As part of the 2019 Social Good Summit on Sept. 22, Mashable is tackling the climate change problem head on, highlighting the progress the world needs, and celebrating the experts making change happen.
From grocery store bags to disposable water bottles to Tupperware, plastic is everywhere. In part, that’s because it’s convenient.
But that convenience comes at a price. Plastic pollution can take generations to decompose. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the ocean, according to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and McKinsey & Company. As National Geographic reports, about 700 species of marine animals eat or become ensnared by plastic.
And although recycling is something we should all be doing, it can’t completely solve the plastic problem, says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist who works on plastic waste issues at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy organization.
Recycling just isn’t the answer, which means we should work to cut down how much plastic is produced and used in the first place. Remember, plastic was only invented a little over 100 years ago. This isn’t how we’ve always lived, and it doesn’t have to be our future.
Here are four steps you can take to minimize your plastic use.
1. Shift your mindset
There are ways everyone can reduce their plastic waste. It just takes thinking ahead.
Of course, one person consuming less plastic won’t make a difference, but this activity en masse can lessen plastic pollution, says Eric Goldstein, senior attorney at NRDC who has worked on waste issues for 30 years.
“It all adds up. And it’s a way of thinking that says, ‘Are there ways I can just prepare myself to have less impact when I move through my day?'” Hoover explains similarly.
That’s why she carries a reusable bag and cutlery wherever she goes and refuses plastic straws when offered. She also suggests buying food in bulk when possible. When ordering in, she advises requesting they include fewer napkins and avoid providing extra disposable forks and knives.
When flying, Hoover brings a reusable water bottle and asks flight attendants to refill it. If they refuse, she reuses the plastic cup they provide. She also packs her own snacks.
At work, Hoover suggests pulling together your co-workers and brainstorming ways to reduce plastic consumption in the office.
The intention isn’t to create more work for yourself, your colleagues, or family members but to target things that don’t take much effort to change, she says.
2. Support laws that reduce plastic waste in your community
An effective way to promote widespread change where you live is to research relevant laws around plastic and support their implementation by talking to politicians.
For example, cities and states across the country, including California and New York, have banned or have plans to ban single-use plastic bags. Laws like this that restrict the uninhibited consumption of plastic bags encourage individuals to use alternatives like reusable bags, Hoover says.
Many states also have bottle bills or container deposit laws, which require someone pay a deposit when buying a bottled beverage, which then gets reimbursed when the empty bottle is returned. In doing so, these laws greatly increase recycling, Hoover says.
3. Find out if companies are reducing their plastic production
Most companies don’t disclose how much plastic they’re releasing into the world but you can always call them up and demand that data, says Ivy Schlegel, a senior researcher at the environmental group Greenpeace.
Schlegel also suggests asking how much plastic the company uses in its packaging, where plastic in products goes after use, and whether they have plans to stop using single-use plastic.
To have the most impact, you can contact companies that sell the largest volume of products packaged in single-use plastic. Schlegel suggests starting with Unilever, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Procter and Gamble, and Mars.
You can start by calling companies’ general customer service lines or sending them emails. If you’re uncomfortable calling, you can tweet at the corporations, which is easier and still gets their attention, Hoover says.
Schlegel also suggests buying from businesses working to reduce their plastic use and boycotting those that aren’t.
Although it may seem impossible for individuals to impact a company’s business practices, it does happen.
4. Encourage your grocery store to adopt a zero-waste model
Grocery stores in particular are filled with plastic — from plastic-wrapped vegetables to pre-sliced fruit in plastic boxes to plastic bags.
Zero-waste grocery stores provide an alternative.
Precycle, in New York City, sells products without packaging to help customers live a zero waste lifestyle. The Wally Shop, also in New York City, delivers products like organic produce in plastic-free packaging.
You can also push your local supermarket to adopt a zero-waste model, which eliminates plastic waste by storing food and other items in containers like wooden baskets. When shopping in stores that don’t use this model, you can bring your own reusable bags and containers or buy refillable ones from the store, if available.
This is a fundamental reimagining of how we consume products but this isn’t an impossible proposition, Schlegel says.
Hoover, for her part, is hopeful we will reign in plastic production and consumption.
“People are seeing the damage single-use plastics are doing … I do think there is a possibility that we’re really going to see shifts on our unrestrained use of plastic.”