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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.

Drugs in Our Water

I just received the following in my inbox and thought it looked quite interesting.  I don’t know anything about the author, but the topic is certainly very important and I anticipate an interesting discussion.  I have a lot of cooking to do on Saturday and look forward to listening to this discussion while I do!


We are a nation of drug users­.  We take them in the morning to wake up, at midday to stay awake, and at night to sleep. Our use leads us to ask:

“What happens to the drugs when we are finished with them?”

This Saturday at 9am Pacific, Michael Olson’s Food Chain Radio hosts Alan Roberson from the American Water Works Association and George Mannina, Esq. with Nossaman Law, for a conversation about pharmaceuticals in the drinking water.

Topics include how pharmaceuticals get into our drinking water; what impact those drugs might have on our bodies; and what can be done to mitigate the impact.

To listen on your radio, computer or IPOD, click here.

The Best Laid Plans…

So far 2009 has not been a banner year for improving the sustainability of my living habits.  I suppose, on the bright side, I have little room to go anywhere but up from here!

Here’s what my first week has been like.  First, I rang in the new year with one of my very closest friends and her family.  Now that sounds earth friendly enough, until you throw in exactly where we celebrated the year end: the Great Wolf Lodge indoor water park. This place is probably one of the most extreme examples of capitalist culture that I have experienced in a long time!  To say nothing about the volume of water the place uses, although apparently the water park uses one third as much water as the rest of the hotel thanks to their recycling system.  I’m not sure that’s very comforting.  Bonus: I am still trying to get the chlorine out of my pores; nothing like a free full-body chemical peel with which to start off a new year!

That said, we had fun..


A truly unique experience…

On January 02, my mother and I went to Toronto.  We did take public transportation, and we managed to minimize take-out containers and plastic bags.  However we ate out for several meals.  

First stop, we went to my mother’s hair salon where I had my hair saved from its last cut (my mother can now look at me without cringing).  Next we went to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see its new building and exhibits.  The building is lovely, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the Canadian section and the drawings section.  I love unfinished sketches, and there were many to admire.  

(Hi Mum!)

After dinner (Thai food, yum!) we went to the Eaton’s Centre until it was time to leave.  I was pleased that I found myself not at all tempted to buy anything.  At least not until we went into William Sonoma.  Kitchen supplies… one of my serious weaknesses.  And it was in this state of weakness that I made my first new purchase of the year: a Lodge cast iron skillet.  

Did I need it?  Arguably, yes.  I don’t have a skillet of that size and had been making all my stir fries and such in the bottom of my big soup pot.  But could I have found it second hand?  Probably.  I only thought of that after I walked out of the store, clutching my new purchase and still somewhat dazzled and drooling.  On the bright side, it had no packaging other than a tiny tag attached to the handle, was only $36 (about $100 less than I was expecting, hence the impulse purchase) and it’s definitely a once in a lifetime purchase.  My grand kids will inherit it along with all the rest of my cast iron cookware.  No more teflon coated pots or pans for me!

January 03, I had to buy meat for the dogs.  I was out shopping with my parents who refused to drive across town to the butcher I like, and my only option was to buy grocery store meat that came on styrofoam trays.  Ugh.  They do recycle the in Niagara, unlike London.  A small consolation.  

January 04, I stayed safely at home or in the woods and didn’t buy or consume anything industrial other than some food at my parent’s house.  A friend dropped off a late Christmas present which consisted of several jars of her home canning.  Yeah!  Maybe that balanced out one of the packages of meat?

January 05 I went to the Mac store and bought an external hard drive for my computer.  Cost: $169.  Ouch.  My computer is starting to have problems and I have to reinstall all the software.  I can’t risk losing everything, and so backup is necessary.  The content of my hard drive will no longer fit on half a dozen key drives and really requires a proper system for backup.  Having lost everything on my desktop three months ago, I decided that I really needed this purchase.  Could I have found it second hand?  I don’t know that I would trust anything refurbished for this task.  Maybe that’s just an excuse.

Having fallen fully off the wagon, I then drove to Starbucks and had tea and a (really awful) croissant.  (why do I keep buying those?)

January 06 I drove back to London, and now I’m home at last.  Since arriving home I managed to stick to my guns and not buy anything new or eat any industrial food.  Two days and counting – yeah me!  (note: plenty of sarcasm here)  Actually, it was much tougher than it sounds, if you can believe it.  Yesterday I had to take the dogs to the chiropractor, and on the way home the roads were blocked by an accident.  I got home 10 minutes before I needed to be at work, without having had dinner.  Tough call, but I decided to be late for work and eat at home rather than be on time and purchase food there.  I was only 15 minutes late and, considering the snow squall I struggled through to get there, no one seemed to mind.  

Today I also got very hungry while on campus and forced myself to walk home feeling slightly faint rather than buying a muffin or something for the walk.  A few more days like this and perhaps I’ll remember to bring food with me when I head out.

Our “Watery Road to Hell”

It seems that everything has a footprint these days, and water is no different. I was listening to the CBC the other morning (they do still have some interesting bits being broadcast, in between the muzak) and on The Current, Anna Maria Tremonti played an interesting documentary called “Tina and Kim’s Watery Road to Hell,” which talks about what Tina and Kim Pittaway (two journalists, who are also sisters) call our ‘virtual water footprint.’ The documentary in full can be found here, in the December 16th edition of the series titled “Watershed.” (I haven’t listened to the rest of this, but will do so shortly)

Tina and Kim begin by talking about the water most of us are aware of using: the water we shower with, wash dishes with, brush our teeth with. But what really uses up water is our ‘virtual’ water use – the water used to create the stuff we consume. This number shocked me, as I hadn’t considered it before. Just take a look at the following statistics, for example:

1) Using a dishwasher uses 3-5 times less water than washing dishes by hand!

2) The second biggest strain on water use in the summer, after watering lawns, is washing cars. If you must wash your car, car washes are much more environmentally friendly, surprisingly enough! They have to filter the water that is used, separating out oil etc. that gets washed off our cars, and often the water is recycled. Water we use at home just runs off, with all the grit, grim and oil residue, right into our sewage system.

3) It takes 10 liters of water to make ONE sheet of paper!!!! Yikes! Thank goodness I have been too poor to refill the ink cartridge on my printer, as I have a huge stack of articles I was planning on printing out. Guess I’ll be working on my on-line skills for highlighting and note taking!

4) It takes 13 liters of water to grow one industrial tomato

5) 1 cotton shirt requires 2-3000 liters of water (good grief!!!)

6) 1 pair of leather shoes requires 8000 liters of water (ok, no more shoes for me!)

The most shocking fact of all, is that the average Canadian uses THREE MILLION liters of water PER YEAR.

This is insane. There are people on earth who are dying from lack of access to water, and there are entire regions (such as Arizona) that are out of water, yet I use 3 million liters a year through my daily habits?! I have mentioned my intention to research water issues more closely, but quite frankly, I have been avoiding it, for fear of what I will learn. These stats are exactly what I’m talking about, and I know that’s just the beginning of the horrible news I am going to unearth as I further investigate this topic.

On a slightly positive note, Tina and Kim advise that “the best way for us to reduce our water footprint is to really look closely at what we eat.” It turns out that the number one place to start with this is to reduce meat consumption. By cutting back meat consumption by 25%, most people will reduce their water footprint by 150,000 liters of water per year. Anyone else shocked by this? Because I certainly am.

I really had no idea how much water industrial food production used. I have until now been thinking in terms of fossil fuel consumption, but water is a whole other dimension that isn’t even on the radar yet. And it sure needs to be, because we’re running out. And while we can live without oil – painful as that might end up being – we cannot live without water.

I actually don’t eat that much meat these days. In fact of late I have been eating meat probably once a week, and even then, maybe only 3-4 strips of bacon. Meat is very expensive, and it’s hard to find local, sustainably raised meat, so I mostly go without. I do still buy a lot of meat, however, to feed my animals. When I calculated my water footprint at WaterFootprint.org, something like 95% of my water use comes from meat consumption, and that’s just to feed my pets! I really must find good sources of pastured and grass finished meat. This has been a goal for some time now, and it’s time to make this a reality.

I’ve checked out several books on the global water crisis from the library and hope to work my way through them over the holidays. I don’t look forward to learning what they contain, but I think it’s time to bite the bullet and find out.

The Blood of the Earth

Water is a fascinating substance.  It is the foundation of all life on earth, yet we know very little about it.  We know what temperature it freezes and boils at, but what else do we understand?  It really is a mystery.  Take, for example, homeopathy.  This is a science in which the energy of various plants, minerals and animals is transfered to water.  Each dilution actually makes the properties stronger – despite that making no sense whatsoever from a conventional scientific perspective.  And how exactly does this water maintain the properties of these substances when they have been diluted to the point of no longer being there?

We have no clue.  Indeed, ‘rational’ science says homeopathy can’t work.  But it does.  

I am not here to explain homeopathy, but raise this point to show how little we understand about the properties of water, and how it contributes to life on earth.  That we think water is merely the sum of its parts: H + H + 0, and not something greater or at least different, is clear in how we treat this precious substance with complete disregard.  We divert its streams and rivers to grow food where cacti should live, and dump our waste into its lakes and oceans.  We even heat our atmosphere such that water that should be solid has become liquid.

If you can take 100 drops of water, add a tiny piece of some plant, shake, then dilute that solution 50,000 times and still have the energy of that plant present, only much, much stronger than the original, what energy memory is being held in the water we abuse so badly?  What energy is being held in water we microwave, in the food we eat?  If the energy from that plant solution can have a very powerful impact on our physical and mental health, then how does polluted water affect us?  Sure we worry about toxins, but what more are we consuming, are we doing to ourselves and to our planet?

Yesterday I came across this very frightening article, which announced that the North Pole may completely melt this summer.  Amazingly, the debate around the disappearance of the polar ice cap is focused on who’s going to have rights to shipping lane and the resources found beneath.  Just what we need – more oil!  Good grief.  If we don’t run out soon, we’re going to be in serious trouble.  Isn’t anyone concerned about what impact this is going to have on our planet?  Because we kind of need it to stay more or less like it is to survive, and removing something like a polar ice cap is going to make that a challenge.

I’ve been wanting to learn more about the issues surrounding water for some time now.  Every time I take a shower or wash my dishes, I think to myself “am I some day going to regret having wasted this much water?”  As a Canadian, I find it hard to conceive of running out of water.  But we very well may face that in the not too distant future.  Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians has written extensively on the issue of water, calling it the “greatest ecological and human rights crisis of our time.”  Here’s a recording of her March 2008 talk.  I have not listened to it yet but I’m hoping to make time in the next few days.  That article on the polar ice cap lit a fire under me to start researching this topic at long last.  I’ll write more as I learn more.