4 easy ways to cut back on your plastic use

Plus 6 things to avoid altogether, according to UAlberta experts.

Bev Betkowski - 20 April 2018

Plastic is cheap, convenient-and choking the planet, leading Earth Day organizers to focus this year's event on changing our behaviour and attitude towards plastic, helping reduce pollution.

"Day to day, if we can make small changes visibly, we can influence everyone else around us and definitely make a difference," said Aphra Sutherland, a project planner with University of Alberta Campus Sustainability.

The question of what to do with throwaway plastic is becoming worrisome. China, until recently, took delivery of the West's waste plastics, but has banned that practice, catching North America by surprise and leaving western nations unsure of how to handle the problem. The issue is expected to arise as Canada hosts the G7 Summit in June.

"Plastics are a multi-faceted problem," Sutherland noted. "They're found in almost everything we use, but we don't think about the environmental costs."

In 2016, for example, world plastics production totalled about 335 million metric tonnes, and by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish by weight, according to the World Economic Forum. Plastics are also slow to decompose and can be complicated to recycle.

One of the most important ways people can cut back on plastics and send a message is as shoppers, Sutherland said.

"We are consumers on almost a daily basis, so we have the opportunity to show businesses all around us the way things should be done."

Here are some easy ways to put a lid on everyday plastic use.

Just say no.
"We underestimate our ability to say no to a lot of the plastic given to us every day. Say no to extra plastic when ordering online, at stores, to giveaways at events like trade shows and in gift-giving. By doing this, we also send a message to vendors about consumer priorities and normalize the idea of reducing use." For instance, widespread outcry over the use of tiny plastic microbeads in shampoos and body scrubs has led to bans in many countries, she noted.

Bring your own everything.
"If we take good care of our items and reuse them, their footprint shrinks in comparison to the disposable version. When ordering takeout food-one of the biggest sources of single-use plastics-say no to extra utensils and packaged sauces. "It may seem strange to bring your own coffee mugs, utensils, straws or takeout containers, but it's one of the best ways to discourage disposable plastics." When eating to stay, take advantage of reusable trays.

Buy in bulk.
This cuts the amount of packaging per item. "Pasta, nuts, oats and other dry foods can be bought in bulk. What's more, stores that sell in bulk will often allow you to bring your own reusable containers," said Sutherland. As well, shop at places that offer more options for packaging. "Often, farmers' markets are better set up to allow you to take away food in your own containers or unpackaged. Try to use shops that give opportunities to reduce packaging or that reduce it themselves."

More ecologically conscious packaging is slowly being developed, such as potato and cassava root-based plastic food wraps pioneered by U of A professor Marleny Saldana. "The market right now is huge for this type of product, because various food products are wrapped in plastics to extend their shelf life," said Saldana, whose team in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences is also working with pomegranate peels to create healthy, vitamin-rich teething toys.

Make your own products.
Consider what can be made instead of bought. For instance, avoid store-bought juice in plastic containers by making it yourself. Many cleaning and self-care products like shampoo and detergent can also be homemade.

Avoid these common plastic culprits

  • Plastic bags: Instead, carry groceries-including fruit and vegetables-in reusable bags or a backpack.
  • Bottled water: There's no good reason to use it, said environmental scientist William Shotyk. Most bottles contain a chemical that leaches tiny amounts of antimony-a potentially toxic heavy metal-into the water, his research showed. Tap water is an environmentally friendly option. He recommends a reusable bottle made of polypropylene, aluminum or stainless steel. For events, use glasses and pitchers if sinks or fountains aren't handy.
  • Straws: Up to half a million disposable straws are used daily in the U.S. alone, and often end up in the world's oceans, injuring sea wildlife that ingest them. Say no or buy a reusable straw.
  • Fleece clothing: Lint from synthetic fleece washes off in the laundry, creating tiny microfibres that show up inside fish and seafood after making their way to the ocean. Buy biodegradable fabrics like ethical wool and organic cotton.
  • Disposable coffee cups: They often have a layer of plastic that usually prevents them from being recyclable or compostable. Use your own mug.
  • Plastic utensils: Buy lightweight, durable versions for office use or to tuck in a bag or purse.