A 700 pound bale of recycled plastic bottles is extruded from a machine at the Clynk recycling facility in South Portland in this 2016 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Cutting back on plastic can help reduce the amount that piles up in landfills — or worse, fragile natural ecosystems. By taking simple steps, like refusing plastic bags while grocery shopping or carrying reusable straws, people can reduce their plastic use.

However, these small daily contributions can only go so far. Changing your habits, consistently making waste-conscious purchasing decisions and advocating for policy solutions will help make reductions in plastic waste more sustainable.

Here’s how you can start encouraging long-term changes in plastic use in your life, community and beyond — even during a pandemic.

Consistently use your reusable items

For reusable items like reusable shopping bags and stainless steel straws, the environmental benefits only outweigh the energy and resources cost of making them if they are used consistently.

Buying reusable items used instead of new can also help. But it’s how much the items are used that’s really key to making them environmentally worthwhile.

“Reusable items actually take up a lot more energy to produce than the plastic itself [and] if that energy is coming from fossil fuels, then you haven’t done the environment any favors,” said Daniel Dixon, director of the Office of Sustainability and research assistant professor of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine in Orono. “People have to be very, very careful with their reusable items and use them much more carefully to get more life out of them.”

Dixon added that though the lifecycle analyses of reusable products can get contentious, there is no doubt that removing single-use plastic from the waste stream helps cut back on pollution that harms wildlife, particularly in the oceans.

“To reduce the plastic that’s flowing around as trash in the ocean, there’s no argument to be had there,” Dixon said. “We have to stop using plastic, period. It’s a scourge on the environment and it’s going to end up poisoning us all. I think from that point of view reusable items do make sense. Energy-wise, not so much.”

Look for conscious packaging — or no packaging at all

When you are shopping, look for items packaged in recycled materials, post-consumer packaging or plant-based plastic.

“It’s not necessarily going to drive single-use plastics in the short term, but buying things that are made from post-consumer materials signals to manufacturers in the long run,” said Matt Grondin, communications manager at ecomaine, a Portland-based nonprofit waste management organization.

Better yet, avoid packaging altogether. Grondin also suggested buying whole, fresh ingredients and learning how to prepare your favorite packaged products or meals.

“You have a meal that’s pre-prepared [uses] more packaging than if you’re just buying the ingredients,” Grondin said. “Shopping for ingredients that aren’t processed or prepared usually saves on waste as well.”

Chat with local businesses about plastic use

The pandemic has more customers ordering take out than usual. When you are ordering, state Rep. Nicole Grohoski suggested having a quick conversation with the business about the benefits of asking customers before they add disposable items to the takeout bag.

“It’s positive for business and positive for waste management,” Grohoski said. “It can add up, and every penny counts right now for businesses. Some businesses have online ordering that lets you be specific right down to every item — do you need plastic silverware, do you need hand wipes, do you need an extra package of sauce?”

Advocate for policy change

Though individual actions and changes in habits are helpful, the real change in waste management will come changes in policy.

“It’s obviously important for people to do what they can, but a lot of it is out of their control and it’s not their fault,” said Sarah Nichols, director of the Sustainable Maine project at the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Advocating for better solid waste management policy at the local and state government level is one way to ensure sustainable change in your community.

“If a community doesn’t have a recycling or solid waste community, getting involved or starting one there is a very good way to act on this at the very local level,” Grondin suggested.

The pandemic has put legislative actions on hold in Maine, but Grondin and Nichols suggested contacting state representatives and encouraging them to support bills like LD 2104, which incentivizes manufacturers to make their packaging out of materials that are more easily recyclable, and LD 988, which would disincentivize landfilling and incentivize recycling, when things are back up and running.

“At some point we will be voting on this, it just depends when we come back together,” Grohoski said. “One thing that a really interested citizen could do is ask their community to send a letter of support either through their select board or city council.”

Nichols said that the items are not guaranteed to be on the legislative agenda for a special session unless constituents speak up. For LD 2104, Nichols noted that the council has an online petition that Mainers can sign as well.

“When the Legislature came to an abrupt end so did some of our legislative efforts, which has been a real bummer,” Nichols said. “A lot of municipalities were waiting on that bill to see if they would keep their recycling programs. That’s the biggest missed opportunity, [but] this bill isn’t technically dead yet.”