Inspired living

Here's how to break up with single-use plastic for good

Here's how to break up with single-use plastic for good

Credit: Maria Ilves

Single-use plastics are everywhere: coffee cups, produce bags, plastic water bottles, plastic smoothie cups, plastic straws — the list goes on. You’d have to be living under a large rock not to know there’s a single-use plastic disaster happening globally, so it prompts the question: why?

In my book Low Tox Life I explore the reasons why change sticks after you’ve become aware of the various needs for change. In my humble opinion, these are the two main ways change takes hold:

  1. You feel a deep sense of pain about the problem at hand. You might have watched a documentary or two, seen evidence up close and have enough fire in your belly to act. If you’re still at the “oh, I’m normally good, just this once” stage, watch the documentaries Plastic Ocean and Albatross.
  2. You impose self-discipline on your change-making journey that involves an element of deprivation. More on that below.

Here, I take a look at the main single-use items found in daily life and offer alternatives.

Coffee cups

Using a reusable cup can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 92 per cent a year when compared to a disposable, single-use cup. Did you know that Australians still go through approximately one billion disposable coffee cups each year? That’s 2,700,000 paper coffee cups thrown out every day!

Why? It’s simple, really: we’re addicted to both the convenience and the substance. Double addiction = doubly hard to change.

My simple rule to make this switch is “no cup, no coffee”. I started remembering my reusable coffee cup quick smart after that self-imposed rule. Try it out.

Plastic bottles

Just stop using plastic bottles. Go without (within medically safe reasoning, of course!) and get thirsty a couple of times — then you’ll remember your bottle. No water, no drink. Gentle discipline will accelerate the change, I guarantee you.

Choose a quality stainless product from a brand that can attest to there being no lead in it and choose silicone-spouted bottles or lids. Another option is to simply use a glass mineral water bottle that you can refill thousands of times. Worried about smashing it? Place a thick sock over it for shatter prevention.


Placing a clean fork in your bag will get you through most food-court challenges when you’re caught out and have to eat lunch out. To take it a step further, wrap the fork in a serviette from home to avoid the need for a paper napkin. All that’s needed is a quick wipe of the fork with the serviette after the meal then wrap it back up and take it home for a wash. Job done.

Smoothie cups

By the time you’ve got your water bottle, coffee cup, produce bags et al in your bag, you’re starting to need a chiropractor because your back’s gone out on one side — am I right?

I’ve been there! That’s why I use a stainless-steel water bottle, small glass cup and, for the smoothie, the metal side of a Boston cocktail shaker. Boston shakers (I knew my bartending days would come in handy!) are glass on one side and thin stainless steel on the other and they fit a large smoothie or juice with ease. So, save money and head to a hospitality store to get one.

What’s crazy on the smoothie front is that many cafes and food courts don’t even offer a jar/tall glass option and automatically put it in a plastic cup when you’re having it at the cafe. As a customer, you need to be vigilant — not just when ordering takeaway but also when having your smoothie “in”.

Plastic bags

While plastic bag use has come down around 80 per cent since the two major supermarkets stopped their use, we’re still looking at hundreds of millions of single-use bags used every day, from bin liners to produce bags to retail store merch bags. Switch to a reusable bag. Organic GOTS-certified cotton bags or bags made from recycled plastic are my two preferred options.

When you’re caught without your reusable bag? Nothing helps you remember like an awkward carry of all items back to the car, strategically wrapped in a gym towel. Lean into the discomfort of having to try and stuff those 10 avocadoes for a weekend barbecue into your handbag like a shoplifter and tell me that’s not a strong impetus to remember the reusable bags next time.

When you unpack your shopping, place your reusable bags at your front door so you’re prompted to take them as you leave the house. Works a treat!

Produce bags

Quit using the individual plastic bags to “protect” your produce. It’s not necessary for most of what you buy. When it comes to buying beans, snow peas, baby spinach leaves, go with these options:

  1. Keep bags you receive when buying new sheets or shoes or from retailers who gift a reusable instead of plastic shopping bags. They can all become your new produce bags.
  2. When you’re caught out with no other option, head over to the mushrooms and grab a brown paper mushroom bag.

Common questions

Does it make a difference if I use those “green” single-use items?

It can, but most bins are a single landfill-destined bin so, regardless of how “green” that cutlery or compostable plate may be, once trapped in landfill they’ll find it very hard to break down. If you can get it into a recycling bin in a place that actually recycles, go for it, but know that your long game should be to switch to reusable at every possible turn.

But what happens when they refuse to make my coffee/smoothie with the cup I provide?

Interestingly, in Australia there’s no actual food health/safety law that states they’re allowed to say “no”. I suggest pointing out it’s not against the law to use your own clean cup and, if they can’t make a decision on it, have a chat to the manager if you can. Be ready to own the mild discomfort of this planet-care-fuelled conversation with the manager/employee. This is how bigger change starts. It also goes for bringing glass containers for takeaway or deli items, too.


Alex Stuart

Alexx Stuart is a passionate educator in the space she calls "living a low-tox life". Through her speaking, workshops, e-courses and online community, she helps people make the best new choices for themselves, their family and the planet.