Colorful single-use plastic on a white backdrop
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Plastic plastic plastic

Simple Steps to Reduce Your Plastic Consumption

Tess Santorelli
November 21, 2023

In a world overflowing with plastic, from the grocery store aisles to our own kitchens, it can feel impossible to try to reduce our plastic use. It feels like plastic is everywhere, and in a way it is.

While the problem of plastic pollution is not something we can simply solve as individuals, the smallest changes in our daily habits can create ripples of impact. Educating yourself about the kinds of plastic and how to reduce their use is not only empowering, but can set you on a path of conscious consumption. It's vital to understand why reducing our reliance on this material is not just a personal choice, but a necessary step for environmental sustainability.

Understanding Plastics: Types and Environmental Impacts

It’s no secret that plastic, especially the single-use variety, is a mounting global crisis. The sheer scale of plastic waste — millions of tons dumped annually — overwhelms ecosystems and poses daunting challenges for disposal and recycling. This pollution disrupts ecosystems and food chains, with consequences that we are just beginning to understand.

One might assume there are only a few types of plastic out there. However, not all plastic is created equal. In fact, there are hundreds of types of plastic (also called polymers), but only a handful that we interact with on a regular basis.

Plastics come in various forms, each identified by a resin identification code numbered 1 through 7, which you'll typically find inside a triangular recycling symbol. Here's a brief overview:

1. PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate): This is one of the most commonly used plastics. Often used in items like soda bottles and food packaging, PET is widely accepted by recycling programs. While it's one of the most recycled plastics, its production still contributes to pollution and energy consumption.

  • Reduction Tip: Choose glass or stainless-steel water bottles and reusable containers for storing and carrying food, which can significantly cut down on the need for PET bottles and food packaging.

2. HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene): Found in milk jugs and detergent bottles, HDPE is also commonly recycled. It's praised for its strength and safety, but like PET, its manufacturing process still impacts the environment.

  • Reduction Tip: Opt for bulk buying when possible, using your own containers from home. This can be particularly effective for products like laundry detergent, where you can refill a single container multiple times. Laundry detergent also can come in metal tins that are 100% recyclable and often more concentrated, so you need less.

3. PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride): Used in plumbing pipes and children's toys, PVC is less commonly recycled and can release harmful chemicals during production and disposal.

  • Reduction Tip: Look for PVC-free materials in home goods, like shower curtains. Opt for silicone, wood, or metal alternatives which are safer and often have better recycling profiles.

4. LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene): This plastic makes up grocery bags and some food wraps. While it's less toxic than others, its recycling is limited due to lower market demand for the recycled product.

  • Reduction Tip: Bring reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, and choose products that don't come in plastic film wrap. Using beeswax wraps instead of cling film for food storage is another great way to reduce LDPE use.

5. PP (Polypropylene): Used in straws, ketchup bottles, and yogurt containers, PP's high melting point makes it suitable for containers holding hot liquids. It's gradually becoming more accepted in curbside recycling.

  • Reduction Tip: Reuse containers made of PP, such as those for yogurt or ketchup, for storing leftovers or homemade foods. If it’s accessible to you, you can try using a reusable straw instead of disposable ones.

6. PS (Polystyrene): Commonly known as Styrofoam, PS is found in coffee cups and packing materials. It's lightweight and insulating but is rarely recycled and can leach toxins into food and the environment.

  • Reduction Tip: Avoid disposable coffee cups and takeout containers made of polystyrene. Bringing your own mug or food container can be a good alternative. When packing, aim to use materials like paper, cardboard, or biodegradable packing peanuts.

7. Other: This category includes bioplastics, acrylic, and polycarbonate. While some of these, like certain bioplastics, are designed for compostability, others can be difficult to recycle and may contain harmful chemicals like BPA.

  • Reduction Tip: For items categorized under 7, always check the recycling codes and opt for bioplastics when available, as they’re often designed to be compostable. For acrylics and polycarbonates, consider durable goods that you won't have to replace often, which will reduce your consumption.
Person putting mug into tote

Navigating the Recycling Process

Understanding your local recycling system is critical. Many consumers are unaware that not all plastics placed in recycling bins actually get recycled.

Each municipality has specific guidelines based on the facilities available and market demands. For instance, while #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) plastics are commonly recycled, others may not be. Contacting your local waste management service or visiting their website can provide clarity on which plastics are accepted and ensure your efforts to recycle aren't in vain.

Many plastics collected for recycling never actually get reprocessed--due to contamination, lack of market demand, or the cost and complexity of the recycling process. Additionally, some plastics can only be recycled a finite number of times before they lose their integrity and are no longer usable, eventually ending up in landfills or as environmental pollutants. However efficient your local recycling system is, it’s important to remember recycling alone is not a solution to the plastic waste crisis, and our focus must also include reducing plastic use and improving product design for circularity.

Choosing the Right Plastic

While it would be nearly impossible to cut out plastic use completely, you can still be strategic about the plastic you use. For example, opting for products made with types 1 and 2 can ease the recycling process and reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators. Additionally, avoiding types 3, 6, and certain plastics labeled as 7 can decrease your environmental footprint due to their toxic nature and recycling difficulties.

As we strive to minimize our reliance on plastics, particularly those that are less environmentally friendly, understanding these differences is a stepping stone toward making more sustainable choices. By doing so, we not only contribute to a healthier ecosystem but also signal to manufacturers the growing demand for sustainable packaging, driving the market towards greener alternatives.

Practical Tips for Reducing Plastic Use

Bulk buying store
  • Shop Smart: Opt for products with minimal packaging or those packaged in recyclable materials. Farmers' markets and bulk-bin stores are excellent for avoiding excess plastic.
  • Reusable Over Disposable: Invest in reusable water bottles, coffee cups, shopping bags, and food storage containers. Plenty of brands offer stylish, durable options that can help reduce your reliance on single-use plastics.
  • Choose Alternatives: Whenever possible, select alternatives to plastic. Glass, stainless steel, bamboo, and biodegradable materials are becoming more accessible. For instance, bamboo toothbrushes are a simple switch from their plastic counterparts.
  • DIY Personal Care: Making your own personal care products can cut down on plastic waste. Recipes for toothpaste, deodorants, and shampoos are available online and often require minimal, non-plastic packaging.

Empowering Yourself and Your Community

While individual actions can feel small, their impact can still be powerful, especially when combined with collective effort. Consider joining community clean-up groups or advocating for local businesses to reduce plastic use can create waves of change. Understanding and discussing the intricacies of recycling and plastic reduction can foster a more informed community, better equipped to push for systemic changes.

Plastic pollution is a complex issue, but everyone has a role to play in mitigating it. By making informed choices and advocating for systemic change, we can work towards a plastic-light future. Remember, each small change contributes to a larger impact. Together we can work toward saving energy, reducing waste, and living a more sustainable life for the benefit of our wallets and our planet.

Editor’s note: If you make a purchase through our affiliate partner links, we may receive a commission. This does not impact the recommendations we make.

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