How to Reduce the Amount of (Plastic) Waste You Produce

Modern lifestyles result in people creating a lot of waste. Plastic waste from single use items and packaging. Food waste. Last generation iPhones. Electronics that are actually broken and cannot be repaired or recycled (often due to planned obsolescence). Clothes that were worn for a couple of times and then thrown out. I believe that human societies should change how we live towards something more environmentally friendly. Those are the kind of lifestyle changes that must be simultaneously done by a significant portion of the society in order to make a difference, but individuals can still try to do at least something.

Why should you bother trying? Here’s a reason.

Polar bears on melting ice.

And here’s one more.

Dead bird.

And more.

Human waste and animals.

Or more.

Plastic trash.

I was first confronted with the sheer scale of the problem upon moving to Germany. I was lucky to grow up 3 kilometers from a farmers’ market, where I could buy the cheapest food in the city. While there were various grocery stores next to my home, I still walked to the market, because I didn’t have extra money to spend on more expensive groceries. I always took my own containers for the food I was planning to buy. For example, if I came with my own empty bottle for milk, then I could save 15 cents that I would otherwise have to pay for a new plastic bottle. In the market everything, including dairy, fruits, vegetables, fish, and meat, was sold without packaging and I had to go shopping with my own reusable shopping bags and empty containers for my purchases. That was the norm for me. Back then there were no containers for sorted trash anywhere near my home. Nonetheless, I still produced little trash, because I didn’t buy single use items and packaged goods in the first place. Oh yeah, I also always drank tap water, because I didn’t have spare money for bottled drinks.

And then I moved to Germany in order to study at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz. And, holy crap, did I see a problem! At the grocery store everything was packaged in plastics. Every single cucumber was separately wrapped in plastics. All the fruits and vegetables were packaged in boxes with plastics. Nor could I find any dairy, meat, and fish without the single use containers. Everything I ate came in plastics.


This is wrong.

Here are two photos I sent in an e-mail to a Latvian friend shortly after moving to Germany. My message back then was: “Look at this weird thing Germans are doing.” Yes, it was weird—creating loads of trash shouldn’t be considered the norm. It’s harmful. In my university, I got the feeling that I was the only student who regularly drank tap water. While I was walking around with my reusable bottle that I filled with water in public toilets, everybody else drank bottled water. I asked a few of my German friends about why they did this, the answer was always that tap water tasted poorly. That was nonsense. Yes, tap water in different cities tastes differently. Upon moving to Germany, at first the new taste felt odd for me. But I got used to it in less than a week. Tap water in Mainz was perfectly fine for drinking.

Oddly enough, the students I interacted with seemed environmentally conscious and determined to sort their trash. Yet they never questioned the necessity to create trash in the first place. When I moved to Germany, for the first time in my life I had access to containers for sorted trash. That was obviously nice. Nonetheless, I still caused more environmental harm than before, because I was now forced to buy all the goods I consumed wrapped in way too much single use packaging materials. Human societies should not be doing this. We need to change how we live.

General tips.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. In this order.

If you have containers for sorted trash, by all means sort your trash and use these containers. But the problem is that recycling alone isn’t the solution. Paper can be recycled only for a few times. Recycled plastics are dowcycled (the recycled material is of lower quality and functionality than the original material). And only some types of plastics can be recycled at all. Never mind all the consumer goods like clothes that usually don’t get recycled at all. It’s better to also try to use less stuff. And reuse the things you have. Sorted trash is still trash, and it is better to make as little of it as possible.

What to do with waste.

What to do with waste.

Learn to recognize different plastics.

Some plastics are worse than others. For example, PET bottles are usually recycled. PVC, however, is impossible to recycle. If you must buy stuff in plastic containers, pick the ones that at least can be recycled. For example, I recently spotted some milk-based protein drink packaged in PVC bottles that was available for sale in Latvian supermarkets. Holy shit! What were the manufacturers thinking?

Anyway, there is a recycling symbol at the bottom or side of each plastic object. This recycle sign looks like a triangle of chasing pointers with a number from 1 to 7 inside it. These numbers indicate, which type of plastics you have.

1. PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)—used for plastic bottles, this is the most commonly recycled plastics type.
2. HDPE (high-density polyethylene)—durable, unlike PET bottles can be safely reused again and again, possible to recycle.
3. PVC (polyvinyl chloride)—avoid whenever possible. I believe that this crap ought to be phased out. Unfortunately, it is so commonly produced, because it is cheap. PVC cannot be recycled and is toxic to manufacture.
4. LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)—rarely recycled.
5. PP (polypropylene)—rarely recycled.
6. PS (polystyrene or styrofoam)—better to avoid, it breaks up easily and goes to the environment, it is also hard to recycle.
7. Everything else that does not refer to described above plastic recycling codes—some of the plastics with this number are relatively okay, others are pretty terrible.

To sum up, try to avoid #3 and #6. Those are the worst. Among the others, #2, #4 and #5 are relatively safe to use and most importantly—reuse. And #1 isn’t suitable for reusing, but at least it gets widely recycled.

Prioritize the big things.

Think about the volume of trash you produce from different sources. You need a new hard drive, and all of them are sold with excessive packaging? Oh well, it’s a purchase you make only once every few years, so it is relatively no big deal. Do you buy some salad in a plastic container every day? Switch to buying whole vegetables and cutting them on your own, and you will end up producing a lot less waste.

Don’t stress over the small things.

It’s probably not worth stressing over the minor details. If you become very dedicated to eliminating as much waste as possible, it actually reduces your overall life quality. You probably won’t want to stop using your favorite consumer goods that cannot be obtained without some plastic packaging. The average person won’t be willing to sacrifice some aspects of their social life like eating out with friends either.

Some people living in modern societies actually have gotten to the point that they produce almost no plastic waste at all. There exist websites about how to survive without plastics. For example, here you can read about how to get shampoo and deodorant without excessive packaging. If you can get that far, cool. But let’s be realistic—most people cannot eliminate all waste. In a society in which everything is sold wrapped in excessive packaging, it is tricky for a single person to have a different lifestyle.

In order to make a difference, we don’t need a few people to perfectly eliminate waste from their lives. Instead, we need millions of people to put reasonable effort into it and do it imperfectly and as well as they can manage.

Prioritize reducing your usage of single use plastic packaging and items that cannot be reused.

Personally, I use a reusable plastic water bottle. I bought it a while ago, and I have used it for years. I also use a refillable (from ink bottles) plastic pen. And so on. In terms of volume, single use items like bottled water create a lot of plastic waste. Reusable items like refillable pens or plastic containers that you use for years also ultimately will end up in the landfill, but they create less waste in terms of volume. Thus it makes sense to try to prioritize getting rid of single use items and packaging as much as possible.

Practical actions you can take in order to reduce the size of your trash bin.

Keep in mind that the suggestions here aren’t only for how to reduce the amount of your plastic trash. Glass and metals jars and cans for packaging are still waste that must be recycled. And paper packaging contributes to deforestation. It’s better to try to reduce the amount of all single use packaging materials you use and throw away.

1. Get a fabric shopping bag. The best shopping bag is the one you will use. Thus pick anything you like. Personally, I like something that is lightweight, water resistant, compact, packable, strong, and durable. “Packable” is very important, because I want something that I can fold, put in my pant pocket, and have with me every time I leave the house. Just in case I need a bag at some point.

One of my shopping bags.

One of my shopping bags.

Here’s what I have. It’s a now discontinued model of Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil® Shopping Bag. I have been using this bag for years. There are a few tiny holes in it, but the ripstop nylon fabric prevents them from getting larger, so I can keep on using it. Back when I bought this thing, fabric shopping bags were rare and not available in supermarkets. Back then I literally had to order a shopping bag from an online store. I’m happy to say that nowadays things have improved and currently most supermarkets offer for sale fabric bags. Just get whatever you like. As long as it is reusable, it is better than getting a new bag every single time you exit a store. In the worst case scenario, even a regular plastic shopping bag can be reused at least 5 times before it falls apart. Bags should not be single use items. By the way, single use plastic bags are expensive. Let’s say you buy two or three per week. That’s about 30 cents. That’s 15 euros per year. A fabric bag usually lasts for several years.

2. Avoid plastic produce bags. At the grocery store, I put most produce directly into my cart and then into my reusable fabric bag after I have paid for it. It’s not like my mangoes cannot get along with my cauliflower in the same bag during the trip home. For produce that has dirt on it, like potatoes, I do use a separate smaller fabric bag.

3. Get a reusable water bottle. Carry it with yourself all the time as you go on with your daily life and fill it up with water in public toilets. This way you will always have some water to drink whenever you get thirsty. If you want, you can buy something that’s specifically marketed as a water bottle. Those are made from various materials (stainless steel, glass, plastic). Obviously, you do not have to specifically buy a new water bottle. You can reuse some of the containers in which you have purchased various drinks. Reusing PET bottles, especially long term, might be a bad idea, because PET is not the most stable plastic, but containers made from other more sturdy plastics and glass can be reused. Here’s what I use. One of them is a glass bottle in which I bought some cranberry syrup last year. (When I buy foods or drinks in glass containers, I try to reuse them.) The other is a foldable water bottle made by a brand called “Vapur.”

Reusable water bottles.

My water bottles.

4. Drink tap water. In most countries tap water is perfectly safe to drink. Usually water quality is problematic only in poorer countries.

5. Make your own drinks. Don’t buy tea or juice in bottles. Instead, buy some tea leaves or fresh fruits and make your own drink.

6. Avoid purchasing pre-cut foods that are supposedly meant to be more convenient for the consumer. Sliced bread is always sold in plastic bags. Whole bread loafs can be found also without any packaging. The same goes for whole fish versus pre-cut fish fillets. Or whole vegetables versus pre-cut salad. Cut your own food. If your bread slices aren’t perfectly even and straight, who cares, they are still edible.

The price of your convenience.

7. Look for places where it is possible to go shopping with your own containers and have them filled. This tip really depends on where you live. If there’s no farmers’ market nearby, you cannot really go to one. This was basically my problem in Germany. In shops everything I saw was packaged, and I couldn’t really do anything about it. If possible, look for places where the seller can pour milk in your own reusable bottle. Where they will put a fish or a piece of meat in some container you brought with you. Where you can place fruits and vegetables in your own bags (or give the shop assistant your fabric bag and ask them to put some fruit in it). In supermarkets, look for bulk bins for nuts, seeds, beans, and other similar items, and use your own containers.

8. Look for ready-made foods that are sold with less packaging materials or skip them altogether. Unfortunately, often it means eating ready-made foods less frequently. For example, dry beans can be purchased from bulk bins. Canned beans are sold with a can.

9. When eating out, pick establishments that do not serve foods and drinks in single-use containers. Alternatively, you can also carry your own containers for take-out food and leftovers. Carry reusable utensils and glass/metal drinking straws. Ask the seller to put food in your own container instead of using a new single use container.

10. Get a double-edge razor. You don’t need to buy a new and expensive one, used vintage razors can be bought very cheaply. Yes, you can use a double-edge razor also for armpit hair, pubic hair, and hair on your legs. I am speaking from experience. Personally, I have never in my life cut myself with a double edge razor. I did cut myself with a cartridge razor twice, because those things are expensive, thus I didn’t want to throw it out when it was starting to get blunt, and I applied too much pressure.

My double-edge safety razor.

My double-edge safety razor.

Since I do not shave daily, I strongly prefer an open comb double-edge razor, because long hair don’t clog it as easily, and it is easier to get the hair out of the razor. You might also consider using a straight razor (no waste at all there, not even razor blades), but most people aren’t comfortable using one.

11. For AFAB people—consider using a silicone menstrual cup instead of tampons or menstrual pads.

Being mindful of your consumption in general.

Obviously, reducing the amount of trash you create isn’t only about packaging or plastics. Here are some more things you might consider:

1. See if you can buy second-hand clothes. Maybe there are some second-hand clothing shops next to your home? It’s worth looking around. Nowadays, I get about 90% of all my clothes in second hand shops. They don’t sell underwear or socks, and you will struggle to find there rarely used clothes for specific sports. Nor will they ever have binders for trans men that fit your size. Besides such rarely used items, second hand stores have pretty much everything. And the clothes there are generally with hardly any signs of wear, I have routinely seen them selling completely new clothes with all the tags.

2. Look around if it is possible to purchase used electronics, household items, furniture, etc goods. You don’t need the newest smartphone model the moment it appears in stores. The modern day reality is that many people choose to get rid of various goods that are still completely functional.

3. Before throwing out something, see if you can repair it. Or see if you can find somebody else who can repair it for you.

4. Pay attention to what foods you choose. Firstly, do not throw out food. Sometimes food you buy spoils before you manage to eat it, but it is possible to try to reduce how much food you throw out. Plan your meals, stick to your shopping list and don’t buy more than you can eat. Look up recipes how to make tasty dishes from various foods that people often throw out. For example, fish heads can be used as a basis for a soup. Dry bread can be used for a lot of various recipes. When you have some ingredient you don’t know how to cook, look it up online. For example, Googling for “fish head recipe,” or “dry bread recipe” will give you plenty of great ideas.

Depending on where you live, you might be able to try some dumpster diving for food. My own experience is that German university students throw out lots of perfectly edible food. The annoying problem is that in order to get into a dumpster you need to be at least somewhat physically fit. I still remember that day when I saw a bag of potatoes at the bottom of a container but couldn’t reach it.

Secondly, some foods have a greater environmental impact than others. In general, producing plant foods requires less fossil fuels than producing animal foods. Unfortunately, people who don’t eat any animal foods at all need a B12 vitamin supplement. On top of that, they must also carefully plan their diets in order to avoid nutrient deficiencies. The only time I tried not eating meat for several months in a row, I ended up in my doctor’s office with a nutrient deficiency. That clearly didn’t go well for me. Granted, back then I failed to carefully pay attention to what I ate.

On a plant based diet, you need to consume foods rich in protein like soybeans, other legumes (beans, peas, lentils), seeds and nuts. Soybeans contain all the essential amino acids. Other legumes, seeds and nuts do not contain all the essential amino acids in a single food source, but you can still get all the amino acids by combining them. Whole grains and vegetables are also important sources for various minerals and vitamins.

If a vegetarian diet isn’t for you, you might also consider not eating animal products in every meal or every day. People don’t need a steak every day. Some people might want it, but they don’t actually need that much meat. More importantly, you can eat parts of the animal that are generally discarded by other people. Organ meats (heart, liver, kidneys, skin, bone marrow, beef testicles, pig feet, turkey necks, etc.) are all edible, tasty, and nutritious. The only reason why people don’t eat them more often is tradition—in past offal was consumed primarily by poorer people, thus eating it wasn’t considered fancy. In reality, various offal dishes can be extremely tasty. And don’t throw out fish heads, bones, and fins. You can make a soup from them. If humans consumed the whole animal instead of just select few parts of it, then producing the same amount of calories from animal protein would require raising fewer animals.

That being said, paying attention to what foods you eat isn’t only a matter of reducing your consumption of animals and fish. For example, where I live in spring and autumn it is possible to buy fresh tomatoes that are grown locally in heated greenhouses under artificial lights. That’s also more harmful for environment compared to plant foods that do not require such growing conditions. Moreover, sometimes meeting the demand for some plant food requires other kinds of harm like chopping down rainforests.

Discussing various foods and their environmental impact is beyond the scope of this blog post, but in general it is a good idea to eat more locally grown foods that are in season.

So here we have it, various suggestions for what each of us can do in order to reduce how much we trash the planet. Also, in case this can still potentially apply to you, you might consider having fewer children. The more people are out there, the more environmental destruction we will have.


Disclaimer (especially for Giliell): If you are disabled or cannot live without some single use plastic items for some other good reason, the contents of this blog post do not apply to you. I do not propose banning any specific items that are currently being sold in stores. Instead, I propose that humanity as a whole should reduce our consumption of various disposable goods.

The last time I wrote a blog post about waste, I got some irrelevant off-topic comments about how disabled people exist (and they really need various single use plastic items), therefore, for some odd reason, bloggers cannot discuss plastic or food waste or else they are ableist. As if the existence of disabled people absolved the rest of humanity from being responsible about creating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As if their existence was an excuse for why humanity can keep on with our current wasteful lifestyle. I don’t want this nonsense once again, hence the disclaimer.

Also, if you don’t give a fuck about how much trash you produce, please do not brag in the comments’ section. I do not want to know exactly how large your oversized trash container is.

Nor do I want to listen to people whining about how they are too busy to slice bread or even worse—cut some salad—for their kids. I am not your nanny. This blog post is written for people who care about their environmental impact and are interested in taking practical actions in order to reduce it. If this does not apply to you, then this time you are not my target audience.

Unfortunately, some people do not care about how much trash they produce. Well, verbally they claim to care, but they refuse to do any practical actions that would inconvenience them. Even slicing their own food is too hard and too time-consuming for them, so whenever I suggest that humanity could change some of our environmentally harmful habits, I get complaints about how actually doing anything is too hard for somebody (regardless of how simple and easy the action I suggested actually is). Oh well, so it goes.


  1. Jazzlet says

    I agree that we need to reduce single use plastic as much as possible. I have a selection of fabric bags for different shopping, smaller for carrying heavier things larger for lighter ones. I am particlarly pleased with the small fine net bags I have for fruit and veg as I have found that beyond transporting it they are a good way to store the produce. There is obviously no sweating, but the net doesn’t let produce dry our as quickly as if it were kept loose, the particular win though is with mushrooms as if they aren’t used the bag lets them dry fast enough to stop them going mouldy and I end up with dried mushrooms.

    I heard a report recently that looked at the work some scientists had done to make PET recyclable in to more products, as I’m sure you know the most frequent reuse of PET is into fibre for filling quilts, coats etc.. Anyway these scientists had managed to use (I think) a bacteria to convert used PET back into the feedstock that would be produced ffrom oil, so that it could be used to make anythng again, and they’d got it working at a large enough scale to be pretty sure it would scale up to the industrial size that would be needed for commercial use. Obviously as you say we need to reduce single use plastics, but as well as siimply not using plastics in the first place we need to make sure that the plastics that are used, sometimes for good resons, are entirely recyclable. This work seemed like a good step towards that for PET.

  2. lochaber says

    I think it’s good to reduce personal consumption where one can, but I don’t think any significant change will happen without widespread legislation.

    Plastic is just too damned cheap for corporations not to use it. As a society, I feel we need to find some way to get the externalities of plastic use/production/consumption reflected in fees, taxes, or something similar so that there is an economic incentive for corporations to reduce/avoid unnecessary plastic use.

    A few years back or so, they instituted a “ban” on single-use plastic bags in my area. A lot of people grumbled about it, and conservatives were loosing their minds, blaming it on Obama, and assorted other nonsense. I rather liked it, since I typically use a backpack for grocery shopping, and it meant less waste for me to deal with. I’ve also gotten less hassle from store security and such, since there are more people now doing grocery shopping with reusable bags and such.

  3. says

    Jazzlet @#1

    Obviously as you say we need to reduce single use plastics, but as well as siimply not using plastics in the first place we need to make sure that the plastics that are used, sometimes for good resons, are entirely recyclable.

    Yes, definitely. Creating plastic goods that can be easily recycled (rather than downcycled) would be much simpler if people reduced their expectations about how pretty they want their single-use items to be. Firstly, whenever possible, get rid of the composite materials that cannot be recycled at all. Also, various additives are added to plastics in order to make sure that they have specific exact properties like, for example, colorful packaging containers. Once you have a wide variety of various additives in every plastic item, sorting them becomes tricky.

    Jörg @#2

    One of the quotes from the text: “But the visit — and the proposal — didn’t lead to any funding. Instead, “they offered to give us a fridge full of Coke the kids could buy,” said Lukania, who noted that most of the children at the dump can’t afford soda.”

    Ouch, ouch, ouch. Poor kids don’t need a fridge from which to buy junk drinks, they need education, healthcare, and healthy food.

    Lochaber @#3

    I think it’s good to reduce personal consumption where one can, but I don’t think any significant change will happen without widespread legislation.

    One of the reasons why I personally go grocery shopping with my own empty containers is because I want to normalize the practice. For example, when I go to the farmers’ market and give the seller my own container and ask them to put a kilogram of cherries in that container, I want to make the seller get used to such requests. Due to my gender problems, I am already used to sticking out like a sore thumb everywhere. If I encounter a puzzled seller who cannot understand why I don’t want them to just put the cherries in a single use plastic container, I know I will handle the situation. More importantly, the next time this seller encounters another customer with a similar request, the seller will no longer feel surprised.

    I have spoken with a few people who are interested in producing less packaging waste, but they feel uncomfortable making such requests to sellers, because the practice is not socially accepted as normal and they feel ashamed to do something so “radical.”

    But, yes, other than that, I agree with you that we need different laws.

    For example, right now oil prices are pretty low, thus there is little demand for recycled plastic granules. For businesses it is simpler to use virgin plastics for the packaging of their goods, because those are cheap and look prettier. This situation could be changed, if governments imposed a tax on virgin plastics, thus making it cheaper for businesses to pack their products in recycled plastics.

    Moreover, some plastics (for example, PVC) are impossible to recycle but very cheap to produce. Thus businesses use them. Again, if you impose a tax on plastics that cannot be recycled, their price can be increased to the point that businesses switch to instead using recycleable plastics whenever possible.

    Moreover, then there are also composite materials that cannot be separated and recycled at all. The usage of those could be reduced with taxes on non-recycleable packaging.

    Anyway, those are just a few ideas I have that could help. Obviously, it’s possible to come up with alternative proposals.

    Moreover, we also need laws that motivate businesses to sell products with as little packaging as possible and try to create all their goods so that those can be repaired and recycled.

    A few years back or so, they instituted a “ban” on single-use plastic bags in my area.

    Cool, that’s at least a step in the right direction. We still don’t have this where I live.

  4. says

    In our state, free single use plastic checkout bags have been banned for some years. There are of course exceptions such as the customer paying 10 cents for a faintly tougher bag if required or a reuseable green bag for around a dollar. The inevitable outrage from the right seems to have abated.

    Single use plastic utensils like straws and cutlery have been banned for less than a year. Paper straws and bamboo cutlery in paper bags have successfully replaced them. Coffee shops have been encouraged to not use single use cups where possible. I always prefer to sit in and drink from a ceramic cup/mug anyway on the few occasions I eat out. Of course coffee shops aren’t allowed to offer seating during the virus shut down so I mostly drink from a water bottle carried on my bicycle. Paper hot drink cups are an abomination but unavoidable for those desiring a coffee fix while out and about. I’ve told fellow cyclists to carry thermos flasks instead but they get a wild eyed look if I suggest they change their caffeine consumption habits.

  5. dangerousbeans says

    there’s also that since plastic is usually used for packaging if you have to buy something getting a bigger one is usually more efficient in terms of plastic. eg. 20L of bottled water vs the same number of 600ml bottles

    I’m with Lofty on take away coffee, getting a sit in one is much nicer. Also a good excuse to take a break out of your day and relax. You’re not slacking off, you’re being environmentally friendly! 😛

  6. Jazzlet says

    Lofty in the UK many people have their own reusable carry cups for coffee, I have a selection in different sizes, including a very neat one that folds down into a puck, but that is sturdy enough when unfolded.

  7. says

    Jazzlet, I’ve seen those, even had one for a little while. Just can’t get past drinking tea from fine bone china at home or a hot chocolate from a ceramic mug on the go. Everything has an ecological cost but washing long lived cups must be pretty low.

  8. says

    Regarding coffee cups: I know a lady who likes to buy coffee on the go in mornings. She always carries her own insulated cup with her, she insists that this is better than using a disposable cup, because this way her coffee stays warm longer and she doesn’t have to finish her drink immediately.

    For me, the main benefit are the cost savings. For example, I buy milk from the farmers’ market for 0.62 euros per liter. I have to take my own empty bottle with me. The farmer from whom I get my milk also offers plastic bottles for milk, but then I would have to pay 0.82 euros for a liter of milk. In my family we consume about 2 liters of milk per week. That means I save 40 cents every week by reusing milk bottles. This means saving 20 euros per year.

    Once you adopt some new habits, after a while you just get used to the new normal, the new habits stop feeling like a hassle and you start to notice the benefits. If you take a fabric bag, or an empty water bottle, or an empty cup for coffee with you whenever you go shopping, this turns into a habit. Just like you grab your wallet and keys upon leaving the home, you also automatically grab the bag and water bottle.

  9. publicola says

    This should be required reading for everyone. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

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