These days, the whole zero waste thing is getting some attention, and I am really happy that it's getting out there. But I have to admit - especially in this post - that it is nothing new. I am actually just trying to do what my grandparents were so much better at, and to be honest, knowing that is such a huge motivator for me. Disposable paper products have really not been around for a very long time, and at first they were way too much money to even be considered by the majority. And now, as inflation increases and we are stuck in these consumer cycles, there are some old-world ways that are becoming very attractive to reinstate, and I think this is one that is pretty simple and cost effective to manage after you get started. Reusing things, especially cloth, and trying not to have a bunch of waste (because municipal dumps weren't exactly a thing either) was par for the course in everyday life. It was the usual, now it's all the buzz words: closed circuit, zero waste, low waste, sustainable.
The concept of zero waste is just that you don't start the waste cycle as frequently, as often, or you slow it down by making something take longer to reach their final state from production (and ensuring it's death is pretty safe for the environment). The goal is to try to already use what exists, instead of grabbing something new all of the time. If you check out your garbage can or mentally note what you're putting in there most often, you get a sense of where you could make an improvement. And, it's a lot of paper that is used for a very short period of time, eh?
Truly, I love not having to buy big blocks of Kleenex boxes and paper towel that fill up the cart on one fell swoop anymore. Does anybody really like that? If you have to bring small children shopping, and then fit it all in your vehicle, and then bring it inside and store it in your home (as man does it ever take up a lot of space), then remember to buy it again/keep a mental stock list and spend money buying it over and over, and then spend time taking the garbage out more frequently and then drive said garbage to the dump (a reality here in Harlowe, and our local area), is it actually that much more convenient? Or, are we just stuck in a habit cycle that we can address, simplify, and change up?
I'm not physically cutting down all of these trees, and shipping them to production and shipping paper to the stores and wrapping them in a plastic package, but I can't ignore that this happens now, and it's not really making my life easier, or the environment any better. Canadian forests are managed really well, and we do buy logs for heating our home, but do you really know where the trees were that were cut down? There's such a big piece of this whole paper product cycle that feels like we've drank some Koolaid and they don't want us to wake up to the idea that this isn't better for us at all, it's not actually that convenient, but it keeps us spending money over and over again. Sheesh.
The Why: Renewable Resources - not the same as Low Impact
Canadian forests are managed very well, as stated, and trees are a renewable resource, which means we can regenerate this resource instead of it being finite (once it's gone, it's gone kind of thing) like fossil fuels. But, trees take quite some time to grow, and a new tree in a large planted plot does not have the same kind of biodiverse impact that an old growth tree does in an untouched forest.
The issue though, is in the processing that can be eliminated. You can read about the pulp and paper processing industry right from Canada.ca further, but I pulled out a few highlights for a sustainable living story with some key highlights for you below. Basically, it's a lot of contaminants entering the environment via air and water, and barely any of it is being recaptured by the actual industry. In my opinion, this can be confronted by changing some of our day-to-day behaviours, and that this level of impact is not actually necessary.
Babe Swaps - Cheeky Bits Wipes Solution
Having babies was a real game-changer for me. I think it is for so many. I know cloth diapering is tough for some people to access, and for us, we could cloth diaper our first and haven't been able to do it with our second. Our washing machine is HE and I found I couldn't remove the buildup in the diapers for the lack of rinsing. But still, a really great money (and paper) saver came in the form of swapping out diapering (and you can find the Motherease ones we used for years at Go Green Baby locally) and cloth wipes. Even if you don't cloth diaper, keep reading for a few other ideas for these cloth wipes.
I first met Leah, the gal behind Cheeks Ahoy, at a little market fair near Peterborough and I ended up with a little jar of her cloth wipes solution. If I wanted wipes, I just needed to heat up my kettle, pop one of these little cubes she'd made into a mason or measuring bowl, let it dissolve in the hot water for a few minutes and then pour on my stack of wipes. At the time I was using Motherease diapers and wipes (another great Canadian company worth checking out), and these wipes are durable enough to live on past the baby days, bein' useful in other tasks. This little pot of cloth wipes cubes saved me so much money, and it really wasn't that much more work. The wipes were washed with the diapers, I folded them in half, stacked them up, and poured the solution on them. This was such an easy thing to do while being home with a baby, where you can't really get anything big done, but you can do little things like folding up a stack of wipes (a great thing to get your toddler to do, too) and heat up a kettle.
If you don't cloth diaper and aren't washing a load of sorta gross stuff already, you can always use your wipes halfway and you still save quite a bit of money. My sister gave me this idea - use a wet wipe for the big dirty dumps, and the cloth wipes for all the other wiping up. You might think this isn't worth the hassle, but you're usually changing your kid in one spot, and if you have changed your fair share of diaps, you know that this would cut your use in half at the very least. This doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing; doing it halfway is still such a difference, money and waste wise.
Another way that baby wipes get used a lot around here are in our diaper bag. Using the wipes solution works here, too. You can pop like twelve wipes in a mason jar after you soak them in the solution, and they are good to go for the day out or at the beach for wiping stuff up. If the mason jar option seems a little awkward to you (believe me, the fact that they are glass shouldn't scare you - these jars are super tough and I've never had one break in their regular use around here with toddlers), you can also bring a set of dry wipes (just hold together with an elastic or pop them in a produce baggie or snack baggie) and have your cloth wipe solution in a little spray bottle. Spray on your wipe before cleaning up, or directly on little bums and hands. We always have a Litsie bag (a little wet bag) with us for clothes that have had a potty accident or wet bathing suits. If a wet bag is a little too much for you in starting out in swapping over your habits from a plastic bag, a compost bin liner bag is another idea; they are compact and large enough to fit little people pee pants, and you know it will biodegrade. It all helps; I'm not here to tell you I never used a disposable wipe, because that's not true. Mamas gotta do what we need to do, a little less waste is still better than nothing!
Cloth Wipes as "Family Cloth"
Cloth wipes can also be used for the whole family, in what's called "family cloth." While this may feel a little icky at first glance, many people start out with this at their cottage, where septic systems are sensitive to the build-up of paper that happens. Some families are already not flushing the paper and storing it in a bin to throw out later, so this is very similar to that route. It saves long term on purchasing toilet paper, removes any undesirable chemicals from coming in contact with sensitive areas (think the bleaches and softening agents in commercial toilet paper), and makes you a little better capable to handle shortages during a crisis, right?!
Cloth wipes can be used as TP also. Some families opt to just use it for the #1 wipes, and others for everything (with a possible rinse or holding of the dirty wipes in a wet solution bin prior to washing).
Another very simple way to approach this as costs increase, is to consider a bidet. This is on the list for future swaps for our home as we try to become more self-sufficient. Using a bidet washes away the real thick stuff that makes using a cloth wipe to just have to dry up after very appealing. Check out the picture below to see a set up from one of the gals that works in the shop - Leanne.
Photo courtesy of Leanne Chase
It is recommended that if you follow this route, you wash these wipes alone or with other similar cloths, in a sanitizing mode or hot water with vinegar.
This one is a pretty common swap, but so easy to do. I started out using my old nursing pads, but Cheeks Ahoy makes cotton flannel rounds that are so much kinder on your delicate eye skin than rough paper.
I was so excited to see that she has just recently made mesh bags for stashing them as you use them and then keeping them altogether through the wash. Genius! The best way to set this up is to grab a jar or small container, place the mesh bag inside like you're putting a bag in a trash can, and pop the rounds in there. Once full (or laundry day rolls around), just cinch the top and put the whole thing through the wash and dry. This way you won't lose your little pals in the cyclone of bigger clothing and make the habit simpler to get going.
Alternatives to Paper Towel
We have a bin of our old cloth wipes and the excessive number of washcloths that we acquired at our baby shower in a bin in the kitchen. These clean faces all day long. We also have a bit of a rag bin with older tea towels and old burp cloths in it. Back in the day, anything would be cut up to be added to this bin (but only after mending and making the textile go as far as it could) - old towels, sheets, blankets, and clothing; this is where ours has gone too over time. These are used for spills and our Cuban mop and more. All of this was free, we just had to repurpose what we already had and weren't using elsewhere.
We also use Swedish dish cloths in our kitchen, and wipe counters and do dishes all day with these guys. I love these so much and they are such a simple joy that makes being an adult better, haha. These are beautiful, antibacterial, and make sensible gifts as well. They can be washed in your top level of the dishwasher or in your washing machine (but the dryer is not recommended, it may help them degrade faster). After 6+ months of use, simply cut them up and pop into the composter when they reach their end of life. I find that I keep a couple of the very old crummy ones around until I find a gross job for them (like cleaning the washing machine filter) so that I don't have to use a newer cloth.
Image via Ten and Co.
We have managed to ditch the paper towel in 95% of cases with our rag bin, kitchen cloth bin, and our Swedish cloths - and most of it was free. I'm still looking for something to use when draining bacon, so hit me up with your ideas if you've got them! This slow down in use has also made it easy to feel good spending two dollars more to get the recycled/unbleached or bamboo paper towel options as we generally only need one or two rolls a year; look for undyed recycled options if you've got them handy, and that's still a good start.
Paper towel for cleaning was super easy to ditch with a set of cleaning cloths. I have no advice for you in this area other than to just try getting something that is visibly different from the rest of your cloths so you can easily deal with them at laundry folding time (if you plan to store elsewhere in a cleaning closet or something). I find having different cloths for different things helps me easily sort it during laundry time and keep a stock around the house where they need to be.
When picking out something to use for a cleaning cloth, try to steer away from fabrics that contain a heavy amount of plastic in it - these plastic fibres break off around your home and in your washing machine into micro plastic waste. Unfortunately, this includes microfibre cloths - the most common option you'll see touted by many companies as being "eco friendly." This is only because they are reusable. In fact, they are just shedding plastics every time they are used and washed and I truly hope that someday this fabric gets banned from use (like those little micro plastic beads that used to be in soap) due to this impact. This is why I've put Cheeks Ahoy paper towel alternatives in our shop - no plastics in these materials, and when they reach their end of life, they will biodegrade, and don't involve plastics in their manufacturing or composition.
Image via Cheeks Ahoy
With cleaning cloths I find I need about six to twelve cloths, depending on how into the cleaning I get - the bathroom uses a few more and we have two bathrooms. Over time I've just begun using the rag bin for this task and kept it simple, but I know that many like to keep it visually separated if they are cleaning their washroom with those cloths.
Pre-made Cleaning Wipes
Due to the pandemic, we have seen a big increase in the cleaning wipes trend - plastic jugs of Lysol (and other cleaners) that contain cloths that say they are biodegradable, but are made of petrochemicals (fossil fuels). I can't image the impact. Although you're supposed to be able to trust that they are biodegradable, Terracycle has come out with a box to help dispose of them properly - a pretty big signal that it's not something they are actually going to do on their own in the dump, shrouded in a plastic trash bag.
A great way to save money is to just make your own. Grab a jar or even reuse one of those containers, and stuff it with cloth wipes or unpaper towels, or cut out pieces of rags to the size you prefer. Then, mix your solution up. You can use a dilution of 1 part 12% cleaning vinegar to 2 parts of water (boil if you like ahead of time), refillery all purpose cleaners, or dissolve a TruEarth disinfecting strip in water (this will kill just as many germs as your old friend Lysol will). If you'd prefer a gentler cleaning solution, you can also use 1-2 parts Castile soap to 1-2 parts water or dissolve a cloth wipe solution cube (which is Castile-based) in a large mason jar before dumping it over the wipes.
Linen and cotton are awesome options here! The cotton flannel cloth wipes or unpaper towels work (depending on your size preference) just as great if you're looking for something less fancy and more "every day."
When I first wrote this post, I had just swapped this over and was very excited about it. I'm updating this post over two years later and I'm still very excited about this. It's a good one, and once our system was set up (see below) for washing cloths, it was so easy to integrate that it didn't take me long to try to add in hankies outside of the home, too.
Now, really, you could probably make these. Or find some really beautiful embroidered hankies all over the place online (or from older family members) that were from years ago. But if you're not into that, you can try out the Cheeks Ahoy cloth wipes, which I did, and loved! The cotton flannel is so good on the skin, especially for little kids. I tried swapping them in my vehicle and at work first, which involved having two little Litsie bags to support this - a clean sack, and a dirty sack. I just bring the dirty sack inside and throw in the wash. This didn't really happen for the first while honestly. Trying it out at home is my suggestion to get it under your belt to start simply.
Many of the conceptions of hankies are that they are very unhygienic and gross, but honestly, I find a lot of paper tissues to be this way now. Some are so thin that you end up with the snot all over your hands, especially with kids. We started with about 60 wipes (2 large packs of cloth wipes) and that has been great for us for the last couple of years, even during cold seasons, and we do laundry once a week (I like to get it all out of the way in one day). We simply throw the cloths into the same bin that all of our other cloths are in, blowing our nose just once with it instead of multiple times. If it is a particularly very full blow out, we wash it out at the sink first and hang it on the side of the wire basket.
The next step was to swap the tissues in our kitchen, and then a month or so later when it was working, I did the same for our upstairs bathroom. It was actually pretty painless, and now our sons have something to "fold" and stack when I'm folding the rest of the laundry. Later on I realized that if I used a random coloured cloth wipe for my coat pockets and car, it was way easier for me to remember to put them back there on laundry days.
The Dirty Cloth Bin
The way we make this work is a little wire bin that houses the used cloths. We hang them on the side and then when they are dry (pretty much the next meal and cloth dump), we push them into the bin and hang our new ones on the side. Then, we just have to grab the bin when it's wash day. This set up came from a couple of fails to start - thinking we would walk each dirty cloth to the laundry (when if we just set up one location in the kitchen it was simpler, like it was set up with a trash can in one location for disposables) and then not using an open-air option that allowed any damp or wet cloths to dry out. Open-air, wire bin, in the kitchen, was the solve.
These are Habit-Change Swaps, so be prepared!
Now, in approaching sustainable changes, I've learned that things are easy simple swaps that require no learning curve at all (like swapping a tooth brush for a bamboo tooth brush) and just a different choice at purchase and disposal (the compost and not the trash). Other changes take a new system or habit change to get grounded into your everyday. All of the paper product changes fall into the habit changing category and need some time. Making sure you have the set up ready before you start, and talking to your family or housemates is important. I also recommend going slower with these changes - maybe get started with them before you've used everything up so that it can be more of a transition.
Think of how you can make it easier on yourself, too. Start out with the habit in small steps - like we did with the hankies, instead of crashing and burning. Make it simple to not have to think so hard about it in the moments of your day-to-day, like putting the new unpaper towels exactly where the old paper ones were stored. You can also use habit stacking, which is adding a new desirable habit onto one of your old ones - like doing your rag bin laundry with your towel load on laundry day. Another idea is to use intentional friction; the concept of making it harder to do your old habit. We put our old paper towels in the basement for the first couple of weeks of using the rag bin, so it was a lot harder to do the old habit than it was to do the new one.
Just be prepared to give it some time and give yourself grace. Every little step counts towards long term change, lower costs paid, and lower impacts made on our planet!