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Disposables Gone
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Disposables Be Gone!

Living a Non-Disposable Life

non-disposable place setting

How-to  ~  Ideas  ~  Inspiration
 From more than forty years having a good time living a sustainable life
in the northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula

Disposable and throw-away has become such an entrenched part of our psyches that we often forget that there are alternatives, good alternatives that are more fun, healthier, and a good choice.

Often the alternatives to the temporary plastic or paper is the better choice, regardless of philosophical bent or economic considerations. Becoming more quality oriented is often a simple matter of habit, awareness, and getting beyond the marketing hype. It is often more fun, more comfortable, and adds to your life. Soon your throw-away life will disappear, without fanfare or regret. At least when you choose a disposable it will be a conscious choice, not a thoughtless habit. Here are some ideas to get you going.

RAGS -- Keep that last roll of paper towels around for nostalgia’s sake, but stop reaching for it when what you really want is a good rag. My favorites are old and worn, 100% cotton flannel shirts, flannel sheets, t-shirts, wash and dish rags, towels, socks. If you haven’t enough material from your own household (I know, hard to believe, but some people may not have accumulated all that yet), a few garage sales, auctions, or thrift store visits will garner you rag material galore.

Designate a spot for the rag bag. Then periodically take scissors to the pile and make stacks of appropriate sized rags -- washable large / handy medium / quick smalls. Stash an assortment in the kitchen, workshop, garden shed, vehicles, garage, house, anywhere you might need to wipe, dust, or polish. Remember, you CAN throw the rag away when appropriate, and it often is. But they've gone through a good useful life several times over before they get to that stage. For oily rags, hang them out until dry before disposing of them, since a pile of oily rags can self-ignite. We throw small ones in the wood stove, large ones (once they get so stiff they are unusable) into the garbage.

BAGS -- It’s not easy, but if you are fast and persistent, you CAN get out of the store without one of those ridiculous and irritating plastic or paper bags. Make or buy a supply of cloth, string, or canvas bags and put a few in all of your vehicles. Then take one with you when you’ll be buying enough that you will need a bag. Don’t be shy about using those ready-to-hand carriers called hands. And pockets were made to put things in. Be prepared for offended sales clerks (What do you mean you don’t want a bag?! EVERYONE takes a bag!). A friendly smile usually works. But you have to be fast, or that heavy duty plastic container of motor oil with the handy handle will be in it’s own little chintzy whimpy plastic bag with the not-so-handy handle before you can open your mouth. Ditto for that bag of apples, box of nails, plastic bubbled eraser. It’s an uphill battle, but being bag-free is worth the effort.

KLEENEX -- We have one box of kleenex in the house that friends brought with them, and left, more than ten years ago. It’s pink, but works fine for the occasional visitor who doesn’t just head for the toilet paper when the need arises. For ourselves, we use hankies, or handkerchiefs. It’s worth it to get quality ones (fine cotton or linen), except for the household member who persists in using his hankie instead of a rag to clean the windshield, wipe off the headlights, clean whatever is at hand. Get him sturdy dark colored ones. If necessary, you can soak handkerchiefs in a bucket of soapy water before laundry day.

THE OTHER KIND OF RAG -- And you thought women of past days were deprived. I’m sure many of them would think WE are. Frankly, once I got a feel of the handmade, cotton flannel variety, I never wanted to go back to those scratchy, throw-aways. Talking here about menstrual pads. If it doesn’t apply, skip this one.

They are easy to make, and use. Sure you have to wash them, but you wash your clothes and hair don’t you? No difference. Here is the pattern I came up with (see drawing below). It is easily adjusted to fit individual needs. Just cut the pieces of material larger or smaller. Use lively printed 100% cotton flannel and you won’t have to worry about "getting the stains out". If you use new material (check out the scrap bin at the local fabric store), wash well before cutting out.

Make a generous supply so you always have fresh clean pads when needed. Make some thick and some thin (using larger and smaller inner pads). After use, just rinse then soak them in cold water until laundry time. Or wash them by hand when it’s convenient.

                      cloth menstrual pads pattern

BOTTLED DRINKS -- Never leave the house without every member having a bottle (or two) of water. Glass is best, but use biking/hiking water bottles, disposable drink bottles, glass juice bottles, whatever you will use. A little powdered lemonade keeps the water from tasting stale, as does a splash of lemon or other juice. Tea (herbal or regular) works well, too. Make bulk tea or just stick a tea bag in your bottle of water and remove some time later. This is easily convenient when you are on the road.

Be sure to clean and rinse out all bottles well when back home again. The plastic bottles in particular can get pretty rank and hard to clean out if you forget this simple chore if you’ve used other than plain water. Throw them in the recycle bin when they start to look at all cloudy. The plastics in those disposable bottles can degrade into what you are drinking (something to think about before buying them at all!). Never again pay good money for cheap colored sugar water or plain water in a disposable earth unfriendly bottle.

insulated travel mugsHOT DRINK CUPS -- Keep refillable, toppered cups in all your vehicles. Take one to all meetings and gatherings. Don’t forget to bring them in and wash occasionally. Decide that disposable foam cups are highly offensive, and be offended enough not to use them. You don't have to get snooty about it, just use your convenient travel mug. Let others choose for themselves. For special meetings or events, take along a favorite pottery mug.

Later Note: When we started winter hiking I made kozies for our insulated travel mugs. Click HERE to go to that page (then use your back arrow to come back to this page).

 non-disposable picnic setPICNIC / POTLUCK KITS -- Gather sets of dishes for every member of the family, a package for each vehicle. Let everyone pick out their own. Have fun scouring art fairs, garage sales, thrift stores, kitchen cupboards, for the ideal, personalized, potluck kit. Put in whatever suits you, from a simple bowl, spoon, and mug, to a complete full-course place setting. Make a washable pocketed cloth "potluck bag" to carry your kit in (and out). Or just sew up an old towel into a bag shape. Or use a box. Grab the kit whenever and wherever the sight of a paper plate and plastic fork might irritate you. Potlucks, disposable-plate-eateries, take-outs. Great for advanced planned or spur of the moment picnics, out-of-the-grocery-store-on-the-road-cheap meals (for these add a small can opener to your car-kit). They are all more fun for this extra-special touch. And if you eat out have a small bag you can easily carry in, like a purse, with a few left-overs containers (with well fitting lids) and zip-lock bags. Convenient and handy and you no longer have to feel guilty about leaving food on your plate to be tossed in the garbage, or eating more than you really want or need.

The advantage of sturdy utensils at a picnic or event will be obvious to anyone who has ever tried to balance a quickly whimpping paper plate full of potato salad, juicy beans, and rolling hot-dogs; or tried to dissect a hot-from-the-grill food with plastic fork and knife on a tender foam disposable plate. Not to mention the white whirlwind blowing around the grounds when everyone is finished. Don’t forget the cloth napkins. And don’t be surprised if you start a trend. You may be the first to bring your own potluck non-disposable dishes to an event, but you probably won’t be the last. It's just more fun.

vinegar in the makingNAPKINS -- Use soft absorbent cotton or linen. Be creative, be simple. Make a variety, make a lot of them, use often. Make a few extra for gifts. Or buy from other creative people. Paper napkins just don’t compare. You’ll spend more time shopping for, and earning the money to buy, those paper jobs than you ever will by having to include a few extra cloth napkins in the regular wash. Use them not only for the mundane mouth wiping, but for wrapping cheese, sandwiches, bread, etc. Sew up a few simple cloth bags while you’re at it for the same purpose (great for carrying along a supply of healthy, homestead cookies!). Your food will thank you.

TOILET PAPER -- Actually, there are lots of options here but unless you’re used to being in the woods and outback, you probably won’t be convinced that leaves work just fine. And you’ve probably heard enough stories of the catalog option in the old (and not-so-old) outhouse. But what I’d like to remind is that trees don’t have to be cut down and chipped up to be used for toilet paper (this has to be the height of insult to our forests). TP made of 100% recycled, wonderfully unbleached, materials is readily available and certainly of high enough quality. Buy it by the case if you have to (covered with a cloth, this large box can make a handy side table) or split with friends.

Think about it. Does anyone NEED pink posied bleached white perfumed and chemicaled TP? I think we need the trees in the forests more.

DISHES AT HOME -- One way to make meals and the resulting dishwashing more pleasant, and avoid the urge to grab the disposable stuff, is to acquire dishes that make you WANT to use them. Go to your regional artisans -- potters, glass blowers, woodcrafters, metal workers. Purchase individual bowls, mugs, plates, glasses, utensils. Make it a long term, and fun, acquisition process. Visit art fairs, galleries, studios. When traveling, seek out local artists and craftsmen. Take a class and make your own. Let everyone in the family participate. Let them have their favorites.

Give company a meaningful and beautiful choice of hand-made dishes. Then, when everyone is through eating, each person takes their own dish, quickly washes it, and puts it away. You still have the serving dishes, pots, and pans. But in a family this chore can, and should, be shared. And I’ve never known a gathering of invited guests to not include those willing to pitch in and help clean up. Let your eatery reflect the quality of your home-grown or home prepared food -- the quality of your life.

BUY IN BULK -- Buying in bulk not only prevents a lot of packaging coming into your lives, it can save you money as well. A 25# bag of oatmeal gives you one large garbage bag when empty, and a lot of food security when full. The same oatmeal purchased in 1# containers gives you 25 boxes to dispose of when empty, at a higher cost.

You can find storage possibilities all over the house: under a bed, on top of a dresser, in a basement. A galvanized garbage can makes a convenient storage container for grains (line with a large bag sewn up from an old sheet), or for bags of dry goods. Most foods should be kept cool and dry for best quality and longevity. Better yet, if you buy close to home and in season, you avoid all that transportation expense and waste. A food buying club or coop can be a very good source for bulk buying. If there are none near you, start one!

Don’t forget non-food items. Things such as shampoo, laundry soap, dishwashing liquid, TP, pet food are all candidates. We buy shampoo in a gallon container, then pour it into convenient smaller bottles. It is not only shampoo, it is also dishwashing soap, wool wash, and general cleaner. Get out from under that towering mountain of specialized cleaners and junk. A jug of vinegar (make your own) and a box of baking soda will take care of most everything. And they won’t have you grabbing an inhaler in order to breath when you use them. You’ll acquire a lot of extra storage space, too!

Go for it -- make your life healthier, happier, and non-disposable!

* * * * * * * *

Copyright 2004 by Sue Robishaw

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Have you read  "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener"? A fun short read.

or "Homesteading Adventures"    Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.

and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun"   A journey you can use in your own garden.