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.

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