Plastics: Reuse, Reduce, Recycle… and Wash

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It’s a good idea to reduce your use of plastics. The potential health consequences notwithstanding, we’re running out of places to sort and store this stuff as part of the process to recycle it.

Long story short: China used to be our go-to-country for plastics disposal. It was in their interest – they got cheap plastic from all over the world they recycled into new products, and the world got a place to send their trash. However, because China received so much plastic debris – expected to be 111 million metric tons by 2030 -, they closed their doors to most of it in November of 2017. It’s spilling over now into countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea. The rest of it is piling up in the countries of origin – the US included.

That’s as if every human on Earth contributed a quarter of their body mass in mostly single-use plastic polymers to a massive, abandoned pile of garbage.

The US is one of the biggest exporters of plastic waste. We owe it to ourselves and to the rest of the world to be responsible. There are things each of us can do to reduce our exposure to plastic for the health benefits, while simultaneously reducing our contributions to the growing garbage problem:

  • Eliminate single-use items. This really may be the easiest and most impactful you can do.
    • Replace your bottled water with a reusable beverage container. This keeps you hydrated, saves you money in the long run, and prevents the bottles from ending up in the ocean
    • Ditch the plastic straws. They are some of the worst offenders. Trade them for silicone or stainless steel alternatives.
    • Trade in for reusable shopping bags. Those flimsy plastic bags at the supermarket almost always get tossed. Buy a few large, sturdy canvas totes, consider an insulated one as well, and just keep these in the car. At the very least, ask for paper over plastic if you don’t live in a place like California that mandates reusable bags.
  • Wash your recyclables. Please, please, please wash your recyclables. As the article notes, contaminated waste (i.e. covered in food, debris, etc) will gum up sorting facilities and cause them to reject the item altogether. This means it goes into a landfill rather than be recycled at all. You don’t have to send your empty food containers thru the dishwasher, but just rinse them really well. t doesn’t take that much time to rinse them before placing them in a recycle bin.
  • Skip the plastic option altogether.
    • Buying produce at the grocery store? Skip the little produce bag-on-a-roll in the produce aisle. You’re washing your produce at home before using it anyway, right? Of course you are, so just put your fruits and veggies right in the cart (or in a multi-use bag), right on the check out conveyor, and then be sure to wash them before eating them at home.
    • Get the pasta sauce, the applesauce, the hummus, salsa, mayo, etc. that comes in a glass jar or a metal can – leave the plastic one on the store shelf.
    • Visit the deli. Instead of buying cheese and meats from the cooler section, where they come stored in plastic bags, go to the deli and buy it in bulk. Additional benefits including having the deli slice it just how you like, potential for a free taste sample prior to buying, reduced prices, and product recommendations. Ask the deli to wrap it in paper rather than plastic.
    • Visit bulk foods with your own container. Get a container with it’s tare weight (the weight of the container without any contents) printed on it so the checkout clerk can weigh it correctly – or use brown paper lunch bags – and get your rice, cereal, pretzels, candy, nuts, trail mix, and other dry goods from the bulk section. You’ll save money and get exactly what you want.
  • Other ideas – some easy, some complex.
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