netted reusable bag with lemons in it

15 mostly helpful tips for going plastic-free

We’re going to start with this: plastic has a place in our world.

No, we’re not talking about the lone pie wrapper tumbling dramatically down an empty street (please stop littering, it’s not art and your apathy isn’t cool) – we’re talking about the way it’s improved health and safety by helping us store things like food and medical supplies. Compared to glass and metal, it’s much more energy-efficient to produce and transport, and some single-use plastic items make life a lot easier for people living with disability, too.

Going plastic-free isn’t about abolishing the entire plastic industry. But there are definitely some low-performing plastics that should be shown the door. You know the ones – they spend 15 minutes holding your lemons and the next hundred years breaking down into microplastics that end up inside the lemons your grandkids eat. That, or they stay in one piece long enough to be eaten by a fish, as is.

Grim. Now, let’s talk about ways to avoid doing that to your bloodline/sashimi.

1. Join a zero-waste group on Facebook

No matter how much you know about going plastic-free, the people on these groups know more. They’re here for you.

2. Plastic bags are not your only option at the supermarket.

Forgot the green bags? Sounds to me like you’re a human. And there are only so many groceries the average human can handle without assistance, so here’s the answer: don’t buy one of those thick plastic bags, don’t buy one of the 99¢ green bags. Stroll down a couple of aisles and you’ll quickly find an empty box lying around. If you don’t, ask a staff member.

3. Choose the paper bag

You can also use the paper mushroom bags at the supermarket for any vegetable, and no one will yell at you. Generally, I put fruit and veg in my basket directly (who decided things needed to go in plastic bags?), but this method is certifiably sub-par for things like green beans and baby spinach. If I’ve forgotten my produce bags, I use mushroom bags instead and recycle or compost them later.

Some shops put things in plastic bags when they’ve got paper ones too – never be afraid to ask if there’s a paper alternative. You’re only living your truth.

4. Or, say no to bags altogether

If someone puts something in a plastic bag by default, use your nicest smile and tell them you don’t need it (for small items and short trips, you generally don’t). It’s only a minor inconvenience for them to take it back out. Once you level up in your say-no-to-plastic journey, you’ll catch them before they even reach for one.

The same goes for any bag you don’t need, really – even if it’s made of paper.

5. According to a straw poll I took, straws are bad

Ever hear about the straw that broke the camel’s back? What about the last straw? The universe has been trying to tell us they’re evil* for centuries. It’s time we give them up.

*Except for when they serve a really helpful accessibility purpose. Then they’re fine.

Peanuts in a paper bag
The only reason we still need bags for peanuts is because science hasn’t evolved enough for the shells to contain more than two. Yet.

6. Find plastic-free pantry items

A lot of pantry items are available in glass or cardboard at the supermarket, but others require a little extra effort. The good news is, options are out there.

You’ve probably heard about bulk stores that let you fill your own paper bags or containers from home. If you haven’t got one nearby, see what’s available online – some places can even deliver your plastic-free haul to your door.

7. Know your plastic-free takeaways

If you can’t eat in, get something that comes in paper or cardboard. Some of my favourites are pizza, bánh mì, anything from the bakery, burgers (although some will come in plastic-lined paper and cardboard), sandwiches and toasties.

8. Bring your own container or crockery

Some things are too saucy for cardboard packaging, and we get that. But most Earth-respecting venues won’t flinch at a request to use a bowl or plastic container you bring yourself. If they do, huff dramatically and walk away.

9. No reusable cup for coffee?

No problem. I’ve got five solutions for you (and three of them are alright):

a. Get an espresso and drink it there. You’ll be in and out in a heartbeat, and you’ll feel sickeningly European.

b. Get a three-quarter size to have there. These coffees look so comically small that you’ll finish them in half the time of a normal coffee. So far, science hasn’t proven why.

c. If you’re working in the office, bring an office cup with you. It’s not weird, stop thinking that.

d. Order dine-in and walk away with the cup. Bring it back and apologise later*.

e. Have the barista pour directly into your cupped hands.

Remember, coffee cups are usually lined with a plastic film, which means they’re not recyclable. If you’ve got no other choice, ask them to leave the lid off.

*Don’t, though.

10. Use reusable containers for leftovers

Cling wrap is a loser plastic. It sticks to things you don’t want it to (including itself) and good luck if you get it wet. Never mind the space it wastes in your fridge – no stacking potential whatsoever.

Put your leftovers into containers and enjoy superior fridge organisation, fewer fights with wayward cling film and less time wondering what exactly that spilled liquid at the bottom of the crisper is.

11. Check the label

If you’re planning to go clothes shopping during Plastic-free July, get used to checking the label. Yup, a lot of clothes are made of plastic too (great!) and synthetic material sheds microplastics with every wash – things like polyester, nylon and acrylic.

Taking the cupcake directly in your hand minimises the time you have to spend not eating it.

12. Can I have it in my hand?

This is how I take my favourite snack from the bakery. Do I feel like a child? Always. Does the person at the bakery usually congratulate me on being such an anti-waste hero? Sometimes.

13. If you need to buy, buy second-hand

Try not to start your plastic-free kick by buying a bunch of new (possibly plastic) stuff. If there’s something you need to get you through the month, op shops are overrun with brand new water bottles, reusable coffee cups and lunch boxes. Sure, it might have ‘World’s best mum’ on it and a photo of some stranger’s bulldog, but at least it’ll be a conversation starter.

14. Go for bar soap

Shampoo, conditioner, body soap and dishwashing soap are all available in bars. They’re pretty much the same as what you get in liquid form – minus the liquid – and they don’t come in a big plastic container. No bicep workout on the way home, but gosh, what an eco-conscious glow you’ve got.

15. Be creative, and hold your head up high

Take it from the person who has tentatively held out a beeswax wrap at a sushi joint, and brought actual crockery to a food court for takeaway. Living on the fringes of our single-use plastic society can be a lonely experience. If there’s one thing I can offer to get you through those dark times, it’s this: think of your grandkids’ lemons.

While you're here

Read our blog on what all those recycling labels mean.

Consider switching to a planet-loving power company.