They’re convenient. They’re big. They might help you need fewer trips to the store. They’re everywhere. Of course, we’re talking about big plastic jugs. They hold laundry detergent, dish soap, bleach, windshield wiper fluid. In your kitchen, they might hold milk, iced tea, vinegar, juice or water. Sometimes they’re a lightweight, crushable plastic, and sometimes they are heavy duty — and take up a lot of space in your recycle bin. In many places, they’re not currently accepted for recycling, and when they are, it’s uncertain what is actually done with them these days.

Fortunately, it’s likely you can avoid nearly all the plastic jugs that might ordinarily end up in your household, and by reusing the ones you can’t do without, you can at least keep them out of the waste stream.

Here are some items typically purchased in plastic jugs, and some alternatives:

Laundry detergent. This is a great one to start with, because there are many alternatives, and extra benefits for choosing them.

  • The most obvious is to choose powdered detergents in cardboard packaging. And yes, you can use powdered detergent in high efficiency (HE) machines — just make sure it is designated “HE” on the box. (If you want to understand why HE products are different from other laundry detergents, here’s a good explanation.)
  • Another option is to make your own, either powdered or liquid. There are lots of recipes online; be careful to choose one that is low-sudsing if you have an HE washing machine.
  • And, of course, there are laundry strips. These are more expensive per load, but that may be worthwhile to you if you’re traveling, using a laundromat, or have some other reason to avoid using heavy jugs or boxes. Shop around, read reviews, and experiment! There are lots of brands, and a wide price range.

Vinegar. Vinegar is widely touted as an excellent natural, non-toxic cleaner. But on the downside, it comes in big plastic jugs! Did you know that you can make your own? This takes some time, so if you use a lot of vinegar you may need to continue purchasing it for now, but then you can use the empty jugs to store your homemade product.

Iced Tea. When my kids were traveling last summer, my son introduced my daughter to iced tea in a can. This became a habit she wanted to continue at home, but each can costs over a dollar, and held more than she typically wanted to drink at once. I was relieved to find I could buy a gallon jug of the stuff for under $3 — but then there was the big, plastic jug. The best solution, of course, was to make our own tea, using the ingredient list on the bottle for inspiration and then adjusting the mixture to taste. Meanwhile, the jugs we did accumulate during our brief stint purchasing prepared tea have proved quite useful (see below)!

Fruit Juice. It’s hard to say whether plastic jugs are much worse than waxed cardboard containers (with seemingly unavoidable plastic lids!). From a sustainability standpoint, the best choice is to buy frozen concentrate in a cardboard container, because shipping all the water in ready-to-drink juice adds significantly to its carbon footprint. (Whole fruits, especially locally-grown seasonal fruits, are the best choice of all — but that’s a topic for another day.)

Look around your house, your recycling bin, and, next time you’re shopping, your grocery cart. What items do you tend to purchase in plastic jugs? If they are not included in the list above, do a little investigation to find out what alternatives are available. And if all else fails, look for ways to reuse the plastic rather than discarding it.