28 things to refuse

Refuse is one of my favorite r’s in zero waste. It’s the most simple, but it’s not always the easiest. Before starting grad school, I was asked to attend a meet and greet. Afterwards, the individual who organized the event tried to give me some freebies I did not want or need—a plastic water bottle with my university’s name and an agenda. I didn’t want either, but managed to get away without the agenda and only had to take the water bottle. It’s ridiculous how people push us, isn’t it? It’s hard to say no when social custom dictates we say yes. Did I cry in my car afterwards about this plastic water bottle I now owned and wanted nothing to do with? (yes) Did I keep the water bottle and the guilt I felt about it? No, I gave it to my sister who uses it every day.

No is a complete sentence.

This is just one example of when it can be challenging to refuse. Gifts, as well, can be difficult. To make that easier, try and be specific about what you would actually like and be clear that you’re not interested in accumulating new things. People inevitably give us things, but that’s not what refuse is about. The point of the gift was to bring you joy, which you (hopefully) felt upon opening it. Whoever gave you a gift you have no use for probably doesn’t want you to feel bad, so even if you can’t refuse everything, you are still able to pass along the resource to someone else who may make use of it. Other times when we are given things we would rather refuse, I want to remind you of this (unoriginal) sentiment: no is a complete sentence. You don't have to accept things you don't want. It’s hard, but I am of the opinion that someone who continues to push you after you say no is straying more from polite discourse than you for refusing something. “No thank you” also sweetens the deal. Keep in mind that refusing can also look like leaving something at the store if you don’t agree with its packaging or production.

Without further ado, 28 things you can refuse:


This is pretty big on the internet, but all you have to do is ask for a drink without a straw. Most restaurants bring you the straws and you can just say you don't want it, but if you’re not sure, tell them when you put in your drink order. I’ve also head somewhere that holding up a reusable stainless steel straw while making this request helps make sure your server doesn’t forget.

Paper napkins

If you don’t need a paper napkin, don’t take one. While I’m a big fan of napkins, when you look around many tables, most people’s napkins sit next to their plates unused unless they’re eating something particularly messy.

Extra napkins at restaurants 

Similarly, if the server brings a refill or your meal with a pile of napkins you don’t need, say no thanks. Even if you don’t use them, I don’t imagine that the restaurant is able to redistribute them to other patrons.

Disposable plastic utensils

Along with refusing disposable cutlery comes keeping your own somewhere, so that if you’re at an office party with cake, you can go grab metal silverware to wash instead of the plastic. If you know you’re going somewhere with disposable cutlery, just grab a fork on the way out. And if you’re out and forget, consider if you’re eating something that really needs silverware or if your hands are an option.

Wet wipes

I was recently offered a wet wipe on a flight before the dinner service. Uh…no. The packaging is lined with plastic, and who knows what the wipe is made of. It’s harder on a plane, but if you’re at a restaurant you can simply wash your hands.


Plastic bags for single purchases

Buying a tube of mascara? A loaf of bread? In the US, it doesn’t matter what you buy, they will put it in a bag (and fast) if you don’t stop them. I try to say I don’t want a bag as soon as they ring the item so that it doesn’t get put in a bag.

Here are the things I keep in my bag to reduce my waste: water bottle, coffee cup, napkin, cutlery, hanky, straw, shopping bag.

Double bagging at grocery stores

If it saves a plastic bag from being used, it helps. If the bag is overfull, put it in the cart carefully instead of taking another disposable plastic bag.

Trash can liners

If you’re separating your compostables from the non-recyclable plastics anyway, your trash won’t be wet or gross. Skip out on these and take the trash out to the larger bin or dumpster directly. 

Individual serving bags

Skip the tiny snack bags of peanuts packaged together in larger plastic bags or cardboard. Try to buy a large jar of peanuts and portion from there into reusable containers. It only takes a couple seconds and it helps avoid a ton of unnecessary plastic. The same thing goes for chips, pretzels, and the like. Of course, the least packaging waste comes from totally package free products but this helps.

Disposable cups

Generally, skip the disposable cup. If you can wait and aren’t dehydrated, you’ll make it. If you know you’re going somewhere that only has disposables, bring your own cup or bottle.

Free coffee in disposable cups

This is the same idea, but more specific. When you go to meetings or conferences, it’s a staple to provide free coffee or a refreshment, but you’re not required to take it. If you take the drink, you take responsibility for the cup.

After-dinner mints

Some restaurants still do this, but the mints probably come in plastic. If the mints are loose in a bowl, they probably came in a larger plastic bag before, which is still better than individual bags (although, there’s a reason they tell children not to take loose, open candy on Halloween--you never know who's touched it).

Free soap at hotels

Just leave it there or give it back to housekeeping.

Free samples in disposable plastic

Little plastic packets with shampoo samples, tiny makeup samples you get at the department store counter for free, etc. Usually there are testers you can try instead. Send the message that consumers aren’t interested in this stuff!

Disposable chopsticks with take out

Where I grew up, many take out restaurants asked if you wanted chopsticks with your order and didn't give them to everyone. Skip the disposable wooden chopsticks and use silverware you already have. Yes, these are ultimately washable, but they’re created and distributed as disposable.

Oh, and skip the plastic covered fortune cookie.

Individual cups of creamer

Ask if they have milk available if you need it for your coffee or tea. Better yet, drink the coffee or tea black. The milk probably comes in plastic as well, but at least it won’t make so much non-recyclable plastic waste.

Sauce packets

Little packets of sugar

Use the big sugar shaker next to the creamer at cafes if possible. Even if the bags are sometimes paper, it still contributes to demands for small servings and extra packaging.

Plastic (and wood) drink stirrers

Use or ask for a spoon. Definitely avoidable.

Disposable take-away boxes/to-go boxes

If possible, try to eat-in and use reusable and washable plates, and try not to order more than you’ll actually eat. That can be out of your control, of course, because some restaurants have very large portions. I usually bring my own containers for leftovers if I know I’m gong somewhere with big portions.

Plastic produce bags

Especially when buying a single item or connected items like on the vine tomatoes and bananas, it’s fine to weigh them without a bag.

Bottled water

If you live with safe water, skip disposable plastic bottles.

Free pens

Very specific, but easy to refuse. Who doesn’t have a hundred pens floating around already?

Bottled or canned soda

Use a soda fountain and a reusable cup. I talked about that here.

“swag bags" with freebies covered in plastic

I already covered this generally, but leave it there or give it back if you can.


If it is optional to have them printed, say no and have it emailed. Receipt paper contains BPA, which is a known endocrine disruptor, meaning it is bad for your hormones (1).

Packaged versions of things available package free

For some items, the prices are comparable. If it’s $1.08 a pound for black beans in plastic, and $1.10 package free, it might be worth buying the bulk version.

Plastic packaging {if better options are available}

Go for cardboard boxes of salt instead of plastic shakers or grinders. Go for package free if you can or paper/recycled paper packaging if possible.

What do you think? What else do you refuse?