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Sustainability* in the Bathroom

(*I recognize that using this word without defining it is problematic.  I am writing an entire dissertation on this, and recognize that I am guilty as charged.  This is simply a catchier title for my entry than “How to reduce the disposable, non-biodegradable plastic consumption in your bathroom habits”)

In an effort to prepare for my friend Renata’s visit tomorrow (as well as to be procrastinating productively), this morning I took down my shower curtains and put both the inner plastic liner and the outer cloth curtain through the wash.  This reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write a post about the changes I’ve made in the bathroom this year.

As you may recall, when I left my house in town and moved out to the country, I purged my home of as much plastic as I could possible eliminate.  Most of this was found in the kitchen – tupperware containers, plastic wrap, plastic utensils, plastic dishes and so on.  Kitchens are typically chock full of plastic products.  I now cringe when I visit homes with small children and see all the plastic dishes they are given to eat from, day in and day out.  Regardless of claims now of ‘BPA-free’ plastic, I firmly believe that it is all toxic and want as little interaction with it as possible, especially around food!

Of course avoiding plastic is completely impossible, but we can certainly reduce it in our daily practice.  My food is now only stored in glass, be it Mason jars or Pyrex dishes.  I bring my lunch to work in variously sized Mason jars.   Cooking is done in glass or stainless steel bowls, and stainless or cast iron pots.  I stir things with wooden spoons, and flip pancakes with a metal spatula.

While it took a fair bit of time to identify, and subsequently replace, the plastic in my kitchen, that project is mostly complete now.  It wasn’t long into this purge, however, that I realized that my bathroom was another plastic haven. And surprisingly, getting rid of plastic in the bathroom has posed far more of challenge than doing so in the kitchen!

Why is that, you ask? Well, mostly it’s because the products we (I) use in the bathroom almost all come in plastic packaging, and or are made of plastic: toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, hair brush, hair clips, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, skin lotion, make-up, tampons, razor blades, liquid soap, shower curtain, face puff.  The list goes on and on.  I’m a minimalist in the bathroom, but I’ve seen some that could rival a drugstore for how much plastic they contain.

The first thing I did was eliminate everything I felt really wasn’t necessary.  This left me with the list I just mentioned.  But that is still far too much plastic in my house.  So I started to search for alternatives.  And you know what?  There aren’t many out there.  Food has definitely come farther along this path than cosmetics, let me tell you.  Yet the more I learned about what I was exposing myself to (watch, for example, The Story of Cosmetics), the more urgently I wanted to get rid of this stuff.  It’s been a frustrating struggle.

Very fortunately, Taina – anti-plastic activist and author of the outstanding and inspiring blog Plastic Manners – has done a lot of research on the subject, and generously shares her findings herean extremely helpful list of bathroom (and household) alternatives to plastic.  She uses a bone and boar bristle toothbrush.  I haven’t quite been that brave (the assurance that the ‘wet pig taste’ eventually goes away has not inspired me to rush out and buy one…yet) and instead purchased a Preserve Toothbrush at London Homeopathy in Covent Garden.  This toothbrush is still made of plastic, but it is 100% recycled plastic.  And, when you are done, you can mail it back to them to be recycled again.  I have just worn out my first one and am getting ready to send it back. I am undecided if I want to go the wet pig route for my next toothbrush, or buy another Preserve one.  The last time I went to London Homeopathy, they were sold out. I’m tempted to order the boar brush as surely natural bristles are gentler on tooth enamel than plastic, and of course hopefully less toxic! So maybe I’ll muster up the courage and give it a try.

I decided to stick with my current hairbrush – it’s mostly ceramic, with plastic bristles.  I also have a wooden one with natural bristles.  Both were expensive and are lasting well, and I see no need to replace them as I’m not ingesting any plastic by using them.  That said, I have seen some nice wooden and rubber brushes that I’d be tempted to try if I was more flush.  Not a priority, however.  And buying a new brush would just generate more waste.

One of the biggest plastic items in my bathroom is my nasty, plastic shower curtain.  I fully intend on replacing it just as soon as I can afford a $100 hemp curtain.  Not likely to happen today, but it’s on my wish list.  Now why replace the curtain if I already have it?  Isn’t that just wasteful?  Well, yes, it is, as there’s no way to recycle it.  I will try to find some other use for it rather than throw it out, such as keeping my kindling dry or covering something in my shed.  But the bottom line is that every time I take a hot shower, the heat causes the curtain to release toxic chemicals.  That nasty plastic odor of a freshly purchased shower curtain?  Toxic fumes!  And just because I can’t smell them anymore doesn’t mean that they still aren’t being released, albeit at a lesser intensity now.  So the curtain must go.  Soon.

What I had the biggest trouble replacing is the consumables: toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, tampons, deodorant.  Potentially toxic in and of themselves, these products also come in non-recyclable plastic packaging.  Thanks to Plastic Manners, I learned that Lush sells (relatively) natural products without packaging, and I recently ventured into their store in White Oaks Mall.  Initially knocked off my feet by the intense perfumes, I spent a good half hour with one of their clerks discussing solid bars of deodorant, shampoo and conditioner.  I settled on a chunk of each and brought them home.  It took a good couple of weeks before I could walk past my bathroom without be assaulted by the perfumes from these products, but that eventually went away.  Now that I no longer use any scented products, items that have been infused with scent I find really obnoxious.

So far, I am quite happy with the deodorant.  It works well, and doesn’t leave me smelling like artificial vanilla or strawberries.  But the shampoo and conditioner were disappointing.  The shampoo bar worked well, but left my hair too dry.  I have found this to be the case with every single ‘eco’ shampoo I have ever tried.  The others all came in plastic bottles, which immediately rules them out now, but I had hoped for something different with the Lush bar.  No luck.  The conditioner, on the other hand, conditioned my hair but left a significant residue.  My hair dresser was very concerned about how my hair felt when I saw her after just using the conditioner twice.  So both bar and conditioner now sit unused in my window sill.  What a disappointment.

Having used the last of my shampoo, needing to go out in public, and deeply reticent to purchase another plastic bottle of questionably safe hair cleaner, I finally decided to take the plunge and try going ‘no poo.’  Not the prettiest of terms for a cleaning process, ‘no poo’ in fact cleans my hair and leaves it feeling better than even my $30 bottle of salon shampoo!  Not only that, it is non-toxic,  extremely cheap, and can be purchased everywhere.  So what is ‘no poo’?  Simple: wash with baking soda, condition with vinegar.

I now keep two mason jars in my bathroom and when I want to wash my hair, I put one table spoon of baking soda (which I buy in bulk, alumnium free, from Eco-Pioneer, but I expect any brand will work just as well) into one jar, and a tablespoon or two of white vinegar into the other.  In the shower, I then fill each jar  with a cup or so of hot water from the shower head.  I start with the baking soda, pour it through my hair and massage it in.  Rinse.  Then rinse again with the vinegar and water.

I have been doing this for over a month now and my hair has never felt better.  It stays clean, feels soft, has no residue build up and looks great.  I will never go back to shampoo with its plastic bottles and unknown toxic chemicals.  Thanks but no thanks!

Regarding the other consumables I use, I now use bar soap instead of soft-soap.  There are many places where you can find bars of soap for sale in paper wrapping, or better yet, no wrapping at all.  Hand made soaps abound at markets and in local gift shops.  Likely you can find someone local making soap, or even learn to make it yourself!

For toothpaste, there’s baking soda (you can brush your teeth and wash your hair at the same time!).  For skin lotion: olive oil.  Coffee grounds make a good exfoliant.  I still haven’t resolved razor blades, and try to console myself with the fact that they are tiny, and at least in part metal.  And unlike a man’s course beard, my legs don’t beat up a razor blade so I can use it over, and over.  Finally, make-up.  This is a very problematic on so many levels.  Do I even need to wear make-up?  Why do I conform to social pressures and do so when I went without for years and years?  The bottom line is that I am getting older, work with perpetual 20-year olds, and, at least in winter, feel I need a little added colour.  There are some really wonderful (and expensive) non-toxic, all-natural make-up lines out there.  I personally use MAC.  Not the company it used to be since being bought out, but it still avoids animal testing and takes back 100% of its packaging.  Lately they have started making eye shadows without plastic containers that you can just insert into a re-usable holding case (sadly, made of plastic).  It’s a lesser of many evils.

This leaves the taboo subject of ‘feminine hygiene.’  Surprisingly, there are more options here than with many of the products I discussed above.  For straight substitution of conventional sanitary products (liners, pads, tampons) I buy Natracare organic products (available at London Homeopathy, LynDys and also in the organic departments of Loblaws and the Superstore).  It makes no sense to be careful to avoid putting toxic chemicals in my mouth, and then use a bleached, toxic tampon.  And so for years I have spent more and purchased the organic version.  These products, however, still have some plastic in their packaging (although this is much, much less than in most conventional brands – or at least it was the last time I bought those other brands).  Regardless, there is still packaging, and the product itself is disposable and ends up flushed down the drain with what otherwise would be drinking water.  It really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

An alternative to using disposable sanitary products is to try something like the Diva Cup.  This a reusable, latex cup that works a little like a reverse diaphragm.  It’s a little awkward to use at first, and unfortunately doesn’t work for about 20% of women (there are only two sizes).  The company will reimburse you if you try it and it doesn’t work out, so it’s worth giving it a shot.  You can also try LunaPads – washable, reusable pads.  And I expect more products will come to the fore as demand increases.

I have not come up with an alternative to toilet paper – quite frankly I can’t even imagine what that could be – and as such just use recycled paper products you can buy at Loblaws and the like.  It is one of the few things I still occasionally venture into a grocery store to buy!

Finally there’s water use.  Last, but most certainly not least.  Reducing water consumption is a very big part of being more environmentally friendly, but it’s not always easy.  You can purchase a low-volume shower head and toilet, or just focus on taking shorter showers and flushing less often.  I’m afraid I tend to use a fair bit of water – hot showers are one of my guilty pleasures and an area I need to cut back on.  Check this little video out on ‘the Bathroom Reconstructed‘ for ideas around where we might be able to go with a little political well.

Well the washer is done, my soup pots need checking (making a 48 hour beef stock) and  those essays are not grading themselves.  Time to make a pot of tea and get back to work.

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2 Responses

  1. From my old hippie viewpoint, I think women should stop shaving. Save yourself the cost and hassle. Find a friend that likes the natural hair we grow. It does have a purpose.

    When I use mass transit, the over perfumed are as bad as the few unwashed that travel in close proximity. My sneezing is not a sickness, just a reaction to the chemicals that people wear to disguise the messages that their bodies want to spread.

    • Hi Al! Sorry for taking so long to reply. I love your ‘old hippie’ viewpoint! I suspect not shaving would be a big time (and water) saver, but I cannot get past how uncomfortable it is to have hair on my legs. Perhaps it would be less bothersome if I let it grow in fully! As for the over-perfumed, I hear you! Now that I wear essentially nothing scented, I find myself overpowered by even simple scents like shampoos, let alone perfume. I think our sense of smell is overloaded, and thus diminished, by the constant bombardment.

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