Going Zero Waste, Part 2: Hygiene

Welcome to part 2 of my three-part series on my attempt to do a month of zero/low waste! Part 2 is about hygiene, so WARNING: If you are uncomfortable with even thinking about bodily fluids, including blood, please don’t read this post. I don’t go into extremely graphic detail, but I’m not going to mince my words either.

I’ve organized the contents of this post under four different headings—(1) snot (and a brief discussion of fingernails and hair), (2) menstruation, (3) toilets, and (4) toiletries—so if there is one hygiene item that you are particularly interested in, or one that you cannot stand, feel free to skip around the four sections!

1. Snot (and a brief discussion of fingernails and hair)

When M. and I began our month of zero/low waste (see my introduction post about that here), we already owned a stack of reusable “paper” towels (similar items include this and this), so we figured we could also use the reusable towels as handkerchiefs. After all, it was the beginning of autumn, and sniffles were definitely on their way. As long as we did our laundry within a reasonable amount of time, we’d be okay, right? However, as the month went on, I realized that I have a huge reluctance to use reusable towels/handkerchiefs for nose blowing. I have some germophobic tendencies, and the idea of putting a mucus-covered piece of fabric in with the rest of my laundry completely grossed me out. Instead, I found myself reaching for toilet paper whenever I needed to clear my airways.

I realized that what I was doing wasn’t environmentally sound and that my feeling of disgust was not entirely rational, but I couldn’t bring myself to go all-in with the reusables. And because of my germophobic tendencies, I ended up throwing my used tissues into our landfill trash can, because it felt “wrong” to put my snot into the compost. After a couple of weeks of chucking tissues into the landfill, I decided that something needed to change. And the more I thought about, the stranger I felt about being so reluctant to put my used tissues into the compost. The compost contains rotting fruit and vegetables, for crying out loud! And I wasn’t not suffering from any deadly illnesses, so my used tissues probably wouldn’t pose any more of a biohazard than a pile of decomposing fruit. If I was going to use toilet paper to blow my nose, at the very least I could compost the used paper, and that’s what I started doing. I felt a little better about that decision, but not that much better. Even now, I still haven’t been able to bring myself to use reusable handkerchiefs, but I am holding that in my mind as my goal. (M. is a lot less germophobic than I am, for better or worse, so he is succeeding in this arena much more than I am.)

I did/do feel okay sticking my fingernail clippings into the compost though. I rarely, if ever, use nail polish, so I figure my nail trimmings are organic enough to be composted. I also don’t dye my hair, so whenever I clean my hairbrush out I place the hair in the compost bin too. According to the internet, hair contains a good amount of nitrogen, so it’s great for soil!

2. Menstruation

I am a person who menstruates. Since M. and I decided to go for a full month of zero/low-waste living, I knew I was going to menstruate at least once during that period (hehe, punny). But could I menstruate and be zero waste?

See, I use pads. I have never liked tampons. I tried them once and did not particularly enjoy the sensation. I also tend to worry a lot, and when I was using the tampon I couldn’t stop worrying about toxic shock syndrome. Now, let me be clear: I am not judging anyone negatively for using or liking tampons. Tampons are just not for me. I love my pads. Unfortunately, the kind of pad that I grew up using is definitely single-use and chock-full of plastic, and that’s not doing the environment any favors.

I had first started hearing about menstrual cups a few years back, first from the internet and second from some friends who had tried them. While I really liked the sustainability of menstrual cups, they didn’t seem to be right for me, for the same reason why tampons aren’t right for me. So when I started thinking about the zero-waste month, menstrual cups didn’t even register in my mind.

Earlier that year though, I had gone with J., a good friend, to a feminist bookstore in the Lower East Side of Manhattan (go support Bluestockings bookstore if you can, they’re amazing!). We were browsing the knickknacks section, because knickknacks, and I noticed some cloth pads for sale. Reusable. Cloth. Menstrual. Pads! I was very, very excited, and I added a pad to my purchase. By September, I still had not tried the pad out yet, but now I didn’t have any excuses. If my month of zero waste wasn’t the perfect time to try this out, then when was?

Unfortunately, I only had one pad, which meant I couldn’t be zero waste for a full week of menstruation unless I really wanted to test the limits of my personal hygiene. So my goal became to replace at least one disposable pad during that week with my reusable one, and I succeeded! During my second day of menstruation in September, I used the pad for several hours with very minimal leakage (and the leakage that did happen was partially a result of my improper placement of the pad).

Then came time to clean the pad. That was. . . interesting. I am not squeamish about blood if it is my own (and fortunately I haven’t had to see much of anyone else’s), so cleaning the pad wasn’t necessarily “gross.” But it was a little messy. The sink immediately filled with red when I started rinsing the pad, and it took several minutes for the water to start running clear. And I think many menstruating people know about the “chunkiness.” So that was, ahem, fun.

But actually though. Actually it was kind of fun. Some part of me enjoyed being so literally in touch with my menstrual cycle. And I really, really liked knowing that I had avoided tossing one more disposable pad into the landfill.

After rinsing out the pad, I soaked it overnight in some water (in a closed, lidded jar), which took care of most of the staining (although some staining seemed inevitable). Shortly thereafter, I started actively hunting for more reusable menstrual pads. I bought some online, and then I found a supply at the Dill Pickle Co-op. I’ve been slowly incorporating more reusable pads into my menstruation routine. Last month I almost went for an entire cycle without disposables! It is harder to use reusable pads when I’m in my office, because there aren’t any private sinks in my workplace’s bathroom, so I can’t really rinse anything out when I want to switch to a fresh pad without creating a very awkward situation. But I’m hoping I can figure out a solution, because my ultimate goal is to go a full menstrual cycle without any disposables! (Stay tuned for a separate blog post where I’ll review all of the different reusable pads I’ve been using!)

3. Toilets

When M. and I started planning our zero waste month, I very briefly considered trying a bidet. Very briefly. I’m not a stranger to bidets nor am I opposed to them, but during my exploration of this idea I quickly realized that installing a bidet would be an investment. Tushy has a fairly affordable option (less than $100), but M. and I don’t own our apartment. While I don’t think we’ll be switching residences anytime soon, I don’t want to sink money into a piece of equipment that might be difficult (and possibly icky) to uninstall and reinstall multiple times in case we ever did move. I think a bidet will be in my future if I ever end up owning property, but it’s not suitable for me at the moment.

TL;DR: we didn’t extend our zero-waste practices to our toilet-sitting time. 😀

4. Toiletries

There wasn’t much we could change toiletries-wise during our official month of low/zero waste because we still had full tubes of toothpaste and containers of floss to use up, and prematurely disposing of those would have been very, well, wasteful. M. also didn’t want to give up his brand of very mainstream toothpaste because he feared that the more natural toothpastes would not be as effective. Personally, I don’t think M.’s concern is warranted, but I didn’t want to push the issue.

Now that, in February of 2018, I am nearing the end of my toothpaste tube, I do want to switch to something more sustainable, but for me the issue is slightly more complicated as I am currently using Sensodyne under my dentist’s recommendation. Admittedly, I haven’t done any research into whether there is a more sustainable toothpaste that would provide the same benefits as Sensodyne. (If you know of any, please comment below!) I’m also not ready to go the route of making my own, so in this arena we’re definitely not zero waste.

I did do a little research into some sustainable flosses and toothbrushes. Package Free introduced me to a brand of silk flosses that are stored in beautiful and recyclable glass containers. And Package Free has bamboo toothbrushes too—the handles are compostable, and the bristles are plant-based (but unfortunately not compostable). I haven’t tried the toothbrushes myself yet, but I did gift one to M. and so far he hasn’t complained! It’s also much more aesthetically pleasing than the bright neon plastic toothbrushes that we are used to. I’m hoping to switch to bamboo toothbrushes myself soon, but every time I am back home in Brooklyn I forget to pack my toothbrush and so I end up grabbing a new plastic one and then now I have double the plastic toothbrushes. Major zero waste fail.

Alright, so that’s my summary of the attempts I made at zero-waste hygiene during the month of September 2017. Part 3, about zero-waste packaging, sustainable transit, and my final thoughts, will hopefully come to this blog in the next week or two! Stay tuned!

❤ AMisplacedPen (a.k.a. S.)

P.S. I’m thinking of revamping this website a little bit and archiving some of my oldest blog posts. If things start to look different around here, that is why! Once my changes are more concrete, I’ll write an update post on what’s different.

Disclaimer: I was not compensated in any way to write about any organizations or businesses that I have mentioned. This post expresses my honest opinions.

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Going Zero Waste, Part 1: Groceries and Cooking

Back in September 2017, M. and I made a commitment to live a low-waste / zero-waste lifestyle for a whole month. Finishing the month was relatively simple, but I’ve had a difficult time gathering my many thoughts on the matter into a coherent blog post. Four (!) months later, I’ve finally settled on a method for conveying my experience. I’ll be posting about my zero/low-waste month in three parts. Part 1 will discuss grocery shopping and cooking, part 2 will discuss hygiene, and part 3 will discuss packaging and transit and convey my final thoughts. So, welcome to part 1!

When we made our zero/low-waste commitment, M. and I realized that one of the easiest ways to go zero waste is to cook all of our meals ourselves. After all, whenever we get takeout we run the risk of receiving the food in a non-recyclable or non-compostable container, and whenever we eat in a restaurant we run the risk of receiving a plastic straw or being unsure whether the restaurant composts its food waste. In other words, we’d have a lot more oversight when cooking for ourselves. This meant, however, we’d need to figure out how to grocery shop in a zero-waste manner. So we assessed our stock of reusable containers. Between us, we already had about five reusable produce bags, either from personal purchases or received as gifts. So we were mostly set for produce. For storing dry goods, we had several mason jars left over from various other projects: M. bought his about a year ago, when he first became interested in zero-waste living. I also bought mine about a year ago, to store some brandied cherries I made for Halloween of 2016 (following this recipe). And we had some glass bowls with silicone lids that we were already using to store leftovers. I also had an assortment of reusable straws and drinking containers, bought during a brief period of my life when I was obsessed with making breakfast smoothies. Ultimately, we didn’t need to invest in much more equipment in preparation for zero-waste living.

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Some of our zero waste equipment: stainless steel straws, a mason jar, a reusable stainless steel water bottle, an organic cotton produce bag.

After taking stock, we rounded up all of our various reusable grocery/shopping bags and made sure they were placed in a visible and easily accessible area of our apartment. We each made ourselves a little “reusables” kit—which included a reusable food container, a reusable hot beverage container, a reusable straw, and a reusable napkin—and stuck the kits into our respective work bags. After that, we were ready.

Week 1 of the zero/low-waste month went very well. That first Sunday, we packed up our produce bags and grocery bags and jogged to the farmer’s market. We were able to buy all of our produce for the week without taking any plastic bags or boxes from the vendors.

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Our first zero waste grocery haul! Clockwise, from top left corner: cremini mushrooms in a compostable and recyclable paper bag, organic eggs in a recyclable paper container, an eggplant, organic broccoli, a roma tomato, a green bell pepper, string beans, a chili pepper, shallots, and an iced tea (that I got “to go” in my reusable bottle!).

I did buy a juice from one vendor because we were thirsty after our jog (that day, it was probably 70 or 80 degree weather), but fortunately the juice came in a mason jar that we have been reusing ever since. Our only oversight of that outing was lunch: we bought tacos from one vendor under the impression that the plates they were using were entirely paper, but upon receipt I realized the plates might be plastic coated. So we ended up placing those plates into the landfill instead of the compost under fear of contaminating the latter. 😦

During week 1, we used up most of our groceries making homemade, vegetarian meals. I had a (plastic) bag of rice in the pantry, purchased before we started our month of low/zero waste, so we cooked the rice for our carbohydrate needs. I tried to prepare lunches for myself every day as well, but there were days when I would be too exhausted to. Fortunately, my workplace cafeteria uses compostable or recyclable packaging for their packaged meals, so I was still able to avoid throwing anything into the landfill whenever I would purchase lunch there. I started keeping a glass jar (with an airtight lid) in my office cubicle for the purpose of holding any compostable trash accumulated over the course of a workday. So, if my lunch packaging was compostable, I’d simply stick the packaging into my compost jar when I was done eating, then bring the jar home and empty it into our compost bin. (M. and I started paying for a composting service in the summer of 2017, as the city of Chicago does not provide composting as a utility. We use WasteNot, and I think they’re amazing!)

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My cubicle compost jar!

The Saturday of week 1, we did go to a restaurant for dinner. We typically like to go out on weekends, and we had agreed that it would be unrealistic to try to stay in every Saturday night of our low/zero-waste month. But we dined at a vegan restaurant that didn’t use single-use or disposable plastic serving ware, and when I ordered a milkshake I remembered to ask for no straw! Our server looked a little confused but accommodated me easily. I had actually brought along my own straw and used that instead. 🙂

Week 2 was less impressive. On Sunday of week 2, we woke up too late to make it to the farmer’s market before closing time and ended up buying produce at the Dill Pickle, a co-op grocery store. While the Dill Pickle is an excellent place to shop (they have so many bulk options and they’re community owned!), they use non-compostable stickers to mark the PLU codes on their produce, and a lot of their lettuce and other leafy greens are tied into bundles using rubber bands that are not easily reusable or compostable. So even though we brought our own produce bags, we ended up having some additional trash thanks to these produce “accessories,” which aren’t so much of an issue when buying directly from farmers at the market. Because we were at the Dill Pickle though, I was able to buy some lentils in bulk (using our mason jars as containers), as I was getting a little tired of relying solely on eggs for our vegetarian protein needs. (I am lactose intolerant, so using cheese as a protein source was not really an option, and so far I haven’t been able to find tofu that is package free or comes in a compostable container.)

We also chose to get brunch on that Sunday, but this time I forgot about refusing the straw. Frankly, I usually don’t ever want a straw, so I don’t expect my drinks to come with them. I ordered a homemade lemonade at our brunch place, not even thinking that it would arrive with a straw, but it did. Zero waste fail. 😦

For the bulk of week 2, we still stuck with our vegetarian home cooking, but occasionally we’d be too tired to cook in the evening (especially me, as I had a freelance project to work on in addition to working my full-time job). Whenever I was too exhausted, I would get takeout from places that have compostable packaging. The two places I came to rely on the most were Sweetgreen and Dos Toros (which also have vegan and vegetarian options). Admittedly, I did feel a little uncomfortable getting takeout from chain establishments, however earth-friendly those establishments might be, as I would like to support my local businesses more.

During week 2, I also made the unskilled decision of attending an office event and forgetting my reusables! There was breakfast food (eggs, hash, etc.) being served at the work event, and the only available plates and utensils were made of non-recyclable plastic. Admittedly, I could have refused to eat anything there, but the promise of free food overrode my aversion to using plastic disposables (I do work for a nonprofit, so free anything is very, very hard to resist). Another zero waste fail!

Most of week 3 was spent in Denver and Boulder; see my posts (part 1 and part 2) about our time there for more information on how we attempted to continue our low-waste habit while traveling. A quick summary: We did better in Denver than I had expected, but we still generated much more plastic waste than if we had been at home. And after we returned to Chicago, we were too exhausted to make a trip for groceries, so we ended up getting takeout for the rest of week 3.

On the Sunday of week 4, the last week of our official low/zero-waste month, we actually woke up early enough to jog to the farmer’s market and get produce there again! But I had a miscommunication with one vendor, who handed me fruit in a plastic bag even though I was trying to ask for no bag. My introversion and anxiety got the best of me, and I took the bag without saying anything. If I had refused that one bag, then our shopping trip would have been a complete success!

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Yellow zucchini, from the farmer’s market. I had never seen yellow zucchini before!

We also chose to get brunch again on that Sunday, and once again, I forgot about refusing the straw and didn’t realize our drinks came with straws until it was too late. 😦

Throughout week 4, we maintained our goal of cooking vegetarian meals for ourselves, but we didn’t use up all of our groceries because, once again, I had chosen to skip a couple of nights of cooking as I was overwhelmed by my freelance project. On those nights, we got takeout from restaurants that use compostable packaging, so we still generated much less waste for the landfill. But the best course of action would have been to actually use up everything we had bought.

At the end of the month, it was wonderful to realize how much emptier our trash bins were. Thanks to our new grocery shopping habits, most of our household waste was either compostable or recyclable, so we barely had any trash to take out. I loved the experience of going to the farmer’s market and seeing the variety of produce there. And using our own reusable produce bags was very easy, plus the reusable bags are more aesthetically pleasing to see in the fridge than the disposable plastic ones. I also really enjoyed having a compost jar at my cubicle, as most of my day is spent at work anyway, and before we began our low/zero-waste commitment I was generating lots of compostable trash at work that was ending up in the landfill. In addition, the both of us felt a lot healthier eating more homemade meals and more vegetarian meals. Our new habits were also very comforting for me: I think my conscience felt a lot of relief because my actions were finally matching my morals.

But, during these four weeks, we did have two areas where we failed majorly: (1) straws, and (2) snacking. In terms of straws, as I noted above, I don’t normally want a straw, and so I rarely think that my drinks will come with one. Every time we dined in a restaurant or went out with friends and ordered cocktails, I would forget that the restaurant serves its beverages with a straw until it was too late. So I want to be better at anticipating the straw and refusing it.

As for snacking, during our official zero/low-waste month M. continued to purchase chips packaged in plastic, although he did lessen the frequency of said chip buying. (Admittedly, he had warned me that he wouldn’t give chips up as he does really like them.) As for myself, I had a hard time resisting the call of the office vending machine. At work, I rely heavily on snacking to help me get through the day. I had a couple of plastic-packaged snacks leftover from before we made our zero-waste commitment, and after I finished eating those, the packaging regretfully ended up in the trash. And at least five or six times throughout our low/zero-waste month, I ended up purchasing snacks packaged in single-use plastic. During the second week of the month, I realized that giving snacks up completely wouldn’t work; I’d just keep heading to the vending machine if I didn’t have something to munch on already at my desk. So I made a trip to the Dill Pickle Coop to get some bulk nuts and trail mix to keep in my cubicle, which helped greatly. Even then, I continued to have some difficulty refusing plastic-packaged snacks.

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Some bulk trail mix that I bought at Dill Pickle Coop.

Overall, I think that zero/low-waste grocery shopping and cooking can actually be fairly easy, with the right preparation. M. and I were fortunate enough to already have reusable produce bags and mason jars on hand, so all we needed to do was stick to a schedule and remember to bring our reusables. I think that we failed so much in the snacking and straw arenas because we weren’t sufficiently prepared on those ends: I hadn’t realized how much I love snacking until I was forced to think about how often I hit up the office vending machines, and I hadn’t given very much thought to how many restaurants serve their beverages with straws until I was forced to confront the fact that my lack of anticipation would mean more plastic trash in landfills and oceans.

After our official month of zero/low waste ended, M. and I have still continued making trips to the farmer’s market or co-op grocery store with reusable produce bags and mason jars on hand. We still try to cook at home as much as possible, and we have still stuck to a mostly vegetarian home diet. So I’m very happy to say that after a month of forcing ourselves to develop better grocery shopping and eating habits, these habits have stuck! 🙂 I’m still struggling with the snacking and straw issues, but because my awareness around those topics has greatly increased, I’m doing a lot better than I was before that month.

Now, stay tuned for part 2, where I discuss how I tried to manage hygiene during our month of zero/low waste!

❤ AMisplacedPen (a.k.a. S.)

Disclaimer: I was not compensated in any way to write about any organizations or businesses that I have mentioned. This post expresses my honest opinions.