Archive for June 4th, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 6 - Dispense with Disposables

Sharon June 4th, 2007

Ok, time to get rid of the big wasters - the things we use once and throw away. Each of these items comes with a cost in embodied energy and embodied pollution. What’s that? Embodied energy and pollution are the sum of all the stuff that was required to make these things - for example, the energy required to manufacture the paper towels, the bleaches and chemicals used to make them white, the gas used to ship them around the country. All that energy goes in, and then we use them for a few minutes or an hour, and they get thrown out. But all of those things can be replaced with things that can be readily reused.

You can replace everything, and often the replacements are much nicer, and they are always cheaper - you can save a lot of money this way. Sometimes they even make you look cool, gracious and elegant - think about the difference between cloth napkins and paper ones.

Paper towels = Rags. The great thing is that these are free - you use your worn out clothes, old tshirts too ratty for even goodwill to sell. The good thing is that if they are 100 percent cotton, you can compost them, so you can even use them for those messes (we won’t discuss what) that are so gross that you can’t possibly ever wash and reuse the thing that has been cleaned up. But since you are using a scrap of fabric that would have been thrown out anyway, and composting it, it is way more ethical than tossing a paper towel. Plus, we all know those messes don’t come along that often (thankfully!).

Napkins = cloth napkins. Almost all of mine come from yard sales, but you can also make these by hemming pretty fabric. When I was a kid, my step-mom made beautiful, individual napkin rings so that you could keep track of whose napkin was whose, and easily reuse them. I need to do that, so we can cut down on washing. You just put your napkin, folded up, back in your ring and reused it until it got too icky. You can also carry cloth napkins in your purse/bag/diaper bag for eating at restaurants that give out paper.

Plastic shopping bags = cloth or other permanent material shopping bags. I like making these - you can crochet string bags (do a google search for patterns), or make a knitted bag and felt it so that it can handle a big load from the farmer’s market. My local food coop actually deducts some money for each cloth bag you bring.

Paper hand towels = cloth towel you bring with you. Ok, you go to a restaurant, and wash your hands. Do you use a towel, or one of those things that wastes electricity to make hot air? If you are a slob like me, you probably wipe your hands on your jeans, but a more elegant solution is simply to carry a hand towel with you.

Tissues = Handkerchiefs. I was resistant to this one initially, but they really are a lot nicer, and you always have them when you need them. You can cut up a sheet or piece of cloth with pinking shears (thanks, Pat for this suggestion) or if you like to sew, you can hem them. Or, if you can find cloth bandanas, they make a good sized, colorful handkerchief. Besides, there’s something very elegant about being able to offer someone who is sad or dirty or sick a clean handkerchief. Very gracious.

Plastic Diapers = Cloth Diapers and Pull ups = Training Pants - You may have read a study where people compared the environmental impact of cloth to plastic, and concluded that they were about the same. That study was funded by Pampers, and they compared plastic diapers to a diaper service model where you washed the diapers in boiling hot water 3 times with bleach. And that may be necessary if the same diapers are being passed out among different families. But if you buy your diapers, and wash them (only the poopy ones need anything other than cold water an a little mild detergent - we use borax for those) like normal folk, there’s no question, cloth uses much less energy. It also, I find, cuts down on diaper rash, and may be safer for little boys (there’s some evidence that little boys who wear plastic diapers have lower sperm counts as adults). I’ve used my share of plastic diapers, not claiming otherwise, but I’ve always gone back to cloth. I particularly like soft wool diaper covers, since wool doesn’t smell when it gets peed on - so you don’t have to wash it every time it gets wet. You just let the wool cover (or liner) dry, and use it again, and then wash it once a week or so. That cuts down on energy even further. My favorite source (no connection with them, I just love their diapers) is Pumpkin Butt . They sell wool diaper covers, hand crocheted wool liners (not that hard to make yourself) and hemp diapers, along with cloth-and-plastic-reusable training pants. And no, the wool isn’t scrachy or uncomfortable, or hot - my son wears them quite comfortably on warm days and doesn’t get the red marks that plastic diapers cause.

Baby Wipes = Washcloths - you can find washcloths at yard sales, or goodwill, or make them out of terrycloth towels. I’ve seen dollar stores sell them 3 for a buck. Works great, no big deal.

Disposable Menstrual Pads and Tampons = Cloth Pads, and the Keeper or the Diva Cup. Ok, first off, I don’t want to hear any whining from men who seem to think that just reading the word menstruation will cause brain damage ;-) . Get over it - or skip this part. Seriously, these are great - many, many times better than disposable pads. I remember that once a student in one of my writing classes wrote a paper about menstrual taboos, and she included the information that, outrage of outrages, women had once worn reusable cloth pads and had to wash them. You should have seen the horror on her face when I pointed out that I wore cloth pads right now. My cloth pads come from Glad Rags, but you can find patterns on the web to make your own. I hate to sew, so I bought them. They are great for overnights and after childbirth - if you are expecting a baby, or prefer pads to tampons, I really recommend them. They are more comfortable, and because they button or snap on to your underwear, they stay in place better - no more sudden, horrible realizations.

The Keeper and the Diva Cup are essentially the same thing, but the keeper is rubber and the diva cup is silicone. I own a Diva Cup, and am a very happy user, but I know people who are equally content with their Keepers. They reduce your risk of toxic shock syndrome, cut your budget, and again, are nicer than tampons. They are both certain to last at least a decade, probably longer.

Disposable Pens = Fountain Pens. My father collects fountain pens, and because I found this hobby unutterably boring when I was a kid, I made a big point of using bics. But they are wasteful - really wasteful. A reusable fountain pen will last you a long, long time (my Dad is still writing with ones more than 100 years old).

Plastic utensils, plates etc… = Real plates, utensils, etc… This one takes a little getting used to. We’re so convinced that picnic = plastic. But it isn’t hard at all to find cheap, reusable materials. I like enameled granny ware from lehmans - lightweight, easy to rinse off with a hose, simple to clean. Like a lot of these solutions, not only is the picnic basket much nicer, but it has an air of elegance and beauty to it - in fact, almost all of these things (the rags don’t really, and let’s be honest, you probably won’t be showing people your elegant Keeper) come with a sense of graciousness, comfort and warmth. It really isn’t hard to keep a picnic basket around for those occasions.

Toothbrushes = Replaceable head toothbrush. The Source Toothbrush allows you to keep the handle and simply replace the head, cutting the amount of waste in landfills. Here’s a link:

Toilet Paper = Mullein leaves, Stachy leaves, wa
shcloths, bidets or homemade bidet (cup of water). Ok, this probably isn’t for beginners, and I’ll admit, I don’t do this one yet - or rather, I’ve done the leaf thing, but not the washcloths for adults. But realistically, toilet paper is a big waster, and billions of people in the world live without it. We have a lot of wild mullein around here, and they are soft, big leaves, and lambs ears work fine too. As for the washcloths - let’s be honest, if you are wiping the behinds of your babies, what’s the big deal?

But it is really ok to start with the cloth bags and rags ;-) .