What to do with old plastic when you’re new to zero waste

The scenario: you’ve decided to change your relationship with plastic. Whether you’re cutting out the single-use plastic, choosing to refuse all the plastic you can, or full-on going zero waste, chances are, you already have plenty of plastic in your home.

(I call this plastic ‘legacy plastic’. The stuff you accumulated before you knew any better or gave much thought to where things end up once we are done with them.)

So… what do we do with all this plastic?

I rarely think there is one answer to these questions. As with most things, it depends – on what it is, what it does (even where you live). Here’s a guide to dealing with legacy plastic.

First of all, do nothing

Don’t follow any decision to cut out plastic or go zero waste by immediately throwing every single piece of plastic you own in the bin. Don’t give it all away yet, either.

When we decide to make a lifestyle change, we want to take action immediately – but chucking stuff out is not the action to take (at least not yet).

Instead, you’re better off just noticing what plastic you have in your home, and how you use it. Paying attention to your current habits might not feel as action-oriented as dramatically discarding stuff, but it’s more useful in the long run.

This way, you’ll notice which things you still need and use, and which things are probably ready to be passed on to new owners.

What to do with single-use disposable plastic

Look at all the single-use plastic you’re currently using in your home. (If you find it helpful, make a list to keep track.) This is anything you’re using once before it gets thrown away or recycled.

Some of this will be packaging with products inside: coffee pods, sachets of sauce, shampoo or moisturiser, potato chips/crisps wrappers.

Some of this will simply be single-use plastic: bin liners, gladwrap/clingfilm, plastic straws, zip lock bags, disposable dish cloths.

With the products, you can start to look for alternatives for future purchases that don’t come in packaging. In the meantime, decide whether you’d like to use these products up, or whether you’d prefer to donate them.

When I decided to reduce my plastic use, I used up all the food that I had in plastic packaging because it was ingredients and products I had purchased for eating. It also meant I could slowly replace items and look for alternatives as things ran out, one at a time, rather than trying to do it all at once.

In my bathroom, I had a box full of sachets and free samples I’d collected over the years that I really couldn’t see myself using. I gave these away (I’d recommend Facebook Marketplace, the Buy Nothing project, Freecycle or Freegle to find a new home for these types of things).

With the non-product single-use plastic, the same choice applies – would you prefer to use it up, or give it away?

Deciding to reduce your plastic use and using up what you already have are not contradictory. There’s absolutely no need to feel guilty about continuing to use plastic after you’ve made the decision to use less. You’ll have plenty of future shopping decisions where you can make better choices.

If you feel weird about using plastic now that you’ve decided to give up plastic, there’s no harm in giving things away.

Rather than seeing yourself as an enabler of someone else’s bad plastic habit, think of it as reducing plastic – because if they are going to buy it anyway, better to use up yours than buy a brand new one.

Also, see it as the chance to plant a seed. When you gift the item you can tell them why you’ve made this choice (no need to be judgemental, simply say something like ‘I’ve decided to reduce my plastic use, and I’m choosing to stop using gladwrap now’). It might spark a conversation, and it might not, but explaining your ‘why’ to people can help people join the dots and think about your actions.

What to do with reusable plastic

You’ve probably got various reusable plastic containers, and other household items made out of plastic: hairbrushes, laundry baskets, coat hangers, even furniture.

It is incredibly expensive (not to mention, wasteful!) to ditch all the plastic for non-plastic equivalents. The best option (from a waste standpoint) is to continue using what you have.

But what if you don’t want to continue using what you have?

Firstly, ask yourself why.

Is it because you’ve been reading about the chemical additives in plastic, and you no longer want to store food in it from a health perspective?

Or is it because you think glass storage jars will make for much better Pinterest photos?

It’s your zero waste life and you can do whatever you like to make it work for you. But the fundamental truth is that it is more eco-friendly to use existing resources than buy new ones.

I’m not telling you to keep stuff you won’t use, or telling you that replacing stuff is wrong. But if we don’t want stuff, we can pass it on to others so that they can use it.

And we can try to find our replacements second-hand, to reduce the impact of our ‘new’ stuff.

  • If you no longer want to use something for its original purpose (for example, plastic containers for food storage) ask yourself if you can repurpose within your home. Perhaps they can be used to store non-food items such as laundry powder, or sewing supplies, or stationery.
  • If you don’t have a use for something, find someone who does. Try online classifieds like Gumtree or Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace or other social media platforms.
  • If something is in good condition, you could try donating to the charity shop/second-hand store – but check that this is an item they actually take before you pop it in a collection box.
  • If you’re looking for something to replace it, try those same places you offloaded the stuff you didn’t want: online classifieds, social media platforms and charity shops or second-hand stores. You might not be successful, but it’s important to try.

What to do with broken plastic

One of the major design flaws with this ‘material that lasts forever’ is that it also tends to break. It becomes brittle over time, bits snap off other bits, and eventually it ends up being irreparable.

If you’re truly committed to reducing your waste, the first thing to do is see if the item is fixable. If only a small part is broken, better to try and fix it and keep it in use rather than toss the whole item.

If something isn’t repairable and is most definitely broken, you have a few options.

Can it be reused? You’d be amazed what people can do with broken stuff. From growing mushrooms out of broken laundry baskets, to turning old electrical appliances into lamps, to salvaging parts, your broken items might still have value to someone else.

List your items on the sites mentioned above, being clear about the fact they are broken, and see if anyone is interested. You never know.

Can it be recycled? First, check if your item can go in kerbside recycling (if you have this service).

Next, check all of your other local recycling options.

(Australia) Recycle Near You – a website run by Planet Ark (a not-for-profit environmental organisation), which allows anyone to search for what can and can’t be recycled in their household recycling services, as well as search for drop-off locations to recycle a wide range of items including electronic waste, batteries, printer cartridges, white goods, furniture and more.

(UK) Recycle Now – operated by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRP) with information on where and how to recycle in England, with links to sister sites Recycle for Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Recycle for Wales.

(USA) Earth911 – one of North America’s most extensive recycling databases, with over 350 materials and 100,0000 listings included.

Can I go zero waste and throw my old plastic away?

The goal of zero waste is to keep things out of landfill, so throwing everything away to go zero waste isn’t zero waste. But the reality is, *some* plastic will probably end up in the bin.

If you’ve exhausted the other options – it’s not reusable or repairable, no-one else is willing to take it off your hands and it’s definitely not recyclable, then there really isn’t much choice but to throw it away.

Waste is a product of our current system, and it’s not something we can completely avoid.

(I mean, you could store it in a jam jar for prosperity so you don’t throw it in the bin, but really, it’s still waste – and hanging on to stuff like this tends to keep us feeling guilty. Let it go.)

Don’t feel bad about having to toss stuff you acquired when you really had no idea about the problems with plastic, and before you had any knowledge about what is and isn’t recycable where you live.

The thing about deciding to go zero waste, or reduce your plastic use, is that it’s a decision made now to guide your actions and choices in the future. But of course we made less-than-ideal choices in the past. Sure we have to deal with these, but it’s not a reason to feel guilty.

As tempting as it might be to toss all our bad decisions away and start with a clean slate, the real challenge of the low waste lifestyle is making the most of resources – by keeping products in circulation and in use.

When it comes to legacy plastic, if we are trying to reduce our waste footprint, we have a responsibility not to add to the landfill problem if it can be avoided. It’s not always easy and we won’t be perfect. But all the things we can continue to use, gift to others if we know we won’t use them, repurpose, repair and eventually recycle, help keep new resources in the ground.

Try your best, and do what you can.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Struggling with legacy plastic and wondering what to do with it? Got some great tips for passing on unwanted plastic to people who need and will use it? Any plastic dilemmas or lessons learned you’d like to share? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

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15 replies
  1. nofixedstars
    nofixedstars says:

    i definitely recognised myself in the “i want to replace all this plastic stuff with prettier, natural versions because aesthetics”…i’m not one to post photos of my things, but i really thought the plastic things i own were hideous compared to other options. i didn’t end up doing it, though, because that seemed…well…wasteful!

    and in truth, there are a few plastic things i kept that simply work well—for example, my old plastic bins for flours and such. they are air-tight, thus bug-proof and spoilage-resistant, and even when full they are relatively light to handle. stainless steel with sealing lids would answer the first concerns, but be a bit heavier for me (this matters because i have a back injury and also fibromyalgia and RA). and i can see at a glance what’s in the ugly plastic bins, too. likewise, i kept a box full of plastic takeaway containers, and have used them to send people home with leftovers, and to organise random objects in cabinets, and to freeze the odd batch of berries or breadcrumbs. and we still have my set of melamine picnic plates, and a few plastic bowls with lids, because they save weight in the basket (gotta allow for wine bottles!)…

    we already had bento boxes and reusable coffee cups and water bottles, and i have been fighting most disposable stuff for many years. i make my own cleaners and cosmetic stuff, and keep the former in reused spray bottles and the latter in pretty vintage glass containers. we do keep a couple of rolls of paper towels at hand for clearing up cat messes. and my husband balked at doing without the bin liners—that was a bridge too far for him, so we still have those. but we produce very little trash, so the box of them lasts a long, long time. basically the only disposables we have now are the paper towelling and loo paper, and the only ‘new’ plastics we bring in are the bin liners (sigh) and occasional supplement/medicine bottles and a few unavoidable food items or ingredients in plastic packaging.

    under-funded day-care facilities often are happy to have plastic/melamine dishes, and things like plastic blocks or stacking cups, etc that well-meaning people will give children even when parents have requested only books or wooden/cloth toys.

    of course, right now, the covid 19 protocols are making it impossible to refuse plastics/disposables in shops, and donations aren’t being accepted at many places. even our farmers market has a no reusable bags policy in place for now, so i just have them drop the produce loose into my market baskets and sort it out at home later.

    it’s about progress, not perfection, ultimately. :)

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this :) It’s so interesting to hear about the ways we all manage the waste in our lives differently. For me, apathy helps with the ugly plastic – I don’t like it, but I dislike shopping more and know replacing it with shiny stuff is ultimately a waste of resources, so the energy required to actually do the ‘swapping’ puts me off. And I try not to order online because of the packaging, so buying stuff is definitely an ordeal ;)

      We have been fairly fortunate in Perth that we never had community transmission of Covid-19, and so a lot of the restrictions that you and others are facing have not really been an issue here. The thing we have to hold on to with this covid-related stuff is that it won’t be forever. I love your solution to the plastic bags – it always feel good to figure out ways to ‘get around’ the system!

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      You most definitely can Marita. By no means a perfect option, but if you prefer to avoid plastic made from fossil fuels and aren’t ready to ditch the liners completely, compostable liners can be an alternative. (It’s just worth pointing out that nothing composts in landfill, and that buying something made of new resources with the sole purpose of putting it in the bin isn’t the most eco-friendly option – but like all things, there’s a sliding scale of worst to best.)

  2. Noni
    Noni says:

    Plastic bin liners can trap air and heat in bins increasing odours. Try lining the bottom of the inside and outside waste bins with all the different types of paper or cardboard you might get, such as newspaper (if still getting local paper), old magazines, paper from fish & chips, pizza boxes and torn gift wrapping paper.
    For my organic food waste that can’t go in a worm farm, compost or be fed to chickens I store it in a paper lined section in the freezer and put in the waste bin the night before collection.

  3. Melanie Hawkes
    Melanie Hawkes says:

    I love my plastic containers, but you are right about them breaking. A lady in my BNP group recently set up travelling bags of odd pieces of plastic containers, sorted into different brands. I had the Decor bag last weekend, and found some lids to replace my broken ones! She has started a register of people’s missing pieces and will let us know if she finds any!

  4. beccadickson
    beccadickson says:

    It’s so much about what you can do from where you are isn’t it. I thought I had plastic sorted, with fruit and veg from the local farm shop, going to supermarkets with my containers in hand for meat and fish, and bulk buying in the nearest bulk store from me (20 miles away…) when I was in that area. Then comes Covid, and being in the vulnerable category we can’t shop out any more…so you make the best with what you can. We now get online food deliveries with the company that at least doesn’t supply in plastic bags, I’ve found a veg stall that’s outside round the corner that I can use for fruit, veg, and milk in glass bottles, but I’m having to put up with the meat and fish coming in their standard plastic wrapping (dh would def not go veggie!) On the plus side though, we’re not going anywhere so we’re not buying on impulse, and I’ve been working from home for the last 6 months, likely to continue forever, so I’m guessing that the planetary savings coming from only now getting in the car once or twice a week outweighs the cost of the additional plastic wrap. Oh and legacy plastic, I put the pintrest worthy glass jars out on display and keep the old but still useful plastic in a cupboard!!

  5. Peg Oetjen
    Peg Oetjen says:

    Thanks for this, Lindsay. Have been working at it for a while but still found useful tips and a few reasons to feel less guilty!
    I needed that! The trash bin liners are the biggest challenge (no longer newspapers, I never purchase “food to go” and I haven’t seen anyhing but gift bags – most “plasticized” – in years). And I know that some of the “biodegradable” bags really aren’t and can still choke birds, etc. It’s a challenge, for sure. I love your balance of realism and activism!


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