barb). We hear the logic and facts that plastic ends up in landfills, and I've seen loads of images of plastics washing up on beaches. I thought I was doing my part, but this image reignited my commitment to reduce plastics more than ever:
This is such a beautiful reminder of what focus, intention, and a committed group of individuals can accomplish. It's also a gut-punch to us all about how much better we can do.
There are two main reasons to reduce the use of disposable plastics in your life:
1. Every plastic cup, bottle, or bag you've ever thrown away is in a landfill or in the ocean right now.
It's so easy to forget this, especially in developed areas where we throw away garbage and a nice truck picks it up for us every week to never look at it again. It has to go somewhere, and it doesn't just disappear. This is a huge global problem and every one of us can make a difference.
2. Compounds in disposable plastics leach into your food and water, end up in your body, and can act as endocrine disruptors.
Endocrine disruptors, aka hormone disruptors, can act as hormones in your body, specifically estrogens. Yep, plastic can act as estrogen in your body. These are called "xenoestrogens" and can cause a whole host of health issues. Weight gain, acne, fatigue, depression, and irregular menstrual cycles—not to mention fertility issues—can all be linked to xenoestrogens and other hormone disruptors.
But wait, is all plastic bad?
Not really. It's the disposable stuff that we need to get a handle on. Plastic is used to create things like artificial limbs and has helped researchers and scientists make huge advances in modern technology. However, disposable plastics like straws, cups, bags, and plates have no place in our healthy modern world.
Here are 10 Easy Ways to Use Less Plastic:
1. Just say no to plastic straws.
According to the US National Park Service, Americans use 500 million drinking straws every day. To understand just how many straws 500 million really is, this would fill over 125 school buses with straws every day. And that's just in the US alone! Ugh, we can do better.
Invest in a glass, stainless steel, or bamboo straws at home. They are inexpensive and pretty to look at. When dining out, decline the straw. Or, use recyclable paper straws if you need a disposable straw. The UK just banned the use of plastic straws, and I hope the US and other countries aren't far behind.
2. Swear off plastic water bottles.
What a racket. Not only do plastic water bottles cost too much and pollute our oceans, they leach hormone-disrupting chemicals into the water which end up in your body. See xenoestrogens above.
Invest in a glass or stainless steel water bottle, and use an in-home water filter like a Berkey or reverse osmosis system to filter your water.
3. If you need disposable cups or products, use recyclable paper instead of plastic.
When you're in need of disposable cups, plates (hi summer BBQs!), or anything else, opt for recyclable paper instead of plastic.
In general, always opt for glass, stainless steel, wood, bamboo, or paper over plastic.
4. Stop using plastic produce bags.
You really don't need one of those little plastic bags for every fruit or vegetable you buy. If you bring your own shopping bags, just place them inside your bag until you get to the checkout. Wash them well when you get home and wash your shopping bags every now and again. You can easily stop using dozens of plastic bags per month by doing this.
5. Bring your own grocery bags when you shop.
An oldie but goodie. Don't forget to bring your own shopping bags to the grocery store, or any store for that matter (I'm looking at you, Target!).
Plastic shopping bags are not recyclable. If you've been putting them in your recycle bin, they've still been ending up in the trash. Bring your own bags, fit your goods in your purse after checkout, or just carry your items after purchase. For the times that you forget your bags (we all do sometimes) ask for paper instead of plastic.
6. Store your food in mason jars or other glass containers.
Beyond getting plastics out of your food (health-win!), you'll be helping reduce the plastics in our oceans and landfills, too.
7. Find alternatives to plastic sandwich bags.
Here are a few of my favorites:
- Use beeswax wraps instead of sandwich bags. They are reusable, sustainable, and don't leach harmful chemicals into your food.
- Get a Stasher silicone bag or other reusable bag instead of using plastic sandwich bags. A Stasher looks just like a plastic sandwich bag but is made of food-grade silicone, which is safe for your body and dishwasher-safe, too.
- Use paper sandwich bags instead of plastic.
You can find all of these at your local natural foods store, Whole Foods, Amazon, or Thrive Market online.
8. Look for products that use cardboard packaging or other sustainable materials instead of plastic.
When using a disposable product, look for cardboard or other recyclable packaging. I even just found my favorite healthy laundry detergent in cardboard packaging. We really do "vote with our dollars" when it comes to what companies choose to manufacture and sell. The more you support (i.e. buy) products that don't use plastics, the more companies will continue to go in that direction.
9. Support restaurants and businesses that are committed to sustainable packaging.
Just like buying fewer plastics and more non-plastics helps, supporting restaurants that use sustainable take-out packaging will help everyone move in the right direction.
10. Reuse the plastics that you already have as much as possible.
For the times that you do use a plastic bag, try to reuse it as much as possible. Before you throw away a piece of plastic, think, "how can I reuse this?" or, "how can I recycle this?"
And of course, recycle as much as possible. If buying plastic is a must, then choose something that is recyclable. Plastics are categorized into seven different categories, and it depends on your location and recycling service as to which ones can be recycled.
Plastic isn't going to quickly disappear from the planet and it's not entirely un-useful. I believe the most important thing we can do as individuals is stop using superfluous disposable plastics like straws, food containers, sandwich bags and other plastic bags.
- National Park Service Be Straw Free Campaign
- Learn about the seven types of plastics here
I'm even more committed than ever to using less plastic, how about you? Let me know in the comments below!