Plastic Free Primer

How to Reduce Disposable Platic Waste: A Primer

Last fall, my husband and I decided to do a four-month “plastic fast” in which we wouldn’t buy or acquire anything made of or packaged in plastic. The fast was born out of our desire to walk our talk more fully, and to discover our capacity to live simply. We wanted to lessen our waste as a symbolic act of solidarity with the oceans, which are increasingly being destroyed by plastic garbage (the UN estimates that there is the equivalent of 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in every square mile of ocean). We wanted to lessen our exposure to toxic phthalates, PCBs, and Bisphenol-A that surround us in everything from toys to canned food. But most of all, learning to live without plastic felt like the most authentic and accessible way we could find to reduce our participation in the “disposable culture” that threatens to dispose of the planet. We wanted to learn to live in a way that caused less harm to the earth.

(The plastic acquired during one month of our fast)

At first, it seemed impossible. After all, what would we eat? A quick survey of our kitchen revealed that close to 90% of our (organic) food came in some form of packaging. But as soon as we started looking for alternatives in a more serious way, we learned that plastic need not be a fact of life. After all, until about sixty years ago, our ancestors did just fine without it. With a little more awareness and a willingness to make what I couldn’t find commercially available, I found almost everything we needed.

If I had to stop buying plastic all in one go, it would have been stressful beyond belief. Instead, we prepared for our plastic fast by weaning ourselves slowly, over a three month period. Despite the inevitable challenges of making such a big change, I was delighted to find that well before our official fast began I’d managed to almost effortlessly cut our plastic waste down to almost nothing. The most important step was developing the awareness that I wanted to find a new way to live, and a conviction that the old way was no longer acceptable.

(Learning new skills)

Here’s a summary of the ways I’ve found to cut back on food related plastic:

Befriend the bulk aisle.

I’d always bought my rice and beans from the bulk section, but suddenly, when forced to concentrate my list in that little section of the store, I discovered the incredible bounty therein. Why did the rest of the store exist, I wondered, if I could get everything from noodles to baking soda to earl grey tea to shampoo without a single scrap of waste? Now, your store might not have the most sophisticated bulk aisle. Look around at other stores, or if no others are available locally look into creating a buyers co-op with friends. If items you need aren’t available, ask that they be carried. I stayed up for several nights in a row trying to figure out how to get the bulk items home without plastic bags before thinking of cloth (duh!). Some health food stores sell them, but in a matter of days and for less than $10 I made a couple dozen bags in sizes ranging from Enormous Bunch of Kale to Poppyseed. Reuse your old plastic bottles and jars for liquid items. (Since it’s become a finite resource, old plastic has become a treasured commodity in our home. Nowadays I wash out even the old yogurt containers from the back of the fridge filled with moldy bean dip.)

(Chips from the taco shop stored in Christmas cookie tin)

Look for alternative packaging.

After falling in love with the bulk aisle, I had the kind of startling experience that happens when you begin to see something that has always been plain as day, but never before noticed. Many of the things I needed—milk, ketchup, juice, and even yogurt—were available in glass jars. Whoa! Yes, they were sometimes more expensive. But since my understanding of the true cost of disposable waste had taken hold of me, an extra 82¢ just didn’t freak me out the way it used to. (I should say I’m on a very tight budget, and that I keep it in line by choosing carefully which things we really need. Milk in a returnable glass bottle: yes. Multi pack flavored yogurt: no.) Choosing goods packaged in glass or paper or nothing at all is also a way to reward and thank the companies that make responsible packaging an integral part of their operations. We need more organic food producers who don’t think it’s acceptable to write “Good for the Earth!” all over the plastic wrap surrounding their product.

Keeping produce fresh. The cloth bags I made for bulk food also work well for produce. Durable veggies like kale and broccoli can keep in them comfortably for a week. If they start looking wilty, I spray them with a little water. Salad greens keep well once cleaned and dried and stored in a salad spinner or glass jar. Some veggies, like carrots and celery, do best if kept partially immersed in water. I no longer buy the pre-bagged five lb. sacks of potatoes or apples or onions, and skip the stryofoam tubs of mushrooms. We miss berries. Terribly. Which will make them all the sweeter when they come back into season locally.

Make it from scratch. Despite all the lofty environmental reasons to reduce plastic waste, my real motivation was much more personal. Almost selfish. I wanted to learn to live like my great-grandmother did when she was my age. To leave modernity behind just a little and take a little trip to the “olden days” where if we wanted something to eat, chances were we had to make it ourselves. Unable to buy the plastic packaged processed foods we were hooked on, I had no choice but to learn to make it myself. It’s been trial and error, certainly, but I’m so grateful to have learned to make bread, crackers, pasta, tortillas, cheeses, and yogurt. It has been a joy and a pleasure to delve into these “lost kitchen arts.” In fact, I feel creatively fulfilled by my time in the kitchen in a way that is profound and motivating. Rather than wanting to escape the drudgery of doing it myself, I continue exploring ways to get to the next level of self-sufficiency. It has been a personal revolution for me to take back my role as a provider of my family’s sustenance.

I often get asked, “But what about—.” What I’ve found is that there is almost always an alternative to our plastic habits, another path waiting to be taken, if only we seek it out.
While you might not be ready to make drastic changes, think of a few small areas where these tips might be applicable. Try your hand at making yogurt, cut back on a certain type of plastic packaging, purchase in glass when that option exists, bring re-usable bags to the store for produce and bulk food. As you look for ways to reduce your waste, be gentle with yourself! This is a journey, and ideally a joyful one. Happy travels,


This first appeared at One Small Change‘s community of change series


2 thoughts on “Plastic Free Primer

  1. I love this. The one plastic question that I can’t get out of my head is – show curtain alternatives?? Cloth with beeswax maybe? Or did our great-grandmothers just take baths all the time?

    • I use a cloth shower curtain–the decorative kind–and forgo the plastic liner. The cloth one keeps the water contained just fine, and can be rung out and laundered as needed. These days I’m happy with a polyester curtain, but there are also hemp ones that are especially mold resistant.

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