Prioritizing Plastic-Free Changes

Tonight, Santa will be driving his jeep (the traditional Santamobile of Southern California) through the streets of my neighborhood collecting donations from those of us who are lucky enough to have all we need and then some. The donations of toys, food, toiletries, and other essentials and treats will then be distributed to those in our neighborhood who have fallen on hard times — who have lost their jobs, who are on a fixed income that doesn’t quite meet their needs, who have suffered a loss, who have had the joy (and economic burden) of an addition to their family. They even encourage the donation of pet food, an often neglected item. It’s an incredible neighborhood program that has existed since long before I moved here and is a great example of neighbors helping neighbors the way they should. The program runs all year, but like many charities, it gets a windfall of donations during the holidays.

Since I transitioned to a nearly plastic-free bathroom, I have a lot of brand-new items (shampoo, conditioner, soap, shaving cream…) to share in addition to the items I’ll purchase as I’m out and about for my birthday today.

I have a tendency to jump into things with both feet and a heavy weight. That’s why, if you’ve been around since I was writing about learning Thai, I subscribed to so many Thai language programs even though I clearly didn’t have time for them all. That’s why I’m currently spending so much time studying American Sign Language (I just realized I have zero posts about that). And that’s why I’m pretty much broke at the moment because of all the plastic-free stuff I’ve been buying.

So I’m looking at the changes I’ve made and thinking that maybe some readers might benefit from a priority list so that they don’t spend all their money right away only to realize that some of the items weren’t truly necessary. In order to help my readers think more critically about where they prioritize their money and time (and to help myself be more thoughtful), I’m taking my list from a couple posts ago and organizing it into the following categories: Easy, Easy and Saves Money, Difficult but Important, Expensive but Important, and Probably Can Wait until Later.

If you decide to jump in too quickly like I did, though, don’t forget that the things you are casting off from your life are likely treasures for someone in need. Don’t trash them; share them. And once you start saving money on this journey (and you will), don’t forget to share that — both the knowledge of how to save and the savings themselves — with people who are less fortunate. Saving the planet is worthwhile; so is helping the people who live on it.


1. Bring your own produce bags: I haven’t seen any place give discounts for this yet, but it’s totally easy. Just don’t forget to wash your produce bags regularly. The bags themselves are super cheap.

2. Switch from bottled shampoo to bar shampoo, ACV rinse, and optional argon oil: In retrospect, since I still have unopened bottles of shampoo and conditioner around (going to Santa today!), I should have waited to do this until I needed new shampoo, but I was excited to do something right away, and that was what I chose. Also, I was afraid of the hair horror stories I’d heard on the internet, so I wanted to try it out over Thanksgiving break when I didn’t have to go to work and had few social engagements just in case my hair ended up looking like a greasy bird’s nest. Ah, vanity. I don’t know yet if this saves money as I haven’t yet gone through an entire bar. My guess is it does. It definitely does if you’ve been buying the expensive stuff. It most certainly saves on waste. Here’s a tip: don’t leave your shampoo bar in the shower — it’ll melt away!

3. Replace saran/plastic wrap with waxed cloth: This is super easy and works well. I haven’t used a single piece of plastic wrap since I made one large and two small waxed cloths about a month ago. I’m going to make another set this winter. In time, it will probably pay for itself, but the beeswax and cloth initially did cost more than a roll of plastic wrap.

Easy and Saves Money

1. Bring your own bags shopping (not just for groceries): Really, there’s no excuse not to do this. Grocery stores now pass along some of the savings they get from not having to buy so many bags to you. It’s only a few cents, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

2. Reuse: If you buy glass jars of peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, or other items, don’t toss them out! These will save you money on new glass containers for bulk grocery shopping and storage. After you’ve got enough for your own needs, you can use them for gifts of food or recycle them.

3. Pack your lunch with reusable containers and cutlery: This is another easy one. Homemade food costs less than eating out, and using the same containers over and over saves both money and waste.

4. Bring your own water bottle: I took an extra step and got a Kleen Kanteen because I found out my Sigg bottle was likely lined with BPA, but just the act of bringing your own bottle of any kind is going to be kind to both the environment and your wallet. It may also be healthier if it keeps you from being tempted to buy unhealthy drinks while you’re out and about.

5. Use a menstrual cup and/or cloth pads: I mentioned before I’ve been using the Keeper for about twenty years. At this point, even though I’ve had to buy two (the first was stolen along with my purse), I’ve saved thousands of dollars and avoided pounds of waste and excess packaging (each tampon or pad often contains plastic, is individually wrapped in plastic, and comes in a plastic or cardboard box; the Keeper comes in a cardboard box, includes a cloth carry bag, and lasts at least ten years). I’ve also ridded myself of any chance of toxic shock syndrome and have been more comfortable than ever. When I first got the Keeper, I thought I’d need pads at night, so I got Luna pads. They were also comfortable and easy to clean, but it turns out I don’t need them. The Keeper works great at night, too. Some people I know swear by the Diva Cup which is made of silicone. I like the natural gum rubber of the Keeper, but I don’t think you can go wrong either way.

6. Use washable rags for cleaning: Target and other stores are full of disposable cleaning products: paper towels, Swiffer pads, disposable dust cloths… None of them are necessary, and it’s likely you already have some rags lying around to use for cleaning. I have some washable blue microfiber cloths for dusting, and now I have small yellow washcloths for all other cleaning. I thought color coding would keep me from using something I’d used on the floor from covering rising bread dough, so I stand by my decision to buy new rags, but it wasn’t absolutely necessary. I even got reusable swiffer pads from Juniperseed Mercantile (no plastic packaging!). We had a Swiffer for a while and then moved on to a Reveal mop which is the same idea but with cloth pads. Having reusable Swiffer pads means two areas can be mopped at the same time (I have cleaning parties, so this is actually a possibility) and that Swiffer isn’t destined for the dump.

7. Switch from bottled shower soap to bar soap: It’s been over a month since the switch and I’m still on the same bar of soap, two of which cost the same amount as the bottled soap I was buying that only lasted a month. The kind I got is also moisturizing, so I rarely touch my bottle of lotion — I’m saving twice the plastic on this one. Santa will be picking up my unopened bottles of shower soap today.

8. Buy most foods in bulk: After a few tries, you’ll get the hang of what is and isn’t available. Bulk items are way cheaper than the packaged and branded variety, and you can use reusable containers when you purchase them. People like me with Celiac disease should be wary of cross-contamination, however. My local Winco has carefully arranged their gluten-free bulk section to decrease the possibility of cross-contamination. Still, it’s possible, and only you can decide how much risk you’re willing to take. If the wheat flour were right next to the rice flour or if the bins above the gluten-free bins were gluten-filled, I would probably have to pass. Luckily, that is not the case where I’m shopping. I’m actually going to write Winco a gushing thank-you letter for that this winter.

9. Make your own laundry detergent: It’s quick, easy, and ridiculously cheap. The detergent I made works fine in cold water in my HE washer (I was afraid that as a dry detergent it might clump in cold water, but it hasn’t), and the clothes come out smelling clean and feeling great. I don’t scent mine, but you can add essential oils if scents are important to you.

10. Don’t wear makeup or make your own: I only wear makeup when I’m dancing on stage (I used to wear it every time I was on stage but stopped wearing it for singing several years ago), so I just use my sister’s makeup on those rare dance occasions. There are a lot of reasons I don’t wear makeup, but one of the main ones is the waste involved: the waste in packaging (all disposable), the waste in time both applying and removing, and the waste in wear and tear on the skin. I won’t get into the other reasons because they’re far off topic. Turns out, though, for those of you who love makeup, it’s entirely possible to make a good chunk of it yourself. Heck, the tinted natural sunscreen I bought and will be copying when I make my own (tinted because otherwise the zinc oxide would make anyone look like a ghost) could make a great foundation, and iron oxide can be used to adjust the tint level. Not using it or making some of it yourself (I’ve seen recipes for foundation, blush, lipstick, and eyeshadow — I’m not sure if eyeliner and mascara are possible) also saves a good chunk of money. I’m not going to tell you to not wear makeup because I know a lot of people love it for various reasons; that’s fine. Just try to limit your packaging and container waste, and you’ll still make a difference.

Difficult but Important
1. Switch to homemade pet treats: These take time, but the dogs love them and they save on plastic waste.Taking time to make these every other weekend, though, may mean some life adjustments.

2. Switch to milk that comes in glass containers: Only one store near me carries milk in glass, and it requires an extra trip. It’s also a bit expensive the first time around because you have to pay a deposit on the bottle. It’s worth it, though, to support a company that reuses its own glass bottles. I just have to time my dairy purchases right.

3. Make yogurt and other dairy products that usually come in plastic at home: Yogurt was super easy — it took about 30 minutes of actual work, but it did take several hours of sitting in a turned-off oven. Cottage cheese looks to be a bit more complicated, but I think I’ll figure it out. Like a lot of the changes, this means more time in the kitchen which necessarily means less time somewhere else.

4. Make your own snacks from bulk ingredients: I made cookies for the first time in years last week, and they were delicious. Because I have to eat gluten-free and some ingredients I need can be hard to find, this change is probably more difficult for me than it is for people who can eat wheat. Still, it means more time in the kitchen either way.

5. Carry a travel coffee mug everywhere: I already carry a bottle of water everywhere, so the coffee mug is sometimes overkill. It’s come in handy every time I’ve bothered to take it, though, and I’ve regretted not having it on several occasions (most recently my work meeting that provided coffee and the International Printing Museum that provided hot cider — my favorite! — but only had styrophome cups).

6. Refuse straws at restaurants: You would think this would be easy, but so far it hasn’t worked — not even once! I say not to bring a straw. I try to hand the wrapped straw back (in that instance, the waitress dropped the straw and it went to the garbage anyway). Ugh! I’ve saved plenty of straws by not using them in fountain drinks I fill myself, but I’m not sure how to get through to wait staff. Maybe if I show them my cute tree-frog glass straw as I tell them I don’t need a straw? I’m at a bit of a loss. I don’t eat out that often, but still… I’d like to get this one under control.

7. Use cloth tissues: On the one hand, this is easy. They feel so much nicer on the nose and don’t irritate the skin. They also wash up just fine (I use flannel tissues; I can’t vouch for other fabrics). I’ve been using them in the privacy of my own home for years, which is why the boxes of disposable tissues last so long in my house (they are for my husband and guests, and for the occasional cold — the cloth tissues work great for colds, but as I only have six of them, I eventually run out). I’m putting this under difficult, however, because using them out of the house will get you funny looks. I’m a high school teacher — I’m pretty impervious to being thought odd — but this could very well be difficult for many. The real difficulty for me is that even though I may use my own tissues, I still have to buy boxes and boxes of disposable tissues for my students.

8. Avoid plastic-wrapped fruits and vegetables: It seems like fewer and fewer fruits and vegetables are sold loose these days, paricularly if they’re organic. Sometimes a store I go to will have potatoes and onions only in plastic, and I’ll have to go to a farmer’s market. This takes some work to determine which stores have what loose and then some planning to shop at those different places without wasting a bunch of fossil fuels by driving more.

9. Switch to natural or homemade sunblock: I’m pale, so this is important. First of all, I was mostly using chemical sunscreens that apparently aren’t good for you and that definitely aren’t as effective as sunblocks with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Secondly, I was creating a ton of plastic waste. There are some natural sunscreens on the market (mail-order only that I can find) that come in tins or glass jars, and I like the one I’ve tried. When it runs out, though, I’m refilling it with homemade sunscreen which is much cheaper. This means more prep time, though, so I’m categorizing it as difficult.

10. Make community changes: Write letters to companies that overpackage, write to your representatives, try to get anti-bag ordinances passed, change company and family gathering practices if they use disposables. Make a difference outside your home. This takes time and effort, but it is absolutely worth it for every victory, small or large. I’m taking on disposable sporks at public schools — what can you do?

Expensive but Important

1. Use fountain and other refillable pens and highlighters exclusively: This one can be expensive if you get addicted like I did, but you really only need one refillable pen. If you highlight frequently like I do, then one pen and one highlighter will suffice. In my earlier posts about fountain pens, I think I mentioned the estimated 1.6 million disposable pens are thrown away each year in the U.S. alone. Buy one good pen and keep it forever. It’s a bit of an investment up front for a durable one, but it’s worth it.

2. Switch from plastic to glass containers for reheating foods: This is one of the places where I messed up. I bought a bunch of stainless steel lunch containers to replace my rubbermaid containers, and that’s great for salads, my usual lunchtime fare, but useless for the soups I pack when the weather turns cold. I only have two glass containers with water-tight lids; I should have focused my money on buying more glass and less metal for this season. In the long run, I’ll be happy with what I got, but when I was making the purchases I hadn’t yet learned that plastic leaches more toxins into food when hot. In fact, plastic is probably relatively safe for cold foods like salads. This is what happens when I start purchasing while I’m still in the research phase.

3. Replace lint rollers with a charged rubber and wood lint brush: I have a dog who sheds a ridiculous amount, so I’ve been going through lint rollers at an alarming rate. At least the handles are reusable and I’ve only been replacing the rolls of sticky tape, but it’s still wasteful. The lint brush is miraculous. It gets more hair than the rollers, and it’s nicer on fabrics that can pull (like a knitted sweater). It was on the expensive side and it will probably take years to pay for itself, but I’m eliminating a lot of waste, so it’s worth it. If you don’t have a Corgi, it might not be worth it to you.

4. Replace vinyl checkbook cover with cloth checkbook cover: The vinyl covers are free, so this is definitely on the expensive side, but I purchased it while reading about the particularly toxic properties of flexible PVC/vinyl and I stand by my decision. Next time I order checks (it’ll be a while — I write about five checks a year, but I do go through a ton of checkbook ledgers to track my credit card purchases), I can refuse the replacement cover. Besides, the cover I got doubles as an excellent wallet. I’ve even gotten compliments on it (I opted for a pretty fabric pattern), so that’s a nice bonus.

5. Compost: This doesn’t have to be expensive since you can just create a big pile technically, but I wanted a dual chamber composter for constant composting ability, and I wanted it to close in such a way that it would keep rodents out, so it cost quite a bit. The upside is that we won’t be sending much in the way of food waste to the landfill, and though I may be fiercely focused on this no plastic thing (because it’s the most wasteful and toxic of my trash), my real goal is something approaching zero waste.

6. Wool dryer balls: When you run out of dryer sheets, these are a great investment. We hang dry all our laundry but sheets and towels, so we didn’t use many dryer sheets to begin with. The neat thing about the dryer balls is that they’re completely unscented, reusable, and they cut down drying time significantly, which saves energy. We have a gas dryer, so that means we’re saving fossil fuels.

Probably Can Wait until Later

1. Use metal containers for foods not to be reheated in a microwave: I messed up here. I bought lunch-sized metal containers instead of large metal containers to store leftover soups and other hot items. For now we’re still using Rubbermaid for our leftover soups, and that means leached toxins. My next purchase from Life Without Plastic will include the large, airtight, stainless steel containers, but that will be a while from now.

2. Make your own lip balm in a repurposed container (I used an old Altoids tin): I did this despite having a nearly full Burt’s Bees tube of lip balm. I actually like my homemade one better, and it was fun to make, but it could have waited.

3. Use a shaving puck and brush: I’m excited to run out of my current can of shaving cream to try this out, but in the larger scheme of things, purchasing these was not particularly urgent. I still have the commercial style razor, so I can easily shave with soap alone (though, granted, that isn’t my favorite way to shave). It would have been more logical to get the shaving puck at the same time I purchased a metal safety razor, which is low on my priority list since I have a ton of Venus replacement heads still.

4. Replace plastic loofah with sisal wash cloth: Don’t get me wrong, replacing the plastic loofah was a good idea, and I love the sisal wash cloth. That said, a regular washcloth would do (though it wouldn’t have that wonderful exfoliating power), so this was a bit of a frivolous purchase.

5. Replace plastic brush and comb with wooden ones: Ths was hardly a priority, but I was on a bit of a spending spree. Turns out that it was a good buy; there’s a ton of static this winter, and my plastic brush and comb were making my thin hair unmanageable. The wood brush and comb create no static, and my hair has been ovedient since I switched. The plastic ones are being relegated to my travel kit.

6. Argan oil
I got a tiny glass jar of this to tame hair frizz. It works great and will last me a long time, but I found out I can just as easily and effectively use coconut oil, which I already keep on hand.

Things I’m Looking Forward To
I still have a long way to go. I think the biggest challenge is going to be clothing — there’s so much plastic in our clothes, and it’s so hard to find local alternatives. Hemp clothing looks promising, but where do I find it locally? It’s a good thing I hate clothes shopping and am not in the least fashionable, but I’m almost thinking I may need to learn a bit about fashion so I can show that being environmentally conscious needn’t lead to looking frumpy.

This winter I want to master gluten-free bread and bagels so I can stop my reliance on plastic-wrapped Schar and Udi’s. Wish me luck! Good homemade gluten-free bread is something of holy grail. If I can master the basics, I’ll even attempt sourdough.

I’m also going to do a bunch of dairy experiments and try making cottage cheese and cream cheese.

I want to try making soy milk and tofu, but I’m not yet sure whether or not I should get a soy milk machine. I guess I can try it once without one and decide after.

Most of all, I’m looking forward to being patient with myself. This is a big change, and it’s one that isn’t easy in our society. I need to forgive myself for using the plastic I still have while making slow plans to transition away from it. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to cut out plastic and disposables cold turkey, so I need to learn to give myself the same leeway while not getting sucked in by excuses I absolutely can and must avoid (like “this one plastic bag won’t hurt”).

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