This is an introduction to all the textiles you will need or will be helpful to you in your journey towards zero waste living. Below I’m going to outline some of the areas in your home and lifestyle where reusable textiles can replace disposable products and I’ll also provide some easy tutorials and links for making or finding these items. Let’s get started!
Dining at Home
The easiest way to start switching out sustainable items for disposable ones I think is in the kitchen. How many paper towels have you gone through this year? Paper napkins? After meal wipes for the babes? Paper plates or plastic cutlery for BBQs or just a quick pizza meal? Disposable sandwich bags, freezer bags, mop heads, bibs, place mats and table cloths? There seems to be a disposable version of everything these days and while we probably don’t use ALL of the options all of the time, they are probably in our lives in some way or the other all year round.
The first step is to stop buying them. You will have these products around your home long enough even if you stop buying them now. In a way it will be a nice transition to know that, “ok, I only have one pack of napkins left. I better make sure we have enough cloth napkins to last every meal by Friday.” The hardest thing to quit will probably be paper towels because our culture has taught us to not touch icky things; just swipe it away and never deal with it again. The ick factor may be a real challenge for many of us but honestly, we have nothing to be afraid of. Would our pioneer or immigrant families thrown out a towel because it had cleaned up spit-up, urine, or even blood? I don’t think so. It would have been washed and used again. Really, if you are deciding to go zero waste, many of your home products will naturally become, well, natural. So, if there is nothing toxic in your kitchen and the only messes are caused by food that will be eaten or food that has been eaten and reappeared, I don’t see any problem with cleaning these messes with the same towels washed again and again. There are people who have gag reflexes and I sympathize so I hope that there is a loving companion to help you out, although I imagine even if you were using disposable materials you’d be in contact with the ick just as long, save rinsing off the towel.
There really shouldn’t be anything that revolting to us, especially those who own pets and/or have children, right? We have seen inner fluids, goo, and solids that instantly become outer fluids, goo and solids in all the various stages and quantities imaginable. I honestly am thankful for the experience of cleaning my own cleaning supplies because I feel like it has removed a virtual layer between me and reality. Real life is dirty and without recognizing the dirt we can lose sight of how carnal we are. We are not futuristic telepathic beings living in the cold white confines of a sterile Apple-Store-esque commune (no offense if you live in an Apple Store). We are people; we have bodies; our bodies have real live functions and spillages and gases and it’s good for us to clean up after ourselves.
You’ll need to start somewhere but I recommend that it be something noticeable and something that you don’t already do (unless it has fallen by the wayside). As you approach each area, ask yourself if you have a substitute in your home already. If not, how are you going to secure the item/s you need with the least wasteful impact. You can make it out of something you have (cloth napkins out of an old table cloth), you can ask your friends, neighbors, local Buy Nothing group, church, moms group, clubs etc. if they have any items they don’t need, or you can go to the thrift store and look for quality items that will work. The very last resort is to buy something new from the store, but even then you will want to look for items that again have the least negative impact on the environment and you. This means look for the type of packaging and the material the product is made of. For example, staying on the napkin thing, many stores, including Macy’s, will have them package free in the fine china and dining department while the home wares will have them in packaging. For napkin material, if you must buy it new then you have the opportunity to be more particular about material. Aim for whatever is more long lasting but still friendly for decomposing. That sounds contradictory, but a good high thread count 100% cotton towel will last a very long time but will still be able to be recycled easily at a textile recycle plant or be shredded and returned to the earth.
Finally, I want to say that if you have an item that is reusable but is plastic, don’t throw it away just to go buy a new glass or metal one. That would defeat the purpose! Please either use it until it is no longer fit to serve it’s purpose, give it to someone who can use it, or donate it. Having everything pretty and matching is ideal. We have all seen those beautiful zero waste pantry pictures on Pinterest, but unless it is for health reasons (plastic touching your food etc), please think carefully before getting rid of what you already own that is serving a good purpose.Not everything needs to be expensive, look matchy or fit perfect which is also why this journey isn’t exclusive to those with lucrative funds. Use what you have and it will all fall together in place over time. 🙂
So without further ado, here is the list of swaps you’ll want to make:
Towels or wash cloths dedicated to replace paper towels
Click HERE for a tutorial for creating “unpaper towels”. Like the tutorial, I recommend using metal snaps because they are less likely to warp or melt and become waste, but if you already have plastic snaps then use what you have. Also, in this tutorial she is hand sewing but it is easy to see how to use a sewing machine to get the same results. Props to my neighbor for sending me the idea. We use H2O towels right now but I might create these in the future.
The H2O towels have been amazing. They are a bit of an investment but their make up is antibacterial so they can leave any surface free of germs with only water (so long as they are not washed in a detergent with . You can wash the dishes with them, the counters, the table, the microwave. The top two towels here are for glass. They require no product, only water, to leave windows clean and streak free. I am very happy with them! Click HERE to learn more about H2O products. Not all of their items are zero waste, but they are all low waste (refills, minimal packaging) and natural, meaning you can have your toddler clean any surface with any of their products right along side you. No worrying about toxic cleaning solutions!
Cloth wipes for cleaning up baby/toddler messes (their faces/hands/bibs/trays)
Babies R Us and the rest of the baby industry can’t get a big profit out of sustainability. Sure, sustainable products are available, but one of the biggest markets in the world, the business of baby products, doesn’t want you to know that you don’t need fancy disposable wipes for cleaning every inch of your baby or toddler.
Separate Booger Wipes are even a thing. Seriously. However, you don’t need to (literally) buy in to it. Use cloth wipes. Baby bath washcloths are readily available and are the perfect size for wiping tiny dirty faces.
You are in the kitchen vicinity already so just take your wash cloth, run it under the water, wring it out and voila, a reusable wipe. Baby wash cloths usually come in packs of 6-12 and can come in a variety of materials. I find that terry and flannel work best for wiping sticky things like jam and semi-dry ketchup. After wiping the kids, fold it in half and use the clean side to wipe down the highchair, tray, booster etc. If you don’t have some already, ask friends, family and BKG before buying new. They are often found at discount stores like TJ Maxx and Ross as well. If you need to buy, then I think this set, pictured below is adorable and a great choice for baby’s skin.. Remember, these will last essentially your whole child-rearing life so this is an instance where zero waste is really saving you money. Compare the “stockpile” picture to the above set of cloth wipes…hundreds of dollars dwindles down to about $20 for a few sets of the wipes. Even cheaper is to make your own like many of the wipes in my pile above. If you use a material that doesn’t fray you won’t even need to hem them. They are small enough to make out of odds and ends of yardage from other projects too.
Cloth napkins to replace paper napkins
We actually have not secured ourselves some cloth napkins yet. We end up using the cloth baby wipes for everything! But I imagine that method would not work in every home, especially when you are entertaining guests. Our dinner table is also in the kitchen so access to the sink for washing sticky hands has always been easy. I do plan on making some cloth napkins that we can use for dinner parties though. We host Bible study fairly often and I have a huge stock pile of paper napkins that I need to use up but eventually I hope to bring in the cloth napkin!
Here is a wonderfully easy DIY napkin tutorial from Chocolate and Zucchini. Try to upcycle fabric or use what you already have, but if matching, cute and stylish napkins will make you use them then buy the perfect fabric! Girl Charlee Fabrics has so many adorable patterns in many different fabrics. I love going through their designs. I have enough fabric to last for a long time but if you don’t have a local fabric store, there are countless gorgeous fabric stores online. I don’t know how all of them package but if they are smaller and it is possible, see if you can request the packaging material to ensure that there are no plastic bags in the packaging, only cardboard or biodegradable peanuts, etc.
For other bigger parties such as birthdays or BBQs, I have not come up with a plan as of yet. Of course the goal is to waste as little as possible so I’m not sure if making 40-50 napkins for big parties would be less wasteful than a pack of paper napkins. My guess would be that if they are upcycled from another material and water is not an ecological problem where you live then it would be the way to go. As with many ideas about changing our lives to improve our health and the environment there are so many opinions coming from many different regions. For example, many who live in drought areas are told that it is better to use disposable diapers instead of reusable ones because the amount of water needed to clean them would be detrimental to their society and the environment. At the same time I know that the amount of water needed to produce paper is also an environmental factor. I am not an expert on these things but I do respect that often differing opinions are grounded in some truth. I live in the Seattle area and we don’t have a problem with water. I think the options I’m sharing are fairly universal but if you have a unique setting then your waste/water/lifestyle will likely need to be unique as well.
Cloth covered sponge or cloth wash rag to replace plastic sponges
Ok, kitchen sponges are prone to grossness and get thrown away often. However, life without a kitchen sponge is hard so what are we gonna do about it? Again, I am going to tote how great the H2O at Home products are. The first time I went to an H2O party I got a few samples of their products like a mini soap bar and a mini chiffonette (the glass cleaning towel I mentioned above). I ordered a sponge and one variety kit which has three types of chiffonettes in it for various tasks. The towels are great for everyday or for that day that you need to give the whole house a good scrub. More often though I grab my double-sided microfiber sponge. It has the same material as the anti-microbial chiffonettes on one side and a fluffy but mysteriously powerful scrubby material on the other. These things are beasts. I have cleaned my china with them. I have cleaned my oven with them. They lift sticky residue from labels so I don’t need Googone. Crumbs stick to them like metal shards to a magnet. They lift soap scum off the sink with a few hard swipes without anything but water. I feel like I possess the only magic sponges on the planet because when I think of how I use them it just doesn’t seem possible. But you can have them too. I’m not getting paid for any of my recommendations. I honestly think these bad boys should be in every home. The H2O rep even told me that after several years of using one of these sponges, one of her clients decided to cut it open to see if there was any mold or nastiness inside. Nope. Nothing but a sponge. I feel bad that she could have kept using it! Took one for the team I guess. 🙂
To clean, you can use one of their cleaning bars, suds up and rinse, or throw it in the wash on hot so long as your soap does not have any unnatural surfactants in it which can clog the “pores” of the bacteria grabbing cloth. Note, these anti-microbial cloth products do not kill the bacteria, only trap it. After using the sponge to clean up, after raw meat for instance, send it to the laundry room. Don’t use it to wipe the table after or anything else. This is why I have two now. I want to have one to use as soon as the other needs to be washed. It might seem like a lot of washing but all these things are small and can be added to other hot loads. I put all the bibs, kitchen towels, rags, baby wipes, and sometimes diapers in the same load together. If that isn’t enough to fill the load, I look for a dirty bath towel or bath mat, kitchen mat dog bed liner, dog stuffed toys etc. Pretty much whatever can be washed on hot (to kill the bacteria) that has been neglected gets thrown in the wash.
Reusable baggies replace plastic sandwich bags
You might get a funny face from the barista when you ask for your pastry to go in *holds open cloth baggie* “this?” “Ummm, sure.” Sometimes though, this is the best way to start a conversation on zero waste living. I’ve even had some cashiers say, “oh, my sister is doing that!” or “Where do you get those? How can I get started?” Even though this is in the kitchen section, these baggies leave your kitchen every day and can be great ambassadors for Zero Waste everywhere you go.
There are many options for ready made reusable bags. They are sold at a variety of locations all over the retail sector. Just above I purchased the burger bag at Central Market next to their lunch boxes, the green lined one is from The Container Store, and the Bulk bag is from Whole Foods (for their bulk section). I have a few more bought ones from farmer’s markets and kitchen stores. I bought most of these before I had my sewing machine set up when we first moved into our house (a lot of construction) and honestly before I had the confidence to make a lot of my own things. If I had only known how easy it was…
Here are some samples of bags that I have made. I have a pretty big stock now because we have three lunches (+ one baby lunch) to pack everyday and a variable of +/- one to two more when we have exchange students with us. So sometimes I need enough baggies for five and a half lunches. Yeah, not going to buy that many so I made them. Here is the simplest tutorial every. If you are using a material that doesn’t fray, one that is backed in a waxy or plastic like film, then you have only two straight lines to sew.
How To Make a Reusable Baggie
Cut a long rectangle out of your fabric.
Optional: hem one end of the rectangle if you want a stitch to show on the hood of the finished bag like the bottom right picture above.
With the pretty side/outside of the fabric facing up, fold in one end (if hemmed, then the hemmed edge) of the rectangle in so that the PUL/water resistant side is facing up. See bottom left picture above.
Pin the fold along the raw sides with the pin heads on the outside.
Fold the other end of the rectangle in toward the first pinned end. Meet this end with the edge of the first fold. In other words, until you cannot see the first fold.
Pin the second fold in place.
Sew along the pinned raw edges removing the pins as you go. Double back the start and finish of the lines to fortify the edges. If hand sewing, double back or double knot.
Make sure not to sew on the folded edges, only the double raw edges! You can see on the top picture above which edge is left unsewn: a fold on the bottom and one raw edge on top. Do not touch!
Turn your baggie right side out. You should have a small sack with a hood to cover the opening. If you want to secure this hood you can add velcro or snaps. I’ve also embellished some of my larger bags with pockets for a napkin or silverware.
I made my first baggies from left over diaper fabric which is called PUL fabric. You can make them out of whatever suits the food you’ll be packing. For instance, if most of what you’ll be putting in is bread items or dry items then water resistance is not as important (except for keeping water out). Or if you need the items to breathe a bit more then maybe some kind of wind breaker material would be better. Get creative! I have a few bibs below that are one their last leg: holes, warped, velcro gone. I think I’ll turn them into more bags so they can live another life instead of being tossed. Think this way with all of your belongings. A rain jacket with a giant rip in it can be turned into a lunch bag or a wet bag. If it can’t be repaired then let your stuff be remade. If you don’t have the sewing skills or machine, ask around to see who does. It is a fun project that can get people talking. Make extras and hand them out so you can encourage others to get on board!
One final note. Once you have mastered baggies, I encourage you to make a bag for many of the things in your life that you usually turn to plastic bags or even paper bags for. We have been hosting exchange students for almost a year now and they seldom come with a lunch box. I know that most teenage or even college age kids don’t want to be seen with a lunch box but they rely on food from our home for all their meals. I am working on a few bags right now that will replace the paper bags they usually use. Hopefully, because they are really compact the students will be able to stuff them in a pocket after lunch and not have to be embarrassed by them!
Washable cloth mop heads (like Libman or Shark) to replace disposable mop heads (like Swiffer)
Switching out an appliance can be a big step. Reusable mop heads and bases are readily available, even at the grocery store. Look for one that has a wood or metal base. If you already own a mop with disposable mop heads then search for reusable mop heads that fit that brand. There may be some or there may not. Not that you need to do it today, but consider gifting the mop along with any left over mop heads to someone you know who may need it. Maybe a college student or someone in transitional housing who can’t really settle down and buy long term appliances. I remember being in college and asking my parents for a vacuum for Christmas because I was not in a place to save up for one but neither was anyone else in the apartment. Anyways, think long term for yourself and the new product and give the old item away. Throwing it away will create waste but there might be someone who needs a product that isn’t long term. There are surely differing views on this in the Zero Waste community because the disposable heads will create waste but so will the mop. I think that is someone is going to use a disposable kind anyways then we should find that person and at least give them a used base.
This post is already so much longer than I thought it would be. I could have made individual posts on each item! I just want to be very thorough and hopefully show that there is no magic behind this style of living (except maybe in my sponges). It just becomes normal. Really it feels strange to get handed something disposable after a while, like “what am I supposed to do with this?” Haha. I will cover dining out in my next post which will be much shorter. Please let me know if you found this helpful and please post any questions below. I’m sure there were a lot of grammar mistakes and typos as this post is so long but I wanted to get it out to you sooner instead of grooming it over the weekend.