Getting Over the Ick Factor to Reduce Waste

reusable washable cloth handkerchiefs

The ick factor exacerbates our waste problem. 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.

Cloth hankies

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.)

Unpaper towels

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.

Cloth diapers

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.

Nursing pads

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).

Secondhand wares

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.

19 Replies to “Getting Over the Ick Factor to Reduce Waste”

  1. Trish Waldon says: Reply

    Another great post, Anne-Marie – as usual! I’ve been wondering -c ould you use a couple dozen tall brown glass bottles with separate flip tops? They are brand new, but I found them in a box on Silva Ave.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Trish!

      I will take the bottles. We are having a swap on May 5th here and I’ll bring them. You are welcome to come too 🙂

      Anne Marie

  2. Trish Waldon says: Reply

    Terrific! Just sent you a private email with where they are, since I’m housebound at the moment.

  3. All good things to do and do easily. Been doing all of the above for years and made most of it myself. I would add Family Cloths to the list.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks for the addition, Heather!

      ~ Anne Marie

  4. Wonderful ideas! Lots to think about.👍👍😁

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you!
      ~ Anne Marie

  5. I love that you pick things up in the street and reuse them. I’ve got loads of great stuff that way – a lovely gold coloured hat box that I use to store my sewing thread, several items of clothing that I wear, kitchen utensils and containers of ll sorts (sterilised in boiling water before reuse), even once a cucumber that had apparently fallen out of someone’s shopping bag – it was shrink wrapped so still perfectly good to eat. My friends still rib me about that one as it was on a night out, so said cucumber went on a pub crawl with us before being taken home to eat.

    Have you come across The Wombles? If not, do check out this British TV kids classic of the 70s and 80s, it anticipates the zero waste movement by several decades!

  6. Oh! I love this post, I have always found people to be overly concerned about germs lurking around every corner, and I agree that this is one of the obsessions that has pushed single use products. However a lot of this comes from the brainwashing(commercials) that folk are bombarded with.The ick factor really needs to be fought against. I put the word out as often as I can….but I always wonder if most folk think I am just a weird old lady.

    I have a lovely rug at my front door that came from a free pile at the roadside.

  7. I totally agree! But, like my mom, I’m pretty earthy. “Icky” stuff never bothered me, and I adopted many of these practices years ago since that’s how I was raised. In the 1970s-80s, however, there were only menstrual sponges, not cups, as far as I was aware.
    In any case, I have a question: has anyone come up with an alternative to doggie poop bags? Besides the super-expensive degradable waste bags that you can buy, is there a sustainable alternative? I’ve been trying to brainstorm some ideas (e.g., use waxed paper to pick up the waste and a waxed bag to carry it home in, and then dump the waste into the toilet), and thought maybe you might have some ideas, as well. Thanks for your blog, as always!

    1. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

      Jane, I have used a kids bucket and spade lined with newspaper. This is difficult if you are walking more than one dog, but with one free hand to carry it it’s not a problem. I have seen composting systems for dog poo online but imagine you could just dig a big hole somewhere where you have no intention of growing food and place the poo in, covering with sawdust or ash each time to reduce odour. You can place an old trash can lid or similar over the top.


  8. I love your take on Ick. I must say I’m glad I don’t menstruate anymore and don’t have to make an environmentally sensitive decision in that regard. My own current concern is how to wean ourselves (my husband and I) from plastic bags for putting out the trash for weekly pick-up. We compost but still have icky stuff to get rid of. Bears and other wild animals roam our neighborhood so we have to put trash out in secure trash bins. Any suggestions for an alternative?

  9. have you written a post of how often we need to take a shower? i take one a week, love the luxe bidet (i highly recommend this product) – that keeps my excretory parts clean – i have a young friend who showers maybe every two weeks, and i love the earthy human smell of her that i sometimes get a whiff of…

  10. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    Loved the idea of a cooling rack and baking tray for draining fried foods. I hate that when I use a handkerchief I now feel self-conscious as I rarely see someone else using them. I’m thinking of taking a pile to work so I use a fresh one every time – I’m not actually sick but chemicals etc can make my nose run. Strangely many people are scared of things like hankies but do not wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom!

    A funny story for you. In 2016 we had a big house fire and much of the house, including the bathroom, was destroyed. The fire clean up team put everything they could on the back lawn to be itemised for the insurer. When the guy took the lid off my basket of cloth menstrual pads I held my breath! He had a puzzled look on his face, then the penny dropped and he said ‘Maggie (the insurance assessor) will give you a lump sum for your bathroom contents!’ He obviously didn’t know what to write on the inventory!


  11. My mother – who never throws out anything she might be able to find a use for!* – saves any meat fat that isn’t made into gravy in a pot in the fridge. Come winter, she mixes it with seeds, stale bread etc, fills an empty coconut shell with the mix and hangs it from the nearest branch. The birds love it!

    *Seriously, you should see her empty plastic box collection…

    1. Hi Meleri,
      That is so smart. I have read about making bird feeders with fat like this but not in a coconut shell. That’s so clever. Your mom sounds awesome 🙂
      ~ Anne Marie

  12. Do you use family wipes?

    1. Hi Morgan,
      I recently started to. I use them to blot urine but still have bathroom tissue for #2 (sorry for the TMI). I then throw the small cloths in the laundry and wash them. I wrote a bit more about this in this post:
      ~ Anne Marie

  13. My husband and a friend figured out that even if we had bought our cloth diapers and covers (ours were all gifts), they would have paid for themselves in about 4 months of buying landfill diapers!
    I know that people seem to have a hard time doing cloth diapers, but I’m not sure why. For us, the key was to wash diapers every two days, with an overnight soak and then wash in the morning.

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