Let’s get the bad news out of the way. You know when people casually joke about our country being a burning dumpster fire? They’re not totally wrong. America has a huge waste problem, and municipalities are now burning recyclables. Why? Because in 2017, China, which used to buy most of America’s discarded recycling, decided it was tired of being the world’s garbage bin. Unfortunately, the U.S. wasn’t totally equipped to do its own recycling.
“A lot of places are just stockpiling it now,” says Silpa Kaza, an urban-development specialist with the World Bank. Kaza is coauthor of What a Waste, a massive research project detailing refuse across the globe. Her report predicts that by 2050, we’ll create 3.4 billion tons of overall waste annually compared to today’s 2.01 billion tons.
Even more astonishing is that 91 percent of U.S. plastic doesn’t even go into the recycling pool. Americans just throw it away.
Now some good news. The European Union recently announced that it will ban single-use plastic by 2021, and a few states—so far Hawaii, California, and possibly soon Maine—have implemented statewide plastic-bag bans. (Though sadly, even more states have passed legislation banning bag bans.) McDonald’s announced that it would use only sustainable packaging by 2025. By 2020, Coca-Cola plans to recover and recycle 75 percent of its bottles in developing countries, and Pepsi announced a goal for all of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable by 2025. Even Walmart has started offering paper bags and just announced its own plan to reduce plastic packaging in its stores. (National Geographic tracks plastic progress here.)
Meanwhile, former around-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur, who estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, has been making waves with her foundation. She’s working with corporations and governments to create a circular-economy model, a regenerative approach to product design in which companies minimize waste and emphasize the reuse of materials.
So why focus on individual action when corporations are creating all this crap, and most worldwide governments aren’t doing anything about it? Yes, we need to lobby for massive structural change, and consumer pressure can affect policy. But individual choice matters, too. This is not new to Outside readers. We’re generally an environment-friendly bunch. We’ve seen the horrifying photos of the dead beached whale with plastic bags in its stomach and the plastic gyre spinning around the Pacific Ocean, and we know about microfibers in our fleece. We bring our own grocery bags and drink out of reusable bottles. We’re doing our part, right?
Not really. Especially when you travel or get food on the go. “I run a sustainable business, but when I travel, I noticed that I would generate sometimes up to 20 pieces of single-use plastic trash every day,” says Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, Colorado. Tired of tossing Starbucks cups, salad canisters, and too many forks, Hoskin founded a new company called Zoetica, which aims to help frequent travelers curb their plastic waste.
Hoskin tested dozens of reusable products, scrutinized the carbon footprints of different tumblers, and eventually compiled a lineup that works well. “It took me about eight months to get my own system perfected, where not only did I ever rarely fail but I was carrying exactly what I needed,” she says.
Zoetica puts together daily-life kits and travel kits for people, or you can curate your own with the products you’ll use the most. Hoskin’s kit for herself includes two nesting stainless-steel tins with snap-on lids for holding food, a stainless-steel coffee cup, and a reusable bottle. Kaza always has at least one reusable food container in her work bag, plus a Klean Kanteen that serves for both water and coffee.
But wait—isn’t buying more stuff, which takes energy to manufacture and ship, just adding to our climate woes? Absolutely, says Ashlee Piper, author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet., a handbook for greener living. “I wanted to bust up more of the stigma that you have to go out and buy a bunch of new shit to live a sustainable life,” she says. Plus, a surprising amount of the items aimed at the zero-waste customer come shipped in... plastic.
So before you click “buy,” look around your house and figure out what you already have that you may be able to use. In Piper’s case, the stainless-steel canister she uses to carry leftovers home from restaurants was a thrift-store find, and she asks for her iced coffee to be poured into an old mason jar.
Once you have your kit assembled, get into the habit of always having these things with you. Hoskin says there are ways to avoid pitfalls. For one, when she needs a to-go meal, she asks for it to be made “for here,” then transfers it to her own sustainable container. She avoids prepackaged food at airport kiosks, too, choosing instead to sit down for a quick meal at an airport restaurant.
Sometimes cashiers at grocery stores balk when you turn up at the register with your own container, because they don’t know how much it weighs, says Hoskin. The good news is that more and more reusable bags and containers are coming stamped with a “tare”—the weight of the vessel when empty. In most stores, cashiers enter the tare before weighing the item. If they can’t, Hoskin offers to pay for the entire weight, container and all. At most, it’s just an extra ounce or two.
Meanwhile, Kaza advises against letting the enormity of the plastic problem overwhelm you. I’m guilty of this: I dwell on all the pieces swirling in our oceans like sinister confetti and think, Well, what’s one more iced-coffee lid? “I do think small changes add up,” says Kaza, adding that, despite her report’s grim predictions on our future waste totals, she remains hopeful that we’ll get our plastic issues under control.
Here are some easy ways to get through a day without plastic.
1. Reuseable Straws
Final Straw, a Kickstarter-launched company, makes a nifty, collapsible option. The straw folds down to about the size of a deck of cards and comes with a carrying case to keep it from getting fouled by your pack or purse detritus. The straw ($24.50) should hold up for 16 years at two uses a day. There are also simpler metal straws, like these stainless-steel ones from the Package Free Shop ($4.95), a web site started by Lauren Singer, who is known for fitting five years’ of her trash into one mason jar.
For the love of our oceans, please stop using plastic forks every time you grab a meal on the fly. Carrying your own is really simple, and To-Go Ware’s bamboo cutlery sets ($12.95) are lightweight and pack neatly in a case made from recycled water bottles. Or Piper suggests visiting your local thrift store, where a stainless-steel fork will set you back about a dollar.
That’s the fancy word for canisters that hold food. A good one should be leakproof, easy to clean, and nest with others, so you can carry multiples when needed. Zoetica tested 30 before finding its winner, a stainless-steel version with a clip-on lid that costs $21.
4. Reusable Storage Bags
These reuseable bags ($24.95 for a set of four) are a staple at my house for anything from leftovers to pizza dough. The clips on the top can be a little stiff (make sure the arrow is pointing toward the handle, you’ll see), but they’re simple to clean, and so far they’ve been really durable. Piper’s pick is Stasher bags ($11.99), which seal well and don’t require the clips that you see on other brands. Another option Piper recommends is aluminum foil. “Aluminium is almost infinitely recyclable,” she says, and you can generally get at least a few uses out of it before putting it into your recycling bin.
5. Reusable Cups and Bottles
Piper’s favorite to-go cup is the one you likely already have, and chances are you have one or two stashed in a cupboard. The trick is to actually take it with you all the time. Hoskin’s hack for this is simple: leave it in your bag. If you do need to buy a new bottle, opt for a plain, stainless-steel finish, like these. “A cup or water bottle that has a coat of color or a lot of designs on it takes at least 300 uses to pay off the environmental cost of making it,” Hoskin says. Basically, painting it takes a lot of heat, then there’s the manufacturing processes needed to make the paint, and the carbon wasted moving the mugs from the factory to the painter and then to the shipper.
6. Produce Bags
I own this set of mesh produce bags, which, delightfully, did not come wrapped in plastic. The company uses one of the bags to bag the other bags—hallelujah. The Package Free Shop has an entire line of options for grocery shopping, too. The most useful thing is the inclusion of tare weights listed prominently on it, so your cashier knows what to charge. Zero or low-waste grocery stores are opening in places like Denver and Brooklyn, but if you aren’t close to one, Literless.com has a list of stores by state with bulk-bin options.
7. Saran Wrap and Garbage-Bag Replacements
These items can feel difficult to root out of your life. Garbage bags are especially hard. For a plastic-wrap replacement, Piper likes Food Huggers ($12.95 for a set of five), which are reusable and flexible silicone shapes that you can stretch over half an onion or an avocado. For trash bags, Piper says that compostable bags like these do break down faster.
8. For the International Traveler
Most domestic airports now have filtered-water stations where you can fill your reusable bottle before getting on the plane. But even the greenest traveler ends up resorting to bottled water in countries where clean water is an issue. And very few of those places have robust recycling programs. Zoetica designed a kit ($327) that has everything an international traveler needs to get clean water and then some, including a tiny filtration system. It contains a water bottle, a mug, cutlery, napkins, grocery bags, produce bags, and tiffins. While that may seem pricey, it nestles well into a backpack with plenty of room for your laptop, books, and whatever else you might need. Or you can build your own kit and add a LifeStraw, which purifies water in an instant, to your bag to make sure you never have to grab a single-use plastic bottle of water again.
9. For Pet Lovers
Okay, this isn't about eating or food storage, but I get this question a lot: How can I avoid using plastic bags for pet poo? (Hint: don't use your hands.) Compostable bags are an option, though because dog and cat waste can carry bacteria, it should not be composted at home unless you’ve set up a special system for it. Or opt for a rake and dustpan, like this one.