How to Reduce Household Plastic: Seven Tips

"Plastic texture 400x magnification," by hypermodern, openclipart.org.

"Plastic texture 400x magnification," by hypermodern, openclipart.org.

I put off writing this post for the longest time; I wanted to wait until my list of plastic-free successes was longer. But I feel it's important to help each other find solutions and for me to be transparent. I'm certainly not perfect, but the tips, below, helped our family reduce household plastic. Rest assured, it didn't happen overnight.

Last updated September 26, 2017

Why do we need to reduce household plastic?

Just to side step for a moment - why would you want to reduce household plastic? If you haven't read my post on Plastic Pollution - a Bird's-Eye View, that's a good place to start, especially for a glimpse into the relationship between plastic and our oceans.

Also, most household plastics, including shampoo bottles and water bottles, don't get recycled into more plastic bottles; almost all of the plastic we use everyday is from virgin plastic, which is derived from fossil fuels. Most plastic that is recyclable ends up as lumber or park benches. The Ecology Center is an excellent resource to learn more about the plastic waste stream, including its health effects. 

Plastic that isn't recyclable—and much of it isn't, despite the symbols on the bottoms of plastic containers—ends up in landfills, leaching toxic chemicals into groundwater as it breaks down. 

It's beyond the scope of this post to explore the hazards of plastic any further, but for now, I hope this gives you some ideas on ways to reduce household plastic in your home.

And just to clarify, I didn't include single-use plastic shopping bags, water bottles, straws, and cups in this post. For more information about shopping bags, including a free no-sew option, see here. For more information on alternatives to other single-use plastics, check out this post on Plastic Free July.

this is how our family reduced household plastic:

Please note: I'm not affiliated with any of the companies or websites listed below. I provide links for your convenience and as a courtesy to the companies that I purchase products from. Also, from time to time, companies change product formulations. There's no way for me to monitor the safety of these updated varieties. Always check the EWG database, and learn to read labels in order to avoid the most toxic ingredients. Here's a link to the EWG's cosmetic database.

1. We Switched to shampoo bars

soap bar - coloured, by frankes, openclipart.org.
soap bar - coloured, by frankes, openclipart.org.

The shampoo bars I purchase arrive naked or wrapped in paper. I'll be writing a post soon about how I use them, but until then, Aquarian BathChagrin Valley Soap and the Dr. Bronner's website have helpful tips and information. More options are also listed below. I purchase shampoo bars from all these companies.

2. No more plastic conditioner bottles

Making the change to plastic-free conditiners is adjustment, but Aquarian Bath and Chagrin Valley Soap offer excellent alternatives. Even some skin care products can be used as conditioners and pomades.

3. Skin Care

I've replaced all my plastic tubes of cleansers and moisturizers with products packaged in metal and glass. I love these, both for their effectiveness and familiar ingredients. I've listed some options below.

4. Toothpaste

I use baking soda with a sprinkling of sea salt and essential oil of peppermint. This eliminates the plastic toothpaste tubes. I wrote a blog post about DIY tooth powder ; however, you might also want to check out other options in retail stores and in the online stores listed at the end of this post. But, truthfully, baking soda alone is fine.

5. Deodorant

I haven't converted all my family members over to hippy deodorant, yet, but I only use varieties that are packaged in cardboard tubes, glass or metal tins. So far, my favorites ones are made by Chagrin Valley Soap and Aquarian Bath. Another good one I recently purchased, though, is Schmidt's. And it's even available at some Target stores. 

Scullery door sign, by Moini, openclipart.org
Scullery door sign, by Moini, openclipart.org

6. Dish washing

We don't have a dishwasher. Oh, what am I thinking? I am the dishwasher! Mostly, I use Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Bar Soap and a sponge. I keep a metal shaker full of baking soda nearby for scouring and to help cut grease. Update: That was then. We had trouble with the sink draining slowly, so I switched to diluted Dr. Bronner's Sal Suds. Yes, it's packaged in plastic bottles. But the Environmental Working Group gives it a top rating for safety, and you reduce plastic bottles because diluting a concentrated solution makes it last longer. You won't be buying nearly as many bottles of dish soap.

Laundry room door sign, by Moini, openclipart.org.
Laundry room door sign, by Moini, openclipart.org.

7. Laundry detergent

I've been using Eco Nuts Natural Laundry Soap (liquid), but I also purchased the actual nuts, which are very effective. Does this sound silly? I know it seems strange and not even possible that nuts could clean your laundry, but I've been pleased with both the nuts and the liquid version. And the advantage to using the actual nuts is that there's no plastic sticker because they arrive in a cardboard box. I've also used Seventh Generation Natural Powdered Laundry Detergent, which is also packaged in recycled cardboard and available in many grocery stores. For additional products, I suggest you begin with EWG's laundry guide, and look for top rated brands with eco-friendly packaging.

And the results?

So I did some tricky math and calculated that by switching to products packaged in plastic alternatives, we were able to reduce household plastic by approximately 80 containers per year. Wow! I was in the dark about the actual number until I wrote this post. And I'm not even perfect, at least not yet! I'm joking about the perfect part. 

My hope is to inspire others to make small changes; think of the herd effect. Collectively, we have the potential to drive the economy in a different direction, and I don't believe it's necessary to be perfect to do that.

My personal goals for the Near Future

Replace my tinted moisturizer with one packaged in glass. I have a source in mind, but I don't feel comfortable sharing it until I've tried their products. Update: I purchased a tinted moisturizer from Batty's Bath and loved it! But I also came across another company, Elate, which also uses sustainable packaging. This is one I haven't tried, though.

Find another source for lipstick/lip balm. I don't wear much makeup anymore, but I do enjoy a splash of color on my lips. Most companies package lipsticks in plastic tubes, which don't appear to be recyclable. this will be one of my most difficult plastic-free challenges.

Stop purchasing plastic bags for cheese and other foods. I've actually stopped; plastic-free cheese storage is my only remaining challenge. And, unfortunately, we have a backlog of food grade plastic bags. I'm just being honest. But I plan to purchase reusable food wrap at either Life Without Plastic, Tiny Yellow Bungalow or Food52.

For leftovers, I have two sets of nesting glass storage containers that I purchased at Whole Foods years ago. When those are all taken, I use a bowl with a similar-sized plate on top. But you can even use a pot lid. Saving glass jars to use for food storage is also an option and one that I learned about from Zero Waste Chef.

Meanwhile, for cheese, sandwiches and other similar foods, a temporary solution that's not perfect but better than plastic wrap is to use waxed paper. This works especially well for cheese, and you can tie a string around it or repurpose a rubber band to keep the paper from coming off. Waxed paper is now accepted in our community's composting bin.

I understand how making the change to a mostly plastic-free household is not only time consuming, but it also costs money, even if you purchase storage containers from thrift stores. In the end, we all have to pay our bills and buy food along with other essentials. 

A note about online ordering

Some observations regarding online ordering: Most of the small independent companies listed above take great care to ship without any plastic, or they use bubble wrap obtained from friends and family members. Please check individual websites for details. And if you do end up with plastic packaging, simply take it to the nearest shipping facility. They'll gladly reuse it.

Avoiding plastic packaging is more challenging when ordering from larger companies. Some have started wrapping glass and other breakables in paper wrap that cushions like bubble wrap. It's really cool. But the caveat is that they package loose items, such as packaged dry foods and soap, in plastic baggies.And if you do end up with plastic packaging, simply take it to the nearest shipping facility. They'll gladly reuse it.

I understand that companies can't assume financial risk for ruined products due to customers refusing plastic shipping materials. I'm working on this; I'll be contacting these companies before I place future orders to see if they can simply omit the plastic bags, especially for items like bar soap. Update: I did contact one of the companies I order from, and they said that they can't package items plastic-free for one customer. But since I originally wrote this post, we moved to an area where I don't need to order online much at all because I can purchase what I need locally. Though I do still order specialty items, such as artisanal skin and hair care products, from smaller companies that thoughtfully choose packaging materials. But if for some reason you do end up with plastic packaging, simply take it to the nearest shipping facility. They'll gladly reuse it!

Conclusion

Switching to plastic-free household items takes thought and time. Sometimes, I still purchase items in plastic because of lower costs or lack of plastic-free options. But don't give up! Start with one item and become obsessive about that one thing. You'll become famous in your neighborhood. I promise.

What household plastic items have you replaced in your home? What are your goals for the future, and do you have any suggestions?

Laura

Sources

stores, both online and brick and mortar stores

Aquarian Bath - Shampoo bars, conditioner (hair serum), skin care, tooth powder, deodorant, and more.

Chagrin Valley Soap - Shampoo bars, conditioners and serums, skin care, deodorant, and more.

Eco Nuts - Laundry soap and more.

Elate Beauty - Makeup for lips, eyes and face.

Food52 - Although they aren't specifically a plastic-free store, I found many plastic-free products for the home on their website. 

Vitacost - Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Bar Soap and Liquid Soap, J. R. Liggett Bar Shampoo, Eco nuts Organic Laundry Soap, both the liquid version and the actual nuts.

Life Without Plastic - Eco nuts Organic Laundry Soap Nuts. They also carry deodorant and shampoo bars, which I haven't tried. This website is an excellent source for many other non-plastic household items.

Tiny Yellow Bungalow - All kinds of plastic-free household goods for cleaning, food storage and more.

Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and other specialty grocery stores - Many stores carry Dr. Bronner's and J. R. Liggett Bar Shampoo.

websites

Zero Waste Chef

My Plastic-free Life

Life Without Plastic

Healthy Planet Resources Page