I think it’s safe to say that we all want to make the world a better place, as vague of a desire as that is. Through your support of No Ordinary Women, you are already improving the lives (and livelihoods) of a community of women in Kenya! But if you’re looking for more action items you can take, I’ve got a few suggestions for 2019.
You’ve likely seen images similar to this one of a beach in Egypt, or of masses of plastic waste floating through the ocean, or of seagulls, turtles, jellyfish, seahorses, etc caught in six-pack rings/plastic bags/straws/bottles/etc... the sights are disturbing and overwhelming. Disturbing because you look at them and can almost recognize your own personal waste in them (is that the water bottle I drank from the other day? Is that the straw I used?) and overwhelming because the problem seems so massive that it’s hard to know where to start to make it right.
Here’s where I suggest you start: acknowledge your role in this as a consumer; accept your guilt but instead of wallowing in it, use it to motivate you; And, more importantly, recognize that we’re all in this together.
The news is full of exciting stories about biodegradable plastics made from corn or fungi, or discoveries of bacteria that break down traditional plastic. But these systems haven’t been perfected yet and aren’t as widely available as regular, fossil-fuel based plastics that sit in landfills in perpetuity. There has also been a lot of progress with bans on plastic shopping bags and straws in various countries (including Kenya, which has “the world’s toughest ban” on bags and has achieved some success), states, counties, or cities, but they aren’t in place everywhere. And it’s easy for those of us with municipal recycling services to think that it’s okay for us to use plastic as long as we throw it in the recycling bin afterward, right? Unfortunately, the truth is that a large percentage of that ends up in the landfill anyway.
The best thing to do is to not use/purchase the plastic in the first place.
So, where to start? I don’t expect you to become one of those people that can fit five years of waste into a mason jar. That’s not feasible for most of us. And I don’t expect you to immediately replace everything in your house with greener options. For one thing, that would be super expensive! (Unfortunately, in a lot of ways, sustainability is a privilege: oftentimes, the “greener” alternative costs more than the “regular” one.)
Here’s my suggested plan of action:
1. Do an “audit” of the products you use (at home and at work) to see where you could reasonably make some changes.
2. Do your research. There are TONS of blogs, websites, articles, etc. out there that can help you decide which products are best for you. Read lots of reviews. Start a Pinterest board. Follow zero-wasters on Instagram. Join a Facebook group. Attend a class or online webinar. Etc, etc. (I am not going to recommend any specific items here because I haven’t tried them all and I don’t know you and what will work for you/your family/your lifestyle! There are stores online that sell “starter kits” and even monthly subscription services for trying new products, but I haven’t tried them so can’t recommend them personally.)
3. Get the other stakeholders on board. Whether that’s your family, your roommate, or your coworkers. It won’t work unless you’re united in this effort. :)
4. Once you’ve identified things you’d like to replace, use them up! Throwing things away before they’re used doesn’t help anyone. If you’re like me, you bought three bottles of conditioner the last time it was on sale so it might take you a while to accomplish this, and that’s okay. Or if it makes more sense, donate it instead.
5. Make one change at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once. Evaluate how each change will impact on your daily life (and your budget). Try something different if that one didn’t work. Exchange another plastic item for a biodegradable option. Evaluate. And so on, and so on.
You don’t have to do everything, but we can all do something.
Here are some of the changes that my family has successfully implemented so far:
1. Bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic. The handles biodegrade. Some are made with completely biodegradable bristles (soy or corn-based) and some still have a percentage of plastic. But that’s better than 100% plastic! When our dentist gives us free brushes after a cleaning, I donate them to homeless women - it’s already been produced and will end up in a landfill, so it doesn’t make sense for it not to get some use and help someone. But I use my dollars to make a statement about the demand for biodegradable options - this is important in helping to ensure that more plastic-free options become available and affordable for everyone.
2.Kits in my purse for each member of our family that consist of bamboo utensils, stainless steel straws, and bamboo cloth napkins. When we’re out and about, eating at restaurants, we can decline the disposable stuff. Keep one in your glove compartment or carry-on bag if you’re flying.
3.Tote bags for groceries/shopping. There are ones that compress small enough to fit in your purse or hang on a keychain. If you forget them, like I often do, there’s no shame in putting your loose items back in your cart and loading ‘em in your car like that (if you stow them smartly so nothing breaks.) Pretend there’s a plastic bag ban in your city!
4.Reusable produce bags. You can buy or make these little drawstring bags so that you don’t have to grab the plastic ones off the rolls. Bonus points if they’re made out of biodegradable materials like cotton, linen, or bamboo.
5.Beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap. (To be honest, I’ve never mastered using plastic wrap anyway, I’m somehow terrible at it.) Washable, reusable, easy to use. Again, buy or make them yourself (search Pinterest).
6.Reusable snack/sandwich bags instead of Ziplocs. Lots of options for these out there. They can seem expensive at first look, but you can use them for years and a lot of them can even go in the dishwasher.
7.Non-plastic food storage. As your Tupperware wears out or lids are lost, replace it with glass or stainless-steel options. (Or donate your Tupperware to a charity shop.) Again, more expensive on the front end but last a long time. Or just wash and reuse glass jars from things like pickles, salsa, etc.
8.Carry water bottles and travel mugs. Keep a few in the car for unplanned beverages.
Use shampoo bars instead of liquid shampoo/conditioner. There are lots of options out there and some come in sample sizes so you can try them out before committing. We don’t miss our liquid shampoo! My one little bar has lasted as long as about three (plastic) bottles of shampoo. Bonus points for being TSA-approved. :) Similarly, consider switching from liquid body wash to bars of soap.
9. Bring a jug. I love liquid body wash. So I didn’t give it up. Instead, I use Dr. Bronner’s soap (okay, I am recommending one specific product.) I take a glass jug to a local market and fill it up in bulk, a ½ gallon at a time. It is meant to be heavily diluted (check out their website for info about other uses as well) so that jug lasts a looooong time. We use it for our body wash and hand soap, and I make our laundry detergent out of it by adding a few simple ingredients. (Again, Pinterest or Google recipes to find what works for you: can depend on things like how hard your water is, what kind of washer you have, etc.)
10. Grocery shop in bulk whenever possible. This depends on what options you have at the stores around you, so you’ll have to look around and see what’s available. But you can take your own reusable containers to a store and have the cashier weigh them (it’s called the “tare weight”); then, you fill them up with your staples like nuts, oatmeal, rice, etc. - or liquids too, like detergent, vinegar, olive oil - and you walk out of there with your shopping list checked off but with no plastic to have to dispose of. It also means you have more control over how much of an item you buy, which is nice.
11. Don’t buy individually wrapped foods. Does my son need each mozzarella stick to be packaged separately, or can I buy a block of cheese, cut off a piece, and put it in his lunch wrapped in beeswax wrap? Spoiler alert: block of cheese, all the way. Especially for packing lunches, we’ve come to rely on conveniently packaged serving sizes of food that really aren’t necessary. Buy a large bag of pretzels and divvy them up yourself into reusable containers!
Okay, here’s what we haven’t tried (or haven’t succeeded at yet) but want to:
1.Remembering to take my own food storage to restaurants for leftovers. I think I just need to have a few containers that live in my car for just such an occasion.
2. Silk dental floss. This comes in a glass jar at first, then you just buy refills. I have a large stockpile of plastic flossers to work my way through first.
3.Toothpaste bites. Have you seen these things advertised on Facebook and elsewhere? They look so cool, just little tablets that come in a refillable glass jar. You bite ‘em and start brushing, no plastic involved.
4. Refillable pens. Again, a mountain of random writing utensils in my home and office that need to be used up first. Might take years, honestly.
5. Plastic packaging-free toilet paper. Even my tp that’s made from recycled paper comes wrapped in plastic. Why??
6. Replacing things like my hairbrush and comb with non-plastic ones as they wear out.
I hope that this has gotten you thinking about ways that you can reduce plastic in your life. Thinking about it is important! But taking action is vital. Why not make 2019 the year you really make some changes in your life to improve the life of the planet? The changes can be small, but if we all make them, they will really add up to a positive impact.