I warned you we’d have to talk about the bathroom trash can. Put on your gloves and gas mask, because this one is a stinky topic.
What’s in your bathroom trash can? Compostables? Recyclables? Toxic waste? Biohazards? Betcha there’s some plastic in there, too. I was going to photograph what came out of our bathroom trash, but I got a little shy and a little grossed out, so never mind. Just use your imagination, and follow along as we parse what’s plastic and what’s actually garbage.
- Cotton swabs, aka Q-tips. Buy the kind with a paper/cardboard stick. Those can be composted or will disintegrate in landfill, while the ones with the pretty pink, yellow, blue or white plastic stems will not. Ever. (Not in our lifetime, anyway.)
- Cotton balls, hair from your hair brush, and wads of tissue are compostable — unless you used something toxic like nail polish remover on the cotton ball (garbage) or if you have a cold or communicable disease (garbage). Compost piles don’t get hot enough to destroy the virus from the common cold, and we don’t want your germs in the municipal compost piles, either. Don’t flush these items, as they get stuck in the water waste system, and no one wants your germs there, either (there are plenty of germs already).
- Toothpaste tubes, mouthwash bottles, cardboard toilet paper tubes, shampoo bottles, makeup containers, Kleenex boxes — if it’s plastic, paper or metal, chances are that it’s recyclable. Use all that you can, and then don’t be lazy — carry the packaging down the stairs and out the back door (or wherever) to the recycling bins.
- The plastic strip that comes around the neck of the mouthwash, the ambient plastic wrap around makeup, plastic film-wrap that comes around various other goods you use in the bathroom: This wrap may be recyclable in your area or maybe not. I take all plastic film-type wrapping (shrink-wrap) and bag-type plastic back to the grocery stores inside a plastic bag for recycling.
- Feminine hygiene products: Ladies, STOP buying one-use products encased in hard plastic. The Tampax Glide products are a one-use product that then sticks around in landfill for 1,000 years. Buy tampons in the cardboard tube if you must , but plastic tampon tubes are floating in our oceans, caught in fences and waterways around the world, and languishing in landfills (if you’ve ever done a beach clean-up, you’ll change your ways, guaranteed.). There’s no need to buy these. Same goes for the uber-wrapped maxi-pads, which are wrapped, then wrapped again, and also have a plastic strip on the bottom and are made from plastic/paper. Better yet, switch to reusable cloth pads (visit Glad Rags, check around on http://www.etsy.com/ or check out the Hillbilly Housewife for a discussion of how easy and natural — and money-saving! — these are to use, and how to avoid the scam that tampon producers are perpetrating on supposedly smart Western women.) What do you think Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jane Austen and women in the Bible used in their day? A more modern take is the Diva Cup, available at health food stores or online, or if you have a diaphragm, use that every month as a menstrual cup. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — if you’re too squeamish to talk about or handle your own menses, go back to 7th grade and start over, or get a little therapy — it’s your own body and it’s perfectly healthy and natural. Don’t be a big baby.
- Hair coloring products: Every one of these boxes is full of plastic. They include a pair of gloves, a new bottle to hold the colorant, etc. If you want to color your hair, buy yourself a set of supplies (for about $10) at the beauty supply store, then just get the colorant every month or so. You’ll save a ton, and you won’t need to buy a new plastic bottle and gloves every time. Those gloves are good for more than one use, anyway. If you use it only once, it’s not a Good Plastic. Really!
- Toilet paper and soap packaging: These come singly or in a package of several, and the large packages are coated in plastic. Consider buying individual rolls of toilet paper, which come in paper wrap, and individual soaps in paper or boxes instead of multi-packs. You can finally use those gift and travel soaps!
- Toothbrushes: Our dentist gives us freebies every time — and we are encouraged to replace every three months. Do any of you recycle your toothbrush? Do you find a reuse for them? They are good for cleaning grout, scrubbing jewelry or small items, and also as a paintbrush for spatter paint. They make a good doll hairbrush or brush for your pet’s delicate face. However, there are only so many extra uses for used toothbrushes, so make sure you recycle them. Then, buy a wooden one from Bass (about $6 at the Alameda Natural Grocery store, or available online) or try the ones at this online shop. The one I bought is wooden with boar bristles, made in Italy, and can be tossed into the fire (if you need kindling) or composted when done. All natural, it’s biodegradable and harmless to the planet (except for the shipping from Italy). Don’t chew on the bristles (a bad habit of mine — I will fold laundry while brushing teeth and find myself chewing the bejeebers out of my toothbrush). Make sure to let it air dry, perhaps out of the bathroom, so it lasts longer.
- Razors: People, stop using one-use disposable razors. Spend a little more and get a razor handle with changeable blades. Then take care of your razor. Don’t leave it in a puddle in the shower. Dry it after use. Set it on the windowsill or on your dresser in the next room to dry. You can store them head down in a jar of isopropyl alcohol and they will remain rust-free virtually forever. Water ruins razors, so keep yours dry, and then you will use fewer blades and throw away less plastic. If you are a real Eco Hero, you’ll switch to a straight razor (the Dervaes family of Pasadena recommends these) or be a real hippy and stop shaving. As for the need to buy an aerosol can of shaving cream — stop (plastic!). I bought Mr. Husband a ceramic shaving cup and natural boar bristle brush 18 months ago and he *loves* them. He will never go back to a can of foam again. And you can buy some deliciously scented shaving soap on http://www.etsy.com/ or at a local bath and body shop like sumbody.
- Plastic packaging from medications: Try to switch to a different size or ask if you can get a less-packaging option. Kaiser will work with you to reduce the plastic, but my insurance, Cigna, uses a mail-order system that does not allow for less packaging. Try, then, to recycle what you can: the plastic wrappings go in my plastic-bag-return to grocery stores, and the plastic bottles get recycled. In my over-the-counter meds, I make sure to buy a large-enough bottle of Claritin so I don’t get individually wrapped tablets, but rather a bottle of loose tablets.
- Cough drop wrappers: Try to purchase a brand that still wraps in waxed paper (compostable), such as Ricola or some of the Luden’s varieties. I also bought vitamin C drops from CVS in a square tube-like package that are wrapped in foil, then in waxed paper within, so there’s no plastic in the package. I find the vitamin C drops work as well for cough drops or hard candy, as the need arises.
- Magazines and newspapers: These need to get recycled in the regular recycling bin, not just stuffed in the bathroom trash.
- Plastic water bottle: Yikes! How did this get through my doors? You know that 9 out of 10 of these are not ever recycled, but trashed instead? Make sure you recycle all beverage containers, in whatever way possible. I think of them as money — 5 cents in California for every can or bottle, plastic or glass, that I pick up and return. We’ve probably earned $50 this year so far in collecting cans and bottles on our walks and from various parties. Again, do a beach cleanup some day and see how many of these you retrieve (especially the caps). You’ll never buy one again.
- Chewed gum. Yuck. There’s nothing you can do with chewed gum but put it in the garbage. I guess the thing to do is — not chew gum.
- Subscription cards, mail: Yikes, random paper in the bathroom garbage cans: pull it out and recycle it in appropriate place.
- Dry-cleaning bag: I thought we had dealt with these earlier in the month. Pull it out, put in the bag-recycling and return to grocery store. Your dry cleaner may also accept these to recycle, and you can ask for no bag next time.
- Button: Pull it out and put it with the sewing stuff.
- Fingernail clippings: See hair, #2, above. Also — yuck. Because these are down in the bottom of the can and loose, the best thing to do next time is to catch the clippings into a tissue and then put that into the compost bin.
- Hairpins: Set aside for daughter to ask for when she can’t find any in her bathroom.
- Apple core: Compost. Who eats in the bathroom, anyway? Yeesh.
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, author, and blogger. She is the author of "Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop" and "Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News" (rep'd by Booktrope). She is the Poet Laureate of Alameda, California. She's also the conservatrix of The Doris Diaries, the diaries of her great-aunt Doris Bailey Murphy. Her articles have appeared in Thrillist, Quill, Paste, San Francisco Chronicle, and in many magazines; her latest poetry appears in The East Bay Literary review.