Avoiding Disposable Products –- What Are the Alternatives?

Image by by walknboston
Image by by walknboston
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When was the last time you used — and threw away — something disposable?

Even if you’re trying to be eco-friendly, I’d bet that you’ve used something disposable in the last day. It could be:

  • Contact lenses
  • Tissues
  • A razor
  • Batteries
  • A coffee cup
  • A ballpoint pen

Don’t feel guilty about this. It’s not just you: we’ve become a throwaway culture. Big business likes it that way, because disposable products mean repeat buyers:

In the late 1800s, with the advent of packaged biscuits (with brand names Uneeda and Iwanna) and paper shirtfronts (developed to satisfy demand for spotless whites from men without access to laundry), manufacturers began to realize the seemingly endless commercial potential of short-lived products. Freshness and brand name would be linked to lure repeat customers.

(Terry Tamminen, Made to Break reveals the roots of our throwaway culture, Grist)

Over the past century — and definitely since the 1950s — more and more disposable products have been invented. You can now buy disposable toilet scrubbers, cameras, cell phones, even audio books

Many people buy disposable products either for convenience’s sake, or because the products are initially cheaper. In both cases, this is a false economy: after all, is it really more convenient to buy disposable batteries (and have to keep buying more), or to buy rechargeable batteries that you can pop in the charger overnight? Cost-wise, reusable options will almost always work out much cheaper in the long term.

The rise in disposables is not an altruistic move by big business:

Even though some companies are working towards more environmentally friendly products, it seems like other companies are working towards figuring out how to make their products more disposable (and make more money at the same time).

(Craig Takeuchi, Disposable products increasing on the market, Straight.com)

So what common disposables could you do without?


Do you still use disposable batteries? Rechargeable ones don’t cost much more, and can be reused up to a thousand times. You’ll save a huge amount of money over the lifetime of each battery, especially if you use a digital camera or other power-hungry battery-operated equipment.

I’d recommend buying a good quality recharger and set of batteries, rather than the cheapest you can find: I’ve found that some of the cheaper models don’t seem to hold a charge well. If you plan to use the batteries in a specific product, check the manual or manufacturer’s guidelines for compatibility.


Cloth diapers are becoming more and more popular as an alternative to disposable ones. Of course, in many parts of the world (and throughout history), parents have used cloth diapers — but the big diaper manufacturers like Pampers and Huggies have changed that.

Although disposables end up in landfill, cloth diapers do need washing so require water and energy. Some commentators have suggested that both have a similar environmental impact; others maintain that avoiding landfill waste is more important than avoiding water and energy usage.

Pens and Stationary

Do you throw away your ballpoints when they’re out of ink? Get a refillable pen instead. These often don’t cost much more — but they reduce the amount of plastic in landfill. And a good pen can last for generations.

If you’re struggling to find reusable stationary, look for products which have been made from recycled materials — such as pencils from vending machine cups.

Plastic Cups, Plates and Cutlery

Disposable cups, plate and cutlery often aren’t recycled. When cardboard, plastic or paper has been contaminated with food, it can’t be recycled unless it’s carefully cleaned — and let’s face it, who uses disposable cutlery and then washes it?

Only recycle clean paper and cardboard.  If it has been contaminated with food, oil or grease the paper or cardboard will not be recycled.

(Paper & Cardboard recycling guidelines — Tablelands Regional Council)

If you’re getting coffee, take along your own mug. If you’re catering an event, can you use regular plates and cups instead of disposables? (You may want to rope in help with the dishes…)

Plastic Shopping Bags

Do you get a separate bag in each store? Take along a long-lasting shopping bag, preferably made out of cloth. These are normally easier to carry and well-sized to hold all your purchases: no more juggling with multiple bags hanging off each hand!

Of course, there’s nothing preventing you from reusing the plastic shopping bags you’ve already been given. How about keeping one in the car, or in your pocket or purse, so that you’ve always got a shopping bag to hand?


Most of us use disposable razors — but these aren’t the only option. You can get a straight razor, with a blade that you resharpen, you can use an electric razor or you can buy razors which are re-usable with a disposable blade.

As with diapers, there’s some debate over what type of razor has the least impact on the environment.  There’s some good advice about choosing your razor on Use an eco-friendly razor at GreenYour.com.

Tissues and Paper Towels

Do you have a handkerchief? I know that I, and a lot of people from my generation, associate handkerchiefs with our dads and granddads, and tend to use tissues instead. However, handkerchiefs are often a much better option — they don’t fall apart like tissues and, as Michael points out in Why you should carry a handkerchief, they have a number of other uses…

You can also use cloth rags for mopping up spills in the kitchen, instead of using paper towels. Over time, you’ll save money using this method. You can generally squeeze in a few handkerchiefs and rags with your regular load of laundry, so the environmental impact of washing them is negligible. (If you want some advice on ditching paper towels, read Thoughts On Abandoning the Paper Towel from Trent at The Simple Dollar.)

If you must use disposables…

However hard you try to be ecofriendly, there’ll always be some times when you end up using disposables. When this happens, make sure:

  • You don’t flush them — many products can either cause problems and blockages in the sewer system, or they can harm the fish in rivers and seas, if swallowed. (Contact lenses are a particular culprit here.)
  • You dispose of them properly — where possible, recycle. Any products like batteries and ink cartridges should not go in the trash: they contain harmful chemicals.

During the next day, keep an eye out for the product you use which are disposable — whether at home, at work, or out with friends. How many of these could you switch for a reusable option?

(Image above by walknboston)

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    If you return the re-usable items (and don’t bus some or all disposable items), you reverse the economic incentive for waste.

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