What You Can Do About The Overwhelming Problem of Plastic Packaging - Modern Farmer

What You Can Do About The Overwhelming Problem of Plastic Packaging

Both individual and collective action are key to stemming the tide of plastic waste. 

Photography by Shutterstock.

For most people on the planet, plastic has become inescapable. It’s also harmful to humans and the environment, exposing us to toxins, polluting ecosystems and entering our food, water and air through microplastics. Our explainer on Food’s Big, Plastic Problem digs into the problem. But what’s the solution?

Many people are eager to do their part, and individual actions, taken as a whole, can make a big difference. At the same time, it’s important to remember that individual responsibility alone cannot solve the plastic crisis. Government regulation that holds manufacturers and polluters responsible is key to addressing the issue. 

So, what can you do? 

Recycle right

Recycling won’t stop the tide of new plastic being produced, but it can make a dent in how much virgin plastic goes straight into the landfill. Make sure you’re up to speed on which items are recyclable in your area, and keep in mind that your waste doesn’t disappear into thin air the moment it goes into the bin. 

“Human hands touch everything,” says Logan Harvey, senior general manager of Recology Sonoma Marin, which recently debuted a new recycling facility in Santa Rosa, CA. Despite employing a plethora of the newest technology to sort mixed recycling, human sorters manually review all the materials, sometimes dealing with non-recyclable items that range from head-scratching (an elliptical machine) to disgusting (used diapers) to downright dangerous (hypodermic needles). Recycling guidelines aren’t merely abstract recommendations; rinse and dry items and pay attention to your municipal guidelines.

Reduce, reuse and refill

You’ve heard it before, now hear it again: Reducing consumption of plastic and learning to reuse items before or instead of throwing them away are among the most important things you can do at the individual level. 

“It’s really the reuse, refill models that are most effective,” says Erica Cirino, communications manager for the advocacy group Plastic Pollution Coalition and author of Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis. “There are more and more refill shops, which are basically markets where you can get food and other home products, from washing machine powder to dish soap and toothpaste, without all the plastic packaging, by being able to fill up your own containers and bring them home.”

Reuse and refill map created by Plastic Free Future.

Short of that, Cirino advises looking for places where you can buy food that’s simply unwrapped, such as farmers markets and grocery stores that carry products loose or wrapped in paper. “Look for better options until more of these truly zero-waste shops can emerge,” she says. 

Get inspired 

Social media zero-waste influencers can perpetuate unrealistic standards for how little waste normal people with busy lives can realistically achieve. However, there are hundreds of clever ideas online to minimize waste or give items new life through repairing, crafting, decorating, gardening and reorganizing. To find ideas, search for keywords like “zero waste” and “plastic free” on your social media platform of choice to find accounts dedicated to creative ways to reduce and reuse. 

Join forces

As awareness of the plastic issue has grown, so have the ranks of nonprofit organizations dedicated to addressing the problem through education and action. Some, such as  the Surfrider Foundation, The 5 Gyres Institute and Plastic Oceans, are dedicated to ocean plastics; others, such as Break Free From Plastic and the Plastic Pollution Coalition, envision a global movement to stop plastic pollution. These types of organizations often have the most up-to-date information about campaigns and opportunities to act; they’ll also gladly accept monetary donations to support their work.

There may also be local groups and initiatives to get to know in your community, which can be the most immediate and actionable way to get involved. “Being active in your local policy-making efforts and being aware of what’s happening in your own community is the most important place to start,” says Cirino.

Support legislation

Local and state-level laws such as plastic straw and plastic bag bans have proliferated over the last decade. Such bans are largely effective, with some exceptions, but they are a piecemeal solution to a much larger problem. 

In Canada, a national ban on single-use plastics, instituted in 2021, was recently overturned, granting a win to plastics manufacturers. The federal government has since appealed the decision, and the ban remains in place while the appeal works its way through the courts this year. 

Although previous iterations haven’t had success, US lawmakers recently introduced sweeping legislation that would address the issue at the federal level. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2023 “is largely considered to be the most comprehensive attempt to address plastic pollution in US history,” says Cirino. “It’s not perfect, but it would better protect communities that are already harmed by plastic pollution, hopefully address recycling issues and also shift the burden of plastic pollution off of municipalities and taxpayers onto the actual producers of plastic pollution.”

To support the legislation, you can contact your congressperson and let them know what you think about the issue. You can also submit a form letter here.  

Educate yourself and others 

The issue of plastic waste can feel scary, complicated and overwhelming. There’s no simple solution, and no single person can solve it alone. Educating yourself, and sharing what you know with your friends and family is a great first step to raising awareness. 

There exist many books and documentaries on the issue of plastic waste. One of our staff picks is Wasteland: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future (2023). Written by journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis, the book tours readers through the history of waste and recycling and explores where our waste—from plastic and paper to food waste, sewage, nuclear waste and more—really ends up and what it means for our future. 


We want to know: What products, tactics and strategies are you using to cut down on your plastic waste? What resources are most helpful? Tell us in the comments—we’d like to publish a story with reader recommendations!

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L Moore
1 month ago

Kind of disappointed, I thought this article was going to have eco friendly packaging information for farmers to use for their products.

1 month ago

To help reduce the proliferation of plastic packaging, look for loose fruits and vegetables when purchasing food at grocery stores and farmers’ markets and decline plastic bags and other single-use plastics whenever possible. If the product you seek requires packaging, choose items presented in glass, paper, or metal. All three materials are readily recyclable. Studies estimate that 9 to 11 million tons of plastics enter our oceans yearly, negatively impacting fish, birds, dolphins, whales, and other animals. Scientists are increasingly finding microplastics in food, water, and air. Researchers project that plastics in our environment will double by 2030 and nearly… Read more »

Kristina Shula
1 month ago

I carry a couple of pieces of folded up foil and some metal cutlery in a zipper case in my purse or backpack. I can then avoid the plastic take out container and plastic fork and spoon etc. I also ask my server not to bring any straws or plastic to my table at all, PLEASE!

Greg Swob
1 month ago

I’ve never looked into trying to recycle bale wrap or twine. I’m guessing there would be too much feed debris mixed in for most recycling centers to take. Most recycle centers refuse plastic, if there is any food or other contamination.

1 month ago

We recently started using beeswax wraps in place of plastic wrap or plastic storage containers. There’s a learning curve, but it’s been a fun swap!

Jo Anne Gonnella
25 days ago

I only buy loose veggies, I make my own yogurt – no longer “recycling” plastic containers and will not buy clothing made from plastic materials. Also I only use my reusable grocery bags and have begun weaving grocery bags gathering plastic bags to be used as the weft in the weaving process.

1 month ago

To me the question is about CO2. I cannot simply say plastic bad, landfill bad. I wonder if the plastic to landfill path is the lowest overall CO2 generating path for food production and consumption. Plastics help us maximize the production of the land and fertilizer we use, and reduces the food we waste. All of this has an important carbon footprint and plastic helps us do it more efficiently. Plastic is made from natural gas which is then sequestered in a landfill as plastic. I wonder how efficient that process is relative to what it saves.