Waste bin full of single-use plastic trash

In the 20-teens, the plastic-free lifestyle was getting almost as much attention as the Whip Nae Nae. But blogs and articles featuring smiling urbanites with tiny jars containing a year’s worth of plastic waste seem to have disappeared. Was plastic-free just another pop culture fad? Did plastic win? Whatever happened to plastic-free?

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Plastic Pollution

Unlike many trends from the decade that left no lasting impression, plastic-free living was an attempt to do something important. Plastic is a key player in two of the biggest environmental crises facing the world today: climate change and global pollution. Plastic is responsible for between 4% and 8% of global oil consumption. Plastics production in the U.S. generates 232 million metric tons of greenhouse gases every year. Plastic products are often used only once and then discarded. Plastics incineration in the U.S. accounts for 5.9 million metric tons of CO2-eq, primarily in areas near impoverished communities and communities of color. Outside of the U.S., plastic is often burned in the open, where it releases poisonous chemicals with a global warming potential 5,000 times higher than carbon.

Eight million tons of plastic makes its way to marine ecosystems each year, where it forms massive garbage gyres and wreaks environmental havoc. Plastic does not biodegrade, but sunlight and heat do cause it to release greenhouse gases as it breaks down into microscopic particles that enter the food chain and bioaccumulate. The average person ingests about 5 grams of microplastics per week (about as much plastic as a credit card) through food, water, and even the air we breathe. No one knows what the long-term impacts on human health will be from ingesting so much plastic.


Clearly, we need to work towards a post-plastic world. And in the teens, it seemed like people were starting to do it. Beth Terry is credited with starting the Plastic-Free movement. Inspired by a photo of a sea bird killed by eating plastic, Terry set out to eliminate her personal plastic use. She documented her progress on the blog, My Plastic Free Life. In 2012, she published the book Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too and updated it in 2015 – the same year she gave an interview to Earth911.

Cover of Plastic Free by Beth Terry

Unlike the fairly simple switch of sorting recycling, going plastic-free requires lifestyle changes both big and small. Even so, many serious environmentalists were inspired by Terry’s project and took on the challenge themselves. Earth911 profiled people living plastic-free in 2016; The New York Times published a story featuring several more in 2019. Like Terry, many of them kept blogs. But a search for “plastic free life” today brings up Terry’s website (which was last updated in 2019) and not much else. What happened?

Plastic-Free July

It may not be surprising that the movement didn’t gain widespread popularity. Despite some gains in plastic-free packaging, and even retailers specializing in plastic-free products, for many people, plastic-free living simply isn’t realistic. If you need to take medicine, your prescription will come in plastic; if you have children, you will inevitably accumulate some plastic toys.

But that doesn’t mean that people have given in to the ever-growing wave of plastic. Founded in 2011, the Plastic Free Foundation in Australia created the Plastic Free July challenge. As a month-long challenge that focuses on single-use plastics, Plastic Free July is more achievable than a total lifestyle change. Encouraging a good, better, best approach, the point of the challenge is not perfection but improvement. Because changes made for a month are likely to stick, completing a Plastic Free challenge is a good way to reduce your overall plastic waste year-round. Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters relates the history of the challenge and shares lessons from its success.

Cover of Plastic Free by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz

Zero Waste

But for environmentalists who are serious about eliminating plastic, there are still some resources. Plastic waste – especially the waste that ends up polluting waterways – is predominantly packaging waste. So efforts to eliminate plastic waste overlap almost perfectly with the Zero Waste movement. Zero Waste doesn’t necessarily mean “zero garbage.” But it does seek to eliminate the wastefulness that leads to large amounts of garbage – especially plastic waste.

Cover of Zero Waste by Shia Su

Today there are many websites like Zero Waste Memoirs and books like Shia Su’s Zero Waste: Simple Life Hacks to Drastically Reduce Your Trash that provide the same kind of personal journey stories combined with practical tips that plastic-free websites once did. Many of them refer to Kathryn Kellogg’s website Going Zero Waste and book 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste as their own inspiration.

Cover of 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste by Kathryn Kellogg

Whether you frame your goal as plastic-free or zero waste in the ‘20s really isn’t very important. What does matter is reducing your plastic consumption wherever you can. Start with simple changes like finding alternatives for the single-use plastics that you use the most.

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.