As you may know, the first Earth Day was 50 years ago.  The first event mobilized 20 million Americans (about 10% of the U.S. population at the time) to the streets to demand a better future for the only planet we have.  The first Earth Day is credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

Despite five decades of progress, we find ourselves facing a dire set of global environmental challenges hitting us simultaneously, from loss of biodiversity to climate change to plastic pollution.  We all need to really to take bold action to help our planet, and what better way to start your journey than on Earth Day?

Plastic pollution is one of our top environmental issues, and despite some positive efforts by governments, businesses, and citizens, we are losing the battle.  Plastic products such as plastic bottles, bags, cups, utensils, straws, etc., are everywhere – you’ll find them in stores, restaurants, homes, schools, and offices – but also in landfills and littered on our streets, across our parks, and in our lakes and oceans.  We are blessed to live in a region close to Lake Lanier, the Chattahoochee River, and several beautiful parks and trails, and with that comes the responsibility to protect what God created.

Scientists predict that at our current pace, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight.  If we want to reverse that trend, it’s up to us to demand reusable, recyclable, or biodegradable products and make strides to reduce our plastic consumption in our own lives.

With concerted effort by citizens, businesses, and governments, we can solve our plastic pollution problem.  There are some simple things you can do to reduce your plastic footprint.  And many of theses ideas come with discount codes of 5 to 50% on my website (www.hannah4change.org) so you can save money too.

Plastic bags are lightweight and easily escape trash bins and get caught in the wind.  Plastic bags are commonly not recycled in curbside recycling programs because they clog the machinery.  In the ocean, plastic bags are easily mistaken as a jellyfish and eaten by sea turtles, causing their death.  Instead of using plastic bags, take reusable bags to the store.  My favorite reusable bags come from ChicoBag, a California-based company.  If you take reusable bags to the store, businesses such as Target and Sprouts will give you money back for each bag you use.

Plastic straws are a widely used product – approximately 500 million straws are used daily in the US alone – and they cannot be recycled.  At restaurants, tell the server you don’t want a straw, or use alternatives such as paper, glass, or steel straws.  The paper straw company, Aardvark Straws, is a leading provider of alternative straws.  Simply Straws sells great glass straws, and the company FinalStraw sells collapsible metal straws that make it easy to carry anywhere.

Plastic bottles and cups are major polluters plus the plastic can leach chemicals into the drinks you are using them with.  As a solution, why don’t you take your own reusable bottle or cup for when you are on the go?  At restaurants, you can ask them to fill up your bottle or cup instead.  You can also take stainless steel drinking containers and thermoses in your backpack or purse from a company called Klean Kanteen.  If you really need a disposable water bottle, consider another favorite of mine, Boxed Water, a company which sells water in box cartons.

Paper coffee cups have a plastic lining on the inside to make them heat and leak-proof, but this mixed material makes it nearly impossible to recycle.  A better idea is to bring your own coffee cup or Klean Kanteen thermos to cafes (many places also give you money back for bringing in your own cup).

Plastic utensils easily puncture trash bags and end up in the ocean.  More than 100 million plastic utensils are used by Americans every day and unfortunately they can take up to 1,000 years to decompose.  As a solution, keep metal utensils in your car or backpack or you can buy a pack of reusable bamboo utensils to carry around with you.  A leading provider of sustainable utensils is from the company Life Without Plastic.

Polystyrene foam, also called Styrofoam, is a type of plastic, and is so lightweight that it easily makes its way to our rivers, lakes and oceans.  Styrofoam bits are also a challenge to clean up because of their small size.  Did you know Styrofoam is one of the most toxic plastics known to humans and we are using it directly with the food we eat!?  You can leave a set of reusable containers in your car for when needed to refuse styrofoam, or ask restaurants for aluminum foil or other alternatives.

Plastic food wrap and sandwich bags are very common for packaging food and storing leftovers.  For a family of four, these single-use plastics can add up quickly, especially if you use them every day when packing a lunch for work or school.  Use butcher, waxed, or parchment paper wherever possible instead of plastic wrap.  There are also reusable containers, bees-wax wraps and reusable pouches to store food in which can be cleaned to use again and again.  Consider using alternative products from the companies ECOlunchbox and Bee’s Wrap.

Toothbrushes are made of plastic and are a common item found on beach cleanups.  Refuse plastic toothbrushes and instead, consider buying from companies such as Wowe Lifestyle that sell bamboo toothbrushes that are better for the Earth.

Laundry detergents typically use a lot of plastic packaging.  One suggestion is to try to buy concentrated detergent to reduce the quantity of packaging you use.  My favorite detergent is sold by a company called Happi Earth, which makes 100% organic, natural laundry cleaner with a simple pouch that contains almost no plastic material.  One purchase should last about a year (400 washes) and each because the detergent is highly concentrated, each load will only cost about 25 cents, so you can save money while saving the earth.

Cigarettes are considered the most littered item on earth.  Trillions of cigarette butts (which contain plastic) are tossed into the environment annually, where they leach toxins into the earth.  You’ll see them all over the side of the road and they are a challenge to pickup.  The practical solutions here are obvious – refuse to use cigarettes or properly dispose of them.  Terrracycle also will take your butts and turn them into new products.

As you can see, there are plenty of eco-friendly ideas you can implement in your daily lives.  These ideas don’t cost much, protect animals and the environment, preserve the beauty of our local communities, and are much better for our own health.  So for Earth Day, why don’t you introduce some of these products into your life and see how easy it can be to make an impact?  To reduce our over-reliance on plastic, the best way to effect and inspire change is to be the change!

Hannah Testa is a 17 year old student, author, and international speaker focused on plastic pollution, animal rights, organic and sustainable living, and climate change.  You can learn more at www.hannah4change.org.