Discussing Plastics, Paper Towels, and the Journey to Living Thoughtfully with Eve O. Schaub, author of Year of No Garbage

Underwater image of fish swimming near floating plastic trash.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash.

After reading the new book, Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, I had the pleasure of interviewing author Eve O. Schaub. She was fun to speak with and very passionate about the subject matter. I loved the way our conversation flowed between funny and serious.

Seriously, she’s great to talk to. She’s very relatable, enthusiastic, and extremely knowledgeable. She explains complex matters in an honest and open way. We’ve all experienced conundrums with garbage and recycling at times, some of which have no resolution. She makes the reader understand that we aren’t alone in this. Plus, the book is quite an entertaining story!

The Beginning

Schaub has written three books within this paradigm: Year of No Sugar, Year of No Clutter, and Year of No Garbage. I wanted to know how it all started and how it transpired from No Sugar to No Clutter to No Garbage. She had seen an online talk by a pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, who associates sugar with many of the most common western diseases. “I was captivated by this. I mean, I’m not in the habit of sitting around and watching 90-minute medical lectures,” she laughed. But she found that his findings made so much sense. “It was like I had been given a new pair of glasses. I saw the world in a completely different way.” Schaub decided to make this a writing project. “What could be more important than the health of our families and the food that we put on our table?”

What would it take to eliminate sugar? Schaub thought that it couldn’t be that hard, so she convinced her family to live for one year without consuming added sugar, with a few exceptions. She drew inspiration from authors, such as Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life) and Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who created a set of rules for a specific period and then reported on it. As she would come to find out, it is actually very difficult to eliminate sugar because it’s in everything.

After finishing her first book, Schaub said Year of No Clutter felt like a very natural next project. She stated it was more of a personal project for her because the root of the clutter in her home was her. “As the self-confessed polar opposite of Marie Kondo, I spent a year confronting my inner hoarder and wrote a book.”1 This journey led to the idea of Year of No Garbage.

Large, full yellow dumpster with all kinds of trash and debris.
Image by Nathan Copley from Pixabay.

No Garbage

The idea of garbage and what happens to it had captivated Schaub since childhood. Trash is a given thing in our culture, and most people never give it a second thought. “Trash is like weeds. Right? Weeds are only plants that are in the wrong place…that’s the same with trash. There’s no such thing as trash, it’s just whatever we say it is. It’s in the wrong place, it’s inconvenient, we don’t know what to do with it,” she said.

What’s more impressive is Schaub did this during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many actually found it significantly harder to have less trash that year than any other, her family managed to do it by following a pre-established set of rules. She said it was a good distraction during a time when we were forced to slow down, and she felt it provided a good opportunity to reset and rethink.

“I kept trying to remind myself that the very fact that trying to live without garbage is super difficult—and at times virtually impossible—was the whole darned point: if it were easy there wouldn’t be much to write about, and everyone would probably already be doing it, and the earth would be a happier, less trashy, more equitable, less cancer-filled, less disaster-prone place. The End.”2

Trash symbol, outline of person in white paint throwing paper in a trash receptacle, black background.
Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash.

Plastics

Plastics are the hardest type of garbage to deal with, and there’s so much of it. Schaub acknowledged that it’s nearly impossible to avoid buying food without plastic packaging. “You’d have to live in a cave and grow all your own food in the ground, and drink from a stream. I mean, that’s how hard it is…That’s how ingrained it is.” But if we know this, we can work to turn off the plastic tap and think about ways to use less.

Most people don’t realize that plastic is made from oil and chemicals. Big Oil is openly planning to triple its plastic production by 2050. “And they’re proud of it!” Schaub exclaimed. “Do we need three times the amount of plastic in our lives than we already have now?! No, I don’t think anybody thinks that. But they are looking for new markets. They’re trying to increase profits, especially in the wake of people buying [and] turning to electric cars, for example. They’re going to be selling less oil in other departments because of environmental initiatives.” Capitalism drives everything in our culture, and Big Oil is one of the most aggressive industries. Those are the forces we are up against, she said.

“The plastic waste crisis is horrible, but it’s not your fault. It is the fault of forces that are beyond each individual person’s control. This is corporations. This is Big Oil.”

She mentioned that personal responsibility is not the sole solution, but that awareness is the key. Films such as The Story of Plastic, which highlights the global problem of the people whose lives are negatively affected by our waste; videos of a sea turtle with a straw in its nose; and images of dead albatross with stomachs full of plastics are disturbing. But they are powerful because they raise awareness.

Dead Laysan Albatross with plastic at Harbor Sand Island, Midway Atoll.
Dead Laysan Albatross with plastic in its stomach at Harbor Sand Island, Midway Atoll. March 31, 2015. Photo by Forest and Kim Starr on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0 US).

Recycling

Single-stream recycling is a lie, especially when it comes to plastic, the author acknowledged. Knowing that the plastic recycling rate is only 5% is crushing, because people try so hard to do it properly and follow the rules. Yet, most plastic is landfilled. “Every other material has a place to go and has a way to break down. Or be made into something new.” Schaub said that after five decades of recycling, “five percent is the best we can do?!? That’s shocking.”

Single-stream (curbside) recycling often collects plastics with RIC numbers 1-7. But most of those (#3-7) are not recycled and end up in developing countries. “If I know that my plastic is being shipped to Malaysia and Myanmar and Thailand, I’m going to be hesitant to put it in recycling at all because I know that that’s the system in place,” she explained. “These are our plastics that are being shipped across the sea to litter the landscapes of developing nations that do not have the infrastructure to deal with it. You literally have children playing in our waste plastic. And the list of countries is long…these people are living in our trash plastic…this is an environmental justice issue. This is racism.” We have the impression that we are doing a wonderful thing when we put plastic in the recycling bin instead of the landfill, but that is unfortunately sometimes false.

“In the name of recycling, countries around the world are suffering.”

Smiling child garbage recycler in Saigon, holding a bag with cans from companies like Coca-Cola.
Child garbage recycler in Saigon, holding a bag with cans from companies like Coca-Cola. Photo by etoile on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC-BY 2.0).

The Role of Corporations and Industries

I asked Schaub: “How do we get these corporations to do the right thing? Because at every turn, like you talk about in your book, they’re looking for a new stream of revenue. How do we get them to stop?” Schaub responded, “Well, they won’t stop, because financially, it doesn’t make sense for them to stop. So we can’t really turn to the corporations too much. I mean, we can try.” But they are always going to put profits first. For example, Coca-Cola has been making environmental promises for decades. But they don’t actually fulfill those promises, “because there’s no sheriff in town,” she said. There are no entities that make sure companies fulfill their promises when it comes to plastic and other environmental endeavors.

“We need more transparency…we need to have a sheriff.”

Schaub observed that industries often put the responsibility on the consumer, in that we shouldn’t buy those things, or that we don’t recycle properly. But it is the industry that should be making better products. “There are a lot of parallels between plastic and sugar, actually. It all comes down to something that’s cheap and it’s easy and it’s convenient and that’s why it’s everywhere, in the case of both of those things…The industry does not have an incentive to do better.” There is an illusion of choice for the consumer as well. There may be 30 types of bread at the supermarket but only one of them will not have added sugar in it. The same is true with plastic. “Try buying cheese without buying plastic. It’s incredibly hard!” Schaub is right – I’ve never been able to buy plastic-free cheese, anywhere.

“Personal responsibility is very important, [and] personal awareness. But if I go buy a bamboo toothbrush and a shampoo bar, that’s good, but it’s not going to fix the overall systemic cultural problem that we’re encountering.”

Legislation May Be the Most Important Focus

Schaub says turning to legislation is perhaps more important than asking corporations to change. She said that proposed bills such as The Break Free from Pollution Act and the United Nations Plastic Pollution Treaty, as well as state and local legislation, show us progress. There are plastic bag and plastic straw bans where she lives, and there is even a charge for paper grocery bags in Vermont. “This is the low-hanging fruit. You have to start somewhere,” she said. (I didn’t tell her that my state, Tennessee, has a law banning bans on plastic and polystyrene containers.) The hope is that more states and municipalities will do the sensible thing. “The more we ask, the more available it will become.” Asking puts in your vote as a consumer!

Diet Coke bottle floating in water.
Diet Coke plastic bottle floating in a body of water. Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay.

Toxic Chemicals

Plastic packaging is often full of toxins that can leach into many things, including food and beverages. “Avoid plastic packaging especially when it comes to food whenever you can. And definitely do not heat your food in plastic,” Schaub said. Don’t put plastic in the dishwasher because the heat releases the toxic chemicals in plastic, and most of the time we don’t know what’s in those plastics.

“It’s amazing to me that when you go to the supermarket, and you buy a food product, they have to tell you what’s in that food…But nobody has any obligation to tell you what’s in the packaging. That’s another instance of where we assume that ‘well, this has to be safe,'” she said. But they may not be! There are so many chemicals and the formulas are often proprietary and secret. “Plastic and food need to stay way the heck away from each other, as much as possible.”

“It’s one thing when you’re talking about ‘the ice caps are melting and the polar bears are starving,’ and nobody likes that – that’s bad! But when you start putting toxic chemicals into my body, suddenly I’m paying even more attention…or, when you’re talking about putting those same chemicals into the bodies of my children…I think that’s probably what it’s going to take, is for people to start understanding that connection between plastics and our health, and all the negative effects that can be correlated. The same thing with sugar. When you start connecting the dots, it’s very alarming. And of course, sugar and plastic are so often used in conjunction, from candy bars to all the soda, it’s like they are best friends!”

Box with variety of plastic-wrapped candy bars.
Most candy bars are wrapped in plastic. Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash.

Avoiding Garbage Changes The Way We Purchase

I asked Schaub what items she’d stopped buying because of Year of No Garbage. She laughed, “I had quite a love affair with paper towels. I was the person who went to the supermarket every week and bought the largest bale, like a hay bale, of paper towels.” She explained that sometimes the large bales have individually plastic-wrapped rolls in addition to the outer plastic wrap. “Horrible! But I realized that there were so many times that I could avoid using paper towels very simply, by just having dish towels on hand…or I’ve got rags that I’ve made from cutting up really old towels or sheets. That’s what I use for cleaning now…and I get a great sense of satisfaction out of that…I have incorporated [it] into my life, it’s part of my routine now. So now I just do it without even thinking about it. It does take some effort to set up a new routine. And there is discomfort in that.”

But it was manageable. And she still uses paper towels but significantly less. “I went from going through a hay bale of paper towels every week to now, I buy one roll at a time, and I’ll have it for weeks.” If you don’t want to use a certain item, like paper towels or sugar, the best thing to do is to avoid bringing them into your home. That will automatically discourage use.

Avoiding Plastics

Schaub and I agree that it’s best to avoid plastics whenever possible. And when you do have to buy something with plastic, it’s almost better to put them into the landfill than to try to recycle them. “I feel like that’s a much more honest approach. If I have something that’s going to go to the landfill, I’m just going to put it right in there and accept that’s the only thing that can happen to this piece of plastic…but knowing that will now cause me to be ever more vigilant to try and avoid buying that product,” she said.

For me, that has been items such as bottled shampoo, plastic straws, and plastic shower curtains. Once I became aware of the problems with those things, I stopped bringing them into my home. We switched to shampoo bars and have never reverted back to liquid shampoo. We don’t need a straw for most drinks; when we do, we have metal straws. And though I’ve had my trials and tribulations with fabric shower curtains, I have not had a plastic one in the house for 10 years. As for paper towels, I also use very few and the ones I purchase are plastic-free.

Year of No Garbage book cover

Normalizing Environmental Actions

I was telling Schaub that I routinely keep two clean glass containers in my car with my cloth shopping bags. This way, if I’m at a restaurant and want to take my leftovers home I can do so without having my food touch toxic Styrofoam (polystyrene). But while bringing your own bags to the supermarket is common now, bringing my glass containers to a restaurant is still kind of weird to people. She affirmed, “I think this is all about normalizing it, right? If somebody is standing next to you when you go and use that container at the butcher or the restaurant, they see you doing that and they go ‘Huh! That’s interesting.’ And it starts the process of becoming more normal. And that’s a wonderful thing we can do. We’re not just helping ourselves, we’re progressing this whole idea forward.”

“Awareness is the beginning of all meaningful change.”

Glass container with bamboo lid, white background.
Glass container with bamboo lid from IKEA.

Living Intentionally

Schaub said that all three projects permanently changed how her family lives and consumes in the world. This is because they can’t ‘unknow’ the information they’ve learned. She also liked the symmetry of the three projects because she felt like her family came full circle. “We started with the things that we put into our bodies, and then I focused on the things we bring into our homes, and then lastly I focused on the things that we’re putting into the environment, which, guess what – spoiler alert – because they’re in the environment, they’re now coming around and going back into our bodies as well. And so now we’re finding microplastics in foods because it’s in the dirt! It’s in the produce! It’s in the tap water and the bottled water! These microplastics don’t go away…[plastic] never breaks down.” It turns into microscopic plastic pieces. “But it’s still there, and that’s the stuff that’s going into our bodies as well as into the environment,” she maintained.

Our culture is so busy but when we slow down, we can be more thoughtful and more intentional, including with our resources. She wrote, “As it turns out—and I’m as surprised as anyone about this—living No Sugar, No Clutter and No Garbage all led to the same place: living thoughtfully…Being thoughtful about your space, your resources, your food, where the objects of our life come from and where they all go; devoting the time to put those ideals into practice: getting objects to people who will love and use them, recycling and reusing, cooking as much as possible from basic ingredients.”3

Cardboard sign with black painted letters with sky in background: "All You Need Is Less."
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash.

Read Year of No Garbage

Schaub’s goal is to spread information and provide people with more information so that they can incorporate it into their lives in a way that makes sense for them. She said that some people read Year of No Garbage and find it an entertaining story. For other readers, it might change everything about the way they shop and discard and recycle. She doesn’t want people to feel shame because guilt isn’t going to make anything better. These are urgent issues and we need to come together. Her book incorporates these ideas, so be sure to check it out!

If you are interested in purchasing Year of No Garbage or any of Schaub’s other works, you can find links on her website.

Read my book review, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Book, Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, by Eve O. Schaub, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2023

Video, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” Education, Dr. Robert H. Lustig, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, May 26, 2009.

Documentary, “Fed Up,” 2014.

Video, “Plastic Straw Removed From A Sea Turtle’s Nostril (Short Version),” The Leatherback Trust, August 13, 2015.

Website, About The Story of Plastic film.

Footnotes:

Book Review: Year of No Garbage by Eve O. Schaub

Year of No Garbage book cover

“Trash is America’s number one export.”

I recently had the pleasure of reading Year of No Garbage by Eve O. Schaub. The book is a great source of well-researched information regarding the huge problems surrounding our waste crisis. I found myself laughing out loud at the many humorous and relatable stories, which help make very real topics like plastic pollution feel more approachable. Especially when those topics can be so complex and depressing!

Overflowing 'Litter' bin with trash piled in front of it, a crowd of people in background.
Photo by Paul Schellekens on Unsplash.

“Our garbage is everywhere, all around us, in our very bodies, and we don’t even realize it. Microplastics have been found in humans’ blood, lungs, the placenta of unborn children, and, most recently, breast milk.”

Garbage is a Problem For Everyone

Garbage doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else.

Even the most extreme environmentalists and zero-wasters have found objects for which there is no way to upcycle, recycle, or reuse. Nobody knows what to do with them, so they must go in the garbage. Many environmentalists often don’t talk about these types of items, but Schaub puts those stories front and center.

For example, in Year of No Garbage, she included a hilarious story about a Styrofoam-filled beanbag that her cats had peed on. There was no saving or repurposing it so she had to trash it. Her husband thought her blog readers would ‘crucify’ her for having something like this that was dumpster-bound. But she thought this was the point entirely! “I mean, I have to talk about this, right? This is what the whole thing is about. I mean: look at this. Things like this should not exist.”

The stuff – meaning the plastics and Styrofoams and disposables – pervades every part of our lives. It is almost impossible to not come in contact with them constantly. In fact, Shaub tried just going a single day without touching plastic and found it nearly impossible. That is, she had to avoid the toilet, the soap dispenser, her cell phone, pen, computer, yoga mat, light switches, etc. “I couldn’t drive anywhere, because cars are 50 percent plastic. This was probably just as well, because I also couldn’t wear my glasses.” Even books and magazines often have a plastic coating on the covers. On her blog, she commented:

“I still hate plastic and everything it is doing to us, but this impossible day gave me a newfound understanding of what we are really up against. Who knew that in only a few short decades our society could have so thoroughly encased ourselves in mysterious plastic chemicals, to the point that doing without them immobilizes us? Recently I had happened upon an article in the New York Times, ‘Life Without Plastic Is Possible. It’s Just Very Hard.’ I beg to differ—and I speak from experience.”1

Black garbage bag sitting in front of a door next to a pair of slip-on shoes.
Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash.

Recycling 

One way the author attempted to reduce her family’s garbage was to recycle everything she could. But this wasn’t easy as just throwing it in a blue bin. One of the chapter titles, “I Become the Sherlock Holmes of Recycling . . . or at Least Watson,” referred to the vast amounts of research it took to recycle many items. “There are so many things about recycling that we just don’t know, that prevent us from doing it correctly and efficiently, and I was pretty much spending every waking moment trying to figure them all out.”

Plastic’s rate of recycling used to be just 9%, but has fallen even lower to between 5 and 6 percent. And that’s typically only plastics with a resin code of 1 or 2. The rest is often shipped off to other countries, where they often do not have the infrastructure to deal with these plastics. “No matter what your garbage service provider is telling you, numbers 3, 4, 6, and 7 are not getting recycled.”

Schaub noted that recycling programs are flawed and often don’t work. That includes everything from single-stream/curbside to extreme recycling programs like TerraCycle. “But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. What I am giving up on is the myth of personal responsibility…it took me an entire year of looking and asking and researching to finally accept what so many have long suspected…Plastic recycling does not work. Extreme ‘recycling’ programs are not trustworthy.” She wrote that legislation (with enforcement) regarding plastics, chemicals, and waste will be what makes the most difference. That is how we can get corporations to make better products and packaging, as well as use less toxic ingredients.

“Before the Year of No Garbage, did I love that I could buy a package of lovely, sealed, organic ground beef at the supermarket that would keep good for much, much longer than other, mere mortal organic ground beef? Of course—it’s convenient and efficient. It reduces food waste and saves money. Longer shelf life probably even made my supermarket more likely to carry organic meat in the first place. But where Intergalactic Space Plastic reduces waste of food, it creates waste of something arguably even worse: permanent, forever garbage. At least wasted food, if composted, can degrade back into the environment.”

A seagull at a body of water with trash in its mouth.
A seagull with trash in its mouth. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

Garbage Reduction

There are so many things that most of us absent-mindedly throw away because we don’t know what else to do with them. This book teaches us to think about trash differently – whether we recycle, give items a second life, or avoid buying certain items in the first place.

Schaub’s family was able to greatly reduce their garbage, mostly by paying closer attention to what they bought. They made incremental changes, such as “eliminating paper towels, instituting a burn pile for small and unrecyclable paper, collecting wine corks and plastic caps to donate for school craft projects, composting all food scraps (not just some),” collecting plastic film for the bin at the supermarket, washing and recycling their aluminum foil, and avoiding the purchase of disposable items as much as possible.

Schaub recommended not using garbage bags. “Garbage bags are black holes, I realized. They encourage things to be thrown in them, things we’d rather not think about or deal with. Not having a bag in the bin means no messy organic material (which should really all be going into the compost anyway) but it also means, when I empty it, that’s one more time I think about my garbage and what it is composed of.” She uses pet food bags to bring trash to the dump.

“Instead of that ninety-six-gallon trash bin we used to fill each and every week, today we fill one-half of a kitchen-sized garbage bag every week, always composed pretty much entirely of single-use plastic food packaging that I couldn’t figure out how to avoid. We have gone from 96 gallons of trash per week to 9.”

Three waste bins in green, red, and yellow: Compost, Waste, and Recycling respectively.
Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash.

Zero Waste Is Extremely Difficult

“There’s a lot of stuff out there masquerading as useful and sustainable, when it’s really just more stuff…As the Zero Wasters like to say, the most environmental purchase is the one you didn’t make.”

It is very difficult to go completely zero waste in our modern society. “Zero waste is a lovely idea,” Schaub wrote. But “the number of people who are both willing and able to genuinely go full bore zero waste under our existing system is so small as to be statistically insignificant. Which means, effectively, that even though it is technically possible, it is not realistic. And it’s not going to fix anything.” Fossil fuel companies are the biggest drivers of emissions and plastics production. They don’t have any plans to put themselves out of business.

But we have to keep trying.

“I’m not suggesting that just because personal responsibility will not solve the problems of garbage and plastic and climate change, we should all just throw in the towel. Forget it! Hand me that plastic straw! Turtles be damned! No. What I’m saying is that personal behavior changes are never going to be enough all on their own, because the forces at work are so enormous.”

Black trash can with trash items sitting on top of it and on the ground around it.
Photo by the blowup on Unsplash.

Intentionality

Schaub wrote that being intentional is key to making any great change, whether it is at home or through legislation. We can all do better if we know better. We can all become more intentional in our lives. This is one of the greatest lessons we can learn from minimalism even if we are not minimalists. She wrote:

“If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, it follows that living mindfully gives us purpose. I hope my kids will live life with a sense of curiosity about the world and our place in it. I hope that if something doesn’t seem right, they’ll know that blind acceptance is not their only option; that even if one person might not be able to solve the problems of the environment, global warming, racial and environmental injustice, we can start the conversation, change minds, reveal a wrong, by the simple act of slowing down and taking a closer look.”

Read the Year of No Garbage!

I highly recommend reading this book! It’s fun, interesting, and full of well-researched information and first-hand experiences. A Year of No Garbage resonated so much with me because I have run into many of the same roadblocks and situations with plastics and garbage. I have struggled with replacing my plastic shower curtain with non-plastic. It was difficult to find alternatives to take-out containers made from Styrofoam (polystyrene) because of their toxicity. I also stopped paying for garbage bags and now just reuse dog food bags or I upcycled my own from shipping envelopes.

Understanding some of the problems surrounding waste in our society is the key to being able to change it. Schaub wrote, “As I’d learned with our other two projects, even when you are supposedly ‘done,’ you are not done at all. In fact, in some ways, that is when the hardest work begins. After all, the whole point of the crazy year-long project is to change how we do things so dramatically that it changes us.”

I had the opportunity to interview Eve O. Schaub, and I look forward to sharing that with you in my next article! In the meantime, you can check out her blog. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

All quotes from this article are from Year of No Garbage: Recycling Lies, Plastic Problems, and One Woman’s Trashy Journey to Zero Waste, by Eve O. Schaub, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2023, unless otherwise cited.

Update: Death of a Plastic Shower Curtain, Part 3

Last updated on March 27, 2023.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the death of my vinyl plastic shower curtain liner, and my decision to never buy plastic liners again. Plastic liners off-gas toxic chemicals in your home and the curtains can end up in the ocean after disposal. I tried using the fabric curtain without a liner, but it quickly grew mildew and mold and after washing it several times, it started to fall apart. So in my second post, I repaired it and then coated the bottom half of the curtain (where the most moisture accumulates) with Otter Wax.

This, however, was a complete failure.

The cloth curtain grew mildew and mold even quicker, and to the point that I could no longer clean it. I don’t know if I spread the Otter Wax unevenly or just didn’t apply enough onto the fabric. It seemed that the nooks and crannies of the fabric weave held in moisture easier. Perhaps Otter Wax was not meant to prevent mold growth in fabric that is constantly in a warm, moist environment.

Cloth shower curtain with mildew growth

Cloth shower curtain with mildew growth

No More Plastic

I refuse to give up and go back to vinyl/plastic shower curtain liners. Since first writing about my shower curtain pursuit in 2018, I have learned a lot about the chemical compositions of plastics and how they adversely affect human health. Captain Charles Moore wrote about this subject in his book, Plastic Ocean:

“Who doesn’t know that potent ‘plasticky’ smell that somehow we’ve come to associate with ‘new’ and ‘clean’?”

He cited a 2008 study that quantified fumes off-gassing from PVC shower curtains, in which they logged 108 chemicals, mostly volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates. “Prolonged exposure to these chemicals is associated with respiratory irritation, headaches, nausea, and potential harm to the liver, the kidneys, and the central nervous system. They can also cause cancer.” There are now many studies about off-gassing plastics and they all indicate the same health problems.

Failing Forward

If you’ll recall from my second post, the gray cloth shower curtain was intended to be used with a plastic liner and not meant to withstand daily use without one. So I learned to invest in a better cloth shower curtain, one intended to be used solely. The lower cost of plastic shower curtains is not worth the environmental consequences nor the risks to my family’s health. I decided to purchase a hemp canvas shower curtain. Hemp fabrics inhibit mold and mildew growth which makes them a great option for shower curtains. It was expensive but it was the best option for our home. I’ve had it for just over one year now, and I will share my trials and errors with you.

Hemp shower curtain in package

Cloth shower curtains require special care

Overall, I like this shower curtain, but it is not perfect. We adjusted the curtain rod because this curtain was much longer than our old shower curtain. But then the first time I washed and dried it, the curtain shrunk by about 7 inches! So again, we had to adjust the shower curtain rod, which again marked up the walls. I learned that it is best to simply wash it in the machine and rehang it to dry.

The hemp shower curtain came with specific care instructions, and although they appeared unprofessional, I tried to follow them. We draw the curtain outside of the shower to let it dry out after every shower. But I do not launder it weekly. I have had some mold growth so I have boiled it in hot water to kill it per the instructions and that seemed to work.

Hemp shower curtain instructions

However, upon writing this post, I discovered that the instructions have been updated on the website and are different from the ones I received in the package. They now recommend washing it every few weeks instead of weekly. If mold appears, they suggest washing the shower curtain with half a cup of Borax and/or oxygen bleach in the machine on the delicate cycle. Last, they indicate to hang dry it – I wish I’d known that before drying it in the dryer and thus shrinking it that first time!

Hemp shower curtain in bathroom
This is the hemp curtain as of this writing. You can see slight discoloration at the bottom but I don’t find it all that noticeable.

Shopping for Shower Curtains

Obviously, stay away from plastic shower curtains, including plastic-derived fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and microfiber. These synthetics can cause as much environmental damage as vinyl, especially when laundered. Some of these “fabric” polyester curtains even contain chemicals to make the plastic fabric water-repellent. Ingredients such as perfluorooctane sulfonate, a chemical known to cause cancer and has a Proposition 65 warning, are just one example I found on Kohls’ website. If you do happen to find a cotton and “chemical-free” shower curtain at a department store, these almost always recommend using a liner with the curtain, defeating the purpose of switching to a fabric shower curtain. I’ve found examples of those on Target’s website.

Look for hemp or a hemp cotton blend. If you can’t find a hemp curtain in your price range, get a cotton curtain so that you can wash it regularly. Read the fine print you know exactly what type of fabric it is. Check the details as some fabric curtains have a disclaimer such as, “recommend using with a shower curtain liner.” This often indicates that the curtain cannot withstand constant water exposure and will not last very long. Also, read the reviews to help determine durability and quality.

Another option is reclaimed sailcloth, which I mentioned in a previous post. This is what I’d like to purchase someday as long as I can find one made of authentic, reclaimed sailcloth. These generally run in the $200-$300 range and I frankly cannot afford one right now.

Reclaimed sailcloth shower curtain
Reclaimed sailcloth shower curtain, from Etsy. Photo by seller

Conclusion

Other than having glass doors professionally installed, I’m not sure there is a perfect replacement for a plastic shower curtain. Although a better option than plastic by far, the mold-resistant hemp canvas shower curtain is not perfect. This curtain does not round or cover the ends of the shower the way a plastic curtain does, so some water gets out and we have to clean up small amounts of water on the walls and floors after each shower.

Unfortunately, the curtain has begun to deteriorate the fabric on the bottom section where it gets the wettest and where mold grows. I think I’m going to hem it where the holes are rather than trying to patch it. It might be my fault for not laundering it often enough. But I guess I was hoping for more durability for the amount I paid for it. Still, this is the best solution I have at this time, so I will continue with this curtain. If I have to do something different, I’ll be sure to update this post with a Part 4!

Corner of curtain, falling apart
One corner of the curtain is starting to fall apart. It is also not very noticeable.

I hope that this short series has been helpful and saved you some time and effort. Thanks for reading and please subscribe. I’d love to hear about your experience so please leave me a comment below!

Update: Death of a Plastic Shower Curtain, Part 2

Last updated on December 3, 2020.

If you read my previous article about the death of my plastic shower curtain liner, you’ll recall that my goal was to find a plastic-free alternative. First, I decided that we would try getting by with only the cloth shower curtain. And I told you I’d update you on how that went!

The Shower Curtain

I purchased the cloth shower curtain at Bed Bath & Beyond back in 2015. As I mentioned before, I also had a plastic liner to protect it. The cloth one is made of 100% cotton and listed as machine washable on their website. But it also indicated “liner not included,” meaning it was intended to be a  decorative curtain, protected by a separate liner. I think I knew that at the time I purchased it, but back then I thought I would always have a plastic/vinyl shower curtain liner.

However, the shower curtain has not withstood daily use in the shower and two subsequent washing machine cycles. The curtain got very dark and dingy with a few mold spots. After I washed it the first time in the washing machine, I noticed some small holes and areas where the fabric was starting to deteriorate. But I rehung it for a couple of more months and it got gross again.

Image shows the bottom section of the dingy shower curtain.
Image shows the bottom section of the dingy shower curtain.
Close-up image of the mold spots and dinginess.
Close-up image of the mold spots and dinginess.

Washing the Shower Curtain

This week, it was time to wash it again. In recent weeks, I discovered Otter Wax, which is a waterproofing wax made of different waxes, including beeswax. This product does not contain paraffin, silicone, or other petroleum-based synthetic ingredients. So I ordered some and planned to waterproof my shower curtain.

Image of the Otter Wax I purchased.

The instructions are clear that the fabric item must be cleaned and dried, but also be able to cure for 24 hours. Since we only have one shower, I had to time this perfectly around three people’s daily use of the shower. I took it down after the last shower one morning this week and worked on it right away to make sure I had enough time.

The night before I pre-treated it by spraying 3% hydrogen peroxide on the inside of the curtain, to deal with the mold spots. (I avoid using bleach whenever possible because of its toxicity, and I keep reading that bleach just changes the color of mold and doesn’t actually kill it.) I let it sit on the curtain for a while and rinsed it off later. It did not make any visible difference but I had hoped it killed the mold.

I put 3% hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle.
I put 3% hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle.

Next, I put it in the washing machine on the casual cycle (which is supposed to be gentler during the spin cycle than the regular cycle). But here’s what happened!

Image of the damaged shower curtain.
This is the damaged shower curtain. Thankfully the damage was isolated to the bottom portion of the curtain.

Oh, dear.

My initial thought was that I would have to purchase a new hemp shower curtain. But money is tight these days, so I decided not to give up on this curtain just yet!

Reparations

Damage this bad cannot be mended or patched up. My only option was to hem the shower curtain. I needed to cut off 7 inches (up to the highest points of the damaged areas) and then I used a half-inch folded twice to make a new bottom hem. This meant I was going to lose a total of 8 inches off the bottom.

I cut, pinned, and then held it up to the shower curtain rod to see if it would still be long enough before I completed it. It seemed fine and the curtain rod is adjustable, so I went ahead and hemmed the curtain.

Trimming the shower curtain.
Trimming the shower curtain.
Pinning the hem.
Pinning the hem.
The final hem.
The final hem.

Waterproofing

The last step was to apply the Otter Wax on the fabric, which took some elbow grease. I only ended up having enough wax to do the lower half of the shower curtain (and just enough time before going to work that day). My bar is only the size of a pat of butter now!

Full bar of Otter Wax before I began.
Full bar of Otter Wax before I began.
My tiny leftover piece after completion.
My tiny leftover piece after completion.

After it was coated, I allowed about 22 hours to cure. I left it out on my dining room table at room temperature. The next morning, my husband and I hung it back up. We did have to lower the shower curtain rod a couple of inches (which lightly damaged the paint, so I’ll have to touch that up this weekend). But the shorter length is not that noticeable.

Cleaned, repaired, and re-hung: a second life for this shower curtain.
Cleaned, repaired, and re-hung: a second life for this shower curtain.

The next step

It’s not perfectly coated, so I may need to apply another layer. For now, I’m going to see how it repels water. I followed the instructions on the paper label, but I’ve since watched YouTube videos about how others use OtterWax. Some users recommended using a hairdryer on low to make the wax easier to spread onto the fabric. Others recommended ironing the entire piece on low after rubbing the bar into the fabric. This is the option I will try should I need to make it more waterproof.

I hope this post was helpful! Have you had any struggles going plastic-free with a shower curtain? Leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!

Please check out Part 3 in this series. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

All images in this post were taken by Marie Cullis.