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One Can Challenge: Living without kitchen disposables

Enviromomchallenge Next stop on the EnviroMom One Can A Month Challenge is kitchen disposables. Later this week, we'll get into:

          • easy ways to compost food scraps
          • reducing food waste in other ways
          • reducing food packaging waste
          • minimizing waste at parties

Kitchen disposables

According to the Master Recycler gurus who taught us everything we know about recycling in Portland, there are three major kinds of products:

  • Consumables: food and fuel
  • Durables: clothing, furniture, tools
  • Disposables: paper plates, plastic utensils, batteries, paper towels and napkins, cleaning wipes, etc.

Before we delve too deep into disposables, let's have a little history lesson. Some of the first disposable goods marketed were hospital supply items: syringes, gloves, etc. They were promoted as being more sanitary than their durable counterparts. As you can imagine, their usage became widespread in the medical industry, then marketers took that disposable concept and moved it from the hospital to the home. The new spin? Convenience. Ultimately, many of these disposables trumped their durable counterparts, and more often than not, now are the norm in the average American home. Now, I can see where you might want to use disposables for open heart surgery. That's sounds like a real mess. But perhaps not for spilled milk. Yet, some folks shudder to think of life without paper towels and napkins. "Won't you be swimming in load after load of laundry?" No, not really. But you may be in a bind when the kindergarten teacher asks you to bring in a paper towel tube for an art project... "Hmmmm. Will two toilet paper rolls taped together work instead??"

Here are some of the disposables typically used in a kitchen:

  • Paper towels
  • Paper napkins
  • Paper plates
  • Plastic utensils
  • Plastic water bottles, juice boxes, straws, etc.

I'm going to get into food packaging later this week, so I'll focus on paper towels and paper napkins today. There was a time I bought these items in bulk at Costco. You know the drill: small children = lots of nasty messes. Making the switch to using cloth napkins in our kitchen was actually quite easy.

Next came ridding ourselves of dependence on paper towels. Try Heather's dish towel system where you assign categories for use: the good, the grimy and the greasy:

  • Good: Use ONLY to dry hands and clean dishes.
  • Grimy: These towels have been around the block. They are stained. No amount of white vinegar is going to make them look new. Use them for cleaning up spilled messes on the floor. They are your workhorses.
  • Greasy: Somewhere in-between are the designated tea towels used for blotting bacon or greasing a baking sheet. These are probably not frequently used, but it's good to have one or two on hand. You may need to pre-soak greasy towels in white vinegar prior to throwing them in the wash to get them clean again.

There's no question that you will increase your supply of dish towels and cloth napkins, and rummage sales are a great option for buying REUSED cloth towels and napkins. Napkins are also super easy to make (even without sewing), and due to the frequency of my napkin creation I've developed a super-hero persona: NAPKIN LADY (you should see my cape). But the good news in using durable products instead of paper towels, napkins, paper plates and plastic utensils is that you...

REDUCE dependence on convenient disposable paper products. As we all know, REDUCE is the most important step in the REDUCE / REUSE / RECYCLE hierarchy. Yes, you will do a bit more laundry when you switch to all cloth napkins and towels, but if you are washing full loads then you shouldn't notice a difference. The good news? These are the perfect size and shape for your little "helpers" to fold for you, when they do come out of the dryer. My kids are great folders of these items when we are doing laundry, but easily get stumped by something complex like a shirt!

REUSE? OK, I'm not going to kid you. There are not 101 great ways to reuse kitchen disposables. That's why we don't use them any more. You can wash and reuse plastic forks, spoons and knives. We usually use them until they break, and try not to acquire them as much as possible. We've mastered packing the zero-waste lunch box for the kids and my husband -- so we use durables even away from home (and the kids are great at always bring things home to be washed and reused). We also wash and reuse zip bags until they are destroyed. Once our big box of zip bags is finished, I doubt I will buy any more.

RECYCLE. See "REUSE" above. In some super-green cities, like Portland, you can recycle just about every plastic made. But that is no excuse. Just because you can recycle water bottles made for one-time use doesn't mean you should buy and recycle them. In the category of kitchen disposables, be it paper, plastics, zip bags, etc., the way to make a real impact is to REDUCE.

Some people call it precycling. Every time you buy something, ask yourself: Do I really need this thing? Is there some thing I already have that can do the same job? Is there a durable version that may cost more up front, but less in the long run (since it will last longer and not need to be thrown away until it is worn out or broken)? How long have I been standing here asking myself these questions? Did I just say that out loud? Great, here comes security. Again.

COMPOST. With food soiled paper products, there's one more option -- an interim step between RECYCLE and TRASH, called compost, which we'll go into more tomorrow. But let me just say that if you do use paper products in the kitchen, such as an occasional paper towel or napkin, or you have a pizza delivered in a pizza box, those food-soiled paper items can be composted instead of trashed. I just learned this about a year ago, when I was taught about Seattle's curbside compost pick-up service.

TRASH... Well, hopefully nothing right? If you switch to cloth towels and napkins, your trash should be free of lots of paper waste.

I have to say that eliminating our use of paper towels and napkins made a huge difference in my family's ability to downsize to one garbage can per month. And once they are gone, you will never miss them!


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