Limiting disposable products in your home

I grew up in a house with paper towels, disposable napkins, disinfectant cleaners that were different for every project and every room, paper plates for busy weeks/camping/picnics, and lungs that burned for most of my childhood and early adult years.

Last year, Mr. Moon and I didn't buy a single roll of paper towel, didn't use disposable napkins in our home, and gave away most of our cleansers to Freecyclers and roommates as they moved. Our last move, the only cleaning products we took with us was a box of borax and a bottle of vinegar (though to be fair, we were out of baking soda and needed to pick up more). How did we do it?

Cloth Napkins: I had snagged a few from various restaurants through the years, and I picked up a few more at thrift stores because they matched my kitchen. With the kitchen on one floor and the TV room where we ate most of our dinners on another, we had a basket of cloth napkins in both locations for any time we needed them. Typically, we would use a napkin for a few meals until it actually got something more than crumby/buttery fingers and a drip or two of sauce on it, then toss it in the laundry.
* Tip: Don't buy the shiny-texture napkins that restaurants use, they're actually TERRIBLE as napkins, probably in part due to fabric softener. Get some that feel like an old-fashioned handkerchief or a set of bed sheets. Wash the napkins with the sheets, not with the rest of your towels. Towels = linty badness on your napkins!
Kitchen Towels: This actually required a basket system and a few trial-and-error moments. First step was reserving the towels that match my kitchen decor for hand towels (though I'm known to wipe super-messy hands on them while cooking, and that's cool too as long as I save some nicer ones for dinner parties). But for cleaning, Mr. Moon had a couple towels that were ripping down the middle, so I cut them into 5x8 rectangles and used them for messy jobs. We had three categories of towels here: Hand (pretty) towels; "messy" jobs like wiping down the counter and stovetop; and "yucky/gross" jobs like anything involving the floor, scrubbing puddles of grease from our roommate's experiments in deep drying, or pet disasters. That last one was also full of cloths that would work on the Swiffer and its off-brand replacement, for mopping the floors.
*Tip: If you're going to cut up old towels, take the time to finish the edges. I regretted not doing that to mine, and they are being retired and turned into some other projects much sooner than they would have needed to be otherwise.
If you don't have old towels to cut up, do one of two things:
1) Get some cheap washcloths from Big Lots/outlet stores or even thrift stores. You're not looking for cushy thick quality here, the scratchy terry actually works MUCH better for cleaning than the thick soft stuff; or
2) Go to a restaurant supply store and get "bar towels."
Whichever you choose, use them for cleaning the same way you would paper towels. I found that relegating some to super-dirty jobs from the start was great, and color-coding helped me remember where everything went, but invariably a "not too messy job" cloth would get worn and stained and get downgraded to a "gross jobs" cloth (sometimes after it was the closest one in an urgent situation). So don't get attached to a color coding system if you can avoid it.
* Tip: Keep these cloths readily available! When your soda spills on the rug, you don't want to be digging through the back of a cabinet for the bin marked "yucky jobs." You can be a little more patient digging for a hand towel after washing your hands if you're limited on space.
Bathroom cloths: I know I just said not to color code if you can avoid it, but it was only half true. Have a different set of cloths for the bathroom! Kitchen towels can get grease on them which makes it difficult for them to absorb water as easily. Plus, even if I "know" the towels are getting cleaned and hopefully sanitized when they get washed, I can't quite get past the idea of the soap scum from the tub or the splash water from the back of the toilet being used to wipe down my kitchen counter where I prep my food. So, get a different set of cloths for your bathroom, and wash them separately from your kitchen towels to avoid grease contamination.
*Tip: These cleaning cloths really don't need to be folded. Get a bucket or basket that will fit under your sink or wherever you want to store them for easy access, and just toss them in from the laundry basket when they're clean. Saves time! Though it doesn't save space, so if space is more of a priority than time, by all means, fold them.
Reusable menstrual products: This is a soap box for a different day, but I gave up disposable menstrual products at age 22. Looking back, I dearly wish someone had told me when I was growing up that there were other options available to me. I got rid of a lot of physical pain caused by the chemicals in the disposable products, and I've never once regretted the decision. There is plenty of information on this topic throughout the internet, if you're ever interested in doing some research. One major bonus, besides the physical and environmental factors: In my poorest moments, I have never once dreaded the expense of a visit from Aunt Flow. /soapbox.
* Tip: Get a lingerie bag and put it inside a tiny wastebasket with a lid, next to the toilet. Use this for your used cloth menstrual products (and cloth wipes if you care to use them). At the end of the week, you can zip up the bag and toss it in with your regular wash, and they're all self-contained for easy sorting.
Handkerchiefs: I actually started using these as an actor at the Renaissance Festival, but they stayed in my costume box for the longest time. In his bachelorhood, Mr. Moon stopped buying tissues separately since toilet paper works just fine, and at some point tissue boxes fell off my list of household necessities for the same reason. But invariably, a purse-pack of tissues gets mangled and lost super easily, and the middle of a funeral or onset of allergies is NOT the time to discover a baggie full of lint in the black hole that is your purse. Here come handkerchiefs to save the day! Even when they're a bit linty from the bottom of your bag, they will catch a sneeze or the occasional drip of coffee just fine. I usually get ones that are a bit smaller than the stuff I get for napkins, but the fabric qualifications are the same: easily washable, absorb quickly. When cold season comes around, I end up either designating one for watery eyes and the rest for the drippy nose, or stick to the opposite-corners method and switch pieces when it gets too icky or at the end of every day--whichever comes first. Not really any more gentle on the nose than tissues despite what Miss Manners would like to believe, but my hands stay cleaner and one hard sneeze doesn't spray paper pulp all over.
* Tip: I use an old cigarette case to keep at least one of my handkerchiefs lint-free in my purse. I seem to end up with a collection of them outside that one, but at least I always have one that looks a little nicer (and is folded nicely) in a pinch.
This is Part One of a series of posts. Check back for Part Two!

These are just my methods, but I know there are other ways to limit disposables in your home. Do you have any other systems and storage tips? Have you reduced your dependance on disposable baby wipes and care to share your ideas with the rest of us?


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