Disposing of Disposables
by Patrice Lewis About 10 years ago, our family made a deliberate effort to dispose of disposables and replace them with reusable and/or washable versions. We’ve never looked back.
Why did we take this drastic action? The reasons were multi-pronged. We didn’t like our garbage output. We didn’t like tipping plastics into the landfill. We didn’t like buying things that could only be used once. We didn’t like the throwaway culture that has permeated American society. And most of all, we didn’t like wasting money (which is always tight).
Do you realize how many things we buy for no other purpose than to throw them away? Think about it: facial tissues, plastic cutlery, paper plates, plastic wrap, shopping bags, diapers, paper towels, feminine hygiene, even canning lids. By one estimate, the average American throws away nearly $5,000 of disposable goods every year. What could you do with an extra $5,000?
A Nation of Disposables
Once upon a time, everyday disposables were not an option. Manufacturing simply wasn’t up to it; and even if it was, most people wouldn’t waste their money on single-use things. When did all that change?
In the wake of World War II, manufacturing ramped up hand-in-glove with advertising and disposable income. The old-fashioned methods of doing things — as well as the thrifty Depression-era wisdom of “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” — gave way to the convenience of pre-packaged or instant foods, single-use cutlery and dishware, disposable diapers, paper towels, and facial tissues.
Suburbs, which supplied housing for millions of young families in the post-war years, became places of relative affluence and jostling for status (i.e., “keeping up with the Joneses”). As disposable income became more prevalent, manufacturers and advertisers saw a market for novelties such as paper plates or paper towels or disposable diapers, and set about convincing people that these items were sanitary, efficient, and healthy. Eventually these luxuries became “necessities,” and the use of reusables began to diminish.
It got to the point where people shunned reusables. Those who continued to use handkerchiefs, cloth diapers, dish towels, or even canned their own food were considered hopelessly old-fashioned. It was only a few stubborn holdouts who believed they were saving money by sticking with the thrifty way of doing things.
Cheaper in the Long Run
There’s no question disposables have their place, particularly in medical or industrial settings. But at home, it’s a lot easier than you think to wean yourself off stuff that can be thrown away, and embrace things that can be reused. Even giving up paper towels is a snap, which shocks some people.
Initially the cost is higher for some items, of course, but in the long run switching to reusables will save a significant amount of money. Best of all, you’ll never “run out” of some critical item (diapers, anyone?) in the middle of a blizzard or a lockdown.
So how do you dispose of disposables? The very first thing to do is walk through your house and take an inventory of what disposables you use on a daily basis. Everyone’s list will vary, but here’s a sampling:
- Paper napkins
- Paper plates
- Plastic cutlery
- Plastic wrap (Saran Wrap, etc.)
- Plastic/paper cups
- Shopping bags
- Vacuum cleaner bags
- Coffee filters
- Canning lids
- Baby wipes
- Toilet paper
- Disposable razors
- Feminine hygiene
- Paper towels
- Disposable diapers
- Facial tissue
Doubtless you can add to this list after walking through your own home. Now, for each item on your list, seek out the washable, reusable alternatives and invest in those. Yes, the cost is likely to be higher initially. But how much will you save in the long run? (Hint: probably at least $5,000 each year.)
Even the ubiquitous paper towel is easy to phase out. We go through one roll of paper towels about every two or three years, since we only use them for especially nasty messes (paint spills, dog vomit). For every other purpose, we use either rags (for messy jobs) or terrycloth towels (for kitchen use) purchased in bulk at Costco under the guise of “shop rags.” In the kitchen, I change the towel anywhere from twice a day (for light kitchen duties) up to four or five times a day (for active kitchen projects). A 60-count bale of terrycloth “shop rags” will last for at least 10 years of hard use before the towels become ratty or worn enough to transition to the rag basket.
Keep in mind one of the reasons people transitioned to disposables is they have an aversion to washing to reusables. This is something you’ll have to accept — reusables usually require washing. Because of this, if water is in short supply (natural disasters, power outages, even traveling), then disposables are the better option.
But in everyday non-emergency circumstances, weaning yourself off disposables is smart. Not only does it mean you’ve adapted to the reusable versions, but you’ll always have an abundant supply on hand.
Facing the Future
It’s ironic that disposable products were originally touted as the wave of the future. Well, we’ve seen the future (envision the typical landfill) and it isn’t pretty. Now, forward-thinking people are changing the course of their personal lives and shifting toward reusables.
There’s one more factor of reusables that should convince you of their worth: supply-chain shortages. As we face an uncertain future in America with endless products in short supply, having your own personal stock of washable or reusable replacements for disposable products is smart.
It’s time to rediscover the wonders of handkerchiefs, the ease of cloth diapers, the efficiency of reusable canning lids, the thriftiness of bowl covers, the ease of washable feminine hygiene, the usefulness of a rag basket — and a healthier bank account once all these reusable items are in your repertoire and you’re no longer wasting money on single-use products. Over time, you’ll wonder what you ever saw in disposables.
PATRICE LEWIS is a wife, mother, homesteader, homeschooler, author, blogger, columnist, and speaker. An advocate of simple living and self-sufficiency, she has practiced and written about self-reliance and preparedness for almost 30 years. She is experienced in homestead animal husbandry and small-scale dairy production, food preservation and canning, country relocation, home-based businesses, homeschooling, personal money management, and food self-sufficiency. Follow her website http://www.patricelewis.com/ or blog http://www.rural-revolution.com/.
Originally published in March/April 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.