Some days, I feel like I can’t escape disposable plastics. My favorite deli wraps sandwiches in it, smoothie-cart staff serve drinks in clear cups and the office cafeteria keeps buckets of single-serve condiments and plastic utensils on display. These disposables, known as single-use plastics, are cheap, relatively strong and hygienic to use. But they cause problems around the globe.
In 2016, the world generated 242 million tons of plastic waste, according to The World Bank. North America, which it defines as Bermuda, Canada and the United States, is the third largest producer of plastic waste, totaling more than 35 million tons.
The sheer amount of waste isn’t the only problem. Plastics don’t biodegrade but can break down in the sun into smaller fragments known as secondary microplastics, which are harder to detect and clean up. Microplastics can enter the food chain and appear in everything from tap water to table salt, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Plastic bags end up in the bellies of sea creatures again and again. Styrofoam containers take up to 1,000 years to decompose, according to the U.N.E.P., although other estimates say it can stick around forever. It’s also expensive to clean up: The U.N.E.P. estimates the total economic damage to marine ecosystems is at least $13 billion every year.
Plastics show up in other unexpected places. Choosing paper cups for hot brews seems helpful to the environment. The truth is, not so much, said Kendra Pierre-Louis, climate reporter for The New York Times.
“Even paper cups are lined with plastic,” she explained. That plastic, known as polyethylene, makes the cups liquid-proof but is hard to reprocess for recycling. And even though the cups get tossed in recycling bins, they still end up in landfills, as shown in an experiment with Starbucks cups reported on by The Denver Post.
A good way to reduce your waste contribution is by assembling a kit of reusable stand-ins and popping it into your commuting bag or office desk drawer so it’s always within reach. Wirecutter, the product review site owned by The New York Times, has tested many reusable options, suitable for everyday use. Here are some things you can do to reduce your own plastic waste.
Several states are considering plastic bag bans, and even if you don’t live in one, Wirecutter has recommendations for reusable totes and grocery bags that are durable and can fit in a purse or glove box for smaller shopping errands. But forgoing plastic shopping bags isn’t the only way to make an impact.
Rethinking your drink routine can also prevent unintended landfill waste. Brew your own coffee at home or bring a travel mug into your favorite coffee shop. (Wirecutter has loved the Zojirushi SM-SA48 Stainless Steel Mug for four years because it keeps beverages hot, has a leakproof design and the body won’t burn your hands.) Some coffee shops, including Peet’s and Starbucks, even offer a small discount if you ask them to pour your beverage into your clean travel mug.
Well-meaning people and media have vilified plastic straws in recent years — you can probably thank a viral YouTube video of an olive ridley sea turtle for that. But omitting plastic straws alone won’t save every marine creature or the environment. And remember: children, the elderly and some people with disabilities rely on plastic straws when drinking is difficult.
For those who don’t need a plastic straw to enjoy their next drink, a reusable straw can be handy. Wirecutter recommends Klean Kanteen’s steel straws, which come with a removable, curved silicone tip for easy drinking and cleaning, as well as the translucent, wider GoSili Reusable Silicone Straws.
If you get a period and have no medical condition limiting your use of menstrual products, forgo tampons or menstrual pads in favor of a menstrual cup. They’re reusable, they can save you money and you need to pack only one (although menstrual products aren’t a major contributors to plastic waste). The ones we recommend are made of silicone, but they should last for years.
To keep everything within reach, we recommend a small packing cube or bag organizer, which can fit in a commuting bag or purse.
Leftovers from date night make their way into flimsy plastic containers that are prone to leaking when tipped over, can’t be reheated without melting and are a pain to clean if you want to recycle them later. A reusable food-storage container with an airtight lid prevents spills, is reheatable and is easier to clean, too. Wirecutter testers have recommendations for both glass and plastic sets, although each have their drawbacks.
Ms. Pierre-Louis is partial to glass containers, like our pick, the Pyrex 18-Piece Simply Store Food Storage Set. But glass is heavy, and some restaurants may refuse to pack meals in your own containers because of health concerns, Ms. Pierre-Louis noted. If you do order takeout, decline the restaurant’s complimentary napkins and plasticware.
“The best way I’ve found to reduce my waste is to simply cook food at home and bring it to work and eat it,” Ms. Pierre-Louis said, adding that she keeps reusable cutlery at her desk. You can also store a ceramic dinnerware set at the office for mealtimes.
And although you may not be able to use reusable containers at restaurants, your local grocer may be more obliging at the bulk aisle of coffee beans and mixed nuts. Just ask them to weigh your container beforehand to ensure you’re charged for the precise amount you buy.
Of course, not all of these solutions work for everyone. Alice Wong, founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, said in an email interview that creating a reusable-goods kit is a privileged idea, as not everyone can afford to create their own kit, nor would it be convenient for all.
“The bag that hangs on the back of my wheelchair contains a lot of stuff already that I use for my personal care,” Ms. Wong said. “Getting stuff out of my bag and back into my bag requires assistance and when you already have to ask wait staff or strangers for help, this just adds to the overall labor and scrutiny from the public.”
Some people with disabilities and chronic illnesses also depend on disposable plastics to reduce contamination or to live in a world not designed for them, such as ventilator tubing, face masks and even straws. Ms. Wong said people disinfect and reuse what they can, which is a form of sustainability in the disability community that often goes unrecognized.
“We’re not some subset of hungry, hungry plastic-using hippos,” she said. She recommends that people find ways to extend the usage of single-use plastics without putting their health at risk.
If you aren’t ready to give up specific single-use items, you have other ways to help the environment. Cigarette butts are the largest source of single-use plastics in the environment, according to the U.N.E.P., so quitting smoking can have an impact. Plastic drinking bottles are another leading source, so quenching your thirst at a water fountain or with a reusable water bottle also helps. You can also choose to support policy initiatives in your community that encourage residents to recycle and hold corporations accountable for their own environmental waste.