In Partnership with EarthHero
The biggest challenge to going plastic-free is going plastic-free. You can understand the issue, commit to reducing or eliminating your plastic use, and even start opting for plastic alternatives, yet still find plastic creeping into your home and your trash at alarming rates.
The omnipresence of plastic can make going plastic-free seem like an impossible feat, but it’s all about the planning!
I wanted this post to be a practical guide for you on how to go plastic-free. I didn’t want to make it some monster list of absurdly specific tactics and switches to make, but rather an organized sequence of steps to making a lasting behavior change.
That’s why we’ll be covering:
- How to Set Yourself Up from “Plastic-Free” Success
- 11 Steps to Go Plastic-Free
- Some final considerations on why plastic *might* win and what we can do to prevent that
How to Set Yourself Up for Plastic-Free Success
The best thing about taking on plastic as your environmental endeavor is that it’s not a zero-sum game. You create an impressive impact as soon as you get started and in every step along your journey. The key is sticking with it. There are a few important guiding principles for us all to keep in mind as we set out on our plastic-free journey that will help us succeed in the long-haul.
Progress, Not Perfection — You don’t start at zero waste. You work towards it! You are setting yourself up for disappointment if you think that you’ll rid your life of plastic overnight. It’s simply difficult to 100% escape plastic (more on that later)! We have to be patient in tackling one swap at a time and focus on the progress we are making bit by bit.
Swaps & Alternatives — Focus on substitutions! It’s much easier to swap something with an alternative where you can versus cutting out something you’re used to cold turkey. For example, if for some reason I wanted to break a coffee habit (I don’t, that’s crazy talk), it would be much easier to substitute a hot herbal tea in the morning than go to no drink at all.
Reuse, Reuse, Reuse — Our goal should always be to stop our plastic consumption at the source! But, that isn’t always possible. When you find yourself with some plastic in your life, think about how it can be reused to extend its useful life. While neither is ideal, multi-use plastic is an improvement over single-use plastic.
Engage Others — Let’s not forget: it’s not your plastic-free journey. It’s ours! Having bigger picture participation in the plastic-free movement can help maintain your momentum, and broaden your awareness of all the creative solutions that might appeal to you, making plastic-free decisions easier. Community efforts create accountability and can provide enthusiasm when you’re feeling discouraged.
Plus, we have some serious work to do to save our oceans and preserve Mother Earth, so it’s imperative that decreased plastic use and consumption extends far beyond any individual. Start conversations with your family and friends and opt for eco-friendly gifts to avoid introducing disposable plastic into others’ homes.
And if we want to stop plastic at the source, of course, individuals aren’t the only ones who need to implement change. Businesses who make plastic-rich products need to jump on the bandwagon. For even more lasting impact, governments who regulate the businesses need to jump in as well.
Going plastic-free will be a lot easier for you, for all of us, if all actors who have a role to play are doing their part! After all, the reason we need to go plastic-free is to safeguard the planet we live on and the people who live on it, and there is quite literally nothing more important. So, heighten accountability for business by tweeting at them to ask what the end-of-life plan is for their plastic products and packaging.
Write a letter to your local congressperson to ask them how they are taking action. Eliminating plastic really is one of the most accessible policies for change.
Okay, we’re equipped with the right mindset, the right reminders, and now, let’s send plastic packing.
The Complete Step-by-Step Guide on How to Go Plastic-Free
Step #0: Audit Your Plastic Use!
Audit? Yes, “audit” is kind of a gross word, but it’s super applicable here. Why? Well, everyone starts in different places on our plastic-free journeys. That’s just fine, but we want to have an idea of where we are starting so we know what next steps are appropriate.
Making meaningful change can’t happen without awareness first.
It’s wild how much you start to notice all the plastic (and waste) in your life when you really start paying attention to it. It’s something you can’t unsee!
So, to kick things off, here’s what we advise:
Keep a ‘Plastic-Free’ Journal — This doesn’t have to be some extensive journal entry every day sharing your internal experience. It can be helpful, however, to have an easy-access booklet to keep a running list in your kitchen, your office, and your bedroom. As you come across something plastic, whether the product itself or the packaging it came in, add it to the list.
Hint: Your kitchen and the bathroom lists will likely be quite long.
Do this for 1-2 weeks. Make sure you’re making note of everything you use in your normal life habits and errands; going to the store, heading out for a hike, making lunch, showering.
When 2 weeks are up, take a look at what you’ve recorded. The next step is denoting how difficult you perceive the change or elimination would be to make (easy, medium, hard). What we’re looking for is which would be easiest for you personally to substitute or eliminate.
But what makes a switch “easy?” Here’s how we think about it:
- Do you already know the change you’d make?
- Is there a plastic-free, more sustainable product you already have or could easily purchase to act as your swap?
- Does it seem super inconvenient?
These are important because, as we get started, we want to identify the “quick wins” first. This will get our momentum going.
While everyone’s individual daily habits will influence what changes are most practical for each of us, there are some usual suspects that we usually have in common. So, here is a roadmap to plastic-free living that you can use as a framework once you’ve taken stock of the plastic you’re dealing with.
We organized this plastic-free journey from the easiest to the most challenging switches.
Step #1: Eliminate the No-Brainers
Difficulty: No biggie/it’s actually inconvenient not to switch from plastic.
A single-use plastic bottle takes up to 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill. Even then, it releases pesky microplastics as it goes that seep into our water, food, and natural environments!
Plastic water bottles are expensive, do sketchy stuff when left in hot temperatures, and require that you keep buying more. A reusable water bottle simply makes life easier and more affordable.
Here’s a couple we like:
Moving away from plastic can make change beyond the immediate environmental impact. The Cupanion, for example, combines reuse and international service, linking your water bottle refills to funding water projects around the world.
Users can track their refill data through an app (because who doesn’t love a good data set) to keep tabs on how much their refills have contributed to global water projects. Founder and CEO Matt Wittek created Fill It Forward because he thought “reuse is just the easiest thing that you can do to help the planet and to make an impact.”
Ah, the notorious and glorious to-go’s at the coffee shop. While they appear to be paper, those cups aren’t paper folks! They are lined with non-recyclable plastic film. That’s how hot coffee can stay in there without obliterating the cup.
Plastic Grocery Bags
Frankly, I think we have so many totes in our house that we are on the verge of having a tote pollution problem. KIDDING. Our totes are great. All eighty of them…
The borderline-overstock was necessary for us. The only thing that used to keep plastic grocery bags in the power position for our household was us forgetting our totes at home—we’d have a few in the car, go to the grocery store, bring them in to unpack the grocery bags, and it would take weeks for those totes to make it back into the car. Most often there’d be a store trip where we would kick ourselves for leaving totes in the kitchen. That’s why it’s worth having a solid set that allows you to keep a stash in the car, so one grocery trip doesn’t wipe out your supply.
Did you not know everyone hated straws? They’ve been on the bad list for a while, so by now we all likely know why straws are bad. Come on.
Nonetheless, pick yourself up a couple straws made of sustainable materials: compostable straws, metal, bamboo, there are so many options. Final Straw provides great options that can nix the plastic and can stash away subtly. We prefer the metal straws as long as you have one of the slim cleaner brushes handy.
Now, with usual suspects down, let’s get creative.
Step #2: Plastic-Free in the Kitchen — Food Storage
*If you aren’t sold on Stashers, check out our complete Stasher bags review.
The switch to something like Stashers comes with many benefits. The most obvious is that after the upfront investment, you avoid regularly repeated purchases of bags.
In addition, Stashers double as cooking tools—can you throw your single-use Ziploc in the oven or microwave, or for some sous vide meals? You can with Stashers.
With plastic-free bags and wrap, not only are you keeping harmful plastics from seeping into your food, but it’ll keep plastic out of the ocean (and out of your seafood), and they’ll be useful for years to come! By making the switch to reusable, you individually can save 1,500 plastic bags from entering landfills each year.
Step #3: Plastic-Free Cleaning Products
Almost every cleaning product under the sun comes along with some plastic! All-purpose cleaner, laundry detergent, toilet brushes (did these all make it onto your plastic lists?). Even when cleaning products are non-toxic, that usually refers to the ingredients, not the packaging.
The actual switch in this particular realm isn’t challenging, but since these swaps require a little bit of research, they earn the “medium” score for difficulty. If you’re up to the task, you can take the DIY route. To do so, I’d consider consulting with Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home. She has recipes for everything from stain remover to drain cleaner. Apparently, some vinegar and baking soda can take us pretty far.
However, for those of you who are looking for a done-for-you style, you’ll have your greatest chances of making improvements by finding the right companies.
A simple go-to: our friends at Grove Collaborative. Grove has a five-year plan to go “beyond plastic” (being completely plastic-free by 2025), and you can filter products by the beyond plastic label, so they’re easy to identify. Even now, Grove is “plastic neutral,” which means to say that for every ounce of plastic they sell, they collect and recycle an ounce of plastic waste.
For many of our cleaning products, a big way for us to cut down on our plastic waste has been to purchase glass spray bottles (the tops are still plastic…) and refill them with different kinds of cleaning solutions.
Turns out water is the main ingredient for most cleaning products. The cleaning solutions from Grove often come in small aluminum bottles that you pour into your glass spray bottle and dilute with water on your own, eliminating a new plastic bottle disposed of and purchased each time you run out of a product.
Consider checking out Meliora Cleaning Products’ Home Cleaning Spray as well, which comes with refill tabs. All you’ll need to do is add warm water to the mix!
Other low-plastic, swaps we’ve loved:
- Laundry Detergent — Meliora’s Eco Laundry Powder with a refillable canister.
- Microfiber Mop — This microfiber mop keeps you from buying those disposable Swifter packages. Just use water. This is one of the best purchases we have made in the home-cleaning realm.
- Dishwasher Detergent — Use these zero plastic tablets from Seventh Generation.
- Stain Remover — Melioria’s Stain Stick
Step #4: Plastic-Free in the Bathroom — Plastic Free Personal Care!
Heading to the bathroom, things may start to get a little more complicated. In the bathroom, some of our swaps can get a little more finicky, largely because we all tend to be a little more specific with our bathroom item decisions.
Glancing at your bathroom notebook, you probably have a list of all the plastic bottles in your personal care routine. Every single bottle of shampoo, conditioner, body soap, lotion likely fall into that same plastic pollution category. The shampoo bottle your parents used to wash the very first hairs on your head is still very much on this earth, and no thank you. We don’t want it!
The shampoo bottles thrown out every year in the U.S. could fill 1,164 football fields. And if just one person switches to using refillable shampoo bottles instead of plastic, that’s 600 plastic bottles diverted by just that single person over their lifetime. Not too shabby!
These are impactful changes and just like the changes in the kitchen, the planet isn’t the only beneficiary. Keep in mind: the dichotomy between quality and sustainability is a false choice. We learned this when we dove hair first into Plaine Products. Check out our complete Plaine Products review for more on that switch.
And it doesn’t stop at shower products. Take a toothbrush for example. We all change them roughly every three months (or so recommends your dentist), which means we’ve each contributed nearly 120 toothbrushes to our local landfill. Switching to an eco-friendly toothbrush that’s compostable means 100+ toothbrushes you aren’t throwing in the trash anymore. Here are some tips specifically for creating a zero-waste bathroom where you can find a step-by-step breakdown for this process.
For now, here are some quick-hit recommendations for swaps for the bathroom:
- Plastic Free Shampoo Bars — Try out some Shampoo and Conditioner Bars, from our friends at HiBar!
- Toothbrushes — Try a Bamboo Toothbrush with nylon bristles from the Humble Co.
- Toothpaste — You can opt for some Georganics’ toothpaste in plastic-free glass jars, or, try some of their toothpaste tablets, which you chew for a moment then brush with shortly after.
- Dental Floss — Here’s a silk floss in plastic-free packaging, or refillable floss pouches byHumanKind.
- Deodorant — You can find a zero waste deodorant cream, or similarly, a deodorant stick.
- Toilet Paper — Toilet paper isn’t typically made with plastic, but sometimes the rolls are! As well, our rolls typically come in plastic packaging. Check out the Bamboo Toilet Paper from Grove — plastic-free packaging, and a more sustainable paper source.
- Menstrual Products — Consider using a silicone menstrual cup from Saalt to cut down tremendously on single-use feminine products.
Of course—this list isn’t exhaustive, but hopefully should be more than enough to get you started! Not seeing what you’re looking for here in plastic-free personal care? Consider searching the marketplace from our friends at EarthHero for some plastic-free options to experiment with.
Step #5: Plastic-Free Clothes…
Sometimes the effects of plastic pollution pop up even where we don’t expect.
In a society where fast fashion is the norm, we’re contributing to the harmful ingestion and inhalation of microfibers all the time through the way we wash and dispose of our clothes. Luckily, some sustainable companies are mindful of their environmental impact, investing in plastic-free, durable fabrics, repurposing clothing, and even reducing the amount of plastic in the environment by using already existing plastic to create new clothing.
Next time you need a new item of clothing, consider a company that puts human and environmental health first. In 1993, Patagonia was the first retailer to use recycled materials to make recycled polyester for products like their Nano Puff Jacket. Marine Layer takes your old t-shirts and combines them with recycled plastic bottles to create great quality shirts, joggers, jumpsuits, and dresses.
Girlfriend Collective uses recycled plastic bottles to make their activewear sets. If you’ve wondered how does plastic get into the ocean, washing our clothes is a big reason! That’s why Girlfriend Collective sells a Microfiber Filter that attaches to your washing machine. This filter catches microfibers before they enter the waterstream.
Patagonia also makes GuppyFriend bags as a great, affordable, and user-friendly way to catch microfibers that come off your clothing from a wash. If just one person switches to a microfiber filter, each wash will catch 90% of microfibers that would ordinarily wash down the drain and head directly to our waterways. Big wins, big wins!
And when you’re getting rid of clothes, opt out of sending your clothing with all its microplastics to the landfill. Certified B-Corp Helpsy makes it incredibly easy to recycle your clothing even offering home pick up for folks in the Northeastern U.S.!
Going plastic-free with our clothing can be a challenge, but finding ways to support companies that aren’t bringing any new plastic into the environment is a great way to prevent any additional plastic waste from being created and negatively impacting our environments.
Step #6: Dining — Take Out
The global pandemic didn’t make this easy…
This gets put in the “hard” category because your control here is limited. Disposable single-use plastics have become a non-negotiable for restaurants serving takeout meals, even though the validity of their logic is debatable. While we are in the midst of this pandemic, we might be facing an uphill battle, but we can still request the minimal amount of plastic possible.
Ask if they can hold the utensils and any non-essential extras that you have/can reuse at home, and if you have condiments in your fridge, let the restaurant keep theirs in plastic packaging. A lot of plastic that does sneak into the to-go bag gets tossed out without even being used. Consider starting what our household calls our “shame drawer.” This is where we keep our collection of plastic utensils that will one day find their use (not avoiding plastic, but at least they’ll serve a purpose).
For when the world returns to normal…
Bring your own reusable cutlery set out with you just in case you get presented with a plastic option or consider the sit down and stay approach. Of course, cooking at home is a surefire way to avoid picking up any plastic for transport.
If you have to take the food and run…and you’re bold, you can see if the restaurant will be open to using your own reusable containers versus the disposable plastic ones (like these from U Konserve)!
Step #7: Plastic-Free at the Grocery Store
Have you ever had the moment after you unpacked everything from the grocery store and you realize just how much plastic packaging everything comes in?…
Yeah…it’s quite overwhelming. And, frankly, hard to work around. We’ll have to get creative here as to how we avoid pre-packaged goods for our grocery shopping needs.
Bring Your Own Containers/Reusable Bags — Before we load up our basket, we’re going to have to make sure we’re equipped to carry all these goods. Of course, we’ve talked about totes earlier (see “No-Brainers”) but now we should share a few more that will help us easily store any of the bulk foods we pickup at the store:
- Cotton or Mesh Produce Bags from Eco-Bags.
- Large Glass Containers or Mason Jars
- Glass Bottles
- Stainless Steel Reusables for the Deli.
Bulk Sections are Our Friends! — Bulk sections at our local co-ops or health food stores are our best shot at accumulating as many of our foods ‘plastic-free.’ If your current grocery doesn’t offer bulk, consider finding a grocer that does so you can substitute pre-packaged snacks and beans with your own bags! These are very common at co-ops or natural/health food-oriented grocery stores.
As well, make sure your grocery store has a plentiful produce section full of non-packaged veggies.
Of course, these things might seem a little more inconvenient than your typical grocery store routine and to start, they might be! Once you get the habit and routine down, you’ll feel great about how much plastic you aren’t using each time you head to the store.
Consider a Farmer’s Market — Don’t forget, our Local Farmer’s Markets can offer lower waste alternatives and more flexible means to package all the goodies you’re purchasing. Typically, most things at your Farmer’s Market won’t be in plastic containers. Rejoice!
Step #8: Mail & Packages & Deliveries, Oh My!
Difficulty: Easy and Hard!
Again, another difficult realm of plastics to cover. Seems like we can’t possibly stop the junk mail that arrives in our mailbox or control all the packaging of our orders!
There are some actions we can take to begin limiting the wasteful aspects of our mail that we receive.
- Visit CatalogChoice.org to Reduce Junk Mail — Catalog Choice is a nonprofit organization on a mission to stop junk mail for good! Whew, love the sound of that already. Sign up for a free account, search for senders and submit your opt-out request through Catalog Choice. They’ll take care of the rest for you to complete all the requests.
- Check out PaperKarma.com too — Very similar, but a paid service ($25 / yr.), you can scan mailers as you receive them throughout the year through Paper Karma’s app and they’ll prompt an opportunity for you to opt-out right on the spot.
- Review company packing materials before you order — E-commerce companies like A Good Company leave no rock unturned in their quest for sustainability and that includes using only climate-neutral packaging. Opt for companies that use sustainable materials in their packaging when possible.
So, it might be difficult to actually reduce 100% of our mail intake for good. But, by checking out one of those two done-for-you services mentioned above and screening packaging and shipping methods before placing orders, you can make a significant dent in it.
Step #9: Plastic-Free Everyday Products
Difficulty: Easy and Hard
If you are continuing on with the practice that we mentioned in Step #0, you’ll be keenly aware of plastic threats as they come up in your day-to-day life. Making a commitment to purchase everyday products that are more sustainable, perhaps can be composted or repurposed is a wonderful opportunity to make a difference.
Instead of hitting the waves, your waste can actually give back to the planet. Take a look at your smartphone for example. Does it have a case? Plastic phone cases are meant to be durable, which means they’re made from plastic that won’t break down for 1,000 years— too bad that iPhone will only last 3-4, max!
Doing a little research, you can find companies like Pela, who are leading the way in the way in sustainable product design, changing the conversation by creating tech products like iPhone and AirPod cases made from bioplastics that can be thrown in your own home compost at the end of their life and they’ll compost…on their own…just right there.
Switching to a compostable, eco friendly phone case next time you get an upgrade can divert over ten pounds of plastic from entering the waste stream over the course of your life.
It’s imperative that we consider supporting a company that thinks about the entire lifecycle of the products it creates and sells.
Step 10: Stop Plastic at the Source!
Difficulty: Uh…Hard, but the *MOST* Impactful
Remember back at the very beginning of our “plastic-free journey” where I reminded you of the importance of getting others outside yourself engaged in reducing their own plastic waste?
Yup, we’re making this point twice.
Going “plastic-free” can and will be so much easier when all the important players in the world around us are on board with getting there too.
Our friends, family, and colleagues are also making purchases themselves every single day and casting “votes” for what type of world we all live in.
This means businesses that create and sell the products we buy too. We need to press businesses who have the resources to invest in product innovation and more sustainable methods of production so that the options coming to our grocery stores and marketplaces are beginning with sustainability. Tweet, send emails to support and choose to support businesses that are truly on the plastic-free journey with us.
And, then there are our government officials and representatives who regulate what sort of rules businesses need to play by. Government must regulate pollution much more stringently down to plastic usage. We cannot allow the destruction of the planet for the sake of profit. Businesses already have, and others will adapt.
Write a “Plastic-Free” call to action letter to your local representative.
Step 11: Reduce, Reduce, Reduce
And so, with the wind behind our sales, heading straight for “plastic-free horizons,” how do we continue? Well, much of the same.
We remain vigilant and aware, where is a lot of plastic showing up in my life? Then we prioritize, research and plan out a solution, and implement. One thing at a time, reducing our plastic waste with every change.
Observe, prioritize, research, and reduce.
If you are ever lacking in inspiration or creativity yourself, don’t hesitate to pick up Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home (mentioned above) or Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.
In Pursuit of a Plastic Free Life: The Ways Plastic *Might* Win…
Of course, none of us are perfect! And this journey to eliminate plastic from our lives isn’t easy folks! And so, before we wrap this post up with some reusable beeswax, let’s remind ourselves that there are some ways in which plastic could get an edge on us.
There’s the upfront affordability of plastic-free products, the inconvenience of implementing a new plastic-free routine,and the lack of accessibility to information to help us identify new alternatives. All of these roadblocks could cause the plastic problem to persist.
We just have to remind ourselves to do the best we can with where we are. Remember: it’s steady progress, not perfection we’re shooting for. And pushing for that steady progress is well worth it.
We don’t want to sustain the status quo because it’s simply not enough anymore. We need to build a future we can actually sustain. There is no Planet B.
Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble
Cory is the host of The Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast, where he’s interviewed well over 150 leaders in the space of better business, social impact, and innovation. Prior to Grow Ensemble, Cory was the CEO of a digital marketing agency, a position he earned at the age of 22. There, he became an expert on all things digital marketing & SEO.
Cory Co-Founded Grow Ensemble (with his partner, Annie Bright) as a vehicle to raise awareness of and inspire action around some of the world’s biggest problems and problem solvers.
He blogs, podcasts, and publishes video on all things leaving the world a better, more just, equitable, and habitable place for all.