How to reduce plastics in nature with your everyday habits

As we all continue to learn more about plastic pollution in nature, the statistics and images can sometimes be overwhelming. For example, at least 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year, and by 2050 the plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish. It can be hard to know where to start, or wonder whether you yourself can even make an impact.

There are organizations, industry networks, scientific institutions and legislators all around the world seeking effective ways to tackle the huge challenge of plastic pollution. There are also many things you as an individual can do as part of your daily life to help prevent plastics ending up in nature. 

Around 80% of ocean plastics come from land-based sources, so this is also where solutions will be most efficient and effective. Today, we look at how you and your daily habits can have an impact on combating plastic in the natural environment. In our day-to-day lives, there are two key starting points for preventing plastic pollution: on-the-go items, and the things you use in your home.

Plastic waste found on beach

On the go

Statistics from over 100 countries participating in the International Coastal Cleanup found that the top-three items littered are cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles, and food wrappers. Plastic bottle caps, grocery bags, plastic cups/plates and straws/stirrers are also part of the top 10. Many of these are items we get from cafés or shops when we’re out and about. This means we often discard them in a trash can along the way when we’ve finished using them, and they may find their way into nature.

Here’s a rule of thumb for how plastic travels from our hands and into the environment when you’re on the go: what ends up on the ground, ends up in the ocean, by way of wind and waterways.

  • Cigarette butts: These are a notorious litter culprit, stomped out on sidewalks or buried in sandy beaches. Cigarette filters contain harmful chemicals, and are actually made of plastic – both of which are damaging to wildlife. Using ashtrays or bins for your butts will make a difference.
  • Food wrappers and straws: Lightweight items, even if put into a trash can, might still blow away and end up in storm drains – a highway to rivers and oceans. By bringing your own reusable coffee cup, reusable cutlery, metal or bamboo straw (or skipping straws entirely), you are actively tackling the pollution from their single-use cousins. Another great way to reduce food packaging litter on the go is to pack your snacks in a lunch box or beeswax wrap, or bring your own container for takeaway food.
  • Bottles and cans: Make sure that you recycle your plastic bottles and soda cans properly. If there is a deposit return system in place where you live, returning your empty beverage containers at a reverse vending machine or redemption center will not only prevent them from becoming litter, but also give them the best starting point to be recycled into new bottles and cans.
People picking up litter

At home

There are many ways you can help take better care of the natural environment even when at home. Being conscious of what household items you use and how you dispose of them is another way to have a positive impact. In fact, the European Union (EU) Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUPD) banned from 2021 items such as cotton-bud sticks, plastic cutlery, balloon sticks and expanded polystyrene food containers and cups. Part of the reason is that these are products very likely to be littered or escape from our waste streams into nature.

A rule of thumb for how plastic travels from our homes: any plastic that goes down the toilet or the sink ends up in the oceans.

  • Cotton-bud sticks, sanitary products, cleaning wipes and even contact lenses: Things we use every day often go down the drain with our morning or evening cleaning routines. These all include plastics (yes, even cleaning wipes contain plastics), causing issues in our wastewater treatment systems. In addition, during extreme weather, stormwater can cause overflow, which means pieces of plastic that float will escape into nature. And this is the reason cotton-bud sticks and sanitary products are also very often found on beaches – because they’re thrown down the toilet, and not in a garbage can. So now you know where they go!
  • Beauty products: Several countries have banned microbeads in toiletry products, typically found in wash-off scrubs, toothpaste, or home cleaning products. Such microplastics easily wash down the drain and are so small that wastewater treatment mostly can’t capture them, putting the tiny plastic beads on a one-way ticket to the ocean. By switching to alternatives, you can get clean teeth and fresh skin from natural materials that won’t harm nature.
  • Glitter: For summer and the holiday season, a little glitter adds extra sparkle. Unfortunately, glitter is actually made of plastic, and these shiny pieces of microplastics are very hard to clean up. Have you ever tried picking up glitter from the grass? There are biodegradable options, and natural glitters – just be aware that "bioplastics" are still plastic and won’t degrade in nature. Eco-brands will often have options that can still put a sparkle and spring in your step.
  • Microfibers: University of Plymouth has found that the clothes we wear release hundreds of thousands of microfibers in laundry. These fibers are so small that they easily flush out with the wash water and pass through filters during wastewater treatment. Once they end up in our oceans, they are nearly impossible to clean up. But, there are several things you can do at the source, right in your own washing machine. You can use a special washing bag for synthetic fabrics, install a filter directly on your machine, or use "laundry balls" that capture the fibers in the wash.

We at TOMRA hope that you join us in taking action both at home and on the go to reduce the likelihood of plastics end up in nature as waste and pollution.

Child on beach