Before I embarked on a journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle, I never realized how much plastic filled my life. It was everywhere: in my fridge, in the pantry, in the bathroom — even in my closet. A first step I took towards reducing my environmental impact was to become more intentional about the plastic I already have and mindful about the amount of plastic I bring into my house. 

The problem with plastic is that it lasts forever: All of the toothbrushes that you used when you were a child (and even the toothbrushes your parents used) still exist on this planet. We often use disposable plastics — bags, bottles, plastic wrap, cups, food packaging — for only a few minutes or a couple of hours, often when we could have done without. Refusing is the first element in the 5Rs hierarchy of waste management: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. 

Plastic creates toxic pollution at every stage, from manufacture, to use, to disposal. As plastic breaks down, the resulting particles release toxic chemicals, which are in turn ingested by wildlife and, eventually, by us. According to an analysis by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), we consume 5 grams of plastic — the equivalent of a credit card — every week. “Plastic is in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat,” sums up the WWF. 

Here are 12 ways I limit my use of single-use plastics when I am grocery shopping (even in conventional stores) or just out and about:

  • I use and reuse the plastic produce bags (and even brown paper bags). 
  • Or I don’t use any bags when I shop and rinse all my fruits and veggies at home.
  • I reuse all kinds of containers, including green produce pint baskets, clamshell containers, Ziploc bags and jars.
  • If I forget my cloth bags, I limit what I buy and simply carry the items unbagged. 
  • When buying meat and fish (usually at Whole Foods), I bring my own Tupperware containers and simply ask the employee to put my order in one. Bonus: It’s less work for them, as they don’t have to wrap anything and can put the label directly on my container. 
  • When buying olives at Whole Foods (or grains and spices at My Organic Market in College Park and at Glut Food Coop in Mount Rainier), I bring a jar that I weigh, using the store’s scale, before I fill it, and I write down the weight with a marker (ideally one that washes off easily). 
  • I purchase milk in glass bottles that I later return to the store (thus recouping the $2 deposit).
  • I don’t do takeout or use any meal delivery services. And I order grocery delivery or store pickup from companies that use paper bags, like Giant’s Peapod service.
  • If I dine out, I bring my own box for leftovers.
  • If I was a coffee drinker, I would enjoy it on the spot, rather than ordering to go. Or I’d brew at home.
  • I always refuse straws, napkins, condiments and plastic cutlery.
  • I cook from scratch! I bake my own bread, granola and cookies weekly. And I make yogurt from time to time, too. By relying on my own creativity and elbow grease, I save a lot in packagings and waste.

Even small changes of habits, especially when added up  over time, can add up to a big difference. 

Canada Reduces is a group whose stated mission is to “inspire neighbours and neighbourhood businesses to work together to increase opportunities to shop local and waste-free, and to inspire people to do something about the steady stream of single-use plastics in their homes.” They’ve launched a bring-your-own-container initiative. Participating businesses simply display a BYO sticker on their door, and shoppers know they can use their clean bags and containers in those shops. The businesses promote zero waste and cut a bit off their packaging expenses, too.  

If you’re a resident or small business owner interested in helping me launch a similar program here, please email me at Together, we can all fight the proliferation of disposable plastics. 

Juliette Fradin writes bimonthly about zero-waste and slow living.