Waste-reducing products that are actually worth it
December 3, 2021 10:30 AM   Subscribe

I get advertised a lot of household products (like soap tablets and detergent sheets) that purport to help you reduce household waste. Which, if any, are worthwhile?

Having transitioned from paper to cloth for napkins and cleaning rags, I'd like to find more small ways to reduce how much trash we throw out on a daily basis. However, I am also very lazy. I frequently get advertised products that purport to make it easy to reduce waste—like soap tablets that you add to water to make hand soap, rather than constantly throwing out plastic bottles (I don't like) or making soap yourself somehow (I know one can; I won't). Similar concepts: supposedly sustainable laundry sheets; washable cotton rounds; perhaps there is something like this for dishwashing pods?

Have you switched to one or more of these products that you can vouch for? Alternately, do you know for a fact that one or more of them is pure lip service and/or just garbage functionally? Please assume that I am lazy, bougie, and exhausted and don't tell me to do things like "not use the washing machine" or "stop drinking seltzer in cans" or "DIY literally anything."
posted by babelfish to Home & Garden (43 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't used the laundry sheets myself yet (I refill bottles of liquid soap at my local health food store), but a friend uses them and finds them both effective at cleaning laundry and possibly even more convenient than a larger, potentially heavy bottle of liquid laundry detergent. Having witnessed my friend's laundry, I can report that the sheets don't leave residue like powdered laundry detergent sometimes does (which would otherwise be another possible way to reduce waste).

If you also have a local health food store that will refill cleaning fluid bottles for you, I believe that dishwasher soap is another such item that is often refillable. (I haven't finished my first bottle of dishwasher soap since owning a dishwasher yet; mostly wash dishes by hand. But my by-hand dishwashing soap is refillable at my local health food store.) Then you'd be doing the "reuse" part of "reduce, reuse, recycle", at least? I haven't found that the solid dishwasher soap tabs work quite as well as the liquid dishwasher soap, myself. That's comparing the environmentally friendly brands, at least.
posted by eviemath at 10:44 AM on December 3, 2021

Not sure how much good it does in the grand scheme of things, but I switched to plain old powdered laundry detergent because it's packed in cardboard rather than plastic and I figured it didn't involve shipping and lugging around some amount of water that would be present in liquid detergent. I never bothered to actually do the math, though.
posted by pullayup at 10:51 AM on December 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

I know you literally said not to tell you to stop drinking seltzer from cans, but moving to a delivery CO2 exchange really made endless seltzer easier for me. Way fewer cans, never even leave the house to get more. I use a MN based local company, but Soda Sense delivers nation wide.

I'm also trying to buy more bulk items from the zero waste store, co-op, or even our conventional grocery. It's marginally harder since I have to remember to bring containers and stuff, but at least these are shops that aren't really out of our way. We do this for flours, sugar, nuts, and popcorn.
posted by advicepig at 10:56 AM on December 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

I use reusable cotton pads to remove makeup and apply skin care. I can vouch for these - they are easy peasy to use and toss in the wash. I bought mine on etsy. I've reduced my disposable cotton pad usage to mostly nail polish remover.

I use laundry sheets - the ecosnext unscented version. They work great and don't take up a ton of space. They work in hot and cold water, clean my clothes, don't leave a residue.

I use bamboo floss that I toss in the compost. I use bar soap (chagrin valley), shampoo and conditioner (both ethique), and face wash (the 10% benzoyl peroxide bar from 111Medco) - I like all of these.

Other items I have tried but not converted to 100% yet.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 11:04 AM on December 3, 2021 [6 favorites]

If you wear makeup and remove it using wipes, a makeup eraser is 100% worth it and requires no compromise. It's also really nice for travel because you don't have to carry any other makeup remover - just use water. I have found that other reusable cloth makeup application/removal products (e.g. reusable cotton rounds) are not nearly as good and generally not worthwhile.
posted by mosst at 11:07 AM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

I reuse ziplocks (I also have some of those silicone ziplocks, but find them difficult to open/close). Unless it had raw meat inside of it, I rewash ziplock bags until they fall apart.

I also use laundry sheets, dig those. I use olive oil bar soap for my face, so no plastic there.

I tried a crystal block for deodorant but didn't much like it. I tried tried the beeswax cloth food wraps, but they don't seal well and therefore don't serve to actually keep food from drying up.
posted by greta simone at 11:11 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I know you don't want DIY advice, but here in California a new green waste management law will go into effect January 1st, so I'll suggest doing what I do: compost. I have a small (27 gallon) compost tumbler that I feed with kitchen scraps, raked up leaves and shredded paper.

It's also led me to be more thoughtful about what I buy, so my overall waste production has dropped dramatically this year.
posted by SPrintF at 11:15 AM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

We started using ziptop bags in place of Tupperware or plastic bags / plastic wrap -- it's nice not having to hunt for a matching Tupperware lid, and they're a good replacement for most of what I used ziploc bags for (except for putting up large quantities in the freezer, for that I still resort to plastic.)

We had previously tried this type but didn't like them at all, the plastic slider thingy is not easy to put on or take off, and the way they fold up to lie flat makes them difficult to wash. The standup kind is great though.
posted by ook at 11:17 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I like Dropps dishwasher detergent (cardboard mailer and some kind of dissolving pod) but have had mixed luck with the laundry ones. They don’t seem to always dissolve and the amount is often slightly more than my load. I think I will go back to powdered detergent in a cardboard box.

I really like Stasher bags (silicone Ziplocks), but they are expensive. We use them all the time, though.
posted by chocotaco at 11:19 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Many of these things already have less packaging and transport intensive alternatives that have been around for a long time: powdered laundry detergent, powdered dishwasher detergent, bar soap, etc. To my mind, the most important aspects are packaging (a cardboard box is much better than a plastic container) and transport (a powder is much lighter per load than a liquid and thus uses significantly less fossil fuels to transport).
posted by ssg at 11:19 AM on December 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

Making a waste audit helped us identify whuch products are problematic for our household.

I do like Swedish style / Wettex cellulose wash cloths and the Redecker style wooden dish brushes.

In Australia there is great laundry soap concentrate called Dirt who reuse their refill bags. We have a toddler and still use cloth nappies 95% of the time and doing laundry endlessly, but are ordering refills about twice annually and posting back the containers.

A lot of attention is placed on cleaning products but once we'd switched out, over a week most of our output came from food packaging which gave us diet focused changes. E.g. Thinking about our current waste ratio i know that we could cut down on shop bought cookies (for both health and packaging concerns).

Do you drink tea? If so, switching to loose leaf instead of bags makes changes to both quality and the waste produced.

If you or someone else in your house menstruates I can not recommed period undies highly enough. Pre-kid I was very much on team menstrual cup but the situation has changed and I can now attest to the excellence of Modi Bodi knickers.

Buying new things generally is when i notice changes to our recycling and rubbish bins. Thrift stores, Marketplace and our local Buy Nothing Group have all been ways we've receuved items, minimised packaging and shipping waste and diverted items from waste streams.
posted by pipstar at 11:20 AM on December 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

I use reusable towels similar to these which don't completely replace paper towels, but reduces my usage of them. Though it seems like they've rebranded and reduced the size of the roll since I got them.
posted by credulous at 11:35 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

In my region, there's not much constraint on landfill space that I know of, but we do have limited water, and it takes a lot of fossil fuel to do packaging + shipping (especially heavy/big/cold stuff), so I choose to mildly prioritize the things that seem relevant: reducing how often I need to do laundry, reducing the weight of things I buy, buying things in local stores (walking or taking public transit) instead of online where possible, and avoiding buying reusable things that took more water/energy to produce than I could save by reusing them unless I simply prefer them (like, I find tote bags more comfortable to carry on the bus than grocery store plastic bags, and I prefer dry beans cooked in an Instant Pot over canned beans but I know the Instant Pot took a ton of resources to make). This often also reduces trash/waste in the process.

So a few examples of easy things I prefer to purchase in more consolidated format locally: pre-washed spinach in bags instead of boxes, dishwasher powder in a paper box instead of pods in a plastic can, hand soap in large 56 oz bottles (to refill small reused plastic dispensers).
posted by dreamyshade at 11:39 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I know you literally said not to tell you to stop drinking seltzer from cans
With apologies for repeating the thing you specifically requested we not say, making my own soda with a 20 pound CO2 tank and a soda-bottle fitting has been really great. After an initial half hour and a $200 trip to the homebrew store, we spend $25 every year or to fill ~400 reused 2L plastic bottles with seltzer that's far snappier than anything you can buy in a store. Knowing that you'll never run out of seltzer, even at 3AM, is also really nice.

Last time I looked into it, figuring out whether it takes more or less energy to wash cloth at home than to make paper at scale was not a trivial question. Driving farther to a store with bulk bins may fall into the same category.
posted by eotvos at 11:50 AM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

like, I find tote bags more comfortable to carry on the bus than grocery store plastic bags

Your conscience is basically clear on that one. A modicum of attention to the assumptions of those arguments in the linked article shows what a mess they are.
posted by praemunire at 11:52 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

We’ve found bar soaps we like for sink and shower and even shampoo uses - lots of it is Sappo Hill which I can buy without plastic in mainstream groceries. And we also reuse worn out clothes as rags, washable or throwaway. That’s nicer if you can put a little DIY into it, cutting the rags into your preferred sizes, but I can do that in front of a video, they don’t have to be pretty.
posted by clew at 11:55 AM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Swiffers, with the disposable cleaning pads, are incredibly convenient, especially when I wanted to get my kids to mop when they were younger. I found some reusable swiffer-sized pads that we now use instead. It attaches to the back of the swiffer with velcro, and I can put them in the washing machine after using. This feels less gross to me than using a conventional mop with a bucket of water, too.

Using a kitchen sponge for a long time is supposed to breed some really nasty stuff, and I've heard but can't confirm that zapping them in the microwave or tossing them in the dishwasher is really not cleaning them all that well... so now we have both kitchen sponges and some scrubby-mesh dish cleaning cloths that can be washed in the washing machine. Best part about the scrubby cloths: if I use them to clean something that touched raw meat, I can go ahead and wash them right away and not worry about cross-contamination.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:06 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've been using laundry detergent sheets (Tru Earth) for 6+ months with no complaint. I kind of feel like I should run a load without any detergent at all to see how it compares to the sheets (ie if they actually do anything) but it's not like I ever did that when I was buying liquid detergent from the grocery store.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:06 PM on December 3, 2021

For those with periods and not so great washing machines, menstrual cups are efficient ways to create slightly less waste (you can either go with the earth friendliest reusable cup or the bougie-er disc, which is disposable but lasts quite a long time and is what I use).
posted by kingdead at 12:12 PM on December 3, 2021

I'm in the UK, we get Smol's laundry and dishwasher tabs on a subscription service - they come through the post at a rate I choose and can alter any time, in 100% card packaging, and the individual tabs/capsules go straight into the dishwasher/washing machine, no wrapping that needs to be removed. And they clean really well!
posted by Cheerwell Maker at 12:41 PM on December 3, 2021

Response by poster: Going to the corner store for a seltzer and then drinking it after work while doing the crossword is one of the small pleasures of my day, unfortunately, and making my own simply does not cut it (part of the goal is to not be drinking beer, so the action of picking up and opening a discrete special beverage is crucial). For the purposes of anyone else looking for tips, though, I feel like go ahead and say seltzer can alternatives, just know I will not use them because joy is fragile and hard to come by!
posted by babelfish at 12:44 PM on December 3, 2021 [25 favorites]

I have used Tru Earth unscented laundry detergent strips and can vouch for their good cleaning ability.

If you menstruate (or you know someone who does), I can recommend Your Cosy Shop for washable pads. IMO they are just as good if not better than disposable pads for keeping you feeling dry, being leakproof, and absorbing a surprising amount. They are also soft and comfortable and non-chafing. I mostly use tampons, but I had to start using pads as backup (perimenopause flooding, so fun), and honestly, these are so good I’ve even cut down on my tampon use because of them.

(I’m not into creating a lot of extra work for myself, so I have a system that requires only one added step: I have enough pads to last me several days and I soak used pads in a small lidded bathroom bucket with water, a little soap, and vinegar until they’re ready to go in the washing machine with a regular load of laundry. If I’m out and about I put the used pad in the zippered wet bag that came with the pads, until I can get home to put it in the bucket. I change the bucket water daily until ready to wash.)

I have also switched to washable panty liners (from a great seller on Etsy who no longer makes them, but there are lots of others who are also good). They are comfortable, work well, and are easy to use and then pitch in the laundry with my underwear. I honestly wish I’d switched sooner. Same with washable cotton rounds.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:54 PM on December 3, 2021

I bought one of those bidet toilet seat attachments when I moved into my house. I bought a couple packs of cheap washcloths (a different color from my other washcloths, fear not) and keep them in a little bin in my bathroom, and now I gently buff my clean butt dry after using the toilet instead of using a ton of toilet paper. I've even got a tiny hamper by the toilet for the used cloths.

I never kept exact figures or anything but anecdotally I use considerably less toilet paper these days than I used to and it's also a much nicer experience.
posted by phunniemee at 12:56 PM on December 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

Bidets! You don't have to do the full fledged systems that require $$$ and tons of installation. If your toilet is near the sink, you can use something like this which hooks to your faucet with no tools required. Bonus: much cleaner than TP.
posted by redlines at 1:03 PM on December 3, 2021

I have liked both the Dropps laundry and dishwasher pods. We use toothpaste tablets from Unpastable, silk floss and bamboo (handled) toothbrushes, all of which continue to keep the dentist from doing much work on our teach. We have used a number of shampoo bars -- some are much denser than others and don't disintegrate in the damp of the shower.

Our veggie & meat CSAs have reduced the plastic veggie bags we have and the number of Styrofoam meat trays we toss, respectively. We also do our best to reduce plastic waste by buying glass or metal options for containers whenever possible. Also buying products with less packaging to begin with.
posted by chiefthe at 1:30 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also reusable pads & the diva cup! Using rechargeable batteries where we can. Finally (I think...) buying used (check out Patagonia WornWear) and getting things repaired instead of replacing them.
posted by chiefthe at 1:32 PM on December 3, 2021

A warning regarding powdered washing soap: Because price per unit and amount of packaging goes down significantly with larger quantities it's tempting to buy a huge box. However it degrades over time so you should only buy a few months worth at a time.
posted by Mitheral at 1:38 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I just switched to a rice "bar" shampoo to replace regular shampoo and I love it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:01 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I love Dropps for both laundry and dishwasher- I buy them basically once a year, and they work well for my life. I also have period proof underwear, it doesn't replace tampons but does replace the need for pads. I also buy the majority of my clothing at thrift shops, which I think makes the biggest difference in my environmental impact.
posted by momochan at 2:14 PM on December 3, 2021

Just tried out Hibar hair conditioner and it is better than the Redken All Soft stuff I was using (I have very long thick hair).
posted by Peach at 3:05 PM on December 3, 2021

Compostable k-cups?
posted by bluesky78987 at 4:23 PM on December 3, 2021

I can also vouch for Tru Earth Laundry sheets. Most of my washing is linen and wool with a bit of cotton.
posted by dobbs at 4:24 PM on December 3, 2021

I use upcycled bags from Freitag for grocery and travel. For shopping, I use these. For travel, I use this. Yes, expensive, but great quality and much better for the environment than plastic or "reusuable grocery bags" they sell at the store, which involve a lot of oil is my understanding.
posted by dobbs at 4:30 PM on December 3, 2021

Something I've tried to factor into my low-waste endeavors is the production and transportation costs, as many others mentioned above. I bought a conditioner bar from the local market instead of having a nicer one shipped to me. Bought a shampoo bar from the cool lady at the farmer's market.

I like "lateral" lifestyle shits, by reusing or rethinking, instead of buying new things that just contribute to waste. Reusable grocery bags take SO much water to produce - better to repurpose bags I already have or get them from the thrift store.

I like the powdered laundry detergent idea for the same reason. Another thing I learned to do is use only the amount of detergent that is needed, since I found that I was using way too much per load.

I tried soap nuts in an old cheesecloth pouch for a while. I have long considered going back to them since they're fully compostable.

Speaking of compost - composting is an incredible way to cut down on loads of waste. I also chose to make my own compost bin instead of buying a brand new one. I got a container from the hardware store and poked holes in it with a screwdriver (I am not handy). Slightly more effort than a tumbler but way less wasteful (and cheaper).

All of our compostable paper goes into a bin near the recyclables to be shredded and then used in the compost bin.

I don't use saran wrap or beeswax wraps or anything. I just reuse big plastic bags that bulk food items came in - cut off the top and bottom ends, then cut the resulting sleeve to make one large sheet. Hand-wash and re-use. Sometimes I just use a dish as a lid.

I don't use the plastic bags for grocery store produce. Why are these even a thing?? I just put my produce directly in the cart. It doesn't make sense to me to buy reusable produce bags, either.

I have a silverware kit for bringing my own silverware from home. I just repurposed a rectangular food container from home. I imagine a thrift store would have a similarly-sized container.

My feeling about reducing waste is: Wherever possible, I try not to create more waste in the process of reducing waste.
posted by aquamvidam at 4:54 PM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Hello, fellow lazy and exhausted person! I will also never make my own soap or stop using the dishwasher.

Out of the enormous number of possibilities, all of which I know I ought to be doing to lower my impact on the world and reduce waste, I chose to focus on eliminating plastic as much as possible.

As a general rule, when I have the option to purchase something that comes in either a plastic or a non-plastic container (for example, a jar of peanut butter) I choose the non-plastic option--even if it means using a different brand than I'm used to.

I switched to powder dishwasher detergent and laundry detergent since they come in cardboard packages. In my experience so far they work exactly the same as the liquid stuff.

I use bar soap to wash myself in the shower and bar detergent for hand washing dishes. (I have yet to find any bar-style shampoo and/or conditioner suitable for my 2C/3A, low porosity, fine-but-dense curls but I'm always looking and yes, reader, please consider this a solicitation for MeMail recommendations.)

I switched to bulk deliveries of bamboo toilet paper and "paper" towels, both of which come without any plastic packaging, instead of purchasing the plastic-wrapped versions at the local grocery store. I went back and forth about the paper towels but where I live we're in a terrible decade-long drought so I'm not sure washable rags would be a better choice. Plus we have curbside composting so the bamboo "paper" towels go in the compost.

Groceries come home in reusable tote bags, and for produce storage in the fridge I use Vejibags instead of plastic.

None of these choices have required any more effort than thinking about it when I'm at the store, which is how I like it.
posted by jesourie at 5:11 PM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

A friend turned me on to soap berries for my laundry - natural, very fresh but almost unoticable odor (really, the absence of soap funk);you can add a tiny bit of white vinegar but not strictly necessary, and a largish bag lasts for a couple of years! Comes with little natural linen bag to use in washing machine. For blood or really stubborn stains, I may spot-clean with a little detergent, but the berries work for most everything else. *chef’s kiss* to my friend for suggesting them! (I bought NaturOli brand, but there are lots out there), see www.soapnuts.com (they are variously called berries or nuts)
posted by mollymillions at 5:13 PM on December 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Rechargeable batteries are actually better than most alkaline batteries in most situations. In high-drain applications like a video game controller or flashlight, instead of swapping batteries when it dies (and it's usually inconvenient), you can recharge them so they're always at a decent charge.

For very low drain applications like TV remotes, lithium (not lithium ion) batteries like these are better, since they'll pretty much never leak and ruin a remote control. They have an absurd 10+ year shelf life and it's possible you'll be replacing the TV and/or remote before replacing the batteries.
posted by meowzilla at 6:42 PM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Mason jars! I use them instead of Tupperware, travel coffee mugs, you name it. Buy in flats and they cost less than 2 bucks a pop, and they’re so durable that your grandbabies’ grandbabies will still be using them two hundred years from now.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 7:25 PM on December 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised no one else has mentioned this, because it fits so well under the categories of "waste reducing" and "laziness enabling" -- Silicone lids!

You can stretch a lid over a bowl or dish that already has the food in it, rather than hunting for a container + lid for leftovers. Bowls go from table to fridge, and back to table the next day.
posted by nadise at 4:51 PM on December 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

I bought a collapsible wagon which has a 300 pound load limit. I went grocery shopping with it. You put your groceries in the wagon, take it to the register, empty it onto the belt, and put your purchases into the empty wagon, then put the wagon in your van and go home. You don't un pack or un bag, you just put away. I have to work out bow to get my home jars weighed at Winco for their bulk items. Anyway tbis cuts way down on plaztic. When I get reuzable bags, I use them in my kitchen garbage, dump them into the large trash bin, rinse and reuse them. The bar soaps I use, come wrapped in paper. Most of my garbage is compost. It is hard to get around storing fruit and veggies in plastic.
posted by Oyéah at 6:27 PM on December 4, 2021

+1 to composting and compostable trash bags. Composting removes a tremendous amount of food waste from the garbage stream, and compostable trash bags let what does end up in the trash heap decompose a little earlier instead of being wrapped in a nice plastic package forever.

We use mesh bags, instead of plastic produce bags, and find that veggies last longer in the fridge when they have some air circulation. We bring them to the farmers market, and to regular grocery stores. We walk as much as possible, try to minimize buying stuff from Amazon and broadly adapt where we can.

We do try to reuse containers and use glass where we can, we grow veggies and herbs and native plants, we limit the purchase of fast fashion, we compost and recycle, but we pick our battles. Cat messes will always be picked up with a paper towel, I will still take flights to see family, and we will continue to maintain a car for trips beyond the reach of public transit. We live in an area with no drought, so we are less concerned about water use than other environmental damage, so I figure you too should adjust to your environmental region.
posted by larthegreat at 11:27 AM on December 5, 2021

We switched from liquid hand soap to Blueland dissolving tablets and it's been great.
posted by omnie at 7:15 PM on December 5, 2021

I used to work for a cleaning company. I can tell you that almost all the laundry detergent sheets (ecos next, truearth, etc) clean about as well as hot water on its own. Hot water is actually pretty effective, especially if you aren't dealing with visible stains from kids/pets on a regular basis.

All the other comments here about powders are right on. People in the US love their liquid soaps in plastic bottles, but powdered detergents for dishwashers and laundry are the most effective and affordable solutions that use the least plastic.
posted by dede at 6:20 PM on December 9, 2021

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