All day, everyday, we do it without really thinking about it. Pull that coffee filter full of spent grounds out of the machine after your morning cuppa, and toss it into the kitchen trash. Grab a paper towel from the office pantry to serve as a napkin for your lunch break, wipe your mouth and hands, and then toss it in a bin. Pull apart the plastic packaging or wrapper from a newly purchased tube of mascara, and discard it. Open a purchase delivered through the mail, then break down the box for recycling and place the foam padding into the garbage can. All day, everyday, we generate waste. But consider this: what if this wasn’t the case? What if nothing was disposable? In this third installment of our series on stepping back from consumerism, I offer some suggestions for how to creep toward this ideal in your everyday life.
What if nothing was disposable? I know this question reads as ludicrous to some, and overly utopian to others. I do not think it is realistic to expect that all goods would be made for durability. What I question is the concept “disposable”; the very idea that something can be used once, and then discarded. To achieve sustainable lifestyles we must revise our expectations and daily behaviors; we must shift paradigms out of “disposable” and into “reusable.” A world in which nothing was disposable would also be a world in which everything was reusable. In this world, all that we purchase or create would have use value beyond its initial function.
When Karl Marx wrote about commodities back in the 1860s, he pointed out that they have both exchange value and use value. Exchange value is the equivalent of whatever you might successfully exchange an item for, whether that be money, other goods, or favors owed. Use value is the value something presents to you as far as you have a use for it. When we work within a paradigm of disposable, we tend to overlook both types of value after first use. In this article I offer a three point plan for moving away from disposable through appreciation of the use value of all things, and toward sustainable living. The three points are as follows: 1. Eliminate consumption of disposable items and packaging. 2. If you cannot eliminate disposable, reuse typically disposed of items, including packaging. 3. Repurpose what you cannot reuse.
Though I addressed in depth the connection between consumption, waste, and global climate change in the first installment of this series, let’s review briefly why eliminating disposable is important. Annie Leonard pointed out in her film The Story of Stuff that each person in the United States generates four and a half pounds of waste per day. While a small portion of that might be composted or recycled, most of it ends up in landfills and oceans. The ubiquitous plastic shopping bag causes a lot of trouble in both places. According to the Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment, the average American uses 500 plastic bags per year. Californians use 19 billion annually, of which less than five percent are recycled. And, each year about 300 million pounds of plastic dry cleaning bags find their way to landfills too. This level of usage and disposal has contributed to a massive 7 billion pound floating collection of plastics in the Pacific Ocean that is about twice the size of Texas.
Contemporary norms of hygiene facilitate a lot of waste too. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported in 2008 that nearly 3.5 million tons of tissues and paper towels went into landfills. In the bathroom, an average woman will use up to 15,000 disposable menstrual products over the course of her life, and will spend about $4,000 doing so. And, when you think about the products that fill your bathroom and that compose your cleaning supply, there is an immense amount of disposable plastic containing them. While recycling has been championed for decades now, it is not a solution to the problem of waste. For starters, the by the EPA’s records, only seven percent of all plastics in the U.S. are recycled. Secondly, Dean Kubani, Environmental Programs Division Manager for the City of Santa Monica recently reported that there is not much of a market for recycled plastic because of the cost of collecting, cleaning, and processing involved in producing it. For most manufacturers, virgin plastic resin is cheaper. Of course, we should all recycle the materials that we no loner have a viable use for. But also, let’s consider some simple solutions that will help us reduce our reliance on disposable items.
Santa Monica recently banned single-use plastic bags from distribution at points of sale, and Los Angeles is now proposing to ban both plastic and paper bags city-wide. Throughout major cities in Europe a tax for the use of paper or plastic bags in grocery stores is not uncommon, which prompts many to rely on reusable bags. Regardless of whether the issue has reached the political realm where you live, carrying a reusable bag is a simple solution to a huge problem, and is something that you can change about your daily routine with almost no effort. Reusable bags are readily available for sale in a range of shapes and sizes, and many fold into a tiny ball for ease of travel. When you think about it, they often come into our lives free of charge too. As I live the life of a traveler, the cloth, drawstring bag that encased a pair of shoes that I bought this spring is now keeping my adapters, cords, and small electronics together in one place. If you dry clean regularly, you might consider investing in a reusable dry cleaning bag, or repurposing a bag from the purchase of a suit or dress.
Cloth Napkins & Towels
Switching from paper napkins and towels to cloth is incredibly easy. Once you make the switch, you will be amazed that you ever felt the paper versions were necessary, and will find the thought of spending money on them ridiculous. Some would make the case for using recycled paper products instead of cloth because of the energy cost of laundering reusable items, however if one uses a cloth napkin for multiple meals, then washes in an energy efficient manner (for example, with cold instead of hot water), cloth wins the sustainability contest. Don’t be dissuaded by the germaphobic critics either. Cleaning with cloth requires just three rags, and a bit of common sense.
Reusable Menstrual Cups
As a devoted user who switched about a year ago, I can personally attest, as do many other women, to the excellent nature of the reusable menstrual cup. The the cup has been in use for over 150 years, but it was not until the 1990s that it became more readily available. Today, menstrual cups come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. With just a little bit of practice, they are easy to insert and remove. Besides the reduction of waste, the cup provides more freedom in daily life because it needs to changed only every 8-12 hours, offers health benefits, and is more comfortable than its disposable counterparts.
Other Simple Solutions to Reduce Waste
- Carry a reusable water bottle or canteen.
- Keep a mug and reusable to-go cup at work for coffee and tea.
- Pack your lunch in reusable containers and wraps, and bring a reusable utensil and napkin.
- Use containers that you can reuse instead of foil and plastic wrap to preserve food.
- Use a reusable recycling container in your home instead of paper bags.
- Don’t put liners in smaller trash cans around your home. Instead, empty them into one larger, lined bin.
- Buy bulk and refillable products instead of their counterparts that come in single-use packaging.
- Avoid unnecessarily packaged produce.
The second of the three point plan focuses on reusing items that we typically view as disposable. Adopting the paradigm that nothing is disposable automatically endows everything around you with use value, even if that value isn’t immediately obvious. There is no need to purchase food storage containers when you realize the number of them around you in the form of plastic take-away containers, and the emptied containers of store-bought food items. These are great for refrigerating or freezing home cooked food, and help to accomplish a no-waste packed lunch, as do plastic utensils, which can be washed and reused just as well as their more durable counterparts. You can wash and reuse plastic zip-lock bags and aluminum foil too. And, if you find yourself with the dreaded plastic bag, reuse it for whatever might be convenient. I have made a habit of keeping some in the canvas bags I use for farmers market shopping. That way, I never have to take additional plastic bags at the market.
Rubber bands, plastic and wire ties, and plastic plant containers are examples of items that come into our lives that are typically disposed of, but present much use value if saved. When you receive that boxed online order, keep the box and bubble wrap instead of disposing of it. Doing so will result in a valuable stock of boxes for your own mailing and gift-giving needs. If you are a careful receiver of gifts, you can repurpose wrapping and tissue paper, gift bags, ribbons, and bows. In the office, saving printed documents that you no longer need quickly leads to a pile of paper that can be reused for your internal printing needs.
In a culture of consumption and disposal we often forget that things can be repaired instead of replaced. Having shoes mended is a great way to save money and reduce waste. A good cobbler can replace just about any broken or worn down heel, and resoling can vastly extend the mileage of your shoes. Many rips or frays in clothes are easily repaired or patched, and super glue and tape can fix many a busted household item. Having recently moved and sold most of my possessions, I can attest to the fact that people are eager to buy your used appliances and household goods, no matter how spent you think they might be. This may be the digital age, but I had no problem selling my VCR. And, while we’ve already covered this, it bears repeating that composting is easy, and rewarding.
The final element of the three point plan is repurposing goods that you would normally throw away. This differs from the second point because it is not simple reuse, but rather the creative revision of the possible uses of an object. An example that many of you likely do already is the repurposing of glass bottles as vases and candlesticks. The variety of shapes, sizes, and colors of glass wine, beer, and water bottles on the market makes for a great low-cost home décor. In addition, larger beer bottles that have built-in stoppers are easily turned into shabby-chic still water vessels for a dinner party.
Recently in Zurich I came upon a great example of a repurposed good, in the form of olive tins converted into ottomans at a little shop in the old city.
If you make home made salsas, sauces, hummus, salad dressings, iced tea or coffee, or infused spirits, emptied glass jars from purchased foods are fantastic for storing them. The wide mouth of tomato sauce jars affords ease of pouring liquids in and out, and bottles for goods like balsamic vinegar and olive oil translate well into containers for home made dressings. Glass food jars also repurpose well into food storage for pastas, grains, and other dry ingredients, like sugar and flour. Smaller glass jars are also great for illuminating with tea lights. Don’t forget that food can be repurposed too. If you are bored by the repetition of leftovers, consider converting that food into a different dish. Already roasted vegetables provide a delicious base for a savory egg scramble, and leftover meats and rice can add both taste and nutrients to a freshly made green salad.
Repurposing goods is an affordable way to create art and décor for your home, and gifts for others too. In fact, there is a thriving community of professional artists who work primarily with found objects, like Jami Joelle Nielsen, who made the piece of art seen here.
Dried flowers can easily become art too. Before a bouquet has wilted, press them between books, then mount on a piece of cardboard or thick paper, and pop them into a frame. If you are feeling particularly ambitious about your dried plants, consider how you might repurpose them into earrings. Stefanie Stauffer, a committed urban farmer, has made (and sold!) earrings made from dried tomatillo husks and dried red peppers.
Pull tabs from aluminum cans can be repurposed into a variety of things, like this purse made by my friend Tiffany Hall. Tiffany is currently working on a quilt made from her collection of t-shirts with sentimental value.
The greeting cards you receive, and wall calendars you buy are also great candidates for repurposing into art, whether singularly framed or collaged. In fact, I have even used pages from a Rothko calendar as wrapping paper. The recipients loved the art, and appreciated the ingenuity. Instead of chucking candle stubs, consider keeping them until you have a sizable amount. Melt them, and then pour the wax around a string in one of those glass jars you have saved. Add a drop of an essential oil, and you’ve got a home made scented candle.
Interested in learning how to do something that isn’t listed here, or curious about sustainable living in general? Check out this great wiki designed to facilitate knowledge sharing on the topic.
Please join the conversation to share your tactics for reusing and repurposing. Together, we just might make “disposable” a strange chapter in history.