Put reduce, reuse, recycle to use in your kitchen this Earth Day

Bottled water in plastic bottles line the shelves at a grocery store in New Orleans, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. People are increasingly breathing, eating and drinking tiny particles of plastic, however, there are simple things people can do at the grocery store if they want to use less plastic. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Single-use plastics have become a staple of convenience, and nowhere is that more evident than in the modern home kitchen. From the time groceries enter the house to when they leave, the average consumer relies heavily on the convenience of single-use plastics for packing, storage and food prep.

With plastic pollution clogging waterways and harming wildlife, it’s clear that a change in kitchen habits is necessary. Transitioning away from single-use plastics in the kitchen can sound like an overwhelming burden, but it doesn’t require a complete lifestyle overhaul. Simple swaps and small strategic changes to reduce, reuse, recycle can go a long way toward creating a significant impact this Earth Day.

Why ditching single-use plastics matters

Health is the biggest driver of moving away from single-use plastics, the health of the planet and the health of the people living here. Understanding how these plastics affect people can help drive willingness to change.

The environmental impact of plastic waste

Creating plastic is resource-intensive, relying heavily on fossil fuels and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Once used, most plastic waste ends up in landfills, where it can take centuries to decompose.

What doesn’t make it to the landfills clogs waterways and pollutes the oceans. As single-use plastics break down in the oceans, they turn into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics and nanoplastics, which are then ingested by fish, disrupting the food chain and threatening wildlife.

Health concerns and microplastics

The same microplastics found in the oceans are now showing up in humans. These tiny particles are ingested by eating contaminated fish and simply drinking water. Experts speculate that as these particles accumulate in humans over time, they will have negative health consequences, but they don’t yet know the full extent of those effects.

With all of these negative aspects surrounding the excessive use of plastics, there is no time like now to start making mindful choices to adopt eco-friendly changes. Small changes now can make a big impact later.

Reduce, reuse, recycle – in that order

The phrase reduce, reuse, recycle is synonymous with creating a more sustainable way of life. However, most people don’t stop to consider that those words are in that specific order because they have the most significant impact when done in that order. Too often, people do what is convenient and jump past recycling into “wishcycling” or placing trash they wish could be recycled into the recycling bin.

Every home kitchen has the same essential purpose: they need to feed the people in that home efficiently with nutritious, delicious and accessible food regardless of the abilities of the occupants. These same feeding requirements guide people’s choices when deciding which single-use plastics are most convenient. So, choosing how to implement the concept of reduce, reuse, recycle will look different from one home to the next.

Making sweeping changes is challenging to accomplish and even more difficult to sustain, but sweeping changes aren’t needed to have a significant, lasting impact. Instead, it’s better to reduce where, reuse when and recycle what you can. Bringing it all together will show that making small changes can create a significant impact, and for that, it’s best to start at the beginning.

Reducing consumption

The most effective way to reduce environmental impact is to buy fewer things requiring disposal. Less trash coming into a home equals less going out. However, most people cannot just stop feeding themselves or their families. Food has to be purchased and typically comes in single-use plastic packaging, making it very difficult to reduce.

Instead of looking at food as a whole, start with one single-use plastic product and choose not to buy it anymore. One person may refuse to use plastic shopping bags, someone else may decide that they will no longer buy food in plastic clamshells and another may opt out of purchasing another roll of plastic wrap ever again.

To accomplish this, you may have to shift your shopping habits, opting to buy the fillets for tonight’s rockfish recipe wrapped in paper from the local fishmonger or embracing seasonal eating while shopping at the local farmer’s market. Pick one, get comfortable with it, then pick another one. Start with something easy and work up to the more complex ones.

Reusing existing materials

Second in line for having a significant impact is to reuse or repurpose items already in your home. Like reducing, you are not purchasing anything new or sending anything to the landfills. Reusing works hand in hand with reducing, as it gives you the perfect opportunity to find existing replacements for those items you are now refusing to buy in their single-use forms.

Putting it into action may be as simple as remembering to bring the reusable shopping bags to the store, carrying one of your many reusable water bottles to work or emulating Grandma by storing your leftover Guinness gravy in an old plastic butter or yogurt container. It sounds easier than cutting things out of your life, but creating new habits can take time, so keep at it until it sticks.

Recycling unneeded items

The last piece of the reduce, reuse, recycle puzzle is the one you should use most sparingly: recycling. The intent of recycling is to prevent things we no longer need from ending up in the landfill. However, not everything is recyclable in every community and sending items that aren’t recyclable to recycling facilities causes more harm than good.

Recycling symbol or resin identification code

Created for the first Earth Day in 1970, the chasing arrows recycling symbol is a well-known emblem encouraging people to recycle things made of recyclable materials like paper, metal, glass and some plastics. The idea is that these items can go to a recycling facility that processes them into new items made from paper, metal, glass and plastics.

On the other hand, the resin identification code has the same chasing arrows emblem with the numbers one to seven stamped inside. These numbers indicate the materials used in creating the product and if the item is recyclable. In most communities, you can recycle items marked with numbers one and two in curbside recycling programs. Items marked with three to seven are only recyclable through specialty programs in communities where proper facilities exist.

While they may look alike, the recycling symbol and the resin identification code are not the same thing. If you were unaware, you are in good company, as according to the Consumer Brands Association, 92% of Americans could not tell the difference.

When purchasing items that you intend to use only once or for a short time, opt for items made from materials that are actually recyclable. This may include picking out jumbo pasta shells or eggs wrapped in cardboard instead of plastic or meticulously checking the resin codes to ensure you only buy things marked with a one or two.

Use reduce, reuse, recycle to ditch single-use plastics

By embracing the principles of reduce, reuse, recycle, everyone can make small, meaningful swaps to minimize their plastic footprint and make a big difference regardless of age, income or ability.

Renee N. Gardner is the creative mastermind behind Renee Nicole’s Kitchen, a recipe blog based on seasonal ingredients.


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