Reusable bags or reusable water bottles are familiar to many folks. But there’s so much more to low-waste products and DIY swaps that will help you reduce the use of single-use plastics and have a positive impact on the environment.
“Glass, metal, and the vast majority of plastic come from finite resources – meaning eventually we could run out,” said Megan Pryor, environmental specialist at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “When we make the choice to reduce or eliminate consumption and waste in our everyday life, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve natural resources, help keep our environment clean and save energy.”
Making even small changes in your daily waste stream may not seem significant, but it can change your whole outlook, and help to set more systemic change in motion.
Toothpaste and mouthwash
Toothpaste and mouthwash predominantly come in plastic bottles or tubes. Recently, these dental hygiene products have become more widely available in tablets with recyclable or biodegradable packaging.
“For mouthwash, you dissolve the mouthwash tablets in a little bit of water and rinse with it as you would normally,” said Laura Martson, owner of GoGo Refill, a zero-waste shop in Portland. “The toothpaste tablets, you pop it in your mouth and chew it a couple of times and wet your brush and use it. It basically makes toothpaste in your mouth.”
Julie Olson, co-founder of Zero Waste ME, a website for zero waste resources in the state, said that low-waste methods of cleaning your teeth are actually inspired by old methods.
“Commercial toothpaste is the newer idea,” Olson said. “It’s something that we’ve used in the last 50 or 70 years that [is] a product of marketing. If you ask your grandparents, ‘What did you use for toothpaste as a child?’ they aren’t going to say toothpaste out of a tube. They probably used something else.”
If a tablet doesn’t suit you, Olson said that there are different options depending on what you’re more comfortable with, such as a glass toothpaste jar [that you can purchase] instead of a plastic tube.”
Conventional dental floss is not biodegradable.
“The packaging that it comes in can’t really be recycled [either],” Olson said. “It’s kind of a one-use thing, and you throw it away.”
Instead, Olson said you can opt for Dental Lace, a Maine-based company that sells dental floss made of silk in refillable glass and metal containers.
“You buy refills of the silk and use that to floss your teeth instead,” Olson said.
Shampoo and conditioner
Instead of purchasing shampoo and conditioner in disposable plastic containers, you can buy bars of hair products.
“While not entirely waste-free, using concentrates that you add water to at home significantly cuts down on overall waste,” Pryor said. “Shipping a liquid container not only takes up more space, but it weighs more, so it is less efficient to transport, and its shipment produces more greenhouse gas emissions than shipping a small pod or bottle of concentrated cleaning solution.”
Bar shampoo and conditioner have been on the market for a long time, but recent innovations have made more quality products more accessible.
“It’s not just for hippies anymore,” Martson said with a laugh. “There’s salon quality really really nice beautiful products coming out that you don’t have to compromise the way your hair looks and feels.”
Olson said not to get frustrated if the first bar shampoo or conditioner that you try doesn’t work for you.
“There’s a lot of different types of bar shampoo,” Olson said. “A particular bar shampoo might not work for you or your hair, but keep trying. There’s lots of different formulations.”
Shaving razors and ‘cream’
Say goodbye to disposable razors and bottles of shaving cream. Reusable stainless steel razors and bars of shaving soap that is applied with a brush can replace all the plastic waste that comes with your shaving routine.
Olson, who said she has extremely sensitive skin, said that reusable shaving products are one of the low waste swaps she has enjoyed the most. She purchased a stainless steel razor that unscrews at the top so you can swap out the blades once they are dull.
“It ends up saving you a ton of money in the long run because razors are so expensive,” Olson said. “The actual body of the razor was $30 and you can buy 100 razor blades for like $10. The only thing I have to throw away is razor blades, which can’t be recycled.”
She also uses “old school shaving soap,” which she simply keeps in a kitchen dish and applies with a brush until it runs out.
“It just works so much better,” she said.
Like with toothpaste, the concept of commercial deodorant with disposable containers is a relatively modern one. At stores like GoGo Refill, Martson said you can get cream deodorant that you can put in your own container. You can also make your own deodorant and keep it in a container that you reuse again and again.
Not only are some cosmetics available in recyclable packaging, but there are in-store and online services where you can buy the product once and send the container in to be refilled from brands like Ecco Bella and Elate.
“You can get mascara that comes in these metal tins and you apply it with a reusable brush,” Olson said. “When I talked about this at my workshop, so many of the older women at my workshop were like, ‘Oh, I remember this when I was a kid.’ There is so much that we take for granted now as the only option when there used to be sustainable options.”
Blush, eyeshadow and lipsticks are other cosmetic products that come in refillable or more sustainable packaging.
You may already be familiar with the menstrual cup, but did you know that there are also reusable, washable menstrual pads?
“We sell a ton of those,” Martson said. “With menstrual care products, I think people are really grossed out by bleach and toxins being in their disposable products.”
Along with cloth pads, there are also “period panties” like Thinx with built-in menstrual pads that are easy to wash and reuse.
If you ran out of toilet paper at any point during the pandemic, perhaps the idea of reusable toilet paper doesn’t seem as disgusting to you as it once did. Martson said her store began stocking reusable toilet paper during the shortages.
“A bunch of other people bought bidets, and if you have a bidet the reusable toilet paper is a no brainer,” Martson said. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh my god, I’m glad we switched.’ It’s an easy swap, but sometimes we just needed a nudge.”
Liquid laundry detergent and pods usually come in plastic containers. In order to green your laundry routine, you can opt for pods that come in biodegradable containers — don’t worry, the coating is made from a water soluble membrane that dissolves completely in water — or, you can use laundry paper or soap sheets.
“It’s like a thick paper that has laundry detergent in it,” Martson said. “You tear it off, put it in the drum with your clothes and it dissolves when water hits it and turns into detergents.”
Keeping up with new low-waste products
There are new low waste options appearing every day. Having a relationship with local producers will help open up your options as well.
“Some chain supermarkets have a bulk section; your favorite brewery likely has a growler,” Pryor said. “In general, you may want to check with your local natural market or health food store to see if they offer refillable options for cleaning supplies or personal care products like shampoo, deodorant, or makeup. Some natural markets offer local dairy products like yogurt and milk in refillable containers.”
Even if local stores do not have low or zero waste options, It is important to mention that you are looking for such options so that retailers know that the interest exists.
“Get comfortable speaking up about what you want,” Martson added. “Say, ‘Hey I’m really trying not to use plastic. If they know why you’re asking questions often you can come up with a creative solution.”