Easy tips for a Low-Waste Cold and Flu Season

homemade handkerchiefs

You’ve diligently slashed your waste all year long when you come down with a nasty bug in the final stretch. You go through boxes of tissues and bottles of decongestant and vats of store-bought drinks. The bug makes you feel terrible and the trash, guilty. Don’t be so hard on yourself! You’re sick! But if you want to reduce your waste during the cold and flu season, the following tips will help.

Drink plenty of liquids?

I looked up the benefits of the advice that we always hear when we come down with a cold—drink plenty of liquids. Well, it turns out, there are none—that we know of at least. No study has ever validated this advice. But when I feel like I’m coming down with something, a cup of hot tea does comfort me. My younger daughter likes to drink hot water when she has a cold. 

If you do drink more liquids when you feel sick, you have plenty of zero-waste options to choose from—water, green tea, herbal tea, kombucha, ginger beer, kvass and so on.

Get plenty of rest

You can tackle this one easily without producing waste unless you sleep on disposable sheets. I wrote that tongue in cheek but thought I better google “disposable sheets” and Target sells them. God help us.

Use a neti pot properly

When my daughter MK has a cold, she uses a neti pot to flush mucus out of her nasal cavities. It’s like a waste-free decongestant. To use this small teapot-like vessel, fill it with sterile water or saline solution, tilt your head over a sink, pour the solution in one nostril, let it drain out the other and then repeat on the other side. 

If you use a neti pot, you MUST do so properly. Earlier this year, a 69-year old woman in Seattle contracted a very rare brain-eating amoeba infection from improperly using a neti pot. She had filled it with tap water filtered through a store-bought filter, rather than with the necessary sterile or saline water. The amoeba in the water migrated to her brain from her nose. If you drink water with these amoeba, stomach acids will kill them. Your nose cannot.

According to this article in Popular Science, neti pots “are actually very safe—if you use them properly.”

Blow your nose into cloth handkerchiefs

This past Sunday, when my volunteers came over to sew produce bags, they made a few out of the sturdier parts of an old, worn flannel sheet. I made some handkerchiefs out of some of the remaining parts. To make these, I cut squares out and finish the edges quickly on my serger with a rolled hem. You can also simply cut up some fabric and not finish the edge. You’re making handkerchiefs after all, not a prom dress.

homemade handkerchiefs
I often need a handkerchief in the morning if Bootsy has slept near my head
homemade handkerchief
Closeup of the rolled hem

I first made some of these about 12 years ago and still use them. They don’t disintegrate upon nose blowing the way throwaway tissues do. I can blow into them several times before I need a clean one.

Occasionally, I do get some strange looks when I pull one out in public and use it. I don’t know how people think we managed to blow our noses before throwaway tissues hit the market. Did we blow into leaves? Deploy the old hold-one-nostril-and-blow-out-the-other-toward-the-ground method? Eventually, real handkerchiefs will become normal again. 

Resist running to the doctor’s office when you have the sniffles

I asked my doctor sister if she had any zero-waste medical tips for alleviating cold and flu symptoms. Here’s what she said:

“I gave this some thought but I am ashamed to say that doctors are NOT zero wasters. We use disposable stuff all the time—thermometer probe covers, vaginal specula, alcohol wipes, table paper etc., etc. A lot of this is because of infection control and our College has been known to inspect physicians’ offices to see if they meet standards.

One good thing we do is resist prescribing antibiotics to people who don’t need them—people who have a virus. People are more open to this than they were 20 to 30 years ago but I still find the odd one who gives me a really hard time if I don’t prescribe an antibiotic for their flu.

Another thing is zinc lozenges. You have to use a lot of them though, and use them religiously throughout the cold and flu season. They do have a very modest benefit in preventing colds. Studies on echinacea and vitamin C and such are pretty disappointing although I know a lot of people have faith in them.”


Several years ago, I read the masterpiece The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It made me wish I had gone to medical school like my sister Michelle. (If you know any high schoolers who show an interest in biology, do them a huge favor and give them this book.) 

PBS also made a series out of the book in 2015. In one of the segments that stuck out to me, a doctor explained that everyone would rather work on cures rather than prevention. Why? He said that cures are sexier.

The following preventative measures may not be as sexy as those disposable sheets I mentioned above but they will help keep you healthy this cold and flu season.

Cover the basics

We’ve all heard the advice: eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, avoid excessive stress, wash your hands often, elude sick people and do not touch your eyes, nose and mouth with your (possibly contaminated) hands. I’m a bit out of balance at the moment—I scheduled too much this month—and need more sleep and less stress.

Consider getting a flu shot

Because my sister is surrounded by sick people, she gets the flu shot every year. Last year in the US, the flu killed 80,000 people—the most in over a decade. Apparently, having never had a flu shot, I’m taking my life in my hands. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website states that “The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones against influenza (flu) is to get a flu vaccine every flu season.”

If you usually get the flu shot but have recently taken up the zero-waste torch and so worry about the waste your flu shot will create, consider instead all of the waste a single hospital trip will generate. If you’ve whittled your waste down to such a small amount that you worry about one syringe, you waste less than about 99.9 percent of Americans—at least. 

And if you need to take meds, don’t let your zero-waste guilt syndrome (ZWGS) prevent you from taking them. 

Go easy on the bleach

Wait, what? Won’t killing germs prevent illness? One problem with killing all the germs is we can’t build immunity to them if we never come into contact with any. And many household cleaners like bleach kill not only bad bacteria but good bacteria as well. As a result, our guts come into contact with fewer good microbes. The authors of The Good Gut, pioneers into research on the microbiome, advise us to clean our homes with less toxic ingredients, such as vinegar, castile soap and lemon juice.

Make fire cider

People swear by this stuff. Essentially, you steep garlic, onions, hot peppers, raw honey and spices in apple cider vinegar for a few weeks at least, strain it and if you feel a cold or flu coming on, drink some every day—or drink it if you feel well. Make sure you use vinegar with the live mother, such as Braggs, to get all the beneficial microbes. Raw honey also contains beneficial cultures. Check out this fire cider recipe from Kitchen Counter Culture.

Eat your kimchi*

After I kicked the plastic in 2011, I didn’t get so much as the sniffles for three years. Since then, I’ve had one cold (maybe two—I need to keep better track) and a nasty bug last winter while visiting my mom at Christmas. Before 2011, I caught every bug circulating every year for as long as I can remember. I’d so much as look at a small sniffling child and I’d come down with the flu.

Although I have only my own anecdotal evidence, I credit my improved health to a couple of things: cutting processed food (thus consuming more whole foods) and eating more fermented—i.e., probiotic—foods like my homemade kimchi. I eat at least one fermented food every day.

The beneficial bacteria teeming in fermented foods like sauerkraut, or dill pickles, or kvass, or fermented chutney or fermented salsa improve your gut flora, which controls your health, your mood and your weight. Fermented foods are also more nutritious than their non-fermented ingredients. Lacto-fermented vegetables contain higher levels of B vitamins, such as thiamin, riboflavin and niacin, for example. Fermentation also preserves vitamin C. Hence Captain James Cook took barrels of sauerkraut on his ships to help prevent scurvy in his crew. 

In The Good Gut, the authors write “To create an environment where antibiotic use is infrequent, prevention is key. Having school-age children means that our household is a revolving door of runny noses and scratchy throats. Eating a nutritious diet and probiotic foods can help limit the number of illnesses and minimize their duration.”

*results may vary

homemade kimchi
Freshly packed batch of kimchi

19 Replies to “Easy tips for a Low-Waste Cold and Flu Season”

  1. I must check out the fire cider recipe. I really enjoyed your post, and I love using handkerchiefs. I inherited quite a few embroidered ones from my Mum, and I use them if I am very sniffly. I try to eat sauerkraut each day, believing it makes a big difference.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Pauline. I love handkerchiefs too. They feel nicer on the nose and look good. I’m with you on the sauerkraut. Someone gave me a jar of fire cider recently. It’s good stuff!
      ~ Anne Marie

  2. I come from a family that advocated ‘eating a peck of dirt before you die’, so never could see the sense in the product that ‘kills 99% of all known germs’. Your immune system thrives on germs – as long as they are there only in moderation so that they system has the capacity to react when faced with something more severe. Basically, eat healthily, exercise moderately, keep the brain active. It won’t guarantee freedom from illness, but it will help fight it off. Yesterday I had a cold, let it run its course, and today is back to life as usual.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Annie, I love that maxim 🙂 I’m glad your cold didn’t last long and you’re feeling better.
      ~ Anne Mare

  3. I keep a couple of pretty baskets full of cut up pieces of soft worn out white T-shirts. They do not unravel so they do not need their edges stitched and save me lots of time. They are soft on the nose and if I lose one out of my pocket I don’t feel so bad.

    Another reason why researchers work on finding a cure is because there is more money in it than preventing cancer. In the same line of reasoning, pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in type two diabetes.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      That’s true, T-shirts won’t fray. I have a jar of cut up T-shirts in my bathroom for cleaning and didn’t bother finishing those edges. This sheet is so old, I had to finish it though. Re: research, that’s a great point. Cures certainly are more lucrative 🙁

  4. Thank you so much for all the great tips and advice! Im not sure why cloth hankys are such a stretch. People use cloth for baby burps, spit up, and all kinds of things that leak out of children so why can’t adults use them anymore?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for checking out the tips Kira. Good point! Can you imagine if we used a disposable tissue or paper towel for everything that came out of a baby?!
      ~ Anne Marie

  5. The first sign of a cold I take a niacin tablet on an empty stomach so I get the “niacin rush” sensation. You do not get the rush if there is food in your stomach. There’s no study or anything that says this gets rid of a cold but for me it definitely helps kick it out. A lot of people don’t like the rush sensation. It feels sort of like a sunburn for 10 minutes and then the rush goes away. It gets the blood circulating which seems to help…

  6. My biggest and best flu preventer is to SMILE a lot. ==> trying not to expose myself to yet one more event, one more project at work and one more what ever MUST DO. Instead do what is good for you, what your mind is asking for. It’s talking to us all this time, telling us exactly what to do, what I am trying to get better at is to listen to the the clear voice, coming from inside of me somewhere.

  7. The flu shot nearly killed me and countless others who have subsequently developed chronic autoimmune diseases that constitute lifelong toxic pharmaceutical maintenance (talk about extremely non-zero-waste). Vaccines are a lie, I’m shocked to see you advocating for them. Shame on you.

  8. I’m going to agree with Stefan above. Winter time, what we call “flu season” is a time for rest and quiet. Running yourself ragged going to every holiday party is a great way to wear yourself out and catch a flu. Thanks for the fire cider recipe, I have been meaning to do this!

  9. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    A few years ago an article in the Sydney Morning Herald stated that more children were hospitalised from reactions to the flu vaccine than from the flu itself. We have to ask, who are the people dying from the flu? Are they eating a wholefoods diet of organic foods, getting plenty of sleep and sunshine and exercising? Are they unhealthy people, the elderly, immune compromised people? Two nurses I know refuse to give flu vacc at work due to the reactions I have seen, and two local people have contracted Guillian Barre syndrome from the vaccine.

    Dr Michael F Holick has studied vitamin D for over 30 years and states that adequate vitamin D levels are much more effective in preventing influenza in kids than the flu vaccine. As Pasteur said, ‘it’s the host not the germ’ that is to blame for infection. Many years ago I had whooping cough without realising it. Both my unvaccinated kids did not catch it in spite of me preparing all of their food and being in very close proximity to them for much of every day. I credit this to their superb immune systems – an organic, vegetarian whole foods diet, NO SUGAR at all, sunshine etc…At the time I was a very overworked single parent, thus I caught it and the kids didn’t.

    At one time 5 of my vaccinated students caught whooping cough. This is not an attack on vaccines, more a call for each person to do their own thorough research. In some cases I think vaccines are definitely warranted, but not as a substitute for each person taking very good care of their health.


  10. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    Fifth line should read ‘due to the reactions they have seen’, not ‘I have seen’.


  11. I like to blow mine and my nose into handkerchiefs and wash them with regular washing cycle with other clothes. This one particular time, I noticed a small part on of the hanky wasn’t cleaned properly and some of the mucus was still ticking to it. Yikes! I threw it back into the washer (not all by itself of course). But it made wonder if I need to treat them someway before running the wash cycle to make sure what comes out is perfectly clean. Do you have any advice in this case?

  12. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    A friend’s mum always soaked the hankies in a bucket of salty water. I haven’t tried it yet, and also hope someone offers other suggestions.

    It’s also important to make sure hankies don’t go into the wash still folded up as depending on your machine and the size of the load they may not come out clean.


  13. Here’s an amazing thing my ex-MIL taught me that has saved me every time I get sick: use an old t-shirt to blow your nose! Not cut into rags, just keep the whole thing by your bedside and blow your nose into it until you’re well again or until it’s too gross. Then wash them. When you’re really sick, and everything coming out of your sinuses is suuuper disgusting, a larger piece of cloth is really helpful. We used old ratty men’s white undershirts and bleached them, but if you don’t do bleach, hot water is probably fine. My ex’s family did this 30 years ago because they were broke and being a single mom with 2 young kids, doing this saved a ton on disposable tissues. Plus, the dust in paper tissues aggravates my sinuses, which just makes everything worse, and they hurt a LOT on your skin if you have a cold lasting more than a day or two. I have hankies for ordinary days and when I’m sick I break these out. I haven’t bought paper tissues in ten years! The rich people here side-eye me, but my fellow blue collar/working class folks understand.

  14. Mrs Nanny Ogg says: Reply

    Hi, very off topic but do you remember where you bought the flannel sheet you turned into handkerchiefs? I’m trying to find similar fabric for another project. Lisa

    1. Hi Lisa,
      My daughter MK’s grandmother bought those sheets for her when MK was little so they are probably 20 years old. I don’t know where she bought them. I’m sorry I can’t help!

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