Reducing Your Plastic Consumption

Jenna Samsel

Since plastic was popularized in the 1950s, 8.3 billion tons of it has been made throughout the world.  About 75%, or 6.3 billion tons, of this plastic has already been disposed of, with most of it ending up in landfills and ecosystems. Furthermore, only a mere 9% of that plastic was recycled.  Plastics made from petroleum that end up in landfills or as litter in land or aquatic environments, will never fully degrade.  Petroleum plastics break down into tiny plastic pieces, called microplastics, that pollute the environment.  Arguably, microplastics are even more dangerous and daunting, because it is immensely more difficult to clean up microscopic litter and pollution that we are not even able to see.  

Ideally, living plastic-free would be excellent.  However, it is understandable that living entirely plastic-free is seemingly unattainable.  The use of plastic can seem unavoidable and all too prevalent to completely evade.  Reducing your own personal plastic consumption can be taken in smaller, more feasible steps.  Some common single-use plastics include plastic bags, toothbrushes, plastic cutlery, gum, and balloons.  The following article outlines some excellent ways you can easily ditch these plastics for more environmentally-friendly alternatives and make a positive impact on the environment.  

Plastic bags

Across the globe every year, 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used.  To put this in perspective, it has been estimated that an average family in America has used about 1,500 plastic bags per year.  Further, every year, between 60 and 100 million barrels of oil is needed to supply the entire world with plastic bags.  Additionally, plastic bags take over 5 times the current average human lifespan to break down.  In other words, a plastic bag used by a consumer for just minutes today will “outlive” that same consumer by over 5 lifetimes.  Reusable canvas bags are an excellent alternative to plastic bags.  Understandably, it can be difficult to remember to bring a reusable bag for every trip to the store.  Keeping canvas bags in the car is an easy way to encourage their use.  Of course, some stores offer paper bags, and cardboard boxes can also be requested to carry groceries.   


Most toothbrushes are made of almost entirely plastic.  Most people will dispose of about 300 toothbrushes over their entire lives, as consumers are encouraged to habitually buy new toothbrushes.  Unfortunately, most toothbrushes cannot be recycled and end up in landfills or enter directly into the environment as litter.  While it is not a perfect solution, toothbrushes made of mostly bamboo with plastic bristles are a better alternative to entirely plastic products.  Also, toothbrushes with exchangeable parts can help reduce overall waste by providing a reusable component.  

Plastic cutlery and straws

Approximately 40 billion plastic, single-use utensils are disposed of annually in just the United States.  Each of these utensils were likely used during one sitting for perhaps half an hour.  Similarly, straws are often used only once and last for hundreds of years as waste.  An astonishing 500 million straws are disposed of daily in just the United States.  The best, most eco-friendly alternatives to plastic utensils and straws seem to simply be their metal counterparts.  Reusable, metal utensils and straws require little extra effort for cleaning and save significant amounts of plastic from further polluting the Earth. 

Chewing gum

Yes, chewing gum really does contain plastic!  Chewing gum is even often compared to rubber tires, as it is made of similar materials.  Most gum contains plastic and rubber to maintain the chewy texture.  Globally, 100,000 tons of chewing gum is disposed of annually.  Because of the way in which gum is typically disposed of, most of that waste ends up in natural environments.  In addition to the actual gum, the product packaging is often covered with layers and layers of plastic.   Luckily, more eco-friendly alternatives exist, such as Simply Gum and Glee Gum.  These companies offer sustainable chewing gum that does not contain plastic. 


While balloons seem like a great way to celebrate an occasion, they are detrimental to wildlife and the environment.  Balloons, in some cases, have been known to travel over 10,000 miles before becoming pollution.  Latex balloons, being plastic, can break down to become microplastic pieces.  However, before that process even begins, wildlife often mistake balloons for food and ingest the plastic.  Sea turtles specifically follow natural instincts and eat balloons, because the floating debris looks like jellyfish.  Additionally, balloon ribbon serves as a trap for wildlife entanglement and constriction.  Balloons provide minutes of excitement for humans and lead to disastrous conditions for animals.  Fun alternatives to balloons include bubbles, candles, and flowers. 

These alternatives to plastic products are a great way to start or continue a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle.  Small steps and adjustments by people collectively can make a large, positive difference.    

If you would like more information about plastic and its impact on our earth, the documentary, A Plastic Ocean, is a wonderful source. 

Sources: Eco-Cycle, Fanimal, Forbes, Just One Ocean, National Geographic, Natural Environment, NRDC, ScienceDaily, UN environment, University of Michigan Planet Blue