(Note- not a comprehensive list. Beth Terry is far greater than me at alternatives. Read her blog or book for more.)
Here are some tips for going about your daily plastic-free business, and some alternatives I am using. However, also read the comments section where readers have added their own creative suggestions. And, if it isn’t listed here, search online and someone else will have thought of it. My plastic-free mouse hunting idea came from a 1 minute search online.
Disclaimer! Before I say anything about alternatives: I don’t feel that anyone should start their plastic-refusing with the idea that you absolutely need to replace every item, and fear losing out by going plastic free. I have noticed that many of the convenience items, especially, that I have had to “give up” I never needed in the first place. I think that we all buy a lot of unnecessary stuff out of pure habit and because we are told that we “need” them. But simplifying feels so good. And finding alternatives has been really rewarding, especially when I have had to wake that little sleeping beauty inside called creativity, which the consumption coma previously silenced.
To sum it up, the two most important things that I have learned during this year are:
- There is abundance in going without.
- Convenience is not what makes life colourful.
- Arm yourself with a few large cloth bags, and a number of smaller ones. Plus, never leave home without a roll of natural wax paper. Keep the wrap and smaller bags always inside your bigger bag, so that you always have what you need when you leave the house.
- The small bags can be used for things like produce, bread, or bulk foods.
- The wrap you will need at the meat/cheese/deli counter. They tend to plastic these items if you let them, so just ask them to kindly wrap it in your own paper. Note also, that most butcher paper (that brown paper at delis) is lined with plastic; remember that trees don’t exactly shine, so that sheen on the inside of the paper is plastic. That applies to a number of different paper products used for food carting and storage- like milk cartons, for example.
- At the deli (or bakery), if items are pre-wrapped, ask if they have unwrapped ones. For e.g. the bread that is sitting on those carts (before it enters the bag with the plastic window). Or e.g. the cheese from the large chunk, before it morphed into smaller chunks in plastic. Or e.g. the salmon before it jumped into that styrofoam tray with plastic wrap. (A note of caution- don’t let them just unwrap an existing wrapped item-and trust me, they will try this- because that wrap will then go to waste. Ask them kindly to go the extra mile and start from scratch.
- At the produce aisle, look out for various plastic labels and stickers. Unfortunately (and fortunately), the organic food is really good at labeling with plastic. If you are choosing organic, just look for the least plastic stickered/labeled options. If it stretches rather that rips, it’s plastic.
- Avoid all the convenience foods aisles. This is likely 90% of any given large grocery store. When I go in, it’s to the produce, bakery, meat, dairy, bulk, and checkout. That way there is no temptation (grocery stores WANT you to buy stuff out of temptation and habit- don’t fall for it!)
- Remember that boxes often hide bags inside.
- At the bulk aisle don’t fall for the plastic bag offerings. Go steal paper bags from the mushroom, bakery, or coffee sections and put your bulk food in those. They probably don’t like this, because plastic is cheaper but, yes, it is allowed.
- Don’t fall for canned foods. Most are lined with toxic plastic that leaches BPA in the food. Jars are better, as the plastic does not come in contact with the food as much. (Note- I don’t buy jars because of the plastic-lined caps, but I am not opposed because jars are v. useful around the house.)
- Don’t let yourself fall for the “It’s only a little bit of plastic.” Remember that albatross baby with its belly full of plastic caps. Unfortunately, we need to sweat the small stuff.
- At the check out, be quick to offer your own bag. No, you don’t want any bags, or double bags. If you don’t catch them, make a point to take the stuff out of the plastic and repack your own bag (I say this not to be mean to the checkout people, but I do think that this plastic default has to change. It is offensive to me not to be asked if I want to pollute).
- Find the stores that offer you choices. Stores without bulk sections, bakeries, or cheese/meat/deli counters are plastic havens.
- For cheese, totally plastic free, you can buy a huge wheel with a wax coating (look for paraffin wax alternatives like beeswax)
- Last, do all of this with a good attitude. My boyfriend hates it, but I think its a fun challenge (which, by the way, gets easier over time once you are used to the new routine. If these stores want my money, they will have go the extra mile. And if I want a plastic-free conscience, I have to as well.
- Whatever you do, don’t fall for what you are told by clever marketing. You do not need a separate cleaning product for every item in your house.
- I use soap nuts for most of my cleaning. That means dishes, floors, toilet. You can find soap nuts in bulk (look online, or in stores like Choices Markets or Sweet Cherubim on Commercial Drive in Vancouver). Boil up a batch (2-4 nuts) and you have a bottle of all-purpose cleaning fluid. The fluid lasts 1-2 weeks if stored in the fridge. I keep mine in an old beer bottle by the sink.
- You can use soap nuts for laundry (this is their main application in N.A.). Put a few nuts in a sock or small bag and chuck it in with your clothes. Or, use natural, boxed detergents.
- Baking soda, lemon, and vinegar work wonders. And there are tons of natural recipes for all kinds of products. Just take a second to find them and start experimenting.
- There are many alternatives to brushes and sponges that are not plastic. I use bamboo everything with natural bristles. I know that bamboo is not without its environmental costs either, but I like that it goes away.
- Many of our personal care products are like chemical warfare for our bodies. Don’t fall for the hype again! You don’t need most of the specialized products we are sold.
- I use a bulk shampoo bar and bulk soaps. No need for crazy conditioners, body scrubs (with plastic beads!!), body washes. They are all toxic anyways. In Vancouver, stores like Choices Markets sell them.
- For deodorant, I use a bulk deodorant bar from Lush (although I am not crazy about Lush and they do still use a number of toxic ingredients). I hear baking soda/powder works as well, with a tinge of essential oils (but with caps). There are many recipes online.
- For make up, my best advice is to simplify! Natural is so much more beautiful. Pick one or two products that you feel you can’t live without, and get rid of the rest (and most of us women have a ton of extra makeup that we simply never needed in the first place). You can make your own products too. Just take some time to look online. E.g. mascara from coconut oil and charcoal, with your old brush.
- For moisturizer, I use a bulk massage bar with shea butter, but there are many other ways. These products will also make you smell nice, eliminating the need for perfumes (which you didn’t need in the first place).
- Check out David Suzuki Foundation’s guide to homemade-cosmetic-ingredients.
- For more info on toxins in your personal care products, also check out the Skin Deep database.
- For tampons and pads, you can use either Natracare’s paper wrapped tampons, or things like Luna Pads, or Diva Cups.
- Shaving, find a non-disposable option. I have a metal razor. Source them from places like fancy shaving stores like this one. If you must use disposable razors, then try shaving less often- my colleague skips a day, and goes scruffy for Mother Nature (no one should argue with that!). That means half the razors.
- On the showering front, please get rid of your old vinyl shower curtains. They will spew chemicals into your shower air when heated. Go hemp! Easy to source online, or at stores like Dream Designs in Vancouver.
- Choose a toothbrush with natural bristles and a biodegradable handle. Mine is boar bristles and bone (the wet pig taste goes away in time). You can also get toothbrushes with replaceable heads. Some companies, like Preserve, will even let you mail back your old brush (but remember that recycling is not the ultimate solution, and by no means an excuse for our disposable behaviours).
- Do you know that beer (and other beverage) cans are lined with plastics? And that beer cap has a plastic lining? That wine bottle likely has a plastic sleeve around the neck, and possibly a plastic cork.
- Look for wines that do things the right way without the plastics. It just takes a little looking.
- Look for beers with corks. Or you can even go the growler route, which are refillable beer bottles. Steamworks and Yaletown Brewing have them in Vancouver. Look for this option in breweries in your area.
- Or make your own. Grolsch bottles with that flip cap, do indeed have plastics, but you can reuse these bottles for your own beer.
- Plastic and food don’t mix. Plastics do leach toxins into your food.
- Paper bags go a long way. Reused flour bags, for example, are good for freezing stuff.
- Abeego makes beeswax coated wraps for food storage. A great alternative to plastic sandwich bags. You can also make your own very easily! Click here for a video instruction.
- Reuse your jars. Jars are super handy for so many things!
- Try those Christmas cookie tins lined with wax paper for all sorts of storage.
- Rub oil on the cheese surface if buying large amounts of cheese (the mold will hit the oil first, and you can wipe off the oil)
- Store some veggies underwater
- Look for take-out stuff like http://www.planetbox.com/
- Once you eliminate plastics (and the resulting convenience foods, packaging etc), you will be surprised at how little waste you create.
- Then, compost, since the reason you need that bag in the first place is for the wet stuff. Vancouver has curb-side composting now (if your city doesn’t, speak up!). Worm composters are fine for an apartment. If you have a yard, there are many other benefits to composting.
- After plastics and wet stuff, you are left with your recyclables. Glass, tin, paper, newspaper, and possibly some plastics.
- OK- you will likely still have waste, but you might not need a bag after if the above steps are taken.
- If you need a bag, at least go for a truly (certified) compostable bag. This means that it should not need an industrial composting facility to help it break down. Most cities do not have these facilities, and if they do, you will have to take the bag there (but not with the garbage inside…). Too many of the biodegradable/compostable bags are just the same old rubbish: they don’t break down under landfill or ocean conditions, and might break down into toxic ingredients.
Take out and dining:
- Preparation is the key word here. If you are an eater-out, then my best advice is to always carry the basics with you.
- Bring your own containers. There are many places that now make stainless steel containers for food take out. Like To Go Ware. Some of them have silicone seals, and are small enough to fit in a purse. I can safely cart even soup in my purse.
- Carry your own coffee cup. I use a ceramic one with a silicone lid, so I don’t have to suck on plastic.
- Carry your own cutlery. Again, To Go Ware has great take out cutlery packs. My friend made mine, which rolls up a few bamboo items, including chopsticks, into a handy purse-friendly package.
- Carry your own straw, and get practiced at the art of the quick refusal. Parenting by Nature makes stainless steel straws, Glass Dharma makes glass ones. If you have your own to show the waitress, they are less likely to make the mistake of brining you trash inside your drink.
- Stainless steel water bottles are so common now. I would suggest trying to find one without a plastic mouth piece though, since that plastic will degrade into your mouth bit by bit.
- If you don’t want to go fancy, then a glass jar with a knitted sleeve will go a long way for all sorts of drinks and leftovers. Or just bring a few plates along- especially for sushi! Some places might tell you that they won’t use them, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
- For sushi, don’t forget to say no to the piece of plastic grass.
- For leftovers at a restaurant, don’t trust blanket statements about paper containers. They are usually lined with plastic. If you forgot your own, ask them to bring you aluminum foil and wrap it yourself (this will eliminate the risk of them placing it in styrofoam anyways, or bringing you a bag too).
- I have been so frustrated with restaurants, that now when I sit down, I tell them right away that I don’t want any plastic. I feel like you have to be firm, otherwise they don’t get it a lot of the time. I say right off the bat that I will not pay for anything that comes with plastic (in a nice way, of course).
- The quill was really the best, but long live refillable fountain pens! Or other better pen options. Check out Earth Imprints for example, as they are selling things like recycled tire pens. Imagen Green sells eco-friendly promotional products.
- Don’t let the cleaners over clean your garbage and overdo the bags (which happens at my office). I put a sign on my personal garbage can saying that I will deal with the trash myself. When my own can is really full, I will put the bag to be picked up. I have the same bag there still, with a few peels in it, and I don’t intend to create enough trash to ever have to trash that bag.
- Ask if your office can switch to a more eco cleaning service . See if you can start composting there.
- Paper tape.
- When pregnant, for the love of your child, be as plastic free as possible. Avoid canned food, foods and beverages heated in plastic etc. Recent studies have showed that the chemicals DO get to the baby through umbicial chord blood, and these chemicals have serious consequences for your childs development and later on in life. You might also have an easier pregnancy if your body is toxic free.
- When babies are little, they need very little. Figures.
- I go diaper free when possible. I started when my son was 3 months old. Here is the basics: hold baby’s thighs and put them over the toilet. Say pss pss pss. Do this when they wake up (immediately), with every diaper change, and about 15 mins (?) after a feed. You will start to notice the signs and schedule of your own baby. You might be surprised and get a poop on the first try. Seriously, its that easy.
- When your child doesn’t marinate in pee and poo all day, you don’t need creams. But they do make creams in tins as well.
- I use water and organic cotton cloths to clean poops. Or stick him in the sink. He is 15 months at the time of writing this, and I have never used a single wipe. I don’t trust the chemicals in them anyways.
- Think wool, cotton, wood, natural rubber, and metal for toys. Read labels when you find organic toys; so many are actually filled with plastic pellets (nurdles!) or polyester.
- Never buy synthetic clothing for your baby’s. They are full of gross chemicals. Check out this study by Greenpeace that found toxic residues in very common brands of kids clothes. Organic cotton, wool (including wool fleece), hemp etc
- Never fall for BPA free sippy cups and so on. Read here for more info on how estrogen mimicking substances were still found in liquids from BPA free cups. Look for stainless steel and silicone combos.
- Buy natural rubber bath toys. Have a bath together rather than buying a plastic tub.
- Buy less things in general, spend more time together. Build pillow forts and so on.
- Make your own paints.
- Look for organic mattresses NOT filled with polyester or foam, rather wool, natural rubber, or natural fibers. Research has found high levels of VOCs especially near areas where babies sleep.
- Wash your and your baby’s hands often when you’ve touched plastic. Your car steering wheel, vinyl floors, vacuum cleaner, computer etc all can slough off plastic chemicals that are absorbed by your skin.
- More as my baby grows…
- Dog and cat food bags are lined with plastic most of the time. How about a raw diet straight from the butchers?
- Avoid frivolous plastic toys and plastic-wrapped treats. Make your own (the cat/dog doesn’t care, or source unwrapped items)
- Start from seeds, or try to find baby plants with biodegradable planter “pots” (e.g. made from coconut fibers)
- Contact a local landscaping company for bulk soil (pick up with your own containers or delivery)
Here are some shots of alternatives that I currently use or have come across. Not all are 100% plastic-free, but better anyways. Send me pics if you have something cool to add!