Readers Reflect on Their Daily Plastic Consumption

“I’m hoping, sincerely, that what I’m doing is making a difference.”

Susana Vera / Reuters

Updated at 9:45 a.m. ET on March 13, 2019.

We Asked Readers:

Tell us about your daily plastic consumption. Have you found ways to cut down? Are you likely to change your habits, knowing that so much doesn’t get recycled?

Here’s how readers responded.

I am an avid McDonald’s tea drinker. After I had a discussion with the local McDonald’s, they understand I will bring my old plastic cup in and still pay for the refill. After a while, it gets a little grody and I buy a new one, but I can make one cup last a week or two.

Those “bottomless cups” are a great way to cut down on plastic use. Even if they went halfway with the price (buy a special cup and only pay 50 cents for a refill), they’d still make a profit, and we’d be using a lot less plastic.

John Towler
Kill Devil Hills, N.C.

My mother (born in 1915) was the original “green” person. I learned many of my conservation practices from her.

We reused glass jars and bottles; she made her own paper bags from the daily newspaper; we had a Thermos that we toted around filled with a hot drink or a cold one, depending on the season; we used tin cans (from canned fruits and vegetables) as our seed starters; she covered cardboard boxes of all kinds with discarded wallpaper and sample book pages and used them for all kinds of storage solutions; and more.

When I was a child, there was no Styrofoam, and plastic milk jugs were just appearing on grocery shelves. At some point, shoppers received a small rebate if they returned their plastic milk jugs to the grocery store. And heavens, glass soft-drink bottles were returned, washed out, and reused at the Coca-Cola bottling plant near me. Doggie bags from restaurants (where portions used to be much smaller, usually negating the need for a doggie bag to begin with) were artfully twisted pieces of foil (reusable) instead of the Styrofoam to-go boxes that are used now.

Straws (the bendy kind) were for treat-level use by children and also for adults who might be sick in bed—and of course, they were paper!

My mother washed aluminum foil, and when plastic storage bags came on the scene, she washed those out too (unless they had contained something like raw chicken).

The above is only a small sample of the kinds of reduce-reuse-recycle efforts my mother practiced. Lest anyone say that housewives had more time back then, my mother worked full-time outside the home for 40 years.

Susan Stewart
Bradenton, Fla.

My friends tease me about how heavy my knapsack is. Apart from books, I carry with me a set of silverware made for camping, at least three fabric shopping bags, and some nice lined paper bags that come with loose-leaf tea. When I buy tea, I bring the empty bag to the store and just say, “Fill ’er up!” but somehow end up with more bags than I need, so I use the latter for taking home leftovers from restaurants, picking up interesting rocks and such, and for small purchases. Depending on what went in the bag, I can use the plastic-lined paper bag again or, alas, finally throw it out. I try to never take a plastic bag, but it’s not easy.

I have also begun, despite living in an apartment, to buy the largest size I can of vinegar, Windex, laundry detergent, and such—or to buy in glass whenever I can. I can then use the big containers to fill up little ones to use when I’m doing the laundry, etc. It’s the same amount of detergent, or Windex, or whatever, but it’s often only one big bottle a year, instead of three or four small ones. Less plastic for the recycling bin.

The good news is that more and more friends say, “I should do that,” and often they will take one of my fabric bags to carry home stuff they’ve bought when we are together.

It ain’t much, but it’s something.

Gayle Gibson
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I’ve made plastic my thing, writing letters to the editor of my small town paper begging folks to use reusable bags when they shop. Every time I see those plastic wrapped cases of bottled water I want to scream or cry. As a nation we’re so short sighted. I carry a rubber cased glass bottle and never drink from a plastic one. Well, occasionally I pick up a liter of seltzer, but I cringe when I’m that weak.

What would bring it home to folks to stop buying water in plastic bottles? More letters to the editor? More postings on Facebook or Instagram? Memes of the swirling gyre of plastic garbage in the ocean? An act of Congress?

Roberta Levine
Meadville, Pa.

In the last seven to 10 years, I’ve been using cloth napkins and rags instead of paper towels. I’ve been using Pyrex glass storage containers for the food I cook at home, and making lunches from my leftovers. I bought myself a high-quality, aluminum-insulated water bottle and use that all day for all my cold and hot drinks, and I have bought insulated water bottles for my children to do the same. I refuse to buy water in plastic bottles. I insist that my children recycle and give them a hard time when I find a recyclable in my trash. I’m considering getting a clothesline for my backyard, but fear it may be too difficult and time-consuming to dry my laundry outdoors. I’m hoping, sincerely, that what I’m doing is making a difference. Reading your article makes me fear that it isn’t.

Bonnie Durante
Byfield, Mass.

When my city alerted us that it would no longer be accepting any plastics other than No. 1 and  No. 2—and even then, only those immediately recognizable as jugs or bottles—I panicked. I used to buy a lot of yogurt, cottage cheese, apple-cider vinegar, foods that I considered healthy and a crucial part of my family’s diet, but foods that just so happened to come in no-longer-recyclable containers. So I hyperventilated for a few moments, and then I hit Google—and discovered just how easy, and fun, all those food items are to make for myself. (Not to mention the health benefits!) Now I make my son’s applesauce, using berries as sweetener instead of sugar. I use the peels, cores, and seeds from those apples to make apple-cider vinegar, which doubles as a really cool science experiment. I make cottage cheese on the stove and yogurt in the crockpot. While the goal was to use less plastic—and I do, much less!—the real result was that I feel more and more connected to the food I feed myself and my family. As a result of our backyard garden; our chickens; our fruit trees; my experiments with mushroom farms, freezing the water in which I boil chicken (to use later as broth), and freezing the heels of bread so I can later make my own panko and breadcrumbs; and so many other once novel but now intuitive strategies, I have found that owning the food-production process as much as possible helps me dramatically reduce my plastic consumption. It also gives me a highly satisfying hobby while I listen to my podcasts after my son is in bed and while my husband indulges his own DIY hobbies.

Doug Smeath-Livas
West Valley City, Utah

One of the ways I reduce plastic is to keep, clean, and reuse glass jars. They are difficult and costly to recycle anyway, and much better alternatives for storing and toting just about anything. I pack fruit and cut-up veggies in them for snacks at work. I freeze leftovers in them. I use them for storing bulk spices. They make decent vases and containers for homemade pickles, jams, sauces, etc.

I am determined not to purchase any more plastic containers for food storage. With all the jars I’ve accumulated, I don't need to!

Penny McFarline
Richmond, Va.

I only use stainless-steel straws. I give sets of them to my friends for gifts. I also never use plastic bags. I carry my own bags in my car and in my purse. My governor prevented Arizona cities from banning plastic bags, so I send him pictures of plastic bags stuck to cactus. I’d like to do more.

Patricia Hale
Tucson, Ariz.

We need to tax plastics and other consumer items to cover the cost of disposal and environmental damage. The extra income can be used to help protect the environment and promote better alternatives.

Roger Kellman
East Longmeadow, Mass.

We have switched our coffee options from wasteful Keurig pods to an old coffee brewer. It also brews much better coffee!

Rita Jarvis
Greenwood, Ind.

One of my New Year’s resolutions (or rather, more of a New Year’s project) for 2018 was to reduce my consumption of single-use plastic in the following way: I chose several categories of single-use plastic items (straws, utensils, bags, cups, and bowls), and tried my best to not use them at all for the whole year. If I ended up getting an item, whether through forgetfulness or by being in a situation where it was unavoidable, I had to keep it until the end of the year.

At the end of 2018, I ended up with three straws, 15 utensils, three plastic bags, four lids, and 19 cups/bowls. Some of these items were technically recyclable or industrially compostable, but I kept them anyway, because moving away from all single-use plastics was the spirit of the project. I learned two main things when doing this. First, I needed to always be prepared, to carry my water bottle/utensils/etc. with me even when I didn’t expect to use them. And second, people were generally much more accepting than I expected. I never had any trouble with asking for no straw or no bag, or asking for drinks in my own cup. However, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where this project may have been easier to do than in other parts of the country.

Doing this project allowed me to start taking actions, albeit small, that are in line with the changes that I want to see in the world. It can be scary to read the news about how the planet is changing for the worse, but this project helped me feel slightly more in control of my own situation. This project gave me the drive to keep going, to keep finding new ways to live more sustainably, and to start talking to other people about environmental issues. The habits that I developed have pretty much stuck with me, and going forward I plan to start looking at more advanced ways to reduce my waste.

Megan Kelley
San Jose, Calif.