Grocery bags? Diapers? I have been reducing my use of disposable paper products for a few years, and I would like to chat about it.
This post is not suitable for anyone with a phobia about body fluids!
First of all, what I have never done. I don’t know anyone who buys packages of paper plates or paper cups, not even for barbecues or camping, not since the 1980s – it just isn’t done. The social shaming would be too great! Likewise, using paper bags for “brown bag lunches” is extinct. Everyone has nice reusable lunch kits now.
All the rest, I have done. Fast food cups and wrappers, paper towels, paper dinner napkins, tissues, toilet paper, diapers, wipes and feminine products.
I’ll go back a couple of decades. I was determined to use (fitted) cloth diapers for my baby, but they didn’t make a newborn size small enough. When I returned to work, daycares would use only disposables. Later we moved across the country and were in temporary housing for a while. So, during the diapering years, my best effort was using cloth diapers or training pants about half of the time, basically when we were at home or around the neighbourhood. Along with them, we used traditional (woven fabric) wash cloths. To this day, I am not sure if cloth diapers are the better choice. I needed to do a wash every day with hot water, and often an extra rinse. The severe weather meant I had to toss them in the dryer for an hour. But I was pleased to reduce the amount of synthetics that went to landfill, even if I couldn’t opt out completely.
OK, feminine hygiene. I came of age in the era of stick-on maxi pads and I marvelled at the advances in technology that made them thinner and more absorbent. My first tampons had cardboard applicators. At some point I decided I would try to do my part by not buying individually plastic-wrapped items or plastic applicators or scented stuff. In recent years, reusable fabric pads have been widely available. Then you get into the same issues as washing diapers, but at least periods have a finite duration! It occurred to me that on period days, you are always washing out your panties and your sheets and whatever else, so maybe fabric pads are not that big a deal. For those comfortable with their bodies (check!), the very smart diva cup has arrived.
Now I will get personal, ha! Among eco warriors, using toilet paper is passé. We have to use something, right? If anyone out there has not considered the options, the eco-savvy have taken to using something called the Family Cloth. That terminology makes me cringe. Doesn’t it sound as if the whole family is sharing a cloth to wipe themselves? If you can get past the name, what it means is, you put a stack of clean cloths next to the toilet, such as wash cloths (flannels) or old cut-up t-shirts. You use them to wipe, then place them in the equivalent of a diaper pail, and launder them regularly, just as you would diapers.
For me, it’s a matter of outlook. If you have babies or young children that you change and bathe, if you look after someone with a colostomy, if you pooper-scoop after your dog, or if you clean a cat box, then you are so used to poop being a part of life that you probably don’t care.
At our house I insist we buy toilet paper made from recycled paper. If you haven’t tried it lately, there are some good brands out there now (we like Cascades brand). I don’t like the idea of cutting down new trees for TP, even if there is lots of reforestation. In recent years, disposable wipes have been promoted for adults for “extra cleanliness.” I would rather use a warm, wet cloth than use a synthetic throw-away sheet with surfactants on it. A lot of people don’t know that wipes can’t be flushed.
You will have noticed that all of the above require easy access to laundry facilities – not to mention an unlimited water supply, and drying space. If you live in an apartment building with shared laundry, or have to go out to a laundromat, you will probably find all of these options impossible. Unless you are like No Impact Man who washed his family’s laundry in a wash tub with no electricity!
The next yuckiest thing is: tissues! I had been buying tissues made from recycled paper for a long time. Fortunately, I use them almost exclusively because my nose runs clear when I go outdoors. For my purposes, handkerchiefs are great. They can be folded and used several times, and stuffed into a pocket. You are unlikely to drop them or lose them because they have substance. They wash and dry very easily. What they are not good for is miserable, snotty colds, or at least, that is where I draw the line.
Of course, a clean handkerchief is always good for drying your hands, wiping a spill, blotting a stain, cleaning your glasses, or any number of things!
That leads in to kitchen cloths. Way back when I first started to swap out paper products, paper towels were the first to go. I have a Rag Bag of torn and worn out tea towels, dish cloths, pillow cases or T-shirts which are used for cleaning, dusting, wiping up spills, and every reason under the sun. I have some I use for food, such as blotting leaves of just-washed lettuce, or greasing a baking pan. I have some for cleaning the floor. Occasionally I have to throw one away (such as one used too many times for shoe polish). I have managed not to use paper towel or cleaning wipes at all.
Being a big fan of linens, I have a large supply of cloth table napkins, place mats and table cloths, so paper is never a consideration. One thing that makes all this easy for me is that I love textiles!
I’ll end with shopping and restaurants. I used to take home dozens of plastic grocery bags, because I would always be able to use them for cat litter or as bin liners. But they seem to breed and I would end up with hundreds! Then I would buy the grocery-store brand reusable bags, or have some given to me. The local ones are made from recycled plastic bottles and you get a free replacement if they wear out. They tend to last a year or more, but I hate the idea of an endless cycle of reusable plastic bags. I have all sorts of cloth tote bags from library conferences! I have to be extra-mindful to bring a bag into a store with me everywhere I go, and never assume “I don’t need much so I won’t bother.” I used to have a set of net bags for produce. Curiously, no one uses any sort of produce bags any more (except maybe for grapes and berries). They just place the fruit and veg on the conveyor for weighing and put it directly into the grocery bag. I am surprised that has become the new norm. We must be pros at washing our produce when we get home.
I got frustrated when I would buy fast food. At best, they would ask “Eat in or take out?” and adjust the packaging accordingly. But most places will still wrap food in paper or waxed paper even if you eat in. Take-out/doggy bag containers are paper at best, sometimes non-reusable plastic or even styrofoam. So I have taken the easiest way out and just don’t buy fast food. Well, I buy an order of New York Fries every month or two! Otherwise, we don’t need to eat fast. We eat in.
My last challenge is take-out coffee. I take a Thermos bottle of coffee to work or make it there, and use ceramic mugs or travel mugs. I do OK taking a travel mug with me on vacation, because the pace is usually leisurely and I carry a big tote bag everywhere! But when I go to off-site work meetings, I’ll have occasion to buy a coffee. I try hard to remember to bring my own travel mug. I vowed I would not even buy coffee if I didn’t have my mug with me. But some appetites just cannot be denied, and I don’t have a perfect track record.
Where are you with paper, plastic and cloth? And thank you for surviving my 1500-word essay. Just don’t print it 🙂