6 most common types of ocean trash and zero waste alternatives

If you’ve been to the beach, you’ve found trash on the beach. Our consumption is more than a little bit out of control, and all that plastic and convenience has to go somewhere. Cue our oceans! The most common debris found in marine clean ups over the past 25 years are strikingly commonplace. We can look around our homes and communities and see the same objects found in these clean ups: plastic bottles and lids, cigarette butts, and plastic bags. All of these debris are within our power to cut down and avoid!


This great infographic breaks down 6 common kinds of ocean trash, and I've added one more at the bottom based on anecdotes from other beach-goers. 


Cigarettes and filters

Sorry (not sorry) folks, I’m bringing it up. Not only do cigarettes kill more people than guns each year (surprising these days in the US), they pollute each time you smoke. 4.5 trillion (!) cigarette butts are tossed each year, and in absolutely ideal conditions it takes at least two years for them to break down. Tobaccofreelife.org claims that “secondhand smoke contains over 4,000 compounds, most of which are toxic and over 60 of them are carcinogenic”. Yummy.

Chances are, if you’re smoking in the year 2018, you know some of this stuff. If you haven’t cut back or quit for your health, consider the beaches covered in cigarette butts. It’s also an option to roll your own cigarettes and forgo the filter as well. At the very least, make sure the butts make it somewhere they’re not likely to escape from.

Food wrappers and containers

What exactly could these be? Wrappers from granola bars or bags from chips, maybe the plastic container your deli meat comes in (the one that contains the plastic envelope they actually seal the product inside of). The bad news is that if you really want to cut down on this waste, you’ll be eating fewer potato chips and Cliff bars. The good news is that if you really want to cut down on this waste you’ll be eating fewer potato chips and Cliff bars.

The solution to reducing a ton of this waste is buying package free. Buying bulk is a big part of reducing our plastic waste, and an area that I have found to be most intimidating for many people or simply rejected as a possibility. I’ve found that any store with a bulk section always has candy or cookies available in bulk as well, so don’t despair. Apart from these foods, the bulk section is where a ton of very healthy foods can be found such as nuts, lentils, beans, and dried fruit. These in particular are what I find most at stores with bulk.

Don’t want to buy everything in bulk? That’s okay, too. Buy what you can. Every bit of trash we don’t consume and send to landfill helps. Switch out that plastic covered oreo tray for some vanilla or strawberry wafer cookies, and buy dry black beans to make burgers instead of buying the plastic container that holds the plastic packet of roast beef for sandwiches.

Plastic beverage bottles/Caps and lids

Have you bought a reusable water bottle yet? I hope so. It will save you a ton of money in the first year alone, and even more as time goes on. Unless the water where you live is unsafe to drink, kick the plastic water bottle habit.

Water isn’t the only problem though. Many people buy sodas and soft drinks in disposable plastic bottles, and no, recycling doesn’t make that any better-remember that 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. I know for some people the addiction is real. I genuinely prefer fountain soda to anything in a bottle or can, and this can help you reduce your waste. Take a reusable tumbler (or any container) and order the size of beverage it will hold. Luckily, soda is very inexpensive so even a big 32 oz cup won’t cost much. I’ve done this at gas stations and fast food restaurants with soda fountains on the customer side and I’ve never been told no or had an issue.

As for the caps and lids you still create waste with, recycle and dispose of them intentionally in the bin so they don’t blow away into nature.


We’re talking plastic cutlery, disposable cups, and paper plates and bowls. Plastic forks, knives, and spoons are not recyclable, and neither are disposable cups and paper plates compostable because most of them are lined with a thin layer of plastic-hence why watermelon juice doesn’t soak through your plate at the barbecue. I was raised with real, reusable dishes and silverware and it is completely natural to me to use this stuff. I’ve noticed that it’s not the case for everyone, so if using real dishes and silverware and having more to wash than just pots and pans is foreign to you, consider this: it takes time and effort to cook for you and your loved ones. Respect that work and sit down with dishes and silverware.

Real plates and silverware are available all over the place. The Dollar Store sells plates, cups and more at (obviously) $1 a piece. I have an entire set of actual silver silverware that I got for $1 at a yard sale. Most thrift stores have a bucket or box of 10-25 cent silverware. Many of us have access to dishwashers, and even if you don’t, washing dishes never killed anyone. Wash the dishes immediately after use to avoid crusty food that is hard to wash.

What about that barbecue I mentioned before? Sure, it’s only one fork if you go for disposables, but if all of your coworkers do the same, and then everyone needs new cutlery and plates for the cake later…it adds up. Every bit of plastic you avoid sending to landfill matters. I recommend keeping a spoon or fork in your bag and not buying anything special for to-go cutlery. If you work at an office, you can always keep some silverware at your desk with your refillable water bottle and coffee cup.

Plastic bags

It’s 2018! Get a reusable bag. Plastic bags (deliciously) find themselves into the stomachs of marine life like sea turtles. Not only that, they’re a suffocation risk for human children. Kick the plastic bag habit. Reusable bags are widely available at any grocery store, and you don’t need a special grocery bag. Any tote bag will work-even a novelty “I LIKE BIG BOOKS AND I CANNOT LIE” canvas bag you got from your cousin as a gift a few years back (me).

Stores like Aldi don’t even give out free bags anymore, and in countries like France, that’s just normal policy. Grocery stores will bag your goods in your own bags as well, so all you have to do is remember them. Tip: leave them in your car so you always have them.

You can always refuse a bag as well! Buying a single item from a store? Skip the bag and carry it in your hands. Honestly, I do that more often than I get out my own reusable bags.

Tampon applicators

Tampon users, we have to talk. Pad users, you’re a part of this too. Disposable menstrual products are a big waste on resources and will cost you significantly more than reusable products like menstrual cups and cloth pads. Just because disposable menstrual pads aren’t floating onto the beach 6x their original size, bloated with seawater, doesn’t mean they’re not creating unnecessary waste. Not sold? You would be if you tried RUMPs (reusable menstrual products). They’ll make your period significantly more comfortable.

Still skeptical? Imagine this: you’re walking down the beach in beautiful weather. Your child sees something blue and shiny in the sand and pulls it out… a tampon applicator! It’s tucked away in their bag of shells and ends up in the living room, on the floor, as your child sorts their shells. Maybe it makes it in the suitcase back home. Maybe they bring it to school to show all of their friends for show-and-tell about their vacation. Maybe there are options besides plastic tampon applicators.

The most popular RUMPs are menstrual cups and cloth pads, but there also exist disposable applicator-less tampons. OB tampons come wrapped in plastic (unfortunately), but don’t have wasteful plastic applicators and are super compact.

Easy swaps

Generally, these six kinds of plastic trash commonly found on the beach are completely avoidable. Try it out! A canvas bag won’t tear and drop your groceries on the ground if it’s overfilled like a plastic bag will. An insulated water bottle with keep your water colder than a disposable plastic water bottle will.

Which of these switches will you make? Were there any surprises about this common plastic waste?