The tension between leading a paper plate lifestyle and living zero-waste is perhaps the truest first world problem of our time. But with that first world problem comes first world solutions: easy changes and reasonably-priced products that make it easier to waste less. Each lifestyle change I’ve made has felt like a very conscious logical and emotional shift. But it took thinking it through myself and, in some instances, seeing someone else adopt it in order for me to join the party. So here are some mental shifts I’ve adopted or am working on incorporating into my life, presented in question-and-answer format.
I use paper towels more often than I’d like. How can I shift to using more rags?
I recently came across a wide array of “reusable paper towels” on Etsy, the craft emporium of the Internet. Sounds fancy, enigmatic even, right? It turns out that a reusable paper towel is [drumroll, please] . . . a glorified (expensive!) rag. We are so accustomed to tearing off a paper towel, using it, and tossing it that there’s a market for a retrofit. Reusable paper towels have a cute patterned flannel side and a color coordinating terry cloth side. They are the size of paper towels and come with snaps so that you can assemble them into a roll. You use them as you would a roll of paper towels but the difference is that you wash them and reuse them.
Most kitchens have a dishtowel of some sort that is probably too holy to clean up all spills but if you designate certain rags for certain types of messes (food, dusting/cleaning, etc.) it’s pretty easy to cut paper towels out of the picture. I stitched together my favorite childhood flannel sheets and some old towels to make my own sentimental reusable paper towels. It’s even easier to cut any old shirt you don’t wear anymore into a rag and, as Katerina has written about the conundrums that come with donating clothes, it may be a better use for that slightly worn T-shirt that is unlikely to find many takers, at least in the United States.
Pads and tampons are really wasteful. But there’s nothing I can do about that, right?
Menstrual blood is another sort of mess we’ve gotten too used to keeping at an arm’s length. I first read about the Diva Cup, one of many brands of medical grade silicone menstrual cups available, when I was a teenager. It wasn’t until I got to Calvin that I met people who could actually speak to how to use menstrual cups. Around that time, Thinx used social media savvy to make menstrual underwear cool. I expected to feel a bit squeamish rinsing the bloody lining of my womb out of these products, but turns out it’s not that deep. What’s more, using and washing and reusing cups and underwear normalized menstruation for me, rather than making me feel like I was doing damage control on some strange, contagious condition or running out of bandages for a wound.
I like the way my clothes feel after they come out of the the washer and dryer but I know this puts more strain on the fabric and I’d like to use less water and energy. How can I get my clothes clean and still feeling fresh?
I’ve found a lot of great things on Craigslist but I was shocked to snag a Laundry Pod, a small off-the-grid washer reminiscent of a salad spinner. You place two to ten articles of clothing in with some soapy water and crank it for a couple minutes, then replace it with clean water and crank a few minutes more for a rinse cycle.
After a couple attempts in which I packed it too tight and didn’t get much dirt out of some very grimy rags, I’m still figuring it out. If anything it might make me just revert to washing small batches of clothes in a sink (realistic for me as a single person who doesn’t generate much laundry). But for a little more work, it’s a lot quicker than waiting a few weeks so that I generate enough laundry to justify doing a washing machine load, especially when it’s the kind with the sensors that ends up taking three times as long.
I resisted air drying clothes for a long time because I liked how clothes felt soft and shrank in the dryer. You can still get these results by using less detergent when you wash, adding some white vinegar at the end of the wash cycle, or by tossing some nearly dried clothes in a dryer for just ten minutes.
I like going to cafes and restaurants, which tends to result in paper cups, styrofoam takeout containers, and stacks of napkins. How can I reduce this waste?
In my backpack I usually carry an insulated water bottle, a 12oz reusable coffee cup, a reusable grocery bag, and a fork. I recently added a collapsible silicone food container and a round of plastic with a Velcro strip better suited to wrapping up an extra slice of pizza or an empanada. These items are easily stashed in the extra pockets in my backpack and now I’m ready for most eating-on-the-go situations.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.