Take a moment to think of every item that you use, touch, and encounter. The vast world of materials that surround us is an incredible culmination of research, science, engineering, and manufacturing that have built our existing world. Our daily interactions with everything around us are innumerable, giving us the power to modify what we choose to use, purchase, and thereby empower through money.
The compilation that I have here are singular items are sustainable alternatives I have found to be wonderful replacements for commonly single-use items on a personal level. The caveat - that warrants question and advancement - is that these items are accessible to first world countries with infrastructures, such as clean water and easy access to sanitation, that would otherwise be seemingly useless in alternative locations. With privilege and financial power comes the responsibility to vote with our money. Each of us have the power to make a direct difference by how we choose to live our daily lives, a direct function of our actions.
PERSONAL CARE ITEMS
Metal razor | These are an amazing alternative to a plastic disposable razor or a plastic handle with replacement heads which require continually purchasing and disposing of as they dull and rust. A step up from plastic razors are a metal handled razor with disposable plastic heads. The replacement heads still come in plastic packaging, but the majority of the razor is now reusable! We had a metal handled razor lying around, so we just put it into full employment and I stopped purchasing plastic disposable razors. The best alternative that I have found is a safety razor, which is very old-school, and has metal razors that slip inside a metal head with a handle. I’ve found this article really useful and discusses everything in detail!
Shaving soap bar | Substitute for traditional metal canister shaving creams. I’ve been able to find shaving soap bars at farmer’s markets during road trips. Or at least that is where I found my first soap bar. I have never really been one for shaving creams, so I wasn’t seeking out an alternative here. But, these bars are a much nicer alternative to a soap bar since they are designed to lather better. They hold up well and don’t degrade too quickly as long as you keep them out of puddles of water that tend to collect along the perimeter of the shower.
Coconut oil | Hair conditioner, face lotion, shaving cream, etc. Coconut oil can serve as a substitute for million uses, but you’ll likely find that it varies wildly as a function of your skin type and daily activities. It can serve as another substitute for traditional metal canister shaving creams. Beyond shaving cream, I’ve used coconut oil as conditioner for the ends of my hair and as face lotion in the dead of winter. Since trying other substituted, I have found that shorter chained oils (such as olive oil, argon oil, etc.) are more effective since they are liquid at room temperature and aren’t as heavy on my hair. My personal go-to for it currently is as lotion for my body. Additionally, I love to buy it in a large glass container and transfer aliquots of oil to up-cycled smaller glass (ones from food products that I clean and reuse). These small containers I take to work, put in my backpack, or use when I travel to hotels so that I avoid using the small lotions that are provided.
Oil blends | Liquid oil blends act wonderfully as face lotion. I search for ones that have the least amount of additives, are contained within a glass vial and a glass stopper. Some noticeable drawbacks to the packaging is that they still contain a sticker/label/adhesives that are unsustainable, have a plastic and a rubber component to the dropper. The benefit to the vial is that I keep them to refill with my own oil blends after I’ve used the initial product.
Wooden hairbrush | Bamboo or biodegradable materials provide a simple alternative to plastic-based brushes and combs.
Apple cider vinegar | By diluting apple cider vinegar in water, this provides a face toner and hair conditioner product that is pH adjusted for your skin/scale (pH 4.5 – 5.5 on average).
Shampoo bar | Shampoo bars are a simple switch from conventional plastic containers and can generally be found naked (i.e., having no packaging at all) or sheathed in paper wrapping, which can then be recycled. I generally find them at Whole Foods or alternative health stores, but you can also order them online (i.e., J.R. Liggett's is one of my favorite brands). A few things to note is that shampoo bars are quite different than liquid shampoos when it comes to using them. The detergent, i.e., chemical components, are different which results in a different feel when you use them including how much they lather, the amount of water to rinse, and bar care. Transitioning from traditional shampoos and conditions to bars is pretty dramatic. Simple advice includes using much much more water to rinse your hair than normally, trying a variety of shampoo bars to find one that suits your hair style, and rinsing the bar well at the end (removes additional oil from the surface).
Dry shampoo | The majority of dry shampoos that are available, and are actually useful products, are in metal canisters, with a variety of chemical propellants, and with plastic caps that aren’t of polymer chain lengths to be considered recyclable. While there are some powder dry shampoos, they generally come in plastic packaging. So, an alternative is to use arrowroot powder (especially if you can find it in bulk!). I rather like it just as is, but people also add essential oils or other powders to color it. Depending on your hair color, you can add cocoa powder, turmeric, etc. to tint the white arrowroot powder.
Bamboo toothbrushes | These are gaining a lot of popularity, like the metal straws, and for the most part, I like them. You can generally find them at most stores now and the main point is to keep them in a place where they can dry between brushings. Unlike plastic toothbrushes, they can harbor more bacterial due to the biodegradable nature of the material and can subsequently mold…relatively quickly. I’ve never had one do this, however, and simply keep it in a dish or on a sink ledge but slightly elevated so that it can dry. The variety of brands that I have tried thus far are all relatively similar in nature, so no preference thus far. The primary benefit to switching from a plastic toothbrush to this is straightforward: think about every toothbrush that has cleaned your teeth. They all still exist; they’ve just been transported to a place where they aren’t quite meant to be. One example of a product to try is what I have, which can be purchased on Amazon here.
Feminine hygiene | This is a topic that I remained obtuse to for quite a while. I regarded feminine hygiene products (primarily pads and tampons) as that those were the end-all-be-all items. They were what existed and I better learn how to use them, and quickly, or else there would be public ridicule from bleeding. Either way, I started reading into products that were less chemically laden and dramatically minimized the amount of waste that I was producing on a monthly basis. Those three products provide a combined approach towards a sustainable menstrual cycle:
- DivaCup or any alternative. These replace a tampon, but without the risk for toxic shock syndrome, exposure to chemicals used during tampon manufacturing, and the complete elimination of packaging from tampons going to landfill.
- Thinx. This company created absorbent underwear that are incredible! They go in the regular wash and are a replacement for pads.
- NaturalCycles. This is a replacement for hormonal birth control, thereby cutting out the need for hormonal based therapies which reduces the amount of medications that circulate into our water supplies, the trash that accompanies each of the monthly pill doses, and increases your awareness of your own bodily functions. The deterrent that I’ve heard from most is the cost, so you’re welcome to use this link to get a discount.
Shopping bags | There is a lot of data and debates centered around bags. In general, the emissions produced to make one plastic bag are less than those to produce a reusable bag, as discussed in an article in Stanford Magazine. Another consideration is that all reusable bags are not created equal: organic cotton vs. conventional materials, microplastics that leach out from synthetic/plastic bags, etc. are all points to take into account. One of the simplest solutions is to use bags that you already have; ones that have been lying around are free since you already have them! the application of reusable bags are endless. I use them for grocery shopping, produce containment, clothing shopping, travel, as a lunch box, and beyond!
Produce bags | One of my favorite reactions from people occurs while in the checkout line at the grocery stores. My goal, when I go to the grocery store, is to seek out items that are primarily naked (i.e., they don’t have plastic or any material cocooning them). I intentionally go to the produce section first and strategically place all of my produce as a monolayer in the cart. My rational is two-fold: 1) it encourages me to fill the majority of my cart with fruits and vegetables so that I have less space for processed goods as a method to reduce the amount of waste that I consume, and 2) it leads by example. As I stand in line to check out, people around me always remark, in the most positive fashion, about the produce and how it’s not in packaging. It’s more visible if I leave it out of any bags until the end, where I help bag my goods and place them into the veggie bags. These veggie bags are numerous in option and are a simple swap for the plastic single-use plastic bags that are easily accessible near the produce sections.
Bees Wrap | Quite possibly one of my favorite shifts has been the switch to Bees wrap. Bees wrap is simply cloth material that has been coated in bees wax. It is sticky enough to conform to the shape of a cup, a bowl, a container, or veggies and durable enough to withstand over a year of washing. For me, this replaces the need for aluminum foil, syran wrap, plastic bags, and plastic containers. I use it to hug fruits and veggies that I’ve cut, prolongs the longevity of produce storage due to the breathability (i.e., selective permeability) of the material, to cover bowls when I transport them or storage in the refrigerator, and more. I’ve tried over four different brands, and without a doubt, the one that withstands the most use, washing, and isn’t sticky to the touch is ABeeGo. (One option via Amazon here, or here.)
Glass food containers | Glass containers are one of the many solutions to plastic containers. Most importantly, they are an alternative to fast food approaches or single use containers when you eat out. For instance, when we go out to eat, we carry our own to-go containers, such as my favorite, the Oxo, which can be purchased on Amazon here. Alternatively, there are more durable plastic containers that withstand the test of time longer and are recyclable once they expire, metal containers (which I didn’t try due to the silicone band that would likely be a fail point sooner rather than later), and glass containers. This container is what I carry my lunch in when I go to work everyday. I also carry it with me to trainings, when I travel, etc.
Cutlery | This is probably one of the most talked about items that I carry with me to lunch everyday. Maybe because my camping spork (with a rather ineffective knife, but a knife none-the-less) is lime green. It’s a conversation piece, keeps me from using single-use plastic cutlery, and most importantly invokes curiosity amongst people. Clearly, there are many other alternatives here, the most simple being just use what you have at home. Since carrying this lime green spoon-fork-knife (spork-e), people around me have brought in their own metal silverware to use each day! It’s remarkable how not saying much but just leading by actions can change the world around us!
Cloth napkin | I have a few cloth napkins that I had at home, and although I can’t recall when I first started carrying this with me – likely during graduate school – I came to the awareness that I was using paper napkins each day. And so I decided to take one of my cloth napkins to work. It’s a super simple switch and works much more effectively than their paper cousins.
Mug/bottle | Using any type of mug, travel mug, bottle, etc. is a powerful action that eliminates the use of paper, styrofoam, plastic, etc. disposable item that you would get every time that you have a beverage.
Lunch box | Rather than spending money and purchasing a lunch box, I make it a challenge to find a bag that I love which isn’t being used around the house and give it purpose by designating it as my lunch box. Done and done. I then carry my glass container, cloth napkin, spork-e, bees wrap around fruit and veggies, and have my bottle of choice. To top it off, I put all of my produce materials into my glass container and take it home to compost!
Straws | Metal straws are very popular now, so I won’t add much here. I only purchased this because it was readily accessible at a coffee shop one day and I thought it was nice to have. In retrospect, I could have done research to make sure the process and metal used to manufacture this product were sustainably produced. Likely, these aren’t and are made in mass production. Additionally, because I don’t use straws much to begin with, this likely contributed more to my environmental footprint than not having it at all.
Coffee, tea, and tea bags | Simple adjustments for tea/coffee drinkers could be to switch from purchasing packaged tea bags and coffee to using metal reusable tea strainers and a french press. We simply put the items that we had lying around at home to use since becoming aware of the amount of packaging that we were consuming each time we had a warm beverage. This eliminates the need for boxes, plastic shrink wrap, single-use tea sachets, coffee filters, etc. Alternatively, if you still like coffee filters and tea bags, opt for non-bleached paper products. This logic can also extend to paper products: paper, notebooks, coffee filters, tea bags, toilet paper, paper towels, etc.
Additionally, finding places that have bulk tea is becoming simpler. We are able to find bulk tea at Cambridge Naturals (in the Cambridge, MA area). The thing to watch out for this is that, while the bulk sections might seem like an obvious solution in most stores, they generally have a lot of packaging used behind the scenes. While it’s a work in progress, and one that I think dramatically shifts the market demands based on supply-and-demand mentalities, it can be an easy way to put the use of waste on the supplier, thereby presenting itself as a perfect solution that still needs work.
Laundry detergent | Finding a liquid laundry refill can be an interesting challenge to navigate, but one worth pursuing. By finding a refill station in your area (Pemberton Farms and Thistle & Shamrock in Cambridge, MA areas have them) you entirely eliminate the use of a plastic container each time you do laundry. As for the container, some stores will sell them for a one-time cost, or you can find a similar volume glass container and upcycle it! One thing to keep an eye out for is to ask the store manager whether they recycle or send back the plastic carboys that the laundry detergent come in. Some throw them away and others put in a substantial amount of effort to make sure that they return them to the company. I would pick the latter if possible!
Fabric softener | There are a few alternatives to fabric softener. One, there are recycled material laundry balls that can be used and scented with essential oils. I’ve never tested out this option, as my favorite method is to not replace items, but actually eliminate my need to purchase them. I’ve found that by switching to a milder, yet effective, laundry detergent, my clothing is much softer and therefore I don’t use fabric softener. If you’re looking for a dual purpose alternative, Eco Nuts are awesome and you can purchase them online for in bulk from Cambridge Naturals (in the Cambridge, MA area)! They are a nut that naturally contains surfactant (soap) like qualities and fabric softener in one. You also have the option to use them as is or to make a liquid soap concentrate that is as straightforward as making tea. The only counter point that I have found from using them is that they work well for office-worn clothing, not for super stinky items. I use the liquid refill soap for those!
Drying rack | Drying clothing outside on a sunny day is an excellent way to bypass use of energy to dry items.
Olive oil and balsamic vinegar | This is one of my favorite things that we have shifted to because we used what we had lying around. Taking an old wine bottle, we repurposed it as our olive oil container. In doing so, we haven’t contributed waste from glass bottles in over 6 months now! And, we save quite a bit of money by not purchasing what we don’t need. We found the metal pour spout at China Fairs in Cambridge, MA and it cost less than $3. While it’s likely not sustainably made or made from top metals, it is a one-time purchase that suits the needs well (especially since it’s not in contact with food for that long of a duration and isn’t being heated at all). We refill our olive oil from Pemberton Farms in Cambridge, MA. That’s the only refill station that we’ve found in the area. The same story can be applied to balsamic vinegar. Lastly, most stores with refill stations have glass bottles that you can purchase.
Spices | Bulk spices are a wonderful way to refill used glass spice containers. They’re pretty easy to find, including Whole Foods and Cambridge Naturals (in the Cambridge, MA area). One caveat, is that these bulk fill stations have plastic baggies, etc. that are easier to use than bringing your own container, but most places are willing to weigh your containers, give you the tare value, and then you can fill your own items right there!
Baking solids, grains, etc. | Same story as spices (above) but applied to purchasing bulk grains, cereals, etc.
Biking | A wonderful alternative for transportation is biking. You get to exercise, have complete freedom from stop-and-go traffic, and it’s entirely free! After you purchase the bike of course. The best way for this is to go on craigslist or FB and find a used one in the local area. Additions, such as a bike rack on the back, allow you to more easily access grocery stores and shopping by using panniers to transport goods. Interested in more about biking, check out our story about bike touring here.
Toilet paper and paper towels | Clear cutting forests for the use of toilet paper and bleaching chemicals to make the paper white is a crazy notion to me. I began looking for recycled paper alternatives that didn’t come in plastic packaging and were unbleached. So far, I like WhoGivesACrap for bulk purchased. We purchase toilet paper and paper towels from them, and since then have mostly eliminated the need for paper towels by using cloth towels. It’s just a simple change in habit, but is harder said than done. Their products come in bright colorful recycled paper, aren’t bleached, and don’t have any plastic packaging upon shipping!
Throughout this, there are a few products that I have tested and absolutely love. They are produced in a way that aligns, to the best of my knowledge, with my personal priorities to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Those that are linked to Amazon sites, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Those linked directly to product sites, I earn nothing from.