Here are three more areas of your daily life in which to reduce plastic.
Last month I wrote Part 1 of a beginner's guide to plastic-free living. It was inspired by a conversation with a friend who said he needed more detailed information about how to reduce plastic in his life. In it, I targeted three main areas that I consider to be 'low-hanging fruit,' where one would see the biggest environmental and health returns for eliminating plastic. Now in Part 2, I'll give three more areas to focus on. These are less straightforward and possibly require more of a mental shift, but they are also important, with benefits to your health, wellbeing, and natural surroundings.
Researchers have only recently discovered that synthetic clothing sheds tiny plastic microfibers when washed. These fibers, which measure less than 5 mm in length, are too small to be caught by water filtration plants and usually wash out into waterways. Once in rivers, lakes, and oceans, they pose a danger to marine wildlife, which consume them. When we eat fish and shellfish, we end up eating plastic from our own clothes. It's a serious problem: Just one fleece jacket could shed up to 250,000 pieces per garment per wash, and the older a garment is, the more it sheds.
One approach is to avoid synthetics, or at the very least to minimize them. Reserve your stretchy clothes for the gym and wear natural, biodegradable fibers the rest of the time. If you invest in high-quality and proper-fitting clothing, you will likely feel very comfortable in cotton, linen, and wool.
Wash your synthetics less. Try to squeeze an additional day of wear out of your sports bra, workout shorts, or leggings. This can be hard, though, because synthetics get smellier than natural fabrics; wool is by far the best product for lasting between washes, so while you're thinking about this, check out some nifty wool workout wear.
Wash your synthetics in a special bag. The Guppy Friend is designed to trap microfibers that would otherwise be released into the environment. You put the clothes inside the bag, close it up, and wash the bag. It's effective for small numbers of clothes, but you cannot do a full load of laundry in it.
Wash your synthetics with a Cora Ball. This brand-new invention just came to market this spring. Like the Guppy Friend, it is designed to catch microfibers in the washing machine and prevent them from going elsewhere. Currently it catches an estimated 35 percent of microfibers in a given load of laundry, which is better than nothing.
From the perspective of plastics, the biggest problem with conventional cleaning products is the containers they come in. Of course there are significant health concerns about the chemicals they contain, but that's another conversation. By opting for natural cleaning ingredients, you can avoid unnecessary plastic packaging.
Learn which household ingredients can be used to clean, such as white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, baking soda, borax, washing soda, bar soap, citrus fruits, essential oils, salt, and more. All of these can be purchased in glass or cardboard containers, or from bulk stores that allow you to use your own containers.
Make your own cleaning products and store in glass spray bottles. Use clean old rags to work, rather than disposable sponges or microfiber cloths. These are often made out to be an eco-friendly solution, but are problematic for all the reasons listed above. Here's a good list of ideas from Plastic Free July. There are also tons of recipes for DIY cleaners on TreeHugger.
If you do buy cleaning products, make sure not to buy anything with microbeads in it. These are added to certain products to make them more abrasive and enhance their scrubbing power, but they are just miniscule pieces of plastic that get rinsed away afterward. The same effect can be achieved with natural ingredients like salt and baking soda.
Unfortunately, it seems that everything to do with kids these days is plastic. From the time they're babies, playing with rattles and soothers and using molded plastic seats and synthetic bibs, dishes and bottles, to the vast collection of plastic toys they acquire by the time they start school, plastic has a major presence in kids' lives. Fighting it can seem like a losing battle to parents, but there are a few ways in which to minimize exposure.
Buy toys carefully and, like clothing, prioritize natural materials over plastic. There are many wonderful fabric, wooden, rubber, and metal toys available, if you know where to look. Check out Little Miss Workbench, a US company that hand-makes adorable toys for young children. Camden Rose is another one that uses wool, wood, silk, and cotton to make gorgeous toys for kids, including ornate play kitchen sets. Maple Landmark, based in Vermont, specializes in wooden trucks, trains, and games.
Another thing to consider is longevity. A plastic toy that lasts for a very long time isn't necessarily a terrible thing. I think of my sons' LEGO collection, which was handed down from their uncles, who got it from another family before that. It's been through at least four kids and is nearly 20 years old, yet still going strong. You can also choose toys whose parent companies stand by their production and will repair them. My boys have a remote-controlled truck from Lite Hawk, which sells replacement parts for all its toys.
Something else to think about is the problem of prepackaged 'kid' foods. These are a significant source of plastic waste with no real benefit. They are really just ultra-processed, overly packaged, nutritionally deficient tummy-fillers that everyone would do better without.
Instead of buying your kid a juice box with a non-recyclable plastic liner and straw, give them a glass of juice (or water). Instead of individually wrapped bags of gummies, crackers, cookies, dried fruit, etc., buy in bulk and serve in a dish or refillable container. Ditch plastic-wrapped granola bars for a pan of homemade ones (so easy, fast, and cheap) and wrap in waxed paper for a snack. Give fresh fruit, instead of pre-packaged; hand out slices of bread, instead of crackers; set out a communal bowl of hummus or send a tiny jar filled with it for school lunches instead of mini plastic pots. Not only will your kids generate less waste, but they'll be healthier, too.
All of these may seem like tiny, insignificant steps, but they add up over time. The more people who implement them, the bigger the difference. Indeed, this is the only place we can start -- with individual action. I urge you not to get caught up in thinking it needs to be perfect; it won't be. You'll struggle to change habits, to fight a deeply ingrained disposable culture, and to balance your own budgetary and time constraints with your desire to be more eco-friendly. So focus on doing what you can and encouraging others to do the same.