What is Single-Use Plastic?

More than just a buzzword, single-use plastic is a huge problem when it comes to environmental sustainability. Single-use plastic refers to any plastic item that is used only once and thrown away, often not recycled. Clearly, this is an issue and single-use plastic should be avoided if at all possible.

Roughly 300 million tons of plastic gets produced each year with only 10 to 13% of it being recycled properly. Plus, the production of plastic, in general, uses up a lot of valuable resources, so even if we were good at recycling (which we’re not), it’s still better to reuse plastic more effectively or not use it at all.

The good news is that there are simple ways to avoid single-use plastic. But first, what common items are considered single-use plastic and how can we do better to consume less?

Straws and Plastic Cutlery

The big one these days are plastic straws. From iced lattes to sodas in the drive-thru, plastic straws are being used once and thrown away. You’ve probably seen the viral video of the poor sea turtle with a straw stuck up his nose, in pain as the vets try to get it out. These straws are hurting our wildlife, but luckily companies are doing something about it. You’ll start to see more paper straws or strawless options available everywhere plastic straws used to be available.

Similarly, when you get your lunch to-go, you’re usually offered plastic forks and knives which you’ll only use once and toss by the time you’re back to work. Eliminating straws and plastic cutlery from your daily routine is a great start to ending single-use plastic consumption.

Ziploc Bags

Especially if you have kids, Ziploc bags fill lunch boxes and the drawers of your fridge. We don’t think to reuse them because when food gets involved, it feels like too much work to rinse and use it again. And the truth is washing and reusing these tiny plastic bags is probably not the best solution.

In the case of Ziploc bags, it’s a matter of convenience and sometimes we’re really uninterested in things that will make life even a tiny bit harder. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are definitely easy ways to pack a lunch without single-use plastic.

Cling Wrap

Like Ziploc bags, we probably use a lot of cling wrap to save leftovers after dinner or to wrap up that random chunk of ginger that’s still unused. Then, when we’re ready to eat, that cling wrap gets thrown away, only ever to be used once.

With so many other alternatives, there’s almost no reason to even keep cling wrap around. It prevents us from being creative with the way we store food and we waste a lot of plastic in the process.

Grocery Bags

In countries like Australia, free plastic grocery bags are unavailable. You have to pay for a plastic bag if you forgot your reusable ones, therefore, forcing shoppers to remember. You can imagine how much single-use plastic this saves.

Sure, in the States, some grocery stores will offer incentives for bringing your own bags, but when the option for plastic bags isn’t there at all, you’re more likely to prioritize bringing your own.

Same goes with the single-use plastic bags offered for separating produce items at the grocery store. Just because they’re there, doesn’t mean you need to use them. Bring your own mesh bags for your produce or just grab your fruits and veggies without a bag at all.

Disposable Water Bottles

Single-use water bottles are another huge issue. Whether it’s your daily water fix or your soda habit, it’s never worth it to use a plastic bottle only once.

Humans buy around 1 million plastic bottles every second and in the U.S. only 23% of those are recycled. That’s pretty unbelievable and there’s really no reason for it. With so many incredible options for reusable bottles, there’s no excuse for throwing away a plastic bottle after drinking from it once. Plus, it’s really expensive to do that. Save yourself some money and do some reusing.

Plastic Packaging

The next time you’re unloading your bags (hopefully, your reusable ones) after a trip to the grocery store, step back to notice how many items are wrapped in plastic. From stalks of broccoli to bags of rice, there’s often an unnecessary amount of plastic being thrown away simply because that’s what our food comes packaged in.

You can even think of this when you’re buying lunch. Do you really need the to-go lid on your Chipotle bowl? If you have the time, avoid the to-go containers and save on single-use plastic that way, too.

What are Some Ideas to Break Your Single-Use Plastic Habit?

So, you get it. There are probably quite a few instances where you’re guilty of using single-use plastic. But what are ways to avoid using single-use plastic? Here are a few ideas.

Bring a stainless steel reusable straw with you or forgo using a straw at all.

Opt to not use a straw, ask for a paper straw, or bring your own. Stainless steel straws come in all sizes and work great at ridding yourself of plastic straws. 

Use plastic or glass reusable food containers instead of Ziploc bags.

Tupperware- or Pyrex-type containers (or even delivery Thai food containers) can be washed a reused again and again.

Remember to bring your reusable grocery bags to do your food shopping.

Keep reusable bags in your car or by the front door so that you always remember them and grab some reusable mesh bags for your produce.

Buy in bulk to consume less plastic packaging.

Bring glass jars to grocery stores that have a bulk aisle and stock up on essentials like rice, flour, and seeds. This will save you tons of money, too!

Use beeswax or some kind of reusable food covering instead of cling wrap.

With lots of cling wrap alternatives, there’s really no need to cover all your food in plastic that’s only going to be used once. Plus, you may even consider whether or not the food needs to be wrapped up at all.

Buy a reusable water bottle and purchase an at-home water filtration system to prevent buying single-use plastic bottled water.

In some places, tap water doesn't taste the greatest, but with so many filtration devices available, you can filter your water at home and use a reusable water bottle to save a ton on single-use plastic bottles. Or use a bottle with a built in filter for creating tasty water on-the-go. It’s an investment in your health and your wallet.

Finally, one of our biggest tips is to play games with yourself.

For every time you forget the reusable grocery bags, that’s $5 in the “help the environment jar”. Used a plastic straw? That’s another $5. Parched at the airport and forgot your KOR water bottle? Buying that Dasani bottle is another $5.

The point is to make it an aversion to use single-use plastic and since money is such a powerful motivator, you’re likely to stop making those mistakes. But if you do mess up, the money goes into the “help the environment jar” and at the end of the year, you can make a donation to a charity supporting environmental causes with all the money inside. So, it’s a win-win.

Still, no need to punish yourself when plastic is used. It’s, unfortunately, a matter of how the world has been set up. You can’t always escape single-use plastic but we can do our best to reduce our consumption and reuse what we have when possible.

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