Single-use items are a huge part of daily goings-on and we might not even realize to what extent. This summer I got involved in the “Plastic Free July” challenge – one month free of any single-use plastics. I’ve been recycling for years, and I do try to lead a sustainable lifestyle, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. Actually, I hadn’t processed just how many random things are wrapped in single-use plastic, so it was simultaneously a challenge and a gateway to understanding the scale of the issue better.

I recently stumbled upon this image by Sky Ocean Rescue:

Cheaps and simple alternatives to single-use

And it sparked the idea to ask you on Instagram if you’d like me to post something here on the easy alternatives to single-use. The result was overwhelmingly positive – 96% of the people who responded were excited about it. You really inspired and motivated me! Besides, it seems like a good way to keep up a steadier stream of posts on the blog because I otherwise keep putting off my articles here, because I give priority to my freelance work for media.

The internet is full of stats, so it’s easy to get lost in all the information. That’s why what I’ve tried to do here is summarize the easiest and most useful tips from my own experience, as well as some great products that come as a substitute for single-use items. If you decide to leave a comment after reading this it would be a treat for me 🙂

And now to the point. As always on the blog, I have inserted links to scientific studies, so we won’t have to indulge in nonsense phrases like “scientists said.” 🙂

Why reuse instead of single-use?

For the sake of our own health

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Owen Beard

Many single-use items are downright hazardous. For instance, a large number of single-use plastic containers release BPA when heated or washed. This is one of the few compounds that have definitely been proven to cause cancer. Also, PVC contains phthalates, which are used to harden plastics but have a detrimental effect on the endocrine and reproductive systems. As I mentioned in an article I recently wrote for Cosmopolitan Bulgaria, a German chemist by the name of Hans-Ulrich Krieger figure out that PVC products leek over 10 harmful chemical compounds. In total, there are over 50 kinds of plastic and producers claim that some of them are completely safe for human use. However, studies on animals (unfortunately they are always at the frontlines) often suggest the opposite. Other studies find that we are now at the point where it’s literally raining microplastics – they enter into ecosystems through rain and snow, and thus end up in our food as well. There isn’t enough data yet to know for certain what that does to human bodies, but some preliminary results suggest that microplastics might disrupt the endocrine system.  

For the Love of Nature

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Casey Horner

In 2016 we in the EU generated 86.5 million tons of packaging waste. Let that number sink in for a moment. 86.5 million tons of garbage…I don’t know about you but I can’t even picture the size of that. Even when we recycle part of it (60% for Bulgaria in 2016), that process also uses up energy. And some types of packaging waste, especially plastics, require that new raw material be incorporated as well. So in reality recycling is definitely important but it’s absolutely not a foolproof solution. The main thing we can all do is buy less and avoid single-use items as much as possible.

Getting Used to the 2021 Restrictions

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Pawel Czerwinski

This spring the EU Parliament voted to ban a wide spectrum of single-use plastics, starting 2021. This is a huge achievement, encouraged by the threat to our environment. For instance, according to some studies, if we continue living the way we do now, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Literally every single-use item, no matter how small, makes the possibility that much more real. And since change requires some getting used to, it makes sense to start the transition now, thus sparing the world another year worth of single-use trash. You might remember – 86.5 million tons in 2016.

Phrases I Use

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Masha Kotliarenko

It’s not always an easy thing to live sustainably. Especially in countries where the idea has yet to gain popularity. So I have a few ways to deal with it:

  • Clerk: “Why don’t you want the plastic bag? It’s free!”

Me: “Thank you but I don’t want to use single-use bags because they’ll be left here for thousands of years after you and I are gone” (with a huge smile J)

  • At bars and restaurants, I make it a point to ask for a straw-free drink.
  • When I get takeaway food, olives, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, spices, dog food or something else in bulk, I always put my reusable container on the counter first and then say: “Please put this and that in here.” This way I don’t give the clerk enough time to reach for the single-use plastics.

Options to Replace Single-Use Items

There are many, many things we can do to limit the use of single-use items but below I’ve listed the simplest and cheapest alternatives. Every one of them comes with product links and I’d like to specify that I haven’t been paid by these companies in any way to advertise their business. I just find the products cool and thought you might like them as well.

              Bags

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Laura Mitulla

Not all plastic bags are recyclable and in nature, they break down over hundreds of years. The so-called “biodegradable plastics” are often a sham – many of them only decompose in very specific conditions that cannot be reproduced in your home compost, let alone a landfill, where they are buried under tons of garbage. Besides, plastics are just not sexy.

The most environmentally conscious alternative are reusable bags made from natural fibers, such as cotton or hemp – polyesters are basically plastic, so they don’t decompose. You can easily find reusable bags in home décor stores and large supermarkets.

For expats living in Bulgaria, here are a few local businesses that make great stuff.

GreenRevolucia are two awesome girls from Plovdiv, who’ve built their business out of love for nature and humankind. Here is their bag.

At TierraVerde there are many cotton varieties, including mesh bags – nostalgic to Bulgarians who grew up during the socialist era and a trend for millennials.

Zoya is one of my favorite stores in Sofia, mainly because they have a great variety of bulk products and their selection is never tested on animals. Their bag is made out of certified organic cotton.

At EccoVerde I loved this jute bag – it’s another plant whose fibers are both biodegradable and recyclable.

Magazinche.com has lots of reusable bags with prints by Bulgarian designers.

But you don’t even need to buy a reusable bag – here’s a super simple tutorial on making your own out of an old tank top in 10 minutes.

Another option that takes a bit more time but is resource appropriation at its finest, is to go to a fabric store and ask for the cutouts they are going to throw away. Out of them you can either sew your own bags or pay a seamstress to do it for you.

              Bottles

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Andrew Seaman

Single-use plastic bottles are the worst – they must not be heated or washed, otherwise, they release BPA and other harmful chemical compounds. Even if you haven’t kept your plastic bottle in a hot car or in direct sunlight, you don’t know how it was stored or transported. Also, single-use bottles mustn’t be reused and that’s something you’d often see Bulgarian people do. Besides, even when they do get recycled they can’t become bottles again, because the plastic’s quality deteriorates. Luckily there are plenty of great alternatives to single-use bottles:

My aluminum bottle is from Decathlon, which you can find pretty much anywhere in Europe, and there are plenty of options for reusable bottles there.

Some of the first reusable bottles that became popular in Bulgaria were Flaska. They are made out of glass (the safest material) and according to their creator, a special water-enriching technology is used.

Another option is to simply buy a glass bottle from a home décor store or reuse a glass water/soda bottle.

              Coffee Cups

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Perfect Snacks

Even the so-called single-use paper cups actually have a layer of plastic. Styrofoam cups are completely non-biodegradable and non-recycle, and as we found out – plastics are a terrible option healthwise. So instead of many single-use cups, you can get one lightweight reusable mug and hand it do the barista every time you go to your favorite coffee place.

I have this foldable silicone cup by LightMyFire from The Wall (it’s a sports store).

Another option is bamboo cups that come in different designs and can be found in lots of places, including large bookstores in Sofia.

Besides, you can buy a metal camping cup from every home décor and sports store. They come in various designs and some even support charities.

              Lunch Boxes and Beeswax Wraps

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Le Creuset

Instead of single-use containers, I have reusable lunch boxes. I am not going to add any links here, because you can literally find them everywhere. When I write from a coworking space I usually bring my own food from home in them, and if I get takeaway I just hand it to the server at the restaurant. I’ve never had any issues whatsoever with that.

Beeswax wraps have gained immense popularity lately and for good reason. They are sustainable, safe for your food and make storage/transportation both easier and cooler. Unfortunately, I can’t use them because I am allergic to honey 🙁 But I’ve heard great things about them.

In Bulgaria, you can support several small businesses by buying from HranKoop, WrapAroound or ValderaLife.

And if you want to make it yourself that seems pretty easy too. Here’s a video tutorial.

              Straws and Utensils

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Maria Ilves

Portable reusable utensil sets have also become popular as a way to avoid single-use plastics in mountain huts and fast-food eateries. Personally, I don’t use them yet. When I go hiking I just bring a knife and fork from home and so those sets don’t really feel like a necessity right now. But if you want to make a statement with a sleek set here are a couple of small businesses in Bulgaria that sell them:

Fork, knife, and spoon made out of bamboo.

A full bamboo set, including chopsticks, a metal straw, and a dust bag.

If you are looking for something particularly stylish, Amazon has a cool selection. Like this full portable dining set. However, Amazon is a controversial choice. Firstly, shopping online, especially from another country, increases our carbon footprint due to packaging and transportation. Besides, Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com’s CEO is notorious for his lack of philanthropic involvement. That’s why earlier this year, at the peak of the rainforest fires, an open letter was published, asking him to buy the Amazon jungle and preserve it. Of course, it was more to bring awareness to the issue, than an actual business proposal.

And a little something extra

I recently discovered the concept of reusable bamboo paper towels (here’s a link to a Bulgarian shop that carries them), which eliminate the need for single-use kitchen rolls. They seem really neat because you can wash each one up to 100 times before throwing it away, so the price is super reasonable. If any of you have used them I’d love for you to share your experience here.

Cheap and simple alternatives to single-use
Photo: Taylor Simpson

At the end of the day substituting single-use for more environmentally-friendly and healthier items is easier than you might imagine. Once you are used to it, it becomes second nature and you don’t even notice anymore – just like they say about tattoos (or so I’ve heard :D). Single-use products are hazardous for both the environment and our bodies, so it’s always helpful to at least consider the alternatives 🙂

It would be a real treat for me if you decide to share what you think with a comment down below. And if my efforts to gather the alternatives made a difference to you, please do share this article on social media 🙂