Plastic waste is getting a lot of attention. Google searches for the subject have tripled in the last five years, and for good reason. If we continue on the same track with regard to plastic consumption, there will be 12 billion tons of the material in landfills by 2050. That’s the equivalent of 1.7 billion African elephants.
It’s clear that something needs to be done about the amount of plastic we’re all using on a day-to-day basis. But what is a ‘plastic-free lifestyle’, why exactly is it important, and what can you do to get started? Good question! Let’s start with explaining why it’s worth doing.
Why is going plastic-free so important?
There’s a reason interest in reduced plastic consumption has been making headlines over the last few years. It’s become clear that our collective plastic use has reached a point that requires immediate action, and thankfully it’s now a question being asked in the cultural mainstream. Zero waste advocates recognise the ‘Attenborough’ effect, for example – the impact of the Blue Planet series that catapulted the subject of plastic pollution to the forefront of the climate change debate. A few statistics bring the seriousness of the situation into focus:
- Of the 8 billion tons of plastic we’ve produced, just nine percent has actually been recycled.
- Plastic production has doubled over the last 50 years.
- 1 million sea birds – and 100,000 marine animals – die from plastic pollution every year.
- The average person in the UK will eat around 70,000 ‘microplastics’ – microscopic fragments of the material – every year.
Plastic is negatively impacting our environment, directly killing millions of birds and animals and polluting our bodies, so it’s imperative that we reconsider our relationship with it before the situation gets worse.
But where do you start with such a big lifestyle change?
Defining a ‘plastic-free lifestyle’
The concept seems fairly self-explanatory – and it is – but it’s valuable to define the lifestyle you’re aiming for when making a change.
Perhaps the most important thing to recognise is that a ‘plastic-free life’ sounds more like a zero-sum-game than it has to be. Kathryn Kellogg, author of the popular Going Zero Waste blog, makes a useful point:
‘Zero waste is not all or nothing. It does not hinge on perfection. It hinges on everyone giving it their best! Do what you can, where you can, in your circumstances.’
The goal is to become as plastic-free as you can be. That means different things for different people. Some are able to almost completely eliminate the material from their life, while others are restricted by the resources available to them. There’s a spectrum, and it’s crucial to think of the lifestyle as one that you can adopt to varying degrees. Any progress is good progress!
We’re calling it a ‘lifestyle’, but how many aspects of your life can the practice actually impact? Surely it’s just a matter of getting a reusable shopping bag, right? Not quite! The specifics will be detailed below, but there are opportunities to cut down on your plastic consumption when it comes to:
- The food you buy
- The clothes you wear
- The cleaning products you use
- The toiletries you use
- The way you dispose of waste
- The electronics you buy
- The way you pay your bills
- The way you listen to music and watch TV
Thanks to the historical overuse and disposability of the material, plastic has an impact on almost all aspects of our lives as consumers. That can seem daunting, but it just means that if you’re not able to cut down on your plastic use at the supermarket, there are plenty of other ways you can get involved. So what are they?
Quick wins: Changes you can make today
We’ve said that any progress is good progress, and that ‘plastic-free’ means different things to different people. We meant it! There are, however, a few steps that almost everyone can make to kickstart their commitment to reducing plastic consumption.
Our advice is to start small, and start now. It’s overwhelming to try and eliminate plastic entirely, but making some small changes means it can be done one manageable step at a time.
Get some reusable shopping bags
If you live in the UK, you’ll know that supermarkets are now required to charge 10p for plastic carrier bags. There’s a reason this law has come into effect. An estimated two million plastic bags are used every minute, and they can take over 500 years to decompose, eventually turning into those microplastics that end up in our bodies.
The solution here is simple. Getting hold of a few reusable shopping bags to keep in the car isn’t difficult, and it’s cost-effective in the long run when you don’t have to keep paying for the single-use alternatives. They also look a lot better than the supermarket bags. Here’s a list of shopping totes that we think are a big style upgrade, and that’ll last you for years.
Buy a reusable water bottle
It’s a similar story when it comes to water bottles. About a million are used every minute, and they take hundreds of years to break down. 70 percent of them don’t get recycled and end up in landfills. Needless to say, it’s a pretty serious problem that we should all be trying to combat.
It’s another case of ‘reuse, don’t recycle’. Good quality, reusable water bottles and thermoses might seem like a significant investment at first, but they pay for themselves in the long run when you’re not buying single-use bottles from the supermarket.
Here’s a list of bottles to get you started. We think they all look pretty cool, and they’ll pay for themselves in no time.
Get an idea of your current plastic use
It can be difficult to know exactly how much plastic you’re using until you sit down and give it some proper thought. This process can be as simple as creating a checklist and listing the things you regularly buy under relevant sections, for example:
- Plastic bags
- Plastic-wrapped produce
- Shampoo bottles
- Shower gel
- Cleaning products
- Surface cleaner
- New DVDs
- New CDs
Listing things out this way gives you a better picture of the amount of plastic you purchase or dispose of on a daily basis, and helps you to think laterally and identify opportunities to cut down that are achievable and specific to your situation. You might, for example, look at the above list and find that it’s more environmentally friendly (and friendlier to your wallet) to invest in a reusable wooden dish brush, rather than buying new sponges over and over again. You’d be right.
Pay your bills online
Most companies will now allow you to manage your payments online. It’s often as easy as clicking a button, and you’ll be reducing your carbon footprint while eliminating the need for the plastic sheets and wrapping that so often accompanies bills.
If you’re constantly buying new DVDs and CDs, you’re both wasting money and using more plastic than you need to. Streaming services are far more cost-effective than buying movies and albums individually, and doesn’t necessitate the use of plastic cases, wrappers and tags.
Next steps: More active changes
The above steps are just the basics. They’re valuable, and if they are the most you can do then you shouldn’t feel that your contribution isn’t helping, but there are many, many more changes you can make if you’re able to. Here are some of the most useful and popular if you’re keen on becoming a plastic-free guru.
Change the way you shop
While supermarket chains are attempting to clean up their act, shoppers still find themselves faced with mountains of plastic when buying produce. If there’s one near you, consider visiting a farmer’s market. There’s a common misconception that farmer’s markets are more expensive than chain shops, but as it turns out the produce is usually the same price, and it’s even cheaper when you’re buying organic.
If there isn’t a market near you – or if you’re a dedicated online shopper – there are plenty of food box services that will deliver organic produce to your door. Look for businesses that send their fruit and veg in plastic-free packaging, and you’ll be on your way to eliminating the material from your weekly shop.
Bulk stores are another fantastic option, as they let you bring your own containers and shop by weight. They’re becoming increasingly popular, so even if you don’t have one near you just yet, there might be one on the way.
Change the way you clean
Cleaning products are notorious culprits when it comes to single-use plastics, so addressing your approach to washing up is vital if you want to commit to a plastic-free lifestyle. While this area requires more committed change than some of the others on the list, there are some easy, quick wins you can achieve in the reusability department. A few products worth investing in are:
- Washable cotton cloths for cleaning surfaces
- Loofah sponges to replace the plastic alternatives
- A wooden-handled dish scrubber with eco-friendly bristles
- Reusable spray bottles
When it comes to the products themselves, it’s easier to cook up homemade alternatives than you might think, and experts say that they do just as good a job as store-bought cleaners. There’s a homemade cleaning product craze online, which means that there’s no shortage of recipes and examples for you to draw from. In most cases, making your own also means saving money. Most formulas only require three to four natural ingredients, all easily found in the supermarket.
For some inspiration – and to get an idea of how easy it is to DIY your cleaning liquids – check out this list of basic recipes. For even more recipes, it’s well worth following blogs like Zero Waste Home, Trash is for Tossers and Reusable Nation. They’re also great resources for plastic-free living in general, featuring regularly updated blogs full of tips and tricks.
Change the way you wash
Toiletries are just as easy to ‘hack’ as window cleaners. Plastic-free advocates recommend getting your hands on bar soap rather than shower gel, as it’s often sold without plastic packaging, lasts longer and isn’t too extreme a change. It also looks a lot cooler! Here are some other toiletry tips and tricks:
- Instead of tossing out plastic toothbrushes every couple of months, look for bamboo-handled versions. They’re compostable, so have a fraction of the environmental impact that plastic brushes do.
- If you’re on board with bar soap, plastic-free bar versions of shampoo and conditioner exist, too. They’re also incredibly cost-effective.
- Invest in a permanent straight or double-edged razor. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but once you’ve got the hang of it you get a closer shave and spend a lot less money replacing blades.
- Try making your toothpaste at home.
Start with some of the above suggestions and you’ll be well on your way to a plastic-free bathroom.
Join a zero-waste community
If you find yourself enjoying the plastic-free lifestyle and wanting to become more engaged, there are plenty of communities – both online and in-person – that are great sources of inspiration and motivation.
You’ll find groups of like-minded people with a wealth of tips and tricks to help you on your way to dropping your reliance on plastic, and likely run into members of the ‘zero waste’ movement, who take the daily commitment to environmental friendliness to the next level.
Journey to Zero Waste is a popular Facebook page with an active, friendly community, and meetup.com will likely dig up local environmental groups that you didn’t even know existed. It’s all about finding a supportive group of people that are on the same journey as you and learning from them. Get involved!
With far less than half of the UK’s plastic currently being recycled, going plastic-free can, at times, feel like a drop in the ocean. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that our collective use of plastic is gaining increasing media attention, and it’s having a real effect. Supermarkets are being pressured to reduce their use of the material and are committing to concrete plastic-free timelines for the next few years.
This has all come about thanks to increased awareness, and the positive example set by early adopters of the plastic-free lifestyle. If you feel that your contribution is too small to count, change the way you think about it. You’re showing others that it’s not as daunting as they may think to make a few changes, and in doing so will likely convince friends and family to join you. It may start small, but a few easy, cost-effective changes could have a massive ripple effect in your community.