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Purging Plastic: Innovative Ideas that Help 

By Debra Judge Silber Rise Writer
May 31, 2021

In the beginning, there were three R's: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. When the first plastics recycling plants came online in the 1970s, it seemed that the last "R" was the one that would save the planet. But 50 years later, America recycles less than 9 percent of the plastic it produces. And while research into replacing synthetic plastics with bio-based ones is promising, many of the alternatives currently available have their own environmental costs.

It may be time to stop focusing on how we dispose of the plastic we use and instead turn our attention to the other two legs of the triangle. How can we reduce the amount of plastic we use? How can we reuse those plastic items that are already in our homes?

On a global scale, those questions are driving efforts by environmentalists to transform our linear economy – one that grows through the harvesting of resources used to make products that are then discarded – into a circular economy that preserves resources and minimizes waste through reuse, repair, sharing and recycling. Apply those concepts to the home front, and you're talking about creating a "zero waste" lifestyle that focuses on limiting the amount of waste we produce and reusing whatever we can.

Plastic Waste

Why Is It So Hard to Not Use Plastic?

Transforming whole economies isn't easy, and neither is breaking established habits at home. For example, in a 2019 Pew Research Center study, 72% of Americans said they use fewer single-use plastics. But that assertion is challenged by data from the US Environmental Protection Agency that suggests the amount of disposable plastic waste per person hasn't changed in 20 years. 

The reality is that economic change and personal change are interrelated. It's hard to change our plastic-consumption habits in a linear economy that promotes the use of plastic not just in producing products but in packaging them. Many efforts at curtailing single-use plastics focus on dishware and utensils, such as plastic straws. But packaging is the largest market for plastics, accounting for 40% of all plastic produced. And we often have little choice in whether the item we buy comes packaged in everlasting, single-use plastic.

But that may be changing as manufacturers and retailers apply innovative thinking to how they package and distribute consumer goods to reduce the amount of new plastic created. This shift is supported by environmental groups like the Plastic Pollution Coalition,  a project of Earth Island Institute that is rallying the public to cut back on plastics. At the same time, it pressures governments and businesses to shift to a circular economy. Among government measures it supports is the Break free from Plastic Pollution Act (S.984), introduced in the US Senate in March 2021. Building on earlier efforts, it would ban some single-use plastics and set recycled content requirements for others. It would also discourage the opening of new plastic production plants and hold manufacturers accountable for the disposal of their products.

Groups like The New Plastics Economy Initiative represent coordinated efforts by companies and others to promote a circular economy for plastics. Its goal is the adoption of 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. To get there, it recommends product packaging that can be refilled or returned either at retail outlets or directly from your doorstep. These models, the group suggests, can benefit businesses by building brand loyalty, cutting packaging costs, and creating opportunities for innovation worth $10 billion.


How Can You Reduce Plastic at Home?

As we wait for governments and global manufacturers to catch on, smaller companies are beginning to employ these plastic-purging models. Local retailers are using their proximity to customers to introduce returnable packaging. Nimble startups are using the popularity of online subscriptions to get consumers in the habit of using household products re-engineered to eliminate plastic packaging.

That means there are more opportunities than ever to cut down on plastics. Here are a few solutions worth considering now, and others you may be seeing more of soon:

  • Waste-Free Groceries and Goods
  • Bottled Beverages
  • Products Without Packaging
  • Shipping Solutions
Refillable Grocery Containers. Photo Credit: Loop

Waste-Free Groceries and Goods

Online shopping has its environmental impacts, but it also reduces manufacturers' reliance on oversized packaging to make products stand out on retailers' shelves. That means there are opportunities to choose products with a smaller packaging footprint. Home delivery of products also presents a chance to retrieve packaging. Online retailer Loop specializes in delivering everyday products like razor blades, shampoo, and cat litter from name brands in reusable packaging that's returned to the company via UPS. There are downsides: the initial container deposit can be steep relative to the price of the product, and the availability of some items is limited. But it represents a new approach to product delivery that avoids the use of single-use plastic.

Zero Shop
Refillable Glass Bottles. Photo Credit: Zero Shop

In some areas, local groceries have adopted no-waste delivery. Zero, for example, buys in bulk from manufacturers and distributes the goods to their Bay area customers in compostable paper bags or reusable containers they reclaim with the following order. Others, like Vancouver's Soap Dispensary & Kitchen Staples, offer refillable home products for customers who visit the store. Websites like Zero Waste Home and Litterless offer directories of retailers offering bulk shopping. Be aware that many retailers have temporarily suspended bulk shopping due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so check before heading out with your jars and bags.

Soda Stream Aqua Fizz Glass Bottles
Aqua Fizz Glass Bottles. Photo Credit: Soda Stream

Bottled Beverages

It's simple enough to carry and refill a plastic or metal water bottle from a tap. But if you crave bubbles, you can avoid swiping a seltzer from the deli cooler by making your own at home. SodaStream is a home carbonation system that makes sparkling water (including flavored water) at home in a reusable bottle. Owned by PepsiCo, the company's stated goal is to save up to 67 billion single-use plastic bottles by 2025.

Purchasing flavored drinks in a powdered form that can be added to tap water in reusable bottles cuts down on both single-use plastic bottles and the environmental costs of shipping tons of liquid beverages that are mostly water.

Kind Laundry
Laundry Strips. Photo Credit: Kind Laundry

Products Without Packaging

Perhaps most promising is the re-engineering of household products into forms that don't require plastic packaging. As with the example of powdered drink mixes, this often involves removing the water, making up 90% of the product.

Laundry detergent strips, which suspend cleaning ingredients on paper-thin sheets that dissolve in the wash, were introduced more than a decade ago. But they're finding new fans among consumers eager for ways to cut back on the 700 million plastic laundry jugs that are dumped in North American landfills each year. Detergent sheets from Tru EarthKind Laundry, and Earth Breeze contain less toxic ingredients than traditional liquid competitors and are packaged in slender, recyclable cardboard sleeves. These products are available through retailers such as Amazon and Walmart, directly from the companies individually or through a subscription.

Make Nice Scrap Solid Dish Soap
Solid Dish Soap. Photo Credit: Make Nice

Solid dish soaps also eliminate the need for plastic bottles. Vancouver-based Make Nice Company's solid dish soaps, for example, can be ordered online or found at local shops in Canada.

Signal Toothpaste Tablets Unilever
Signal Toothpaste Tablets. Photo Credit: Unilever

Humankind is a US startup that offers personal care products re-engineered with minimal packaging. It offers mouthwash and toothpaste in tablet form, shampoo and conditioner in solid bars, and deodorant in a reusable applicator. Big manufacturers are reimagining their products as well: Signal toothpaste tablets from Unilever do away with the typical non-recyclable tube.

Many startups use a subscription model to provide customers with an ongoing supply of their products. With a motto of "Refill is the New Recycle," Blueland uses subscriptions to market its cleaning sprays, hand soap, powdered dish soap, and "naked" dishwasher and laundry tablets. It starts customers off with reusable spray bottles into which tablets of cleaning ingredients are mixed with water, significantly reducing shipping weight and plastic.

Liviri Food Delivery Box
Reusable Food Delivery Box. Photo Credit: Liviri

Shipping Solutions

Other efforts to trim plastic use focus on providing manufacturers and retailers with plastic-free or reusable shipping materials. Liviri is a US startup that replaces the corrugated cardboard boxes used by fresh-food delivery companies with reusable ones. LimeLoop rents its recycled, reusable packaging for online merchants with an integrated tracking system that allows consumers to return packaging material with a prepaid shipping label.  

Reusable Packaging. Photo Credit: RePack

RePack is a worldwide packaging service for online retailers that enables packing materials to be returned and reused with a discount on the next order. The company acknowledges that the initial manufacture of more durable packaging and its collection has a larger carbon footprint than most single-use packaging but that the environmental impact over the life of the material is lower.

Supporting retailers that reduce, reclaim and reuse packaging for products delivered to our homes is one more strategy we can add to toting reusable shopping bags and refillable water bottles. Reusing plastic takeout containers and washing out and reusing plastic bags are other simple actions we can take to get more service out of plastic that's already in the world. Like movement toward a circular economy, practices like these require is a shift in our thinking. For most of its history, we've viewed plastic as a cheap, disposable alternative to other materials. But learning to value plastic – by producing less and reusing what we already have – may be one key to breaking its hold on our planet. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-05T19:26:33+0000
Debra Judge Silber

Article by:

Debra Judge Silber

Debra Judge Silber is a Connecticut-based journalist who writes on home design with an eye toward practices that support our health and our planet. She is a former editor at This Old House, Fine Homebuilding and Inspired House, and has written for a number of other publications.