Paper products are confusing your brain
One of the very first changes I made to my lifestyle in an attempt to create less waste also made me remember (or possibly even fully realize for the first time) that things like paper towels, paper napkins, and paper plates were developed for convenience at the expense of quality.
Putting greenness aside for a second—I’d like to follow this thought through. Convenience over quality in the case of single-use paper products means “we all accept that this item doesn’t work as well as the original, but when you’re finished you can just throw it out, which is pretty rad.” No laundering, no folding, just use and go on with your business.
When the paper towel was invented in the late 19th century, it was originally meant to stop the spread of germs in public bathrooms. Listen, I’m all for that. Public bathrooms should definitely be as not-gross as possible. But their convenience led them to eventually replace cloth in kitchens and homes.
And companies like Scott were like, “Well dang, now we have this thing that people enjoy throwing away, which means they need to buy more of them pretty quickly! We are brilliant!” So not only did humans get used to convenience over quality, they got more used to paying more for it too.
What a weird thing brains are! Over the generations, paper towels (and then paper napkins and even paper plates, which blows my mind) became not just ubiquitous but basically required in every household.
Back to being green, paper towels may not have as much of an environmental impact as, say, plastic stuff, but, like everything else, they’re manufactured, which means deforestation, and lots of energy, water, and fuel used in mills and transport for something we just…toss (along with the money we use to buy them). Sure, they might be biodegradable and even work pretty well in compost piles, but the chemicals used to make them aren’t exactly planet-friendly.
So, what to do?
I use “bar mops,” which are less mops and more “large-ish squares of terrycloth fabric of the kind that a barkeep might sling over his shoulder while you’re telling him a story that’s making his eyes glaze over.”
I might have these, but I honestly can’t remember. I got them close to a decade ago in a huge pack, and have not had to buy them since. Sometimes, one of my cloths will get so nasty that I have to throw it out—or is used for cleaning up something particularly gross, which is often my dog’s fault. But for the most part, I have about 8-10 cloths in rotation at a time, with a big stack of pristine cotton cloths waiting for me under my sink that I’ve never even used.
The cloths get thrown into the washer (after letting them dry if they’re really wet so as to prevent mildew), and then when I do laundry, there they are. They get dried, folded and stuck back into a small cabinet for ease of use.
But what about paper towels as napkins?
Friends, cloth napkins do the basic napkin job (keeping food from getting all over you) in a superior fashion. They also work better for wiping hands and mouths and spills, and you just toss them in the laundry—daily if you want, or MAYBE every other week if you’re me.
Because I read too much Jane Austen, I have a set of napkins that are more formal, which we use at dinner, particularly if people are over. And I have another set of kind of mismatched ones that I use for eating pizza in front of the TV.
Mostly, though, cloth napkins seems entirely normal to me. The weight and feel of a paper towel or paper napkin on my lap is frankly unsatisfying, and won’t hold up to the spills I will inevitably produce, because I am basically a grownup child.
But what about paper plates?
Surely I do not have to make the case that a real plate is better at holding food than a paper plate. Jane Austen would cry at the very idea of a paper plate, and I’m guessing you already have these in your kitchen anyway.
It’s almost as if quality costs less money sometimes.
You’re correct! I don’t find my laundry-doing significantly impacted, and I just never even visit that aisle anymore in the grocery store. Except for toilet paper, which we’ll get to in this series one of these days.
I want you to try going without paper towels, napkins, and plates for a month, and I bet you won’t miss them. Then, I want you to look around and think about what other things we have that we just accept are the Way Things Have Always Been And Must Continue Forever because generations of marketing has led us to believe this. Which other things are you paying money to throw away?
There are entire internet tomes available for you to read (in addition to actual made-of-paper tomes) about the importance of eating organic food that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals that are harmful to both your body and the environment.
I won’t bore you with what you already know—eating well became one of the first things I ever did to improve my greenness and it was instantly rewarding. But, it gets expensive if you don’t do it right.
It also gets super, super wasteful. Buying a bunch of organic produce (or any food, for that matter) that you don’t need just means it ends up in landfills, where rotting food makes up a gross amount of trash and releases methane into the atmosphere.
As the EPA says, feed people, not landfills.
On a family level, watching your fridge fill with food you don’t end up eating makes shopping seem pointless. “I end up just throwing most of it away and it feels like I’m wasting money, so I might as well eat out,” is something I hear a lot. Bad news, but restaurants are wasteful too, and they’re way more likely to have stuff in your food you don’t want to be putting into your body. Plus, if you believe you’re saving money by eating out all the time, I would like to have a look at your bank statements.
In sum, the most sustainable (and delicious) ways to eat are:
- Grow as much of your own food as you can
- Go organic, particularly from local farms (the farmers market is your friend)
- Cook all the time
I can’t help you with the first—I’m just figuring out gardening myself—but over the years I’ve perfected the art of planning my meals to a minimally wasteful, seasonally appropriate, money-saving and skill-building art. Also, I get to listen to audiobooks while I’m cooking, so I’m not sweating it either.
Susan’s Tried and True Meal-Planning Approach
Step 1: Subscribe to food magazines for seasonal ideas, and never say “I don’t know what to make for dinner” again.
You could also find some good blogs you like, but it’s important not to just search for recipes. Sure, I’ll search for a special request for a baked good, but the world of internet recipes is too vast and too untried. Finding your favorite food magazines gives you a trusted source that gets delivered to your door, and features recipes that have seasonal produce in them.
This way, you get a sense of what’s in season when, and don’t head to the grocery store for strawberries in February. (Strawberries in February are not only subpar, they have to be shipped in from far away, and will usually be expensive.)
My favorite food magazines are Milk Street, Cook’s Illustrated (both of these are a little more advanced), and Martha Stewart Living—also handy if you need to make a superfluous thing from a rope, some paint, and 14 other special craft tools you do not own. I go off and on with Vegetarian Times, too. I’m not a vegetarian, but their focus on produce is more in line with my style.
Step 2: Once a month, or as they arrive, look through your magazines and any cookbooks you feel like using and dog-ear (or write down with page number) any recipes that catch your eye.
Step 3: Each weekend (or whatever day works for you), go through your calendar and figure out which days you are eating at home. Go through your list (or dog-ears) and try to pick recipes that feature a lot of the same ingredients, particularly those that come in bunches.
Does one recipe require two scallions? Well, guess what, cooks. Scallions come in bunches of six or more. Try to find two recipes that require scallions and you’re good to go.
Does one require a tiny amount of a weird thing you don’t have and you don’t feel like buying a ton of? Skip it, unless you think it’ll be vital to the recipe. Then, find some other recipes to make that month that use the ingredient.
Then, look at serving size to see if you can stretch one meal into leftovers for the following night. Make a meal plan on your calendar so you can keep track of what you’re planning to make when. This will help you remember to defrost a thing, and it will provide a very big incentive to not go out.
Step 4: Make a shopping list and do not veer from it. I use the app Shopper, which sorts it into nice aisles for you.
Step 5: Shop at a place that carries good food. I try to start with the farmers market on my weekly trip there, then hit up a store that specializes in natural foods, then will go to Kroger if I need to. I don’t always do this three-stop process but sometimes, it cannot be helped.
Stock up on stuff like coconut milk, ginger, and rice at Asian markets, and treat yourself to good spices at Penzey’s. Once you get your pantry stocked, your grocery list will get pretty minimal.
Step 6: Look up the ways to store your food properly, and keep your fridge pretty clean. This last part is for psychological reasons. If you know you’re going to open up your fridge to 25 pounds of rotting food, you are less likely to open up your fridge at all and will just throw your magazines away and order pizza. The number of times I have done this is…embarrassing.
And of course, compost everything you don’t eat (unless it’s an animal product).
Bonus step: Get a binder or folder, tear out the page with a recipe you loved, and don’t bother with ones you merely liked. Who has time for recipes that are just OK? Might as well just keep the gold-medal winners. Then, when you can’t find any inspiration, you can just go to your binder and find your faves. I have some sorted into “quick and easy” and “impressive dinner” sections.
Bonus bonus step: Invite me over for dinner. I will bring dessert.
Real quick, let’s revisit my goals for this series:
* To help you reduce your impact on the earth…
* …in ways you can absolutely handle
I wanted to reiterate because this is an episode that might start you out with an eye roll. But once your eyes settle back into their normal reading position, I want to assure you that I will replace dry cleaning in your life with something just as convenient, effective, and effortlessly better:
More dry cleaning.
But first, let us define.
Dry cleaning is neither dry nor clean. Well, I guess it depends on how you define either. Dry cleaning could be better described as “non-water cleaning.” Your clothes certainly get wet, they just get swished around in chemicals that don’t do whatever damage water does to various fibers. And if “clean” means that you can’t see dirt on your clothes, then sure. But if it means “not bathed in toxic chemicals that now are entering your airspace as well as your skinspace,” then nope.
A brief history.
Cleaners used to use kerosene—yes the kind that easily bursts into flames—before bursting into flames started to seem like a bad trait for textiles you wear on your body, not to mention your place of work. Then, perchloroethylene was discovered.
Perc & you!
Perc, which is also used to degrease metal and shine shoes, is very likely cancer-causing—as the wearer, you’re at less of a risk (still gross, though), but as a dry cleaning employee, you certainly are—and it definitely can cause brain and nerve damage, liver damage, and a bunch of other damages you don’t want. Even people standing close to other people who work at a dry cleaners can get secondhand perc fumes. Even if you live NEAR a dry cleaners, you can be breathing in perc, which is toxic even in low levels.
How to avoid
- A lot of stuff you typically dry clean can be laundered at home—I’ve been using these tips by Martha Stewart for many years. You could just avoid these types of fabrics, but as both silk and wool meet my natural fiber standards. I enjoy them, so I do the work.
2. Go to the dry cleaners. But not just any dry cleaners! Find yourself an eco-friendly cleaners that doesn’t use perc.
To make it even easier for you, allow me to recommend my new favorite, C. Alexander’s Cleaners in Church Hill (2007 Venable St.). As far as I could find (or the owner, Marion Fields, knows of), it’s the only green cleaners in town. And don’t buy anyone who just says “organic”—it could just mean carbon-based, which perc, technically, is.
To make it EVEN easier for you so that you don’t have to talk to strangers (although you should, because Marion is a really cool lady), I have asked her her motivations and her methods. Put simply, she did a lot of research and didn’t want her or her employees (some of whom are her own family) to get sick. So, instead of sending clothes out to the dry cleaning plants most retailers do (spoiler, you didn’t think the tiny cleaners next to your old apartment really has a big chemical processing facility down in the basement did you?), she found one in Highland Springs that was perc-free.
Caption: Here’s Marion and the patient customer who endured my question-asking.
As far as I can tell, prices seem pretty on-point at C. Alexander’s, where they also do alterations in a pleasant friendly environment—one customer even pleasantly waited forever for me to ask a million questions.
3. Request no plastic bagging for your clothes. If you’re at C. Alexander’s, this reduces the amount of plastic in the world. If you’re determined to stick to a perc-using cleaner, this lets your clothes air out so you’re not creating a weird gaseous greenhouse and making things worse than they already are.
Bonus: Return wired hangers if your dry cleaner accepts them, and I bet they do. Velvet hangers save space, hold your clothes way better, and do not make Joan Crawford mad. There’s no reason to encourage even more wire hangers to eventually end up in landfills, chilling with all the plastic and living for a very long time.
Double bonus: Tell your current cleaner what’s up. The easiest way to do this is to walk right in, ask if they use perc, and when they say yes, say “Oh, I’m sorry I’ll have to find someone else.” The more they hear this, they more they’ll consider switching over.
I haven’t always been good about taking care of my clothes. When I was a kid, it felt like clothes grew on trees—they just seemed to magically appear (thanks in part to the steady stream of hand-me-downs from three older siblings)—so why think too much about them?
Big huge reason one: buying new stuff all the time keeps you in a wasteful cycle (and keeps you sad, more on that later).
Big huge reason two: Keeping demand of cheap, hastily made “fast fashion” means companies are more likely to exploit their cheap labor, use cheap and gross chemicals and fabrics, and pocket all your money with one of those big fat cat moneybags laughs (I assume).
Laundering your clothes with care includes folding, using the right temperature (always cold, my dudes), and line drying the fragile stuff. Taking the time to fold well and hang what needs to be hung also gives you a chance to inspect clothes for tears and loose threads. And of course, always mend when you can versus throwing something out.
But there’s another big huge reason to look more closely at how you’re cleaning your clothes. Most detergents are terrible!
Commercial detergents often contain synthetic chemicals, dyes, and fragrances. Water from our washers and dishwashers gets dumped into the river, which ends up in the ocean. Detergent chemicals help overload water with nutrients that skew the balance in aquatic ecosystems and cause increasingly problematic dead zones for marine life. You want a non-hippie reason? Fishing and other river, bay, and ocean-related industries make up a lot of our region’s economic livelihood.
But it works so well on my clothes!
A lot of that is weird trickery. Many commercial brands of detergent use “optical brighteners” on fabric that makes our eyes see brighter colors. Repeat after me: synthetic chemicals aren’t good for your clothing, the planet, or your skin.
What does one do about this?
I got into biodegradable Charlie’s Soap Powder when I was using cloth diapers for my infant. You can’t use detergent on those because all those dumb chemicals make the fabric less absorbent. Not good for diapers. I eventually started using Charlie’s for every type of laundry and quickly figured out that my clothes felt better, got just as clean, and I saved money and reduced waste in the process.
Here are some solid reviews of other legit detergents or, and you knew this was coming, you can make your own!
Cheap, green, effective, and dead easy laundry powder
I found a million recipes for homemade laundry powder and they were almost all the same:
1 bar unscented castile soap
1 cup borax
1 cup washing soda (aka sodium carbonate)
Grate the bar of soap on a grater. Mix with other ingredients. Add a couple drops of essential oil for scent if you like (I prefer to let my perfume do the talking, thank you very much).
Mix it all up very well. Use a teaspoon per full load, and don’t be tempted to use more. You won’t need it.
I put mine in my old Charlie’s bag, with its existing handy scoop. Then I tried to do a cost analysis...but I’m not a mathematician and I had so much washing soda and borax left, that I can only say it was “extremely cheap.”
The only waste I generated with this particular batch (since I bought in bulk for the other two ingredients). No good, Kirk’s! Make it paper!
To the test
If you’re aware of six-year-old boys, you might be aware that they are constantly covered in dirt. I have one of those, so I tested out my new powder on his grimy clothes. Voila, it worked like a charm. Ditto for my delicates and towels.
I’m giving everyone homemade laundry powder for holiday gifts and I will lose a bunch of friends but save so many fish. You’re welcome, fish.
Next time: What to do about dry cleaning!
Plastic does not budge.
We all know deep down in our hearts that the great majority of the plastic we’ve used in our lifetimes is still sitting around somewhere, but we keep buying it and buying it and throwing it out and throwing it out, and because it’s out of sight, it’s also out of mind, leaving us free to want more plastic.
Let’s leave landfills out of it for now (although new evidence says that America’s could be full in 13 years, great!), and talk about the ocean.
A plastic bag was just found in the Mariana Trench, aka the deepest point in the world. Millions of us could literally assemble on the giant islands of water bottles and drinking straws that float upon the sea—and I assume once we assemble there we would just...stand around and cry?
Sure, you can (and should) recycle some kinds of plastic but what about the other stuff that you can’t recycle? And the plastic you use at restaurants? Stores? Packaging? And how much plastic actually turns into useful things?
If you simply bring less plastic into your world, you don’t have to worry about it ending up in the stomach of a doomed dolphin. And as cute as dolphins are, it’s not just about them. Destroying marine eco-systems affects us like crazy.
Here’s my list of ways I’ve reduced plastic in and out of my home. I didn’t do it overnight, but after every step, it felt easier and easier.
- Drinking straws are almost always unnecessary. Ask for no straw with your water, and use the magic of your elbow and wrist joints to put the drink to your mouth. Or, carry a stainless steel straw around with you if you must. A growing tide of people refusing straws not only means that a restaurant will have to order straws a lot less, but also they’re hearing a powerful message.
- Carry a reusable water bottle with you and avoid idly accepting plastic water bottles at parties, meetings, and other functions.
- Swear off plastic wrap. This one actually was tough for me because I cook and bake incessantly, but I found Bees Wrap and so far, so good
- Swear off Ziploc bags. But before you do, wash and reuse the ones you have—the big gallon freezer ones can be used like a thousand times before they bite the dust. Use glass, not plastic, storage containers and you’ll never look back.
- Think hard about packaging. It takes extra work to find alternatives to products that come in plastic packaging, but the internet is a wonderful place. Here’s a shop that gave me some good ideas, and a lot of the brands they carry are available in other places, too.
- Get a fountain pen. Bear with me, but they make you write beautifully and I’ve had the same one for 30 years, because I was a strange child and enjoyed things like this.
- Make a no plastic bag vow. My partner and I did this a couple years ago and it was way easier than we thought. Buying things at CVS? No bag, please. Here for groceries? Got my own bag, thanks. It becomes second nature, and hopefully it’ll stop cashiers from automatically putting the one greeting card you just bought into a useless bag.
- Buy the right fabrics. Synthetic fabric is basically plastic (not to mention bad for your skin and the environment, it’s uncomfortable and often super ugly). Spring for organic, natural fibers like cotton, take care of your clothes, and watch your sartorial world change.
- Get used anything whenever possible. The best way to get a new thing without being wasteful is to get a thing that already existed for someone else. It saves you money, feels super satisfying, and keeps them from throwing it away. Learn the ways of eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace (a new goldmine), and the like. Sell your own stuff on there, too.
- Do research. There are so many non-plastic or reusable alternatives that more often than not, work ten times better than the cheap stuff you’re used to and in the long run, cost you less money. I found the following just from asking around: These sponges, compostable dental floss (yes!), and, a thing we should not be afraid to talk about, products for healthy, happy female bodies.
- Regarding kids, just...do your best. This is the toughest one for me, as my child’s extended family loves to shower him with items. I try to get used when possible, drag him to scary exhibits about plastic in oceans (thanks, Science Museum of Virginia! That one that time really made an actual impression), and talk a TON about the environment in my house. Sometimes it still feels like I’m fighting a tidal wave of colorful plastic from the world outside my immediate environs, but I hope I’m setting an example of someone who buys quality things only when they need them and lives a life without tiny tchotchkes, stocking stuffers, and party favors.
If you’re looking around your house with dismay, do not panic. Doing these things one at a time is the way to go, and soon it’ll be second nature. Use up the stuff you have, dispose of it as best you can, and try to keep that dolphin—or, you know, future generations of humans—in mind.