It’s not an exaggeration to say we’re surrounded by plastic.
According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of plastic generated in the U.S. has been growing steadily since the 1960s, with 35.7 million tons of the stuff produced in 2018, the most recent data available.
No surprise: The vast majority of that plastic ends up thrown away. The EPA data estimated that 27 million tons of plastic went into the country’s landfills in 2018, while only about 8% of plastic was recycled.
“Single-use plastics — we’ve got to stop, period. It just seems to be never-ending,” says Cameron Reith, co-owner of Seattle’s Greenhome Solutions. “We’re not doing enough, quickly enough, to curb it. We see what’s happening out there. It’s smacking us in the face and we’re still creating a ton of waste.”
Greenhome Solutions is among a number of retailers, organizations and individuals in the Seattle area working to provide ways to reduce the plastic that is so prevalent in our daily lives — and hopefully reduce the impact it’s having on the planet.
“Reducing plastic, we know, is a top priority for our community,” says Aimee Simpson, interim head of social and environmental responsibility at Seattle-based PCC Community Markets. That reduction can take many forms, including finding alternatives to items commonly made of plastic — like opting for bottles and containers made of glass or metal — and finding new uses for the plastic we already have on hand.
“I encourage all of my customers to bring their own containers, give their plastic bottles a second and third life, use them until they can’t be used any longer,” says Jolene Dobson, owner of the Public store in West Seattle, which sells eco-friendly goods and offers refills for a wide variety of household products.
“My rule of thumb is always just to try to reuse what you have and refill what you need and look for ways to do that,” she says. “Let’s take a little of that load off the landfill.”
Read on to learn about ways you can scale back your plastic footprint and put a smile on Mother Earth’s face.
In the kitchen
Food packaging is one of the biggest generators of plastic waste, particularly single-use bags, wraps and containers. And tons of it — literally — gets tossed, with containers and packaging accounting for 14.5 million tons of solid waste in 2018, according to the EPA.
Food-safety requirements mean that, to a certain extent, we’re stuck with some single-use plastic for now, Simpson says. But she says our options are increasing, and research to provide further alternatives to plastic is ongoing.
“There are hurdles to think about, because it’s important that we preserve our food and that our food stays good for as long as it can to prevent waste,” Simpson says.
There are ways to reduce the amount of plastic that is found in certain packaging, she says. First and foremost, buy in bulk.
“Bulk is better for the budget and for the planet,” Simpson says. “It’s the best way you can eliminate a lot of [plastic], and it’s usually less expensive.”
Dobson agrees. “Go and get those rices and beans and other dry foods [in bulk] instead of buying new packaging,” she says.
Another good option is to use food wraps made out of beeswax.
“It’s like a thin piece of cotton, with beeswax and jojoba oil that is poured over it,” Dobson says. “When you crunch it up in your hand like a ball of paper and open it back up again, it becomes really sticky. And because beeswax is antimicrobial, it doesn’t breed bacteria.
“I make little sandwich bags out of it — you can take two pieces of beeswax wrap together and fold it up like you’re wrapping a meatloaf. And you can make a little snack bag to put fruits or vegetables in.”
Other eco-friendly food wraps include vegetable bags made of terry cloth — “It keeps my red leaf lettuce fresh for 10 days,” Dobson says — and compostable cheese paper.
You can also reuse the plastic bags you already have.
“I encourage [customers] to re-use their Ziploc bags,” Dobson says. “Wash them in warm water and let them dry, and keep using them until they break down.”
Grooming and personal care
There are eco-friendly varieties of most of the personal-care products we use, according to Simpson and Dobson. And Dobson offers container refills at Public for many of them.
“I have shampoos and conditioners for adults and also tear-free baby shampoos that are completely organic,” Dobson says.
The store also offers refills for skin-care products, mouthwashes, body lotions, soaps and toothpastes. Dobson also recommends purchasing your toothpaste in jars from natural-products manufacturer Uncle Harry’s, based in Redmond.
Dental floss is also making green strides. “We have a bunch of new floss that is compostable — both the packaging and the floss itself,” Simpson says. “It’s something that will break down over time, unlike the nylon strings” that most floss is made from.
And don’t forget your grooming tools. Plastic-free options are abundant, with Dobson’s suggestions including toothbrushes and facial-cleansing pads made of bamboo; razors with refillable blades; and a variety of wooden combs and brushes.
Around the house
As with grooming products, there are plenty of earth-friendly cleaners for all areas of the home.
For laundry, Dobson and Simpson recommend either powdered detergents in refillable containers, or a new detergent-sheet format that significantly cuts down on packaging.
“They are concentrated strips of soap that you put into your laundry, and that’s it,” Dobson says. “It has a stain remover and an oxy brightener in it, and it does an amazing job of cleaning your clothes.” Using detergent sheets “reduces a significant amount of plastic,” Simpson says.
Throughout the home, there’s no shortage of opportunities to swap out a plastic container for one made of glass, metal or bamboo.
“I use glass storage containers for most of my things. My children use stainless steel lunchboxes,” Simpson says.
And don’t forget the part of the home that lies beneath your feet. One of the most popular flooring materials these days is luxury vinyl. But while it is durable and waterproof, it is also made with plastic.
Reith recommends floors made from wood or cork. “These are natural alternatives that avoid more plastic and more waste in the long run,” he says.
Given how much plastic orbits our lives, reducing the amount of it that surrounds us can seem daunting. “We are so reliant on plastic,” Simpson says. “People want to make this change, but it does take time.”
But starting small, taking baby steps and being patient can lead to big changes, Dobson says.
“Just make one small change right now, get really good at it, make it super-convenient, and then move on to the next thing,” she says.