It’s now in vogue to ditch plastic straws, with Starbucks and a handful of other retailers phasing out the hollow plastic columns in an effort to shrink ocean pollution — and for good reason. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans throw out 33.3 million tons of plastic. Less than 10 percent of that ends up being recycled.
All of this trash has environmental ramifications. Plastic bottles, for example, take close to 450 years to fully decompose, which harms ground waters and soil.
But for all the hoopla surrounding them, plastic straws are a very tiny fraction of the problem. (According to Bloomberg, the real culprit polluting our oceans is discarded fishing nets and other fishing gear.) Even still, anti-straw activism is certainly a step in the right direction. And here are a few other pain-free ways to ply plastic from your life, both at the grocery store and at home.
JUST SAY NO TO SINGLE-USE BAGS
Getting rid of plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores has been a hot topic among state legislatures for the past few years, ever since California started charging customers for them in 2014. Since then, there’s been a decrease in plastic bag consumption across the state and as a result, a number of other cities have followed suit, with Washington, D.C., touting a 60 percent reduction in bag usage (though that number is contested).
For eco-conscious consumers, canvas tote bags are the holy grail of recycling accessories. Since they’re reusable, they’re obviously superior to single-use plastic bags, but do keep in mind that amassing a bunch of totes isn’t necessarily the best option for the environment, either. (Cotton takes more resources to produce and distribute than does conventional plastic bags.)
Your best bet? Tote bags made from recycled plastic, not cotton.
BYOCC (BRING YOUR OWN COFFEE CUP)
It’s good that big companies like Starbucks and McDonald’s are working toward eliminating plastic straws from their stores, but relying on companies to get rid of to-go cups has been more of an uphill battle.
An estimated 60 billion paper coffee cups end up in landfills every year because they’re not easily recyclable — and it takes over 20 years for a single cup to decompose.
An easy solution? simply bring your own thermos with you to your local coffee shop. (Bonus tip: Starbucks gives you a discount for doing so as well).
STOP IT WITH THE BOTTLED WATER ALREADY
Here are two sobering statistics that should scare you:
- Globally, humans buy almost 1 million plastic water bottles per minute.
- Ninety-one percent of all that plastic is not recycled — including those very bottles.
As anyone who’s had to pound the pavement during a sweltering summer knows, it’s all too easy to snag a bottle of water while on the go, and then just as quickly toss it away. What’s more, companies are profiting hand over fist by bottling and selling water. Even entertainers have caught on to the money-making potential of bottled water: Justin Timberlake is an investor in Bai Brands, which among other beverages sells antioxidant water, and 50 Cent made millions from his stake in Vitamin Water.
To correct for that, conscientious consumers have been snapping up reusable water bottles, and the market for them is expected to reach over $10 billion in less than six years.
While not enough studies have been conducted to determine the ecological impact of stocking reusable water bottles, anecdotally at least, there are benefits — both for the environment and your wallet.
A simple, one-time $20 purchase of a reusable water bottles means less plastic ends up in landfills or clogging up the ocean. It also means you can save some dough. If you’re like the average American, you buy about $5 worth of bottled water a week. Make the switch, and not only will you have paid off the price of your own bottle within a month, you’ll also save about $200 a year.
BUY IN BULK — AND USE YOUR OWN CONTAINER TO DO SO
Buying individually packaged foods is incredibly wasteful, but buying things in bulk — be it from a grocer that offers bulk buys or your local Costco — is incredibly helpful in reducing plastic waste.
It’s also advisable to bring your own containers to stores, as many grocers stock plastic bags for you to put your produce, nuts and other goods in, which obviously defeats the purpose.
One word of caution: According to a study by the University of Arizona, buying in bulk oftentimes results in enormous food waste, especially when it comes to perishable foods that could rot or go stale before you’ve had the chance to eat all of them. Instead, stick to bulk-buying items that can either be frozen or won’t go bad.
BE WARY OF MICROPLASTICS
Plastic bottles, cups and straws are straightforward examples that help illustrate the problem of the plastic ravaging our oceans. But another environmental menace are the microplastics — or tiny plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size — that lurk in common items like polyester clothing and personal care products like toothpaste and face scrubs.
These small pieces of plastic are so microscopic that they get flushed into sewage systems every time you wash clothes made with synthetic fibers or rinse off an exfoliating face wash. Eventually, the harmful particles reach the oceans, where they account for anywhere between 15 and 30 percent of marine plastic pollution.
In the U.S., the Microbead-Free Waters Act, signed in 2015, will eliminate the itsy-bitsy plastic pellets from all cosmetics and toothpastes by next year. A similar law was recently passed in the UK. These government actions help, of course, but it’s also worth your while to check out which companies are still manufacturing products with microbeads (see the list here), and which aren’t (that list is here).