Disposing of Disposables: 17 Overused Disposable Items and What to Replace Them With

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by Patrice Lewis

Being preppers for years we realized the importance of washable, reusable versions of everyday disposable products. For us, adopting this mindset was effortless. But, making this change also brought awareness to how many disposable “necessities” were entirely unheard of a hundred years ago. Many people out there will have a hard time making the transition from disposable to reusable. When you do though, you will be glad you did. Not only will you save money, but you will be helping the environment. 

And in our current world of supply shortages, who knows if we’ll be able to continue finding the disposable items with which we’re so enamored as a society? In a long-term scenario, the only way you’ll have certain important items is if you have the non-disposable variety of them, and you won’t want to be creating extra garbage that you’ll just have to get rid of during that kind of situation.

Here we offer you a few suggestions on how to get started and what to replace those disposables with.

We live in a nation of disposables.

America, which has a legacy of frugality and thrift, also has a legacy of innovation and efficiency. Additionally, we like our comforts. What is now considered “necessities” (carpeting? closets full of clothes? refrigerators?) were luxuries earlier than the 1940s or so.

But in the wake of World War II, manufacturing ramped up hand-in-glove with advertising and disposable income. “Better living through chemistry” became a buzz phrase. The old-fashioned methods of doing things gave way to the convenience of home appliances, pre-packaged or instant foods, chemical cleaners, and early electronics such as television, transistor radios, and (room-sized) computers.

Suburbs, which supplied housing for millions of young families in the post-war years, became places of relative affluence and jostling for status (i.e., “keeping up with the Jones”). As disposable income became more prevalent, manufacturers and advertisers saw a market for novelties such as paper plates or paper towels or disposable diapers and set about convincing people that these items were sanitary, efficient, and healthy. Eventually, these luxuries became “necessities,” and the use of reusables began to diminish.

It got to the point where people shunned reusables. Those who continued to use handkerchiefs, cloth diapers, washable feminine hygiene, or even home-canned food were considered hopelessly out-of-touch and old-fashioned. Only a few stubborn holdouts believed they were saving money by sticking with the old-fashioned way of doing things.

Is this really cheaper in the long run?

There’s no question disposables have their place, particularly in medical or industrial settings. But at home, it’s a lot easier than you may think to wean yourself off stuff that can be thrown away and embrace reusable things. As a matter of fact, there’s at least a dozen things you will never have to buy again!

About ten years ago, our family transitioned away from disposables and embraced reusables whenever possible. Initially, the cost was higher for a few items, but we have saved a significant amount of money in the long run.

There are many benefits to weaning off disposables. For one thing, it reduces garbage output. For another, you’ll never “run out” of some critical item (feminine hygiene, anyone?) in the middle of a blizzard when you can’t leave the house.

So how do you dispose of disposables?

The first thing to do is walk through your house and inventory what disposables you use daily. Everyone’s list will vary, but here’s a sampling:

  • Paper napkins
  • Paper plates
  • Plastic cutlery
  • Plastic wrap (Saran Wrap, etc.)
  • Plastic/paper cups
  • Shopping bags
  • Vacuum cleaner bags
  • Coffee filters
  • Canning lids
  • Baby wipes
  • Toilet paper
  • Disposable razors
  • Feminine hygiene
  • Paper towels
  • Disposable diapers
  • Facial tissue
  • Batteries

Doubtless, you can add to this list after walking through your own home.

I need to make one thing clear: there are times when disposables make sense. Reusable options generally mean somebody must wash those items before using them again (plates, cutlery, feminine hygiene, diapers). If water is in short supply (natural disasters, power outages, even traveling), then disposables are the better option.

But in everyday non-emergency circumstances, learning to wean yourself off disposables is smart. Not only does it mean you’ve adapted to the reusable versions, but you’ll always have an abundant supply on hand.

What are some reusable options?

Let’s explore what kinds of reusable versions are available for the above mentioned items. Keep in mind that people transitioned to disposables because they have an aversion to washing to reusables. Reusables usually require washing. Deal with it.

Replacements for Paper Plates | Plastic Cutlery:  These are handy to have for picnics or when your power or water is out. But don’t use them unless you’re in those circumstances. We buy cheap unmatched metal cutlery from thrift stores when we don’t want to risk the loss of our good forks and spoons (picnics, sandbox use, etc.). We also have a set of durable Corelle dishes for use by small visiting children or picnics or other breakable circumstances. (We picked up our Corelle set at a yard sale for $5.)

Replacement for Plastic wrap: I haven’t bought plastic wrap in decades. Instead, I have a sturdy set of Rubbermaid-style plastic bowls and containers with lids for leftovers (check thrift stores). There are also inexpensive (though less sturdy) containers made by Gladd and Ziploc in every grocery store, which I use heavily.

I also have a generous selection of “shower cap”-type plastic covers that adapt to almost any container. These generally come in three sizes (small, medium, large) and are easily washed and used again. Because they’re essentially just a piece of plastic wrap with a rubber band, they won’t last forever. However, I can get three or four years’ worth of use out of each one.

Replacements for Plastic | Paper Cups:  Get acrylic or sturdy plastic cups. These can be used by anyone but are especially helpful for use by small children or on picnics.

Replacements for Paper Napkins: Cloth napkins are available from many retail stores, though they can be a bit pricey. Thrift stores often carry them as well. For the frugal do-it-yourselfer, you can serge the edges of squares of old sheets for an excellent supply of napkins.

Replacements for Vacuum Bags: We transitioned to a bagless vacuum. We also replaced the wall-to-wall carpeting in our home with vinyl “wood” flooring, which means more floor area can be swept/mopped instead of vacuumed.

Replacements for Coffee Filters: A French Press is a good option. Another option is a Moka Pot : a stovetop coffee maker that is fairly inexpensive. 

Replacements for Diapers: Cloth diapers received a bad rap by those pushing the convenience of disposables. Still, many young parents are discovering that cloth diapers are terrific. They’re endlessly reusable, they breathe and cause less diaper rash, and they’re FAR less expensive. Coupled with diaper liners and diaper wraps, your baby’s hygiene needs can be almost entirely washable.

Replacements for Feminine Hygiene: Before convenient disposable pads were available, women took care of their personal hygiene needs throughout recorded history. Yet we act like reusable options are a novelty. There are many reusable items for feminine hygiene on the market. We switched to washable pads and panty liners from NaturallyCozy.com and have been delighted with them for myself and our two daughters. 

There’s no question the initial cost of washable pads is higher, but it’s saved us a considerable amount of money over the years. For thrifty do-it-yourselfers, there are patterns and tutorials available online to make them yourself. Some women prefer to use diva cups, moon cups, or other reusable options.

Replacements for Facial Tissue: Use a handkerchief. We keep a stack of bandanas in the bathroom and one in every coat pocket, purse, and vehicle. We haven’t bought facial tissue in about 30 years.

Replacements for Ziploc Bags | Aluminum Foil. Technically, Ziploc bags these are disposable but they can be reused to a startling degree. I’m particularly fond of Ziploc bags (one of my few brand loyalties) because they’re high-quality and sturdier than their generic counterparts.

Ziploc bags can be washed and reused dozens (maybe hundreds) of times before they’re ratty enough to discard. We use quart, gallon, and two-gallon sizes regularly. I wash them by squirting the tiniest amount of dish soap into the bag, adding a little water, then rubbing the outside of the bag (which squishes the inside), rinsing, and upending over utensils to dry.

Aluminum foil, another disposable, is also reusable. Unless it’s covered in something messy like grease or meat drippings. I keep larger foil pieces folded up and ready to reuse. A standard-sized box of aluminum foil lasts me about two years, maybe more.

Replacements for Paper Towels. I’ve kept this item until last for a reason because people are insanely devoted to paper towels. (See below)

You want me to give up paper towels?

I didn’t realize this until I put up a post on my blog, Rural Revolution, several years ago, asking readers what kinds of reusable items they’ve embraced. The most significant conflict, I found out, was giving up the ubiquitous paper towel.

I was entirely unaware of this conflict because we seldom use paper towels in our house. Ninety-nine percent of the time, needs are taken care of by either dishcloths or rags.

I keep one kitchen drawer dedicated to a jumble of clean dish towels, and a towel hangs from a holder attached to the cabinet door in front of the kitchen sink for convenient hand-drying. I change the dishtowel anywhere from twice a day (for light kitchen duties) up to four or five times a day (for active kitchen projects).

I buy white terrycloth “shop rags” in a 70-count bale from Costco, and a bale will last me for about eight years of hard use before the towels become ratty or thin enough to recycle into rags.

Why are people so devoted to paper towels?

I got my answer many years ago while visiting a friend. I needed to wash my hands at her kitchen sink, where she kept a dish towel hanging from a hook. I reached for the dish towel to dry my hands and was so revolted I had to re-wash my hands and use a paper towel for drying. That’s because the dish towel was greasy, rank, and damp.

I’ve since learned that having decorative towels in the kitchen is relatively common for many people. Decorative towels are expensive, so folks don’t have 50 or 60 tumbled in a drawer. They don’t change them or wash them regularly. As a result, the towels are either (a) never used, because they’re so pretty; or (b) used so heavily that they get greasy, rank, and damp. No wonder paper towels are so popular.

Folks, if you purchase an abundance of inexpensive terry cloth dish towels and change them often, your paper towel usage will be cut drastically.

For messy occasions, we keep a basket of rags. These consist of old dishtowels, cut-up flannel pajamas or robes, ratty hand or bath towels (some cut up, some still large), and any other absorbent fabrics. When our girls were babies, old cloth diapers were a large part of our rag basket.

As a result of an abundance of dish towels and rags, we seldom use paper towels except to clean up something messy (dog vomit, spilled paint). One time I deliberately let the paper towel holder stay empty to see how long it took anyone to notice. It was six weeks before I finally got around to installing another roll. We bought a 12-pack bale of paper towels from Costco many years ago and still haven’t finished it.

Reference Books

There are endless superb reference books available to learn how to dispose of disposables, a subject that goes hand-in-glove with frugal living. Two I can highly recommend are The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn, and Cheaper & Better by Nancy Birnes. Both these volumes have many tips, recipes, and practical advice to reduce the number of costly disposables in your life.

Here is another book recommendation that is more a look into what someone can, and will do to survive, as well as tips on how to do so: Lifestyles of the Flat Broke and Resilient

With a little practice, you too can dispose of disposables to a remarkable degree.

About Patrice

Patrice Lewis is pleased to announce the availability of the complete collection of 52 Country Living Series ebooklets representing over 17 years of homesteading experience. Subjects include preparedness, frugality, rural skills, food preservation, and more. Click here for details.

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  • Thank you for the article. It’s good to start thinking this way, and many could still learn from those who have lived through the depression in the last century.

    This disposable society goes way beyond what you have mentioned though. It’s very sad to see people throw away appliances, lawn mowers, snow blowers, etc. because it costs more to fix them than it does to buy new. My brother in law pulls them out of the junk yard – fixes them and gives them away to people who need them. And then, don’t get me started on “Cash for Clunkers” programs started by Obama/Biden where millions of working vehicles were junked for a little cash. Sure, newer cars may have been purchased, but what a tremendous waste of items that still work.

    Anyway – thank you for posting this!!!

    • Before our local govt forced “Xeriscaping” on us, people had lawns and lawns needed frequent cutting. I used to advertise in the early Spring that I’d haul away dead lawnmowers free of charge. Most weren’t really dead–the owner was just ignorant of the most basic principles of lawnmower maintenance. I collected 40-50 within a few weeks, then I’d dump “last year’s” gasoline out of the tank, replace it with new gas adding a capful of Octane Booster ($1.00 at Dollar Tree) to clean the carburetor, replace the spark plug ($1.50 at Walmart), top off the oil, clean the filter or replace it ($4.00 at Walmart), spritz the carb with starting fluid and pull the cord. Most jumped to life. Some had carburetors that were so gummed up that you’d have to coax them to run, and let them run for a half hour or so until the Octane Booster (Methyl Alcohol) worked it’s magic, cleaning the carb enough for the mower to run like new. I’d use Simple Green to clean the outside of the mower, touch up the paint with a little Rustoleum as needed, and list the mower in the local Pennysaver for $75.00. It was rarely that I spent more than an hour on any mower. Some had broken starter cords, or wheels and those were scavenged from the few mowers that had too much wrong with them to be worth fixing.

  • There are reasons for each of these disposables and I’m not getting rid of any of them. That being said I also believe it is very important to know what the replacements are. These need to be taught to the younger generations as well as the ability to think around the potential problem of not having XYZ.

    • In the arena of preparedness disposables are a layer and both are needed.
      When a crisis first starts the first days are incredibly hard as you try and grasp what’s going on and properly react. Resources are usually short which includes water. Time and energy must be utilized wisely as they are both limited.

      As time continues and things stabilize hopefully you will be able to use the more sustainable resources and leave the disposable ones for the next emergency.

      • Absolutely agree – this is more based on long-term usage as opposed to short-term or early emergencies.

        Where I am right now, we lose water service for a day every couple of weeks. I have disposable stuff for those days to make my life easier. Now, if I no longer had garbage service, I wouldn’t really want to use disposables.

  • I buy hand towels at the thrift store for kitchen use. I don’t care what color they are just that they are nice and thick. I normally pay, at most, $.99 each. I also buy napkins there.
    I make napkins out of old cotton curtains or jeans. Occasionally a heavy duty shirt.
    I make handkerchiefs out of old flat sheets. They are 12″ squares with a rolled hem. I have a large stack on hand for when we need them, especially after I realized that they don’t tear up our noses the way tissues do.
    I make “reusable paper towels” basically 12″ x 12″ squares of two pieces of fabric that are serged together at the sides. These are typically made from old knit and cotton, one piece of each, that comes from old clothes or sheets. If I have a towel that has bit the dust, I’ll make one with it. I use these for just about anything and I have no cause to mourn when they finally completely bite the dust.
    And lately, near me, Ziploc bags have been hard to find. And when I do find them the price is ridiculous. So I’ve slowly been replacing them with silicone and PEVA reusable bags.
    And today I sent in my last order for IKEA shopping bags. They have three sizes made of really good tarp material. They can’t go in the washing machine but I have no hesitation at using cleaners to wipe them out well and make sure they are safe for the next trip. I’ve had the large ones for over a year and love them for a variety of uses. Getting the smaller ones just made sense. And when I run across upholstery fabric at the thrift stores, I grab it and make matching fabric bags that can be tossed in the laundry between uses.

  • tired of clicking on your links and being force to have it changed to spanish. It keeps messing up my amazon.

  • I bought a set of Stretch & Seal Silicone lids as a replacement for plastic wrap. I love them! They fit around round or square containers, and my set has 6 different sizes. I’ll never buy plastic wrap again.

    Got them from netzerocompany.com but a number of other companies also offer this kind of product.

  • So THAT’s why I regard paper towels as indispensable! You have to have LOTS of cloth ones and throw them into the hamper as often as you’d throw away a paper one.
    Well, that’s easy.

  • DAISY: WHY ARE ALL YOUR LINKS TO AMAZON IN SPANISH? Every time I follow a link it is in Spanish. I have to reset the page to English every time. This has become extremely annoying. I do not speak Spanish!!!!

      • At the top of your Amazon page, there will be a little circle with a US flag in it. It will be next to your name and personal greeting. If you click on the flag symbol, or circle, it will have a drop down menu with a listing of English or, below that Espanol, with empty circles next to them. (Except it will already have the Espanol circle selected.) To change it back to English, select the top circle, English, and it will reset your page to English for you. You will probably have to confirm your choice, I don’t remember. But that’s how you change the language. Hope that helps ya!!

    • Holy cow, I’m not sure! I’ll do my best to get this fixed ASAP! I’m very sorry and thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  • Over the years, we have stopped using many of these item with the exception of paper towels, my husband uses them like tissues and won’t switch to anything else.

    My kids are now 20 and 23. I cloth diapered both from birth to when they learned to use the toilet. The rumor about cloth diapered kids toilet training early was not true for us, both kids were over 3 years old. I still spent less on my cloth diapers than most parents spent the first year of one baby’s life and I cloth diapered two babies, some were passed on to my sister for her baby. Very economical. My oldest daughter is pregnant with her first child and is planning on using cloth diapers for her baby. I also used washable feminine cloth, most were Glad Rags, which are still available at https://gladrags.com/ I used them for about 12 years until I no longer needed them. My daughter thinks the cloth feminine products are gross and she uses a feminine cup.

    I use bandanas for cloth napkins, way back in the mid-1980’s I worked in wilderness camps and another staff member and I had a competition to see who could find the most bandana prints. It really wasn’t much of a competition because both of us would buy two when we found a new print. Once we had showed off the new print, we shared one with the other. I am using those as cloth napkins now.

    For sandwiches we use cloth sandwich wraps. The ones I have are similar to these https://www.amazon.com/wegreeco-Reusable-Sandwich-Wrap-Set/dp/B07C2SGD74 If you can sew, you can search and find a pattern to make your own.

    To cover bowls and other items in the fridge you can use beeswax treated cloth and it will mold to whatever you need to cover. I bought all the supplies to make my own 2 years ago and I really need to get motivated. I bought a set like this for my daughter’s Christmas. (yes, I admit I have started Christmas shopping.) https://www.amazon.com/Reusable-Friendly-Wrappers-Alternative-Sustainable/dp/B07QDGHLGP/ref=asc_df_B07QDGHLGP/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=343227727599&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=14218073822034577397&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9024586&hvtargid=pla-749645165922&psc=1&tag=&ref=&adgrpid=73031402390&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvadid=343227727599&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=14218073822034577397&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9024586&hvtargid=pla-749645165922

    When we have a group over, I place a stack of washclothes next to all the sinks and a pop up laundry hamper nearby so everyone has a clean cloth to dry their hands. I bought a pack of 24 washclothes from Walmart for about $5 after I had seen washclothes used this way when we were a a nature center somewhere.

    Other than when we have a large group over, we seldom use disposable anything. (except paper towels)

  • Disposables are emergency use stuff in this home. When I was terribly sick and weak with covid 19 we used disposable plates, bowls, paper towels, flatware, and bottled water. Flatware handles were saved for plant markers..write on them with disposable markers. Water bottles will be cut off a bit past the smooth area and used in a hydroponic garden as small plant cups. The rest of the bottle will be a one time use planter for the garden or plants to share. A friend has asked for the extras for plants they sell.
    We have lovey clean mountain underground river water in our wells. I have had it tested many times over the years. We drink it untreated and use reusable bottles. The cold bottles were easy for my husband with alzheimers to put in the refrigerator or get from the refrigerator when told. It was a a litteral lifesaver for us both to use disposables for a few months while I slowly recuperated.

  • My only issue with reusables is when it comes to kleenex. As a child I recall my mom washing an elderly great aunt’s handkerchiefs in the wringer type washer. When she got to those items they were so filled with snot that when she took them out of the water they practically messed everything else in the machine up. I have only found one product that somewhat effectively removes mucous and that is Triple Acting Shout. To this day I cannot stand to see someone blow their nose into a handkerchief and then stuff it back into their pocket. Do you have any suggestions regarding the sanitary issues and cleaning of mucous filled cloths? When I get a really bad cold or during allergy season, I can go through 2 boxes in one bout. I liked your other suggestions but I just can’t see getting around this issue. I am open to suggestions though. Thanks!

  • We discovered diaper liners with my second son. All four kids were we raised on cloth diapers. As they began wearing thin they became cleaning and dusting clothes. Old diapers, flannel sheets and worn towels are great for cleaning. They also make good filIers for sewing hot pads… both to protect the table and my hands.

  • I was born in ’47 & spent the first 17 years of my life watching my father stuff a snotty handkerchief into his pocket. He had grown up in the great depression and that was how things were done back then. My mother was from the city, not the farm, and her father worked 3 days a week during the worst of the depression years. They had the $$$ for disposable tissues. I wasn’t introduced to the other disposables until my first wife. She was an avid camper, and disposables were convenient. After I worked a few years I developed certain hobbies that begged for recycled towels etc to mop up motor oil etc etc. Old t-shirts made perfect polishing cloths for motorcycles, cars, trucks, and even boats & aircraft. At 73 I live in an apt and even today I keep a bag of rags in the trunk.

  • Leonard and Steven, my DH is a small engine whiz and has rescued, repaired and regifted many lawnmowers snowblowers etc. I’ve encouraged him to make it a side gig but that idea seems to take his enjoyment out of it.

    Paper towels…THAT is the one thing I cannot get DH off of. Its a losing battle but I keep trying.
    O am old enough to remember using a hankie but am guilty of using ‘kleenex’ and grateful for it with my seasonal allergies.

  • Paper towel was by far the easiest to give up… DH was so wasteful with it I refused to buy anymore… 10 years later I haven’t missed it…

  • Hello. I am all about being frugal and saving money when possible, and these are good ideas for normal everyday use. However, I and many other people have been made fully aware of how quickly things can change during a national emergency or crisis and how quickly the supply chain can break down. I think everything on this list should be stored for emergency use in case water or electricity is not available. I wouldn’t want to have to use my limited supply of bottled water to clean my dishes or body if water were not available. Also we have battery operated items in case of losing electricity during hurricanes. Many of these items can be used for other purposes too. For example plastic or paper cups, as well as plastic bags, can be used to grow plants in or to get the seeds started. I’ve never been more aware of how essential it is to have these things stocked up.

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