10 Toughest Steps to Reduce Your Plastic Footprint

If you’ve followed our guides to zero waste, which are simple ideas to get you thinking about reducing unnecessary plastics in your home environment, you’re doing really well! But you’ll likely still have plastics in your trash can every day, like I do. These are the toughest steps we take to get beyond our fear of being judged and push through the next level of plastic-free(dom) and even closer to zero waste:

1) Figure out what your biggest plastic vice is and find a plastic-free alternative. One of my family’s weaknesses is Amy’s frozen organic burritos. My children love them and they’re easy to heat up for school lunches. But we also love to eat burritos and enchiladas for dinner from delicious dried black beans that we slow cook and then assemble the burritos and enchiladas from scratch. Solution? Make an extra-large batch of burritos on burrito night and save them for school lunches. You can even freeze quite a few so you have your very own Amy’s-style yummies to keep the earthlings happy at school.

Amy's Burrito Packaging Isn't Recyclable. So, We Try To Make Our Own. Photo © Liesl Clark

If your vice is raw bars or granola bars and snack bars, find a baker near you who makes them and order them plastic-free. On Bainbridge Island, Rebecca makes Rawbecca Bars that are better than anything I’ve ever purchased in a store. She’ll make them for you in bulk, in many flavors, and totally plastic-free. We’ve ordered them in bulk to take on our expeditions in the Himalayas because they last over a month. Our local bakery also makes some unbelievably tasty peanut butter raw bars that I can order up waste-free.

We love crackers but can’t find our favorite varieties without plastic packaging. And our homemade crackers are better than any bought in a store. So, once in a while, we’ll make our own to help reduce our impact. And we’ll make enough for 2-3 days. They go fast.

Homemade Seed Crackers, Recipe at Slim-Shoppin. Photo © Liesl Clark


2) Stop buying plastic containers and come to love glass. I love glass containers of all sizes and can’t find anything that I can’t store in them.

Peek in my fridge and you'll find jars of all shapes and sizes: Patron bottle for flax seed oil, homemade yogurt in a large mason jar, homemade salad dressing in a jam jar and bulk yeast for our bread in another mason jar. Photo © Liesl Clark

3) Buy your cheese plastic-free. This might take some hutzpa on your part, but if you talk sweetly to your deli counter people, they’ll likely let you buy their bulk (often gourmet) cheese without any of their packaging. Just bring your own container and act confidently when you ask if they can just put their cheese it it. Smile, say “cheese.” Then, at home, store it in a beautiful glass cheese container. It stays fresher longer and looks delicious in there.

IMG_3147 Photo © Liesl Clark

We store our cheese in a large glass container, like our friends in France do. © Liesl Clark

4) Same goes for meat and fish. Buy it fresh, bring your own container, and store in glass.

5) Just say “no” to plastic clamshells. Clamshells? These are the polystyrene boxes that hold fresh berries and cherry tomatoes. Yes, it might mean you’ll have to say goodbye to these delicious food items until they’re in season and you can get them at your local farmer’s market. Refusing them sends a message to your grocer that you just won’t buy produce in that packaging. Better yet, take a letter to your grocery store’s customer service department and let them know that you, and a whole lot of other people in our community, are refusing to buy fresh produce in clamshells.

Clamshell Polystyrene Packaging Can't Be Recycled Where We Live. Photo © Liesl Clark

6) Say “no” to plastic mesh produce baskets (see above.) And use our letter to your grocer to do some good.

Plastic Mesh Produce Basket

7) Flowers don’t need to be wrapped in plastic for the journey home. First let your florist know you’ll carry them home sans plastic in your bag or basket, or your own two hands like you do at the farmer’s market or from your garden to your table.

Plastic-free flowers have less impact. Photo © Liesl Clark

8) Try a less plastic toothbrush. It’ll make you feel good. Some are so plastic-free they can be used as kindling when you’re done with them.

Toothbrushes Made Entirely of Bamboo are an Excellent Plastic-Free Alternative

9) Switch to homemade powder toothpaste. I’m still perfecting our recipe, but it’s basically baking soda, a few drops of stevia and a few drops of organic peppermint extract. The kids like it and we’ve reduced our toothpaste tube waste significantly.

DIY Zero Waste Toothpaste and Miswak Toothbrush Sticks, photo by Rebecca Rockefeller

10) Exert your buying power by choosing products that are entirely plastic-free. You’ll thank yourself later when your wood/metal/rubber/glass item is still functioning years later. I can attest to this for useful household items I’ve bought like pencil sharpeners, colanders, cheese graters (ones with plastic handles break), rakes, rubber spatulas (that’s why they call them rubber and the wooden handles are nicer to hold), soup ladles, straws (glass ones have a lifetime guarantee). My list could go on and on. I’ve never regretted purchasing a sometimes more expensive plastic-free item.

What are the toughest steps that you’ve taken to reduce the persistent plastics that you can’t seem to eradicate from your bin? Please let us know in the comments below so we can all try to come up with solutions together to help you reduce them.

30 Toothbrush Reuses Plus Options Plastic-Free

Brushing Your Teeth With Plastic:

OK, we’re not going to try to wean you from using toothbrushes…well…sort of. Although most toothbrushes of the world are made of plastic, we have to admit they’re very handy and, for the most part, do the trick. But once we started seeing a lot of toothbrushes lying on our favorite beaches, my children and I had to look into whether there are any environmentally-friendly alternatives. First, why are toothbrushes found on our beaches? Think, seeping sewage. Around our lovely little island, there are some old sewage pipes that are known to dump right into Puget Sound. And, you guessed it, people are flushing their plastics down the toilet. You can only imagine what other plastics we find, like tampon applicators and those single-use plastic floss applicator thingies.

Why are we concerned about brushing our teeth with plastic? Many toothbrushes are made with PVC and Bisphenol-A, known toxins that, frankly, should be banned from all toothbrushes. If you’re considering reducing your plastic footprint in the toothbrush department in the future, I found this great guide to BPA and PVC-free toothbrushes that might help you choose one less toxic. I also like to see what Beth Terry has to say on the subject, as she has put a lot of care into her research. Here are 4 less plastic alternatives that my family has tried:

1) We first got ourselves some bamboo toothbrushes and have enjoyed them immensely. Combined with our zero waste toothpaste, they’ve been getting our teeth and gums clean in a plastic-free way. When we’re done with the toothbrushes, they’ll be used as kindling for the fire or could even go into our compost!

2) My toothbrush before the bamboo one was a Radius toothbrush, made of recycled wood with a replaceable head. I love it, used it for years, replacing the head periodically until a crack developed where the head meets the handle. It was a good half-way alternative, but the large size did prove a bit cumbersome for travel. (However, on expeditions, just bringing the head was perfect for cutting down on weight)

3) Toothbrush before Radius, and a travel alternative that I used, was the Preserve toothbrush which I bought in a mail-back pouch that I promptly lost. Preserve takes back their toothbrushes when you’re done with them and recycles them along with other #5 plastics through their Gimme5 campaign. Many Wholefoods Markets have bins where you can drop off your toothbrush, along with dairy tubs like yogurt containers produced by Stonyfield Yogurt. These cradle-to-cradle practices are growing and we applaud Preserve, Wholefoods, and Stonyfield for making this a reality.

4) But (you knew I’d say that), plastic is plastic (it’s hard for me to imagine that there are zero health concerns about putting plastic in our mouths, now that I’ve been keeping up with the latest toxicology reports on plastics and the additives put in them.) And once you go down the plastic-free-living path, you start looking around for ALL your options and inevitably discover how people lived and kept their teeth clean long before plastic was invented. Which leads me to….”the traditional natural toothbrush”: Peelu miswaks.

Miswak Sticks are the New Toothbrush in Our Home

Now, these things are cool. And if you want to impress your next guests, rather than handing them a guest toothbrush to use, slip ’em a miswak stick and let ’em start chewing. Just as Native Americans once used bark for teeth cleaning, in Pakistan the peelu tree has for centuries been the traditional teeth cleaner of choice. I won’t pretend to be an expert, here, but after I read this fantastic article by Nourishing Treasures, I had to get me some miswak sticks.

The kids and I enjoyed them for many months. And it’s no wonder since they’re reportedly known to entice the companionship of angels, aid in digestion and even improve eyesight. These things leave my teeth feeling cleaner than they’ve ever been! And then I read this clinical study which proves that the use of the miswak outdistances toothbrushing in terms of removing plaque and overall gingival health. I quote, for you, the study’s conclusion:

“It is concluded that the miswak is more effective than toothbrushing for reducing plaque and gingivitis, when preceded by professional instruction in its correct application. The miswak appeared to be more effective than toothbrushing for removing plaque from the embrasures, thus enhancing interproximal health.”

Now to just get that “professional instruction” and we’ll be laughing all the way to the dentist. Any professionals out there, feel free to provide instruction in our comments section below. Yes, the miswak sticks are sealed in plastic, but for argument’s sake it’s less plastic than in a traditional toothbrush.

Reuse Your Toothbrushes

Unable to throw things out because of our zero waste lifestyle, we’ve accumulated quite a few plastic toothbrushes in our day. But it turns out old toothbrushes can come in handy. Here are 25 wonderful things that can be done with that little versatile brush (once you’ve retired it from use in your mouth):

1) Use it to clean hard-to-clean places.

2) Pass it on to your dog for brushing his/her teeth. (Yes, sanitize it first!)

3) Keep one with your craft supplies to be used as a special stiff paintbrush for art projects.

4) Clean corn.

5) Use as a grout scrubber.

6) Keep one under the sink for scrubbing around faucets and sink edges.

7) Label another one for use as a fingernail cleaner after gardening.

8) Keep one in the car glove box for emergency assistance like brushing off battery terminals.

9) Put one in your child’s “scientist backpack” for archaeology outings. A toothbrush is a critical artifact cleaning instrument. I can attest to the fact that my son’s spare brush packed in with his archaeological brushes has come in handy for our team of scientists in the excavations we’ve done in the Caves of Mustang.

10) Stash one in your foyer or mud room for cleaning mud from shoes. Keep one in your shoe shine kit for sprucing up drab shoes.

11) Keep one on your tool bench for assisting in cleaning tools.

12) Store one in your cleaning supplies bucket for spot cleaning carpets and furniture.

13) Save one for the laundry room for spot cleaning grease stains, etc.

14) Put one in with your makeup to brush away mascara clumps and to be used as an eyebrow brush.

15) Another one will be wanted on-hand as a back scratcher.

16) Use one for cleaning your bicycle chain.

17) Save one for cleaning jewelry or silverware.

18) Use one to clean out brushes and combs.

19) Some people swear by them as excellent fish tank algae cleaners to scrub algae off the glass.

20) Here’s a reuse idea from our favorite repurpose/reuse website:  “For all you fishermen, and women out there, cut the head off the toothbrush, and then drill a hole in either end, attach a swivel to one end and then the hook at the other end, make great spinning lures as they are often bright and multi coloured and the bodies make the perfect shape.”

21) Lift the lid and look at the hinges of your toilet seat. Pretty gross. Use an old toothbrush to make it look (and smell) as good as new.

22) Use as a bottle cleaner for those vintage bottles you collect.

23) Make a toothbrush bracelet.

24) Use your toothbrush as a tool to make a  rag rug.

25) For some serious fun, visit Evil Mad Scientist and learn how to make a bristle bot. Decapitate the toothbrush (off with its head!), and affix a teeny, tiny pager motor or (get this) battery-powered toothbrush motor (the sort that make your toothbrush vibrate), as well as a battery (and maybe some LEDs), and of course any googly-eyes you might have lying around and you’ve got yourself a buzzing little bot, bouncing around on bristles.

26) Use one to clean the grooves on your horizontally-sliding windows.

27) One reader wrote in to share that she uses four toothbrushes glued side by side to brush fleece sweaters and blankets after they are washed. It helps to make them look and feel like new.

28) Use one for a hair dye applicator.

29) Use your old toothbrushes to clean your dryer lint trap. Residues can build up and the brushing helps clean that off.

30) Dust and clean the crevices and ledges on hardwood molding with your old brush.

You’ll see the comments section is below. We’re hoping to find some further great ideas, links, instructions, even photos if you have ’em, for toothbrush reuse or waste-free alternatives to tooth-brushing.