Plastic Containers in the Zero Waste Home

Is there a space for plastic containers in the zero waste home | Litterless

The picture above reveals the sordid underbelly of my zero waste habits. Just kidding, it's not sordid: but it is plastic. Most of the zero waste folks I know still use some plastic, and I do too. I don't usually talk about it, but I'm slowly getting over the idea that people won't think I'm a good enough zero waster if I share that I use plastic containers / don't brush my teeth with baking soda / insert other habit here. In fact, I'm slowly coming around to realizing the opposite: that revealing the unconventional ways I've made zero waste work for me could help you find ways - and, more crucially, permission - to bend the rules to make zero waste work for you, too.

And so: sharing a photograph of the plastic containers that are still in rotation over here. Before I talk about how and why I use these guys, I want to preface it with this: there are many, many good reasons to move away from plastic, most of which you probably already know. Plastic degrades in quality during the recycling process, so eventually it does become landfill trash at the end of its life. It leaches chemicals, many of them very harmful, into food and beauty products. And, of course, plastic pollution in waterways and oceans has been well documented and is at best demoralizing, at worst horrifying.

All that can be true and yet there still can be space for plastic containers in the lives of folks working toward zero waste. To wit: reducing your plastic consumption is a worthy goal. But what happens to plastic containers we already had before going zero waste, or plastic ones picked up at the grocery or a restaurant in a pinch? 

That's where my small collection of plastic containers come in. I keep most of my food, toiletries, and leftovers in glass and metal containers, many of which I've picked up secondhand and a few of which have been new purchases, carefully considered. Glass jars are inexpensive, but larger glass and metal containers are not. I've found that the ones I have take up a lot of space, don't stack very well, and are of course heavier if you're bringing them with you to the grocery or a restaurant.  Most of the time I don't mind that, and I reach for my glass and stainless steel containers first when putting food away. But sometimes, having a small stash of plastic back-ups does come in handy.

All of these plastic containers were picked up in the bulk aisle of the grocery, either at stores that don't let me bring my own containers or during times when I had to purchase a bulk food unexpectedly and didn't have a bag or jar with me. You've probably been in a situation like this before, too: You forgot your takeout container and, faced with leaving three-quarters of your soup behind or taking the plastic container, you've chosen the plastic container. At home, you have yet further choices: Do you give it away to a friend who could use it, or a thrift store? Keep using it as needed? Recycle it right off the bat and be done with it?

I've done all three of those, and I suspect you do some combination of them, too. I keep a mental note of friends who store food in plastic restaurant prep containers and always have room for one more in their collection. I've recycled some, too, and the ones pictured above are ones that I've kept around. They're useful for freezer storage when I don't want to tie up one of my favorite glass containers for months on end, for bulk grocery runs where I don't have the space to bring as many jars as I'd like, for sending friends home with leftovers or a sample of lotion that they wanted to try, or what have you. In the latter case, it's a relief not to have to chase down the whereabouts of a stainless steel container that cost $25 to begin with.

Here's what I think: trying to eliminate plastic completely is both a legitimate, worthwhile goal and sometimes crazy-making. You can go completely plastic-free or you can keep your plastics around until they're worn out and need replacement. Just wanted to say that I'm in the middle of it, and either way you choose to go is fine with me.

Have you wrestled with keeping plastics around? Other scenarios where you find it comes particularly in handy?

Previously in Zero Waste: Snack ideas to make yourself, and how to make cloth napkins work for your regular life.