Q. Dear Umbra,
I’m trying to reduce plastic waste in my daily life. I really liked your plastic-reducing advice in Bon Appetit and I’m craving even more advice! Can you give me some specific tips for reducing single-use plastics?
— Help, Addicted to Reducing Plastic
A. Dear HARP,
First of all, thank you! The Bon Appetit feature you mentioned, in which I basically advise people to make a vat of homemade mustard and store a king’s ransom of frozen scone dough in your freezer, naturally focused on some plastic waste reduction techniques related to shopping for groceries, eating at restaurants, and cooking at home. There’s a lot you can change there! But if you want to add some different — or, dare I say, weird techniques to your plastic-saving arsenal — don’t worry. We have you covered (not in Saran wrap).
My one-size-fits-all advice on single-use plastics is to avoid them where you can, and where you can’t, try to reuse. This often results in some practices that, well, can look very strange. But single-use plastics are the societal norm, for now, so anything you do to avoid or reuse them is going to be abnormal by definition. You just have to embrace it.
But one big question that I get a lot is: Is it safe to prolong the life of plastic containers meant for one use? It’s certainly subject to debate! I spent months researching a long piece about plastics disintegrating and decomposing and drizzling potentially harmful chemicals everywhere, and my takeaway from that work was: Plastics are officially sprinkled all throughout our world, and there are millions of different formulations of plastic, so it’s hard to know how each one will interact with its environment as it ages.
Knowing plastics are everywhere and doing weird and bad things to the ecosystem makes it imperative to try to reduce waste, but what about washing and reusing single-use plastics for our food? Is that weird and bad for you? Here’s the idea: Plastics can contain harmful chemicals like Polyvinyl chloride and Bisphenol A. Even if you’re not microwaving your lunch in an old yogurt container (don’t do that), you could be increasing your risk of exposure to those chemicals.
However! “When you use plastic, it probably makes sense to reuse it rather than putting more in the waste stream,” says Ruthann Rudel, director of research at the Silent Spring Institute, which studies environmental factors that can cause cancer. “Plastics have many additives and it is difficult to tell which containers are leaching something that may be harmful — whether they are new or old.”
Armed with that knowledge, I refer you back to my credo, which I repeat as often as possible both on this website and in the Bon Appetit feature: “Sometimes, you just have to be a weirdo.” To that end, I solicited a bunch of tips from my Grist colleagues that they use in real life to limit or reuse single-use plastic in their lives — and how they’ve been ridiculed for exactly those practices.
Eve Andrews, a.k.a. Umbra:
TIP: I’ve saved every produce or bread bag that’s made its way into our apartment since we moved in a year ago, and I use them to prolong the life of everything: Fruit, pastries, breads, herbs. I bring them to the grocery store to reuse. Anything that goes in the fridge gets wrapped in a reused produce bag. I keep a little balled up stash of produce bags in my backpack in case I have to pick up produce on the way home. But the weirdest aspect of this, I guess, is that I religiously wash them out and dry them by violently shaking them free of water, as you would a rug to get the dust off of it.
Has Anyone Made Fun Of You? This practice has certainly raised questions from my boyfriend. “They were the source of a great mystery for a while,” he says. “The mystery being: Why does it look like it rained on our kitchen ceiling?”
Teresa Chin, Senior Editor
TIP: Oof, I’ve got a lot.
- I try not to use produce bags at the grocery store, but when I do end up with them, they get a second use as doggy poop bags. Sliced bread bags also work!
- When I was a new parent, I used to hurry to change my baby’s diaper as soon as there was a single drop of pee in it. (FYI, newborns urinate up to 20 times a day!) But, according to the American Pregnancy Association, you don’t need to change a kid every time they’re wet. Especially with older diaper-clad kids, you can wait a bit to change them if it’s just a little pee and the diaper is mostly empty. For newborns, every 2-3 hours is sufficient. As one of the other parents from my kid’s daycare put it: “Number two, time to renew. Number one, keep having fun.”
- My daughter, now 3 years old, loves tiny single-serve yogurts. But they are super wasteful and often deceptively sugary. So instead, we buy one gigantic tub of plain yogurt and spoon it into tiny shatter-resistant glass containers. She gets to customize her own yogurt flavors, and we save on money and plastic waste.
- For dry trash, I dump out the contents of the trash can but keep the old liner.
HAMFOY? Someone called me gross once for re-using the trash can liner.
Leta Dickinson, Editorial Intern
TIP: I use soda cans, plastic containers, and aluminum cans as planters! And plastic lids make great water runoff catchers. In fact, I ran an environmental publication in college and we had one bonding event where people would bring plastic bottles that we fished out of the recycling to make into self-watering planters.
HAMFOY? Yes! People ask me why I have trash on my windowsills all the time.
Darby Minow Smith, Senior Managing Editor
TIP: For takeout or lunch, I try to only go to restaurants that allow you to bring your own container or serve in actual dishware so that I can just put takeout in my Tupperware myself.
HAMFOY? Yeah, one guy at the salad place calls it “adorable.” But whatever, it’s the name of the eco-game, baby!
Jesse Nichols, Associate Video Producer
TIP: I found a grocery store that sells the shampoo I use in bulk, and so I bought a giant thing of it to refill my bottles.
HAMFOY? I had a horrible pumping malfunction in the store and ended up drenching myself in shampoo. My girlfriend made fun of me for coming home soaked in shampoo.
Zoya Teirstein, News Writer
TIP: I use the bags my Trader Joe’s fruits come in to pack or wrap my lunch. (Ed. note: Those bags are on the way out! But this is applicable for any superfluous plastic packaging!)
HAMFOY? No. I feel like I’m always surrounded by equally crunchy people so no one says anything.
Claire Thompson, Editorial Intern
TIP: I’ll literally wash out Ziploc baggies and reuse them a bunch of times until they get super gnarly. My house is also big into using empty yogurt containers as Tupperware.
HAMFOY? Well, people will think you’re eating straight out of a giant tub of yogurt all the time.
This wouldn’t be sound Umbra advice if I didn’t point out that single-use plastics are a systemic problem. So if you’re wondering where to start with addressing that level of change, I’ve got some ideas right over here.
But in the meantime, stay weird.