The tricks I used to change my plastic habits

When I made the decision to sign up for Plastic Free July in 2013, it was a challenge. Saying no to single use plastic was SO hard. The difficulty was not in the lack of options to replace my single use plastic habits. The challenge was in the changing of my habits. 

Pre 2013, I was used to never thinking about my purchases. If I was thirsty, and forgot my refillable bottle, i'd buy a plastic packaged water bottle from the store. If I was shopping for groceries, I'd use the plastic bags the store offered me. If I was wanting a snack, I'd buy one pre packaged, ready for me. No thought, only convenient consumption.

There are plenty of replacements for all these plastic items. In fact, these replacements existed well before plastic came along. My reusable water bottle, replaced my need for buying packaged plastic water bottles. I have cloth bags that now replace the plastic bags when I shop. And snacks are now collected in reusable containers or reusable cloth snack bags. The solutions are there. What I needed was a way to remember these solution.

Getting into a new habit of remembering, was the bridge I needed to cross.

According to James Clear, writer on behavioural psychology and habit formation, every habit we have follows a pattern known as the 3 R's of habit change. These are Reminder, Routine and Reward.

The reward for me was using less plastic. The tools to start the routine were readably available. It was the reminder, the first step in the pattern, that needed the most work.

Below are some of the tricks I used to change my plastic habits

Electronic reminders
Most people have smart phones these days or some kind of device that will send electronic reminders. I used my calender on my phone or my email calender, setting up events with phrases like:

“don't forget your water bottle”
“write your shopping list tonight, put bags at front door”
“put your reusable bags into your handbag”
“say no to plastic bags”
"don't get a straw in your drink at the pub tonight"
"sit in and enjoy your hot chocolate"

The tricks I used to change my plastic habits
Putting reminders into my secondhand phone. Photo by Anthony Strong.
My phone would beep throughout the day. When I received one reminder, I would put one in for the next day. The constant repetition of reminders worked well. After a month, the reminders had become so engrained that I expected them, and so I began consciously asking myself if I had my water bottle before I left the house or if I had a cloth bag with me.

Visual reminders 
I would hang my cloth bag on the front door. Did I forget from time to time? You betcha. But seeing it there and rehanging the bag each time, became a visual reminder that, like the phone reminders, I expected it to be there.

The tricks I used to change my plastic habits

The tricks I used to change my plastic habits
Photo by Anthony Strong
I also stuck notes on my handbag, the fridge and anywhere that I passed by often during the week. I even had one in my wallet.

It might be daggy or cumbersome to put notes about the house or into your phone. But it's not forever. As each day moved along, the reminders helped to action new habits, that did eventually stick to become a new normal.

How did you remember to bring your reusable bottles or bags? Is changing habits as big of a hurdle for you?


  1. Setting up the home environment/work office to include smartly placed, visual reminders is vital to incorporating a new habit successfully.

    Before establishing the habit of bringing my own reusables to anywhere I visit (restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, etc.), I would sit down and write out on paper what I should bring to avoid waste as I progress through my day in sequence. Making myself write out all the containers/utensils/bags I will need from the start helped me avoid making waste as much as possible. I'll also include eco-actions that I would like to take/say at wherever I'll be to avoid the usual takeaway items or freebies. I try to imagine ahead of time what I may encounter and prefer to over-prepare than otherwise. Before I leave home, I'll run through this sheet of paper to arm myself physically and mentally beforehand so I don't forget what I wish to accomplish.

    Hubby and I tend to frequent the same places so we have a "notesheet" for each of these places. They're all clipped together in a neat bundle and past the initial investment of time, we love how much easier it is to just reference these notesheets before an outing than to rake our brains in remembering what happened during our last visit and what we need to bring/do. We'll also do a reflection upon our return and add in any improvement tips and ideas for our next trip to those destinations. Writing lists has always been a habit of mine so it wasn't foreign to me to do the same for waste-free or low-waste outing preparation.

    Linking a new habit to an existing, old habit helps tremendously in setting up a new habit. I used to forget bringing my small hand towel with me to the restroom at work till I've just washed my hands and about to grab some paper towels (at which point I'll get a tad annoyed at how forgetful I am), until I learned to place the said towel right next to my computer monitor and not inside somewhere hidden. Seeing the hand towel right in front of me during most of my work hours reminded me to take it with me whenever nature called. I simply fold it into a neat square and place it back next to the monitor afterwards.

    1. Hi Natalie, thanks for sharing your tips. I liked the idea of having a notes page for each place you visit, that is handy. Like you, we also have a chat about ways we can improve on doing something but i think creating a purposeful list will help us out more. I agree about the linking anew habit to an exisiting one. It only take a couple turns for it to become integrated.

  2. These are all very good ideas! I don't remember how I got addicted to my water bottle or cloth bags, but I do still struggle with remembering my glass jars on visits to the butcher. I'll try your ideas! Thanks!

  3. Reminders are key! I would always forget my reusable grocery bags at home. So I decided to move them to the trunk of my car, but then I would forget to put them back there after I used them. It seemed like I hardly ever had them when I needed them. Now that I found a bag that I can just keep in my purse I always have one. So I'd maybe add, if something isn't sticking don't be afraid to find a product that works best for you! You can read about my reusable bag journey here:

    1. That is great advice :) Thanks for sharing

  4. Anonymous5/16/2016

    Hi Erin. I just discovered your blog. I am rather new to the zero-waste lifestyle I was wondering if there was a need to remove all my plastics at home and buy more glass/stainless steel utensils and products or is it ok to continue using plastic (I won't buy more)?

    1. Hi and welcome :) I have not removed all plastics from my home. I did start going down that path, then promptly stooped when i realised that I'm just burdening someone else with this and creating waste. Resources went into making the plastic and tossing it does not respect the effort that went into making it. If you feel happy, keep using the plastic. To me, going plastic free means not buying NEW plastic. Feel free to drop me an email if you need to.

  5. I put my reusable bags on the doorhandle as soon as I unload them and then take them out to my car next trip out the door.

    I also invested in reusable NICE water bottles--ones we actually LIKE to carry--and reusable stainless still cups with lids and stainless still straws for cold drinks, water or otherwise. I had hot drink mugs, but somehow lost one in a recent move and cracked the other one so I do need to replace those.

    I also just got "Bees Wrap" to try in place of plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and other disposable food coverings. So far I like it. It has a strong honey odor, but the odor hasn't transfered to food, even when it was touching the food so I will keep using it.

    I have a ways to go, but feel like I make a little more progress is being plastic free and disposables free more and more every month.

    1. It sounds like you have made some big changes. I hope you are patting yourself on your back for all that you have achieved :)

  6. I thought your system of reminders were fantastic! It is a big hurdle to go from caring and being conscious to actually changing your habits. Thanks for the great tips!


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