Flushing forests down the toilet (and other single-use problems)

First, I just wanted to open with an article a friend shared recently that really underscores my thoughts in my first blog post about why personal actions to cut our carbon footprints really do matter, build momentum in others to do the same, give us credibility when we say climate change is a dire threat, and catalyze systemic change. Now onto the single-use problem: 

I’m embarrassed to say that until about a year ago, I didn’t really think twice about buying Charmin’s luxuriously soft toilet paper, or going through paper towels at a rapid clip (at the table as napkins, for spills and cleaning…with two little kids you can get through a roll pretty darn quickly). When I started reading more about climate change, Facebook started showing me targeted content about how our addiction to soft toilet paper is destroying Canada’s boreal forest.

When you think about virgin forest going straight down your toilet, you stop caring as much about how soft your toilet paper is. Boreal forests (moist coniferous, or evergreen, forests) are up there with rainforests when it comes to serving as a carbon “sink” (taking in carbon dioxide into the trees and soil, keeping the air clean, and mitigating global warming). That also means we need to be very worried about what happens to all that carbon if it gets released through clear cutting or forest fires.

Andrew and I tried a couple kinds of recycled toilet paper and like seventh generation and 365 (be careful on labels to look for “100% recycled” rather than something about “sustainable forestry,” which often still involves cutting down virgin forest and is not truly sustainable). Or for the more adventurous, you could try a portable bidet to kick the toilet paper habit altogether. We let our four-year-old choose three colors of sturdy cloth napkins that we use in place of paper towels and paper napkins, for meals, spills, and wiping faces and noses. We keep recycled paper towels on hand but don’t use them much since we mostly use the cloth napkins instead. We buy recycled printer paper and print double-sided when possible. We didn’t wrap our Christmas gifts to each other, and we asked Santa not to wrap gifts either (actually, he’s never wrapped gifts for our kids since he’s too tired on Christmas Eve…).

You’ve probably heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch. Single-use plastic is a problem of mind-boggling proportions and has been getting more well-deserved attention lately, both for the immense harm plastic waste does to marine life and the immense amount of energy and emissions that go into these products that we use once and then throw away (or “recycle,” which we can only say for about 9% of single use plastic ever produced). Our family still ends up with an appalling amount of plastic in our recycling bin (mostly from containers that grocery items come in), but we’ve made some steps in the right direction. We’ve long been in the habit of using canvas bags for grocery shopping, but we also bought some mesh produce bags and use those to buy fruits and vegetables, or if it’s a single one of a fruit or vegetable, I just put it in the cart. We’ve tried to cut down on drive-through food and drinks, but we keep our own silicone straws in our diaper bag so that when we do stop, we can opt out of the disposable straws (and napkins if we’ve remembered to have a cloth napkin or two in the car). We bought some reusable sandwich containers for lunches and have gotten in the habit of using tupperware-type containers for leftovers, our older son’s school lunch and my work lunch, etc. so that we rarely use ziplock bags. If we shop somewhere other than the grocery store and don’t have a canvas bag handy, we try not to ask for a bag if it’s just a couple/few things we can carry. We don’t buy plastic water bottles. I keep a reusable water bottle at my office and refill it throughout the day. Even aside from plastic, it’s good to avoid any unnecessary packaging that takes energy to produce and then causes an issue with landfills or overloaded recycling facilities. Andrew is hooked on sparkling flavored water, so we got a soda stream machine to avoid wasting all those aluminum cans, and save money (he loves it).

For women, menstrual products can use a ton of paper, plastic, and/or cotton (a very water intensive crop). I’ll spare the details on my own habits, but there are great reusable options like menstrual cups, “period panties,” and reusable pads, and–bonus!–you don’t have a disgusting bathroom trash can for a week out of the month.

We considered cloth diapering, but when our older son was a baby and we briefly tried it, we didn’t love how the big diaper kind of pushed his legs out to the sides and how the diaper felt wetter against his skin than disposables (we put a high premium on the whole family being able to sleep through a baby peeing). We could have pushed through those setbacks, though, and applaud anyone who does use cloth diapers. One easy thing we did to reduce waste during the diapering years was cloth wipes. We had a cup of water (“poop water” was an early word for both our boys) to dip a clean wipe, use it, and toss it in a separate diaper pail. Once that diaper pail was getting full, we would spray them all with a nozzle attached to our toilet, then wash and reuse them. 

Despite the steps we’ve taken, I’m still dismayed at the amount of single use paper and plastic we use. Amazon packaging is a big one for us. We can definitely do more to try to limit our orders, although for things that we do want or need to buy, online shopping may be more eco-friendly than at a brick and mortar store.

I did recently get a tip from a friend to chat with a customer service rep on the Amazon site to request that all future orders on my account come in plastic-free packaging with minimal packages. The rep said they have gotten a ton of feedback asking for an option on the app to adjust your settings for maximally green packaging and that their app developers are working on it. We can feel guilty that our lives are still so far from ideal when it comes to packaging and single-use waste, but when we make the changes we can along with pressuring corporations, it does make a difference. Grocery products also often come in plastic packaging, but encouragingly, many stores are responding to pressure to reduce waste. Municipalities and even states and continents are taking action to ban or reduce single-use plastic. Which is amazing…but before we celebrate, we have to think about what’s replacing the single-use plastic. Many stores and restaurants, when they reduce their plastic use, change to compostable packaging, which may be better than plastic, but comes with its own problems in terms of creating more waste and not necessarily actually being composted at a high rate. It’s debatable whether disposable replacements for single-use plastic are truly better for climate, and in some cases may increase carbon emissions, although they are better for marine life. There’s a reason for the order of the words in the old adage “reduce, reuse, recycle.” We need to stop producing, using, and buying so much stuff, especially when it can’t be easily reused or recycled. 

Recycling, when possible, is better than sending things straight to the landfill, but it comes with its own set of problems, and most of us are really confused about what to put in the recycling bin and end up putting stuff there that doesn’t belong, which can sometimes cause whole truckloads of recycling to get sent to the dump due to contamination. Most municipalities require recyclables to be loose in the bin rather than bagged up (but often require trash to be bagged up); check with your local service to confirm the rules for your area. This article helps some, and general rules of thumb include looking for the recyclable symbol and making sure your recyclables are clean, dry, and not broken before tossing them in the bin. We’ve gotten in the habit, when we go to a fast food restaurant or outdoor festival, of taking home and washing recyclable food and drink containers.Since recycling varies so much by geographic location, it’s a good idea to take the old-fashioned step of picking up the phone to find out exactly what can be recycled where you live. We are lucky to have a great local recycling center that recycles quite a few things that you can’t leave curbside. I’ve made several calls to the recycling center as well as the curbside pickup company to clarify what can be recycled, and we gather items that can be recycled at the recycling center but not curbside and make occasional trips there to drop off things like filmy plastic bags, paint, and old fluorescent light bulbs (those are just a small sample of what they accept). 

The amount of paper, plastic, and other disposable waste we generate in America and worldwide is quite daunting, but there is a good bit of “low-hanging fruit” in terms of easy changes we can make that can also save us money. 

Action step: 

Commit to only buying recycled paper products. Invest in some basic reusables like cloth napkins, tupperware, water bottles, straws, canvas grocery bags, and mesh produce bags (and then remember to use them!). Give specific feedback to at least one corporation, store or restaurant that you patronize, and/or your workplace, on how they can reduce their use of disposables.  

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