Celebrate Plastic Free July With These 23 Easy Ways to Cut Back on Single-Use Plastics
It’s just a plastic fork, just a takeout container, just one water bottle.
Indulging in the modern convenience of single-use plastics seems harmless, but the consequences to our health, wildlife, and oceans will be with us for a long time to come. Globally, we produce 300 million tons of plastic annually, about half of which is single-use items — and 8 million tons of that plastic reaches oceans every year. By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the sea.
One reason for plastic’s well-deserved bad reputation is that it never truly breaks down — rather, it breaks apart into increasingly tinier pieces through the forces of light, heat, and other environmental factors until it becomes microplastics. These microscopic pieces have reached virtually every corner of the Earth: the deepest oceans, highest mountains, the tissues of the fish and animals that we consume, and even our own blood and lungs.
Sure, recycling is one important solution to our plastic crisis, but only 9% of plastic actually gets recycled. Therefore, it’s crucial that we curb our production and consumption of plastic, and fast.
That’s where Plastic Free July comes in: a global challenge to reduce single-use plastics. The project was begun by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz in Australia in 2011, and is now a part of the nonprofit Plastic Free Foundation, formed in 2017. On the organization’s website, people can take the pledge to reduce their plastic waste at any level: for a day, a week, a month; to avoid single-use packaging exclusively, or go completely plastic free.
But how do you get started? Use this simple guide to consider areas of your life and home in which you can easily reduce plastic waste with a few swaps to reusables, or different methods that sidestep plastic altogether. Remember: Plastic Free July isn’t about being perfect. It’s very difficult to completely remove plastic from your life — especially given accessibility and economic barriers to some elements of sustainable living — but about reducing your consumption wherever you are able.
In the Kitchen
- Cook from scratch. Cooking at home cuts down on the heavy packaging of pre-made and processed foods. It’s often cheaper, too, and contains fewer preservatives. Even if cooking dinner every night isn’t realistic with your schedule, try making easy staples like hummus, tortillas, and granola at home.
- Food storage. Instead of reaching for a new plastic bag or container for storing leftovers or pantry items, use reusable glass tupperware (or really whatever you already have: old yogurt containers, glass jars from pasta sauce, etc.). Instead of single-use sandwich or snack bags, try reusables like Stasher Bags for food storage or lunch on the go, which can be used indefinitely and conveniently washed in the dishwasher. Try beeswax wrap or reusable bowl covers — like these stretchable silicone covers — in place of plastic wrap.
- Teabags. Most single-use tea bags are 25% plastic, and release nanoplastics when brewed. Try loose-leaf tea in a tea ball or infuser, or reusable linen tea bags.
- Grow what you can. Summer gardening season is upon us, and while growing your own food might seem intimidating, there are plenty of forgiving veggies that will grow in whatever space you can give them with minimal effort. Grow some of your favorite staple items — like tomatoes, herbs, squash, cucumbers, etc. — in containers on your front porch or fire escape if you don’t have garden space.
At the Grocery Store
- Buy in bulk. Plastic packaging and containers account for more than 23% of all waste in landfills, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Visit a local refillery — or any grocery store that has a bulk section, like Whole Foods — to stock up on dry goods and household products, using your own upcycled containers. Make sure to weigh them beforehand (a process called taring that some grocery stores accommodate for) to make sure the weight of the containers is deducted at the register.
- Reusable produce bags. All those plastic bags for produce really add up. Bring your own cotton or mesh ones for loose produce and herbs.
- Shop in person, if you are able. While convenient, grocery delivery uses disposable bags to transport groceries to your door — and you can’t opt for bulk products.
- Look for plastic-less products. When choosing which item to buy, opt for the one that uses less plastic: loose produce rather than bagged, things in cardboard boxes instead of plastic containers, etc.
- Freeze it yourself. If you’re able to skip frozen foods, buy fresh produce and freeze it yourself — especially when that produce is on sale and you anticipate needing it in the future.
On the Go
- Tote bags. 5 billion plastic bags are used every year worldwide, even though the average bag is used only for about 15 minutes. Making the switch to a reusable bag for the grocery store, drugstore, farmers market, or a shopping trip makes a big difference. Packable bags like a Baggu or ChicoBag easily fit into a purse or backpack to always have on hand. Of course, don’t go out and buy 50 new reusable bags (which would defeat the purpose), but use what you already have and replace them when necessary.
- Water bottles. If you’re just beginning your plastic-free journey, this is a great place to start. Plastic bottles are one of the largest and most common sources of plastic pollution, with 50 billion purchased by Americans every year. Try an insulating bottle like a Hydroflask, Klean Kanteen, or Takeya, or continue using whatever bottle is already in your cabinet.
- Straws. Because of their shape and makeup, plastic straws can’t be recycled — which is a huge problem, because millions are used every single day in the US. When eating out or placing a coffee order, remember to ask your server to skip the straw. Bring your own stainless steel or silicone straw for to-go drinks, keeping one in your purse or your car to make sure you always have it on hand.
- Silverware. By some estimates, 40 billion plastic utensils are thrown away every year in the United States alone. Bring a reusable bamboo or plastic set (or just regular silverware from the drawer at home) to work or school with your lunch, or when you anticipate getting a takeout meal.
- Takeout containers. When you go out to eat, throw a piece of tupperware in your bag to bring home any leftovers to avoid plastic or styrofoam takeout boxes.
- Dissolving cleaning tablets. How often do you replace your cleaning products? Probably more frequently than you realize. They might not be plastic water bottles, but they’re still made of heavy plastics, some of which can’t be recycled. Enter cleaning tablets: keep one of those old plastic pump bottles for each of your cleaning products — be it hand soap, toilet cleaner, dish soap, or all-purpose surface cleaner — fill it with water, and drop in a tablet that will dissolve and leave you with a full container of cleaner. Blueland makes a variety of plastic-free cleaning and body products that are typically cheaper than a whole bottle of product.
- Detergent sheets. Similarly to cleaning products, detergent comes in very plastic-heavy packaging and is mostly water. Dehydrated laundry detergent comes in sheets, and is usually packaged in cardboard boxes. Throw one in with your clothes and it’ll dilute in the water already used during the wash cycle.
- Make your own cleaning products. Save money and plastic by making your own products, like this DIY cleaner with just leftover lemons and white vinegar, or scrubbing dirty surfaces with baking soda and water. Check out these eight zero-waste and toxin-free cleaning hacks for a plastic-free cleanup.
- Reusable Swiffer pads. The reusable pads fit right over a flat-bottomed mop. If you’d rather use what you have, simply secure a rag over the bottom with rubber bands. Soak the pad or rag in diluted castile soap, floor cleaner, or a lemon-vinegar solution and use as normal.
- Shampoo and conditioner bars. It’s time to ditch those huge, thick plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles — solid hair care products are great for home and for travel alike. Using shampoo and conditioner bars doesn’t mean compromising on effectiveness either — Hi-Bar, Lush, and Ethique are some well-rated options for all hair types and needs.
- Refillable deodorant. Lots of deodorant brands — including Dove, Secret, Humankind, Old Spice, Saltair, and Native — now offer refillable deodorant. It’s as simple as it sounds: buy the container once — which for some products is cardboard or otherwise plastic-free — and just purchase the deodorant filler itself when you need a new one.
- Refillable floss. Instead of replacing the container every time you need new floss, just pick up a refill. EcoRoots is a great option, and the floss itself is compostable in your backyard.
- Toothpaste tablets. Think of all the toothpaste tubes you’ve gone through in your life. What if you could get the product without all the packaging? Simply bite down on a toothpaste tablet, and let it dissolve into a toothpaste that works the same as conventional products. Bite Toothpaste Bits are some of the most well-known and offer multiple flavors.
- Cloth diapers. 50 million disposable diapers are thrown away daily in the United States — that’s 18 billion a year. Even if it’s not feasible to use them while on the go, try reusable, washable cloth diapers when you’re at home to avoid the waste from both the product and its plastic packaging.