In decades past, disposable household products were advertised as the saviors for the modern working person. These disposables were things that could allow us the convenience of cleaning or containing something that could then be tossed away. Today we see the price of that convenience: more waste in landfills, more harm to our health, and less bang for our buck.
Fortunately, we now have more zero waste options than ever before, and choosing reusable alternatives to disposable products can be more convenient! Here are seven categories of disposables and their non-disposable alternatives so you can start to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle today.
Switch Plastic Containers for Glass Containers
Originally conceived as a means to prevent freezer burn for meat and vegetables, the freezer bags with the zip track have become a staple container for any loose item throughout many people’s houses, cars, and bags. While they may have been convenient for many decades, they notoriously perpetuate our dependence on oil. Americans use 14 billion plastic bags per year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to produce. To make matters worse, they tend to easily rip from standard use, cleaning, and are not recyclable in most municipalities. Even where you can recycle these bags, they easily gum up processing machines more often than not.
Instead of plastic bags, use glass containers with lids. Their density allows them to be washed and used for a lifetime — even longer, perhaps — and they aren’t made from any toxic substances. They are durable when subjected to extreme temperatures, and are easily recyclable in most areas if they ever meet a premature end! Use these containers to store everything from leftovers from your take-away meals to office supplies.
Switch Plastic for Cloth Produce Bags
Shopping for groceries is a source of a great deal of disposable waste, especially when it comes to produce. Just like freezer bags, plastic produce bags are not recyclable in most municipalities, and in those where they are, they also wreck havoc with processing machines. They’re mostly made of petrol, and given that they’re typically used for less than an hour, the amount of resources required to create them is simply a waste.
Instead of plastic produce bags, use cloth produce bags to bag your produce and bulk goods.
These zero waste bags are typically made of cotton or burlap, are easily washable, keep produce safe and fresh, and can be made from any piece of scrap fabric that may be around the house.
Switch Paper for Cloth Napkins/Serviettes
Paper napkins were once reserved for small get-togethers, mainly outdoor occasions. Today, they are among the greatest disposable products in landfills and in our oceans. Many are misled to believe that they are compostable, or at least recyclable. On the contrary, most types of napkins are made from non-biodegradable fibers and dyes that can be noxious for plant life, and they are not recyclable once they are soiled by food products. Compostable paper napkins do exist, yet they tend to be far more expensive than their standard counterparts. Do you really want to spend more on something that is meant to be thrown away? Plus, let’s face it: if you’re hosting a party of any kind that has a decent number of guests, having the expectation that all of them will find a compost bin may be too high of an expectation. Even the most environmentally-conscious of us can get distracted in busy environments like that.
Instead of using hundreds of thousands of paper napkins in your lifetime, use cloth napkins and handkerchiefs as alternatives. They are conveniently portable and are easily washable. Plus, they can be easily made from spare fabrics at home (you just need to cut a square!) and can be compostable if they are made from organic material and do not have industrial dyes.
Switch Plastic for Bamboo or Metal Utensils, Straws, and Containers
The dangers of plastic utensils and food containers are known to many of us now: they can’t be recycled and, thus, inevitably end up in the digestive tracts and nasal passages of marine life. The toll they take on humans is no joke either, as they release toxins when heated, such as BPA and other endocrine disruptors. Also, most are so brittle or flimsy that they splinter apart or bend with the slightest use. Does that really seem good for your body and wallet just to get out of doing dishes?
There are many options for replacements for these types of products, depending on your needs. If you use plastic wares and containers for your meals away from home, look into containers and utensils that are made from metal or sustainably-sourced wood, like bamboo. If you need to order take-away from restaurants, be sure to decline disposal cutlery. If you’re planning to bring leftovers home after dining out, call ahead and ask if servers can place your leftovers in your personal containers instead of a plastic-lined takeout container.
Switch Disposable for Cloth Diapers
For new parents, it’s the item that is oftentimes more precious than their free time: diapers. Typically they are sold in abundance in any small corner store or large box store, yet can be in short supply in some occasions, like pandemics. What’s even more frightening than running out of diapers is what they’re made of, many of which include “volatile organic compounds or VOCs (including toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and dipentene), sodium polyacrylate or SAP, dioxins, polyurethane, adhesives, lotions, inks, fragrances, and pesticide residue. Chemicals like these can have toxic health effects and may irritate little babes’ skin, eyes, and lungs.”
Now, it is true that less toxic and even compostable options are becoming more available, yet many of these still aren’t at a feasible price point for many of lower incomes. Unless a great deal of parents are composting these diapers, a majority will still end up in landfills.
As cumbersome as they may seem, reusable cloth diapers are a healthier and more frugal choice. They can be made from any number of non-industrial or non-toxic fabrics, and can be washed over and over again. Isn’t that a much better option than using 2,000 one-time-use diapers a year?
Switch Paper for Cloth Towels
No one truly likes messes, and over the decades, we’ve even developed means to eliminate the need to clean the very things that cleaned the original messes. Case in point, the paper towel and napkin/serviette. Why wash the rag or cloth that absorbed the mess that you had just cleaned up when you can just use paper to do the same job and spare you the extra laundry? That was the original call to action behind paper serviettes, yet in the decades since, they have created an even greater mess than what they could ever absorb. More than 30% of landfill waste is composed of these paper products, and they, too, cannot be recycled due to the dyes, food, and other mess that they contain.
That said, the cloth rags of yesteryear are an ideal zero waste alternative to these paper counterparts. Not only can they be made from discarded shirts and fabrics, but they can also be repeatedly laundered.
Make Homemade Plant-Based Milk, Broth, and Bread
In times of crisis — or even just the holidays — staples like plant milk, soup, broth, and bread can become scarce. Fortunately, with just a bit of patience, will, and skill, you can make these in abundance at home. Plant-based milks can be made at home with a food processor, a mesh, and a bag of nuts or grain. If you have a lot of left-over meal from those nuts and grains, use them as the base for homemade bread! Broth can be made from vegetable scraps that you may have left over from previous meals, and soup can be made from a fruit or vegetable that may be nearing the end of its shelf life. You’ll not only cut down on waste of grocery packaging, but you’ll also have greater control over the quantity of these staples.
It’s well known that disposals have wreaked havoc and damaged our budgets, environment, and health. With these few simple zero waste swaps and, a little bit of patience, you can save a lot of money and significantly decrease your environmental footprint. Every time we use a plastic item that saves us time, Mother Earth loses time. Hurting our planet is not worth the convenience.
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