A Small Change Can Make a Big Impact
By Sonja Deines
We are drowning in garbage. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States sent 139 million tons of trash to landfills in 2017. Plastic accounts for 19% of the waste—the second-largest component. China is importing fewer of the recyclable plastics we’ve been sending there. And so many items don’t make it to recycling plants in the first place: think of all the sad stories about sea turtles with straws in their nostrils and whales with bags in their stomachs.
You might think that this problem is bigger than any one person. But just imagine if one million people started making changes. What a difference that could make in our world! Our actions do matter. The more people start caring about reducing plastic in their day-to-day lives, the quicker we’ll see meaningful positive impacts. Plastic products can take between 15 to 1,000 years to break down, assuming they make it into the landfill. Unfortunately, much of the plastic winds up in streams, rivers, or the oceans.
Less trash makes for a happier planet. But it can also mean a happier you: You’ll see less stuff cluttering up your mental and physical health and a new peace of mind. You don’t have to take on every suggestion here if it feels intimidating. The key is to create low-waste habits that work for you.
- Pack reusable shopping bags.
Plastic bags are bad for the environment for many reasons—from their production to their lack of recyclability to their tendency to end up in landfills—and the many years they take to decompose. More than 100,000 marine animal deaths are caused each year when animals mistake plastic grocery bags in the ocean for food.
I often hear people complain that they forgot to bring their reusable shopping bags to the store. This was an issue for my husband and me, too, until we came up with a plan.
We had a mishmash of substandard bags, so the first thing we did was make a one-time purchase of high-quality shopping bags for each of our cars. We color-coded them (orange for him, grey for me) and placed them in our vehicles. Then we make sure to put the bags back in the car after our weekly grocery run. This way, we always have the shopping bags when we need them, and even if we forget to take them into the store, we can quickly run out to our car to get them.
- Rearrange the trash.
I know it might sound odd, but it works! Implement these tips to sort, store, and transport your recycling items. My friend halved the amount of trash her family produced just by rearranging the bins.
If you have space in your garage, laundry room, or mudroom, set up a spot to sort and collect the items that can be recycled. Any area will do as long as you have designated places for things. We also have a hazardous waste bin where we gather batteries, paints, light bulbs, and electronics until we have enough to make a special trip to the hazardous waste collection spot.
Establish recycling areas in other rooms of the house as needed. I set up a spot in our home office for paper recyclables. I bought an inexpensive wire rolling cart originally designed to corral office supplies and file folders that fits under our desk, but a basket or crate of any kind will work.
Fortunately, our community has a compost program, but we composted even before we had the program. You can use a small, lidded trash bin that you keep inside your kitchen. We dump our compost into an outdoor container, where the natural material can decompose and not stink up our kitchen. Composting is a fantastic way to make free, nutrient-rich fertilizer to spread on your plants and garden.
3. Use stainless steel or silicone straws.
If you make one change in your habits, this would be the one that I would recommend. Why? Duh, it’s what we sell! But seriously, we started on the journey to nix plastic straws after watching this video. As many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world’s beaches, and by 2050, 99% of all sea bird species will have ingested plastic, with a mortality rate of up to 50%. In just the U.S. alone, we use over 500 million straws every day! 500 million!
People, we need a revolt against plastic straws.
Fortunately, you can now get stainless steel straws in almost every size and shape. The best things about using stainless steel straws are that they are easy to maintain—just sip, wash, and repeat—and last forever.
Are you worried about safety with stainless steel straws—or don’t like the feel of the steel against your mouth? Try using a pliable silicone tip. After my mom had a stroke, we started looking for alternatives and discovered all-silicone straws. If you have kids, a physical issue, or are just wary of jabbing yourself with a metal straw, you might prefer a silicone straw.
Stash a straw in your car or bag, so you always have it with you. Here’s the one that I take with me. Take it one step further and get your favorite bar, restaurant, or coffee shop to offer sustainable alternatives.
4. Bring your reusable necessities.
Despite our best intentions, once we’re out and about, it’s not always easy to make conscious choices. The good news is that you can plan to cut back using plastic items when you’re on the go. Think about the single-use plastics that you use the most in the outside world. Carry a reusable version in your bag or car, so you always have it with you.
Look for quick wins. I found simple swaps for all the plastic baggies and containers I carried in my packed lunch. If take-out is your habit, pick up some on-the-go utensils and let the restaurant know that you don’t need cutlery.
Look for useful and sustainable gifts for your friends and family. We gave my outdoorsy nephew who’s happiest outside, in a tent and under the stars, a portable, durable stainless steel tableware kit and made him one happy camper! I gifted this set of slate coasters, stainless steel cups, and straws to my mother-in-law for all her backyard entertaining.
5. Skip plastic food storage bags and produce bags.
Ditch single-use, disposable plastic bags for good with a great eco-friendly alternative! If you’re packing a lunch, traveling, or picking up produce at the grocery store, reusable food bags are versatile and affordable. Cloth, mesh, or silicone bags are widely available. I love our mesh produce bags, and strangers always inquire about them at the store. Look for a multi-sized set that can carry both leafy greens and bulky items.
We tried several resealable sandwich bags before we stumbled upon these durable silicone alternatives. They have an easy-to-clean interior and are sturdy enough that our food doesn’t get squashed. They are safe to use in the dishwasher, freezer, microwave, and fridge. These silicone bags have been a game-changer for us! We pack them every Sunday with a daily dose of fresh berries and pop them in the freezer. They are ready to go for our morning smoothies. Stay tuned for my husband’s recipe for our healthy and delicious green smoothie.
Replacing plastic doesn’t happen overnight. It’s always a process. If this feels overwhelming, break it down and focus on one area at a time. Try things like taking reusable bags for at least one grocery trip each week or eliminating plastic straws for a month. Reaching attainable goals like these helps ease into bigger efforts. Start small, and before long, we promise you’ll be hooked!