Nine essential items for ditching single-use plastic

Seabirds and other marine life are overdosing on plastic crap and mass extinction is just around the corner. We need to seriously reign in our disposable plastic use if we have any hope of turning this around. The solution to keeping plastic out of the oceans? Keep it off the planet!

Plastic-Free July starts this Sunday and is now into its 7th year. Will you ‘choose to refuse’ single-use plastic for the month of July (and maybe beyond)? If so here is a run-down of nine essential reusable items and useful tips so you can avoid single-use plastic and help our marine life to start eating real food again.

Grocery bags

Bans of single-use plastic bags are happening all over the world and people are starting to adjust to life without them. Reusable bags are a must-have so if you don’t already have some then now is a great time to get onto it!

I have a few different reusable bags but the ones I like the most are:

Ecosilk bags — these are about the same size and shape as plastic grocery bags, they are super-strong, fit plenty in them and come in lots of great colours. They are also virtually as lightweight and compact as plastic bags so you can fit them in your bag or even your pocket! I don’t just use these for groceries — I take them everywhere that normally gives out plastic bags — chemists, department stores, gift shops, boutiques, etc. These are ethically made in China from parachute silk, which although nylon, is endlessly recyclable and can be returned to the manufacturer at the end of their life.

Simple Ecology organic cotton canvas grocery bags — if you’re after natural fabric that is still strong & durable then these are a great option. Not as light or compact as Ecosilk but they are roomy and have bottle sleeves on the inside, and can be carried by your side or over the shoulder.

TIP: Keep a reusable bag in your handbag/backpack/etc. or leave them by the front door and/or in the car so you remember them.

Produce bags

Produce bags are those thin plastic bags supermarkets provide to put fresh fruit & vegetables in. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that plastic bag bans included produce bags, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stop using them! There are lots of reusable options in different sizes and fabrics. I prefer natural fabrics because they’re not plastic and can be composted at the end of their life.

I love the ones by Simple Ecology as they are made from organic cotton, have the tare weight stitched in (even the label is cotton!) there are lots of different sizes and they come in mesh or solid weave (good for finer things like chia seeds and flour).

TIP: Keep these inside your reusable grocery bags. I have some grocery bags that I take to the farmers markets and others I take to bulk/grocery stores so keep them in the appropriate bag/s.

Water bottle

Plastic bottles and their lids are among the top 10 items found in beach clean-ups, and plastic bottle caps have become a favourite ‘food’ of seabirds.

I have a stainless steel bottle that I take with me whenever I’m going to be out for more than half an hour. Health-wise, stainless steel or glass are better than plastic, especially if you leave it in the car. Klean Kanteen makes great quality stainless steel bottles in lots of sizes, colours and different cap types (e.g. 18oz or 27oz with a sports cap).

A note on bottled water: this is not just a take-away item. Many people buy bottled water to drink at home, which is so wasteful and unnecessary. I refuse to drink tap water too, so we have a water filter on our kitchen tap so we can use filtered water for drinking and cooking. This is both a more sustainable and more cost-effective option than bottled water.

TIP: Before you buy a reusable bottle think about the size that would best suit you. If you don’t have access to filtered/drinking water during the day where you can refill you’ll need a 1.5–2L bottle.

Reusable coffee cup

Around 500 billion disposable coffee cups are produced each year and end up in landfill or the ocean. Many people don’t realise that takeaway coffee cups are lined with a thin layer of plastic, and the lids are made from polystyrene, which means they’re not recyclable.

Reusable cups are a great investment, and an easy win for reducing your waste, if you drink take-away regularly. They can also be used for a lot more than coffee, like water, soup or pretty much anything else you might drink. There are many different options out there (stainless steel or glass are preferable to plastic), so think about your needs — what size, leak-proof, insulated?

For a basic non-leak proof specifically-designed-for-coffee check out Joco or Keep Cup, available in different sizes. For something more versatile, Klean Kanteen makes an insulated wide-mouth bottle that comes with a leak-proof loop cap and/or café cap. The 16oz/~470ml size could be used for XL coffee, smoothies, soup, etc.

TIP: Keep your reusable cup in your bag, car or by the door so you don’t forget it! It took me a while to get into the habit 100%, so what I did when I forgot was to request no lid. If I forget my cup now, then I just drink-in.

Tumbler

If you ever buy smoothies, shakes or soda/softdrink to take-away, an insulated tumbler is a good idea (and it can double as a coffee cup). Klean Kanteen has these in different sizes and colours. 16oz or ~470ml is the standard size for take-away smoothies. It comes with a splash-proof lid and you can also get this compatible straw + lid set (note: neither are leak-proof).

For a leak-proof option the 16oz insulated wide-mouth bottle I mentioned above (includes café cap + leak-proof loop cap) would be a better choice.

TIP: Give some thought to your needs before you rush out and buy: less consumption = less waste and less cost. Although many people (myself included) don’t drink extra-large coffees (which is what I call 16oz), so it may be more practical to have separate items — a smaller coffee cup and larger tumbler/bottle for bigger drinks (smoothies, soup, beer, etc).

Some reusable items to help you ditch single-use plastic

Straw

Plastic straws are another item featuring in the top ten of beach litter. They might seem insignificant but they have a huge environmental impact, especially when you consider that everyday 6 BILLION straws are used worldwide, and one straw takes 200 YEARS to break down!

If you actually think about it you might realise you can manage without a straw after all. But if you can’t then a reusable straw is a must-have. Klean Kanteen make stainless steel straws with a removable silicone flex tip (that come with a stainless steel + natural palm fiber cleaning brush). If you prefer a straight version EcoTribe makes a wide-mouth stainless steel straw (better for thicker drinks like smoothies).

TIP: Carry your reusable straw in your bag and/or car so you’re prepared whether you’re getting take-away or eating/drinking in a restaurant or bar. Also, what is more important is making sure you ask for no straw when you order a drink. And if they forget and give you one anyway, remind them and hand it back. We need to form new habits but so do the people serving us!

Food containers

Reusable containers are essential for avoiding plastic containers or bags that we might normally be given when we buy take-away food. You will likely already have plastic containers at home so you can use these rather than buying something new. Stainless steel or glass is better for hot food and is a more sustainable choice than plastic but these are heavier than plastic so not as practical. If you use a plastic container make sure it is food-grade plastic (#5 or polypropylene is best). If you prefer to avoid plastic this set of three different-sized round stainless steel containers is a good alternative. You can also take reusable containers to the butcher/deli for meat, fish, cold cuts, cheese, olives, etc.

TIP: Keep a reusable container in your bag/car for take-away food and keep a variety of sizes in your grocery bags. If you’re leaving a container in your car glass or stainless steel is a better option in summer/hot climates as it’s not a good idea to leave plastic in a hot car.

Utensils

I find so many plastic utensils in the street/gutter each week (= in the ocean). It is CRAZY that these get used for about 20 minutes and then get discarded, contributing to landfill waste, litter and ocean pollution. To avoid plastic utensils when eating take-away food, you’ll need some reusable ones. You can take some from your home set although these might be a bit heavy or bulky and you might not want to risk losing them. To-Go Ware has a great bamboo set that includes a knife, fork, spoon and chopsticks. For something simpler but lightweight & durable a titanium spork is another option.

TIP: keep reusable utensils in your bag and/or car.

Food packaging

Food wrappers from things like chips, chocolate and snack bars are yet another top ten item found in beach clean ups. I quit buying plastic-wrapped health food bars over a year ago and now either bake my own snacks or have fruit and nuts as a snack instead.

What is also one of the worst single-use plastics that often gets overlooked is cling-wrap. It might be very thin and scrunch up into a small ball but add this up over a year of lunches or snacks and it won’t be so small then! It is also as deadly as a plastic bag if it gets into the ocean (which it does because I’m constantly picking it up off the ground ☹).

Some great alternatives to cling wrap are beeswax wraps, Agreena silicone wraps or Stasher self-sealing silicone bags, which are airtight and come in different sizes.

TIP: Find or get a small reusable container to carry fruit & nuts for a snack (you can get dried fruit and nuts in bulk in most supermarkets using your reusable produce bags!). Swear off cling wrap and try the reusable alternatives.

With these items you should be ready to take on Plastic-Free July! One of the keys with reusables is remembering to take them with you. It can take a while to develop the habit, but if you keep them in strategic places (e.g. by the door, next to your bag/keys/wallet) or keep a checklist by the door, then it will be hard to forget them.

Even if you can’t get all these things at once, start with the most urgent (the things you use the most) and get the others when you can. And if your Plastic-Free July just ends up being plastic bag, bottle and straw-free July then that’s better than nothing! And guess what? Your reusable items won’t stop working once July is over, so you can keep on using them to help you kick your single-use plastic habit for good!

For more help reducing the plastic in your life download my free pdf 6 Ways to Conscious Waste. You can also follow me on Facebook for news, tips and inspiration.

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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