Disposing of the Disposable Society (or at least its trappings)

As we learn how to conserve more, reduce waste, and move towards sustainability, we will need to figure out ways to escape our wasteful “disposable society”.  We can’t keep sending so many pounds of waste per person to the landfills.  It seems amusing that people have built ski resorts around mountains of trash, and the highest point in Florida has been said to be a 150 foot high trash mountain, but the amusement only masks the seriousness of the problem.

I make an effort to find new ways to do better, and recently noticed that, over the years I’ve accumulated dozens of cloth napkins.  A light went on in my head, and I started putting a short stack of them (the older ones – NOT the special, good ones we use for company) on top of the knife rack (an angled wooden one) on the kitchen counter.  When I am going to make a sandwich, I first spread a napkin out on the counter, and then make the sandwich on it.  When I am done, I shake the crumbs into the trash and check the napkin for glop.  If it is glop-free I refold it and put it back, or use it as it was intended while eating my sandwich, and if it is contaminated I toss it into a basket atop the washing machine. 

I keep a short stack of kitchen towels around, too, to take care of spills and general wiping up.  I clean up the kitchen with a sponge and some dish soap, and sanitize the sponge every day or so by rinsing it out, wringing it out, and microwaving it for a minute to kill the germs.  To dry the freshly cleaned surfaces I use a clean kitchen towel, and the dirty towels are also accumulated in the laundry.  By wash day I throw the napkins and towels in with my dark/normal load.  As a result, my wife and I are using a roll of paper towels every 2-3 months.  I don’t know if that works out to be truly ecology friendly, as that would require balancing the energy requirements of laundering against those of manufacturing and diposing of paper towels, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.

My second wife was a very frugal woman, and compared how we live today with how people lived a century or two ago.  She taught me to hang up and air out clothes I had worn, and not put them in the laundry unless they failed the “smell test”.  Since the greatest wear and tear on our clothes, on average, is caused by the washing machine, this greatly prolongs the life of your clothes and reduces the frequency at which you need to do laundry.  (Of course, socks and underwear are only worn once between launderings.)

She also taught me that the people of a century ago didn’t take a shower every single morning during the dryer and colder winters.  A quick washcloth-bath of the face and other needed areas of the body is sufficient to keep one clean, odor free, and feeling good except in case of strenuous, sweaty work/exercise, in which case a quick shower is required. 

I imagine such conservation measures could become much more commonplace in the future, as we struggle to allow the maximum amount of humanity (and all life forms) to survive on the planet.


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