How I Learned To Survive Without Single-Use Plastic

I swore off all single-use plastics for good. Here's how you can, too.


May 13 2019, Updated 5:08 p.m. ET

Humans have generated more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since large-scale plastic production began. And while many of us now recycle, only nine percent of plastic actually ends up being turned into something else.

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Yeah. That's a lot of waste. 

For this reason alone, I decided to swear off single-use plastics like plastic cups, cutlery and plates. Here's how (and why) I live plastic free — and how you can, too.

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Single-use plastic is antithetical to how the natural world works.

In nature, everything is cyclical. From the grass to the mouse to the owl, there is an ecosystem that balances everything out. When something dies, it decomposes, giving nourishment to the soil and grass. 

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Mufasa from the Lion King said it best: "When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life."

Plastic, however? Not so cyclical. Instead of flowing with the circle of life, plastic disrupts it. Natural resources and a lot of energy are used to make plastic. With only nine percent actually being recycled, the majority ends up in a landfill — or worse, in our oceans. Plastic doesn’t actually decompose, either; over the course of decades, it instead breaks down into tiny particles called microplastics. 

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Microplastics absorb large amounts of agricultural and industrial toxins over time, polluting waterways and injuring and killing marine life that mistakes the plastic for food. Fish that ingest plastic also get caught by fishermen, eventually landing in our stomachs along with all those toxins and plastic particles.

With the average American producing 4.4 pounds of trash per day, I'd say this problem isn't going away any time soon. That's why I decided to ditch single-use plastic and go zero waste. No, it didn't happen overnight, and it didn't happen quickly. But once I made a few investments and adjustments, I saw a drastic difference in the trash I made on a daily basis. Here's how you can do the same.

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Give up plastic straws once and for all. 

More than five hundred million single-use, plastic straws are used and discarded in the US every day. Those that are made of polypropylene are technically recyclable, but when’s the last time you saw someone toss a straw in a recycling bin? For every straw that doesn’t, it’s going to be 200 years before it decomposes.

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This is a serious enough issue that cities throughout the US and world, music festivals and even the Queen of England are banning plastic straws. You can get in on the game simply by telling servers you’d like that drink without a straw. You can also invest: in reusable straws made from bamboo, glass or stainless steel straws, edible straws... the sky’s the limit. You can carry these around in your purse (wrap them in a reusable napkin for safe keeping) and whip them out at restaurants, family gatherings, or events.

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Invest in a reusable water bottle.

Water bottles are not only a waste of money, but they're also typically just tap water packaged and sold to the masses. 

Instead, invest in a reusable water bottle and fill it up with your (free) tap water from the sink. Personally, I recommend stainless steel water bottles. They're easy to recycle and keep drinks cold (or hot, if you put tea/coffee in them) for hours! Swell and Klean Kanteen are good stainless steel water bottle companies. Glass is another good alternative that can be easily recycled. 

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If drinking tap water bothers you, consider getting some charcoal sticks to filter your water. Miyabi Charcoal and Kishu are both good companies to look into.

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Get a travel mug.

When you're out and want tea or coffee, ask them to put it in your travel mug. This will help you avoid those pesky, single-use plastic cups that drinks tend to come in. Coffee cups are actually lined with plastic, thus they're deemed unrecyclable in most places. The lids are also unrecyclable. If you don't have a travel mug just yet and you have some spare time, ask for your drink to stay. Get it in an actual coffee or tea cup, slow down, and drink up.

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Ditch plastic grocery bags. 

Even after the constant bad press around plastic shopping bags, Americans go through 100 billion of them every year.

This is an easy habit to break. Keep a tote near your front door, in a purse, backpack, or in your car at all times so you don’t forget it. In a pinch, you can usually find reusable tote bags for sale in the checkout line of the supermarket. I bring at least two big tote bags with me while shopping to avoid using any plastic grocery bags. 

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Say goodbye to plastic produce bags. 

Cloth or mesh bags are infinitely more durable, reusable, and washable — and won’t take up more space under your kitchen sink. I take anywhere from five to 10 produce bags with me when I shop. Whenever your bags get dirty, you can wash them by hand or with the rest of your laundry. 

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If you're in a rush or on a budget, use a 100-percent cotton pillowcase instead. Or, just plop the food as-is in your cart (plastic produce bag actually aren’t necessary at all).

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Carry around reusable cutlery. 

I'm never caught in public without my handy reusable cutlery set. I make sure I always have at least one stainless steel fork, knife, and spoon on me at all times. You don't have to go out and buy a set specifically for travel. For example, I just grabbed some from my kitchen. 

Bamboo utensils work great too; because they're lighter, they're easier to carry. You can wrap them in a reusable napkin and place it in your bag or invest in a cloth utensil holder.

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Swap out plastic wrap. 

Storing your leftovers or sliced food doesn't have to be wasteful. Instead, use beeswax wraps to cover your food: Beeswrap and Abeego are two companies that make beeswax wrap. They're a moldable waxed fabric that can be composted at the end of their life (they last about one to two years). You can also make your own, if you're creative and like DIYs. You can also store food in glassware, mason jars, or metal tiffins to avoid wrapping it in plastic. 

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Ask for reusables at a party. 

If you're out at a party with friends or family, there's bound to be a lot of plastic cups, plates, and utensils everywhere.

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Instead of caving into peer pressure, ask the host or hostess if you can use a reusable plate, cup or cutlery instead. Offer to wash the dishes when you're done with it, too. 

I’ve yet to run into someone who has a problem with this — and it makes it a lot easier to keep track of your stuff. If you feel uncomfortable asking for reusables, stick to finger foods and utilize your reusable water bottle the entire time you're there.

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