Let’s get the bad news out of the way. You know when people casually joke about our country being a burning dumpster fire? They’re not totally wrong. America has a huge waste problem, and municipalities are now burning recyclables. Why? Because in 2017, China, which used to buy most of America’s discarded recycling, decided it was tired of being the world’s garbage bin. Unfortunately, the U.S. wasn’t totally equipped to do its own recycling.
“A lot of places are just stockpiling it now,” says Silpa Kaza, an urban-development specialist with the World Bank. Kaza is coauthor of What a Waste, a massive research project detailing refuse across the globe. Her report predicts that by 2050, we’ll create 3.4 billion tons of overall waste annually compared to today’s 2.01 billion tons.
Even more astonishing is that 91 percent of U.S. plastic doesn’t even go into the recycling pool. Americans just throw it away.
Now some good news. The European Union recently announced that it will ban single-use plastic by 2021, and a few states—so far Hawaii, California, and possibly soon Maine—have implemented statewide plastic-bag bans. (Though sadly, even more states have passed legislation banning bag bans.) McDonald’s announced that it would use only sustainable packaging by 2025. By 2020, Coca-Cola plans to recover and recycle 75 percent of its bottles in developing countries, and Pepsi announced a goal for all of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable by 2025. Even Walmart has started offering paper bags and just announced its own plan to reduce plastic packaging in its stores. (National Geographic tracks plastic progress here.)
Meanwhile, former around-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur, who estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, has been making waves with her foundation. She’s working with corporations and governments to create a circular-economy model, a regenerative approach to product design in which companies minimize waste and emphasize the reuse of materials.
So why focus on individual action when corporations are creating all this crap, and most worldwide governments aren’t doing anything about it? Yes, we need to lobby for massive structural change, and consumer pressure can affect policy. But individual choice matters, too. This is not new to Outside readers. We’re generally an environment-friendly bunch. We’ve seen the horrifying photos of the dead beached whale with plastic bags in its stomach and the plastic gyre spinning around the Pacific Ocean, and we know about microfibers in our fleece. We bring our own grocery bags and drink out of reusable bottles. We’re doing our part, right?
Not really. Especially when you travel or get food on the go. “I run a sustainable business, but when I travel, I noticed that I would generate sometimes up to 20 pieces of single-use plastic trash every day,” says Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, Colorado. Tired of tossing Starbucks cups, salad canisters, and too many forks, Hoskin founded a new company called Zoetica, which aims to help frequent travelers curb their plastic waste.
Hoskin tested dozens of reusable products, scrutinized the carbon footprints of different tumblers, and eventually compiled a lineup that works well. “It took me about eight months to get my own system perfected, where not only did I ever rarely fail but I was carrying exactly what I needed,” she says.
Kaza advises against letting the enormity of the plastic problem overwhelm you. I’m guilty of this: I dwell on all the pieces swirling in our oceans like sinister confetti and think, Well, what’s one more iced-coffee lid? “I do think small changes add up,” says Kaza.
Zoetica puts together daily-life kits and travel kits for people, or you can curate your own with the products you’ll use the most. Hoskin’s kit for herself includes two nesting stainless-steel tins with snap-on lids for holding food, a stainless-steel coffee cup, and a reusable bottle. Kaza always has at least one reusable food container in her work bag, plus a Klean Kanteen that serves for both water and coffee.
But wait—isn’t buying more stuff, which takes energy to manufacture and ship, just adding to our climate woes? Absolutely, says Ashlee Piper, author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet., a handbook for greener living. “I wanted to bust up more of the stigma that you have to go out and buy a bunch of new shit to live a sustainable life,” she says. Plus, a surprising amount of the items aimed at the zero-waste customer come shipped in… plastic.
So before you click “buy,” look around your house and figure out what you already have that you may be able to use. In Piper’s case, the stainless-steel canister she uses to carry leftovers home from restaurants was a thrift-store find, and she asks for her iced coffee to be poured into an old mason jar.
Once you have your kit assembled, get into the habit of always having these things with you. Hoskin says there are ways to avoid pitfalls. For one, when she needs a to-go meal, she asks for it to be made “for here,” then transfers it to her own sustainable container. She avoids prepackaged food at airport kiosks, too, choosing instead to sit down for a quick meal at an airport restaurant.