Do you think it’s possible to live life without plastic? Or to at least live with less of it? Check out this list of plastic-free and less plastic alternatives and see for yourself.
The list is not meant to be overwhelming but simply to show what is possible. Choose a few that seem doable and that will make the most impact. No one can do it all at once. But we can all get started!
If you still have questions after looking over this list, use the search bar above for more plastic-free ideas. Or read my book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, your complete guide to living a life with less plastic. And if you like what you see here, please use the email link above to forward this list on to the people you love. We can all make a difference.
Note: If you make a purchase via any product links on this site, I may earn a small percentage to support my plastic-free mission.
Click the + sign after each step for a detailed description and additional tips.
Top Ways to Reduce Plastic Waste
Carry whatever works for you. Some people like reusable canvas totes. Others prefer to put their purchases into a backpack or messenger bag. Do you often forget your reusable bags? ChicoBags are a great emergency alternative. While they are made from synthetic materials, they compress into their own attached stuff sack, which makes them very convenient and likely to be used. I carry several of them in my purse so I am never without a bag. If you have a car, keep your grocery bags in it and remember to bring them into the store with you! And one more thing: reusable bags are not just for groceries! Carry them for all your purchases, from electronics to clothing.
Not only does it come in a plastic bottle, but tremendous resources are used to extract, bottle, and ship it. And many brands of bottled water are simply filtered tap water. Get a reusable stainless steel bottle (Klean Kanteen has just come out with a completely plastic-free water bottle — no plastic on the cap at all!) or stainless steel travel mug, fill it up with tap water before leaving the house, and refill it wherever you happen to be. I don’t recommend reusable plastic or aluminum bottles. Plastic may leach chemicals into the water and aluminum bottles are lined with an epoxy resin, some of which has also found to leach into water depending on the brand. Why take a chance? Read my posts about bottled water for more information.
Eating and Drinking on the Go
- Request takeout places use your container instead of their disposable one. If they won’t do it, give them a Take Out Without card to help them understand why they should. Some examples of convenient containers are:
- Stainless containers from Life Without Plastic, Eco Lunchbox, LunchBots, and others.
- Stainless steel containers sold at some camping supply stores
- Think bringing your own containers is too much of a hassle and won’t make a difference? Please check out my posts “Carrying Our Own Containers: Powerful Action or Pointless Inconvenience?“
Carry a stainless steel travel mug or water bottle at all times for coffee and other drinks while out in the world.
(I use my travel mug for water instead of a water bottle.) Besides the plastic lid and plastic straw, paper cups are lined with a plastic coating. When I first began this project, I got in the habit of requesting “no lid and no straw” when ordering a drink in a disposable paper cup. But nowadays, if I’ve forgotten my mug, I simply do without until I can find a water fountain or sit-down cafe or restaurant with durable cups and glasses. This process helps me to remember my reusable mug next time.
I keep a To-Go-Ware bamboo utensil set and a couple of GlassDharma drinking straws in my purse at all times. And actually, I didn’t need to go out and buy the bamboo. I could have just as easily used my own stainless steel utensils. Check out blogger Mindful Momma’s cute DIY utensil wrap.
It’s called a “package saver.” Think about it. A single-use plastic device meant to save a single-use cardboard box. What about all the marine animals that swallow that type of disposable plastic? It doesn’t save them, does it? When ordering, say, “Please don’t put that little white plastic thing in the middle of the pizza.” They’ll know what you mean.
Instead of keeping containers of ice cream in the freezer, I will enjoy the occasional ice cream cone while I’m out. That keeps my ice cream consumption down, which is better for my health, and it also does away with the plastic-lined containers as well. Ice cream cones require zero container or utensil waste. If I do want to bring some home, I can have my ice cream hand-packed in my own container.
I’ve made the decision to eat fresh fruit instead of buying juice. This eliminates the need for all disposable bottles — glass as well as plastic. I don’t drink sugary sodas, but I do like seltzer water. Especially in the summer. So I got a Soda Stream Penguin soda maker for those times I crave some fizz. The soda maker itself is plastic, but the carafes are glass, and the soda maker replaces hundreds of disposable bottles. What’s more, the reusable CO2 cartridges are returned to the manufacturer for refilling.
At the farmers market or natural food stores, I can buy bread that comes in only paper. At the bakery down the street, I can have my bread placed in my own cloth bag and avoid all packaging. Bread keeps fresh when stored in the cloth bag inside an airtight tin. I reuse a popcorn tin that was sent to me as a gift several years ago. Often, thrift stores have more of these tins than they know what to do with. Fresh bread is a bit more expensive than its plastic-packaged cousins, but to me, it’s worth it. And since I buy so few new things, I can afford to spend more for quality, plastic-free food. See my post, Fresh Bread: Buy It, Store It, Keep It Fresh Without Plastic.
One reader asked what I do about cherry tomatoes or berries since they can get crushed in a reusable bag. I buy them at the farmer’s market in the green plastic basket and then return it to the farmer each week for a refill, so I never have to take new ones. Don’t have a farmers market nearby? Ask your local grocer to take them back. Or empty your berries into your own container before leaving the store and leave the plastic basket behind. If enough of us do this, perhaps merchants will take note.
I take my own containers with me to the butcher counter at Whole Foods or local butcher shop. (While the humans in our house don’t each much meat, the kitties do.) The butcher can weigh the container and deduct the weight, just as is done with bulk foods. The servers at the deli/prepared foods counter can do the same thing. Just ask. (Read about Buying and Storing Meat without Plastic and Plastic-Free Beef Jerky.)
Many areas have local dairies that provide milk in returnable glass bottles rather than plastic or plastic-coated cardboard (yes, all cardboard milk containers are coated inside and out with plastic, not wax.) In my area, I buy Straus milk, which is available in natural grocery stores. Unfortunately, the milk bottle does contain an unrecyclable plastic cap. But I would rather buy milk in a glass bottle capped with plastic than milk contained in plastic on all sides.
This is kind of a trial and error project since you can’t see the stopper until you open the bottle. There’s a mobile website called Corkwatch you can use to see what kind of stopper–plastic or natural cork–is in a particular wine bottle before you purchase it. If you haven’t already, please read this post about endangered cork forests and why it’s important to support them by choosing natural cork over plastic stoppers or metal screw caps (which contain BPA in the lining.)
This was a hard one. I agonized for a while over which brands of frozen meals used the best containers, but in the end, there was just no sound alternative. They all use plastic. Even frozen food trays that seem to be made of cardboard are lined with plastic. The more we limit our consumption of frozen convenience foods, the less plastic waste we’ll generate and the healthier we’ll be!
We have some great bulk food stores here in the Bay Area (Rainbow, Berkeley Bowl, Whole Foods, for example) and I can get almost all dry foods as well as some personal care products from the bulk bins. These foods include rice and other grains, pasta, beans (learning to cook dried beans is an important part of plastic-free living), seeds, nuts, all kinds of flour, baking soda and other dry baking ingredients, cereal and granola, pretzels and chips, some candy, tofu, oils, nut butters, olives, herbs, tea & coffee, and more things than I can think of right now.
The key is bringing my own reusable bags and containers with me to the store. You can carry the same kind of cotton bags for bulk purchases as for produce (see above.) Glass jars and other containers work great as well. Why shop from bulk bins and take new plastic bags?
A question I am frequently asked is how to avoid paying for the additional weight of the container. Stores have various methods for deducting the container weight. At Whole Foods, for example, I take my containers to the customer service desk to have them weighed before filling. That weight is then deducted from the total weight of the item at the checkout counter. At Berkeley Bowl, empty containers are weighed at the Bulk Counter and then weighed again at the same counter when full before checking out. At Rainbow Grocery, customers weigh their own containers. And all the cotton bags that I use are printed with the tare weight on their tags.
Concerned about cross contamination for people with allergies? Check out my post on avoiding gluten while still living plastic-free.
Even if you live in an area that does not have bulk food stores, you can still buy non-perishable goods in large size packages, which will decrease the amount of plastic used overall.
They are generally unnecessary. What are we worried about? That our apples won’t get along with our broccoli during the trip home? Or is it that the produce will get dirty? Hey, it grew in the dirt, and we’re going to wash it anyway, right? At the grocery store, I put most produce directly into my cart and then into my reusable bag.
If you do feel you want a separate bag for produce, cloth options are available. Some alternatives are Ambatalia, ECOBAGS, ChicoBag produce bags, or handmade bags from Etsy sellers. Check out this video of a woman who can make five reusable bags from one T-shirt!
Wondering how to store your produce without plastic once you get it home? Check out this extensive list of ways to buy and store produce without plastic, or specifically buying and storing loose lettuce and leafy greens. (Here’s why I never use Evert Fresh green bags.)
Farmers markets are a great way to buy fresh, local produce without plastic, as long as you remember to bring your own bags. Normally, the fruits and vegetables at farmers markets don’t even have those little plastic stickers on them. And for small fruits like berries and cherry tomatoes, use your own container or bag and hand the vendor’s plastic container back to reuse. Read more about farmers markets going plastic-free.
I use a mixture of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water as an all-purpose spray cleaner (storing it in a reused spray bottle) and produce wash. I buy Spectrum vinegar which comes in a glass bottle. Only the cap is plastic.
- Compressed natural cellulose sponges are often sold without any plastic packaging because they don’t need to be kept moist; they expand when wet.
- Natural fiber brushes are great for cleaning water bottles and scrubbing dirty dishes.
- Skoy cloths are made from cotton and cellulose, work like a cloth, absorb like a sponge, and can take the place of 15 rolls of paper towels.
- And of course, good old rags made from old clothing and towels are free and probably the greenest option of all.
- Look for soap nuts in plastic-free packaging.
- Borax and Washing Soda come in cardboard boxes.
- Read about all of my plastic-free laundry methods, including how to make laundry liquid from soap nuts and how to get the stink out of nasty, oily cloths.
- Treat laundry stains with a borax/water paste or with a handmade laundry stain bar. Try the stain remover sticks from Juniperseed Mercantile or Buncha Farmers.
When I needed a pair of rubber gloves (for some disgusting task — I can’t remember what) I opted for Casabella 100% latex gloves lined with 100% cotton flocking. Yeah, they’re girlie pink. But at least I didn’t have to buy plastic. An even better option is If You Care brand FSC-certified natural rubber gloves.
People sometimes worry that sharing a bar of soap is less sanitary than sharing a bottle of liquid soap. But think about it: the bar soap gets rinsed off every time you use it. The plastic pump? Not so much. Where do you think the most germs are accumulating?
There are several plastic-free options.
- The “No-Poo method uses a baking soda & water wash and an apple cider vinegar rinse. That’s the method I use, and the number of people who swear by it is growing.
- If No-Poo seems too hard-core, there are solid shampoo bars you can use. Brands include:
- Aquarian Bath shampoo bars
- J.R. Liggett’s Old Fashioned shampoo bar
- Or try a searching for shampoo + bar on Etsy.com and request that the seller send your shampoo bar without any plastic packaging.
My favorite product used to be one called Product, which only contains a handful of ingredients and came in a glass jar, albeit with a plastic cap. And then I discovered Made-On Second Life Hair Butter, and my life changed completely. This stuff is awesome for taming frizzies if you have curly hair like I do.
Instead of deodorant in a plastic container, I use baking soda mixed with a few drops of tea tree oil applied to dry underarms with a reusable cotton round. It works better than any commercial deodorant I have ever used. Seriously. If you don’t think baking soda deo is your thing, there are other options. Read my Great Big Plastic-Free Non-Toxic Deodorant Review. But honestly? Try the baking soda first. No kidding. I would use it even if I weren’t trying to cut down my plastic consumption.
Organic Essence packages its body lotions in compostable cardboard jars and its lip balms in ingenious cardboard tubes that squeeze from the end. There are also lotion bars and lip balms and glosses that come in glass or metal containers. And I’ve also made my own homemade lotion, but now that Organic Essence is using responsible packaging, I’ll leave the lotion-making to them.
It really works, and its natural anti-fungal properties are particularly good for women. But be aware the oil-based lubes don’t play well with latex.
Who Gives a Crap brand toilet paper comes in a cardboard box with paper-wrapped rolls. No plastic. They offer a choice of recycled paper or bamboo. And the company gives 50% of its profits to build toilets and sanitation in developing countries.
Seventh Generation recycled individually wrapped toilet paper can be ordered by the case through Amazon.com. It comes in a cardboard box without any plastic wrapping.
Some of the options include washable cloth liners and pads. One great brand is Luna Pads, which are made of organic cotton. Or search for cloth + menstrual + pads on Etsy.com. Remember to ask the seller to ship with no plastic packaging.
Some women prefer the Diva Cup, which can be washed and reinserted.
Read about my plastic-free wooden hairbrush with wooden bristles here.
Check out these new plastic-free, organic hair elastics.
Lunch Time at School or Work
A few examples of good lunch container options are:
Kitchenware & Food Storage
We save nearly all glass jars and bottles for purchasing bulk foods and for storing leftovers in the refrigerator or even the freezer. When we run out of jars, we store leftovers in bowls with saucers on top instead of plastic wrap. Bowls with saucers are great for stacking. We also use Anchor glass refrigerator containers to store daily portions of our homemade cat food. More on that below. The key to freezing foods in glass is not to fill the jar too full since the food will expand inside the container. The other caveat is not to heat the glass too quickly. Let foods thaw at room temperature to avoid glass breakage.
Another option for the refrigerator or freezer are the flat-topped airtight stainless steel containers from Life Without Plastic. Their flat top makes them easy to stack and the fact that they are airtight means food can be stored longer. Read about my favorite container here.
Avoid the high-speed blenders that come with a plastic pitcher. Those containers contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals. My Waring Pro is all glass and metal and works just fine. While you’re at it, please sign my petition to ask Vita-Mix to bring back the stainless steel blender pitcher it had when the machine was first invented.
In one of my favorite posts, I compare an old-fashioned wire salad spinner to a plain old cotton produce bag. It was a fun experiment.
Cookware coated with Teflon or other resins give off toxic perfluorochemicals when heated. We’ve donated all of our non-stick cookware and replaced it with stainless steel and cast iron. I did question whether it was better to donate these unhealthy items or to trash them. In the end, I figured that if someone was looking for non-stick, they’d buy it anyway whether I donated or not.
If your old plastic ice trays have worn out, consider replacing them with stainless steel.
If you and your children enjoy popsicles in the summertime, consider investing in a stainless steel popsicle mold instead of buying packaged frozen treats or using plastic or silicone popsicle molds.
We had our water tested to find out if we even needed to be filtering it in the first place. Turns out, our Oakland water is fine without a filter. So we can avoid plastic water filter cartridges from now on. For those who do need to filter their water, Brita has teamed up with Preserve to create a way to recycle the plastic cartridges. Here are the details: https://www.brita.com/recycling-filters/
Make It From Scratch
Most are not difficult. I’ve learned to make my own chocolate syrup, mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I squeeze fresh lemon and lime juice and keep it in glass jars in the refrigerator. And we make our own hummus, either from dried chickpeas or from the dry mix in the bulk bin at Whole Foods.
While it’s true that some of these condiments can be purchased in glass containers, the homemade versions often taste better and involve less packaging waste overall.
Check second-hand stores, Freecycle, Craigslist or borrow. Car-sharing. Tool-lending. I have no problem acquiring second-hand plastic. I think it’s always good to give things as many uses as possible before sending them to the landfill or recycling center. I also look for items made from recycled plastic, for the same reason. Here’s a partial list of plastic items I’ve acquired second hand since my plastic project began:
Get it Fixed!
In the Office
No More Plastic Trash Bags
I bought a 100% recycled plastic Urban Compost Tumbler and started composting. This solves several plastic problems. First, since we no longer put wet stuff in the garbage, we don’t need plastic garbage bags of any kind (bio- or petro-based.) And I can mix the compost with soil from the yard to pot my houseplants and avoid buying potting soil in plastic bags.
Lately, though, I have not had the time or energy to maintain my compost bin. But here in Oakland(as well as Berkeley and San Francisco) we have city-wide composting. We can put all of our food scraps (including meat) and food-soiled paper, along with yard waste, into our green bins. It’s then picked up with our garbage and taken to a commercial compost facility where our food scraps are converted into rich soil amendments for residents and local farms.
Read more about collecting garbage without plastic trash bags.
Plastic-Free Pet Care
Integrity cat litter is made from wheat and comes in a paper bag. It’s also certified flushable. We feel okay about flushing our cats’ poop because they’ve tested negative for toxoplasma gondii and they are indoor-only cats. If you live in California, you should not flush cat poop unless you know for sure it is free of the parasite toxoplasma gondii, which is harmful to sea otters. Outdoor cats are susceptible because they pick it up from rodents.
- Purrfect Play makes beautiful all-natural toys made from wool and catnip.
- I’ve also found all natural wool, leather, coconut, and feather cat toys at my local pet shop recently.
- But the best cat toys of all? Wine corks, hands down. The real ones, of course. I don’t let my cats play with plastic.
- We found a bamboo/sisal scratching post instead of synthetic carpet
- Cardboard cat scratchers are great
- This natural wood/sisal over-door climber is very sturdy and doesn’t contain any synthetic chemicals that can off-gas into our home our the bodies of our pets.
- Our most economical cat climber? We cleared off most of the flat surfaces in our home (tops of bookshelves, etc.) so that our cats could roam and climb to their hearts’ content.
We found our cat litter boxes and plastic cat carrier boxes through Craigslist and from thrift stores. They are plastic. But they are not new plastic!
We make our cat food from scratch instead of buying BPA-lined cans that come shrink-wrapped in plastic or dry pet food in bags lined with plastic. Our recipe does include a supplement powder that comes in a plastic bottle, but it lasts two months. Read more about our less plastic homemade cat food here.
Many people don’t know it’s actually fine to bring your own water on a plane. You just can’t bring water through airport security. So what do you do? Bring an empty water bottle through security and fill it up at the drinking fountain on the other side. It’s really okay. In fact, it’s what musician Jackson Browne does!
Avoid plastic-packaged food. Bring your own sandwiches or containers of fruit, cut veggies, trail mix, or other snacks. But avoid liquid or semi-solid foods when flying.
Why should traveling be any different than staying at home? If you’re remembering to bring your own utensils while at home, don’t forget them when you go away.
I’ve traveled to many different states in the U.S.and never had a problem getting my mug filled. In fact, most cafes these days will give a discount for bringing your own mug. And your mug can come in handy in hotels that provide plastic or Styrofoam cups in the room instead of real glasses.
When flying, bring your own headphones. Most planes will offer you new headphones in plastic packaging, but you won’t need those if you come prepared with your own.
Skip the free travel size shampoos, soaps, and lotions offered by hotels. Just because they’re free doesn’t mean we should take them. What is the true cost of “free” when the environment is at stake? Instead, fill up your own reusable travel- size containers at home. If you’re not checking baggage, make sure they fit in your regulation Ziploc bag (U.S.residents).
Mini bar snacks and drinks are incredibly expensive. And they all come in plastic packages or bottles. Find real food to eat. Do a little grocery shopping when you reach your destination and stock your hotel room with healthy snacks in less packaging. Even if you can’t avoid plastic entirely, you can resist single-serving sizes.
Medication and Healthcare
I’ve never seen a Kleenex box without any plastic window. More importantly, we can avoid all waste by opting for reusable hankies. Some people make their own out of old t-shirts and cloth diapers. I found lots of hankies at a thrift shop. Another ingenious idea is the HankyBook, which makes carrying a cloth hanky so much neater.
No New Plastic Clothing
So much new clothing these days is made from synthetic materials with names like: polyester, acrylic, lycra, spandex, nylon. In other words, plastic fabric. And all synthetic fabrics create microfiber pollution when laundered. When buying new clothes, I look for organic cotton, hemp, ethically-raised wool, and other natural fibers. I avoid conventional cotton because of pesticides used to grow it. Sometimes the best place to find these materials is online. One of my favorite sources is Hempest.com. Just be sure and request no plastic packaging when placing your order.
Buying gently-used secondhand clothing and shoes is a good way to get the styles you want without buying new plastic — except of course for that inevitable tag hanger! It’s also a lot less expensive than buying new.
Um… as someone who is afraid of the sewing machine, I can’t really elaborate on this one. But I know a lot of you crafty crafters are up for it. Be sure and choose natural fabrics.
Do you have old clothes and shoes in the closet that you never wear because they don’t fit or are out of style? Take them to a tailor or cobbler for alteration. During my Buy Nothing New year in 2016, I had a pair of shoes modified to fit my feet better. It’s like having a new pair of shoes!
Holidays and Entertaining
If you’re not sure whether the host will offer real dishware or disposable plastic, discreetly bring your own. Or be less discreet, depending on your relationship with the host. I carry a little stainless steel wine glass (which is good for events where glass is not allowed) and bamboo utensils with me, just in case.
Here’s an example. Provide durable dishes, glasses, utensils. Ask guests to bring their own dishes or at least cups. Stock up on thrift store utensils and mugs (mixing and matching crazy mugs can be fun) especially for parties. Request no plastic cling-wrap on potluck offerings. Ask guests to bring containers for leftovers, as they did at our Thanksgiving potluck.
Gift Giving and Receiving
Packing and Shipping Materials
I’m trying to buy fewer things in general, but vendors do sometimes send me products to review for this blog. When that happens, I include a message to the seller requesting zero plastic or Styrofoam packaging, including plastic tape. (See my packaging policy here.) When this doesn’t work, I’ve started to send back unwanted plastic packaging with a letter of explanation. And I send back unwanted plastic I receive unsolicited in the mail or on my doorstep. Here are some examples of innovative zero-waste packing materials:
- Reused packing materials from packages sent to you. Before buying new packaging material, use what you already have.
- Yesterday’s News padded mailers made from recycled newspaper fiber
- Jiffy padded mailers (the kind with paper pulp padding rather than plastic bubble padding)
- Jet-Cor rigid cardboard mailers
- Paper packing tape or Biodegradable Cellulose tape with natural rubber-based adhesive
- Molded paper pulp
- mushroom packaging molded packing material made from mushrooms
- Geami protective wrap
Read more about plastic-free packaging materials here.
Electronics & Entertainment
They are made of polycarbonate plastic, after all. Instead, I download and stream music and movies and borrow DVDs from the library.
For example, I knitted a cover for my iPod instead of buying a plastic one, and I crocheted new headphone ear pads when the foam on my old headphones wore out. And while this is not exactly techno (in fact, it’s the opposite), I also knitted and felted a new checkbook cover to avoid PVC.
If You Do Nothing Else
If you do nothing else, try to steer clear of Polyvinyl Chloride (#3 PVC), Polystyrene (#6 PS), & Polycarbonate (#7 Other). PVC is found in many, many products and causes a whole host of environmental problems. Read my post about the problems of PVC. PS contains styrene, which is toxic to the brain and nervous system. PC contains BPA. Read more about BPA here. If you must use plastic, make sure it’s not #3, #6, or #7 polycarbonate. (Note: #7 is a catch-all for many types of plastic that doesn’t fit into the first six categories. Biodegradable plastic is also labeled #7. So when in doubt, ask.)