You wouldn’t be caught dead drinking from a plastic straw. Your stainless-steel water bottle is a constant companion. And reusable shopping bags? They’re old news—you’ve shopped with them in hand for years. But what about other everyday items that seem trickier to green? We’ve got you covered: Introducing our new section, Sustainable Swaps, in which we suggest simple ways to lighten your footprint, one small step at a time.
By Joel Hersch
Small changes in our daily lives can make big impacts on the world around us. From our smallest daily purchases up to our annual gift-gifting rituals, the things we choose to buy have major implications for our planet.
As people learn about alternatives to some of the most environmentally impactful goods—which are oftentimes made from plastics and have limited lifespans—consumers can become empowered to do their part in destabilizing harmful industries and stemming the flow of waste into our natural world.
“It takes practice and discipline to develop good habits, like noticing and rejecting single-use plastics and excessive packaging, but you’ll be doing a great service on a daily basis,” says Christina Ramirez, the founder and CEO of Plus ULTRA, a toothbrush company whose design includes a bamboo handle and green, recyclable packaging. “If we become more conscious consumers and think about the materials that are being used in our products, and how they are packaged, it makes a tremendous difference.”
Here are seven sustainable swaps to help you start the New Year off on good terms with Mother Earth.
SWAP THIS: Plastic toothbrush
FOR THIS: Plus ULTRA biodegradable toothbrush
If you’re looking to cut back on the plastic in your life, why not start with what you put in your mouth? The average American will throw away approximately 300 toothbrushes in their lifetime, according to goingzerowaste.com. This means 97.7 billion toothbrushes—most of which are made from eon-lasting plastics—are destined for landfills thanks to the current U.S. population. One company, however, now offers an alternative that is fully biodegradable: Plus ULTRA.
Manufactured with bamboo handles and distributed using eco-friendly, sanitary packaging, the brush is a step toward reducing the environmental impact of our dental hygiene routines.
“Everything that gets tossed into a trash bin eventually gets dumped into a landfill or ends up in our oceans,” says CEO Christina Ramirez. “As a company, we’ve prevented around 1,000 tons of plastic [in the form of toothbrushes] from being thrown into our oceans and landfills. Small changes make big impacts, and a toothbrush is a great place to start.”
When it is time to dispose of a Plus ULTRA toothbrush, simply add it to a compost container or green-waste bin. A four-pack of these bamboo toothbrushes runs $24 and is available on liveplusultra.com and in Whole Foods Markets.
SWAP THIS: Single-use plastic toothpaste tubes
FOR THIS: Bite Toothpaste Bits
The toothpaste industry also accounts for massive amounts of plastic waste. Enter The Kind Lab’s tubeless alternative: Bite Toothpaste Bits. The Bite product comes in a re-fillable glass jar full of condensed toothpaste tablets that are made with vegan and organic ingredients and distributed using recyclable packaging. Simply bite into one and wet to froth, and you’re on your way to plastic-free brushing.
By the Numbers:
Approximately 1 billion toothbrushes are thrown away in the United States each year. That is enough to stretch around the Earth four times.
50 million pounds of toothbrushes are added into landfills every year.
Most toothbrushes are manufactured with polypropylene plastic and nylon—both of which are made with non-renewable fossil fuels.
Sources: recyclenation.com and scientificamerican.com
SWAP THIS: Plastic shampoo bottles
FOR THIS: Shampoo bars
Shampoo can be consumed quickly, particularly for those with heavy heads of hair, which means those plastic bottles flow abundantly into recycling bins. But in today’s world, properly sorting a “recyclable” container into the big blue bin doesn’t necessarily mean it will be recycled. At the start of 2018, China initiated a ban decreeing that the country would no longer be accepting the world’s paper and plastic products for recycling. In 2016, China processed about 7.3 million tons, which accounts for about half of the total paper and plastic recyclable material in the world, according to the New York Times. That means the countries—including the United States—that have traditionally relied on that export will now have to find new methods of mitigating plastic and paper waste, or else risk overwhelming our own waste systems. As consumers, the easiest way to help curb this tidal wave is to avoid purchasing plastics, whether they are “recyclable” or not.
When it comes to forgoing plastic-bottled shampoo, turn to bulk shampoo, which are available in the form of Three Sisters Apothecary Shampoo Bars. These bars come in 4.75-oz quantities, provide approximately the same amount of shampoo as one liquid bottle, and contain no paraben preservatives, petroleum or synthetic products. Available at Whole Foods Market for $6.99.
SWAP THIS: Plastic trash bags
FOR THIS: Bagito reusable can liner
We’ve already realized that single-use plastic shopping bags are environmentally irresponsible, and yet most of us continue to collect our garbage in landfill-bound plastic trash bags. The local company Bagito offers a great way to eliminate this source of plastic waste: reusable and washable trash-can liner bags ($19.99). The materials are made from rPet (100-percent recycled plastics) and are extremely durable, and each sale contributes to a partner nonprofit, power2sustain.org, which educates students on the value of environmental sustainability.
SWAP THIS: Packaged food items
FOR THIS: Bulk bin shopping with reusable containers
When it comes to grocery shopping, you can further green your experience by thinking beyond reusable bags. Before you pick up a pre-packaged item, like plastic-wrapped spaghetti or a plastic container of nuts, sugar, or flour, consider stocking your reusable bag with mason jars, smaller cloth bags, and other reusable containers so you can use them for items available in the bulk aisle. Have your bags or containers weighed at a checkout counter before filling so that their unladen weight can be deducted from your purchase total.
SWAP THIS: Exfoliants with microbeads
FOR THIS: Plastic-free scrubs
Until 2017, microbeads were a fairly ubiquitous ingredient in most exfoliant products sold around the nation, helping to scrub off excess skin particles. The little pieces of plastic were so small that once they were washed off, they easily flushed down sink drains and eventually wound their way into the sea, amassing by the billions in oceanic gyres, where they are consumed by marine life.
Luckily, a law called the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was passed that required manufacturers to eliminate these beads from their products by 2017. So how can would-be exfoliators and skincare aficionados replace micro-beads with environmentally friendly alternatives?
For a premade option, consider a product like Frank Coconut Coffee Scrub, an exfoliant that is developed to soften and even out the skin after being applied. Its ingredients include coffee robusta seed powder, coconut fruit and grapeseed oil.
For a DIY version, look to oats, which possess natural anti-inflammatory properties and are an exceptionally gentle, beautifying exfoliant, making them perfect for people with sensitive skin. Plus they are readily available in most grocery stories. Just as they soak up moisture in a porridge, they are great at absorbing excess skin oils. Add oats and water to a blender, grind into a paste, scrub, and enjoy.
SWAP THIS: Artificial Christmas tree
FOR THIS: A real tree
With the holiday season upon us, people who celebrate Christmas will be faced with a choice: buy a real tree to garnish with festive ornaments and lights, or purchase an faux plastic tree, which can be stored and reused year after year. But which is more sustainable—the biodegradable yet single-use tree that came from a farm, or the longer-lasting version most likely made in China?
While both have footprints, environmental groups maintain that real trees are the better choice. This is contrary to the misconception among consumers that real Christmas trees are chopped down from forests. In reality, forest-sourced trees represent less than .1 percent of Christmas trees, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA). The rest are farmed, as a crop, which means they are replaced by at least one tree after being harvested. The more trees planted, the more environmental benefits those trees can have in terms of providing habitat, carbon sequestration, protection from soil erosion, and oxygen. (Of course, not all farms are created equal, and those using sustainable farming practices are more eco-friendly than those that don’t.)
Christmas trees are biodegradable and most cities now offer Christmas tree pickup, in which trees are mulched and recycled as green waste. Also, their travel footprint is mostly regional, rather than global.
Artificial trees, meanwhile, are manufactured overseas (which means large carbon footprints from transportation) using PVC plastic and metals. They have a longer lifespan than real trees, but once they are disposed of, they can’t be returned to the earth in a sustainable way. A 2010 study by a Montreal-based environmental firm determined that, based on greenhouse gas emissions, use of resources and human-health impacts, the fake tree would need to be used for close to 20 years to make it the greener option.
By the Numbers:
Real trees are a renewable, recyclable resource, while artificial trees can contain non-biodegradable plastics and possible metal toxins such as lead.
There are more than 4,000 local Christmas tree recycling programs throughout the United States.
For every fresh tree harvested, between one and three seedlings are planted the following spring.
Artificial trees made of aluminum or plastic had a 2015 retail value of $854 million, and 12.5 million were sold in 2015.
In 2015, 25.9 million real trees were purchased with a retail value of $1.32 billion, according to a study by Harris Interactive.
Source: National Christmas Tree Association