The average American kitchen is well-stocked with disposable items such as paper towels, napkins, paper plates, plastic wrap, aluminum foil, garbage bags, etc. There’s no denying the convenience of these items but at what cost – both to our budget and the environment? With a change in mindset and a little effort it’s really not that hard to ditch the disposables.
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Ditch the Disposables
I’m surprised how often I see people share photos of their dinner on Instagram only to notice that it’s on a paper plate. There are times paper plates make sense – picnics, barbecues, parties, a large number of guests, or severe illness are all valid reasons to use paper plates but for many, it just becomes a habit. Not only does this generate excessive trash but it’s expensive, too.
If you’ve been in the habit of using paper plates routinely for family meals, start by choosing one night a week that you set the table with real dishes and maybe even light some candles. Elevate the atmosphere a bit. Gradually replace one weekly meal at a time with real dishes until paper plates are a thing of the past.
I grew up in a family that ate on real plates but used paper napkins. We continued this in my own family until about 10 years ago. I bought a set of black (so stains won’t show) cloth napkins and we began using these instead. Over time I’ve purchased others so I now have a pretty decent sized collection. I have enough for small gatherings but for larger parties I do still buy paper napkins. It’s all about moderation, right?
Americans use WAY more paper towels per capita than any other country. It would take 51,000 trees per day to replace the number of paper towels that are tossed each day. Not only is that a terrible impact on the environment but it’s expensive, too.
We now keep one roll tucked away in a cabinet for just a couple of uses. I use a couple of sheets to drain and blot oil from fried tortillas for tacos and that’s about it. Each day I put out a clean tea towel to dry our hands on in the kitchen and I use rags for cleaning. I have a couple of microfiber cloths for mirrors and windows. This was actually a pretty easy transition for us.
I do keep a roll on hand for those occasions when I bring a dish to a potluck and I need to cover it. At home I either put leftovers in containers that have lids or I use my grandma’s old trick – I put a plate on top of the bowl. In fact, I even have one of her old Melmac plates that I use for that purpose. It’s perfect on top of a big bowl of homemade potato salad and it even allows me to stack something on top which you can’t do with plastic wrap.
Again, I do still use foil occasionally but I try to limit it. Here is a really good article about aluminum foil alternatives:
This one is tricky. Conventional garbage bags are made from virgin plastic and will never biodegrade. There are bags made from partially recycled plastic and some that are compostable. None of these are perfect solutions, though.
After trying several types of garbage bags made from recycled plastic and finding them less than satisfactory in terms of strength, we decided to skip the bags altogether. Instead, we place a layer of newspaper in the bottom of our kitchen trash can. I put food scraps in a compost bucket (when I’m not being lazy) and rinse packaging from meat or other messy items. When the kitchen trash can is full we dump it in tightly lidded garbage can outside our back door and then when it’s full we dump the contents into the large trash receptacle by the road that gets picked up once a week. We try to avoid excessive packaging and other sources of trash so we only end up putting trash out for pickup once or twice a month under normal circumstances.
This works for us out in the country but I’m aware that some (most?) municipal trash services want trash to be bagged. The truth is that there is no perfect solution. The best option is to reduce the trash we create as much as possible. Here is a great article about this written by Beth Terry. I had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with her several years ago. In 2007 she committed to stop buying new plastic and has since become an expert of the best sort – the type who lives what she preaches.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you try to make all these changes at once. I suggest picking just one and work on it until it feels like second nature. Then move on to another. And don’t feel like you have to do any of these perfectly. Even small changes add up over time. You’ll save money and you’ll feel good about treating the environment better.
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