So far, the folks I’m working with are excited when they find a plastic free bamboo toothbrush (read more about it here) or their grocery store allows them to use reusable cloth produce bags and that's fantastic!
But as they have been living awhile with the low plastic challenge, there are many people who are becoming overwhelmed, or are too time poor to DIY plastic free everything, or worse, being shamed when they admit that they can’t afford the perfect plastic free option. That’s not cool.
I feel for ya, because I think I am the only person in the world who lives in an area where my farmer’s market, bulk food bins, and fresh vegetable summer CSA subscriptions are typically more expensive than a conventional grocery store. I want to do my bit but I don’t always have the time to regularly grocery shop at three or more markets every other week when one conventional grocery store has everything I need.
My solution is to try to get an extra reuse out of everything (within reason) before it hits the bin. My family also first focused on the low waste options that save money as an added incentive to throw those extra dollars at my massive student debt when I put myself through college and to save for a house. While this is not the “perfect” plastic free solution, doing so has allowed me to be almost debt free (the exception is our house payment,) and produce less than a paper grocery bag full of landfill trash a week. Depending upon how you personally define it, some folks will call this Zero Waste, others will call us Low Waste. I consider us a Slim Bin because I know there are things we could change/give up to get to the perfect zero waste and plastic free "status" but it would mean giving up things like giving up using these plastic musician's ear plugs when I sit in front of the trumpet section in a concert band practice room with low ceilings. I like leaving a place a little better than I found it but I love not going deaf even more.
But I still do my bit in my own way and to show you I do have some plastic free street cred, one of my quick plastic free DIY tutorials appears in the book Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Habit and You Can Too by Beth Terry. I recommend this book for anyone trying to live without plastic and not because I’m in the book. Plastic Free is a good real world look at the hits and funny misses of someone trying to live without disposable new plastic and has a lot of helpful information on how to do it.
6 Ideas for Living Plastic Free Without Going Broke
Some green living and waste reducing practices may conflict with another green living and waste reducing practice. It can depend upon factors like family size, priorities, where you live, what you like, etc. So don’t feel guilty if there are ideas in this post that you can’t do.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t try, but there aren’t any 100% green living, one size fits all, all of the time solutions that will work for everyone (looking at you wealthy Green Elite who live in California.) Personally I live by the 80/20 Rule. If I can do it green 80% of the time (years later it is now more like 90% but it makes me sound like a swot) I don't worry about the 20% I can't.
This is a list of disposable plastic free and plastic less ideas and options, not absolutes.
1. Take care of the stuff you already have, repair it when it breaks, or have someone fix it for you. No one mentions this – ever! I don’t know why. It just seems like a given that stuff breaks and we just deal. We shouldn’t and frankly, I don’t as much as possible.
Repairs don’t always take special skills. It can be as simple as buying a replacement and more durable Pyrex lid like this one for my Anchor Hocking storage containers (yes! they fit!) for a storage container or dropping off a pair of shoes with a broken buckle at a shoe repair shop (something I keep forgetting to do.)
The greenest and cheapest things are what you already own. Use the plastic items you already have on hand (for me I found eleventy billion travel toiletries during a closet clean out - oops!) and consider a plastic free replacement only after you are completely out of the item or it finally breaks beyond repurpose or repair. For example, it took almost a year to go through those travel shampoos, etc. before I ran out and could start trying this shampoo bar. I should pretend to be embarrassed but I look at it as almost a year's worth of savings on not buying swank shampoo and a lesson to do better in the future.
2. Consider doing a Trash or Recycling Bin Audit. That’s a fancy way of saying check to see what type of stuff is in your bin most often. Try to replace your plastic items with a plastic free option, repurpose it, or buy it in a larger or smaller container to reduce waste. For example the happy face in the photo below is from allergy medication. I now buy it in a recyclable bottle which while still plastic, is at least is fully recyclable where I live. I tried going without but the constant sinus infections were not the best quality of life.
I saved our plastic for one week and this is the amount I sent to the landfill. The other plastic items in my tally I reused. The next time we did an audit we used less plastic overall. Progress!
You might also already have plastic free solutions on hand! For example I started storing leftovers in containers with lids I already had to replace plastic wrap. You can read about my Nine Plastic Cling Wrap Alternatives here.
3. Consider replacing a plastic disposable option with a reusable option. Again, try to focus on the things you have on hand that will save you time and money first. If you have a reusable travel mug, tumbler with a straw, or sports bottle dig it out and start using it, even if it is made from plastic. You can upgrade to the spendy plastic free version when money and time allows – or not. Whatever works for you.
For example, instead of using plastic disposable razor or nicking my legs all to hell with any of these metal safety razors, I shave with this Panasonic Close Curves Wet/Dry Ladies Shaver (read about it here.) Yep they have women's electric razors too. It has a plastic housing and uses a little electricity but it is a zero waste way to smooth skin that works for me.
Or, if neither of those shaving options works for you, consider this reader tip for making your disposable razors last for up to a year each with this disposable razor sharpener. Not shaving at all would be even cheaper and plastic free but that is. Never. Going. To. Happen. Ever.
You see a broken fence by the road. I see shelves in my craft studio. You might completely flip that there are a ton of plastic items in this photo but almost all of them are repurposed - including the sergers and sewing machine. Having a studio also allows me to repair what's broken and repurpose plastic trash and recycling items into reusable plastic free solutions, make extra money, and also saves my family a boatload of cash.
If you want to make a bit of cash you can always sell your items on consignment or through eBay, ThredUp, etc. Heck I see people buying empty toilet paper tubes on eBay! I thought it was weird until I saw them for sale at a craft store. OK, I still think it’s weird but one man’s trash…
5. Prioritize what works for your family and situation and do that instead of the plastic free solution someone else demands you do and just like they do. This is one of the main reasons why I consider myself a Slim Bin instead of Plastic Free. I think plastic has its place (like for medical and safety equipment) or if it allows me to reduce my overall household waste I’ll buy one item in a large plastic container that I can repurpose or recycle rather than have a dozen small glass containers of the same item cluttering my recycling bin just for the sake of buying the same item in glass (as always, your mileage may vary.)
Then there some are plastic issues that really don't apply to my family or that we rarely or never used to begin with so it is easy to give them up entirely. For example, I can’t get all up in arms about plastic straws because I almost never use them. I just drink from the glass (including smoothies,) including in restaurants. I could carry a reusable stainless steel straw like this one in my purse like everyone says I should and at one point I did. But I never used it so I stopped. I do have them at home for guests though.
In other words, no matter what people tell you, you don't have to grow all of your own food if you hate to garden. Try reducing plastic food waste in different way that works for you instead.
On the other hand, there are a lot of plastic free options I do use, some with a small investment that quickly paid for themselves. Here are a few ideas to jump start your brain:
- Food dries out in the cloth snack bags I tried first – yuck. Instead I use reusable silicone zipper sandwich bags (learn more about them here) or containers I have instead of plastic zipper bags. But before that, I washed and reused disposable baggies that didn’t hold raw meat.
- I buy and cook with as much ingredient type food as possible. It reduces waste, it is healthier, cheaper, and a much easier way to deal with my dairy allergy. I don’t sweat it if my fresh broccoli or frozen green beans come in a plastic bag because:
- It stays fresh longer
- It is often less expensive (hi winter snow here. For six months of the year we don't have farmer's markets because nothing is growing)
- It reduces my overall household waste because I use empty plastic bread, frozen fruit and vegtable bags for pet waste pick up. We are required to bag it. It is also good manners.
- Again, apparently I’m the only person in the world whose vegetables dry out in the refrigerator in a cloth produce bag. I want to feed the fresh food to my family, not the whole thing to my compost bin. (If you have any tips on how I can avoid this, let me know in the comments below!)
- I buy dish washing detergent powder in a box. It works better than liquid and the horrid pods and frankly it is cheaper this way. I store it in a repurposed plastic protein powder container so it won’t get clumpy which reduces its cleaning power and why companies developed those stupid plastic cleaning pods in the first place. In fact, I store a lot of bits and bobs around the house in empty plastic food containers (glass jars too.) My husband is a runner and not buying protein powder is not an option.
- I replaced our plastic ice cube trays with silicone ice cube trays. Silicone ice cube trays don't leak water and stick the entire tray of ice cubes together like these old school metal ice cube trays and explode all over the kitchen when you lift the release handle. Or is that just me?
- At different times of the year our city water tastes off. Instead of buying plastic bottled water, I keep our sports bottles with home filtered water (very economical! Learn more about my filter here) in the refrigerator to chug throughout the day with wild abandon. If you can’t install a water filter then look into a water cooler service with reusable bottles. It’s probably cheaper than buying individual plastic bottles of water and chucking them in your recycling or trash bin.
- Instead of buying bottles of carbonated water to drink, my husband makes it with home filtered water and our Sodastream. You don’t have to use the Sodastream concentrates to make pop (we have a few for guests but rarely drink it ourselves.) If I want something flavored, I'll add a splash of lime or lemon juice to my fizzy water (my LaCroix knock off hack) or make my own plastic free drink syrups using the book The Artisan Soda Workshop: 75 Homemade Recipes.
- I keep a stack of reusable shopping bags in the trunk of our cars and use them as much as possible for all shopping, not only groceries (they also come in handy for trips to the library and any time you need to stuff a bunch of things in a bag.) If I get the rare plastic carrier bag, I use it for pet pick up (I use paper grocery bags for trash most of the time.) Sometimes plastic parts and packaging bags sneak up on us in a purchase and I reuse them for the same purposes. If the plastic bag is too small to reuse for some purpose, I collect items like plastic packing pillows it in a reusable shopping bag hung on a doorknob in my laundry room and forget to take the collection to the plastic bag recycling bin a grocery store I rarely shop at on a regular basis. Good thing I rarely put anything in that recycling bag, eh?
6. DIYing your way into living with less plastic can take less time than you realize. You don’t have to DIY every single thing you can’t find plastic free. You don’t have to switch over all at one time either. I started making our household cleaners one at a time when I ran out of the conventional stuff over a series of years because I want to know exactly what is in them (in the US cleaning products are not required to have an ingredient list on the label so the companies don't claiming "trade secrets') for the health of my dog (I admit it. I'm the crazy dog lady.) Doing so was a big green snow ball of money saving plastic free and zero waste goodness:
1. I know exactly what is in my cleaners because I make most of them with three ingredients or less and can leave them unscented if I like (I usually do per my allergist.)
2. It allows me to reuse plastic spray bottles and unavoidable plastic containers to store my cleaning supplies - make sure you label them first! It also cuts down on plastic packaging waste by replacing paper towels with old bath towels cut to paper towel size, replacing dryer sheets with tennis balls in the dryer, and repurposing worn plastic toothbrushes for cleaning hard to get areas like around faucets (I run them through the dishwasher and mark the handle with paint, tape, or a marker first.)
3. Instead of laying out stupid money for natural cleaning scrubbers and brushes, I buy a long, unpackaged loofah for a buck at the Spanish grocery store and cut it to the same shape and size as the same overpriced thing for sale at the hippie grocery store. Since loofahs are plants, I compost the cleaning sponges instead of sending them to the landfill.
4. I have a clean house and save a bunch of money doing it. At this point in the game, I make all but 4 of our house hold cleaners. The exceptions are dishwashing liquid, dishwasher detergent (my dishwasher hates the DIY stuff, ) rug shampoo (I killed a carpet cleaning machine with the DIY stuff, ) oxygen bleach, and Nature's Miracle Pet Stain and Oder Remover (per our behaviorist because we are committed to adopting special needs rescue dogs. I buy it by the gallon and decant it in a glass spray bottle similar to this one.)
When doing so turned out to work just as well or better, is less expensive, and took less than 15 minutes to make I never went back.
Some examples of my nontoxic DIY plastic free cleaners are:
- I make my own DIY high efficiency laundry detergent
- Counter cleaner – vinegar based DIY counter cleaner and a DIY cleaner without vinegar for natural stone
- DIY bathroom room deodorizer and freshener spray
- DIY bathroom cleaner
- Daily shower cleaner
- Stain remover spray
- DIY fabric softener crystals
- Medicated face cleaning pads
- Homemade scented soy candles
- DIY wax warmer melts
- DIY dusting spray – allergist recommended!
- DIY scrubbing powder cleanser
To keep yourself from driving yourself crazy, go slow and don’t beat yourself up if you have a swing and a miss. I didn’t slim my trash bin as it is now in a month. It took years.
Keep at it. It takes time to find out what works for you.
Perfection is not sustainable but trying is.
That are your easy hints and hacks for living with less plastic?
If you are looking for more ways to use reusable over disposable items check out the following ideas - and more! - below!
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