By Nicole Caldwell for Mother Earth Living
Let’s say you’re a “Level Two” eco-warrior. Maybe you’ve been composting for a while, eat a plant-based diet, and have a bicycle basket loaded with mesh produce bags and cloth shopping totes for items not already grown in your garden. What, then, to do with the waste that still piles up around your home?
Even the most eco-conscious among us make daily decisions about a seemingly perpetual stream of trash that feels unavoidable and impossible to dispose of properly. For folks who have already taken steps to live green, here’s the next phase of self-examination: We’re talking clothing, toothbrushes, shampoo bottles, and cotton swabs, just to name a few. As your tin foil tube grows leaner and your plastic toothbrush frays, consider this guide for low-waste replacements.
Fads Fade, but Clothing Lives On
Time to Decompose:
Nylon fabric: 30 to 40 years
Cotton shirt: 1 to 6 months
Wool clothing (including socks): 1 to 5 years
Polyester fabric: 20 to 200 years
The textile industry is second only to the petroleum industry as the world’s biggest polluter. Pesticides have become ubiquitous in cotton fabric production, not to mention the water waste. (It can take 713 gallons of water to make a single cotton T-shirt.) Meanwhile, production of artificial materials, such as nylon, releases large amounts of nitrous oxide, which is 300 times worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Further, chemical-laden dyes wreak havoc in waterways, and the international transportation of goods creates a massive carbon footprint. Once you bring an item home, thousands of microfibers and larger bits of manmade materials shed during every regular wash cycle — and even more during decomposition when an item is thrown away. One 2018 study found 73 percent of fish caught at midlevel depths in the Atlantic Ocean, for example, had microplastics in their bellies. The wastefulness of “fast fashion” only exacerbates the aforementioned problems.
Only natural materials — plant-based cotton, hemp, and linen, animal-based wools, leathers, and furs — undergo biotic decomposition (see “All Rot is Not Created Equal,” below). Meanwhile, clothes advertised as recycled can come from companies that buy unused bottles from manufacturers to then make polyester clothing labeled “recycled.”
Alternatives: Even when shopping at thrift stores — which do great work to keep fabrics out of landfills and prolong the shelf life of individual pieces — keep an eye out for organic cottons and other natural fibers. The easiest solution? Invest in a capsule wardrobe: a small collection of timeless, essential pieces that can be tailored to fit and last a lifetime. Choose local brands with a sustainability mission. You may pay more up front, but if you limit your wardrobe to a few great pieces that will last your lifetime, you’ll save thousands in the long run.
Clean Out the Cotton Swabs
Time to Decompose:
Cotton tips: 5 to 6 months
Plastic stick: About 20 years
As with cotton balls, just about every bathroom has cotton swabs — and we take for granted how wasteful they can be. Cotton swabs are biodegradable only if they’re made from 100-percent cotton and cardboard, although even then the cotton is often produced with high volumes of pesticides and water. And a lot of people flush the swabs when they’re finished using them, which means they end up in sewage systems that can overflow with heavy rainfall and leave the sticks along riverbeds, beaches, and inland bodies of water. In the United Kingdom, cotton swab sticks account for 60 percent of sewage-related beach trash.
And actually, cotton swabs may be entirely unnecessary. The human body is designed to produce and regulate its own ear wax, which keeps bad things — bacteria, bugs, water — out. Just about every other use for a cotton swab has an easy replacement.
Alternatives: For ear care, check out a bamboo ear pick; for nails and makeup, use small cut pieces of rag; for cleaning around the house, utilize discarded toothbrushes and strips of rags for hard-to-reach places. And for the cotton swabs you’ve already got at home, go ahead and use them — just make sure they end up in a garbage pail, not the toilet.
The Dirty Truth about Toothbrushes
Time to Decompose:
20 to 1,000 years
The American Dental Association recommends that toothbrushes be replaced when bristles become misshapen and frayed — generally, every 3 to 4 months. Because toothbrushes are largely plastic-based, that’s an awful lot of petroleum used in production, and a huge volume of pollution when the tiny implements find their way not to landfills but to beaches, oceans, and public waterways. The plastic that winds up deep in the ocean goes unexposed to photodegradation — meaning entire toothbrushes float in the sea and often end up being consumed by marine life. The data site Statista found that approximately 329.26 million people in the United States used manual toothbrushes in 2018. Accounting for conservatively timed replacements of every four months, the number of manual toothbrushes used (and theoretically discarded) last year spikes to 1.3 billion.
If you’re thinking electric toothbrushes are any better, think again. Batteries pose a host of environmental issues, and the lion’s share of those brushes are also petroleum-based. While strides have been made to create brushes from recycled materials, manufacture replaceable brush heads, and even offer 100-percent compostable toothbrushes, we’ve yet to arrive at a truly universal, zero-waste product to clean teeth daily.
Alternatives: Avoid the plastic waste of toothbrushes by purchasing biodegradable options, or brushes made of recyclable materials with replaceable heads. Some electric and manual brushes come in silicone, which is non-toxic and more environmentally friendly than traditional plastics. Instead of traveling with a plastic toothbrush holder, consider a washcloth, or a container made of stainless steel or silicone.
Nothing Clean About Shampoo and Conditioner Bottles
Time to Decompose:
70 to 450 years
Plastic bottles are the second-slowest plastic item to decompose, and yet, even as we eschew plastic water bottles for reusable ones, there’s still widespread use of plastic containers for juice, iced tea, liquor, cosmetics, deodorant, and of course, shampoo and conditioner. A million plastic bottles are purchased every minute around the world.
And while many plastic containers in the kitchen get recycled, almost half of all Americans never recycle personal care products — which can result in up to 552 million plastic bottles in landfills or waterways.
What you may not know is that there’s a plethora of new, zero-waste shampoos and conditioners (and other personal care items) on the market; you just may have to order them online or find a local specialty store, co-op, or organic market.
Alternatives: Invest in shampoo and conditioner bars (or make your own). When you make the switch, prepare for a short “transition period” while your scalp’s oil production adjusts to the shampoo and conditioner bars; your hair may become more oily or dry during this period. Once your scalp gets back to its normal pH, you’ll find the bars work well for all types of hair. When traveling, use a washcloth or old metal tin for transport. For your existing personal care items, add a recycling bin to your bathroom to make it easy to get those containers headed in the right direction.
Don’t Be Fooled by Foil
Time to Decompose:
Up to 400 years
Certain household swaps — such as rags for paper towels, and glass or steel for plastic leftover containers — can be performed with relative ease. Aluminum foil, on the other hand, is one of the most difficult household items to do without. That’s because so many cooking techniques require items to be covered. Grilling outside is also notoriously synonymous with aluminum foil for everything from vegetables to meats. And we haven’t even gotten to storing leftovers or protecting toaster oven trays.
What you may not know is that it takes about 170 million British thermal units to produce 1 ton of aluminum, with 12 million tons of greenhouse gases as byproducts. Many people reuse their foil, which is obviously a plus after such a wasteful manufacturing process. But the other end of foil’s life is just as bad. There’s plenty of evidence showing aluminum foil’s proclivity for a negative impact on human and marine life, including contributing to eutrophication, a nutrient-caused water pollution that can result in algal blooms that kill fish and other aquatic life.
Alternatives: First and foremost, find a transfer station that accepts cleaned aluminum foil for recycling. When you’re ready to make the switch, check out silicone pie shields, casserole dishes with lids, inverted cookie sheets for simple coverage while baking, a stainless steel vegetable basket for grilling, and a cookie sheet under uncovered potatoes for baking.
E-Waste is Built To Last (Forever)
Time to Decompose:
Does not decompose
Even landfills don’t want broken electronics (e-waste), which are arguably the most durable items out there in terms of potential to decompose (or lack thereof). From the glass to the neodymium-ironboron magnet in a hard disk head (more likely to pollute everything around it than to ever break down), e-waste was designed for all time, even if its components were built for planned obsolescence.
Besides the host of harmful byproducts that go along with the manufacturing of these products, there’s the heavy toll we pay once they wind up in landfills and the toxic waste leaks out. Nationwide, e-waste accounts for just 2 percent of landfill trash by volume — and a shocking 70 percent of total toxic waste.
Alternatives: Recycle all e-waste, limit how much you end up with, and make sure to do your research to find legitimate, sustainable recycling companies when it’s time to retire a device. Always try to fix electronics and sell them back to manufacturers (or buyers) before turning them in on sanctioned e-waste disposal days. Never put e-waste in regular trash.
The statistics are dizzying, but for each of these hard-to-escape environmental offenses there are a host of alternatives. With knowledge comes agency and — equally as important — choice. As consumers, we can choose to invest our money in products built to last in our homes, not in landfills. Select materials that don’t cause undue harm to the environment, and empower yourself with switches that don’t require purchasing anything at all.
All Rot is Not Created Equal
Public perception of plastic is shifting, but it’s not universal just yet. Meanwhile, every piece of plastic ever created is still in existence, and the vast majority of that will outlast every one of us. It can take up to 1,000 years for some kinds of plastic, such as bags, to decompose, and even then, they’ll never biodegrade.
Biodegradation, or biotic decomposition, is the product of biological activity, especially when microorganisms consume something and transform it into something else. On the other hand, abiotic decomposition is the act of something physically breaking down into smaller pieces of itself, such as a glass bottle in the ocean gradually becoming tiny bits of sea glass.
That’s an important distinction. While everything will eventually break down (even if it takes thousands of years), there’s a big difference between plant matter nourishing soil (via insect or animal consumption) and a plastic bag slowly breaking into ever-tinier pieces over time, only to absorb toxins from waterways and then be consumed by animals, often harming them in the process. Researchers use respirometry tests (which involve putting garbage in environments rich with microbes that eat biological matter) to test decomposition rates. But products such as plastic shopping bags made from polyethylene don’t get gobbled up by microbes. Instead, they’re left to lose their elasticity and durability as UV rays slowly eat away at them (a process called photodegradation). We actually don’t know how long they’ll be around.