6 Doable Ways People Are Going Plastic-Free

September  5, 2018

As I write this article, I’m surrounded by plastic. On my desk alone, there’s a plastic bag from Target, a plastic container of plastic wall hooks, a plastic water bottle, my plastic mouse and keyboard—the list goes on.

It seems like plastic is everywhere you look these days, which is why the idea of living a plastic-free life is overwhelming, to say the least. However, that’s not stopping many businesses and individuals from doing their darndest to cut back on the plastic they use each day, making a low-plastic lifestyle a year-round event.

Big Businesses Take Aim at Plastic Waste

Plastic-Free July made several big strides this year. At the beginning of the month, Starbucks made headlines when it announced plans to eliminate plastic straws from its stores by 2020. It may seem like a small thing, but consider that 500 million plastic straws are used every day in America, according to the Earth Day Network, and the majority of them end up in the landfills or, sadly, the oceans.

Several other big-name retailers followed suit over the course of the month—the Walt Disney Company is phasing out plastic straws and stirrers at its theme parks and resorts, and McDonald's plans to do the same at its U.K. and Ireland locations.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Thanks for all the good ideas. We use cotton or hemp shopping bags which we keep in the car so they are always on hand. After shopping we take the groceries into the house, empty the bags then put them immediately back into the car. We have bought cotton fruit/vege bags so we don't have to use the plastic ones but on the odd occasion that we do, we reuse them til they almost fall apart, then sticky tape them back together and keep using them”
— Margaret

Even municipalities are getting in on the action. Several states and communities across the U.S. have banned single-use plastic bags, and Seattle recently banned the use of plastic utensils at bars and restaurants, according to CBS.

Individuals in the Lead

While there’s been lots of buzz about plastic pollution in the past few months, many people have been waging war on the material for years. To see how, exactly, they achieved the daunting feat of living low-plastic lives, we asked two writers to share their experiences, including their motivations, strategies, and biggest challenges.

The following are six strategies Bridey Heing and Jenn Weede suggest for cutting plastic out of your life (or at least minimizing your use of it), one baby step at a time.

1. Think About Why

As with any big life change (or any small one, for that matter), it’s important to nail down why you’re doing it. Having a strong, defined sense of purpose will help you stay the course when things inevitably get tough and inconvenient.

Though their stories are rather different, one commonality was that both women were driven by a sense of responsibility to help both the environment and society.

“We started cutting out plastic in around 2016,” Bridey Heing, a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., said of her and her husband. “It seemed like something fairly straightforward we could do on a personal level to help mitigate some of the impact on the environment, and I think it's important that those who can afford to invest in possibly higher-cost alternatives do so to create that incentive for the market at large.”

Our other interviewee made a more drastic change, going from the hustle and bustle of N.Y.C. to the mountains of Creston, Colorado.

“After an early career as a fashion editor in New York, I moved to Colorado to lead a more meaningful life,” said Jenn Weede, a self-described eco-freak. “We really committed to living a low-impact, sustainable life because we saw the environment being devastated, and we saw people suffering by being disconnected from what was real.”

In addition to cutting back on plastics, Weede and her husband live in a solar strawbale house (how cool is that?), hunt their own meat, and even make their own pottery mugs and dishes.

2. Understand What’s Possible

In a world where everything seems to be made of or packaged in plastic, how exactly do you stop using it? The task seems pretty daunting, and according to these low-plastic ladies, you first have to understand what’s truly feasible.

“I think the language of zero-waste can be really misleading, because it's not actually possible,” says Heing. Instead, she explains it’s a matter of reducing where you can and reusing the plastic you can’t avoid.

3. Start with Your Beverages

Perhaps the best place for people to start cutting out plastic is in their drinking habits. Two super easy steps you can take right now are:

  • Carry along a travel mug for your coffee
  • Invest in a reusable water bottle

As more restaurants shun plastic straws, this might also be a good opportunity to buy a few metal or glass ones to carry in your bag.

4. Cut Out the Worst Offenders

Once you’re solidly in the habit of carrying reusable cups around, the women suggest focusing on the other easy changes you can make—such as carrying your own shopping bags to the grocery store and cutting out things like plastic wrap.

“Don’t use the straw, buy the plastic toy, or take the plastic bag,” Weede suggests. “Avoid the worst contaminating plastics, like [polyethylene food wrap] and BPA plastics.”

5. When You Can’t Reduce, Reuse Instead

You have to accept there are times when you simply can’t avoid plastic—such as at the grocery store. A lot of food comes in plastic containers, so both women households aim to buy in bulk and use containers again. “I try to make single-use plastic reusable,” says Heing. “Big yogurt containers are great for buying in bulk, for example, since they are so lightweight, or I use them to carry delicate things when I go to the farmer's market.”

You can frequently find innovative uses for plastic containers, but you have to take the time to think about it. “I scan my life and ask: How can I reuse this?” says Weede. “I do use plastic bags for buying green beans, for example, at the store, which don’t sit freely in my cart, but I reuse that bag again and again, and I skip bags for all produce that can be bought without one. I collect boxes and give them to people who are moving instead of throwing them away.”

6. Do What You Can & Accept Your Missteps

At the end of the day, reducing your use of plastic is a huge task, and you’re not always going to get it right. Sometimes there simply aren’t no-plastic options, but that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel! “I think the most challenging thing is reminding yourself that you're gonna mess up,” says Heing. “You're not going to be able to always pick a zero-plastic option, and that's okay. You're going to want to eat a candy bar sometimes, or get takeout, or whatever.”

Both writers agree that cutting out plastic takes diligence and is often inconvenient, but at the end of the day, it feels good to know you’re doing your part to help reduce plastic pollution and spur this eco-friendly movement forward.

Market Haul Idea

Have you made steps to decrease your plastic usage? Let us know how in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nancy Simmons Heifferon
    Nancy Simmons Heifferon
  • Suzanne Nash
    Suzanne Nash
  • Margaret
  • Anne
  • Gail Morrison
    Gail Morrison
Freelance writer, product tester & baking enthusiast.


Nancy S. November 17, 2019
Here are my latest changes to reduce plastic: 1) I now buy bread from a local bakery and have them put the sliced loaf into my linen bag, instead of a plastic one. At home the loaf goes into a metal box with a tight fitting lid. Skeptical at first, my husband says the bread stays just as fresh as in plastic. We will save more than a 100 plastic bags a year with this change. 2) Instead of spray-on stain treatment in plastic bottles, I now use a bar of Fels Naptha soap, which comes in a paper wrapper. Just rub the bar on the stain and wash the garment as usual. (I use powder detergent in recyclable cardboard box). 3) For washing my hair, I have changed to a shampoo bar and vinegar rinse, instead of liquid shampoo/conditioner in plastic bottles. Every month I try to add at least one new plastic-free option. We may never be plastic free in our home, but we've made some good strides
emgoh November 17, 2019
Don't know what your hair is like, but I was able to switch to a combo of 2 cups water to a teaspoon of baking soda instead of shampoo. I soak my scalp with is, massage it (ahhhh, relaxing) then rinse. If my hair seems particularly dry, I follow up with an apple cider and water rinse (1:4 ratio). I have dry, curly hair and found this in the Curly Girl book. have been doing it for about 8 months now and like the way my hair feels plus it doesn't irritate my super sensitive skin (redhead curse).

As to bread, I'm going to try what you are doing until I can get to a point where I'm baking out own (long-term goal). I would so love a grocer in my area that would offer everything packaging free, but I suspect the plastics lobby would pitch a fit and put a ton of $$$ into a campaign against that like they did every time a town has pushed for a plastic bag ban.
Meghan W. November 18, 2019
Thank you for this. All great. We are doing many of the same here and I'm trying to avoid buying any produce in plastic along with always reusing bags. Are you able to source your vinegar in bulk? We do have a bulk store in Boulder, so I'll check there. I suppose reusing the glass jars works well.
Nancy S. November 18, 2019
Thank you for the baking soda tip for cleaning hair. I've made a note to myself to try it when my shampoo bar is exhausted. I agree that baking bread would be the most frugal option; however, I tried it and it was unsustainable. Scheduling regular time to bake was too challenging. Stopping by the bakery on a circuit of errands is more doable at this time.
emgoh November 18, 2019
Rigth now the best I can do is by the 3-pack of apple cider vinegar at Costco (glass bottles), but I'd love it if I could brind my own container and just refill as needed.
emgoh November 18, 2019
The only way I can attempt bread baking for now is using the "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" recipe books (make a big batch of dough that can live in the fridge for the week and pull off some to bake as we need it). I think with just the two of us and not eating bread daily probably helps. Also, we moved from a larger city that had a lot of great bread bakeries to one that doesn't (although I've heard one may be opening up later this year--hope, hope, hope) so plastic-bag-free options are limited for now (and, you know, the big chain store breads just don't taste as good as those amazing indie bakeries).
Suzanne N. August 21, 2019
Buy or make reusable bags for fruit and veg that need to be held together - there is no excuse for using a plastic bag and produce section anymore. My mesh bags are in a pouch clipped to my handbag. Things already in plastic that's something harder to change!
Margaret January 13, 2019
We are very lucky here in New Zealand because most of our supermarkets (soon to be all) have stopped using 'single use' plastic shopping bags. If you forget to bring a bag with you, you can purchase a reusable cotton bag from the store. Also our local McDonalds has stopped using plastic straws unless you specifically ask for one
Anne September 12, 2018
We do most of these things (especially avoiding plastic toys, yikes) for similar reasons as the families interviewed. I was horrified, however, when we threw a birthday party recently and I realized how much waste was involved just for water and a treat. I hadn't done a good job planning ahead and so in a pinch I ended up purchasing water bottles and disposable plates at the nearest store. It was so wasteful, and so against my internal ethics. We will budget better next time for compostable dishware/utensils, invest in an insulated water jug (also good for camping), or just bring dinnerware and wash it when we get home (in this particular case we didn't own enough place settings do that). I'm choosing not to beat myself up over it, but it was just an area of waste that surprised me.
Gail M. September 9, 2018
We could do so much more if we always brought our own cup to the coffee shop for take out. Or stay in. Just think of the difference that would make.
Meghan W. September 9, 2018
I cut cheesecloth into large rectangles and use a rubber band at the top to wrap my produce purchases that need securing.
Picholine September 9, 2018
I crocheted market bags and take to farmers market and grocery store.
QueenCeleste September 9, 2018
where did you find the instructions? I'd love to try this.
Picholine September 9, 2018
Hi Queen Celeste ,I went on Pinterest and found several market bag patterns for free. Type in crocheted farmer market bags or just do a google search there are a lot of free patterns out there ...I use cotton yarn.
Gabrielle B. September 8, 2018
One thing I started doing was using one plastic bag for my produce and putting all the veg in that bag then, at the counter, I take out and weight each item. Then put it all back in the bag. It seems to annoy the cashier but, I say I’m sorry, I’m saving the planet❤️ I have purchased reusable produce bags, but I don’t always remember them. The writers are right. It is a mind set!
Megan F. September 6, 2018
I actually repurpose the plastic mesh bags that I buy oranges in. I have 10 now so all my fruit gets bagged and the checkout ladies are used to it now (before they thought it was a new special they were unaware of)
Lazyretirementgirl September 9, 2018
That is a really good idea! Thank you.
emgoh September 5, 2018
I saw reusable, washable mesh bags (similar to lingerie laundering bags but smaller and tighter mesh) recommended and got some. Great for purchasing produce and avoiding plastic store bags.
Gabrielle B. September 8, 2018
These bags are great, when I remember them🌏
Margaret January 13, 2019
Thanks for all the good ideas. We use cotton or hemp shopping bags which we keep in the car so they are always on hand. After shopping we take the groceries into the house, empty the bags then put them immediately back into the car. We have bought cotton fruit/vege bags so we don't have to use the plastic ones but on the odd occasion that we do, we reuse them til they almost fall apart, then sticky tape them back together and keep using them
carol50 September 5, 2018
I use an empty yogurt container for my leftovers at restaurants. You have to plan ahea, of course, and tote it along. But this saves servers time and energy since I can place my leftovers in it myself, and it’s one less throw away container to recycle or toss.
Jenny H. September 5, 2018
What a clever idea. I am going to do that.
kpks September 6, 2018
Awesome idea! In Bengaluru, restaurants like MTR insist you bring your own boxes for take out.
Gabrielle B. September 8, 2018
Bravo! Great idea🌏
Nancy August 20, 2019
Thanks; that is a great idea!