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Plastic waste: How to reduce the amount of plastic you use

Single Use Plastic Bottles

You’ll have already heard whispers about the negative impact single-use plastic is having on the world — it’s wreaking havoc on everything from our oceans to the food chain. Fortunately, it seems everyone is finally waking up to address these issues: corporations are changing the way they manufacture, package, and dispose of their products, while households are becoming much more mindful of their purchases.

If you haven’t already considered how you’re going to join the war on single-use plastic and other plastic waste, it’s about time you did. And, to help you get off on the right foot, we’re going to talk you through some practical steps you can take to reduce the amount of plastic you use and throw away. Read on to find out more.

How does plastic waste affect the environment?

Single Use Plastic Cup

The plastic waste problem is huge. Despite the fact that plastic as we know it has only existed for 60–70 years, the BBC estimates that 8.3 billion tonnes have been produced to date, and almost all of the plastic ever created still exists in some form today. But, while plastic is so popular due to the fact that it's strong, easy to shape, and inexpensive, the volume of plastic waste that we're throwing away is taking its toll on the environment.

There's currently a spotlight on the negative impact plastic waste is having on our oceans in particular. This is thanks to some high-profile campaigns and, perhaps most notably, the BBC documentary Blue Planet II. With shots of turtles tangled in plastic bags and fish swimming through piles of plastic debris, it highlighted just how much damage is being inflicted on the world’s marine life by the plastic that we all throw away. But, the impact plastic waste is having goes far beyond our seas.

Plastic doesn't biodegrade: it fragments into increasingly smaller pieces, which has resulted in minute microplastics and fibres being found in everything from our tap water to the salt in our kitchen cupboards. And, because plastic is still a relatively new material, it's hard to tell exactly how this is going to affect our health as time goes on.

This means that we all need to be thinking carefully about the plastic we buy and throw away, in an effort to reduce how much plastic waste we produce.

Ways to reduce plastic waste

We all have a responsibility to assess and reduce how much we’re contributing to the globe’s plastic waste crisis. Everything from your daily habits to the purchases you make could be leading you to throw away a lot more plastic than is necessary, and we’re going to outline some small changes that could have a huge effect in the long run.

1. Buy reusable and non-plastic alternatives

Reusable Coffee Mug

One of the easiest ways to reduce plastic waste is to swap any items you use regularly for reusable or non-plastic alternatives. It depends on your lifestyle, but these are some items that might be worth investing in:

  • Travel mug: Invest in a reusable coffee cup that you can keep in your bag on days when you know you might need a caffeine fix. Not only will you be doing your bit for the environment, but a lot of coffee shops now offer a discount on drinks when you bring your own cup, so your wallet will benefit, too.
  • Shopping bags: Carry a reusable shopping bag wherever you go so you don’t need to rely on plastic bags if you pop to the shops, and keep plenty in your car boot for those supermarket trips. Again, you'll save a little bit of money by avoiding the 5p plastic bag charge.
  • Water bottle: Reduce how many plastic drinks bottles you buy by carrying a reusable one. We offer a selection of reusable plastic bottles that you can refill on the go — especially now that the Refill Scheme is underway.
  • Straws: If you don’t like to drink without a straw, there are glass, bamboo, and steel versions you can take out and about with you. Even disposable paper straws are better than plastic.
  • Food boxes: Instead of wrapping your leftovers or work lunches in cling film or using sandwich bags, put them in a reusable plastic box — we stock huge selections of plastic food boxes and lunch boxes that can be used time and time again.
  • Razors: If you tend to use disposable razors, you could reduce how much plastic you throw away by converting to a reusable razor. This way, you can reuse the handle time and time again — you’ll just need to replace the blades every once in a while.
  • Fruit and veg bags: A great way of reducing how much plastic you throw away after doing your grocery shopping is by buying loose fruit and veg and putting them in a reusable bag. You could use a standard canvas tote or invest in some mesh fresh produce bags that have been designed specifically to keep everything fresh.

2. Say no to disposables

Plastic Cutlery

Whenever you're buying food from a café or takeaway, you'll usually be offered disposable cutlery and sometimes sauce packets. And, more often than not, they’ll all be made of plastic. So, when you're looking to reduce how much plastic you throw away, saying no to these is a great step to take.

Of course, we're not suggesting that you eat fish and chips with your fingers — you'll just have to use some forward thinking to ensure you're always prepared. Whenever you’re ordering food to be delivered to your home, make it clear that you don’t want them to send any knives, forks or sauces. The food ordering service Deliveroo has actually introduced an opt-in feature that allows you to say no to disposables but, if you’re ordering over the phone or through a different service, it will be up to you to let your server know.

Also, whenever you're planning a day out and think you might stop for take-out food or even just an ice cream, make sure you grab some cutlery out of your kitchen drawer first. Get into the habit of doing this and you'll significantly reduce how much plastic you throw away each year.

3. Opt for recycled plastic wherever possible

It's almost impossible to avoid plastic completely, but you can limit the impact your purchases have on the environment by opting for products that are made from recycled plastic wherever possible. For example, we stock a selection of recycled plastic storage boxes, which have been made using plastic waste from our own factory as well as other manufacturers. We also offer our range of WHAM Upcycled plastic storage boxes, which have been made using up to 95% post-consumer recycling waste. So, items you might have tossed in your recycling box in the past could’ve been used to make them.

4. Shop in bulk

For most households, the majority of plastic waste is generated in the kitchen. So, buying food in bulk is one of the best ways to reduce how much plastic you throw away. If you buy non-perishables such as pasta, noodles, oats, cereals, rice, and more in larger packets, you'll end up throwing away a lot less rubbish.

You can do the same with laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, and even toiletries. If you buy one large refill bottle of washing up liquid that’s going to last a year, you’ll end up throwing away a lot less plastic than if you were buying a small bottle every month.

5. Give up chewing gum

Thanks to the fact that it's made using plastic, the chewing gum that litters our streets isn't biodegradable. This means that it's very likely all of the chewing gum you've ever disposed of will outlive you. Instead of freshening your breath with your usual chewing gum, why not use mints instead? Alternatively, there are a range of gum brands that have decided to go plastic-free: check out Chewsy and Peppersmith.

6. Use bar soap and shampoo

Most of our bathrooms are full of plastic bottles that we buy, use up, throw away, and replace. But, there are plastic-free alternatives to a lot of toiletries that you could be using instead. For example, instead of using hand soap that comes out of a plastic dispenser, why not go back to using a trusty bar of soap? And, you can even get shampoo bars that work in a similar way. The handmade cosmetics brand Lush is leading the charge in plastic-free toiletries, and they offer everything from naked shower gels to solid shampoos that you can store in a reusable metal case.

7. Look out for products that come in plastic-free packaging

Packaging plays a huge role in the vast amount of plastic we all throw away, so try to be more mindful by opting for products that are packaged in an eco-friendlier way. For example, buy glass jars instead of plastic pots, treat yourself to fresh bread that’s wrapped in paper, and shop with online retailers that make a point of packaging your purchases without plastic tape or bubble wrap. The way you shop makes a statement, and brands will take note if we all use our buying power to say no to single-use plastic.

8. Go DIY

If you’re finding it hard to find a plastic-free alternative to something you can’t do without, consider whether you could create an alternative yourself. For example, a lot of cleaning products come in plastic spray bottles, which can make it difficult to keep your kitchen counters clean without creating more plastic waste. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to make your own cleaners using products you can buy in bulk, or that come in glass or cardboard packaging. Plastic Free July has a fantastic guide to creating plastic-free cleaning products, which is well worth reading.

If you want to go one step further to reduce how much plastic waste is created in your kitchen, you could also start making some of your favourite foods and drinks from scratch. For example, you could bake your own bread and cakes, as well as create your own fresh juice or smoothies. The possibilities really are endless.

9. Repair or upcycle plastic products instead of throwing them away

As we’ve discussed, it’s almost impossible to avoid plastic completely but, by repairing and upcycling plastic products that you would otherwise throw away, you can significantly reduce how much of the material ends up in landfill.

Electronics are quite often thrown away when they could be fixed instead so, if your laptop, phone, television, or games console is past its best, don’t assume the best thing to do is throw it away — more often than not, they can be fixed so they work as good as new.

There are plenty of crafty things you can do, too. For example, if you have old CDs lying around, you could turn these into pretty and practical coasters. Or, you could upcycle plastic bottles to create planters, pencil pots, or even a mini greenhouse. You can find plenty more plastic upcycling inspiration on Pinterest.

If you can't think of a way to repurpose a plastic product at home, make sure to donate or recycle so it doesn't end up in landfill.

10. Buy plastic products second hand

Much like when you repair or recycle a plastic item, buying plastic products second hand can extend their lifespan and reduce how much of the material is thrown away. It also reduces the demand for new plastics to be manufactured.

There are so many places you can buy plastic items second hand: there are markets and car boot sales, online auction sites, and even charity shops. Generally, buying things second hand can save you money as well as reduce how much waste is needlessly thrown away.

11. Compost your food

If you’re in a position to do so, try composting your food waste. This should significantly reduce how much food waste goes in the bin, which means you’ll use fewer plastic bin liners. If you’ve never given composting a go before, the Royal Horticultural Society has a guide that can teach you everything you need to know.

12. Avoid convenience foods

Most convenience foods, from supermarket sandwiches to ready meals, come packaged in plastic. So, avoiding the easy option and cooking your meals from scratch could lead to you throwing away a lot less of the material. If you use some of the other tips we’ve offered — such as buying ingredients in bulk, using reusable produce bags, and making more of an effort to buy items in non-plastic packaging — it’ll make a massive difference.

What plastics can be recycled?

Overflowing Bin

There are seven types of plastic and, while some of these can be recycled, others can’t. This can make filling your recycling bin a bit of a minefield. You want to make sure you’re recycling as much as possible, but you also don’t want to contaminate your whole bin by accidentally putting something in the wrong box.

Plastic Recycling Symbols and what they mean

When you’re looking to throw away a plastic item, look out for the symbol that will tell you what kind of plastic it’s made from. Here’s what you need to know about the different types, so you can ensure you’re always making the right decisions when it comes to recycling.

  1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): PET is one of the most commonly used plastics. It's found in a lot of water bottles, as well as some packaging. PET can be recycled — simply place all of the bits and pieces in your recycling bin.
  2. High-density polyethylene (HDPE): HDPE is a stiff plastic that's used in the making of bottles for milk, shampoo, and cleaning products. Items made from HDPE can be recycled, and you can throw these straight into your general recycling bin.
  3. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): PVC is often used to make the likes of window frames, drainpipes, shower curtains, and some toys. Unfortunately, PVC isn't widely recycled, and you won't be able to throw PVC items into your recycling bin. However, there are companies, such as PVCR and Simplas PVC Recycling, that will pick up and recycle your PVC items for you.
  4. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE): LDPE is found in carrier bags, the yokes that hold 4- or 6-packs of cans together, and the lining of certain cardboard containers. The material isn't widely recycled yet, but a lot of supermarkets do allow you to bring your old plastic bags into their stores, and they'll recycle them for you.
  5. Polypropylene (PP): PP plastic is tough and lightweight, which is why it’s commonly used to make plastic bottle tops, margarine and yoghurt pots, crisp bags, straws, and packaging tape. Some councils will allow you to put these items in your household recycling bin, but it’s best to check with them to make sure. If you find that they don’t accept PP, there should be a recycling plant nearby that will. You can find one by using RecycleNow’s recycling locations finder.
  6. Polystyrene (PS): Polystyrene is inexpensive and lightweight. It's often used to make disposable Styrofoam drinking cups, takeaway food containers, egg cartons, and foam packaging. PS won't be accepted if you throw it in your general recycling bin, but some councils do accept Expanded Polystyrene, which is used for insulation and as a packaging material. Recycle Now can tell you if your local council is one of them.
  7. Other (BPA, polycarbonate, and LEXAN): This 7th category has been created as a catch-all for polycarbonate (PC) and "other" plastics. These materials are usually used to make the likes of baby bottles, water cooler bottles, and car parts. Unfortunately, these plastics often contain Bisphenol A (BPA), which means they typically cannot be recycled.

As we've discussed, it's important that you look for ways to reduce how much plastic you use in general but, in situations where you can't avoid it completely, try to opt for plastics that can easily be recycled. PET and HDPE can be thrown in your everyday recycling bin, PVC can be picked up and recycled by specialist companies, and certain LDPE items can be recycled through supermarkets' recycling initiatives.

At a time when plastic is being found in everything from our drinking water to the food we eat, it’s vital we all start making more of an effort to limit how much plastic we use and throw away. By replacing disposables with reusable and non-plastic alternatives, rethinking the way you shop, and making more of an effort to recycle as much as possible, you can truly make a difference.