Zero-Waste Household

Suggestions to eliminate plastic and other waste in your bathroom, kitchen, and house in general.

Aluminium foil

[in the works]

Baking paper

It may only be paper, but it’s a superfluous product that takes a lot of resources to make, pack and ship. Just grease and flour your baking sheet as people have done since baking began. For bread or pizza dough, sprinkling flour or cornstarch is all you need. If you can’t function without baking paper, avoid the single-use stuff and get a silicone mat such as Silpat, which you can make last a lifetime.

Bin liners (garbage bags)

Where I live, waste disposal is such that I have three bins: organic waste (compost), mixed recycling and the rest. This makes it very easy to do without bin bags. I use cornstarch-based compostable bags for the compost (many people do without these altogether, and simply wash the caddy after decanting it into the collection bin); the (cleaned) recycling goes into a cloth bag; what remains is both dry and very little, so I make a newspaper bin bag (here’s how to fold one) to line my small wastepaper basket, or even use a paper bag when I have a surplus.

Even if waste collection in your area is not managed this way, I recommend separating your organic waste from the rest, and getting into the habit of not allowing liquids into your bins (this means allowing organics to drain and squeezing the water out of tea bags before transferring to the bin, for instance), as well as washing recyclables before setting them aside. This makes it much easier to reduce or eliminate plastic liners, and generally helps with cleanliness — you can have smaller bins, with a quick turnover for organic matter which would soon mold. Dry stuff can do without liners altogether, or if your location makes a bag necessary, you can safely use paper. For kitchen waste, look for compostable bags, although if there’s no composting in your area, a folded bag made of several layers of newspaper can also do the trick, provided you let things dry a bit first.

Cling film

[in the works]

Cotton ear buds (aka cotton swabs or Q tips)

You shouldn’t be using ear buds in the first place. Ear specialists keep telling people not to use them, so it’s baffling they still exist. The safe way to clean your ears is with water unde the shower, and leave the ear canal alone, its self-cleaning provided we don’t keep pushing ear wax in with silly little sticks. There are some plastic-free, organic cotton options around, but it takes 21,000 liters of water to grow 1kg of cotton. This is not a material we want to waste on a single-use, disposable product.

If you need cotton buds for some other purpose where they’re indispensable, use them sparingly and make a box last. Here are plastic-free brands packaged in card:

  • Organic cotton buds from Simply Gentle (UK): Organic cotton on paper stalks, 100% biodegradable BUT the box has a plastic window 😦

Cotton pads

See previous entry for the cost of cotton and the unconsciousness of using it for single use. This is in addition to the plastic wrapper. Cotton pads are another unnecessary item you can cross off the shopping list: a soft cloth is a durable replacement for makeup removal, and can be used repeatedly on both sides before having to be washed. Or you can trawl Etsy for handmade, reusable cotton rounds

Dental floss

  • One provider in Germany offers silk floss in a glass container with tin cap: to my knowledge the sole truly plastic-free floss out there. Just be prepared to use Google Translate (or enlist a German-speaking friend) to navigate the site.
  • Eco-Dent Gentle Floss comes in biodegradable packaging, save for the metal tooth, which is recyclable, but the thread itself is nylon. This biodegrades at the same speed as wool, but, to ensure no unfortunate creature gets tangled in nylon thread, cut it up before discarding it!
  • Stim-U-Dent Plaque Removers is a slightly different product that does the same job with probably better results (studies show that of the small percentage of the population that flosses, most do it inefficiently), and a perfect packaging score. There’s a review here.
  • Is flossing even really necessary? Even among dentists, opinions vary, but thorough brushing may be all that is really needed. Here’s just one discussion on the subject, and one doctor’s explanation; we each have to work out what’s best for us. (I don’t floss, myself, and it’s never been an issue.)

Deodorant

  • LUSH Cosmetics offers package-free deodorant bars. [more on this soon]
  • I switched to a homemade deodorant long before going zero waste: it worked much better and left no white residue on my clothes, along with being low cost and entirely free of dubious ingredients. As it’s incredibly quick and simple to make, the DIY route really is the best option for this item. There are many recipes for homemade deodorant on the web, all variants on the theme of baking soda + something to make it less harsh on the skin. Typically this is cornstarch or arrowroot, and coconut oil is a popular optional addition to make a paste (it also has deodorizing properties of its own). Here is a simple recipe that works extremely well for me (it passed a heatwave or two with flying colours) and is powdery, not too oily.

Dishwashing sponge

[in the works]

Hand wash

[In the works]

Mouthwash

  • Commercial mouthwash doesn’t only represent plastic waste, it destroys all bacteria in your mouth indiscriminately (we do need some of them!) and contains alcohol, which adds nothing except that burning sensation and a risk of oral cancer. Fortunately there are all sorts of mouthwash that can be homemade, if you really like to use it: here are 5 simple recipes from me.

Period protection

There’s no good reason why we should use disposable tampons and pads! Protection made to be washed an reused may cost more on initial purchase, but last 5 years or more (contrast this with the 16,000 disposables you will otherwise use in your lifetime). Think of the special “female hygiene product” bin in every public restroom in the world, and the 45 billion such products disposed of every year – what a massive difference it would make if we all switched. In addition, conventional tampons or pads contain chlorine, dioxins, pesticide residues and other chemicals you really don’t want in such close contact with highly vascular areas. More details on those health hazards in this article.

Reusable products come in three types:

  • A silicone cup that collects the blood and only needs to be emptied twice a day. A really great alternative if you’re a (soon-to-be former) tampon user, with no TSS risks.
    Get them from: Mooncup (UK), Lunapads (US) DivaCup (20 countries), The Keeper (US), Me Luna (EU)
  • Washable cotton panty liners. You soak or rinse them in cold water right after using them, and you can then throw them in a regular wash. They’re used just like disposable panty liners, minus the waste and toxins. They’re also perfect for a “first period kit” and come in a variety of colors and patterns.
    Get them from: Lunapads (US), GladRags (US), independent makers on Etsy – or make them yourself!
  • Period underwear. These quasi-magical panties don’t require any additional protection and are easily the most comfortable option available.
  • Get them from: THINX (US)

Sometimes situations may arise where for some reason washable protection is unmanageable: if you know that can happen to you, you’ll want to keep a box of something safe handy. For this, there are brands that are toxin-free and biodegradable.

  • Natracare (UK, available worldwide): Products made from renewable, biodegradable and compostable materials including organic cotton, bioplastics (made from plant starches) and wood pulp, sustainably sourced, and processed without releasing toxins into the environment. .
  • Seventh Generation (US): Organic cotton, chlorine-free, but they seem to be packed in plastic.

Razor

See Shaving & Hair Removal.

Shampoo & Conditioner

Shaving & Hair Removal

Disposable razors are not recyclable, and I shudder at the thought of them ending in landfill or floating down rivers. Wax strips are synonymous with endless sheets of plastic. Canned shaving cream involves various packaging materials, plus a basically chemical goop on your skin. The whole process needs to be re-thought.

  • Metal razors with replaceable blades are an immediate practical alternative, though they seemed designed to make you buy expensive new blades frequently, and those come packed in plastic.
  • Many zero-wasters swear by our grandfathers’ safety razors, which last a lifetime. They don’t need replacement blades so often, and these come wrapped in paper. Here are more details about safety razors from a man’s point of view (complete with tutorial and recommended brands) and from a woman’s.
  • Here are printable recipes for both shaving cream and aftershave.
  • Instead of wax strips, try sukkar, the traditional hair-removing caramel of the Middle East. Homemade from two ingredients, it can seem a bit fussy but the results are wonderful. Find all the details, and the recipe here.

Soap

  • This one’s not complicated, is it? Return to the good old soap bar.

Toilet paper

The plastic that toilet paper comes wrapped in, is not the only issue with this product. Shockingly, most toilet paper is still made from trees – about 27000 trees worldwide per day! It’s incredibly important to buy TP made from sustainable sources (recycled paper, or bamboo/sugarcane), in addition to being chlorine-free and packed in something biodegradable. Happily the former is more common than the latter.

  • A few brands that address these issues:
    • Maxima Green (UK): TP intended for public bathrooms, available in bulk from Staples and Ryman‘s among others, is made from managed forests and packed in paper and card. Sheets don’t come in rolls but piles, which can sit in a little basket by the loo.
    • Nouvelle (UK): Super soft, made in the UK from a mix of recycled & ethically sourced sustainable paper. Their wrapper is plastic unfortunatel; I emailed them and they responded that it was recyclable (. Available in some retailers and via Abel & Cole.
    • Ecoleaf (UK) (made for Suma)is much more satisfactory, being 100% recycled and wrapped in 100% compostable wrapper, and they also make kitchen towels and other products. The tricky part is locating a retailer; check your usual eco/organic store, they may just carry them (I get mine from Earth Natural Foods)
    • Who Gives a Crap (Oz and now UK): Super soft, 100% recycled paper fibres, bamboo and sugarcane, chemicals-free. Packed in paper and card, 50% of profits donated to build toilets for those in need.
    • Pure Planet (Oz): 100% renewable, recycled bamboo and sugarcane waste, biodegradable, chlorine-free and wrapped in pretty paper, with the encouragement to reuse it in craft projects.
    • Greencane (NZ): Made from sugarcane biproduct, with compostable packaging.
    • Edet (Norw): Made of 100% recycled fiber, packed in biodegradable plastic with compostable paper packaging. Other measures also taken to cut production, packaging, and transportation cost and emissions.
  • Reduce your TP usage. Fear not, I’m not going to suggest reusable toilet paper. At least, not quite.
    I grew up in a flat where each bathroom had a bidet and a pile of tiny towels designated for that use only. Most of the cleaning up is done with water, and the towels finish and dry. So toilet paper is only used by the women in the house after a pee, rather than by everyone for either business: it makes a big difference in terms of how much TP is used! In the West, bidets are very uncommon, BUT it is quite easy to buy and install a toilet-mounted bidet, that does the job and takes up less space. Some are very cheap, but double-check your toilet allows this before buying. All you then need are a few tiny towels, which can just as well be small squares cut out of an old towel, to see your toilet paper consumption (and expenses) drop immensely. The towels, being minimally soiled (comparable to underwear), do not require a separate wash so they don’t add to your water and energy consumption.

Toothbrush

  • The Humble Brush (Eur) is made of bamboo, which is incredibly sustainable plus repels insects so it’s grown without pesticides or fertilizers. The bristles are made of Nylon 6*, which is the most biodegradable type (same rate as wool) while still lasting the 3 months one expects from a toothbrush. The Humble Brush ships in recycled packaging, with free delivery in some countries (including the UK) and every purchase is matched by a donation of oral care to someone in need.
  • Brush With Bamboo (US) is made of bamboo and its bristles are 62% castor bean oil. Wrappers are PLA (plant-derived plastic) but they are switching to cellulose which doesn’t involve GMO corn.
  • Bogobrush (US) are made of compostable bioplastic using leftover plant material from American farms.
  • Ditch toothbrush, toothpaste and floss and convert to the miswak, the naturally anti-microbial twig that is still used across the Islamic world. Thanks to the properties of the neem tree from which it is cut, the miswak effectively fights plaque and cavities, cleans between the teeth, replaces bad breath with a pleasant fragrance, and even promotes salivation.
    The problem with miswak, however, is that it is packaged in plastic, which adds up quickly given its shorter lifespan, and I’m not sure how sustainable it is for the neem tree.
  • Toothbrushes made of recycled plastic are still disposable plastic objects that can only be recycled so many times, therefore undesirable. As for those that claim to tackle the problem with a durable handle and “only replacing the head”, one is left speechless.

* To date there is simply no natural alternative to nylon bristles for toothbrushes. Pig hairs were used before nylon came along, but pose obvious cruelty concerns, not to mention they are rather harsh on the enamel.

Toothpaste or Tooth Powder

  • LUSH cosmetics have a range of tooth powders and Toothy Tabs, dry toothpaste tablets. Sadly they are no longer packaged in paper (due to the need to keep them from humidity), but as you can return the packaging to be recycled, this is the best choice on the market. And it’s air-travel friendly as well!
  • Both of these are extremely easy to make at home, and only take some getting used to, after a lifetime of industrial toothpaste. Here are two printable recipes.
    • The main ingredient is baking soda, and the American brand Arm & Hammer comes in cardboard boxes (if you know of a plastic-free local brand, please let me know). One place to find it in London is the American Food Store (W11 3BG, Holland Park tube), but you can also order from their eBay store (rather than from the main website) for free delivery (in card packaging) and discount when you buy several boxes.  Or, buy baking soda in bulk from The Dry Goods Store (W9 1LU, Maida Vale tube).
    • The other basic ingredient (at least for paste) is organic coconut oil, a staple of homemade cosmetics, which is widely sold in glass jars. For sensitive teeth, using coconut oil may soften the impact of the tooth powder; just be prepared for an oily toothbrush.
    • Additional helpful ingredients to pick and choose: clove essential oil or powder (antimicrobial, antiseptic, antifungal, it is found in most toothpaste, but use sparingly); cinnamon powder (similar properties); sea salt (similar and also strengthens teeth and gums); activated charcoal (natural teeth whitener).
    • Flavour enhancers, optional: Essential oils such as spearmint, peppermint, lemon, orange, grapefruit — but only use essential oils that are safe for internal use, as listed here. Stevia can be used as a sweetener.

    Knowing this, you can tweak ingredients and quantities to your own taste and sensitivity. To get you started, here are two recipes for DIY tooth powder and toothpaste, with different flavors.