I tend to focus on practical things I can do in my human-scaled life rather than the macrocosms where I feel powerless. This includes the environment. Whilst I know recycling a few plastic bottles won’t be enough for our planet and humanity’s health and well-being, I also know doing nothing isn’t an option.
Part of being happy is being authentic and having integrity, at least for me, so that has meant looking at practical things I could do every day to reduce my family’s contribution to the environmental crisis. Here are some of the things we’ve done – most of which have cost very little money, time, or effort – that has resulted in MUCH less waste at the weekly rubbish collection.
I used to use a dish brush from IKEA and scouring sponges for the washing up, but have recently replaced my last plastic scouring sponge with a Loofco washing up pad. And it is brilliant! It’s actually better than my plastic options as it has the scouring ability of the brush with the softness for glasses and mugs to reach every nook and cranny. It works a treat on all my dishes. I can hang it to dry easily on the tap. It comes hard, but plumps up and softens beautifully with some warm water. Best of all, it lasts for months and, when it does finally need to be disposed of, it can be composted at home. Which leads nicely to my next point…
For my recent birthday, I got a much-wanted compost bin. There’s some complicated info out there, but it is actually really quite simple. I found a couple of useful resources, like the RHS page and Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen, and made a cheat-sheet of what constitutes “brown” and “green” waste. I put an old wastebasket in the corner of the kitchen by the backdoor, which I empty in the outdoor compost bin and rinse out daily. Easy peasy. And if anything I found in my first week it was a joy to see how much could go in that bin rather than the rubbish bin. And I have good compost for my gardening, so as my crop comes in I’ll also reduce waste by eating my homegrown veg.
3. Plastic-free soaps and shampoos
We also use plastic-free soaps now. We use Dettol bar soap for handwashing in the bathroom now, reducing the need for the plastic pump and refillable plastic bottles every month or so. The bar soap lathers nicely, has a clean scent, and comes free of plastic packaging as well – just a cardboard box that we can recycle. And it’s affordable.
We splurged at Lush and also bought their 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner bar. We all have rather short hair so haven’t found the need for a particular bottled shampoo brand. This reduces our plastic consumption as one bar – free of plastic packaging – equates to roughly three 250g shampoo bottles. And they smell divine.
Finally, we started using bar soap in the shower instead of shower gel. We’re working our way through this beautiful Sage & Co gift set (so we could sample all the scents!). It comes with a muslin soap saver bag, so those little leftover shards can continue to be used to the very end. And we’re saving the tin to wash and use for food storage once the soaps are all gone, for an extra bonus! And as it’s from http://www.theplasticfreeshop.co.uk, all the packaging for the shipping has been compostable or recyclable.
4. Understanding our local recycling better.
This might seem an odd one. I basically discovered that our local council recycles far less than I had realised. A lot of items that other councils where I’ve lived recycled curbside are not recyclable here. That meant that a) some items are now placed in a bag that we take to a recycle bank once a week or so; and b) I shop even more strategically, bearing in mind what can and cannot be recycled. For instance, margarine and butter tubs are not recyclable curbside, so I’ve started buying blocks of butter, wrapped in foil paper, and then putting this into a glass container when I get home.
I also learned that the UK exports much of its rubbish to be recycled in China, and that as China restricts its import of recyclable rubbish, we could be facing a crisis. Recycling no longer seemed quite the eco-friendly solution I thought it was, what with the impact of shipping our rubbish around the world.
I had already bought loose produce when I could instead of plastic-wrapped produce, but I started avoiding the recyclable plastic bags that supermarkets offer. I either put loose produce directly into my shopping bag from home or bring cotton bags (that can be easily washed in the washing machine between shopping trips) and use those for my loose produce.
5. Reusing around the home before recycling
We use nice glass jam jars and such as drinking glasses. They look nice, are just the right size for juice, and if we break them (which, let’s be honest, is a matter of when not if), we can then simply recycle them. It means we save money on buying glassware. Of course, we can’t do this with all glass jars we use, but doing so reduces how much has to go to the recycling bank any given week.
I’ve become more creative over time, especially since I did my homework in step 4 and realised how little is recyclable. The latest laundry detergent bottle has been washed thoroughly and now has a new life as a watering can. Pringles crisps tubes have found new uses as craft projects for my four year old. Tupperware that has lost it’s lid now helps organise our junk drawer. Yoghurt pots can also become seed pots. Ice lolly sticks make great garden markers – just write on them what you’ve planted and plonk them in the earth.
I know the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is well-established, but I’ve actually not been so good at the reuse part until more recently. But this bit has actually been a lot of fun and requires a bit more creativity.
6. Reusable coffee mugs and water bottles
This will likely come as no surprise, but we’ve also managed to reduce waste by using our travel coffee mugs instead of getting takeaway coffees. My husband also got me a much-wanted stainless steel water bottle, that I take with me everywhere. If I forget and don’t have my travel coffee mug with me, I don’t get a takeaway coffee. Sometimes that means denying myself a coffee full stop, or sometimes it means making it more of a treat by sitting in the coffee shop, savouring the coffee and a moment’s rest. Whilst I always tried to use glass or ceramic when getting a glass of tap water or a coffee, since making it a firm and fast rule that I will only use glass or ceramic, I now appreciate all the times I may have grabbed a coffee to go or asked for a glass of water and been handed a plastic cup.
7. Drink tap water
I also used to drink sparkling water, but those plastic bottles add up. Drinking tap water does the trick and within a few weeks I no longer miss my sparkling water. I do allow myself a non-alcoholic version of the G&T – Seedlip and tonic – which uses glass and plastic bottles, but those bottles last me much longer than my old habit of buying a six-bottle pack of sparkling water each week.
8. Cotton napkins
I bought six dark grey 100% cotton serviettes. Previously we used kitchen roll as I couldn’t be bothered to buy disposable napkins. The cotton napkins do need ironing (the bane of my existence – I. don’t. iron.), but we use our napkins for a few days unless they get especially dirty at a meal. They are so simple to iron after washing, and it feels much nicer sitting down to a dinner that is free of kitchen roll.
9. Reusable all-natural cleaning wipes
I found this recipe for cleaning wipes that use white vinegar and essential oils. My husband hates the smell of vinegar, so I tend to use them when he’s not around and I’ve added a few extra drops of oil to the recipe, but basically they clean like a dream, disinfect, are safe to use around the kids and our pet parrots, and – most importantly – they are easy. They work on every surface. I store them in a glass mason jar under the sink and one rag works for the whole kitchen. And don’t worry – the vinegar smell goes away surprisingly quickly.
I also cut up some of my eldest son’s old bibs (before knowing we would become a family of four) and have used them dry for incidental spills and clean up. I don’t think I appreciated how much I would reach for kitchen roll until I stopped using it. When I’m done with a rag, I toss it in the washing machine and it just gets washed with the next cycle.
10. Reusable baby wipes
I used Cheeky Wipes reusable wipes with my eldest and decided to do the same for baby #2 after about a month of using baby wipes. They are fantastic. The water and essential oils are great on delicate baby skin, they can be used all over (such as faces and hands – especially relevant now my baby is older and starting solids), and they smell lovely. And whilst baby wipes don’t seem big, they add up over many nappy changes.
I do feel I’ve let the side down by not using cloth nappies. I wanted to, but a) I struggled to find the space for the mucky nappies to go between washes and b) my husband was finally on board with the Cheeky Wipes but really not keen on the cloth nappies idea. I have investigated a number of different eco-friendly disposable nappies (blog comparing them to come!), but just wanted to say that if you can use cloth nappies, I have nothing but respect for you on that and I can see how much that would further reduce our waste.
We’re still on the journey.
I hesitated to write this because it can sound a bit sanctimonious or self-congratulatory. We’re not done trying to reduce our waste and become more eco-friendly. This merely outlines our start as a family, in the hopes it gives others some ideas of things they could try. What works for one family might not work for another, but if you find inspiration or ideas that you can adapt to work for you, I’m happy.
One surprise is that nothing above has been that difficult or arduous. Some have even been quite fun or made our lives a little nicer. We haven’t really felt much of a change in the house, aside from a slightly lighter conscience and perhaps a bit more money in the bank, as we’re saving a little here and there.
If you have anything you’ve done or considered that I’ve not covered, please share! It maybe that as our journey continues we do a part 2 of this or a podcast. I’d love to get ideas from you about what you’ve done. Comment below, comment on our facebook page or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.