This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.
Your family might use plastic straws, water bottles, and bags for just a few minutes, but those items don’t disappear when they’re thrown out. Single-use items like these account for more than 40 percent of plastic waste, and each year about 8.8 million tons of plastic trash flows into the ocean. This waste endangers wildlife, pollutes the water, and puts human health at risk.
The stats are frightening, but you’ve got a secret weapon to curb your family’s plastic use: your kids.
Many children care deeply about wildlife—they certainly don’t want to watch a sea turtle suffocate from a plastic straw—and kids understand they’re inheriting an Earth in crisis. But small changes to your family’s routine can empower your children to make a real difference in the fight against plastic. Start with these tips below.
1. Straws Suck
The best estimate currently available is that Americans use about 500 million plastic straws each day. Help your kids swap out the disposable straws by allowing them to choose a colorful, reusable straw. Keep it handy for restaurant visits or snack stops.
2. Keep It in a Cone
At the ice-cream shop, always choose a cone over a cup with a plastic spoon. (Waffle versus cake is still your call.) Take it further by helping your kids talk to the shop manager about switching to compostable utensils—your kids just might be cute enough to change someone’s mind.
3. A Better Birthday Bag
As birthdays approach, rethink the goodie bags. A few days after the party, those plastic yo-yos and other throwaway toys start to look like junk. Work with your kids to choose Earth-friendly, non-plastic giveaways like homemade treats or coupons to a local bakery.
4. That’s a Wrap
Items shipped to your home often come wrapped in plastic packaging, and toys bought at the store are covered in it. When your kids want something, help them brainstorm ways to avoid the excess plastic. Some things can be bought secondhand, others can be shared or borrowed, and some stuff doesn’t need to be purchased at all.
5. A Leaner Lunch
The average 8- to 12-year-old kid throws away about 67 pounds of lunch trash every year. Instead of packing your kids’ sandwiches in plastic bags, reach for reusable wrappers made of cloth or beeswax. Kids can even make and decorate their own lunch bags from old jeans. Then toss an apple or a banana in the bag instead of a plastic-wrapped snack.
6. Don’t Float Away
If you’re planning a trip to the beach, make sure those plastic pails, beach balls, and inflatable flamingoes don’t float out to sea. Put your kids in charge of tracking these items and making sure the toys are back in the car at the end of the day.
7. Recycle Right
Not all plastics are recyclable, but some items—like beverage bottles and plant pots—are. Learn what your local recycling plant is able to accept, then make it a priority to separate your waste at home. You can even encourage your kids to push for plastic recycling in their classroom.
8. Ban the Bottle
Let each of your kids select a reusable water bottle, then give them the responsibility of hanging onto it. Look for other bottles in your home that can be nixed. For instance, you can let each child choose their own type of bar soap instead of purchasing a plastic bottle of liquid soap to share.
9. Buy in Bulk
Purchase items like popcorn kernels, cereal, and pasta in bulk to cut down on packaging waste (ideally with your own containers), then pull out your tote bag to take it all home. Work with your kids to choose and then decorate reusable containers for each of these items and have them sort the food into their respective containers.
10. Trash Troopers
If you find yourself with a free Saturday, grab the kids and join a community cleanup. You’ll not just be beautifying the neighborhood—you might help change laws. Groups that host the cleanups sometimes weigh the waste, which helps leaders make decisions about laws that encourage people to throw away less trash. No cleanups scheduled? Your kids can plan their own.