What It’s Really Like to Go Plastic-Free

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By Jen Babakhan

NEW YORK (Readers Digest) — Our plastic obsession is harming the planet. But by making a few tiny tweaks, you can help combat this environmental crisis in a big way.

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America, we have a plastic problem. Each year, Americans use a whopping 100 billion plastic bags. Believe it or not, they would circle the equator 773 times if tied together. Every minute, people around the world buy a million plastic bottles, and less than half of them are recycled. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The plastic in landfills can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and it’s not just clogging our landfills—it’s killing our sea life and devastating coastal ecosystems.

Experts estimate that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean, and plastic bags are the most devastating item among the 5.25 trillion pieces now in the sea, according to the Australian eco-organization Ocean Crusaders. Why? Plastic packaging and bags can kill one animal after another. Just one bag may kill an animal that ingests it, which then decomposes, freeing the bag for another animal to ingest and creating a never-ending death cycle. Here are 50 more facts that will make you want to stop using plastic for good.

One woman’s path to living plastic-free

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Stephanie Seferian, founder of the Mama Minimalist, has always cared about the environment. “Even as a 5-year-old, I followed my mom throughout the house turning the lights off behind her to save electricity,” she recalls with a laugh. But when Seferian became a mother herself in 2014, she began to take a closer look at her own plastic consumption and disposal. “That was when I began reading the news about climate change and basically the impending doom,” she says. “I realized how bad plastic was and how overfilled our landfills are.”

That realization sent Seferian on a quest to do more, for the sake of the planet she would leave to her daughters. The changes she made, though small, have added up, and she shares that journey on her podcast, The Sustainable Minimalist. These are the swaps that she made in her life—that you can make, too.

Trade paper for cloth

“I tell people to start with the low-hanging fruit,” Seferian says. “Paper towels aren’t plastic, but they’re wrapped in it. Switching to rags made from old clothing can be a great first step. I cut up stained kids clothing and put it in a basket in our kitchen. That led us to using cloth napkins instead of paper, too.” When it comes to altering your lifestyle, she advises trying one change at a time until it becomes second nature before moving on to something else. “You can’t do it all at once,” she explains

Make zero-waste coffee

“I can’t live without coffee, but I knew there had to be a way to make it without waste and plastic. I switched to a French press, and I buy the coffee loose and put it in a reusable cloth bag,” she says. “There’s no waste, and you can compost it. It also tastes a lot better.”

Grow your own berries

“I couldn’t find berries at the store that weren’t wrapped in a plastic clamshell, which are made of soft plastic—one that’s really hard to recycle,” she explains. “So I began growing my own berries.” She grows her own blueberries and raspberries and freezes what she can. When she does shop, she chooses brands that are eco-friendly.

Compost without bags

Most people throw food scraps into a plastic bag, but composting eliminates the need for that plastic bag. “It reduces what goes to the landfill and reduces your overall trash,” she explains. “This is one way to save plastic bags.”

Brush away plastic

“We use bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic ones. And when we go to the dentist and the dentist offers us the free toothbrushes and floss, we politely decline,” says Seferian. “The ones we use can be composted, once we break the heads off [since] they contain nylon bristles.” You can also buy brushes with boar bristles that are completely compostable, but Seferian says, “That’s too far, even for me.”

Opt for non-plastic dental floss

“Most people don’t know that plastic floss can be replaced with silk floss,” she says. “It can be composted, and you can find it at any health store.” Another alternative to flossing: using a Waterpik. Seferian also opts for toothpaste tabletsinstead of toothpaste in a plastic tube. That swap, she adds, “takes some getting used to, especially if you like the creamy texture of a paste.”

Just say no to plastic bags at the grocery store

Bringing your own reusable bags when shopping is an easy-to-implement tweak. In fact, more and more grocery stores are insisting on it, with some forgoing plastic bags and others charging extra for even for paper bags. That said, some stores and workers aren’t quite there yet. “While some swaps have technically been easy, I find myself dealing with pushback from others which, in turn, creates anxiety,” Seferian says. “For example, I shop at a supermarket with an in-house bakery. Every week, I ask the baker at the counter (always the same woman) to place my loaf in a repurposed pillowcase instead of a plastic bag. Although her and I have been dancing this dance for over two years, she continues to roll her eyes each and every time. I swear she works slower on purpose, too.”

Go green for baby

“With my first daughter, I was too stressed about new motherhood to go with cloth diapers, but by the second, I was able to make the swap,” Seferian says. “It did make extra laundry, but I did it happily, knowing that we were saving so much money.” She adds that hand-me-downs are also smart for the environment, not to mention your wallet. She kept everything from her first daughter to use for her second. And since most baby items are wrapped in plastic, she either reuses what she has or doesn’t buy it new. “I don’t purchase new items as often as possible,” she says.

Use natural items as beauty products

“The hardest swap so far has been using coconut oil as my makeup remover, especially for my eye makeup,” Seferian admits. “It doesn’t remove it completely. It also doesn’t absorb well, and it doesn’t work well with my skin. I don’t love it, but I use it.”

Skip that bottle of shampoo

Believe it or not, your hair-care products don’t have to come in a bottle. “I made the swap from shampoo and conditioner in a bottle to one in a bar,” she says. “It wasn’t an easy or quick process. I had to try several different bar brands, just like you would with bottled shampoo or conditioner.”

Be merciless in your medicine cabinet

“I use bar soap instead of liquid, and there are bamboo Q-Tips instead of the plastic ones,” says Seferian. “There’s a swap for just about everything if you want to find one.”

Try a different feminine-hygiene product

“I switched from tampons to a silicone menstrual cup (silicone is a type of rubber, in case you’re wondering), and it’s changed my life,” she says. “I want to shout from the rooftops how easy this swap is.” Here are 11 “disposables” you should stop buying now.

Ditch the plastic wrap

Instead of plastic wrap, Seferian suggests using beeswax wrap, which is a piece of cotton covered in melted beeswax. The melted wax dries, and you’re able to press the fabric around your container, just like plastic wrap. You can make it yourself, but Seferian says it’s not worth your time. “I tried to make my own, and it was a flop—it didn’t stay on the bowl,” Seferian says. “I ended up buying the commercial brand online; you can use them hundreds of times. I wish I had done that from the start.”

Cut down on convenience items

Yes, they’re convenient (hence, the name), but they’re not particularly eco-friendly. “Most people love the prepackaged snack options for kids’ lunches, and it makes sense because it’s so easy—especially things like cheese sticks or bags of popcorn,” says Seferian. “I have found a way to do this, too: I have the deli slice up a block of cheese into sticks and then place them in a glass container I bring from home. I’ll also buy loose popcorn kernels, pop it at home, and then put the popcorn into silicone bags.” Here’s the easiest way to recycle the plastic bags that you still have.

Get rid of plastic food containers

Most people get hung up on food storage, says Seferian, but they shouldn’t. “I switched out my Rubbermaid items for glass containers, even those I send with my kids to school. The little glass jars I send fruit in are pretty indestructible; we’ve had ours for about five years now,” she says. “Glass wasn’t allowed at my daughter’s summer camp this year, so we sent stainless steel items for that instead. I prefer glass simply because I started this journey with it. I also saw how great glass is to freeze items in.”

A final note on going plastic-free

Seferian says the biggest surprise along her plastic-free journey has been the reaction of those unfamiliar with her lifestyle. “When people see me doing strange things, like washing foil, they’re genuinely curious,” she explains. “I expected people to write me off as a hippie. So it makes me think that if people know there’s a better way, they’ll want to go that direction.” Going plastic-free isn’t the only way to help the environment—or yourself.

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