Kick the single-use plastic habit during Plastic Free July

There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, much of which ends up on beaches or are swallowed by fish and other sea creatures. How much of that ends up in our stomachs?

Straws, plastic bottles, coffee cups, plastic bags, food take-out containers and other plastic waste products are filling our oceans to the tune of 8 million tons a year.

It’s not just oceans. Single-use plastic also ends up in rivers, lakes, and landfills. Most people think plastic can be and is being recycled, but 91% of plastic isn’t recycled, according to a study by National Geographic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, grocery stores and other retailers instigated a ban on reusable bags because of the mistaken belief that the novel coronavirus that causes the disease could be spread through physical contact with a contaminated bag or container. That turned out not to be true, but not before the world — especially the United States — was once again awash in plastic bags.

The average single-use plastic bag picked up at a grocery store has a lifespan of about 12 minutes. According to a CNBC story:

“For many of us, the pandemic has changed our relationship with single-use plastic in uncomfortable ways,” said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, an environmental nonprofit organization. “The new types of useless plastic packaging piling up in our homes and filling our trash cans are leading many people — including policymakers and corporate executives — to think more about reuse.”

There are concerted efforts to get back on track by business and government agencies. Colorado just passed a ban on plastic bags and plastic foam containers that will take effect in 2024. The state joins the growing list of states and municipalities that ban or tax plastic bags and polystyrene carryout containers at stores and restaurants. The National Council on State Legislatures keeps a running count of actions by states regarding single-use plastic. Eight other states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont) and some 200 U.S. cities have banned or taxed single-use plastic bags, with limits. On the other hand, 10 states — Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, and Wisconsin — have placed preemptive bans on banning plastic bags, passed by (no surprise) Republican legislatures.

In many ways, the U.S. is slow to join the plastic-free party. It should come as no surprise that the U.S. is much worse about throwing away plastic than any other country. Americans threw away 34 million tons of plastic waste in 2015, the most recent figures available.

In an action affecting its member countries, the European Union has banned the use of 10 single-use plastics that are most commonly found thrown away on beaches. Globally, plastic bags are banned or taxed in 32 countries, although sometimes enforcement is spotty.

Developing countries that once accepted imported plastic waste are no longer doing so, have instigated stricter rules when plastic garbage is contaminated, or are sending it back to its countries of origin, mainly the U.S, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

It’s way past time to start forming good habits of avoiding single-use plastic. You can become part of the solution by joining the efforts of Plastic Free July. The Plastic Free July website is filled with ideas on how to minimize plastic use, at home, at school, at work, while shopping, and everywhere. Here are just a few ideas to get started.

Take reusable bags and containers with you when you shop. This doesn’t just mean at the grocery store. Bring reusable bags to farmers’ markets for fresh produce and to retail stores of all kinds for purchases. Take reusable cups to coffeehouses. You’re only limited by your imagination. Always have reusable bags handy in the car for an unscheduled shopping stop.

Remember the three R’s for a better planet: Reduce, reuse, and recycle. There’s a fourth “R,” too — refuse. Refuse to accept a plastic bag when a clerk tries to give you one, especially if it’s for only one item. There’s nothing wrong with carrying out a purchase and receipt. Refuse to accept a Styrofoam container for restaurant leftovers — bring your own containers for a doggy bag.

Use your own reusable water bottles. Take one with you on a hike — more and more parks and businesses have water fountains with spigots to refill bottles. Keep an extra reusable bottle in the car.

Buy in bulk and buy less. Buying in bulk means there will be fewer containers to throw away. Could you share the cost with friends or family? Buying less means there are fewer containers to throw away. Ask yourself, “Do I really need this?”

Use compostable plates and serving utensils at group events. Compostable items are more available and cheaper than you think. That goes for compostable trash bags, too.

Try out these options during the month of July. Who knows — you might keep those habits all year long.

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