How to Use Less Plastic for a Greener Home

Blogger Amy Serotkin, author of The Mindful Home, shares well researched reviews of eco-friendly products, along with suggestions for maintaining a green household on her blog. Read on for her suggestions on how to reduce the amount of plastic you use, for a greener, safer home. – PrincetonScoop

Plastic.  It’s everywhere.  It’s toxic, sticks around the planet FOREVER, uses up natural resources, pollutes the water and air…  Our first instinct is to avoid it when it comes to our food.  It’s only natural to want to ingest as little BPA, phthalates and known carcinogens as possible.  So we opt for glass storage containers, look for juice and milk in glass bottles, heat our food in ceramic or glass, and if you’re like me, you avoid food packaged in clamshells and look for as much as possible in zero or at least plastic-free packaging.  But there’s far more to it than just poisoning our bodies.  Plastic production wreaks havoc on the earth, poisons factory workers, and even the basic elements of plastic – tiny pellets called “nurdles” that get melted down to form anything and everything plastic, end up in the oceans where they are consumed by fish, and the toxins they ingest along with them go right on up the food chain to…guess who?  Then there is the other end of the cycle – oceans filled with floating islands the size of Texas made up of nurdles and plastic trash.  Dead birds and sea creatures with bellies full of more of the same.  Landfills packed with items that will at best take many centuries to biodegrade, and even then, it is more likely that the plastic will just break up into smaller and smaller pieces, but never actually go away.
So when somebody asks me how to make their home greener, the first thing I’m going to talk about is plastic.  The second would be swapping disposable items like paper towels or diapers for reusable cloth ones, but that’s for another post.  Plastic has permeated our culture so intrinsically that it seems impossible to live without it.  Sadly, unless you plan on making a radical lifestyle shift and become homesteader of the year, growing and making everything from scratch, chances are you will still be using plastic in one way or another.  But with a little awareness, ingenuity and diligence you can at least drastically decrease your consumption and output.Thinking beyond the kitchen and the transition to glass and ceramics that can be made there, there are many ways to reduce plastic usage throughout the home.  Personal care products are a good place to start.  Ideally, making your own is the safest and most eco friendly option, but I realize most do not have the time for that and need to purchase items instead.  This can get a little tricky because there are also phthalates, parabens, carcinogens and more lurking in most personal care products, so narrowing down which ones have the fewest toxins would be step one.  An excellent resource for doing so is the Skin Deep Database, created by the Environmental Working Group.  You can look up many personal care products, or even single ingredients to find out more information about their toxicity.  Once you’ve figured out which products you would like to remain in your routine, try to find them in the largest sizes possible – even gallon sized if it’s available.  A 128oz gallon is equal to just over ten individual 12oz bottles of shampoo or conditioner.  Ten caps/lids, ten bottles…all in place of one large bottle with a tiny cap.  Shampoo bars are an excellent option as well, which brings me to bars in general.  Using bar soap instead of body wash or hand soap is yet another way to minimize impact, but for those who can’t part with their liquids, again, at least look for the largest size possible.  The same goes for moisturizer.  I happen to be very picky about mine and still need a traditional moisturizer, but I have heard some people rave about using coconut oil, which is easily found in large glass jars.  Toothbrushes are available these days in everything from recycled plastic to wood with natural bristles, and for those interested, the internet is flooded with homemade toothpaste and deodorant recipes.

Household cleaners are another place to knock plastic usage down a few notches.  Again, another place you may want to check out first is the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, which is similar to the Skin Deep Database, and you can learn all about toxins in household cleaners.  I am a huge fan of cleaning with white vinegar.  I buy it in (you guessed it!) gallons and use it for just about everything.  If you can’t take the smell, which I personally prefer to the smell of traditional toxic cleaners, there is a super easy recipe to make it smell chock full of citrus goodness, and you can find that here. I can get my entire house to sparkle with nothing but vinegar, a small cardboard bottle of Bon Ami powder cleanser, some wood polish (I’m still working on a good recipe) and of course, reusable cloths and rags.  Anyone who knows me would attest that I have only the highest standards of cleanliness, so it is possible to get your house clean with very little.

Another area that can be tackled is the laundry room.  Look for powdered detergent in boxes (the same goes for dishwasher detergent), or at the very least, the largest possible liquid container you can find.  I would recommend another easy homemade recipe for detergent here, but so far everything I’ve tried has bleached/ruined my clothing with the washing soda in it.  Eco Nuts makes a product called Soap Nuts that many rave about and has almost zero waste for laundry.  I have yet to try them, as I have heard they are not as successful with super hard water (which we have), but many with soft to moderately hard water love them.  Wool dryer balls are a fantastic replacement for fabric softener, and baking soda or washing soda purchased in a box is an option for whitening.

By now you are probably sensing a pattern here.  The general idea is to par down your routine as best you can, and what you absolutely must buy in plastic, buy fewer tiny bottles and aim for one big one.  Do you really need that fancy facial scrub in a little plastic squeeze bottle, or will washing your face with a natural loofah and bar soap do the trick?  Do you need separate spray bottles with glass cleaner, all-purpose cleaner and bathroom cleaner, or can you find a way to make due with less?  Do you need a certain product that comes encased in that impossible to open plastic packaging, or can you wait a little longer until you find an option with a little less wasteful packaging?  Is it necessary to send your child to school everyday with individual yogurt cups, or can you manage with one big container to spoon into mason jars for them each day?  Please, please, please reconsider food items that come in individual packets!  Above all, the first and most important step is simply awareness.  Plastic has become so ingrained in our society that we don’t even notice it anymore.  We think we NEED these products so there is no other way.

One final and far more subtle plastic packaging that can be focused on are things that come in plastic bags.  Produce is obviously a big one, and one of the easiest things to find without a bag.  But here’s where I forget that most people don’t own their own produce bags.  In the six or seven years I’ve been using cloth produce bags, I have yet to encounter one single other person using them.  So if you’re interested in making the switch, you can find ideas and reviews of different produce and shopping bags here and certainly if you must bring home your produce in a bag, at least reuse it or recycle it.  Also, be on the look out for the tiny recycling symbol.  They can be difficult to see, but I have found them on bags of sandwich bread, carrots, frozen vegetables, and more.  When I can, I also try to make our sandwich bread (in a breadmaker – can’t take all the credit!) to avoid those bags.  And while I try to buy our toilet paper packaged in paper, sometimes it’s not available, so I will carefully open the package so that when it’s empty I can use the outside bag that holds all the rolls for a trash bag in a small garbage can.  I either don’t use bags in our small cans, or find something to reuse to line them with.  I find that sometimes things that are shipped come wrapped up in a plastic bag, and they are almost always the ideal size for small trash cans.  The trick is being aware when you open up whatever you’re getting at to preserve the bag.If you have children, the last thing I would encourage is thinking about toy purchases.  There are so many amazing toys today made of natural materials, and more flooding the market everyday.  This is one place we have adamantly and successfully eliminated almost 100% plastic.  In nearly three years of buying toys for our daughter, we still don’t own a plastic one.  It really is possible, it may just take a little push outside your comfort zone.I am obviously very passionate about my stance on plastics.  I used to be proud of our overflowing recycling bin, until I learned all about the ramifications of plastic production and disposal.  Now I’m ashamed if that bin isn’t mostly full of glass.  These weren’t changes we implemented overnight, but little by little these are ways I’ve found to help our household lessen our impact on the planet, and I only hope that after reading this you will take the first step in that direction, which is to just have a greater awareness of how much plastic you use.

For more ideas of ways to make make your home greener, and reviews on products to help do that, check out my blog, The Mindful Home, at www.themindfulhome.blogspot.com

The Mindful Home is a consumer’s guide for environmentally conscious living.  It is dedicated to helping those who don’t have the time to do the research themselves or make things from scratch to find quality, eco friendly products for all aspects of everyday life.  I try to provide articles, resources and information on related topics like toxins lurking in products, so that everything is in one place.  It is also my goal to highlight lesser known retailers, manufacturers and crafters that offer incredible selections of non-toxic products.