Not long ago, I was in my kitchen wrapping up dinner leftovers when a dear friend who was visiting let out a cry of disapproval: “What are you doing? You can’t use that plastic!” My hand stopped in the middle of ripping a big piece of Saran wrap. “What else am I supposed to use to cover the salad?” I asked. My friend proceeded to launch into a passionate, thorough explanation of all the reasons — both scientific and ethical — that I shouldn’t be using plastic wrap or any other single-use plastic.
I think of this exchange as my second plastic awakening. Yes, I have seen the pictures of the piles of plastic littering the world’s oceans, killing wildlife and polluting our food chain, but I felt like I was doing my part to help: I never use plastic straws, and I always bring canvas shopping bags and mesh produce bags with me to the grocery store. But I had not done anything to put an end to the yards of plastic wrap, piles of Baggies and stacks of disposable cups that my family and I toss away.
After one day of tracking the plastic I discarded, I realized my friend is right; our dependence on single-use plastics is staggering. And the consequences of our throwaway habits are even more staggering: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy report predicted that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish by weight.
Dianna Cohen, co-founder and chief executive of the nonprofit organization Plastic Pollution Coalition, has dedicated the past 10 years to making the world plastic-free, which is a lofty goal; Americans alone discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year, Cohen said. For her, it’s not a partisan issue, and it’s not an issue for the elite; it’s an issue that affects all of us. “We are producing instant garbage and instant waste,” she said. “We need to shift our thinking to reusable over disposable. It’s pretty clear we can do that.”
To do that, Cohen says, we need to go back to our old ways. “We need to do things the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did,” she said, “like store leftovers in a ceramic bowl and then use a saucer or plate to cover it when you put it in the fridge.” Another option for leftovers, Cohen says, is to cover them in reusable beeswax-coated cotton cloths, such as the ones from Abeego. “I wrap cheeses in them, use them to wrap up half an avocado, or lay them over the tops of baking dishes or bowls.” They aren’t as snug and tight as plastic wrap, but they have a similar effect. To clean the cloths, just rinse them in cold water with an eco-friendly dish soap and allow them to dry. Typically, they last for one year and then can be composted.
Cohen also saves glass jars from pickles, jams and spaghetti sauce to store leftovers, and she hunts for old Pyrex at thrift stores and yard sales. She buys milk and yogurt in glass containers and purchases as much food as she can in bulk, always bringing her own containers or cotton bags to fill.
To cut down on plastic in the bathroom, Cohen forgoes plastic hand soap pump bottles in favor of old-fashioned bar soap. “People say that it’s more sanitary to use a plastic pump bottle of soap, but the way I see it, every time you run the bar of soap under water to wash your hands, it gets cleaned.” Cohen also recommends trying bar shampoo; she admits it’s tough to use if you have long hair, but there’s an added benefit to most bar shampoos: They tend to be free of paraben and phthalate.
As for toothpaste, Cohen makes her own. “It’s so easy. There are lots of recipes online, but it’s basically just baking soda, coconut oil and whatever essential oil you like.” Her preference is classic peppermint flavoring.
When it comes to her on-the-go habits, such as her morning coffee and her lunch, Cohen has an entire kit she carries around. “My friends and I like to think of ourselves as urban backpackers.” In their kits, they have bamboo utensils, a spork and stainless steel containers (most of Cohen’s kit is from To-Go Ware). But if the camping vibe isn’t for you, check out the stylish Porter collection from W&P. The ceramic lunch bowl is very similar in size and shape to the typical take-out salad/grain bowl, and it has a super-secure silicone wrap, rigid plastic lid and a snap-tight silicone strap.
For drinks, Cohen used to carry around a glass bottle, but after she broke her third one, she switched to metal — stainless steel, not aluminum, which she says leaves an aftertaste. Her favorite bottle is the Hydro Flask; it keeps cold drinks cold for 24 hours and hot drinks hot for 12 hours, and there is never any condensation or heat transfer to the outside of the bottle. The company also makes a stainless steel wine tumbler and a 12-ounce coffee mug. (Cohen has three stainless steel mugs: from Hydro Flask, S’well and Steelys Drinkware.)
To replace plastic straws, buy a reusable substitute; Cohen uses the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s PPC Straw ($3 from Life Without Plastic), but if you’re looking for more of a set, Pampered Chef sells a set of two stainless steel straws that come with a nylon travel bag and a cleaning brush for $7.
The sheer number of stainless steel bottles and reusable straws in stores shows consumers are interested in cutting back on plastic, but there are signs of movement on the business side, too, Cohen says. The Intercontinental Hotel Group, which owns brands such as Kimpton, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn, has pledged to swap out all plastic bathroom toiletries for bulk-size refillable amenities by 2021. The San Francisco International Airport has banned plastic water bottle sales and is committed to being completely zero-waste by 2021. And Nestlé has committed to make 100 percent of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.
For my part, kicking the plastic habit is hard, but I have taken Cohen’s no-plastic pledge, what her organization calls the four R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”
More from Lifestyle: