The Real Mom's Guide to Reducing Plastic Pollution

Kids know that bottles, bags, and straws are polluting oceans and clogging landfills. So your child will be on board with this four-week plan to reduce your plastic use, one small change at a time.
Jeffrey Westbrook

Last January, Teresa Walters’s and Mary Strong’s families began challenging each other to monthly weigh-ins. But they weren’t stepping on the scale. The sisters, their spouses, and their five kids—ages 3 to 12—had made a New Year’s resolution to cut back on plastic waste and give bragging rights to the family who made the most progress.

“The kids, even the youngest, are so into it,” says Walters. “Each time we have to discard an item in the plastics bin, there is a collective groan.”

Truly, you won’t be nagging the kids to stick with the plan. “My kids asked me if our family could stop using plastic straws,” says Bethany Mulder, of Holland, Michigan. “I will admit that I had the hardest time with the change—it was easy for them!”

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Mulder’s kids learned at school that simple shifts help prevent plastic from piling up in landfills and, even worse, polluting oceans where it’s swallowed by sea turtles and other beloved marine creatures. “Reducing plastic waste is the perfect environmental issue for kids,” says Allyson Shaw, an editor at National Geographic Kids. “Unlike climate change or animal poaching, it’s something they have some control over.”

Let’s get started!

Week 1: Drinks

We have simple solutions to cut back on straws and disposable bottles—two top sources of drink-related plastic waste.

Action: Buy Less Bottled Water

You and the kids probably have your own refillable bottles (or four!), but bottled-water use is still on the rise. Figure out why you keep buying bottled, and use our solutions.

You left the house without your bottles. Stash a set of empty bottles in the trunk so you can fill up at your destination. Most restaurants offer free water at fountains or will fill up your bottle if you ask.

Your filtered water pitcher is always empty, and the tap water sucks. Buy reusable bottles with a filter inside, like those from Brita. They’ll also be useful when you have to refill at a water fountain. Put kids in charge of refilling the water pitcher when they get home from school.

The water in your bottles gets too warm—and your kids won’t drink it. Freeze bottles before filling so they’ll stay cold longer. Make sure the next bottle you buy is insulated. 

RELATED10 Best Reusable Water Bottles for the Whole Family

Action: Instead of Plastic Straws, Try These

We rounded up kids to sip drinks from eight brands of plastic alternatives; three won hands down. Check out the best reusable straws here.

Week 2: The Lunch Box

School lunch generates a lot of plastic waste because of all the single-use packaging, says Debby Lee Cohen, executive director of Cafeteria Culture, an environmental-education group in New York City. Youʼve already tackled the drinks, so now you can focus on the food.

RELATED4 Reusable Lunch Containers to Use Instead of Plastic

Action: Portion Together

Individual bags of snacks and sides are convenient, but they generate a lot of plastic waste. “We buy a regular-size package of snacks, and the kids help put them in containers at night,” says Aubrey Young, a mom of two in Kansas City, Missouri.

For the single-serve bags that you can’t do without? “My kids, ages 5 and 10, put the trash in their lunch box and recycle it at home,” says Sharon Freeman, of Queens, New York.

Action: Pack a Fork!

Many school cafeterias serve lunch with disposable plastic utensils that are wrapped in more plastic. Last year, kindergartners through fifth-graders at PS 15 in Brooklyn, New York, brought forks from home for Plastic-Free Lunch Day.

Week 3: Eating Out

You’ve made a lot of changes in two weeks, so take this week to catch your breath. Your new goal: Zero in on how you can use less plastic when eating out or getting meals to go.

RELATEDThe ABCs of Being Green

Action: Be as Green at Restaurants as You Are at Home

Request your to-go order minus the plastic. They’re usually added automatically, but you can skip these if you’re eating at home. “We tell the person at the fast-food window that we don’t need straws, and we’re saving five each time,” says Mulder. “If we do that just once a week, that’s 260 fewer straws used in a year!”

Use less plastic when you dine in. Wanless takes her fam’s metal straws to fast-food restaurants; she also sometimes pops a metal container or Bee’s Wrap in her bag for leftovers! If you can go without it, don’t put a plastic lid on your fountain-drink cup.

Order the cone. “If you take the kids for ice cream, let them get a cone rather than a cup with a plastic spoon,” suggests Shaw.

Find the recycling. When it’s time to clear the table, have the kids sort out what can be recycled, says Walters.

Week 4: The Supermarket

Gradually adjust your shopping list to cut down on packaging. The trick is figuring out when convenience is essential (would you never make a salad if you didn’t buy bagged lettuce?) versus nice to have (could you live with loose potatoes instead of bagged?

Action: Remember Reusable Bags

It takes an estimated ten to 20 years for a plastic bag to degrade. “Our kids always remind me to take our bags to the grocery store,” says Freeman. Stash a couple of extras in your trunk for days when you shop solo.

Action: Buy More Loose Items

Fruits and veggies are sold loose, so just pop them into your own bag rather than taking the plastic one in the produce section. You can also find loose rolls, bagels, and cookies at the grocery-store bakery.

Action: Shop the Bulk-Bin Area

This store section is awesome for buying nuts, whole-grain cereals, grains, dry beans, and even spices, says Koskinen. See whether your supermarket will let you fill containers you bring from home rather than using a plastic bag; many do.

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