Here in Pittsburgh, we’re having a challenge to reduce consumption of single-use plastic (SUP) products. If you live somewhere else, launch a challenge in your area! Even if you make it just your personal challenge to use fewer SUPs yourself and to ask the stores and restaurants you visit to stop pushing so many SUPs on customers, you can make a difference! [UPDATE: Pittsburghers Against Single-Use Plastic is launching a new challenge in September 2019!]
Consumer pressure can change business practices. Aramark, which serves 2 billion meals a year worldwide, is cutting back on SUPs. America’s largest supermarket chain, Kroger, is transitioning to reusable shopping bags. But don’t wait for big corporations to do the right thing! Start doing it yourself. The more consumers say, “No bag,” “No straw,” and, “I’ll use my travel mug,” the more businesses will notice. The more customer feedback forms say, “My order was packaged in way too much plastic,” “Why isn’t your packaging recyclable?” or, “I would have bought a widget today if you sold any reusable ones,” the more businesses will notice, and more changes will come.
What do we mean by Single-Use Plastic?
SUP is any item that is made mostly of plastic and that is used once and discarded. Even if it can be recycled and you actually turn it in for recycling, plastic recycling is much less efficient than the recycling of most other materials, so recycling doesn’t solve the environmental and health problems caused by plastic.
Approximately half of all plastic products manufactured worldwide are SUP. If we cut back on the manufacture and use of SUP, we’ll have more petrochemicals left to make durable plastic products and the SUP items we really need, like surgical gloves.
If you’re finding it hard to understand why SUP is such a terrible idea–or hard to explain to other people why we should use less of it–read Eternity in Your Hand. I also recommend the term “instant garbage” for a good dose of perspective.
The proclamation and the challenge
On January 3, Pittsburgh City Council issued a proclamation:
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Council of the City of Pittsburgh does hereby encourage residents to do their part in replacing single use plastic with sustainable alternatives when possible by saying “no plastic please” at stores and restaurants and calls on businesses to offer sustainable alternatives to single use plastic.
That’s great, but it went virtually unnoticed because there was no publicity. Several local religious groups sprang into action and launched the What’s SUP Challenge to raise awareness about the plastic problem and organize efforts to choose reusable and/or non-plastic alternatives in our places of worship and in every part of our lives. Also, check out HUMANE ACTION Pittsburgh’s “No plastic, please” campaign.
Finding Alternatives to Single-Use Plastic
This isn’t a complete list, but I’ll put in as many ideas as come to mind now and add more later! Here is a condensed version of this list for printing as a handout. Some things are plastic-free alternatives, while others are just ways of reducing and/or reusing plastic that’s hard to avoid. Feel free to leave a comment with the alternatives that work for you.
Plastic shopping bags. Bring your own bags to the store and don’t take SUP bags!
Plastic produce bags. Choose produce that isn’t pre-bagged. It’s best to make your own bags from natural-fiber fabric scraps, but until you find time to do that, buy reusable mesh bags or at least reuse the store’s plastic bags: After putting away your produce at home, drop the plastic bags into your larger reusable shopping bags; next time you shop, pull out one of those bags for your produce. If you get even 3 uses out of each bag, it’s not single-use plastic anymore, and you’ve cut your consumption of plastic produce bags by 2/3, painlessly! Check out Zero Waste Chef’s tips for storing produce without plastic.
Plastic bottles. Avoid buying individual servings; get the largest bottle you can use, for less plastic per ounce of liquid. Buy a glass bottle if it’s available and you can recycle it. (Glass is better for your health because it doesn’t leach chemicals into the bottle contents. Whether glass is better for the environment or not depends on whether it gets recycled or it gets broken and contaminates single-stream recycling or hurts animals.)
- Beverages: Bring a cup with you for fountain drinks away from home, or drink from water fountains. Buy concentrated fruit juice and mix it up in a washable pitcher, instead of buying a big bottle. When you must buy an individual beverage, choose an aluminum can for better recyclability.
- Hand soap, body wash, shampoo: Minimize and simplify! Buying just one variety of each product–you might use the same soap for hands and body–makes you more able to use a big bottle. Consider using bar soap in a soap saver; some soap bars are sold plastic-free or with no packaging at all! Another option is to refill your bottles from a big jug at a store that sells by the ounce. Refill foamers to make soap go farther, saving money as well as packaging! Consider washing your hair with vinegar–you could even make your own from apple scraps.
- Dish detergent: Once you have a bottle in the size you want to keep next to the sink, you can refill it from a more efficient larger bottle or a refill pouch made from less plastic than a bottle. We recently started using Grove Collaborative’s glass dispenser and refill pouches, and we like them a lot. (Click here for $10 off your first order!)
- Laundry detergent: Even a longtime environmentalist like me learns something new every year, and this year I realized that there’s less plastic in the thin plastic pouch of a powdered laundry detergent like Molly’s Suds than in the big plastic bottle (with fancy pour spout and cap) of a liquid laundry detergent. If your washing machine doesn’t dissolve powder well so you really want a liquid, try Seventh Generation’s pouch inside a recycled cardboard shell–at least it’s less plastic!
Plastic grocery packaging. This one is hard! It’s easily the largest source of SUP in my trash. [UPDATE: In this article at Kitchen Stewardship, I explain how to avoid plastic on specific grocery items.] Buy bulk food in reused containers when you can. Choose foods packaged in cardboard, metal, or glass when possible. Choose the box that’s sealed with a little sticker over the one that’s completely shrink-wrapped. Buy the package that uses the least plastic for the amount of food. Choose packages you can reuse, and make stores and manufacturers aware of your priorities. Make your own frozen vegetables and homemade convenience foods and baby food. Instead of individually-packed snacks, buy a big package or make your own, and pack servings into small reusable containers–try a Squooshi instead of SUP pouches of applesauce and such. Avoid SUP packaging on your non-food items, too–see my guide to buying toilet paper.
Plastic sandwich bags and freezer bags. Use washable containers instead; they’re better at protecting your food from getting squashed, too! Check out my tips on low-waste lunch packing. If you really like little soft bags for your sandwiches and snacks, try washable fabric bags. Commit to buying no new bags and just reusing the ones you have–cereal and cracker bags are great for freezing food!
Plastic wrap. I left this out at first because it’s been more than a decade since we quit plastic wrap, and I never was really into it–it wants to wad up and make itself useless! Store leftovers in containers with lids (reused glass jars are great), set a plate on top of the bowl, or slide the bowl into a reused bread bag. Katie at Kitchen Stewardship has 5 ways to transport food without plastic wrap.
Plastic take-out food containers. Avoid them by making your own food or eating at the restaurant and packing your leftovers in reused containers instead of taking new ones. Avoid restaurants that pack your food “to go” even when you’re eating it there. (Order “coffee in a mug” at Panera, and many other coffee places, to get a nice ceramic mug instead of a disposable cup!) If you do order food for delivery or take-out, pay attention to how it’s packed, and give your business to the restaurants that use minimal, biodegradable packaging. If you’re given plastic tubs that can be washed out and reused, do that. [UPDATE: Use Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Restaurant Finder to choose greener restaurants.]
Plastic cups, utensils, everything at picnics and parties. Bring your own! When you’re the host or on the planning committee, either arrange real dishes for everyone or ask people to bring their own. If washing dishes truly isn’t an option, use earth-friendlier disposables like Leaf 2 Go dishes made from palm leaves.
Plastic condiment packets. Don’t buy single-serving packets of any kind for routine use at home or work–serve from a big container. In fast-food restaurants, look for a ketchup pump and dispense ketchup onto the sandwich wrapper or paper placemat you already have, instead of taking a little cup for it. When you get coffee, look for a pitcher of cream instead of using individual creamers.
Plastic packaging of mail-order purchases. Pay attention to how a company packs your order; if they’re wasteful, order from someone else next time! Give your business to companies that cushion your purchases with repurposed materials (like shredded newspaper), use the right size box to minimize the packing fluff and plastic tape, and don’t wrap items in unnecessary layers.
Plastic coffee pods. This one is easy–any other method of making coffee is less wasteful and less expensive than K-cups!! Check out these 3 easy ways to make garbage-free coffee.
Plastic drinking straws. Unless you have a rare disability, you don’t need a straw. Say “no straw” when you order a beverage, especially where you can see that everyone at other tables has straws. Use a washable travel mug or sippy cup when taking a beverage in the car. When a straw is forced on you unexpectedly, already in your drink so you can’t hand it back…rinse it out, let it dry thoroughly, and enjoy having it for your next homemade smoothie. If you love drinking through a straw, invest in reusable drinking straws.
Disposable wet-wipes. Oh, you thought those weren’t plastic? They’re usually made with polyester and/or polypropylene, types of plastic–and most brands don’t tell you on the label what materials are used either in the wipe itself or in the liquid on it. Instead, just use a washcloth and then put it in the laundry, or use a rag (set aside socks with holes in them; cut up worn-out clothes) and then throw it away. You’ll save money, too! And you won’t be discarding all those plastic boxes/canisters that wipes come in.
- For household cleaning, spray an eco-friendly cleaning solution on the rag or on the area to be cleaned. Mix up your own cleanser, or buy a spray bottle and then refill it repeatedly with concentrated cleanser and tap water–you’ll discard a lot less packaging than if you bought a new sprayer every time.
- For baby diaper changes and general clean-up, you do not need to smear your baby with surfactants, humectants, preservatives, and fragrances! (It’s bizarre that this article says babies shouldn’t play with wipes because of the choking hazard and because they could “ingest the chemicals” when sucking on wipes–without considering that those same chemicals soak in through baby’s skin!) Just use water on a cloth! Change diapers in bathrooms, where water is very convenient. For situations where water may not be handy, repurpose a plastic beverage bottle with a pop-up spout to bring water with you and easily moisten the cloth.
- For adult bathroom use, a peri bottle is a cheap and easy way to squirt water on yourself, and then you can dry with a cloth and it’ll still be in a condition that you can throw in with your regular laundry.
Plastic-coated disposable diapers. Use cloth diapers as much as possible.
Plastic-coated disposable feminine pads. Use washable cloth pads, or see the next item. (Those super-absorbent panties that have recently become available are another alternative to SUP–but I haven’t used them myself, and I’m suspicious of the materials they’re made from, which are undisclosed by some manufacturers.)
Plastic tampon applicators, plastic-wrapped tampons, plastic tampons… Seriously, sometimes the outer surface of a tampon is polypropylene, polyethylene, or another plastic. Try a reusable menstrual cup for a simpler, cleaner, safer, more cost-effective approach to the whole issue. If you must buy tampons, choose 100% cotton tampons with no applicator, paper wrappers, and recycled cardboard outer box.
Craft supplies. Why buy craft foam and other SUP materials when there are so many colorful, shiny materials in recycling bins?? Especially for young children’s crafts, encourage creativity by providing a wide array of random interesting stuff you’ve diverted from the waste stream. There are thousands of ideas online for making crafts from old magazines, plastic milk jugs, etc., etc.
Name tags. Those stick-on labels peel off of an SUP-coated sheet, and the labels themselves don’t biodegrade (I found one in my compost) so they must also contain an SUP layer. Next time you’re planning a meeting or party, grab some thin cardboard from your recycling bin and cut it into rectangles, punch a hole in each, and set out a box of safety pins (reusable!); then collect name tags at the end of the meeting and bring them back next time for people to use again. [UPDATE: Here are details and photos.] If you often find yourself attending gatherings with stick-on name tags and you can’t change that, make your own reused and reusable name tag to bring with you!