15 Super-Smart Ways to Reduce Plastic Pollution
Did you know that a lot of what goes into your recycling bin doesn't actually get recycled? Even switching to microplastic and bioplastic still puts a lot of plastic back into the environment. The good news is that decreasing your dependence on recycling isn't that hard. Making a few simple changes to your daily routine and arming yourself with a little knowledge can garner big results for both the health of your family and the planet.
Follow the "3 Rs" …in order! Before you buy something ask yourself if you really need it. It can be easy to confuse needs with wants, so here’s a quick tip: if it’s on sale but you wouldn’t buy it at full price, skip it. By reducing what you buy or reusing what you already have, you’ll save time, money, and reduce your environmental footprint!
BYO. Virtually eliminate the need for plastic packaging by shopping at a bulk store and bringing your own containers. If you can’t get a much-used item in bulk, buy it in a large, family, or economy size, which typically means less packaging than their convenience-sized counterparts. Build a BYO kit with cutlery, straw, containers for leftovers, refillable water bottle, cloth napkins, and cloth bags. Keep one in your car and one at the front door so you’ll always be prepared wherever you go!
Reuse, reuse, reuse. I’ll say it again: reuse. Wherever possible, choose reusable over disposable, especially as products that are reusable are typically made of more durable materials that are usually less chemically reactive, thus safer for your family. A caveat to reusing is with single use plastics like those found in microwavable food trays and disposable plastic water bottles, which may leach toxins in your food or drink. Even if unopened, don’t leave water bottles in a hot place (like inside your car on a summer day): that plastic-y taste means you’re drinking…well…plastic.
Go au naturel. Synthetic fibres like nylon, polyester, spandex, and acrylic are being recycled more, but their recycling rates are still very low. While opting for natural fibres in the first place is better, don’t toss synthetic clothing you already own! Since synthetics shed the most during the first few washes, love the ones you’ve already got until they’re at the end of their life. You can also reduce the rate of microplastic shedding by washing your synthetics in a delicates bag in cold water with liquid detergent on the gentle cycle. A front load washer is best, and investing in a microplastics-catching device with a high capture rate is beneficial as well.
Avoid the hot mess. Plastics (and all the additives in them) leach out at higher rates when they’re heated or in contact with acidic (think tomatoes or citrus) or oily foods and drinks. A perfect storm would be microwaving your leftover pasta sauce in a plastic container.
Banish black plastic. Many municipalities don’t recycle black plastic items as it doesn’t reflect light, making it impossible for the optical sorting equipment at recycling facilities to distinguish it from the black conveyor belt. Further, because it can’t be effectively sorted, it runs the risk of contaminating whatever other material remains on the belt during the sorting process (typically glass), and jeopardizing the recyclability of the other items. White or clear plastic is the most desirable for recyclers because they can be used to make any other colour, while black plastic can only be used to make black plastic.
Clean up your recycling game. Wash all containers before putting them into the recycling bin. If plastic bags are collectible where you live, stuff all your unwanted plastic bags into a single bag and tie a knot at the end of it to keep all the bags inside from coming out (and getting caught in the sorting equipment).
Take out the trash. Potato chip or snack bags make perfectly good garbage bags and bin liners. If you live in a city that separates wet (organic/food) waste from dry (recyclable and other), your recycle and garbage bins will rarely get icky, which means you might be able to skip lining those bins in plastic altogether (if your municipality allows it!).
Garbage in, garbage out. Find out exactly what items are recyclable in your municipality—many municipalities provide handy charts you can post on your fridge for quick reference. It sounds counterintuitive, but if in doubt, err on the side of caution and put it in the garbage. Too often we contaminate the recyclable plastics by also including non-recyclable plastics in the recycling bin (referred to as “aspirational recycling”). This can push the contamination rate too high, causing it all be sent to the landfill. In this case, your intuition may not steer you right—what goes where might be surprising (e.g. soiled cardboard pizza boxes are often organics/compost waste, and bioplastic/compostable plastic items are almost always garbage).
Take a pass on PVCs. If you have to use plastic, avoid polystyrene and PVC as much as possible, in particular for anything that comes in contact with food or drinks. Instead opt for polyethylene and polypropylene, especially for food containers.
No nukes! Avoid microwaving food in plastic, including plastic cling wrap, sandwich or plastic bags, and old, scratched, or cracked plastic containers. Most takeout food containers are not microwave safe either. Keep in mind: “microwave safe” only means that the container won’t warp/deform/melt in the microwave and is not a statement about food safety.
Embrace the “RE”s. First, reduce. Then repair, refurbish, and repurpose what you own before sending it off to the trash.
Avoid imitations. Despite the pro-environmental marketing, oxo-degradable plastics aren’t the same as biodegradable. Rather, they are just traditional fossil fuel-based plastics that have been mixed with an additive that causes the plastic to break down more quickly into microplastics. Not great.
Arrange for pick-up. It’s a great way to get outside, help clean your neighbourhood, see first-hand how much plastic waste is out there, and it’s a great lesson to teach the kids! A shoreline cleanup is best of all, because it helps catch plastics before they enter the waterways. Once in the water, plastic more readily enters our food chain, sheds microplastics, and is much harder to collect than on land.
Up your game. If you really want to challenge yourself, try to go plastic-free for thirty days. You may be surprised at the results! (Want to see how we did it? Check out ahimsaeco.com/how-we-went-plastic-free/)
In this day and age—and especially as a busy parent—you can never escape all plastic, but hopefully this will help you make informed decisions about how you can reduce your plastic use, recycle responsibly, and better protect the health of your family.
Want to learn more? Check out the full story of the science behind recycling, plastics and compost here.