When I was five, I’d follow my mom around the house and turn off light switches behind her. You could say that I’ve always been a bit eco-friendly, but it wasn’t until I had my first daughter that I became serious about it. I’d read about climate change and how bad plastic was—and how overfilled our landfills are—but at that moment, it became about more than myself. I decided that I had to do all that I could to help, even if it was as small as making less trash. Surprisingly, it’s not all that hard to produce less waste.
Over time, I gradually weeded out the items in our household that I felt were contributing to the overall plastic problem. I created The Sustainable Minimalist, a podcast, and the Mama Minimalist website to encourage and coach other families on how to live their best eco-friendly lives. Here’s what I’m doing to shrink my negative impact on the environment—and how you can do it, too.
1. Trade paper for cloth
A friend suggested that if I was going to do this, I should make my first swap the low-hanging fruit, so to speak—towels. It’s now the first thing that I recommend people change, because it’s so easy. Paper towels are wrapped individually in plastic, and you can cut down a lot of waste by simply making the change to rags. Get a basket, and fill it with rags, old cloths, or even stained kids clothing. Keeping the basket accessible and in the kitchen makes this super easy. This small change led to us switching to cloth napkins, too. When it comes to making any change, I’ve found that it’s best to try one new thing until it becomes second nature, and then move on from there. You can’t do it all at once.
Saving money every month is an incredible perk of this journey. Check out these 20 simple ways to reduce waste—and save money every month.
2. Make zero-waste coffee
For beginners who are just starting out, switching up your coffee routine is another easy way to reduce plastic in your life. I can’t live without coffee, but I knew there had to be a way to make it without waste and plastic. I switched to a French press, and I buy the coffee loose and put it in a reusable cloth bag. There’s no waste this way, and you can compost it. It also tastes a lot better. It’s not just individuals like myself who are going plastic-free. These 22 big companies are getting rid of plastic for good.
For most of us, when we throw out our trash with food scraps, we toss it in a plastic bag first. If you compost instead, you can skip the plastic bag entirely. It reduces what goes to the landfill and reduces your overall trash. It’s one way to save plastic bags.
4. Brush away plastic
A lot of people don’t know that compostable toothbrushes exist. We use bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic ones. And when we go to the dentist and the dentist offers us the free toothbrushes and floss, we politely decline. We can snap the heads off of our bamboo brushes (they contain nylon bristles) and toss them in the compost. You can also buy brushes with boar bristles that are completely compostable, but that’s too far, even for me. Going green doesn’t have to make life more difficult.
5. Opt for non-plastic dental floss
Another thing that most people don’t know about is silk dental floss. It can be composted, and you can find it at any health store. If you’d rather not floss, you can use a Waterpik. There are also toothpaste tablets that you chew instead of spreading on your brush, which saves you from using a plastic tube for application. I’ll admit that one takes some getting used to, especially if you like the creamy texture of traditional toothpaste.
6. Just say no to plastic bags at the grocery store
While some swaps have technically been easy, I find myself dealing with pushback from others, which, in turn, creates anxiety. For example, I shop at a supermarket with an in-house bakery. Every week, I ask the baker at the counter (always the same woman) to place my loaf in a repurposed pillowcase instead of a plastic bag. Although she and I have been dancing this dance for over two years, she continues to roll her eyes each and every time. I swear she works slower on purpose, too. Opting not to use plastic bags in situations like this is an important step, but it might not always be food-safe to skip bags altogether at the grocery store.
It’s also nearly impossible to find berries at the store that aren’t in a plastic clamshell container, which is made of a softer plastic that’s harder to recycle. So I decided to start growing my own blueberries and raspberries, and I freeze what I can.
7. Go green for baby
With my first daughter, I was too stressed about new motherhood to go with cloth diapers, but by the second, I was able to make the swap. It did make extra laundry, but I did it happily, knowing that we were saving so much money. Sometimes it isn’t even a matter of making a swap, but just saving everything you can instead of purchasing new. Hand-me-downs are great, especially if you have more than one child. Even if it’s a little bit worn, I’ll keep it. If I purchase something new, it’s going to be wrapped in plastic, so I don’t buy new as often as possible.
8. Use natural items as beauty products
The hardest swap so far has been using coconut oil as my makeup remover, especially for my eye makeup. It just doesn’t remove it completely or absorb well, and it doesn’t work well on my skin. I don’t love it, but I use it.
9. Skip that bottle of shampoo
vintagerobot/Getty ImagesI made the swap from shampoo and conditioner in a bottle to one in a bar. It wasn’t an easy or quick process. I had to try several different bar brands, just like you would with bottled shampoo or conditioner. While some brands completely dried my hair out, others didn’t adequately address my oily-hair issue. Once I found one I liked, though, the swap became easy. A shampoo bar is smaller and easier to travel with than liquid shampoo, too. Not to mention, they last a really long time. Mine lasts for about 80 washes!
10. Be merciless in the medicine cabinet
I use bar soap instead of liquid, and there are bamboo cotton swabs instead of the plastic ones. My switch from liquid to bar soap was painless. I enjoy purchasing scented bars that are locally made, so they feel more luxurious than liquid soap. And even though they’re “fancy,” they’re still cheaper than soap in a bottle. It’s nice not having to refill pump bottles, too. There’s a swap for just about everything if you want to find one.
11. Try a different feminine-hygiene product
I switched from tampons to a silicone menstrual cup (silicone is a type of rubber, in case you’re wondering), and it’s changed my life. I’ve heard stories from other women who have had to try many, many brands of menstrual cups before finding one that’s comfortable. For me, the biggest issue was getting over the mental hurdle of using one. Once I committed myself to trying, I took a free quiz to help me determine which brand was right for my body, and then I purchased the one that the quiz suggested. I experienced easy and stress-free periods shortly after. I love that it’s so comfortable, too. I often forget I’m even wearing it! I honestly want to shout from the rooftops how easy this swap is.
Here are another 11 “disposables” you should stop buying now.
12. Ditch the plastic wrap
I had read online how to make my own beeswax wrap to cover food containers. This one was a fail for me, so I ended up buying a commercial beeswax wrap instead of making my own. If you do want to try it for yourself, you’ll need to paint melted wax on cotton and then let it dry. Once dry, you should be able to press the fabric down around the edges of your bowl, just like plastic wrap. It’s a great project for repurposed clothing. When I tried it myself, it wouldn’t stay on the bowl. The commercial brand I bought is great—you can use them hundreds of times. I wish I had done that from the start.
13. Cut down on convenience items
This is a tough area, especially with kids. Most people love the prepackaged snack options for kids’ lunches, and it makes sense because it’s so easy—especially when it comes to things like cheese sticks or bags of popcorn. I’ve found a way to do this, too, with a little creativity. I have the deli slice up a block of cheese into sticks, and then place them in a glass container I bring from home. I’ll also buy loose popcorn kernels, pop it at home, and then put the popcorn into silicone bags.
If you don’t know what to do with the plastic bags you’ve already accumulated, here’s the easiest way to recycle them.
14. Get rid of plastic food containers
Most people get hung up on food storage—but you shouldn’t. I switched out my Rubbermaid items for glass containers, even the ones I send with my kids to school. The little glass jars I send fruit in are pretty indestructible; we’ve had ours for about five years now. Glass wasn’t allowed at my daughter’s summer camp this year, so we sent stainless steel items for that instead. I prefer glass simply because I started this journey with it. I also saw how great glass is to freeze items in.
15. A final note on going plastic-free
Courtesy Stephanie Seferian, The Sustainable Minimalists Podcast
I never really thought that I would make a difference or feel empowered by going plastic-free. But I feel like I’m doing all I can do to spread the word, and that gives me hope. I’m very fortunate to have a husband who’s on board; he takes glass containers and cloth napkins in his lunch to work. I expected people to write me off as a hippie when I started this, but when people see me doing strange things, like washing foil, they’re genuinely curious. It makes me think that if people know there’s a better way, they’ll want to go that direction. After all, this is a lifestyle that has multiple benefits. Check out these 13 ways green living can make you healthier.