When you dive into the world of plastic-free or zero-waste living, it may seem like you need to buy a whole bunch of new things. While I am a big fan of having zero-waste toolkit of reusable items including cutlery, a coffee cup, and Stasher bags, among other things, the most sustainable way to live this lifestyle is to use what you already have.
Getting started on your journey to reduce plastic but still have a bunch of old plastic laying around the house? No problem. The best thing you can do is make use of it (in a safe way) instead of tossing it in the recycling bin and starting over. This is especially true if you're not in the habit of paying close attention to the rules of the recycling road (like, did you know you cannot recycle paper or plastic that's got food residue on it?).
Honestly, reusing plastic that comes into your life can be helpful in certain situations. When you're aware and thinking about how you'll reuse plastic before you purchase, it can help make your transition to the plastic-free life even easier. Plus, it really just goes to show you that going plastic-free really happens one step at a time.
Check out the list below to see some creative ways I, and others, have reused and repurposed plastic we already have, then stay tuned for some helpful tips on how to recycle like a pro to ensure your plastic actually gets recycled.
Use plastic containers for …
Leftover food storage
I often make use of old plastic ice cream containers (talenti, anyone?) for leftovers and freezing. As always, avoid using plastic containers for reheating in the microwave or oven since it will melt and depending on the plastic, can leech toxins into your food (uh, no thank you).
Bulk bin shopping
Score another point for bulk shopping — you can reuse plastic containers for shopping in the bulk section! And if you're storing dry goods in the pantry, you can likely just bulk and store in the same container.
Keeping food scraps for composting in the freezer keeps smells and leaks at bay, and you can use a plastic container to keep it all together. Heads up: if you're using your compost scraps for something like soup stock (or anything you'll be consuming later), then we'd recommend a non-plastic container like a Stasher bag instead.
Bringing food to others
You can use your old plastic containers to bring food to a potluck, or cookies to work. Perhaps your friend will reuse the container, or end up recycling it, but it’s an easy way to reuse it for something that might otherwise be challenging to bring in glass.
You can use plastic containers in the laundry room, in your cleaning supply closets, in the bathroom, or anywhere else you may need a little support in organizing. Or, put loose office supplies, batteries, supplements, or anything else that needs a place in a cabinet or closet or on a shelf in a plastic container and call it a day.
Reuse your plastic grocery bags for …
Garbage bag liners
An oldie, yet a goodie. If you are using plastic bags for your garbage bins, you might as well reuse ones you already have on hand. I like to use these in the bathroom or for garbage that doesn’t get sloppy.
We know it happens — you're out with your dog and all you have is a plastic bag in your trunk to scoop up waste. Don't lose sleep over it because the name of the game here is to eliminate "single-use" anything (so using a plastic bag more than once is a great start). Though, this is a good reminder to create your To-Go Kit and have biodegradable poop bags on hand!
Pro tip: you can also use newspaper or the plastic bag your newspaper comes wrapped in (if you still get it delivered to your home) for this — both work great!
In an odd twist of events, you can actually reuse your old grocery shopping bags for … grocery shopping! It takes a lot of energy to produce reusable tote bags, so it’s a great option to keep reusing the bags you have.
Covering items while cooking or baking
I reuse plastic grocery bags or soft plastic bags I end up with for baking sourdough— it’s ideal to cover the bowls in plastic while proofing, so I keep them and reuse them time after time.
Travel or gym laundry
Plastic bags are great to keep in your suitcase to throw your laundry in— they weigh nearly nothing and take up very little space. You can keep one in your suitcase, or gym bag, and keep reusing it after you empty it into the laundry. Or you can use them to wrap shoes in that you don’t want to get the rest of your bag dirty.
Reuse plastic bottles for …
Refilling with a new purpose
If you have a plastic shampoo or soap bottle, see if there’s somewhere local you can refill it. Or, make your own cleaning or bathroom products.
To water your plants
Yes, you can reuse a plastic water bottle to water your plants. Just fill it up, and stick it in upside down and your plant will suck up the water as needed. This is a great solution for travel, but you can use it year-round if you often forget to water your plants or have a plant that’s hard to reach in order to water regularly.
Reuse these toothbrushes for …
Scrubbing the bathroom and tiles
Old plastic toothbrushes are great for cleaning. Save them and use them to scrub those small, hard to reach spots.
When (and how) to recycle ...
Unfortunately, a large majority of plastics aren’t actually recycled (the EPA estimates a plastic recycling rate of 8.4% in the US in 2017), even when you put them in the recycling bin. We can play a role in helping to optimize our recycling by recycling properly, starting with these principles and tips:
- Avoid “wishcycling,” meaning putting things in the recycling bin that you aren’t sure are recyclable, but hope they are!
- Make sure anything that goes into the recycling bin has the proper number on it, and that your city or town accepts that number in the recycling stream.
- Check to see if your city or town has single-stream recycling, meaning you can mix all types of recycling (paper, plastic, glass) in one bin, or if they need to be separated
- Ensure everything you put in your recycling bin is clean and dry— rinse and dry any food containers before tossing.
- Recycle soft plastics at major retailers. These include the thin plastic bag clothes come in from online orders, certain soft plastic food bags, and more. You can put these into the bins that allow you to return plastic bags to major retailers (like Target or large grocery chains). Find the details and where you can drop off soft plastics.
- Keep an eye on the plastic that you end up needing to throw out, and see if there are plastic or waste-free alternatives to those products.
The bottom line: reuse what you have as much as possible, so long as it’s safe. It’s often better to reuse the plastic you have, then even to buy something that’s more “sustainable.” While buying plastic should be avoided as much as reasonable, you should also come to terms with the fact that throwing things in the recycling bin doesn't mean it will actually be recycled. That's why reducing and reusing are preferred methods, with recycling being the final phase of your plastic-free overhaul.