Ingredients of a Non-Disposable Lifestyle

by Katy on January 14, 2010 · 26 comments

Sometimes the information on living a green lifestyle is so confusing and overwhelming as to turn a person off from making any change to habits of disposable products.

Carry your own water bottle, but wait . . . does it have BPA? Bring your own leftover container when you eat out, but wait . . . was your meal locally grown and sustainably harvested? You’ve shopped at your locally owned food co-op, but did you remember to bring your own organic hemp bag?

Green living doesn’t have to be so complicated.

Like so much of a Non-Consumer lifestyle, the key is not about buying brand new green items, but making do from what you already have.

Here are a few solutions that have worked for me:

  • I keep a string bag in my purse, (uses hardly any room) and have a stash of reusable bags in both my cars. They are not pretty, and I certainly didn’t buy any of them. Instead I gathered up what I could find in the house and take advantage of freebies.
  • We hardly ever eat out, but when we do it’s usually the mini-van that drives us to the restaurant. I keep a large stacking stainless Tiffin food container in this car to use as a doggy bag. This particular container is too big for daily use, but works great for this purpose.
  • I never buy kleenex, instead we use handkerchiefs. I came across a number of hankies in some soccer equipment, as well as a stack of bandanas. I keep these in my purse, coat pockets and on my bedside table. When I had a cold last week, I also used some scrappy old cloth napkins that were no longer in regular rotation. I also use the clean bandanas as napkins when I eat out or am eating lunch at work.
  • I never buy paper towels. I took a couple of old ratty towels and tore them into squares, which I store in a drawstring bag in my kitchen broom closet. The only time I miss actual paper towels is for spreading oil on my cast iron pans. I do have a number of restaurant paper napkins that do the trick.
  • I try not to use the plastic silverwear at work, and have a cheap stainless steel spoon that rattles around at the bottom of my purse. When I need it I just give it a swipe.
  • I bought a stainless steel travel mug for $1 at a garage sale last Summer, which I love. It’s dishwasher safe and I don’t have to be too paranoid about leaving it somewhere.
  • When I need a water bottle  I’ll often just use a glass ice tea bottle with a screw on lid or one of the questionable older Nalgene style bottles. I won’t let the kids use them, but I’m not so paranoid for myself.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.

It’s important to not let the large number of green living products overwhelm you to the point of inaction. What you need to decrease your role in disposable products is most likely right under your nose.

Do you have tricks to bring down your use of disposible products? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl January 14, 2010 at 3:51 am

We use Klean Kanteens for our water bottles…we own six of them, in varying sizes. They weren’t terribly cheap, but I know they are safe, and they’ll last forever.

Reply January 14, 2010 at 5:27 am

Amen on missing paper towels for the cast iron pan. You know what we’ve done that works pretty darn well? We cut up an old flannel shirt into small squares. Those do the trick. I just toss them in the towel laundry when I’m done.


WilliamB January 14, 2010 at 5:37 am

First and foremost I remember that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good enough. It’s better that I do something small, than do nothing at all because that little isn’t good enough.

I keep flatware and a small plate at my desk. I don’t drink coffee so I don’t need a mug for the coffee shop.

I nabbed a second trash can to use as a personal recycling bin. It’s still enormously painful to see my colleagues throw out that stuff but it’s a start.

I reuse plastic water bottles. Not everyone thinks its a good idea but I’m OK with it.

I collect the water that runs when I’m waiting for the shower to get hot, using old milk jugs. It goes into the water filter pitcher, the indoor plants, and the sink when I need to soak something. In the summer it goes to water the hydangeas (very thirsty plants, hydrangeas). It used to go into the washing machine but see below.

When my old washing machine broke, I persuade my roommate to buy a front-loader. This was a lot of work and now he thanks me for it.

I almost always use fabric shopping bags. I just stashed a couple in the car for unplanned trips – one fabric, one insulated. I get paper and plastic when I need recycling or small trash bags.

I use scrap paper, wood chopsticks that come with Chinese take-out, and broken-down clementine boxes as tinder for my fire.

Next areas to attack:
– I’m going to nab your idea of keeping take-out containers in the car.
– I still use paper towels. I need to find a nice-looking way to keep rags out; the current spot takes too many actions to get to.


Tracy Balazy January 15, 2010 at 6:32 pm

William, I’m glad you said that about simply trying, instead of giving up if the job you’re doing isn’t perfect!


Jinger January 14, 2010 at 5:52 am

I had become obsessively tightwadish awhile ago and recently lightened up…it suits me better. I do buy Puffs when we have our once a year head cold and I empty the wastebaskets that fill up with used Puffs regularly. Hygenically, it seems better to me than using cloth for nose blowing. I also have started buying paper towels again…one roll about every few months for wiping my cast iron and other ugly tasks. Yet, in other ways, I am extremely frugal…no convenience foods at all, cloth bags for shopping always, faucet filter etc.


Carla January 14, 2010 at 6:08 am

1. Waaaaay back in the 50s/60s my mother made a bunch of inexpensive cloth napkins to cut her paper napkin use. When we married in the 70s, I did the same for us. Guests are surprised when I set a table with cloth napkins and demur that I am “too fancy” for them or going to “too much trouble”. They’re really shocked when we tell them we use cloth all the time. Over the years I’ve made numerous cloth napkins for my oldest daughter’s house and recently my youngest daughter asked for them, too.

2. I’ve been trying to stop paper towels and mainly, I have. I was starting to use more again, a lot more, by storing lettuce the way Alton Brown recommends — individual leaves washed and rolled up to not touch in a handy paper towel bundle. This was clearly not going to do. Instead I began using a couple of flour sack towels dedicated to lettuce. They go into the washer and then get hung to dry between heads of lettuce. It’s not hard and my burgeoning paper towel use went back to nothing.

3. I’ve been using some of my husbands old (soft — yes!) handkerchiefs instead of tissues but at the moment I’m dealing with a sinus infection that doesn’t want to quit. There may not be enough hankies in the house to take care of this so Kleenix Ultra Soft tissues are my indulgence. And honestly, they are more sanitary than hankies, especially when you’re sick.


isaac January 14, 2010 at 6:50 am

I was also using a lot of paper towels for reasoning my cast iron, so I freecylced my mother’s refillable pump-spray bottle (a Misto) and filled it with some grapeseed oil. I’m really pleased with the results.


Andrea January 14, 2010 at 7:36 am

I keep reusable grocery bags in the car, attached to my purse (I used to also hang them on the knob to the stairs so that I would not forget them when I walked by…but now I always remember). I take my own bowl and spoon when we have cake at work (more often, I skip the cake because it’s from a mix and gross) and take our own plastic dishes to potlucks and picnicks. My next plan: making muslin drawstring bags for buying spices in bulk at the health food store and rice and grains and beans at the new grocery store that has a small bulk foods section.


Tracy Balazy January 15, 2010 at 6:40 pm

I want to do that, too, Andrea! Make muslin bags, I mean. I recently discovered the joys of the bulk food store (I’d been under the impression it would be full of processed foods, not whole grains and nuts and beans and spices, what a surprise!) and would love to bring my own bags.

I can totally relate to your CAKE comment, too — where I worked before I was laid off a couple weeks ago, when we celebrated someone’s birthday, I’d always bring my own china plate and metal fork. Everyone seemed terribly amused by that. But, most of the time, I’d skip it, because as you said, it was gross — ours wasn’t even from a mix, it was premade from the grocery store and full of preservatives, yuck.


karen January 14, 2010 at 8:31 am

I too am bothered by wasteful coworkers but try to lead by example, lol. I use the wax paper cereal bags as mini compost bins in my cubicle for tea bags, banana peels, etc which I take home at the end of the week. My neighbors give me the plastic sleeves from their newspapers for my dog. I recycle old jeans into various size tote bags & have recycled t-shirts into pillow cases which I launder more often than sheets as the cat sleeps on them. My chore pails for home/gardening are the large plastic buckets with handles that cat litter comes in. Since they are stackable, I also use them for storage bins (relabeled with scrap paper) of things used less often in our household. I could write an article but will stop with these, lol.


Tracy Balazy January 15, 2010 at 6:43 pm

I have to comment again: That’s awesome, Karen, that you take the tea bags and banana peels home to compost! I didn’t even do that, but I should have. I like your T-shirt pillowcase idea.


Linda January 14, 2010 at 8:57 am

I do not use alot of paper. I have cloth napkins, dishcloths for washing dishes (I hate sponges), dishcloths for wiping up counters and spills. My mothers is obsessed with paper towels and always pushes one or more rolls on me when she buys them. I have one roll that will last me about 3 months. I only use them when my cat gets sick.

My kids and husband take their lunches to work and school in reusable lunch boxes and I try to use reusable containers instead of baggies. Sometimes in the morning when I cannot find a container, I opt for the easier baggie.

I am going to sew my own reusable bags out of old tee shirts/clothes for my veggie bags. I hate those plastic bags for produce, so I will make my own. I also noticed that one of my local stores has bulk food bins and I think I will start buying grains and such from the bulk bins using my “new” homemade bags.

I am trying but sometimes I just get a little lazy!


Jinger January 14, 2010 at 9:18 am

This might not fit here, but is still very interesting on frugality.


Katy January 14, 2010 at 9:31 am

The thing about using cloth for seasoning cast iron is that I have found that I put grease stains on my clothing if they are laundered with an oil soaked rag.

Instead of making reusable cloth bags for your bulk spices, just bring in your glass containers when you shop. The clerk can weigh the jar and then simply deduct the amount when it’s time to pay. Not only do you omit the need for a bag, but you’ll buy the exact amount you need.

If you’re using small spice bottles that run out quickly, try bigger jars like artichoke heart jars. I had a friend save her baby food jars for me YEARS ago, which I’m still using for my spices. I also am in love with the glass jars that “furikake” comes in, (Furikake is a Japanese dry mix that goes over rice. ) these jars are the perfect mix of form and function.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


Tracy Balazy January 15, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Wow, I’m going to ask the bulk food people to do that. I’ve been an inveterate washer of jars from all sorts of food for years (my husband believes it’s an obsession), and they’d be perfect for this.


Katy January 14, 2010 at 9:54 am

THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!
That made me teary.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


Lisa January 14, 2010 at 10:33 am

Rather than get bumfuzzled by all the new green etiquette, I try to make small changes. Little by little they’ve become habit. Toilet tissue is the only paper product we use. Everything else from nose blowing to wiping spills gets handled with rags. Excess paper that comes in the mail gets shredded and added to the garden…along with food scraps. I put a small amount of shortening on a clean finger and season my cast iron. Then I wash my hands again. Any oil that remains will only help my dry winter skin! Instead of buying plastic garbage bags, I reuse empty pet food bags. They don’t break open or leak. I haven’t bought garbage bags in well over a year now. I store leftovers in glass canning jars in the freezer (leaving lids loose so they won’t break). I make my own cleaning products and beauty products…no shampoo for this girl! I try to get every bit of use from everything before sending it to the landfill.


Shannon January 14, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Our company always thinks we’re being fancy too when we get out the cloth napkins. I heard this phrase a while back and always tell people “they’re not just for pretty!”
One thing that gets a lot of use around here is old cloth diapers. The kind that aren’t prefolded are actually very good for cleaning windows and mirrors. For hankies I use my “retro” collection of pretties I’ve picked up at thrift stores over the years.
I’m also happy to report that I’ve got my first grader taking cloth napkins, a thermos, and reusable plastic containers to school! So far he’s glad to do pretty much anything that’s good for the environment, and no on makes fun of him or anything. Well, I did have to get him the Lightning McQueen lunch pail, but it’s a small price to pay!
Carla: I (heart) Alton Brown, but he can be soooo wasteful with some of his methods!


Shymom January 15, 2010 at 5:36 am

I have banned the sandwich sized (and smaller) baggies from the house. Now, lunch gets packed into reusable containers. I also have a couple of Wrap mats to pack my sandwiches. DD doesn’t like them as her sandwiches get squished, but that would have happened with baggies, too.

At times we do need the throw aways for lunch–like when the kids go on a field trip, and I don’t want them to leave their good lunch things half a state away. Then I pack their lunches in leftover bread bags or the liners from cereal or cracker boxes.

I do use the large baggies in the freezer. I wash and reuse them as much as possible. You are not supposed to wash and reuse the ones that have stored meat. Those I simply keep stored in the freezer between uses.

We also have used cloth napkins for years. We use paper towels but only one roll every 3 months or so. Otherwise we use cut up rags.

I keep my “good rags” in a large bowl directly under the paper towels. When we have a really nasty mess or I need to drain grease, I grab an “old rag” from under the sink. These I have no problem using and throwing out.


magdalena January 15, 2010 at 9:47 am

With two dogs and a two-year-old, we are not paper towel free. And there is a huge supply of leftover church picnic napkins to use up. They are here, already paid for, and what else are we going to do with them?

But we have agreed to start moving away from plastics. Pyrex sets were half price at the local supermarket, so we bought two. (The same plastic tableware gets used for each big dinner party or picnic, then run through the dishwasher.) We all had colds in December, bought a huge cube of tissues, and have yet to crack it open. So it looks like a ten year supply now!

Our biggest green contribution has been eating at home. Almost no take-out cups or containers in the course of the month! And there isn’t the food waste that restaurants and take-outs engender as well – the bread not eaten, the not-so-nice veggies tossed rather than served. Leftovers are lunch, or at our laziest, dog food. Since we are eating whole, natural foods, I am comfortable serving them to the dogs as well. Odd, isn’t it, that we humans will eat junk food that we would not let our pets have, but shovel into our kids!


Tracy Balazy January 15, 2010 at 6:31 pm

After reading No-Impact Man, I finally started blowing my nose on the handkerchiefs (which I think are actually dinner napkins, as they’re sort of large) I bought at thrift stores for that purpose. I drink a lot of water, and I use a couple of glass iced tea bottles with screw-on caps for carrying water around. The smaller one fits into a lined, zipper-top cloth thing I bought last summer at a garage sale. I believe it’s a baby bottle holder, but it works just fine and has a carrying strap. I also bought a Built NY baby bottle holder last summer, neoprene with a terry cover, and that works well for this, too.

You guys inspired me; now I now what to do with the old jeans in the basement that are too worn even for cutoffs. Soft napkins! Katy, that’s a great idea. At work, I kept a kitchen towel, which was my all-purpose wipe-it-up, dry-off-my-china-and-silverware-that-I-used-to-eat-my-lunch, but until I read what you wrote today, I didn’t think to take my own cloths when I go out to eat! Also due to your inspiration, I took my own Tupperware to a restaurant for the first time a couple months ago. I did it again when my husband and I went out with friends more recently, and they applauded me for it rather than making fun of me as I’d expected!

I buy nothing new (it’s time for me to join The Compact), and I don’t eat meat. Those are probably my biggest green things so far.


Dani January 16, 2010 at 12:53 am

I worked at a place where folks were always getting takeout, and I would sneak off with their plastic bottles, styrofoam containers, clean them and pile them up in my desk to take home and put out with my recyclables. I called it “guerrilla recycling”. It also helped that I got a 5-cent deposit for each soda bottle. After a few years, they would clean the containers themselves and just hand them to me to take home and recycle.

I can my own fruits and veg, so I have a lot of canning jars and I use them for everything: from storing homemade butter to homemade laundry detergent.

For water, the same jars I use for canning work wonderfully for water, and I can put ice cubes, mint, sliced up oranges or lemon in them.


Deb January 20, 2010 at 10:02 pm

I love reading all of these inspiring tips and practices, so many terrific ideas. Some of them I already employ (I love scoring second hand napkins/hankies/tablecloths at estate & garage sales), and some of these ideas are definitely new to me!

A few years ago some of my friends used to really give me a hard time for my frugal/green ways, but not so much anymore!

some of my efforts:

I strung 3 laundry lines in my basement and hang my clothes to dry there in winter.
I quit using dryer sheets – instead I pour a dab of white vinegar into the laundry detergent dispenser and that takes care of the static.
I became an absolute zealot about water bottles and switched to metal water bottles, and I keep spares in my auto just so I always have one
on hand.
I keep 2 string bags in my purse, just in case.
I bought a battery charger and now only buy rechargable batteries, and I bought a few of those flashlights that you just shake a few times to get them to work.
We buy virtually everything we need second hand, and we don’t mind hunting & waiting until we find what we’re looking for. Patience pays off!


Tina (Tightwad Mom) May 23, 2011 at 6:37 pm

I just made some reusable produce bags out of some bridal tulle a neighbor gave me. I measured out a 12 x 24 inch rectangle, folded it in half and sewed the sides. Then I folded the top over to make a casing (leave a 1/2 inch section unsewn) pulled a piece of leftover clothes line through the casing, so that I can pull the bag closed. The mesh lets the produce “breathe”. The bags are washable and reusable. I just wash them out in my clean dishwater. I love the idea of bringing your own containers to the bulk foods section; that is pure genius. I also keep reusable bags in my car. I drag them in everywhere (even goodwill and yard sales). I also drop silvers of soap into the leg of an old pair of pantyhose for my kids to use in the bathtub (the nylon works great for scrubbing dirty knees and elbows).


Leslie July 5, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Okay…feminine hygiene products. Have to say it. So much waste. This past year bought a kit from “gladrags” as well as a “mooncup” and love them. Do some research if you’re interested and you may find you actually don’t miss the disposables. I don’t.


Juli December 22, 2015 at 4:20 am

I cut old/worn out/stained t shirts into smaller squares for make your own size paper towels. A 2×2 square can handle more than you think. I do toss to when it’s oily. When I use one to oil my pan I put it aside like a teabag to use again.


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