Last updated on May 25th, 2024 at 11:14 am

Clear plastic bottles.

7 Essential Single-Use Plastic Alternatives You Need Now

Why should you transition to single-use plastic alternatives?

Plastic kills at least 1,000 sea turtles per year, including endangered species. Plastic particles have been found in all species of sea turtles, and more than 60% of all seabirds, killing one million per year. In total, 100,000 marine animals that have died from plastic-related causes are found each year, and that number is most assuredly much higher.

three baby sea turtles on the beach

Experts estimate that by 2050, plastic in the ocean will outnumber all sea life.

That causes significant problems in the ecosystem and those that depend on the ocean for their food and livelihoods.

Plastics aren’t doing any favors for human health, either. Some of the chemicals used in plastic have been shown have adversely affects on our bodies, damaging our cells, and leading to a myriad of health issues, including cancer. And some of these chemicals, such as PFAS, or Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS), do not bidegrade in the natural environment and are metabolized extremely slowly by our bodies.

Tiny plastic particles containing these chemicals are located everywhere on Earth: the deepest oceans, the highest mountains, in the clouds, and in our bodies. Microplastics have been found in our blood, lungs, human placentas, and can even cross the blood-brain barrier. We even eat the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic EVERY WEEK.

Learn more about the effects of plastic pollution here.

Embrace simple plastic alternatives

The good news is that many of the most common single-use plastic items we encounter every day are completely avoidable and simply require small habit changes. The bad news is that not nearly enough people alter their habits. Recycling, while important, is not the solution. Less than 10% of plastic in the U.S. gets recycled every year while production rates climb.

It is vital for everyone to switch to straightforward, reusable options in place of the most frequently used single-use plastic items immediately. They may seem trivial, but on a large scale have the potential to really make a difference…and may even be the gateway for many to adopt additional eco-friendly changes in behavior.

1. Water Bottles

Hydroflask reusable water bottle

Plastic beverage bottles are the third most common item found littering coastal areas, behind cigarette butts and food wrappers/containers. I think this is one of the simplest items to eliminate from our lives, yet Americans use 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour, and each of these bottles takes around 450 years to decompose.

There are an infinite number of great reusable water bottle options. I prefer stainless steel, as it is durable and keeps liquids at the temperature you want them to be. Yeti is a great brand, and offers a buy-back program in their retail stores; they will give you $5 off a purchase when you bring your beat up bottle in for recycling. Hydroflask is another great choice, and also has a trade-in program for $5 off your next purchase. They even have the capability to recycle the lids, too.

Or, for a fraction of the price, you can go with the Thermoflask bottles sold at Costco. In my experience they perform as well as the more expensive brands.

Don’t leave home without it

Do what you need to to remember to grab your bottle when leaving the house. Put it by your keys, purse, or backpack. Get used to taking a bottle everywhere you go: to work, school, a friend’s house, running errands, and events. There are fill stations all over the place. I take my empty bottle to college football games and fill it up inside the stadium.

Carry one in your car, purse, backpack, gym bag, or briefcase. Plan ahead, like when you know you are going to be sitting in the hot sun for your kid’s football or soccer game. Take them on road trips and refill at gas stations or restaurants; take an empty bottle when you fly and fill up after going through security (yes, you can take a reusable water bottle on a plane). It might take you an extra minute or two, but it’s worth saving a couple extra dollars while using less plastic. These actions just about eliminates the need to buy plastic water bottles altogether.

2. Shopping Bags

plastic shopping bag and reusable canvas shopping bag side by side

Plastic shopping bags are another item I think can easily be eliminated from your life. The best choice is to shop with bags you already own. If you have sewing skills, you can upcycle old clothing to make your own bags. If you need to, purchase new bags dedicated for this purpose. Many grocery stores sell them. Buy some that you use for groceries, and others that you use for other types of purchases, like clothing.

BeeGreen reusable shopping bags

You can go with bags made from recycled materials, like these made by Earthwise, or shop for all kinds of great styles and material options on Etsy. I store my reusable grocery bags in my trunk so I always have them when I’m doing errands. ChicoBag in one of my favorites—it’s a foldable shopping bag that stuffs into a small pouch. I keep one in my purse so I have one handy whereever I am.

3. Produce Bags

person's hand holding a piece of fruit above more produce inside a reusable mesh produce bag

Skip using the thin plastic produce bags. Buy loose produce: if you are only getting one item, or even a few, you don’t necessarily need a bag for it.

Many grocery stores carry reusable mesh produce bags in the produce section, or there’s plenty of great choices online.

4. Straws & Stirrers

reusable metal straws and a straw cleaner lying on a napkin

Go straw free as much as you can. Decline them when you go out, or bring your own. Many reusable straws come with storage bags that you could easily bring with you.

There are lot of options for reusable, plastic-free straws. They can be found in a variety of materials, most commonly stainless steelbambooglass, and silicone. For travel, try the 4ocean x FinalStraw Collapsible Travel Straw 2.0.

Stirrer options include products like these stainless steel stirrers, ones made from silicone, or find a fun design like these glass ones on Etsy.

If you must use a disposable straw, go with compostable, plant-based ones such as Bambu’s Disposable Bamboo Straws, which are USDA certified organic. Repurpose Compostable Marine Degradable PHA Straws are another solid choice.

For compostable stirrers, try these bamboo ones made by Mini Skater.

5. Coffee Cups & Lids

silver Starbucks reusable coffee mug

Bring your reusable drinkware of choice when you make your morning coffee run. The Yeti tumbler is my husband’s absolute favorite reusable coffee mug. Try a STOJO collapsible coffee cup that you can store in your bag and keep handy for the times you might need an unplanned caffeine boost.

If you need to purchase single use cups, go with compostable coffee cups made from plant-based materials. However, these are not backyard compostable and require processing in a special facility.

6. Ziploc Bags

variety of reusable zip top bags

Let’s curb our love affair with ziploc bags. I get it, they’re convenient. And I acknowledge that sometimes they might be the only realistic option. Even in those cases, there are better options, starting with washing and reusing plastic bags, if you are willing to do so (although it is not recommended if they were used to hold raw meat).

You can get away with using much less disposable zip top bags than you think; since I purchased reusable bags, I don’t think I’ve used any ziplocs.

  • Stasher bags are a very popular choice and I have to agree with their popularity. They are made from silicone, which makes them very sturdy, and they are very easy to zip up and get a good seal. However, they are quite pricey. Stasher bags can be recycled through a free Terracycle program. Available on Amazon.
  • (re)zip is another popular brand that is on my list to try. In addition to having bags that seal closed like other zip top bags, they also have some that close with an actual zipper. And like Stasher, they have a free recycling program that you can ship to them or directly to Terracycle.
  • I do own a couple other brands: these SPLF gallon-size bags and this set of Qinline assorted sizes. They are also great, but if I had to pick, I would go with the Stashers.
  • Lunchskins reusable food storage bags are made from Lunchskins are made from a proprietary quick drying fabric that is coated with a food-safe polyurethane liner, similar to pastry bags.

I will admit, nobody in my house loves washing the reusable bags, but this Marbrasse drying rack to help the process. For a plastic-free drying rack, try bamboo, such as the Zefiro drying rack, or stainless steel, like Grove’s Multi-Purpose Drying Rack.

Compostable plastic bags

I know there are some situations that it might not be feasible to use reusable bags. In this case, try paper snack and sandwich bags, which are both recyclable and compostable. If You Care or Lunchskins bags are fantastic sustainably-produced options, made with FSC-certified paper.

There are compostable bioplastic options out there, such as BioBag brand products, but be aware that nearly all ‘compostable’ plastics are not appropriate for backyard composting. They require processing under very high heat in a commercial composting facility, which are few.

7. Cotton Swabs

Last Swab brand reusable cotton swab

You might be wondering why cotton swabs are on this list. That’s because many swabs contain a plastic stick, so while the cotton on the ends breaks down, the stick does not. These sticks are actually among the top 10 waste items found on beaches.

Do not buy swabs with non-biodegradable plastic sticks. Purchase 100% cotton swabs with paperboard sticks, such as Q-Tips. You can also buy swabs with bamboo sticks, such as BOONBOO Cotton Swabs. This company is a certified B Corp, Climate Neutral, and 1% For the Planet member. Also available on Amazon.

Try out a reusable swab such as Last Object’s LastSwab. I decided to give it a try, and it is not as gross as it may seem and is surprisingly very easy to clean. The one thing I will say is I wish the texture was a little softer. Although it adequately cleans ear wax, it is not absorbent and doesn’t help dry out water in the ear canal, which for me is a big reason I like to use them after a shower. They do make a swab specifically for beauty that looks softer, so if you use swabs for makeup touchups that would also be worth a try. Also available at Grove / Zero Waste Store.

Swabs made from 100% cotton or bamboo are compostable.

Final Thoughts on Single-Use Plastic Alternatives

I hope you find this list of single-use plastic alternatives helpful. These products are a very simple place for everyone to start decreasing the single use plastic in your life. We don’t all need to go completely zero waste, but if everyone at least integrated these eco-friendly plastic substitutions into their lives, it would make a huge difference.

If you want more ideas on how to reduce plastic use, click here.

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