By now you’ve probably heard of the plastic problem (not to be confused with The Plastic Problem, which is probably a terrible college jam band). Companies and politicians are finally taking cues from environmental activists to reduce our plastic usage. Stores and restaurants are offering alternatives to common offenders, like straws. But have you ever sat down to think about how much single-use plastic you really consume?
“50% of all the plastic that has ever been manufactured has been created in the past 15 years,” notes SR Mailing, a UK-based company focused on environmentally friendly packaging options. (Their site is a goldmine of info on the plastic epidemic, if you’re curious about what British Airways is doing to reduce usage, or which rivers around the world send the most plastic into our oceans.)
Consider this: As a whole, humans have consumed 9.2 billion tons of plastic. But the thing is, there’s no infrastructure to deal with it; 6.3 billion of these tons will never meet a recycling bin, according to a study published by Science Advances. That’s equivalent to the weight of one billion elephants.
Plastics are also making headlines for its devastating impact on our oceans and marine life. It constitutes around 90% of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, according to Earth’s Oceans Foundation. Not only does that kill millions of endangered sea life every year, but also leads fish to ingest microplastics — teeny tiny bits of plastic broken down by ultraviolet light and waves.
That’s not only problematic for sea life—it’ll ultimately get to us when we eat sea life. Microplastics have been found in sea salt and even mineral water, according to a study published in Water Research. That’s unfortunately no surprise, if you take into account just how much plastic we’re producing.
Plastic production is booming
Humans have produced more plastic over the last 10 years than during the whole of the last century. Think of it this way: One million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute, according to The Guardian, and the numbers are rising.
The production of plastic on its own isn’t necessarily bad. Plastics have helped advance space exploration, aviation, and medicine. The problem with plastic is we produce it for things we don’t need.
According to nonprofit Plastic Oceans, roughly half the world’s plastic produced is used just one time – like that plastic straw, or the plastic cutlery you get with your takeout order.
What makes plastic more problematic is that it’s nonbiodegradable and can stick around for up to 1,000 years.
We’ve been told time and time again that recycling is the solution to the plastic problem. However, the issue is too big for just recycling to fix, and may distract us from the real problem: our overproduction of plastics.
The point of these troubling stats isn’t to drag you down; the plastic fight isn’t a lost cause. But this is all a wake-up call for action, for the sake of our planet and generations to come. Here are some practical ways you can make everyday changes to help reduce plastic pollution.
1. Stop using plastics
Sounds obvious (and hard), right? Yes— habits are hard to break and, realistically, the plastic problem isn’t something we think about daily.
To really test yourself, take note of how many times you habitually use single-use plastic in your day-to-day. For bonus points, write it down!
Then, pinpoint the instances that are truly unnecessary – whether it’s drinking bottled water every time you go to the gym, or using new plastic bags each time you go to the grocery store.
Finally, come up with a plan to eliminate (or at least drastically cut) your unnecessary plastic usage. While making one single environmental choice won’t help much, creating positive habits to reduce your plastic usage could go a long way.
So if you replace your bottled water with a reusable one, you could save as many as 170 bottles from being produced each year.
Fortunately, there are dozens of quick hacks that make it easier than ever to cut down on your plastic usage.
For example, pick up a travel mug and keep it in your bag for your morning brew. Companies like Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, Peet’s, and plenty of local coffee shops support this initiative by offering small discounts when you bring in your reusable cup.
Also, buy a metal straw, and take it with you to your local coffee shop. An increasing number of coffee shops are supporting the single-use plastic straw ban—Starbucks has even made a commitment to eliminate all plastic straw use by 2020.
Groceries and supermarkets have also embraced the fight on plastic by charging for plastic bags. Stick a fabric produce bag in your car and say ‘no thanks’ to the plastic bag.
2. Stop buying bottled water
Remember how one million plastic bottles are purchased around the world every minute? Well, according to Brita, Americans throw away 35 billion plastic water bottles every year. So isn’t it time we said goodbye to bottled water?
Tap water is completely safe to drink in the majority of the western world, and all you need is a reusable cup to keep yourself topped up.
If you have concerns about your tap water, think about introducing a filter tap or Brita water filter. Companies like SodaStream are making waves by eliminating the need for plastic bottles and are raising awareness of the negative consequences of single-use plastic.
But realistically, breaking a water-bottle-buying habit is tough. While we may say we’d like to reduce (or cease) our bottled water usage, it can be difficult to muster up the motivation to say ‘no’ to the convenient option.
We also suggest motivating yourself (and others!) to stop using bottled water through the power of social influences. In an interview with Hidden Brain, Behavioral Economist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman said that the best way to nudge others (and yourself) towards making environmentally conscious decisions is through social proof.
In other words, if you know that ‘everyone’ (aka, the people you know) no longer purchase water bottles, you’ll be much more likely to stop than if you simply hear a stat about the harms of plastic water bottles.
So gather your friends, and create a challenge. Whether it’s joining up to stop purchasing plastic water bottles for a month altogether, or sending a selfie each time you use a reusable water bottle, coerce one another to be mindful of your plastic consumption
This can not only help you reduce your consumption of plastic water bottles, but may empower others to do so as well.
3. Food & Packaging
To reduce plastic usage, spend some more time cooking at home! Not only will this save you a ton of money every month, but it will also help eliminate all those wasteful containers, plastic cutlery, and (plastic) doggy bags.
If you don’t want to give up on your takeouts, tell the restaurant you don’t want any cutlery delivered. And, if you’re really committed to the cause, pick up the food with reusable containers!
You can apply this thinking to your grocery shopping, too. Buying in bulk will save plastic packaging, and it won’t hurt your bank account either. Today, there are more sustainable-friendly stores than ever around the country that allow you to bring your own containers from home when buying bulk goods. For example, Lauren Singer launched a Package Free Shop in Brooklyn in 2017, after living a zero waste lifestyle. The shop stocks everything you could need to lead an eco-friendly existence including a zero-waste starter kit.
Buying in bulk has some attractive financial perks, too. For example, buying toilet paper in bulk is up to 50% cheaper than buying a few rolls at a time.
Even tech companies are taking notice of plastic waste— Apple has recently made changes to the iPhone packaging, using 84% less plastic, according to Business Insider.
4. Support the cause
There are a couple of different ways to rally for the cause. First up: pressuring large corporations to reduce their plastic usage.
We know how easy it is to feel like you’re powerless when it comes to influencing huge corporations using mass plastics. But if enough people get together and pressure companies to reduce their usage, they might just take notice.
Use social media to call out brands for using too much packaging on their product. Public figures and celebrities such as Cara Delevingne took the plastic problem to her Instagram, pledging to her millions of followers to disavow plastic bottles and straws as part of her New Year’s resolution.
You can also take your business to a more sustainable competitor—and don’t be afraid to let both companies know on social media!
Forward-thinking companies like Loop have just announced a new zero-waste platform. The pilot program promises that consumers will be able to purchase products made from reusable containers that can be returned and be reused again. Loop is working with big brands like Nestle and PepsiCo, signaling that big corporations are slowly committing to making a change.
Another approach is supporting non-profit organizations that are working tirelessly to help solve the plastic problem. Save the Bay, a San Francisco-based nonprofit and a member of Lemonade’s Giveback program, gather volunteers to collect plastics from beaches, forests, and lakes (San Francisco Lemonaders even joined them a few weeks back!).
Alliance for the Great Lakes and American Forests are two other wonderful environmental nonprofits in Lemonade’s Giveback program. There are tons of different ways to support them – you can even do so through your insurance policy! (In 2019, Lemonade gave back over $630,000 to charities Lemonaders chose.)
Although there’s no magic wand to dissolve the plastic problem, there is a growing movement of concerned individuals and communities who are working together to create change. We can’t reverse the damage, but we can work together to fight for solutions to improve the planet for generations to come.