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Everyone needs to start somewhere, but it can sound overwhelming at the beginning. What do I really need? Which materials is best? What will have the least impact? What will work for me? I understand it’s confusing so I’ve put together this list of sustainable living essentials that will send you well on your way to living a more sustainable lifestyle.
The first thing on my list of sustainable living essentials is a reusable water bottle. You should always bring a reusable water bottle with you when out and about. This cuts out the plastic water bottles from the store (which shouldn’t be reused) as well as cups at fast food/casual restaurants. If you drink coffee, a reusable coffee cup, mug, or thermos is also a good idea to cut out all those disposable cups and plastic lids. Sometimes you’ll even get a small discount for bringing in your own cup!
When comes to materials, you have a lot to choose from.
Metal is a good choice as it is durable and non-plastic, but some metals are better than others. Aluminum bottles are usually lined with BPA (plastic and a hormone disruptor) to prevent reactions with acidic liquids.
Stainless steel bottles can have the same issue, but some brands like Klean Kanteen do not use BPA in their water bottles. They have water bottles (adult and kids) and tumbler mugs in various sizes. But be aware: the alternatives used for BPA to coat metal bottles have the potential to be as dangerous as BPA.
To avoid BPA, try silicone or glass bottles. Silicone water bottles offer the added benefit of being collapsible for easy storage and travel. This silicone bottle rolls up while this one collapses down into itself.
Many glass bottles are wrapped in silicone to help prevent breaks. I’m too klutzy to take the chance, but I bought this one for my dad who just keeps it in his car and he loves it.
The last option is plastic. Most plastic bottles are polycarbonate, a hard to recycle plastic. My husband and I still use our Nalgene bottles we’ve had for years, but I also use a metal one. Another thing to note is many of the other bottles will have plastic lids, but some will have metal lids with a gasket.
Keep a mug at work to fill up in the break room. Many coffee shops will allow you to bring your own cup to be filled, and you could even get a few cents off the bill. Some don’t due to sanitation rules and some will make your drink in a disposable and then pour it into your cup and toss the disposable (ugh, why?). Search around to find a shop that makes your drink directly in your cup.
Straws are handed out like candy it seems. Avoid straws at restaurants and bars by asking your server to not include them. If you do need or want a straw, there are many metal and glass straws on the market. I have these metal straws which came with silicone toppers to prevent shocking your teeth and a storage bag. They are great when I make milkshakes and smoothies!
Topic 2 on my sustainable living essentials guide is yet another thing we all do every day. Let’s look at both what the food is stored in and what you eat it with. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on reducing food waste!
Food containers can be metal, glass, or plastic, although many people avoid having plastic touch their food due to leeching concerns. Metal tiffins and bento boxes will have metal lids, but you obviously can’t microwave them. Check out this two-tier metal tiffin from Life Without Plastic!
Glass containers often have plastic snap-on lids, but I bought some great containers from Ikea that have bamboo lids with a (sadly probably plastic) gasket to create the seal. They work very well, but do not microwave the lids as they will dry out and crack. I accidentally did this once and the area that wasn’t wet on the lid now has little bubbles. Mason jars are also great glass options and have metal lids. Glass can be frozen, but do not subject it to quick temperature changes or fill the container too full.
Skip the plastic sandwich bag, and instead pick up this set of reusable bags from (Re)zip. We use these at home, and they work great!
The other option is to use plastic containers like Tupperware. If you use plastic containers for storage, at least move the food onto a plate before heating in the microwave since plastic leeches more at higher temperatures.
Forks, spoons, knifes, and chopsticks can be metal or bamboo. My husband has this Light My Fire titanium spork that also has a serrated edge for a cutting. I carry a fork and spoon in my lunchbox. These are children’s metal utensils from when I was a kid so they are smaller versions but still very functional. They cost me nothing since I already own them. I’m not very good with chopsticks, but this set of reusable ones is a good option those who are more adept.
Bringing a few reusable bags shopping will put an end to feeding that stash of plastic bags under the sink and cut down on the paper bags that get sent to the recycle bin. The problem many people run into is forgetting them at home, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve.
First I keep some bags hanging on the rack by the door so I see them on my way out. Next I keep one or two in the glove box of my car. And finally I keep one in my purse. This way I will at least always have one bag with me when I go shopping. If all else fails, you can refuse a bag in the first place and just carry out your items (assuming you didn’t buy a lot). Sometimes you’ll need a bag though so always ask for paper.
There are two types of bags that can come shopping with you. The first is the standard reusable grocery bag made of cloth, canvas, or plastic. These are the large bags that replace the plastic or paper bags at checkout. The second type is mesh produce bags which replace the plastic bags in the produce section. These bags are lightweight and allow the cashier to still see what’s inside. Whole Foods also has paper bags in the produce section which you can use to store your items.
Here are a few reusable bags perfect for grocery shopping:
- Reusable Grocery Bags 10 Pack
- Heavy Duty Reusable Grocery Bags 3 Pack
- 15 Reusable Mesh Produce Bags – 3 Sizes
Jars can also come shopping with you if you have a bulk section or a deli who agrees to use your container. You or the employee will tare the jar so its weight is not counted for what you pay. Then you can just place them in your pantry or fridge when you get home.
There is a multitude of sustainable living essentials used for personal care. Let’s start in the shower.
Many companies sell solid shampoo and conditioner bars as a zero waste alternative to traditional products that come in plastic. Plaine Products is a subscription service that provides shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and lotion in metal bottles that you send back to be reused by someone else.
You may also want to try going No Poo. I started doing this shortly after Thanksgiving and I’m liking it. If you still want to use products in your hair, try these shampoo and conditioner bars.
- Chagrin Valley Conditioning Shampoo Bar
- Ethique’s Shampoo Bar for Natural-Dry or Frizzy Hair
- Ethique’s Conditioner Bar for Normal-Dry Hair
As a note, some conventional products, especially body wash, contain microbeads (polyethylene) which do not breakdown and can harm aquatic life. Avoid these products as best as you can by reading the ingredients on the label, or switch to bar soap like this big 5.8 oz bar from Life Without Plastic.
For hair styling, I am using the same plastic brush and comb I have had for years. I also have a boars hair brush like this one I started using when I went No Poo. The comb should last forever, but I may purchase this wooden brush with wooden bristles when the plastic brush bites it because I like the feeling of that type of brush more than the boars hair.
For shaving, skip the plastic disposable razor for a metal safety razor. The blades can be as cheap as 15 cents each, and it’s not as scary as it looks! Life Without Plastic sells safety razors and blades plastic free. If you prefer a more conventional razor, check out Preserve’s recycled plastic razor.
For oral care, I highly suggest you talk to your dentist. For many people, myself included, oral care is too important to risk even for the planet. I believe fluoride is important, but all but one tooth tablet brand available in the US and all DIY toothpastes are fluoride-free. For me Denttabs from Amazon are still too expensive.
If you live in Europe or don’t mind fluoride-free, I highly suggest tooth tablets as a zero waste alternative to toothpaste. Check out brands like Denttabs (fluoride) and Bite (fluoride-free). You can also recycle toothpaste tubes through Terracycle. However, I am comfortable using a bamboo toothbrush and natural silk floss instead of their plastic counterparts.
You can also DIY just about any product from face wash to lip balm to shaving cream. Pinterest is full of recipes to try and see what works for you!
For the ladies, I suggest trying out a menstrual cup. I absolutely love my Organicup! You can check out my menstrual cup post here. There’s also reusable pads, organic cotton disposable pads, and period-proof underwear.
DIY cleaning products are not only safer for your home and better for the environment, but they are also so much cheaper! This DIY liquid laundry detergent contains only three ingredients plus water. It makes gallons of detergent for around what you’d pay for a single gallon of Tide. Other alternatives are soap nuts, bulk detergents from specialty stores, and commercial detergents from brands like Seventh Generation.
Remember, sustainable living essentials are more than just products. They are actions too! Sustainable laundry practices also include using cool/cold water, only running full loads, and air drying your clothing. If you still want to use the dryer, you can use wool dryer balls in place of dryer sheets.
For cleaning, this handful of ingredients pops into most cleaner DIY recipes (all-purpose, toilet and bathroom, glass, etc.): water, vinegar, castille soap, and baking soda. Borax and lemon juice are also frequently used. Check out some of the recipes in this post from He and She Eat Clean.
These five areas are where most of our product waste comes from. By using the tips above, you can greatly decrease the waste in your daily life. I suggest taking things one area at a time instead of trying everything all at once so you don’t get overwhelmed. Change comes slowly over time and focusing your efforts on specific areas can really help things move along.
Now that you’ve covered the sustainable living essentials, are you ready to move on to other areas of your life? Check out my posts on How to Reduce Packaging Waste and 10 Sustainable Travel Essentials.