High schooler Emily Tamkin is passionate about the environment and community development. Photo courtesy of Emily Tamkin.

High school activist Emily Tamkin is passionate about reducing her environmental footprint. Read on for some of her thoughts on how to reduce single-use plastic in your own lives, and check out the rest of her tips and advice next Friday!

Back in the 1960s, a Swedish company, Celloplast, revolutionized the shopping industry with the invention and design of the single-use plastic bag. Today, the plastic bag is the second most common piece of marine litter, and around 80% of animal-plastic interactions end in death or injury to the animal.

Now, one of the most important questions consumers need to start asking themselves is, “Do I really need this, or is it just habit for me to take it?” The reality is that nowadays, many single-use plastics don’t do anything to improve our quality of life. It’s become habit to grab that disposable coffee cup or to ask for plastic at checkout. Making the effort to eliminate or replace the need for these plastics is easy, and when done collectively, it makes a huge difference for our marine life and the overall health of our planet. Here are ten pain-free ways to reduce the number of single use plastics in your life and potentially save you some money along the way.

Plastic bags

When talking about single-use plastics, plastic bags are always the first item mentioned, and for good reason. As aforementioned, plastic bags are the second most common form of marine litter and are of massive detriment to our planet. They are also incredibly easy to eliminate from your day-to-day routine. Keeping a set of reusable bags in your car or purse for use out shopping and day-to-day ensures that you’ll always have a few on hand when asked the fated “paper or plastic?” question at checkout.

On that note, choosing paper over plastic is another great way to avoid the waste. Paper bags are also much easier to reuse; whether simply reusing the bag, cutting it up for a rustic wrapping paper, or cleaning your windows with it (I’m not joking), they have a multitude of post-grocery-store uses and are far more eco-friendly than the dreaded single-use plastic bag.

For small purchases, just practice saying “no bag, please.” Many of our small purchases can go directly in our bag or car, or just be carried by hand. Do you really need a plastic bag for a pack of gum?

Plastic silverware

Plastic silverware is tricky, whether at a barbecue where you need the ease of just throwing the dirty dishes away, or eating out somewhere that only provides plastics, this single-use plastic can be tricky to avoid. In terms of takeout food, give your bag a quick check before you leave the store to ensure that no plastic utensils have been slipped in when you don’t need them; you can simply hand them back to the restaurant to give to the next person coming in. For online orders, you can often specify “no plastic utensils, please” in your order notes.

There are also some great alternatives to single-use plastic silverware, the best being compostable silverware: the same ease without the excessive plastic waste. Set out a bin for compost noting that the silverware goes in there too! Not only will you save a lot of food waste from heading into the trash, the plastic waste will be eliminated as well.

You can also carry reusable silverware with you in your purse — there are some fancy bamboo sets in carrying cases available online, but just keeping a metal fork and spoon in your bag (or holding onto a plastic set for reuse) will REALLY cut down on waste.

Plastic straws

Plastic straws are generally easy to eliminate and avoid; in restaurants, it’s simple to decline one for your drink that you can sip. Consider this route if it is convenient for you to do so, yet it is important to note that for many people with disabilities or for those who unable to lift a glass to their lips, straws, especially those offered in restaurants, are critical for their independence and quality of life. For those who require straws to drink, or even some kids who won’t drink without a straw, reusable straws are great to keep at home for day to day use.

If you don’t need a straw, try specifying “no straw, please” when you place your drink order. This is a good time to skip swizzle sticks and coffee stirrers too!

To-go cups and lids

To-go plastics in cups and lids are sometimes tricky to do without and avoid. Grabbing coffee on the run is sometimes impromptu; you can’t always plan to keep a mug on you.

That being said, if you are one who loves her daily Starbucks stop, the best thing that you can do to make it more sustainable is to bring a reusable mug or tumbler with you. It’s also frequently more cost-friendly to do so. Starbucks, Peets, and many other cafes and coffee shops offer discounts for those who bring a reusable mug.

Another option to eliminate this waste is to simply wait until you get home to get a drink. While sometimes that is not an option, it can save you money and plastics in the long run to skip the coffee stop on your way to work and just make some before you leave, or grab that soda when you get home instead. You will likely find this also saves you money, and at home, you can ensure that you have recycling options for any single-serve drink containers such as bottles or cans.

If you’re drinking in a restaurant that offers take-out, you can minimize the impact of a single-use cup (especially a paper one) by requesting “no lid, please.” As a bonus, this allows you to skip the straw, too!

Plastic takeout boxes

Again, to-go plastics are tricky to eliminate. The ease of just Doordashing some food or picking it up on your way home from work is spectacular, but leaves you with a lot of hard-to-reuse plastic containers. Before you order to-go, think about whether you can take the second to sit down and enjoy your meal in the restaurant, or whether you could make something at home instead.

If you are set on grabbing your takeout, you can also consider bringing your own containers when you order and requesting that your food be put in those. It’s easier than it sounds! While it may seem a bit taboo, most restaurants have no problem with it. Try asking, “Can you use my reusable container?” You’ll notice that most places won’t care at all about filling up your Tupperware, and you might start a great trend. If none of these options work for you in the moment, just make sure that your containers end up in the recycling instead of the trash.

Emily is a high school junior in California who is passionate about community development, eco-friendly travel, and reducing her footprint on the environment. Learn more about Emily’s reusable bag initiative at bagsfortheocean.weebly.com/.

-Emily Tamkin
Girl Museum Inc.
Guest Blogger

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