Plastic is a toxic scourge on our environment. It is polluting out oceans and poisoning the sea while filling up our landfills. The problem is that we are addicted to it. We absolutely must have the convenience of plastic. I’m shocked about how cavalier we have become even as we learn that we must find ways to reduce our use of plastic. The effects of plastic on the ocean is even worse than you might think. While people are at work trying to clean up large pieces of plastic refuse from our waters, there is nothing they can do about microplastics, for example, which make up the bulk of the plastics in the ocean and inevitably find their way into the food chain.
You may think you’re doing your part by recycling as much plastic as possible, but many types of plastic either never get recycled, or are recycled into products that create a dead end as they are not themselves recyclable. While you know that you can reduce your use of plastic with reusable shopping bags and glass or metal refillable water bottles, this is only the tip of the iceberg. What we need to do is replace plastic with quickly biodegradable or compostable materials that are sustainable. Thankfully, there are many good options for products we use around the house that typically are made of plastic.
Before we begin, a note on biodegradable materials. The term biodegradable is often a part of greenwashing. This is why I stressed the word quickly. In truth, even plastic is biodegradable. The problem is that it may take hundreds of years for plastic to break down in landfills. If you are not sure, look for the term compostable, as this implies that the product or packaging will biodegrade relatively quickly. Failing that, look for products made from non-toxic natural materials, as, even if you cannot compost them, they will not poison the environment.
Replacing Plastic Straws
The other day we ate out a chain restaurant and brew pub called Growlers. The food was nothing to write home about but it was decent and the service was great. One thing I was impressed with, however, was the restaurant’s obvious commitment to reducing the use of plastic. Plastic straws are a huge problem in your environment. These little tubular single-use monsters are even worse than plastic bags, in some ways. We don’t even need them!
Way back in my earliest memories, I can remember when plastic straws were not common. Instead, we had paper straws. I know, it’s hard to imagine. Those early paper straws were not very good. They got soggy and you couldn’t drink a large coke without needing a new one. At Growlers, our waiter set out a little cup of modern paper straws. These were glossy and fine and worked perfectly. The cup was a beer can with the top cut off, by the way.
Paper straws like the ones used in the restaurant are readily available. If you’re having a party or other large gathering, these will be perfect. They are available in all sorts of colors, including rainbow striped like the ones shown below. They are also available in without colors such as these Dye-Free, Kraft Paper, Biodegradable Eco-Friendly Paper Straws.
It is better, of course, to not only eliminate as much plastic as possible but as much waste as possible. My wife loves to have straws for her drinks at home. So for her, we have stainless-steel drinking straws.
It would be best, however, to eliminate the waste of straws altogether. My wife loves having straws so for her, we have stainless steel straws. Sets of stainless steel straws are usually made of 18/8 stainless steel and come with long flexible cleaning brushes. One neat thing about these is that they get very cool when you use them in a cold beverage.
I usually keep a cleaning brush sitting in the utensil basket of the dish rack for convenience. You cannot clean stainless steel straws in the dishwasher, as the inside will never get cleaned, and the drying cycle could simple “bake on” any gunk on the inside of the straw. Use the brush with a bit of dish soap to clean the inside and rinse well. A good soak in soapy water will ensure your straws are extra clean. I would not recommend the bent steel straws, as the bend in the straw is harder to keep clean.
Another alternative is reusable bamboo drinking straws. I have never personally used them but customers seem to like them. They will most probably not last as long as stainless steel straws but once they are worn out, the bamboo is fully compostable. This is the most sustainable choice I have seen for straws, while still being reusable.
Plastic cling wrap, next to straws, is the most wasteful product we use in our homes and, let’s face it, it doesn’t even work very well! It clings so well to itself that getting actually wrapping anything in it is downright irritating. Then, after we use it once, we throw it away so that it will end up sitting in a landfill for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Better would be a plastic-free wrap that not only worked well but was reusable. For that, check out Bee’s Wrap. These are wraps made of organic cotton treated with bee’s wax, jojoba oil, and tree resin. This creates a malleable and reusable wrap. They can be used to wrap cheese, vegetables, bread, or anything you wrap with plastic cling wrap, and they can also be used to cover bowls and other containers. They are washable and can be re-used many times before they need to be discarded. And, once wraps are past their usable life, you can cut them into strips and throw them into your compost bin, or save them to use as fire-starters for your barbeque grill or fireplace.
Bee’s Wraps come in four different prints including honeycomb, clover, bees and bears; and ocean. A three-pack of wraps includes a 7″x8″, 10″x11″, and large 13″x14″ size. To use them, you just warm the wrap with the heat of your hands to soften it to form bowl, container, or piece of food. As the wrap cools, it creates a seal. When you’re done using a wrap, wash in cool water with mild soap and air dry.
If you’d like a plain wrap with larger sizes, try the Quo Decor Reusable Beeswax Wrap. They are made in the USA.
Coconut Fiber or Plant Fiber Scrubbers
When you use plastic scrubbies, you are sending little bits of plastic down your sink drain. The same is true of kitchen sponges. These will eventually find their way into the ocean. You don’t have to give up abrasive scrubbers, though.
Coconut fiber scrubbers are a frequently mentioned alternative. These are made from the fibrous hulls of coconuts bound together with a non-toxic adhesive and are fully compostable. They work fine for general use but may not be abrasive enough for very grimy pots and pans.
These walnut shell scrubbers are perhaps a better choice for cleaning. Despite the name, they are not only made from walnut shells but from natural materials and walnut shells. They are not compostable but are safe for the environment and, of course, will biodegrade much more quickly than plastic without leaching any microplastics into the water. Full Circle also makes an all-natural walnut scrubber sponge.
Scotch-Brite Greener Scouring pads are made from 50% agave plant fibers and 50% polyester. This should be a lesson that ‘greener’ doesn’t mean green.
95% of plastic handled toothbrushes end up in landfills. They certainly are not recycled by most municipal systems, especially since the handles and bristles are made of different materials. Why not replace the handle with a sustainable, biodegradable, and compostable material? There is no better choice than bamboo. Products like the Isshah Bamboo Toothbrush are but one of many choices on the market.
Unfortunately, right now, there are not any good alternatives for the bristles. Most bamboo toothbrushes use nylon bristles. These bristles are very soft and do not always last as long as those on conventional toothbrushes. Some, like the Isshah, also have bristles impregnated with activated charcoal, which is supposed to help clean your teeth. While activated charcoal certainly makes a great filter for impurities, and is even used to help remove toxic chemicals from a patient’s stomach after accidental ingestion, I doubt that it does much used in a toothbrush bristle. What’s more, despite the claims made by the toothbrush companies (who are probably being misled by their suppliers), they are not readily biodegradable. However, by using bamboo, 95% of the plastic is eliminated. To compost these toothbrushes, you’d have to cut off the heads first.
Some bamboo toothbrushes claim to have bristles made with bamboo. This is almost certainly not true. There are others who use partially bio-based nylon bristles. For example, these Natural Charcoal Bamboo Toothbrushes by The Green Root claims to have bristles made from 62% castor bean oil and 38% nylon. If this is true then it certainly reduces the amount of plastic in the bristles and makes for a more attractive option. Although I cannot confirm at this time, I would assume that this nylon is the ECOPAXX® – PA410, which you can read more about. However, the company also claims these bristles are “easy to recycle” which is certainly not true. In answer to one Amazon customer’s question about the bristles, the company told them to contact their local recycling center who would “get the job done.” Most local recycling centers would simply tell you they could not accept such materials. The feasibility of recycling a tiny amount of nylon bristle that is attached to a bamboo head is questionable, at best. However, despite the false or at least overly hopeful claims of the manufacturers, bamboo toothbrushes are certainly a way of reducing the amount of plastic you use by a large amount. Remember, though, that nylon is a type of plastic, so pay no attention to claims of bristles being plastic-free because they are made from nylon.
Toothbrush with Natural Bristles
It is possible to do away with plastic entirely in a toothbrush, of course, but this is an expensive option and may be unattractive to many. The Cebra Wooden Toothbrush with Natural Boar Bristles is made from sustainable wood with bristles of boar’s hair. The boar’s hair comes from the Chinese pork industry. It would normally be a waste product. The first toothbrushes with bristles were made with boar’s hair. If you can get past the origin, you’ll probably find them quite stiff and hard compared to what you are used to. According to users, it is something like a medium hard bristle, as compared to conventional toothbrushes. If it’s anything like a boar’s hair brush (for hair), you’ll probably get the occasional bristle coming off in your mouth. Some users say the bristles came out in droves and the brush fell apart quickly with regular use. Another drawback is that one of these toothbrushes cost as much as a pack of four or five bamboo toothbrushes. Given that it probably doesn’t last nearly as long, it may be a poor option.
Plastic Free Dental Floss
Since you’re doing away with plastic in your toothbrushes you may want to consider plastic-free dental floss. Dental floss is made of plastic and these long fibers could be of particular danger to wildlife. What’s more, the plastic dispensers are hardly ever recycled, especially since they contain mixed materials. This has always bugged me. There is no reason not to have a reusable dispenser made of easily recyclable materials like metal or glass with floss made also from natural materials. It turns out there are some viable choices.
This Bamboo Fiber Dental Floss is impregnated with activated charcoal and coated with natural candelilla wax. It also has peppermint and tea tree essential oils. The floss is on the thicker side but many users are reported great success. It comes with a reusable glass dispenser in a paper package and 66-yard bamboo floss refills (two 33-yard rolls) are available.
Instead of bamboo, you can try this silk dental floss with mint flavoring. It is also coated with candelilla wax and is also compostable. The dispenser is metal and fully recyclable. If you are a vegan or object to the silk industry, then this option is not for you. Remember that the production of involves the killing of silkworm (or another caterpillar) pupae.
Did you know you could get a bar of shampoo? These come in either paper packaging or no packaging at all. There are several readily available choices.
J.R. Ligget’s Bar Shampoo comes in three different varieties so you can use a different scent each time you wash your hair. Their solid shampoo contains all biodegradable and vegan ingredients:
Coconut & Argan Oil: Saponified Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, Castor Oil, Sunflower Oil, RSPO Palm Kernel Oil; Virgin Coconut Oil, Argan Oil, Vit. E.
Jojoba & Peppermint: Saponified Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, Castor Oil, Sunflower Oil, & RSPO Palm Kernel Oil; Jojoba Oil, Almond Oil Peppermint Essential Oil.
Tree Tea &Hemp Oil: Saponified Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, Castor Oil, Sunflower Oil & RSPO Palm Kernel Oil; Tea Tree Oil, Hemp Oil, Almond Oil.
As for hair conditioner, Ethique Bar Conditioner is a popular choice on Amazon. It also uses only vegan ingredients which are fully compostable and contains no palm oil. One thing I like about this product is the honesty the company displays in their description, stating that the conditioner won’t repair your hair, as it is impossible to repair something that is dead. This is true. Your hair is made up of dead cells. Many conditioners claim they ‘repair’ damaged hair but all they actually do is coat the hair shaft to make it seem smoother. Ethique conditioner bars are also a big money-saver, as one bar, according to the company, is equivalent to five regular (350ml) bottles of conditioner.
It contains behentrimonium methosulphate, Cocos nucifera (coconut) oil, cetearyl alcohol, Theobroma cacao (cocoa) butter, vegetable glycerine, panthenol (vitamin b5), coco caprylate, Citrus reticulata (lime) essential oil, benzyl alcohol, dehydroacetic acid, and mica.
Tips for Reducing Plastic Use in Products
Here are some additional tips for when you just can’t avoid plastic but want to be as responsible as possible.
1. Buy Larger Containers
When buying any household product that comes in a plastic container, such as shampoo, conditioner, cleaner, etc. always buy the largest container you can. When you use the larger size, you actually end up using less plastic overall because there is less surface area in one large bottle than two small bottles. If you use liquid hand soap, by a large container that you can dispense into smaller hand pumps.
Some cleaning brands are committed to using as much recycled plastic as possible. For example, Method products use 100% recycled plastic. However, their larger refill products come in plastic pouches. While these are indeed made of recycled plastic, they cannot themselves be recycled in conventional community recycling streams. However, the pouches use 80% less plastic than the companies soap bottles. This is a huge reduction in plastic.
Ecover is another brand that is committed to using recycled plastic in their containers, except, in this case, they are using plastic recovered from the ocean. The company is also developing technologies, based on plankton biomimicry, to use much less plastic for the same strength.
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