6 New Ways To Get Plastics Out Of Your Life — & Why It Matters

Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Plastic is everywhere, and it’s not pretty. The chemicals in various plastics can migrate into our bodies, and they have been linked to everything from obesity to cancer to messing with our hormones. “There are substantial data to suggest that phthalates found in plastic mimic estrogen and in some cases counteract the effects of testosterone in our bodies,” says Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU School of Medicine. A recent study estimates that hormone-disrupting chemicals such as BPA cause a range of human diseases that cost a whopping 157 billion Euros per year in the EU.

Plastics are equally unkind to marine life; they injure and kill birds and fish and fill our waterways with debris. Somewhere between 10 and 28 billion pounds of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, according to the nonprofit eco-advocacy group Ocean Conservancy. This is all a huge bummer, but there is good news: “If every single person in the U.S. were a little more conscious about what they were using, we could make a huge difference,” says Dianna C. Parker, legislative and communications specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program.

Thankfully, there are tons of simple ways to opt out of this ugly, plastic-perpetuating cycle. Choosing reusable shopping bags and water bottles are only a couple of the changes you can make to protect yourself and your planet. Click through for other tactics.
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Bring a reusable bottle (and straw) to the juice bar.

Maybe you carry a reusable water bottle when you’re at the gym or at work. But, do you bring your own container to a juice bar? Think about the number of juices or smoothies you have in a week. Multiply that by 52, and you’re probably tossing out quite a few plastic containers each year. Pack a reusable straw, too; they may not seem like much, but disposable straws are the Ocean Conservancy’s fifth most prevalent type of marine debris.
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Use reusable bags everywhere, not just at the grocery-store checkout counter.

There’s a reason plastic-bag bans are steadily spreading across the U.S. and abroad. While it can sometimes be hard to visualize the harm our everyday stuff can cause the environment, this is not the case with plastic bags, which are visible everywhere from tree branches to the guts of marine animals. And, they’re bad for humans, too. “The chief benefit of reducing the use of plastic bags is ecological, but there are other potential consequences, as they leach into the water supply and can lead to contamination. Ultimately, that winds up in a human being,” says Dr. Trasande. You bring a reusable tote to the Whole Foods checkout counter, but why stop there? Those bags are perfect for produce and bulk bins, too; you can even find pouch-sized ones for bringing snacks to work. And, when you can’t avoid plastic — like when you’re packing your gels and liquids into your carry-on for a flight — you can at least purchase TSA-approved reusable quart bags to minimize waste.
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Store your leftovers in glass.

The chemicals found in plastic containers can and do migrate into what’s stored in them — especially fatty and/or acidic foods. Glass, on the other hand, is inert. Sets of stackable or nesting glass storage containers are usually pretty cheap, or you can even reuse jelly, pickle, and peanut-butter jars. If you are stuck with plastic, keep in mind that containers marked #2, #4, or #5 are currently considered by the scientific community to be the safest plastic options. And, plastic that’s breaking down tends to release more chemicals, Dr. Trasande says, so he suggests you toss anything that’s scratched up — and avoid putting plastic in the microwave or dishwasher.
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Stop buying tampons with plastic applicators.

You use a plastic applicator for all of two seconds, and then it’s trash. If you use tampons every month, the waste can add up fast. “Little things can make an enormous difference, because everything has to go somewhere. If you throw something ‘away,’ there is no away,” says Parker. “The chances of something becoming marine debris are pretty huge.” In fact, according to The Ocean Conservancy’s Ocean Trash Index, a report compiled from data provided by volunteers who do beach cleanups, there were about 12,000 tampons and tampon applicators picked up from U.S. coastal areas in 2012. Here’s a simple fix: Use applicator-free tampons. Or, go a waste-free step further with a reusable rubber cup.
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Steer clear of beauty products that contain plastic “microbeads.”

Environmental activists have been pushing for a ban on plastic microbeads found in cosmetics and toothpaste; they go down the drain, get through wastewater-treatment filters, and harm aquatic life. Some of the biggest companies are giving in to pressure from activists and consumers alike by pledging to phase the beads out — though this process will take a few years. In the meantime, if you don’t like the idea of, say, ingesting your face-scrub pellets via the fish you’re making for dinner, look for products that don’t contain microbeads (here’s an app that can help). Of course, there’s always the option of going with old-school exfoliation methods, like a washcloth or loofah.
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Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Quit smoking.

There are many, many good reasons to quit smoking. Here’s one to add to the list: Cigarette butts are the number-one most commonly found type of everyday trash in our oceans — more common than food wrappers, beverage containers, and plastic bags, says Ocean Conservancy. “We’re so used to seeing people flick a cigarette on the ground, but most people don’t realize the filters are plastic,” says Parker.