Our desire for convenience drives our waste problem—to-go meals delivered by Uber Eats, Keurig K-cups for our morning coffee or even tea, single-serve snacks packed in single-use plastic. They all epitomize this desire for convenience.
Another related factor exacerbates our waste problem—the ick factor. We don’t want to get our hands dirty and marketing campaigns have convinced us—especially women—that we must buy many products to deal with our “filthy” bodies and anything that comes out of them. Add to this the fact that when we buy clothing or household goods, many of us want them “clean” and packaged, as though no one at the factory who made, packaged or shipped them ever actually touched them.
If we can get over the ick factor and change our perspective, we can reduce our consumption of many unnecessary products, reduce our waste and save money.
Menstrual pads and cups
Disposable items work like a subscription. You must buy them over and over and over until your last dying breath (or menopause). Instead, buy or make reusables once.
I sewed my first reusable cloth pads over 10 years ago out of flannel receiving blankets I had sewn when I was pregnant with Charlotte. Back then, even some of my liberal friends found this disgusting. But today I see these sold all over the place. We have progressed.
The pads work really well. I used a pattern similar to this one. I also have a menstrual cup, which I love. Pop it out, dump it out, rinse it out, put it back in. So easy! You can buy the pads and the cups from many companies, such as LunaPads or Glad Rags.
Around the time I sewed the pads, I also sewed some cloth hankies. By sewing, I mean I cut out squares of scrap fabric and finished the edges—very simple. I haven’t used disposable tissues since. And because I cleaned up my diet when I kicked the plastic, I get way fewer colds and have much less need for hankies. I can’t remember the last time I had a cold in fact. I eat lots of fermented food—at least one type a day—and as a result have a super gut. So, I don’t need hankies too often. (Go here to read more on how our gut affects, well, everything.)
Earlier this year, when I talked about ditching paper towels on Instagram, people had lots of questions about draining bacon and other fried foods—but mostly bacon. They wanted to know what to use instead of paper towels.
Here are some ideas:
- Keep a towel dedicated for fried foods. When you’re done, wash the towel by hand, not in the washing machine.
- Drain the fried food on a cooling rack sitting on a cookie sheet. Drain that off and, if it’s bacon, add that to dog food—if the bacon contains no nitrates or antibiotics—and your dogs will love you even more than they already do. Or save the grease to season cast iron pans.
- If you get napkins at restaurants, take them home and use them as your emergency fried food draining stash. Your city’s green bins may accept these. Not a perfect solution but they were headed for the trash before you fried your falafel.
To clean up messes, I use old t-shirts that I cut up and store in a jar. In the hopes that someone will clean the bathroom, I keep a jar of these in there for anyone to clean my sink and tub with. I sometimes see evidence that they have been put to use—a wet one hanging up to dry.
I also keep some of these in the kitchen but for bigger spills, I clean up with a dish towel, hang it up somewhere to dry (like outside on my drying rack) and wash it later.
Recently, I cut up an old worn flannel sheet into paper-towel size pieces and finished the edges with my serger. If you don’t have a sewing machine or serger, don’t worry too much about finishing the edges. Flannel frays pretty slowly. You can also buy unpaper towels on Etsy. You’ll find lots and you’ll support a small business. (Go here for a post on unpaper towels.)
I can’t believe I ever bought paper napkins. One day, while trying to think up ways to save money, I glanced at my sewing machine, then at the pile of paper napkins on my table, then back at my sewing machine. I thought to myself, I could make some of these. If you don’t sew, you can buy beautiful cloth napkins just about anywhere. They will last for many years and they make eating more enjoyable. Unless they look dirty, I wash mine after I’ve used them several times.
I had arranged for a cloth diaper service before my first daughter MKat was born and to my delight, when she was born, the hospital also used cloth diapers. After a while, I washed the diapers myself after buying the diapers from the diaper service. They weren’t very expensive and paid for themselves quickly. We also had a diaper service for my younger daughter Charlotte. I can’t remember if I washed her diapers myself later or not. It’s all a blur now. But I remember I did love using cloth diapers.
I also cleaned my kids’ bottoms with wet washcloths when I changed them. Even back then, I never bought wet wipes. I haven’t always been zero waste but I’ve always been cheap.
For these, I cut a circles of flannel fabric and sewed a few together around the edges for each pad. I didn’t own a serger back then, so I sewed a zigzag stitch around the edges. I then put these in my nursing bra. They worked so well to absorb leaking milk, they used up scrap fabric and they cost absolutely nothing to make. They later doubled as makeup remover pads (and possibly coasters).
After I went plastic-free in 2011 and needed sheets, I couldn’t bring myself to buy them new. They almost always come packaged in a big plastic zippered package—at least back then. (Some manufacturers seem to finally be catching on and packaging their wares in more natural materials like a band of cardboard or a piece of twine.) So I went without new sheets and made do with the threadbare ones I had.
Then I bought a pile at the thrift shop—towels too. At the time, my ex said “Ewww! You bought used sheets!” to which I responded “Have you ever stayed in a hotel?” I do wash my secondhand sheets and towels in hot water and hang them out in the sun to dry before I use them. I also wear secondhand pajama bottoms, jeans and other clothes. My daughter was a little horrified that I brought home two immaculate jars that I found by the side of the road outside of Chandra’s neighbor’s house so she took those to the commercial kitchen where she works and cleaned them in the industrial washing machine there. I’m just happy someone besides me washed a dish!
Oh by the way, for my classes, I do use clean new jars and large jam jars from a reputable restaurant the saves them for me. I don’t give students jars I found by the dumpsters.
Mild cleaning products
Last week at an Earth Day event, someone asked me about cleaning. I happened to have baking soda and vinegar in my display, so I showed her those. We don’t need to kill every germ in our homes. Rather, we actually need exposure to germs to build immunity. By simplifying your cleaning routine to something like mild yet effective baking soda and vinegar or castille soap, you buy fewer chemical concoctions packaged in plastic.
People worry that compost will smell terrible and others don’t want to accidentally touch the food scraps when they empty the bucket—the horror! Composted properly, food and food scraps breaking down in a compost heap will not smell and by composting, you’ll reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a landfill, food becomes compacted and cut off of oxygen. Anaerobic bacteria break that food down and emit methane gas—a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. (Go here for a post on lazy compost.)
If, while turning your compost, you get some dirt on your hands, congratulations! When you come into contact with the gazillions of microbes in soil, you improve your gut health.