5 Very Doable Things You Can Do to Reduce Plastic Use

Reducing plastic use doesn't have to mean a complete upheaval in your daily rhythms. There are little ways to make a big difference.

January 24, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

Big resolutions are overrated. This year, we’re all about highly doable improvements we can pull off any day. In Small Change, Big Impact, we're making tiny tweaks and sharing the results. Follow along, join in, and let us know what other small changes you’re making this year.

As the clock struck 2020, I thought to myself: What are some things I want to cut out of my life this year? The obvious ones—negative thinking, processed sugar, socks with holes—came to mind. Then, with the impending demise of our planet on the brain, I began to think of ways in which I could, perhaps, at least in my own small way, minimize the environmental footprint of my existence.

Plastic seemed like the best place to start. When I think about my relationship to waste, plastic is always the first thing that springs to mind. Plastic rules my life. I rip it apart to access any purchased good and use it to carry all my things. It’s convenient and lightweight. It’s functional and easily manipulated. There’s a reason plastic is so, so popular.

I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and pointed a finger at my grubby reflection. You, sir, will try to use less plastic this year. I walked back out to my New Year’s party, blew into a plastic horn, and wrapped a plastic mask around my face. I thought, I guess I’ll start tomorrow ...

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“I love this idea and I hope Food52 will take it to heart when mailing their own packages. Please choose more eco-friendly options! ”
— Theresa

To help with my quest, I called my sister who has the most sustainable life of anyone I know. She lives on a farm and makes her own detergent, so I asked her to give me some pointers a bit more attuned to us city folk. Some were possible (which I’ve outlined below). Others, like heading to your local swap meet and stocking up on reusable bamboo toothbrushes, were less so.

Here’s what stuck:

1. Buy a water bottle you love.

And use it like you mean it. It takes at least 450 years for a plastic bottle to completely degrade. And in the US, only 30 percent of these bottles are actually recycled. Since I joined the reusable water bottle game seven years ago, I’ve gone through but two of them. My first one was a red Nalgene that I took backpacking through Europe with me, so when I left it in a classroom one day and lost it forever, I shed a literal tear. I’m now the proud owner of a S’well and it’s permanently attached to my hand (unsponsored).

Bottom line: Single-use plastics are—say it with me—POINTLESS. Besides maybe toilet paper and bad jokes, there’s nothing we have to use only one time and then throw away. I’ve been working hard to identify all of the places in my life where I use plastic just once, and water felt like an obvious place to start.

2. Put Yer Bags Where I Can See ‘Em

Shopping bags, another pernicious single-use plastic, may be a different story. I have reusable plastic shopping bags and I mean to use them, I really do. Some even have sweet little designs on them like cute tomatoes! But to say I have a 10/10 track record would be a violent overstatement. Here’s something that happens to me a lot: I get to the checkout station, am asked if I’d like a bag, violently pat my pockets, realize I have no reusable bags, ask for a plastic bag, and then continuously reassure the cashier that I swear I have some at home but just forgot them this time.

So, to make sure this is a habit I stick to, I’ve moved my reusable bag stash from under the sink and to the front door. Think about it: If they’re in plain sight as I’m leaving the house, I’ll be sure to grab one, right? In theory. I’ll be trying my best on this one. Let you know how it goes.

3. Bulk Up, You Supermarket Super Shopper!

According to National Geographic, 40 percent of plastic produced is just packaging that we use once and discard. Youch! If that’s a fact that doesn’t rattle your bones, then … congrats! Your bones are unrattleable. I phoned a friend to see if there was something I could do to reduce the amount of packaging I consumed. Said friend was, again, my sister, who probably only throws away, like, seven pieces of plastic a year. She broke it down for me real slow: It’s all about buying in bulk.

I always knew that bulk bins were the best way to shop, but a surplus of laziness and lack of inventiveness kept me out of that region of the grocery store. But 2020 is all about change, change I can believe in (hey that’s catchy, someone should use that). The real perk of the bulk aisle, my sister told me, is that you bring your own reusable bags and thus eliminate almost half of the plastic from your supermarket haul.

She was right. I went to my local market billowing with pouches and bags and tiny sacs that I culled from around my house and was able to get most of my dry goods (cashews, brown rice, flour) as well as (almost!) all my produce without using plastic. I paid extra attention to the packaging of my produce and tried to pick options that didn’t use extra: This was easy when it came to, say, buying whole vegetables over precut ones, but proved more difficult in the case of buying my preferred greens. I couldn’t quite eliminate the bag of arugula and mixed designer salad leaves from my cart.

4. Pay Attention to Packaging, and Do Your Best.

Here are some other useful tips I learned that are changing the way I grocery shop:

  • Always buy cork instead of screw tops when shopping for wine.
  • Aluminum foil is recyclable, plastic wrap is not. Store your leftovers accordingly.
  • Small things like teabags and their labels can have a big impact on the environment. I’ve started experimenting with loose-leaf tea and a reusable (metal or rubber) tea brewer for this reason.
  • When it comes to beverages and their packaging, here’s the breakdown of what’s best for the environment: Recycled cans are the best, followed by glass containers and trailed by plastic.

5. Make like a camel and carry everything with you.

I realized that I could avoid using plastic if I just—like my Boy Scout troop leader always told me—came a little more prepared. Here’s the scene: I’m at a restaurant, it’s my lunch break, and I order a salad or sandwich or grain bowl, whatever, and they give me my food plus a disposable bowl and set of plastic cutlery.

As if!

What if, instead, we provided our own containers and brought our own cutlery, thus avoiding the needless throwing away of even more plastic just so we could properly enjoy our lunch? It seems weird. I know because I tried it. And at first it feels annoying, but like asking your roommate to turn down their music, it gets easier each time. You’ll find that people are actually receptive to your mission.

The first time I asked a server to box my leftovers in a plastic container that I pulled out of my bag like some eco-conscious Mary Poppins, they were more than happy to do so. And as for the silverware, it’s fortunately easy to carry around a reusable set. You don’t even have to buy any online. Grab a knife, spoon, and fork from your silverware drawer, tie them together with a rubber band, and put them in a glasses case or tiny bag.

How do you reduce plastic use in your life? Share your tips in the comments below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Diane Lorvig
    Diane Lorvig
  • TxSun
  • Jennifer Buchholz
    Jennifer Buchholz
  • Gina Ursino
    Gina Ursino
  • janet
Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.


Diane L. February 17, 2020
My method for remembering my re-usable bags is this. If I forget, I have to buy a new one. Yes, that means I have accumulated quite a few, but I keep them in my car. So there is no excuse not to have one when I shop
Kathryn S. March 4, 2020
I also keep mine in the virtually impossible to use space on the door of my car. Those bags are the perfect fit!
TxSun February 17, 2020
It’s rather difficult to cut down on plastics in some areas. We live in a city of about 70K that has plastic, paper, & aluminum recycling, but not glass. We don’t have any bulk buying and only a couple of places ask if I have my own bags. Often the clerks act as though I’m inconveniencing them when I use my own bags, Several restaurants won’t let me use my drink container. I pick up old kitchen towels for use as paper towels and mason jars for food storage at estate sales. I save small cloth bags for vegetables. When I visit one of my kids who all live in large cities I bulk up on what I can. I write to manufacturers and let them know that I no longer will use their product because of the unnecessary plastic packaging. I can’t do much but I do what I can. Forums like this are helpful because I learn of resources for more eco friendly products that aren’t being suggested by someone who is making a profit from their recommendations.
Kathryn S. March 4, 2020
Love the idea of old kitchen towels instead of paper!
Jennifer B. February 16, 2020
We’ve tried to cut down on plastic products in the bathroom—toothpaste tabs, bamboo toothbrushes and soap, shampoo, conditioner that arrive in aluminum containers from Plaine Products. We ship our empty containers back to the company, where they are cleaned and refilled. The shipping box is reused multiple times as well.
Gina U. February 13, 2020
I ways use the ecco eco conscious garbage bags that are compostable. I no longer buy zip lock bags or sandwich bags instead of opting for the paper sandwich bags. I buy all my spices and baking products in bulk and use the bees lids instead of plastic wrap. I also use a reusable container for laundry detergent and other cleaners so that I can buy far fewer containers a year. I feel that everything we can do ispositive. I also try dilligantely3to walk wherever I can and car pool when I can so that I am being more environmentally conscious as well. I cannot save the world but I can most definitely do my part.
TxSun February 17, 2020
What are bees lids?
Gina U. February 17, 2020
great products.
janet February 12, 2020
I started making my own grocery bags from old clothes years ago. Now I have made prettier ones and crocheted some. I do have a question for anyone who has an idea - what can I use to collect my dogs poop if not plastic? Thanks in advance
judy February 27, 2020
What a great idea for grocery bags--cudoes...There are compostable poop bags for that purpose. Or do what we did for our kids...cloth that gets washed. Scoop into a plastic container, drop in the toilet and flush. Use a cloth then soap and water to clean container. Cloth goes in a bucket with a little bleach water for wash day.
Metal bucket and shovel that kids play at the beach.
Napa G. January 30, 2020
I bought a set of glass straws and also just quit using a straw most of the time. If I am given one I will return it right then so it doesn't get thrown away. I also use my own bags for groceries and such. Keep them in the car! I vowed a while ago to carry out in my arms if I forgot. I also have a fabric bag all rolled up that I carry in my purse.
Kit B. February 2, 2020
Just so you know, pursing your lips around a straw increases the inevitable lines around your mouth. I don’t wish to encourage them
Butafly January 30, 2020
Place your grocery bags behind the driver's seat and place a Post it to remind you on the dash board. Always have an insulated bag big enough for frozen , meat and dairy food too. Stick another brightly colored Post it on the inside of the driver's side window to remind you before you lock the car door.
judy February 27, 2020
except now one is using Post-its--Try cutting up old parts of bills that don't have sensitive info. Write your note. Tuck it into the steering wheel or somewhere that will hold on to it. No need for tape. But a reusable reminder. I stopped using post-its about 4 years ago, using the backs of papers from work, etc that generally get thrown away. Of course, not sensitive info, but there is plenty that is not sensitive that ca be used instead of post-its.
Gladys P. January 29, 2020
My husband and I use cloth napkins. Most people have several in their drawer they never use.
In the winter we go to Florida and we forgot our cloth napkins. It is amazing how many paper napkins you go through in a week. We each have a different napkin ring and reuse it for a few days and then throw it in the wash. Works great.
Diane L. February 17, 2020
I too use cloth napkins - even at work, I keep one at my desk and take it with me to the break room at lunch time.
tundracat January 28, 2020
I'm pretty sure most butcher paper is plastic lined and cannot be recycled, so it may not be much better for the environment than plastic wrap.
thomasef53 January 27, 2020
Also, can we PLEASE find something, like an old kitchen towel, to dry foods off with? Paper (as in paper towels) have their own environmental cost.
Eddhee January 27, 2020
Plastics are non bio-degradable material and so has detrimental effect on us and the environment.
Peggy January 27, 2020
About 40% of our plastic waste is floating on the oceans’s surface creating a huge island, and the other 60% is clogging the ocean bed harming bottom feeding marine life. Sea birds are dying and becoming extinct, when they dissect their stomachs they find it full of small bits of plastic. Some plastics do decompose and off-gasses a smell that is similar to a certain algae, thus why birds are eating it.
Eddhee January 27, 2020
You're right. Despite campaigns been made worldwide against the use of plastics, it's still been used in many homes and companies. Our eco system is been destroyed. I can almost paint a picture of what the future is gonna look like.
Smaug January 26, 2020
Aluminum foil is not a substitute for plastic wrap. Aside from the hideous expense, it simply doesn't make an airtight seal, and you can't see what's in a package. I understand that there are modern materials (similar to old fashioned oil cloth) that do a good job and are more reusable, but those I've heard of are very expensive. Recycling isn't by any means zero impact either- I think metals are relatively clean; plastic recycling is gnarly enough that it's exported to people- especially the Chinese- who are increasingly leery of taking the burden for us. And there's a high rate of contamination of plastic loads, so a good deal of it either ends up in landfills or floating around in ships in search of a sucker to take it.
Mary C. January 26, 2020
The original data was collected in 2015, and no new study has been done so these numbers are still being reported. ONLY 9% OF PLASTIC WAS BEING RECYCLED. Another 12% was incinerated, and 79% ended up in a landfill. The most recyclable plastics are #1 and #2. These are also safe for use with food. Plastics #4 and #5 are also recyclable and safe for food use, but are not recycled as easily. Think squeeze bottles and the liner inside cereal boxes. The bad plastics are #3, #6 and #7. These contain substances that can contaminate food, are not recyclable, or can break down into long lasting micro particles that contaminate the entire ecosystem. Here is a link to this info: Ultimately, manufacturer's need to use more recycled plastic to package their products. Over 1 million plastic water bottles are used every day. Companies that sell water should be using recycled #1 plastics for bottling, but it's much cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle. Government could require such use, but only 10 states require recycling of beverage containers. Here is the link to that info:
Peggy January 25, 2020
There’s been some questions about containers when buying bulk - at my grocers one can bring any container, have the counter clerk weigh it, write it on tape and then at checkout they’ll minus the weight of the container. Great for powdery stuff n spices.
energyefficientfood January 25, 2020
Great article!
My latest no-plastic "hack" eliminates peanut butter packaging. Many grocery stores have peanut butter grinders. Fill their container once and then wash these at home and bring the container back to the grocery store to fill next time you run out. Works with almond butter if they have one of those grinders also! Added bonus - this makes natural peanut butter easier to use as the oil doesn't have time to separate and so no mixing necessary - just scoop and enjoy! See more tips for reducing your energy environmental impact at
Slove66 January 25, 2020
Sorry one more thing. (I'm passionate about this subject) I also started buying spices in bulk, on line. How many times do we buy spices in plastic bottles and fill our pretty spice container and toss the plastic bottle it came in? I use to keep some of the empty bottles to store glitter for my grandchildren, but I have banned glitter (that's a WHOLE other subject, don't even get me started). So think about either ordering on line (Spice House has great small packets and shipping is free, if you buy the flat packs) or buy in bulk at your local store. But then there's the problem of transporting the spices from the store to your home.....maybe bring a paper envelope? At least it's not plastic! Thanks for your time.
Jackie L. January 25, 2020
Do tell about the glitter!
garlic&lemon January 26, 2020
Here you go:
Slove66 January 25, 2020
I too have parred down using plastic. Reuseable bags I've been using for years. Once you get in the habit, you won't forget. Started using a reuseable water bottle 2 years ago. Never going back. I am in the process of replacing my leftover containers with glass. Quite costly but a little at a time is doable. I also ditched the use once plastic pens. I have several refillable ones, and yes it still contains plastic in the cartridge, the foot print is smaller. My plan is to ditch the toothbrush and get bamboo (amazon has them). It's a conscience decision to reduce your plastic use, but every little bit helps. The earth thanks you.
claudia January 25, 2020
Quick question. What does one use to freeze food if no longer using plastics. Help!
Slove66 January 25, 2020
Glass or aluminum foil.
Christy J. January 26, 2020
I freeze in mason jars all the time.
Smaug January 26, 2020
I have (plastic) freezer bags that I've used for years, though for a lot of things (like meat) they need to be wrapped in plastic wrap first- it uses up some plastic, but not a lot.
thomasef53 January 27, 2020
Glass! Just leave an inch at the top if storing liquids, like stews. Ice has more volume than liquid water...
Katienicole26 January 25, 2020
I love the idea of having meat packaged in paper instead of plastic and styrofoam! I wish my local grocery stores would do that. Bite toothpaste is a tube free subscription toothpaste that comes in a glass jar and is a 4 month supply, the refills come in compostable packaging too. It's just the thought that each person goes through hundreds of tubes of toothpaste in their lifetime and they never break down. These are little bits of toothpaste without all the chemicals and you bite into them, get your brush wet and brush! It's wonderful stuff, I hope Crest and Colgate get on board soon and follow suit.
Deb K. January 25, 2020
I stopped buying packaged salad greens and stick to heads of lettuce and other greens. When I'm on top of my game, I bring a box to the grocery store and put in the cart and fill that up. Once the cashier scans the items, they go back into the box.

For the salad bar I frequent, I bring a container from prior purchases with me that they use in the store, plus my own utensils.

Our food choices have changed as far as meat, which I just cook myself instead of buying cold cuts. I'm trying to find butcher's paper that I can bring to a deli if I'm planning on buying there, but also checking out butcher shops in the area. Fresh Market is near me and they use paper at their meat counter. I'm wondering if Whole Foods and Wegman's would allow customers to bring brown paper bags for bulk grains and beans.
Slove66 January 25, 2020
The grains are an issue. I suppose if we have to use plastic, we should recycle those small bags and use them for grains etc.
Rosemary January 25, 2020
You can bring your own containers to Whole Foods. As you come in, stop at the service desk and ask them to give you a tare weight. They'll weigh the container, then mark it with the weight The cashier will subtract that from the total weight. (It's done by the cash register, they don't have to do the math.)