The fight against single-use plastics: how we’re creating a “minimal waste” lifestyle

Post updated May 17, 2018

Life on a sailboat tends to bring a few things into perspective. One for sure being the amount of WASTE two people (and a dog) can accumulate! The most insidious kind of waste being plastic, our goal is to find ways to reduce plastic waste on our sailboat.

Waste on land vs waste on a boat

Being the enviro-conscious peeps we are, we made an honest effort to recycle when we lived in our house. Like most people with curbside pickup, we diligently put out our weekly blue bins. We had a compost bucket on our kitchen counter for food scraps. We saved up our empties for the local school kids to take, which helped fund their annual trip to somewhere educational. And we thought we were doing pretty well, since we only put out our one garbage bin every other week (as compared to our two-bin-a-week neighbours).

But, like most people, we tended to also do what was convenient, too.

There were times I forgot to bring my cloth shopping bags, and had to use the grocery store’s plastic ones. We sometimes bought foods and household items in bulk sizes to save money… only to find out later these items were double or even tripled packaged in plastic with no sane reason as to why (seriously, who wraps toilet paper in a big bundle that contains individually wrapped rolls?!) And since half of our tupperware containers seemed to have AWOL lids, we often resorted to the old standby – ZipLoc bags – to hold our carrots and sandwiches for work.

We hate these single use plastics and wasteful products of convenience.

The frustrating part is that, even though we used disposable plastics from time to time, we realized it was largely because restaurants, stores and companies made them virtually unavoidable!

And when you have a house with a yard like the average westerner, what do you do? You throw it all away, tuck away those plastic store bags, and forget it ever happened! When you have lots of space, and your crap gets carted off every week to some distant landfill, it’s easy to squirrel all that terrible waste away and not have to think about what happens to it.

Doesn’t make it okay, but it’s what happens. We know, because we did it too.

Life on a boat forces a perspective change

I’m just gonna say the logical, obvious thing first: on a sailboat, waste is inefficient.

Waste takes up actual living space. It must be hauled around until you find a place where you can bring it to shore to deal with it properly. And if you want to spend any time away from shores and accessible marinas, accumulating excessive amounts of waste in your tiny boat is just… well, terrible.

Practicality aside, plastic waste also affects your enjoyment of life aboard. Waste stares you in the face as you move about the water and notice floating bits of human-created debris that doesn’t need to be there (and I’m sure the sea-life feel the same way). Life on the water is rubbing shoulders with the consequences of our broken human systems. And when that happens, you have no choice but to make different choices… or live with the fact that you’re part of the problem!

Rethinking how we can reduce or eliminate plastic waste

The old standby of “out of sight, out of mind” wasn’t going to work on our boat. We had to take responsibility for our consumerism and reduce our waste. Not just for ourselves and our personal living conditions, but also for the environment in which we lived and derived so much enjoyment from.

There is already lots of great info on the web about ways to reduce plastic consumption (and waste in general), like here and here and here. Below is simply a list of changes we’ve personally made to create a more eco-friendly and low-waste lifestyle for ourselves. 🙂

01 – Cloth Shopping Bags and Backpacks

These are very, very common now (thankfully!). It’s now to the point where some stores will penalize the customer for use of plastic bags with pay-per-bag costs.

Others are using positive reinforcement by offering paper bags only, or using reward discounts for bringing your own bag. What we do right now is I bring a large backpack to work every day. This way, I can walk (or ride my bike) to the grocery store on my lunch and buy our food, then stuff it all in the backpack for the walk/ride home. No bags needed at all!

02 – Mesh or woven produce bags

I certainly don’t see these used much, but they’re really handy and I hope people pick up on using them. I own four (so far) of varying sizes and they work great! No need to use those thin in-store plastic bags. And these are much sturdier (won’t tear like those cheapo plastic store ones). And they allow for air flow, so I can keep my produce in the bag when I get home.

03 – Buy meat, cheese, etc. in your own containers

I’m not sure how many people buy their meat and cheese from their local butcher shop or the deli counter of their grocery store, but apparently you can do so AND bring your own container. They have the ability to zero the scale with your container on it. Super cool!

04 – Buy unwrapped or minimally-packaged items only

If you’re lucky enough to live near a rural area or city with a strong ‘street market’ culture, farmers markets make for great places to load up on all the wonderful goodies you love to buy… and without the wrappings! Otherwise, we try to choose items with the least amount of packaging that’s as close to 100% recyclable as possible.

05 – Shop thrift stores and buy secondhand when you can

My mum got me hooked on thrift shopping at a young age. I loved it for no other reason than it was a way for just the two of us to spend time together, and maybe end the day with a few rad new outfits to boot! Nostalgia aside, thrift shopping is a great way to save money, since new items are always overpriced.

People let go of items for all sorts of reasons; it’s hardly ever because the item is truly worn out and can’t ever be used again. And truly, other than hygienic products and food, there’s nothing that can’t be bought used. I love giving new life to a product that would otherwise end up in a landfill or the ocean.

06 – BYOB (bring your own bottle)

Most people seem to do this now, which is awesome. And thanks to their popularity, there are now so many more options, from stainless steel to even silicone-wrapped glass! Other than its just nice to have your own personal drinking container, you also don’t end up paying that ‘hidden’ fee for a cup wherever you go.

07 – Ditch single use plastics!

This is gonna sound weird, but I have some travel cutlery I keep in my bag for “emergency eating” situations 🙃. This includes a tiny fork, tiny spoon, and chopsticks. For drinking, I bought some wide mouth straws that can be washed and reused, and I pair them with custom mason jar lids for sealed drink containers! Camping equipment stores, or even second-hand stores, typically have lots of great reusable dishware.

08 – Reusable food storage

Obviously the plastic variety of these have been around for a while, but we recently switched to these awesome re-sealable and leak-proof silicone pouches. They keep our leftovers (and the dog’s meals) super fresh for longer, even in the variable temperatures of our cold storage. They behave just like a Ziploc bag for bringing foods to work or on a trip to the beach (except they’re BETTER because they’re sturdy silicone!)

09 – Buy and store in bulk

While lots of stores offer this, it’s not until you try to do ALL your shopping in the bulk bin section that you quickly find out how limiting the range of options are. To compensate, we simply adjust our eating habits to what is available (and once we’re moving around a lot, this will vary from place to place). The biggest items we consume, and so try to buy in bulk to reduce waste, are: pasta noodles, rice, produce, and sauces/condiments/oils.

10 – Biodegradable products

There’s always certain products that get used frequently enough to ‘add up’ in the waste collection department. Things like bathroom tissue, face tissues, paper towels, drink containers, and garbage bags seem to be our personal biggies. While our #1 priority is a reduction of use via reusable alternatives, where we can’t do this I like to buy 100% biodegradable products. This way, if they do go in the garbage, I know they’ll disintegrate into nothingness.

11 – Cast iron & stainless steel cookware

I feel like a pioneer whenever I whip my cast iron pan out. It’s crazy heavy, and takes a little longer to get up to temperature, but once it does it cooks evenly and as well as anything. Unlike teflon or those icky perflurochemical-coated pans, it’ll last a lifetime (if I care for it). For everything else, I use my stainless steel pots. 🙂

12 – High Efficiency (HE) laundry detergent

Josh was able to find a detergent brand that packages their product in a cardboard shell, which is pretty neat. The detergent itself is also a high-efficiency product so you can use way less (leading to smaller container sizes). While this is great, I think once we leave this marina, I will go a step further and make our own detergent from bar soap.

13 – DIY disinfectants and cleaning sprays

Essential oils are actually pretty amazing – and effective – at cleaning and making your house (or boat) sterile and smell nice. The old standby of white vinegar mixed with tea tree oil and/or orange oil makes for a very effective cleaner that you can use everywhere. Even on food preparation surfaces. Baking soda is also a very good scrubber!

14 – Repair instead of toss

Since I happen to already own many household items that are plastic, the best thing I can do now is try to make them last as long as possible. So when the gasket goes on my plastic blender container, or a doohickey falls apart inside our metal/plastic coffee maker, I try to replace these parts. It may be less convenient than buying new, but I will save tons of money AND keep one less thing out of the landfill (at least, for a little longer).

Disposable plastic is bad for everyone

I hope this article is helpful in showing how waste (especially plastic) can be reduced in daily life. And really, environmentalism aside, it’s just short-sighted and careless to mindlessly consume and dispose of ridiculous amounts of plastic without any critical thought as to where that plastic will end up… and for how long!

All of these single-use plastics take a century to thousands of years to degrade, if ever! And even then, they just degrade into micro-plastics that some poor creature will probably eat, get sick, and die from. Who wants that?

So no, we’re not perfect, and yes, we can do better. But the trick is demanding from the systems we buy from that they do better, too. It makes it easier in the end for all of us to make better choices. 😉

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Stay awesome,

  — Morgan

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