How to Live (Nearly) Plastic Free—One Woman’s Journey Shows How
It's hard to imagine a life without plastic, but these steps will help you start living (almost) plastic free
As a child of the ’80s and ’90s, I grew up believing that climate change was a problem we could recycle our way out of. By putting our glass, cardboard, metals and plastics in the right recycling bins, we would save the whales, clean the oceans and keep all the ducks from getting tangled up in six-pack rings. Fast-forward to today (or heck, even 15 years ago), and it’s glaringly obvious just how untrue that idea of sustainable living is, especially when it comes to plastic.
The “Three Rs”—reduce, reuse, recycle—have long been the cornerstone of waste-reduction education. But while we were meticulously rinsing every yogurt container and agonizing over whether the bottle and cap were the same recycling number before chucking them into the blue bin, the consumer plastics industry was growing like crazy. Though some companies are getting rid of plastic, their efforts are the exception to the rule. Between 1970 and 1990, annual plastic production increased nearly six-fold, and plastic waste more than quadrupled. And from 1990 to 2005, we produced about the same amount of plastic waste as the prior 30 years combined. On a global level, experts estimate that only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, while a whopping 79% accumulates in landfills or the natural environment (that’s a fancy way of saying litter). The remaining 12% is incinerated. Quite the reality check, eh?
Is it realistic to live without plastic?
Between numbers like these and the general sense of climate anxiety, it’s no wonder I can’t scroll through my phone without coming across an ad for a bamboo toothbrush, a story about the best new reusable coffee cups or a headline about a social media climate activist who replaced all her plastic housewares with eco-friendly alternatives.
But let’s be real: For most of us non-influencer folks, living a plastic-free life is a pipe (or shall we say two-liter bottle?) dream. Do you take prescription meds? Plastic jars. Wear contacts? Plastic. Need to order your kid’s soccer uniform from a specific vendor? Plastic packaging.
There’s another major hurdle: Life without plastic isn’t cheap. Of course, there’s good reason for that—a big part of why we’re in this mess is because society has prioritized short-term savings (in terms of both time and money) over long-term sustainability. Being able to invest in plastic-free products—including the time to research eco-friendly brands and having access to said products—is a luxury. So what’s a person to do?
Deciding to become “plastic conscious”
Consider this: Much of the plastic that ends up in landfills and as litter is single-use plastic. This includes things like straws, shopping bags, to-go cutlery, candy wrappers, soda bottles, and food packaging. You might think you can recycle anything, but while some of these items are technically recyclable, they can’t be processed by most operations, so into the trash they go! To make matters worse, 98% of single-use plastics are made almost exclusively from fossil-fuel-based material.
Given this knowledge, I’ve made a personal decision. Rather than living completely without plastic, I’m setting the goal post to something that feels achievable: channeling the circular economy concept, which is defined by the EPA as an economy that “reduces material use, redesigns materials to be less resource intensive and recaptures ‘waste’ as a resource to manufacture new materials and products.” For me, that means doing whatever I can to lower my plastic consumption—especially single-use plastics—and keep it out of landfills. Living “plastic conscious,” if you will.
How can I live free from plastic—especially single-use plastic?
Living life without plastic is all about making small choices that, over time, change your mindset and habits. These are my philosophies:
The most sustainable items are those already in your home, even if they’re made of plastic. There’s no reason to throw out all your Tupperware overnight; however, when you are ready to move on from a plastic item, make it a priority to find it a new purpose by upcycling. Can the top of that detergent bottle function as the funnel you’ve been meaning to buy? The plastic clamshell from your lunch salad? Might be perfect for starting seeds for your garden. Is there a neighbor or local organization that might be able to use what you’re getting rid of? (This student is turning chip bags into sleeping bags!)
If the item has truly run its course, do the work to get rid of it responsibly. Get familiar with the recycling capabilities in your town. For example, most city recycling programs can’t take plastic film (thin plastic, like grocery bags, the stuff around your toilet paper or bubble wrap), but most communities have drop-off sites that will collect them for special processing. I’ve found it most helpful to search for local resources. For example, you could search, “How to recycle [ITEM] in [YOUR ZIP CODE].”
Be “plastic conscious” while you shop, especially at places rife with single-use plastic, like the grocery store. Use reusable produce bags, opt for soda (or sparkling water) in cans instead of bottles and bring your own jars to fill in the bulk aisle. Retail is another culprit of plastic waste (not to mention the harm that comes from fast fashion). Buy from sustainable fashion brands instead to be more green.
When I inevitably need something, I look for second-hand and local sources first, since buying used usually means no plastic packaging. Some of my favorite resources for buying used are my local Buy Nothing Group, Craigslist, resale shops, Facebook Marketplace and eBay. (When shopping online from private sellers, I always message them to ask if they’ll ship using reused materials; no one’s ever said no.)
If I have to buy something brand new, I look to invest in items that impact the environment as minimally as possible. This includes paying attention to packaging and materials, which applies to everything from eggs in the grocery store (skip the plastic cartons in favor of cardboard) to buying a new couch (it’s okay to ask how an item is delivered to your home).
The benefits of living (almost) plastic free
Reducing plastic consumption is a balance of what’s affordable and what’s accessible. Here are some of the ways I’ve benefited from a more plastic-conscience lifestyle:
- I’m saving money: This philosophy helps me reduce my carbon footprint and save money—and not just in the obvious ways. As someone who enjoys retail therapy, I’ve found that living “plastic conscious” is a great way to prevent mindless online shopping. Nowadays, I mentally weigh the likelihood of returning an order before I hit the purchase button. Do I have something else I could repurpose to fill this need? Is there a place I can get it locally so I don’t have to deal with all the plastic it’ll arrive in? Is it better to buy this now, or wait until I can afford a more sustainably sourced and shipped version (which will likely last longer too)?
- I own nicer, more interesting things: Another upside of avoiding new plastic is that I’ve slowly but surely developed a collection of things I want and love, and that are made to last. Anytime I need to replace or upgrade a bigger-ticket item (like a desk chair, or a vacuum), I’m motivated to look for a second-hand version of a nicer, longer-lasting item, which I can often find for the same price as a new but less durable (and less sustainable) model.
- I can still benefit from the convenience of plastic: There are certain situations where plastic is the most functional, practical choice. For example: I recently reorganized my closet and wanted clear bins for my off-season clothing. Over the course of a few visits to my favorite neighborhood thrift store, The Big Reuse, I found a set of Rubbermaid storage containers that fit the bill.
You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to try
As writer and waste reduction activist Anne-Marie Bonneau says, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Life without plastic doesn’t happen overnight. Commit yourself to making a few changes in your daily plastic consumption and see where it takes you.
For more resources on sustainable living, learn how to save water, how to be a sustainable traveler and how to reduce your energy consumption.
- EPA: “Plastics: Material-Specific Data”
- National Geographic: “A Whopping 91 Percent of Plastic Isn’t Recycled”
- Minderoo Foundation: “Plastic Waste Makers Index: Executive Summary”
- EPA: “What Is a Circular Economy?”