Ditch Your Disposables

A century ago, the concept of “disposable” didn’t exist in the form that it does today. For the average consumer, most products were purchased with the intent of being used to their fullest, then reused in a new way before they were tossed in the trash.

Our grandparents brought their lunches to school and work using cheesecloth or wax paper instead of plastic bags. Milk bottles were drained then collected to be refilled and distributed again.

“We didn’t have disposable things,” said Janet Giacoppo, a Phoenix resident born in 1929. “We would do things like bring in our own mugs for coffee. We weren’t really aware of it, that’s just what we did.”

Like the climate in which we find ourselves today, frugality concerning money and resources was a top priority in the 1940s and 50s. “We were trying to save money, so you didn’t buy things that you could throw away,” Giacoppo said. “It would be wasteful, in respect to spending money.”

And items that we would consider disposable today were certainly present back then. The exception is that even “disposables” were reused. “You would always save your paper bags, for when you brought, say, lunch to work,” she said. “You would reuse it until it didn’t look good.”

In times such as these, when we are becoming more aware of how, why and where we invest our financial resources, saying goodbye to throwaway purchases may just be the next big thing that keeps extra cash in your wallet.

Eclectic gatherings of dishes and other reusables will give your table a unique feel without a large environmental footprint. Photo: Flickr/flipsockgrrl

Eclectic gatherings of dishes and other reusables will give your table a unique feel without a large environmental footprint. Photo: Flickr/flipsockgrrl


The average American office worker goes through around 500 disposable cups over the course of 12 months. Americans even toss out enough paper and plastic cups, forks and spoons every year to circle the equator 300 times.

Dishes, cups and utensils are some of the easiest items to lose on the disposable end. Why? Because, more likely than not, you already own reusable dishes and glassware. And if you’re having a large crowd over for dinner party and don’t have enough settings, there’s nothing wrong with asking a neighbor for an extra set. Plus, you’ll add a fun, mix n’ match feel to your dishware.

Reuse It Safely: Food Packaging

Products to check out:

  • I Am Not a Paper Cup – Synonymous with reuse in the real world, “I Am Not a Paper Cup” is a simple way to ditch your to-go coffee cup and save on waste. It’s also insulated and comes with a silicone lid, keeping your coffee in place and piping hot.
  • Preserve Tableware & Utensils – Made from 100 percent recycled materials, Preserve makes an entire line of dishes, cups and utensils that are sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of everyday use. They have two versions of their tableware, one for regular use in your home and one that more closely resembles the lighter make of disposables for easy transport. Both are dishwasher and microwave safe.
  • To-Go Ware – If you’re on the move and need to easily transport your food, skip throwaway containers and utensils and check out To-Go Ware’s stackable stainless steel food carriers and their bamboo flatware sets.

Paper Towels

Tired of seeing an empty paper towel tube on your counter? Try opting for reusable cloths instead. Photo: Flickr/CraftyGoat

Tired of seeing an empty paper towel tube on your counter? Try opting for reusable cloths instead. Photo: Flickr/CraftyGoat

Americans send about 3,000 tons of paper towels to the landfill every year. But what may be more in the forefront of your thoughts is how much you spend just to throw away this paper good. Let’s say you bought an economy pack of paper towels and spent about $1 per roll. If your home goes through an average of two rolls per week, that’s about $110 each year for something you’ll just toss out and can’t be recycled.

Help Save 571,230,000 Pounds of Paper Towels

Before paper towels were popular, we cleaned up messes and wiped down our counters with rags and cloths instead. These options present more durable, reusable options and will quickly save you money over the lifetime of their use.

Products to check out:

  • EcoTowl – The EcoTowl is a reusable, super-absorbent cloth made from natural materials. It can absorb 10 times its volume in liquids and is easily sanitized in the dishwasher when necessary. Also, it won’t rip when a little elbow grease is required for tough-to-clean surfaces.
  • Bamboo Dish Towels – Products made from bamboo offer an excellent, sustainable alternative to the slower-growing wood from which traditional paper towels are derived. This line also features pesticide-free bamboo and the towels do not require bleach or fabric softener to maintain their texture.
  • Paper Towels With Recycled Content – If you just can’t kick the habit, opt for paper towels that use recycled content and an environmentally friendly bleaching process. The National Resource Defense Council has a handy shoppers guide to help you purchase towels that have less of an environmental impact than their traditional counterparts.

Plastic Baggies

While sandwiches and snack bags are recyclable in most plastic bag collections, buying something to throw it away doesn’t always make the best ecological or financial sense. If a box of sandwich bags costs about $3.50 and lasts you a month (adding up to around $42 per year), you could spend the same amount and get a set of reusable bags that will last you for many more lunches.

Products to check out:

  • Wrap-n-Mat – Got a picnic on the horizon or planning on eating your lunch outdoors? Wrap-n-Mat offers a cute alternative to disposable bags using snack and sandwich pouches that unfold to make place mats. Once you’re done, wash the mat by hand and let it air dry.
  • The Reusable Fresh Snack Pack – These packs offer the same ability to view your food inside as traditional baggies, but with a durable, reusable twist.
  • The Plastic Bag Dryer – If you still like the look and feel of traditional plastic bags, don’t use them just once. Simply wash your bags out and dry them on the rack. And once your bags can’t be reused, make sure to recycle them.
When was the last time you took your things apart when they weren't running right? Photo: Flickr/Brian Auer

When was the last time you took your things apart when they weren't running right? Photo: Flickr/Brian Auer

Fix it

Beyond the obvious disposables we’ve covered above, taking a look at other items around your house that may seem “cheaper” to throw away than repair is another way to ditch your disposable mentality. Even though your busted blender may be easily replaced with a new one, have you ever tried taking it apart to see what’s wrong?

You may find that, rather than opting for the trash when items around your home stop performing at their peak, a quick tune-up or part replacement is all they need to be up-and-running again.

If you’re not a whiz with the screwdriver or spark plugs, that’s not a problem. There are fantastic resources around the Web that house easy how-to guides that explain general home repair. One that we particularly like is the Fix-it Club. It has hundreds of free guides that can help you repair anything from an amplifier or car radio to your electric cooktop stove and curling iron. Fix-it Club breaks down what can go wrong with your stuff, how to identify the problem and how to fix it.

Whether you’re looking to save a little coin or simply reduce your impact, once you start investigating ways to make the most out of your stuff, you’re sure to see your footprint shrink and your wallet expand.

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  1. I’ve used the wrap n mat for about 3 years now. I actually wore my first one out and had to buy another. I pack my lunch 99% of the time, and the wrap n mat is fabulous! I highly recommend it.

    Also, I keep a set of metal silverware in my desk drawer at work. I’ve been doing this for as long as I’ve been in the professional world, about 14 years now. I’ve probably saved hojillions of plastic utensils that way. Takes 2 min to wash after use–this is a no brainer.

  2. I recently read somewhere (I think it must have been in the No Impact Man book) about how the majority of the items we use daily and then dispose of are only in use for a few minutes. Like a plastic bag from the grocery store only serves the short time between the store and home and then it’s tossed. Same for take-out containers. Now I think about it every single time I get a container for something: how long will I use this item for? Great article.

  3. That suggestion for a plastic bag dryer is really ridiculous–I saw one, it was expensive. Why not just loop a damp plastic bag over a stick on your dishtowel holder (the kind with three sticks to hold towels), or over the finial on a kitchen chair, or….. But to go out and spend money to hang your plastic bags up is moronic. And it doesn’t hurt much to give a quick swipe with a dishtowel before hanging the bag up.

  4. I find this article sad. I’ve always recycled my zipper plastic bags. The bags that I use to hold my vegetables (ie. lettuce or celery or any vegetable bag,) is used to hold left over salad that wasn’t consumed at dinner time. One zip bag is used specially for cut onions leftovers. The zip bags can be hung over the pegs in any drying stand you use for dishes you wash in the sink. Plastic bags given at the store to separate vegetables are used to hold as many of a kind as can be held so that not too many are taken home. Paper bags of all sizes are stored for later use as wrappers for gifts in grab bag for parties. Newspaper is recycled into pinatas, knotted for fires in the fireplace and used to start charcoal fires for our grill. Plastic containers are used for left overs. The styrofoam trays for meat are used to separate vegetables and meat before a stir fry or during making any multi-ingredient recipe. Two trays clamshell waffles or pancakes or any griddle fried item that needs to be kept warm. Of course you wash them with hot water immediately after opening the original product. And with hot fried meats like bacon or sausage – line the tray with a paper towel to drain the fat. Use empty frozen orange juice containers (make sure to use the cardboard ones,) to drain fats from meats into. Throw it out in the trash to save your drain and sewage system and pipes. Any large plastic containers with screw on lids can hold dry pasta. Glass containers can be used the same way. It helps keep bugs, (larvae, ant, moths, and beetles,) out of your flour, rice and baking mixes if you pour them into glass jars or plastic ones. You don’t need to buy rubbermaid. Just look at the items you buy and be creative.

  5. I am all for saving where you can and the article was actually very good, except for the fact that you promoted us to buy many, many things that were not needed and therefore spending lots of money that does not need to be spent.

    First of all….Why buy special tableware and to go things when you have them at home. You go to the store and buy yogurt, it will double as a good cereal holder or veggies for you at work, no need to throw it out.

    Why buy the ‘special’ towels?? You have old t-shirts at home or towels that can but cut to dishcloth size or handtowel size to use. If you do not have ones to spare go to the thrift store you can usually buy (if not free) a bag of what they can not re-sale and you can use them as rags. Of course you will also have non-absorbent cloth also but I am sure you can figure something to do with them.

    Re-using the plastic bags you already have is better and cheaper then buying special ones that you will be also washing and re-using. And as far as the Plastic Bag Dryer, I have never heard of such a ridiculous idea!!! I have washed and re-used plastic bags for about 30 years now and I have not only never seen a bag dryer I have also never seen the need for one. Take 2 wooden clothes pins, you should have some since you are trying to save the environment and money anyway, and glue then to the inside of the door of one of your cabinets. Wash your bags and hang them in the cabinet. Personally, the next day I turn mine inside out and so that they are good and dry before storing.

    This goes to show you that people will ‘invent’ things to help others and make a buck or two and that people will buy anything without too much thought. Why spend your money on things that you already have around the house and will work just fine.

  6. Reusing things is not a foreign concept to me. My grandmother lived through The Great Depression so reusing plastic bags, aluminum foil, whatever, was second nature to her. She would ask us to clean and save our frozen dinner trays and give them to her so she could fill them with leftovers and make homemade frozen dinners. She would use one sheet of paper towelling until it couldn’t be used any more, you know, just for drying things; now, I do that myself. Personally, I think it’s better to use paper towels to clean up messy spills. They’re more sanitary than using cloth because you just toss ’em when you’re done. I’ve thought about using those new-fangled eco-friendly paper towels, such as the Marcal Small Steps, but they’re too expensive for me. Yeah, I’ve cleaned out and reused plastic zipper bags, too.

  7. People are often shocked to not be able to find plastic wrap or bags in my kitchen, BUT why buy wraps when I have glass and plastic containers that work perfectly for storage AND can be washed to reuse so easily?

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