When I think of how the absolute most eco-friendly humans would live, my first thought is the hunter/gatherer nomadic peoples. They lived very simply in comparison to the modern American lifestyle, completely off the land, and in a way that their impact was minimal long term. Next, I think of current self-sufficient people and communities who also live simply and work to grow the food and materials they need themselves on their land and by trading. I’m guessing you do not fall in either of these categories, and neither do I. Yet I still desire to have a minimize my negative impact on the environment and even maximize my positive impact… With life so fast-paced and constantly on the go, disposables are very convenient. Having used them all my life, it’s sometimes hard to imagine how to work around using them. It’s important enough to make the effort though, and here’s why.

  1. We’ve actually created a pacific garbage patch. Impressively sad. Each American currently produces an average of more than four pounds of trash per person per hermes-rivera-265412day. Having recently turned 22 and seeing that the majority of the trash that exists on this planet was created in the last two hundred years (if this amount time e  was on a clock of the existence of the planet, this would have started our trash producing days at 11:59 PM). Knowing our waste rate is increasing quickly, I am genuinely terrified to think of what state the planet will be in when handing it off to my great-grandchildren. I refuse to accept that as a certain reality that cannot be avoided. Each piece of Styrofoam I use (and we generally throw them out shortly after getting them-as soon as we are done with our meal) will stay on this planet for FIVE HUNDRED years. I cannot knowingly produce trash that will exist for longer than I will! While disposables are so convenient, that’s simply not worth it. I’m motivated to make an effort to change.
  2. The production and transportation of disposable materials such as plastic and Styrofoam use tons of energy and fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, global conflict, air and water pollution, along with 
  3. disposablesThe obvious end result of waste. Paper products use trees, which we really need right now to foster habitats and sequester carbon from the atmosphere to combat global climate change. The production stage is almost as bad as the discard stage.
  4. Even recycling is not a perfect system. It uses a lot of energy and produces pollution, which often negatively affects disadvantaged populations. I still remember the first time I learned about the ways in which electronic recycling is causing high levels of cancer and making vital bodies of water undrinkable in poor countries. This has since continued to motivate my decisions having been so shocked at how much destruction could come from something that seemed so benevolent as recycling. You should still recycle when possible, but know that it is not a blanket solution and that avoiding disposables is so much better for the environment than recycling. As the order goes- reduce, then reuse, then recycle!
  5. Maybe we would benefit along with the environment from slowing down a little bit. There is certainly something to be said for the simplicity that comes along with reducing your waste. In an effort to not use disposables, I have almost completely eliminated my consumption of fast foods, which are conveniently also terrible for your health even if they didn’t come in a paper bag. I find that vegetables and whole foods are often in less packaging, and have truly gained an appreciation for cooking from scratch. It forces me to slow down and appreciate the food both for where it came from and the nutrition the meal offers me.


So how can this all fit into the lifestyles that demand so much of us? Sustainability is the practice of doing something that can be continued long term, so in your effort to reduce your negative impact on the environment and adjust your lifestyle, it’s important to create systems that will work for you long term. Don’t get on a crash-diet away from disposables- I recommend making changes as you feel they will work for you. A great place to start is your vehicle. We are in our vehicles when we are on the go, and that is when we often end up desperate for things that come in styrofoam boxes and plastic cups, so packing a reusable emergency kit can be incredibly helpful. Here are some things you can include:

-A few reusable bags. One of the bags can hold the rest of these items.

-A water bottle/reusable cup

-A coffee mug

-A collapsible food container

-A fork, knife, and spoon

-A handkerchief

-A few zip-lock bags


This is what I use, but certainly find what works for you. Remembering to bring these items can seem difficult at first, but it is simply a matter of habit. You have to remember your keys and sunglasses before you leave the house, and this is a similar type of planning ahead! Also, don’t feel embarrassed to take your container into a restaurant. I felt so silly at first, but have had so many people comment on what a good idea it is! All of these items hold up better than the disposables anyway. The last time I got a styrofoam to-go container, my leftover Indian food spilled all over my car when I had to slam on my breaks…bad karma for using styrofoam, I suppose!


There are several other innovative tricks you can use, such as reusable beeswax “plastic” wrap, shopping in the bulk section with reusable bags (I do this at Hy-Vee), and reusing bread bags and plastic cottage cheese containers to store leftovers at home. These are just a few. Find what will challenge you but still be doable, and continue to make new steps whenever you are comfortable. When you do have the option to choose, I would recommend using recyclable plastic because styrofoam is not recyclable in our area as well as many parts of the country and paper cannot be recycled if it has food on it-many people don’t know this!


For me personally, I value relationships and reducing food waste more than the avoidance of disposables, so if I have the chance to connect with a friend or loved one but didn’t bring a container and can’t eat all of my food, yes-I will take a to go box! But I truly try to avoid this by planning ahead, and am also in my journey of finding balance. Remember, taking a step to help the environment may not seem significant in comparison to how much waste is being produced, but it really does add up, especially once it becomes part of your lifestyle. It’s worth the effort. Feel proud of the progress you’ve made and honor the intention to make new changes, whatever that may look like.


Rebecca Elder

Americorps member for the Green Thumb Project and Truman State University Sustainability Coordinator

Photograph credit to Unsplash – Brooke Lark & Hermes Rivera