Check your Plastics: How a Low-Waste Lifestyle Really Stacks Up

This Plastic-Free July, we shared some of our favorite plastic-free swaps and we hope they inspired you to reduce some of the plastic consumption in your daily life. We also asked some of our AmeriCorps members to keep track of their single-use plastic waste for a week! This exercise showed how plastic consumption can really add up, and how even swapping a few things can make a huge difference.

First, we have Kayla, one of our AmeriCorps Naturalist Educators, and Kevin, one of our AmeriCorps Lead Wetland Restoration Technicians, who are trying to live a low-waste lifestyle. On the other end of the spectrum, Alayna, our Communications Coordinator VISTA, shows what the average single-use plastic consumer may look like. She, herself, is at the beginning of her low waste journey, but going back to her old habits throughout this experiment really opened her eyes to how easily single-use plastic can add up and contribute to excessive waste. The goal of this experiment is to show the potential impact a low-waste lifestyle can have on our environment.

Kevin and Kayla’s Trash Breakdown

Kayla and Kevin’s plastic waste contained common food packaging like produce bags, packaging for meat and cheese, berry containers, a marshmallow bag, bottle caps, and mailing supplies like a shipping envelope. We asked them some questions to learn more about their low-waste lifestyle:

Q: What inspired you to live a low waste lifestyle? Was it one thing, or was it over time you realized a change needed to be made and you decided to make that change?

Kevin: The known dangers that plastics pose on our environment is the base level for my desire to live a low-waste lifestyle. It definitely took some time to switch and we are still not as low-waste as we want to be. Kayla has been the driving force behind mostly all of our plastic-free switches, she’s very passionate about finding new and creative ways to reduce our plastic waste.

Kayla: My parents taught me how to recycle and we have been recycling as long as I can remember. Growing up I learned more and more about how plastic affects our planet and is shipped to other countries where it takes up their natural space. I decided I didn’t want to be a part of that problem but the solution. I am always looking for ways to reduce my plastic more.

Q: What has been your favorite plastic free swap?

Kevin: Reusable cloth produce bags. They are lightweight cloth that won’t make a difference in the price of your produce compared to plastic bags and you’d be surprised at how fast those little produce bags add up week after week.

Kayla: Reusable Ziplock bags. I love these because I can take my lunch in these bags and then come home, wash them, and use them the next day. Especially serving at camp, I see how many sandwich or snack bags are used once and then thrown away.

Q: What advice would you give to someone trying to go low waste?

Kevin: Start out with easy switches like cloth grocery/shopping bags, a water bottle that fits your needs, and selective shopping especially in produce.

Kayla: Don’t try to do it all at once because it is a lot of change and things to be mindful of. Take small steps and over time you will build on your practice.

Q: What was the hardest thing to switch out?

Kevin: I don’t think any particular item is hard to switch out, but what I find hard is remembering to tell cashiers not to bag items whenever possible. I’ll frequently find myself buying small items that I can easily carry out of a store and the cashiers are quick to bag things often without asking. You have to be vigilant in telling people you don’t want a bag.

Kayla: I don’t think switching out is hard but it might seem expensive. A lot of reusable products are priced higher than their plastic counterpart but if you think about only making the purchase once then it is cheaper over time.

Q: What was the easiest thing to switch out?

Kevin: We agree that reusable bags and having a water bottle are two things that everyone should be able to do with much ease.

Q: Is there one thing that you wish there was a plastic free swap for?

Kevin: Most snack type foods that often come in plastic and produce that is pre-packaged in plastic, I think use of a compostable paper material would be ideal.

Q: What’s the one thing that has helped you reduce your waste the most?

Kevin: Reusable bags of all types, grocery bags, produce bags, sandwich bags, and gallon sized bags. And possibly the biggest reduction of waste comes from simply recycling.

Q: Did anything unusual happen this week that might have increased your plastic use?

Kevin: No, it was a pretty normal week. We went camping, which isn’t unusual, and often end up using a few extra single-use plastics.

Q: Looking at all your waste from this past week, is there something you think should be your next swap?

Kevin: We also go through a lot of cheese and that is always in single use plastic bags, and being from Wisconsin I don’t think I can give up cheese. Almost all of our meat is in plastic as well unless we go to the butcher and then it’s paper wrapped.

Q: What challenges have you faced with trying to live low waste during COVID-19?

Kevin: Stores won’t let us use our bags! Very tough at the farmers market depending on what we are buying but we have just been not putting produce into a bag until after we buy it, just make sure to wash produce (which you should do anyways) if going bagless with produce.

Q: A lot of times people focus on what they have to lose when they go low waste, but what are some things you have gained?

Kevin: I don’t feel we have lost anything going low waste. The gains are just in feeling good knowing you’re reducing your waste footprint. I’m not sure of the true health benefits but I’d guess the less your food or drink comes in contact with plastic the less micro-plastic accumulation in your body.

Kayla: The gains are feeling good because you reduce your carbon footprint. You are taking action for a cause that is not only important for your community but all communities in the world. The gain is ultimately knowing your children and other children will grow up in a hopefully less trashy world.

Q: Are there any other reflections from this week that you’d like to include?

Kevin: It was nice to see the amount of plastic we accumulate each week, it's about as much as I’d imagined it would be but it acts as a good motivator to strive towards making that amount smaller and smaller.

Alayna’s Trash Breakdown

Alayna’s plastic waste is also a lot of food packaging, but different kinds. She had a lot of coffee in takeaway cups and used several single use coffee pods.

Q: Were you surprised at how much plastic you used in a week?

Alayna: Definitely! I was surprised at how much it accumulates and how many little things (like wrappers, safety seals, etc.) are made of plastic. Also, the Walmart cashiers really love that double bag life, so I was surprised that I came home with almost 20 Walmart bags. I will typically try to use paper bags where I can, but cloth totes are definitely the more sustainable way to go.

Q: Looking at your plastic waste, what changes are you planning to make?

Alayna: I realized how much I go out for coffee and seeing all my cups laid out was a wake up call. I can definitely find more sustainable ways to eat out… or just choose not to eat out, which would be healthier for my wallet, waistline, and the planet. I think for short term solutions, I want to make a choice to always have a canvas tote on hand in my car and to use reusable cups when I can, though it’s difficult now due to COVID-19.

Q: In what way has COVID-19 increased your plastic use?

Alayna: I think this year overall increased my plastic usage and COVID-19 was definitely one of the contributing factors. Being home all the time increased my grocery bill. It has also made me lose my motivation to cook as often, which meant I was going more for pre-packaged, processed food like frozen dinners and boxed food over fresh produce. When I’m not cooking, I am also eating out more, which contributes to a lot of plastic and (general) waste. Also, my online shopping increased a bit. Whenever I order things from Amazon and Chewy, I am often appalled at how much packaging they wrap stuff in. I bought a few toys for my dog, and I kid you not, they wrapped one of them in its own box with literally six feet of plastic bubble wrap. Talk about excessive!

Q: Are there any plastic free swaps you’ve already made that helped you reduce your waste this week?

Alayna: Yeah, I often carry my Nalgene water bottle with me wherever I go. It’s a rare occasion when I buy bottled water anymore. I finally broke out my solid shampoo bar from Lush after running out of my bottle shampoo. I’ve been loving the bar and the little tin it comes in. I also decided that since my plastic toothbrush was on its last leg already that I’d switch to a more sustainable alternative, I really like the bamboo toothbrush with the charcoal bristles. Generally, when I go to work I’ll try to stop at a gas station for coffee and try to remember my thermos. I have a lot of the tools to go plastic free already, my downfall mainly comes from a lack of thinking ahead.

Q: Is there one thing you wish there was a plastic free swap for?

Alayna: I feel like there’s literally a plastic free swap for everything if people would just take the time, effort, and thought to do it. I know I didn’t really have an excuse this week when I continued to add to my plastic pile. You just have to be mindful and aware of what kind of impact you’re creating and make a conscious effort to change.

Q: Was there anything unexpected this week that increased your plastic waste?

Alayna: I feel like I went out for coffee way more this week than I normally would have. Maybe it was stress? But again, the coffee isn’t the problem, it’s being caught out without a plan and preparation. Usually at home, I try to use the refillable k-cup, but my household prefers the disposable ones and sometimes it’s just easier to pop it in and out. Again, not a good excuse- but it’s where I’m at right now.

Q: Are there any other reflections or comments from this week that you’d like for me to include in the blog?

Alayna: I’ve felt for a while that going plastic free has to be a household commitment with everyone committed to it. It’s hard to be the only one on board with it, and to constantly explain to your household why it's important or how to do it properly, especially if you share groceries. My household definitely doesn’t share the same convictions and oftentimes it can be tiring to be the only one trying to implement change. However, it can be rewarding when you see them start to recycle and reduce their waste due to your influence (or at least I assume it would be, we’re not quite there yet.)

Let's Compare


When the trash is all bagged up, Alayna used about twice as much plastic waste as Kayla and Kevin. They also used different kinds of plastic and it’s interesting to see the waste produced by people at different points on their low waste journey.

Kevin and Kayla's trash is on the left and Alayna's trash is on the right.

We don’t expect everyone to throw out all the plastic in their home to start living a low waste life right this minute. It’s a slow and gradual journey with some trial and error. To just throw out all your plastic products and buy sustainable swaps the second you decide to reduce your plastic use is expensive and just as wasteful if you do it all at once. It’s much easier to make it more of a lifestyle choice if you transition into it slowly. Additionally, reducing your plastic use isn’t the only way to start living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Due to safety measures put in place to protect us from COVID-19 we can’t apply some of our normal plastic free swaps, like bringing our own coffee cup or using our own bags at the grocery store, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can’t do. We also don’t expect anyone to go completely plastic free, especially in one month, but we hope you see how little changes really can make a difference and hope that this month has inspired you to make some long-term plastic free swaps. Check out some of our favorite swaps below!

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