A beginner's guide to plastic-free living

coconut oil in glass jar
Public Domain MaxPixel

Focus on these three areas of your life to see the biggest returns.

My friend and I were standing in a crowded local pub last weekend, waiting for a band to start playing, when he said to me, "You need to write a step-by-step guide to giving up plastic." "I've already done that!" I replied, thinking of the numerous articles I've written on going zero waste, but he shook his head. "I don't know where to start. You need to break it down even further, telling me exactly what needs to change and where I can get plastic-free alternatives."

It's true that, after years of writing about plastic avoidance and waste reduction, it's hard for me to see it through the eyes of a beginner. There are things I mistakenly assume everyone knows, like where to find bar shampoo/conditioner and plastic-free laundry detergent. But for many people, those are still daunting and confusing steps.

I've spend the last few days mulling over my friend's request, and the result is this guide to getting started with plastic reduction. It's not comprehensive, of course, because plastic-free living can be taken to all levels of extreme; but these are three key changes that I consider to be the most effective. This is where I would tell people to start.

1. Grocery shopping

If you shop for groceries the way our society assumes you will, you're guaranteed to come home with loads of plastic. This entire model is based on the notion that people walk into a store empty-handed, assuming they'll be provided with all of the necessary packaging to transport food home, but this is crazy! If you can change that mindset and view shopping as an assignment that requires key tools, as well as sufficient time to do it right, then you can drastically reduce the amount of waste you bring home (and inadvertently pay for).

These 'tools' include reusable bags, containers, and boxes for carrying everything. I use a mishmash of drawstring solid cotton and mesh bags, glass jars in various sizes, rectangular food storage containers, and round metal canisters. Another valuable tool is knowing which local stores will accommodate your reusables. You might be surprised to find how many stores are supportive; as awareness of the plastic pollution problem spreads, local vendors are eager to do their part.

If you live in any Canadian town with a Bulk Barn store, you are entitled to use your own containers. This has been life-changing for me, as it means I can get everything from pasta, dried beans, nuts, seeds, baking supplies, dried fruit, and spices to cereal, nut butters, coconut oil, rice, and even candy plastic-free. If you live in the U.S., zero waste blogger Litterless has just updated her Where to Shop Grocery Guide, and Bea Johnson, founder of the movement, has a Bulk Finder app. I've read that Whole Foods will also let you use containers.

Sign up for a food box or CSA program to get plastic-free vegetables. When my CSA doesn't provide what I need, I use mesh cotton bags to hold supermarket produce together, or else I leave them loose in the cart. In all the years I've been corralling stray apples, onions, and lemons on the conveyor belt, no cashier has ever complained; in fact, they often lament how customers double-bag their produce. Try to avoid veggies and fruit that are pre-packaged in plastic; sadly, this can mean paying a bit more for loose produce, rather than the cheaper bulk packs. (I make an exception for the clearance rack, which does come in plastic, but I figure the savings in money and food waste make it OK.)

If you eat dairy, it's becoming easier to source milk in reusable glass jars; you pay a deposit for the jar and then return it to the retailer. I've found yogurt in glass jars at the local supermarket, but sometimes I make my own.

Get 'naked' loaves of bread at a local bakery. Bea Johnson takes along a pillow case when she shops and stuffs it full of fresh baguettes; I prefer to use a large cloth drawstring bag. If I'm at the supermarket and need bread, I head to the bins with loose buns or bagels, and put those into a bag. They need to be transferred to an airtight container at home. Alternatively, I bake my own if there's time.

If you eat meat, this is very easy to buy plastic-free. Local butchers are accommodating of reusable containers, and it's a much simpler, less messy process that allows you to put meat directly into the freezer or fridge as soon as you get home. You could also buy a partial whole animal for the freezer that comes wrapped in paper; actual butcher paper has no lining, but freezer paper does have a thin poly lining to provide a moisture barrier. I still consider this far better than the amount of plastic wrap and Styrofoam that comes with supermarket-packaged meat.

There are still many things that I haven't addressed here, like condiments, oils, freezer foods, cheese, and snack foods, but I see those as less important in the overall fight against plastic food packaging. It's best to focus first on the main dietary staples.

2. Bathroom products

bar soapMaxPixel/Public Domain

The next biggest source of plastic waste comes from the bathroom. Personal hygiene habits can be hard to break, but they bring significant health advantages. Many products commonly found in bathrooms contain unsafe chemicals linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and respiratory issues. You're better off without them.

Buy unpackaged natural bar soap. My favorite is made by the Soap Works, a Toronto-based company that sells in many local shops around Ontario and online. It costs around $2 per bar, but lasts my family two weeks. We use it for everything -- hands and body -- which has eliminated the need for shower gels and liquid soap in a plastic dispenser. I sometimes use the olive oil soap to remove makeup. Akamai is another company that makes a beautiful paper-wrapped multi-purpose soap. I keep a big container of Dr. Bronner's liquid castile soap in the shower, too, which unfortunately does come in plastic, but it lasts forever; I have seen some bulk store locations in Toronto that will refill these bottles, so take advantage of that if you can.

Shampoo alternatives: You can buy great solid shampoo-conditioner bars from Lush Cosmetics. Buy a metal tin for storage. The Soap Works also sells solid shampoo-conditioning bars, and Dr. Bronner's paper-wrapped Castile Soap can be used as a shampoo, as long as it's paired with a conditioning rinse afterward. If you want to continue using regular shampoo, check out Plaine Products, a new company that sells divine-scented shampoo in refillable metal containers. Consider switching to baking soda and apple cider vinegar, a method that I used for several years with great success.

Moisturizers: I like the fair-trade coconut oil sold by Dr. Bronner's in a glass jar with metal lid. It's great for moisturizing skin post-shaving, dry chapped hands, and removing makeup. Sometimes I buy my coconut oil in my own jars at Bulk Barn. I also like the solid massage bars from Lush (they're expensive but luxurious, and come entirely without packaging if you buy them in the store). New Zealand-based Ethique makes lovely lotion bars that come wrapped in paper. The interesting thing about moisturizers, though, is that the fewer products you use on your skin in general -- like makeup and detergent-containing facial washes -- the less you'll need to moisturize.

Dental care, cosmetics, shaving tools, toilet paper packaging, etc. are all other things that can be tackled in an attempt to reduce plastic in the bathroom, but these are less important in my view than the items listed above.

3. Food on the go

How many times have you found yourself far from home and ravenously hungry? Those are the moments when one's commitment to plastic avoidance tends to fall apart. It's almost impossible to find packaged food on the go that does not come in plastic.

There are a few solutions to this problem. The first is to pack all the food you'll need when you leave the house. Whether it's your daily commute to work or a multi-hour road trip, make sure you've got all the snacks and drinks you'll need along the way.

If you have difficulty packing food in advance, keep a zero-waste food kit in your car at all times. This means that, no matter where you are, you've always got a container, a reusable straw, a coffee cup, a water bottle, a napkin, and whatever else you may need. Here are some thoughts on how to put one together.

Finally, if you're hungry and find yourself without reusable cups or dishes, take some time out of your day to sit down. Ask for your coffee in a ceramic mug and spend 10 minutes at a table in a cafe, enjoying it. Eat your lunch in a restaurant to avoid the plastic takeout container and the disposable cutlery. Make sure you ask for no straw in your drink. This can be a tough mental shift for a society that lives on the move, but it can introduce valuable moments of respite in the midst of busy days.

Packing a lunch? Invest in high-quality reusable containers made of metal or glass and washable cloth bags. Having these on hand will eliminate the urge to use disposable sandwich bags, plastic wrap, and plastic containers that age poorly and leach toxic chemicals into the food. Get a good water bottle for every member of the family. Purchase a set of versatile Abeego wraps (pictured at the top) as a substitute for plastic wrap. Visit Life Without Plastic, a.k.a. the greatest site in the world, to find everything you need.

There is so much more I could talk about, but this is what I consider to be 'low-hanging fruit,' the changes that will create the most benefit in your life when it comes to reducing plastic. Establish these new habits, then it will be easier to tackle the next level of changes (such as cleaning and clothing), which I'll cover in a subsequent post.

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