You’ve switched to reusable bags and always bring your own water bottle, but it’s very possible that plastic is sneaking into your daily routine.
The first plastic, a synthetic polymer, was invented way back in 1869. And since then, plastics have become more and more popular. Now, the growing problem of plastic pollution is a worry for people around the world.
You may work hard to avoid plastic waste, but often it’s difficult to know what’s natural and what’s synthetic. These 19 surprising sources of everyday plastic show how common these artificial polymers are today. Luckily, you can make simple sustainable swaps to help protect our planet.
Do you enjoy a piece of mint gum after lunch every day? If so, you may be chewing on plastic. Most major gum brands use a base made with a type of synthetic rubber also used to make tires and glue. This plastic base gives gum its stretchy strength. Unfortunately, it sticks around long after you’re done chewing.
Sustainable Swap: Freshen up with a plastic-free gum. Natural food stores often carry gum made without plastic. One of my favorite brands is Simply Gum. You can also choose breath mints packaged in paper or metal tins.
2. Chip & Snack Bags
Chip and snack packages often look like paper or foil. But most of them are coated with a thin layer of plastic to protect your crispy snacks from moisture. This thin material snags in recycling machines, so they wind up in landfills.
Sustainable Swap: One way to reduce your carbon footprint is to buy the biggest bag you can. That way, you use less packaging. Avoid single-serving packets when possible. You can also make your own zero-waste snacks at home, like these delicious Kale Chips.
3. Food Containers
Many paper plates, cups and cartons are coated with a layer of plastic to make them more durable and water resistant. Since they’re made of several thin layers of different materials, most facilities are unable to recycle them.
Sustainable Swap: Buy foods and drinks in glass when you can, since it’s infinitely recyclable. You can choose reusable alternatives like stainless steel tumblers and storage containers. When you truly need something disposable, look for compostable paper products.
4. Disposable Wipes
Around the world, millions of wipes are used every day. They may look like cotton, but makeup wipes, sanitizer wipes and baby wipes are almost always made with a blend of plastic-based fibers like polyester. These wipes can’t be composted or recycled, so their destination is the landfill.
The first synthetic fiber came into the world in the 1800s, when a chemist named George Audemars patented artificial silk. Since then, synthetic fabrics have become a staple of the textile industry. Materials like polyester, rayon, acrylic and nylon are cheaper to make than natural fabrics. However, they release tiny plastic microfibers into our waterways every time you wash them.
Sustainable Swap: When you shop for new clothing, look for products made with 100% natural materials like wool, linen or organic cotton. You can also help reduce microfiber pollution from your laundry by adding a Cora Ball to your washer. This unique ball helps trap tiny fibers before they can escape into the environment.
6. Canned Drinks
Popping the tab of a cold drink on a summer day is satisfying and refreshing. But did you know that many aluminum cans are lined with plastic? This thin lining is added to keep the metal from breaking down and protect the drink’s freshness.
Sustainable Swap: Luckily, aluminum cans are still recyclable. Empty them out and add them to your bin. Avoid crushing them first, since this can clog machines. To avoid plastic, you can also shop for glass-bottle drinks instead.
7. Biodegradable Utensils
Many restaurants now offer “eco-utensils” made from plant-based materials. Usually, these are made with natural polymers from plants like corn. They may be plant-based, but they’re still essentially a type of plastic that only biodegrades in industrial facilities — not in your backyard bin or even the landfill.
Adhesive bandages are another surprising place to find plastic. Even the soft, fabric-like band aids are made with plastic materials like PVC. This means they stay in landfills long after your scuffed knee has healed.
Sustainable Swap: Use plastic-free bandages like these Organic Biodegradable Bandages from Patch. That way, you can care for the planet while treating life’s little cuts and scrapes.
9. Nail Polish
Most nail polishes are made from polymers and chemicals. And since glitter is also plastic-based, sparkly polishes have a double dose of plastic.
Sustainable Swap: Look for natural nail polishes like this collection from Sienna Byron Bay.
10. Menstrual Products
Conventional tampons and pads are made with plastics, including the lining and packaging. Menstrual pads can contain up to 90% plastic! These plastic-based menstrual products contribute to pollution and can irritate your skin.
Sustainable Swap: Switch to reusable products like a Menstrual Cup or Reusable Pads. They’re gentler on the planet and your skin. As an added bonus, you don’t have to remember to buy more every month!
Receipts have a way of piling up in purses, drawers and on countertops. They may look like plain paper, but they’re often printed with a plastic coating like BPA or BPS.
Sustainable Swap: Ask for a digital copy of your receipt, or no receipt printed.
The kitchen sponge used to be a mystery to me. Was it cotton? Was it a bright blue sea creature? Most of the time, they’re actually made from plastics like polyester or nylon. And if you change your sponge every week or two, you throw away dozens every year.
13. Dental Floss
In the past, people often flossed with things like horse hair or waxed silk. Now, most dental floss is made from nylon strands coated in a petroleum-based wax. This plastic floss can’t be recycled or composted, and it can entangle wildlife if it escapes into nature.
14. Tea Bags
My ancestors came from England and their love of tea is still alive and well in my family. Tea bags can be a convenient way to enjoy your Chamomile, but most tea bags are made with plastic to help them stay sealed and keep their shape.
Sustainable Swap: Buy loose-leaf tea and use a reusable strainer, or shop for bags that are certified compostable.
15. Muffin Pans
In high school, I baked a large batch of bran muffins every week and had them for breakfast each morning. I still love muffins, but I recently learned that most muffin pans are coated with Teflon to keep baked goods from sticking.
Sustainable Swap: You can bake with unbleached paper cups — or use the old-fashioned method and grease your tins before filling them.
Tape is useful for everything from mending books to finishing off art projects. But most tapes are simply thin plastics with synthetic adhesives.
17. Non-Stick Pans
Most non-stick cooking pans are coated with synthetic polymers. Over time, this coating can break down and leach into food or wash into waterways.
Sustainable Swap: Choose plastic-free cookware like this Always Pan from Our Place or quality cast iron. For a while, my family used only cast iron. It took me a bit to get used to it, but now I love it!
18. Squeeze Packs
Squeeze packs of nut butter or applesauce are an ultra-convenient snack on the go. However, these plastic packets are used for mere seconds before ending up in a landfill for centuries.
19. Wrapping Paper
From birthdays to baby showers, gift-giving is a big part of our society. Unfortunately, a lot of wrapping paper is made with a type of plastic called Mylar. One way to tell if your wrapping paper is recyclable is to scrunch it into a ball — if it holds its shape, it’s safe for the recycling bin.
Sustainable Swap: Use plain brown paper or reuse gift bags and boxes. My family has been reusing some of our Christmas gift bags since I was in preschool! For an extra-special touch, you can tie your gift in a reusable cloth like this beautiful Furoshiki Wrap.
Working Toward Everyday Sustainability
Avoiding plastic in our daily lives can be a challenge. From coffee cups at the office to a flyer from your grocery store, it seems to be almost everywhere. Choose a few of these sustainable swaps to help banish plastic from your life. Switching to eco-friendly products can help you reduce waste without sacrificing convenience.
How many of these sneaky plastic sources did you already know about? Which surprised you the most? Tell us in the comments!