So this is a blog post I never imagined writing.
Ever since last year’s climate strikes, more and more families interested in making zero-waste swaps for their households have been reaching out to me. Anything and everything I post about the zero-waste or waste-reduction strategies I employ has been getting more and more traction, and it’s been so encouraging.
This increased interest and positive feedback inspired me to put even more energy into my own efforts, expanding my bring-your-own-container bulk shopping for both the bathroom and the pantry to really zero-waste-ify my house. I was getting close to writing an article about my almost entirely waste-free pantry and fridge.
Alas, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a huge damper on my efforts to create as little garbage as possible.
In fact, were I still in my conspiracy-theory-obsessed adolescence—in which I once did a persuasive speech arguing that Marilyn Monroe’s suicide was in fact a murder orchestrated by the Kennedys and often memorized entire episodes of The X-Files—I might suggest that the coronavirus is simply a vast ploy by the single-use plastics industry to turn back the clock on the zero-waste movement.
One thing is for sure: if you’re a company manufacturing take-out containers or packaging (not to mention disposable gloves, disinfecting wipes and paper products), your business is currently thriving.
Gone are the days of bringing reusable cups and containers to your favourite bulk stores, cafes and markets. Many chains have banned the use of reusable shopping bags. Fewer and fewer places are accepting cans and bottles back for deposits. Often, to find what you need in the reduced packaging you crave, you need to visit multiple stores. Basically every consumer habit I preach is now … impossible.
And beyond that, the run on single-use personal protective equipment for ordinary folks has increased exponentially: whether or not they’re an effective solution or an ethical one (given the shortage faced by some frontline workers), many people don’t leave the house without disposable masks and gloves. Disinfectant wipes, bottles of hand sanitizer, aerosol cans of disinfectant spray … it’s a whole lot of waste.
And let me be clear: preventing the spread of coronavirus trumps waste reduction concerns, so this post is not about flouting the recommendations of health officials. I am not about to argue that vinegar or oregano oil or silver water or lemon juice is going to save us and the planet.
Nonetheless, with so many of us homebound for an indefinite amount of time, there are “least worst” choices we can make. There’s also room and motivation for people to dip a toe into the world of reusable handkerchiefs, menstrual products, wipes, diapers and yes, toilet paper.
Here are some strategies to keep your waste footprint as low as possible when many of my preferred methods are off the table.
Give reusable menstrual products a go
If you’ve been reluctant to try a menstrual cup, period panties or reusable menstrual pads (or some combination of the zero-waste menstrual products that have flooded the market) because you’re afraid of leaks when at work or otherwise away from home as you get the new system sorted out, I can’t think of a better time to try but when you’re essentially not leaving your house for (sadly) multiple menstrual cycles. Plus, if you find the perfect reusable menstrual product solution for you, that’s one less thing you have to leave the house to buy.
I recently reviewed Newex Period Panties, and honestly they’re kind of perfect for quarantine bleeding. My gals at Öko Creations (makers of my favourite reusable pads) are currently offering 15% off any purchase with the code Oko.love.lindsay.
Speaking of a perfect time to make a zero waste switch …. if you’ve been putting off trying bar shampoo or natural deodorant for fear that your body may take time to adjust (and that you may be greasy or stinky in the interim), NOW IS THE TIME! Bar shampoo is awesome and once you try Routine deodorant, you’ll never go back to your drugstore brand!
Make reusable toilet paper mainstream
When stories of customers coming to blows over the last package of TP started going viral, I had to hold myself back from being one of those annoying people in the comment section bragging about how I’ll never run out of my washable butt wipes.
We buy very, very little toilet paper in our house because most of our toilet trips are concluded with soft flannel squares cut from old receiving blankets or pyjamas. People either think I’m crazy or a genius. It’s usually the former, but look who has the last laugh when everyone else is fighting over TP!
Look, even if you JUST use cloth for pee, you’re cutting down on a huge amount of toilet paper. And unless you’re doing it really wrong, you are not washing cloths drenched with urine. And if using them for normal (read: non-explosive) poop leaves you imagining turds floating around your washing machine, then you are not pooping correctly. For your average person, your poop wipes should be no more difficult to wash than a pair of skid-marked undies.
I have a post all about how we use “family cloth” at our house. We use the same principal for reusable handkerchiefs, something I don’t want to over emphasize as an option right now since we know that coronavirus is transmitted by talking, coughing or sneezing moistly.
You might also consider getting a bidet, and if that seems unlikely, at least read my brother’s article about his bidet.
Choose containers that can be reused
This is an example of the “least worst” kind of shopping I’ve been doing lately.
While in most cases we cannot bring containers to refill or reuse at our favourite bulk shops and refilleries, if we choose containers that can be reused differently or later, that’s better than containers with a use-once-and-toss life cycle.
Glass jars are great. Even if you have an overabundance of glass jars at the end of the pandemic, you can likely find someone just starting their refill-shopping journey who can use them. You can also use glass jars for things other than refill shopping. I use them as storage containers for just about everything.
If you are stuck with less than awesome containers, consider keeping them anyway for future donation to a local preschool or art centre. Egg cartons, yogurt and fruit sauce cups and more will be in-demand crafting supplies when group crafting is once again a thing.
If you are choosing between identical items with different packaging, opt for packaging that can be reused over packaging that can be recycled. If it’s between recycled and rotted, go for rotted! (For example, brown paper can go in most municipalities’ curbside compost bins.)
Some provinces (like BC) are discouraging or temporarily banning the use of reusable bags at grocery stores. In Calgary, most stores I’ve been to simply require that you bag your groceries yourself if using your own bags. For online order pick-up, disposable bags are required to reduce employee contact with customers, so my focus is on extending the usable life of these unavoidable bags. Even though we make very little garbage, we still make some, and it still needs to go in a bag. Rather than buying bin liners, the grocery bags we haven’t been able to avoid serve to collect our garbage. At Calgary Co-Op, their bags are approved for use in our curbside compost bins, so I am trying to do my weekly shop there more often, since it’s actually more expensive to buy compost bin liners.
Another option is to skip the grocery bags entirely, and load your groceries loose in your shopping cart and bag them in your own bags or crates once you get to your vehicle. (Which is what I’ve always done when I’ve forgotten my bags!)
Go big since you’re at home (skip the individual portions)
If you are at home all day every day, especially with kids, I am not about to suggest you now have more time than usual for snack preparation. However, at the very least, you don’t have to PACK snacks to send to school or bring to play group, so that may make it easier to forgo individually packaged snacks and their requisite trash footprint.
For example, if you normally buy individual portions of yogurt, crackers, fruit sauce or peach slices to send to school, buy larger containers and serve as needed (approximately every 20 minutes). If you are working from home and need the kids to serve themselves, I am not about to suggest this as your hill to die on, but you COULD pre-portion snacks the night before.
Privilege soap and water over disinfectant spray and wipes
Remember that the coronavirus is no match for ordinary soap and water. But even I, Queen of Cloth, have been searching high and low for some disinfecting wipes, mainly out of a sense of panic that I need them … when realistically I do not.
If, like me, you have a simultaneously very boring AND very privileged COVID-19 lifestyle (meaning you go so few places that when it is time to go somewhere, you cannot figure out why your van won’t start*), you probably don’t need a case of Lysol wipes and bottles of disinfecting spray in every room. I am using soap and water on the vast majority of things. If I do need to disinfect, I use a spray and paper towel.
If you want to disinfect with a bit less plastic, consider making your own bleach solution from a large jug of bleach or your own disinfecting spray from a larger bottle of concentrated disinfectant.
Save the alcohol-based hand sanitizer for the times you’re unable to wash right away with straight soap and water. (And if you’re looking for something gentle and made in Alberta, try All Things Jill Squeaky Clean Hand Spray.)
*It’s not because the battery is dead like you thought; it’s because you do not have your key fob.
Start a garden
This is the year when everyone who always kind of wanted to start a garden but never did finally decides they want to do it!
Veggies in your yard or on your deck means fewer items on your grocery list! Also, gardening sparks joy, and we need more joy these days.
This will be our first year in a home with a backyard, and while we had always intended to start our veggie garden, our motivation has increased tenfold.
If you want to earn even more waste-reduction gold (green?) stars, see if you can turn any of your usual veggie scraps into contributing members of your garden society. Did you know that you can regrow lettuce and celery just by putting the stalks in water?
Consider what you truly need
When even ordering Amazon Prime has become inconvenient (with extreme delays for non-essential items), the time to consider what items you truly need in your life, Marie Kondo-style, is now. And, conversely, this is also a time when people are realizing the importance of having certain items stockpiled in case of emergency.
This is a great time to make those “pantry cleaning” and “freezer emptying” meals so you can stretch your groceries a few more days and avoid the wastage we so often discover too late when we finally dig up the freezer-burnt meat at the bottom of the freezer.
It’s also a time when we can find alternative uses for things that might otherwise have been garbage. People are searching for materials to make cloth masks and finding all sorts of ways to upcycle old clothing and textiles to do so.
Stuck at home, a lot of families are also just doing general organization and purging. Most charities are not accepting donations, but locally I know many people are doing porch pick ups for second-hand items and cleaning them appropriately. Otherwise, unwanted items can be saved until it is once again possible to donate, sell or consign them.
Once this is all over (a phrase I find myself uttering many times a day), I realize it’s mainly the services rather than the things I most want to get back to. I want to get my hair cut, I want a massage and I want to get my nails done. I want to finally get my tattoo!
Shopping locally is typically an eco-friendly gesture in both the economic and ecological sense. Now more than ever, our small businesses need us. Walmart and Amazon and big grocery chains are going to be fine. And don’t get me wrong: I shop with all the big guys too. But I don’t want the small businesses I love to disappear, my own included.
In a lot of cases, and for the first time in probably ever, many small businesses can actually offer greater convenience and product selection than the corporate competition! So many Calgary small businesses are offering curbside pick up and even free same-day delivery. You won’t get a soul on the line if you try to call Walmart about a product, but chances are if you need something from a local small business, they’ll be eager to help you out!
If your family, like mine, is feeling financial stress, you likely can’t front the money now to buy gift certificates for future use at businesses that are currently closed. But if you can patronize a small company doing curbside pick up or delivery, do it! And if you can’t, just share their post on your social media—trust me, even that helps.
In Calgary, my favourite refillery, Canary Goods, is offering free local delivery. I couldn’t do my usual, larger shop, but I was happy to get a few necessities delivered (including hand soap) in beautiful bottles that I will one day go in and refill myself. My favourite local bakery, Glamorgan Bakery, is offering delivery, curbside pick up and very carefully implemented physical distancing strategies for in-person shoppers.
Cheer for the Unintended Green Consequences of COVID-19
When was the last time you had to fill up your car? We have driven almost nowhere since mid-March, and almost nobody is flying. I am not going to pretend that this is good for the economy, but the silver lining is that it’s great for our carbon emissions! (And our family’s transportation budget!)
If you are wearing your pyjamas all day every day, you’re creating less laundry. That’s a win!
Are you now forced to be more conscientious about waste? About how many squares of TP is appropriate or whether the wilted spinach might be revived in a stew instead of tossed? Those are good things for the environment that are a consequence of not being able to hit up a fully stocked grocery store at any moment of the day. Maybe some of these “waste less” habits will stick, post-pandemic.