Single-use plastic is everywhere — and it's not usually because of our choices, but because of how convenient it is for the companies we shop from.
Most plastics take hundreds of years to decompose and can break down into microplastics that end up in animals and our bodies. Plastic is cheaper and easily available, but in the long run, it will negatively affect not only our health, but our planet's health. Recycling is a wonderful start, but reducing our plastic consumption is what will hopefully help break our current throw-away culture.
For Plastic Free July and beyond, we're focusing on reducing our waste through the idea of “Bringing Your Own.” To some, this idea may seem like a hassle, but over time, it'll become a regular habit. Since we're all living different lives with varying factors, it's all about making an effort in the fight for a more eco-conscious world. You don't have to fit a year's worth of trash in a jar, but researching sustainable ideas and shifting your mindset, no matter how small, will go a long way.
Image via Kelly Jazvac, Plastigomerate
1. BYO Bottles, Cups & Straws
Disposable cups, water bottles, and straws have become embedded in our daily lives due to their convenience. We use them for a short amount of time and then throw them away, which has been adding to our Earth's pollution at an alarming rate. Around 120 billion disposable cups are used each year just in the United States. That has an annual impact of 2.2 billion pounds of trash, 35 billion gallons of water waste, 4 billion pounds of CO2, and the destruction of over 11 million trees. In addition, an estimated 500 billion straws are used daily in the US, which ends up lining our coastlines and harming the wildlife.
The good news is that reducing bottle, cup, and straw waste is as easy as bringing a reusable alternative wherever you go and declining plastic at restaurants. Swapping to one reusable cup or mug in a day prevents 23 pounds of greenhouse emissions, 281 gallons of water usage, 16 pounds of solid waste, and 1 tree from being chopped down. Some places even offer discounts for bringing your own cup. So in a year, you could save about $91 if they offer a 25 cent discount.
There are also so many reusable water bottle and cup brands that offer stainless steel, double-walled, and vacuum-insulated technology to keep your beverage cold or hot all day (some examples are Hydroflask, Thermoflask, Swell, Yeti, Takeya, and Stojo).
Image via Francesca Pasquali
For reusable straws, there are 4 main kinds:
1. Stainless Steel: They resist oxidation and corrosion, but make sure they are medical grade or food safe.
2. Glass: They're resistant to erosion from acidity. Opt for one made from chip/shatter/heat-resistant materials.
3. Titanium: They're poreless and have no metallic taste, making it perfect for people who drink a lot of beverages.
4. Bamboo: These are usually made from sustainable materials. However, they need to be cleaned and dried properly to prevent mold and bacteria growth.
Image via Plastic Free Waters
2. BYO Utensils & Take-Out Containers
Whether you are getting food to-go or have some leftovers from a sit down meal, you’ll likely be carrying that food in a container that contains plastic, styrofoam, or other non-sustainable materials. In one year, an estimated 40 billion individual plastic utensils and 81 million tons of container and packaging waste was generated in the U.S. Even disposable chopsticks use up tens of millions of trees and are often not recycled. These items are easily contaminated and end up in landfills and our waterways.
Recently, compostable or biodegradable alternatives have become popular, but they still maintain a single-use culture and can’t be composted at home with organic materials because they may contain plastic and other chemicals. Most compostable products can only be processed in an industrial-scale facility, which there are currently very few of.
By storing leftovers in reusable containers or asking the restaurant if you can use your own container for takeout orders, you're making an impact. You can also keep extra containers in your car, so you'll always have one on hand. Glass or ceramic containers, stainless steel tins, or Tupperware would be the best options, but you can also reuse plastic containers you already own.
The same idea goes for utensils. You can find many sets made from stainless steel or bamboo that come with cases, making them easy to store in a backpack or purse when you're on the go. You can also use your own utensils from home and wrap them in a cloth napkin or a case you already have. If you order delivery food, request for no plastic utensils and use your own.
Image via Dianna Cohen Falda, 2005
3. BYO Bags
The plastic bag - you’ve seen it, you’ve used it, and as Katy Perry said, we’ve probably felt like one, "drifting through the wind, wanting to start again." Plastic bags were invented to replace paper bags in order to save trees and were meant to be reused, but over time, they became disposable. As they became a common staple at stores and restaurants, they also started polluting sidewalks, waterways, and habitats.
The average use of a plastic bag is about 12 minutes, and it's estimated that Americans throw away around 100 billion plastic bags a year. Plastic bags need to be recycled to have a lower environmental impact, but they usually turn into litter instead. If you do use plastic bags, make sure they're recycled with other film plastics and don’t put them in a curbside bin because they'll get tangled in the machines at recycling plants.
Nowadays, many cities are banning plastic bags, which is a positive step in the right direction. If you already have a collection of plastic bags at home, you can try your best to reuse them as many times as possible before recycling them. Otherwise, you can also get a reusable tote bag. Many tote bags are created with chemicals, water waste, or greenhouse gas emissions, but by doing some research, you'll be sure to find some eco-conscious bags (such as bags made from repurposed or recycled materials). You may also have some free tote bags that you can use when you're at the farmer's market or traveling!
BYO might seem like a small swap, but over time it'll definitely add up to saving lots of waste. And as more of us make the switch to bringing our own reusable alternatives, we can hopefully slow down plastic consumption and throw-away culture.