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There's an argument to be made that like air, roads, or squirrels, plastic has become such a fundamental of modern urban life, we don't even register it anymore. But make no mistake: it's everywhere.

"We're basically drowning in plastic," says Barb Hetherington, a director of West Coast-based environmental non-profit, Zero Waste Canada. "It's the main product we use in just about everything. And we're consuming it and discarding it so readily, we're causing major environmental damage."

Part of the challenge in getting city dwellers to commit to reducing, recycling and reusing is that they're often far removed from the consequences of their wasteful habits. The natural environments impacted by disposable culture are leagues away from their living rooms.

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It's also common to underestimate one's individual impact on the environment. One person's twice-weekly take-out habit might seem insignificant, but multiply that by millions and it's easy to see why, according to Greenpeace, nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans each year.

Making the problem "easy to see" is one of the ways Greenpeace hopes to reduce our plastic footprint. The UK arm of the environmental organization even built an online plastic footprint calculator that asks users to input their weekly plastics consumption – everything from how many fizzy drinks we consume to how many plastic straws we use per week.

At the end of the multi-question survey, the algorithm generates a visual tally of the hundreds – or often thousands ­­– of disposable products people throw away in a single year. The idea is that, when faced with the sheer volume of their personal waste, they get inspired to make more pro-active changes.

But even when it's easier to see, it's possible to feel overwhelmed. Despite best intentions, tools like the plastic footprint calculator force us to acknowledge how easily we give in to the temptation of convenience.

Even the most conscientious among us occasionally lapse. Amy Xiao, a 23-year-old University of Toronto student, grew up in a largely plastic-free home. But even she still has a less-than-perfect score on the Plastic Footprint calculator.

Amy doesn't drink sodas, prefers her coffee in a reusable mug and makes a conscientious effort to shop with reusable bags – all calculator survey questions. But with a full course load and a challenging part-time job keeping her busy, she finds herself occasionally grabbing a to-go cup from the local chain coffee shop. She also ends up with the occasional plastic grocery bag. "You don't always plan to go, and some places don't offer alternatives," says Amy.

Thankfully, one of the other benefits of modern convenience is that we have numerous options to reduce our plastic footprint with durable and non-disposable choices. Here are five easy ways to make a change for the better:

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1. Be aware of your city's municipal recycling guidelines

Many items we toss into the blue bin actually end up in a landfill. Do a quick survey of the things in your life that can't be recycled and try to eliminate them, such as wax-lined paper coffee cups and cheap plastic toys for kids.

2. Invest in several high-quality items for food and beverages on the go

Make your morning coffee at home and bring it to your workplace to avoid take-out cups. As often as you can, bring your lunch in a reusable lunch bag and put your food in reusable containers. If you're on a first-name basis with everyone at your local café, see if you can arrange to leave a mug there with your name on it.

3. Stop buying bottled water

Limit the amount of plastic you're buying by breaking that bottled water habit. Drink tap water at home and fill up a reusable bottle for whenever you're out. If you're concerned about contaminants or want to improve the taste of your municipal water supply, filter your water using a water filtration system such as a Brita pitcher at your home or office.

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4. Skip the straws

It may seem like a simple gesture, but foregoing those plastic drinking straws can make a big impact. Because straws aren't recyclable, they end up in the garbage (and eventually in landfills). So resist the temptation to use straws whether you're in a restaurant or at home.

5. Bring your own bag

We've all been caught out by a last-minute, emergency grocery shopping trip. Carry a folded-up cloth shopping bag in your purse, backpack or briefcase. That way you won't have to resort to plastic on that late-night milk run.


This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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