The single action you can take to reduce plastic waste in a major way without overhauling your life


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While you may find the ubiquity of blue bins on your street comforting, in reality, only nine percent of plastic in circulation is recycled (a number so shocking and under-reported that it was named “stat of the year” by Great Britain’s Royal Statistical Society this past December).

This knowledge, coupled with what plastic smog is doing to the oceans, may have you feeling like you want to minimize your contribution to this waste; however, as I discovered while giving my home a plastic-free makeover, doing so isn’t easy. Our society relies on plastic for everything, and therefore eradicating it from your life requires not just a few easy steps but rather a major lifestyle overhaul.

So as not to let the overwhelm of this paralyze you, I suggest starting with one plastic-free action and building from there. But what singular change can you make that will have the biggest positive impact on the environment?

“The one action people can take that will have the biggest impact is to urge their local supermarkets, businesses, and restaurants to stop relying on so much single-use plastic.”

“Protest, petition, etcetera—get corporations to change,” answers Perry Wheeler, senior communications specialist at Greenpeace USA. “I can say that the one action people can take that will have the biggest impact is to urge their local supermarkets, businesses, and restaurants to stop relying on so much single-use plastic.”

This response surprises me, as I’d been expecting something more to do with, say, shunning plastic water bottles. Wheeler explains: “So many of us have been doing our best to avoid plastic packaging for years, but it’s everywhere. It’s nearly impossible to live a plastic-free life, and corporations want the responsibility to be on all of us instead of them. We believe it’s time to put the pressure back on corporations to show some accountability for their packaging.”

“It’s nearly impossible to live a plastic-free life, and corporations want the responsibility to be on all of us instead of them. We believe it’s time to put the pressure back on corporations to show some accountability for their packaging.”

Jackie Nunez, program manager for the Plastic Pollution Coalition and founder of public education platform The Last Plastic Straw, puts it to me another way. “[Corporations] are essentially transferring their toxic waste to us [i.e. plastic] and making it our problem, and we can’t solve all this as consumers,” she says. “It’s the people manufacturing it… it has to go all the way up the production line.”

She tells me that while plastic is “cheap” for those who use it in their products and packaging, this is only because they’re passing its “true cost” onto consumers, who must then find ways to recycle it, dispose of it, and clean it up from the environment. Which isn’t even to mention the costs of medical care that results from negative health effects of plastic, adds Dianna Cohen, Plastic Pollution Coalition’s CEO. “The chemicals used for plastic bottles are known as endocrine disruptors, so they’re turning things on and off in our endocrine system,” she explains. “So those chemicals have been linked to lower sexual function, infertility, sterility, diabetes, obesity, breast cancer, brain cancer, and prostate cancer.” You can see how the cost for consumers adds up, making plastic anything but inexpensive, ultimately.

But what does it mean, specifically, to take action against these (read: almost all) companies? Wheeler offers me Greenpeace’s “Million Act of Blue Toolkit,” as a good place to start, and throws in this petition against the excessive plastic packaging ubiquitous as supermarkets today.

Nunez, meanwhile, shares that there’s a whole movement in the UK “where people are just discarding the packaging and leaving it at the grocery store,” she says. “It’s just showing we don’t want this shit.” Aggressive? Yes. Effective? TBD.

If you’re looking for additional ways to make changes here in the U.S., these are the two places to start.

Call Congress

Pushing for regulations is important, too, Nunez explains. If the government required that corporations deal with the plastic waste created by their products rather than passing the buck to consumers—as it does in Europe, for example, where Brita is required to take back its used plastic filters by law—they could become financially motivated to find alternatives. No longer, in other words, would plastic be seen by them as cheap. You can find your representative’s number here.

Create a to-go kit

Maybe you were looking for something a little more lifestyle-centric, but not quite so elaborate as a total plastic detox? Cohen says her number-one tip for reducing your plastic footprint is essentially to pack a kit that goes with you everywhere. “There are routine things that we do every day, and we can save money doing those things,” she says. “I make the commitment to drink tap water and filtered tap water.” To enable this, Cohen carries a reusable cup with her at all times. Along with it, she also daily packs stainless steel straws (two, so whoever she’s with can have one, too), bamboo utensils, a vintage handkerchief to use as a tissue or napkin replacement and, when appropriate, a stainless steel container for takeaway, leftover, or brought-from-home food.

Personally, I love zero-waste expert Lauren Singer’s Plastic Free Shop as a resource, but you can build your kit from Amazon, Target, etc. (The hard part, I’ve learned, is actually remembering to bring your items with you—even places like concerts, where the bars tend to serve out of plastic cups!)

So, maybe it’s not a bad idea to learn some tips for remembering things while you’re working on tips to reduce plastic waste. 

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