Our 5 Favorite Lessons Learned from Plastic-Free Living

Now that a month of living plastic-free is over, have we really learned anything? Yes! And our favorite anti-plastic tactics are the easy, creative ones that anyone can follow.

February 28, 2011

Start your plastic-free garden by growing seedlings in soil blocks instead of plastic pots.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Rodale.com's Plastic-Free February has officially ended, and with it, Rodale.com editors' stressing over whether to buy organic bananas in plastic, or how to do their hair for a TV appearance without resorting to products in plastic bottles. Now, along with the many bloggers and others who joined us for four plastic-free weeks, we can get back to our comfortable, normal, plastic-filled lives.


Just kidding. While trying to live plastic free was a struggle, it has produced what we hope are some lasting behavioral changes. Our month was eye-opening, and we discovered, each in our own way, how much plastic had crept into our lives and just how easy it is to accept the disposable approach to living that plastic has helped create. But we also came away with some solutions to the tougher plastic dilemmas we faced—including how to handle those popular plastic Ziploc baggies.

If you participated, you probably had struggles and revelations of your own. We invite you to share them in the comments field below, or on our Facebook page.

Here are our 5 favorite lessons learned, and how you can try to apply them in your own efforts to cut back on plastic use:

#1: Carry your own cutlery (and straws).

Ever since moving out of New York City a few years ago, the amount of takeout food that I eat—and the associated plastic forks, spoons, and knives—has fallen precipitously. That's a healthier way to eat, but when I do need to grab some takeout, plastic cutlery is usually the only option (unless I want to eat with my hands). To prevent this scenario during the plastic-free challenge, I dug out my big purse and tossed in a set of reusable cutlery, and I've been carrying it around with me ever since. Also, since I have a bit of an addiction to iced coffee in the summer, I'm taking a cue from No Straw Ernie and adding some stainless steel straws to my cutlery carrying case.

#2: Skip shampoo, and make a DIY hair rinse.

We were all appalled at the amount of plastic pervading our bathrooms, considering that every personal-care product, it seems, is packaged in the stuff. Online editor Leah Zerbe came up with one fix by swapping her shampoo in a plastic bottle for a bar of Dr. Bronner's castile soap. Then, "I challenged a creative hair stylist to come up with three styles without using any plastic-encased products," she says. The two of them came up with this recipe for a sea salt spray that not only eliminates the need to buy a plastic bottle of shampoo, but it also costs in total about 12 cents.

Sea Salt Styling Solution:

4 pinches sea salt
1½ cups water

Mix the sea salt in the water. On your dry or damp hair, apply solution to your roots first and then work throughout hair. Style with your fingers or use a blow dryer. For a wavy, beachy look, hold a curling iron vertically to make loose curls, and then separate the large curls with your fingertips.

"You can also use this sea salt solution to suck oil out of oily roots on days in between washings," Leah notes.

#3: Uproot plastic from your garden.

For being such a natural, centuries-old activity, gardening seems to call for a lot of plastic—plastic pots and labels, vinyl-coated tomato cages and compost bins, and even plastic mulch. But Leah found that gardening without plastic was easier than expected. "I used a metal soil block maker to start thousands of seeds for my farm without using any plastic pots whatsoever," she says. Soil blocks are just that—blocks of compressed soil that you can start seeds in and then plant directly into the ground, no plastic pot or flat required. If you don't want to buy soil blocks, or can't find them, a soil block maker is easy enough to use, and probably within most gardeners' budgets. Alternatively, Leah suggests making newspaper pots to start your seeds, and using dried lily leaves or natural twine as plant ties instead of opting for the plastic ones.

#4: Ditch the Ziplocs.

Dana Blinder, our digital assistant and social media coordinator, couldn't seem to escape the allure of zip-top bags during her week. A few of us other editors fell into the same trap; they're just darned useful. "I dare you to find something that is as easily available, fresh-keeping, inexpensive, and simple as my beloved Ziploc bags," she says. To help break the habit, Dana expanded her collection of glass food-storage containers, and going forward, her fix is to make bigger meals. "I've started cooking multiple helpings at once, and storing them all in glass containers, instead of tossing half a bell pepper into a baggie." Less plastic, less food waste. It's a win-win fix. (You zip-top diehards should also see last week's Nickel Pincher column on plastic reuse for further suggestions.)

#5: Bring plastic bags to, instead of from, the supermarket.

"I was vexed all month because I'm not very good at remembering to bring bags to the grocery store," says Senior Editor Rick Chillot. "I also came to realize how many stray plastic bags I pick up during a typical week, just from buying random stuff." The annoying thing is, you usually can't toss plastic bags in with the rest of your recycling. Rick's "A-ha!" moment came when he realized that those plastic-bag recycling bins at supermarkets don't just take plastic grocery bags. They'll accept plastic shopping bags from any store, not to mention plastic wrap from toilet paper and dry cleaning, and even those errant Ziploc baggies. Along with getting better at keeping reusable bags at hand, he plans to make better use of those bag bins—"and telling cashiers I don't need a bag if I can possibly carry things without one," he adds. "Cashiers are programmed to give you plastic bags without thinking."

What plastic lessons did you learn? Share them in the comment field below, and we'll pass on the best tips in a future story.