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.

Trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina

All photos in this article were taken by me. All Rights Reserved.

The beach off of NC 12, near Black Pelican Beach, just north of Avon, NC.
The beach off of NC 12, near Black Pelican Beach, just north of Avon, NC.

This year, we visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I’d only ever been there once, in 2003, just before Hurricane Isabel altered parts of the barrier islands. We enjoyed the landscapes, the nature reserves, the wildlife, the quaint towns, and of course, the beaches.

Natural Beauty

The Outer Banks are a string of barrier islands that span and protect nearly the entire coast of North Carolina. As an Outer Banks Guide explained, “They are made entirely of sand, without the keel of rock that anchors most islands firmly to the earth. It is a fascinat­ingly evanescent phenomenon in geological terms, a landform so transient that changes are visible from year to year.”1 Though there is a lot of development, there are vast natural areas, preserves, dunes, and beaches. We saw inspiring sun rises on the ocean side and gorgeous sunsets on the sound side.

Sunset over the sound, taken from the Duck Town Park Boardwalk with a dock at center.
Sunset over the sound, taken from the Duck Town Park Boardwalk, Duck, NC.

Wildlife

There were more birds and crabs than I can list, as well as deer and other animals. Pelicans seemed to enjoy showing off their graceful glide just inches above the sea. Sandpipers and terns poked into the sand seeking food. A few times, I sat really still on the beach when there weren’t a lot of people around, and I became surrounded by ghost crabs! The Outer Banks have laws and protected areas for wildlife throughout the islands. They restricted humans from some places to protect bird nests:

We even saw sea turtle tracks!

Sea turtle tracks on the sand.
Sea turtle tracks at Oregon Inlet, NC.

But sadly, we also found a dead sea turtle. We visited an area called Oregon Inlet and had a picnic snack on the beach. Then we walked along the beach and picked up trash.

The beach along Oregon Inlet, seaweed and shells dot the edge of the water.
The beach along Oregon Inlet, NC.

In the distance, I could see something big with orange stripes and wasn’t sure what it was until we got right up to it. Once I realized that it was a deceased sea turtle, I cried. I don’t know what caused its death, but I was sorry that it had lost its life. When I went to report the turtle, I discovered that spray paint markings like these indicate that this turtle had already been reported. Scientists document the animal’s species, sex, and age, and also extract genetic material to study and to better understand those species.

Dead sea turtle with orange spray paint lines on the sand.
Deceased sea turtle with orange spray paint markings.

The National Park Service has many sites in the Outer Banks, including several lighthouses and the Wright Brothers National Memorial, and they had one on Ocracoke Island that offered sea turtle education. My son learned a lot from the rangers and their exhibit.

My son listened to the National Park Service employees and learned about sea turtle nesting on the Outer Banks.
My son listened to the National Park Service rangers and learned about sea turtle nesting on the Outer Banks. National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island.
Sea turtle nesting exhibit at the National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island. Turtle shells, figurines, a skull, and signage on a table.
Sea turtle nesting exhibit at the National Park Service site on Ocracoke Island.

Trash

As usual for my family, we picked up litter and beachcombed. Following are three of the piles we accumulated, containing a range of items – bottles of sunscreen, pieces of toys, Styrofoam/polystyrene, pieces of nylon rope, fireworks debris, food wrappers, plastic bags and film, and many, many small pieces of plastic. I uploaded images of each individual item into the Litterati app.

Pile of collected trash.

Pile of collected trash.

Pile of collected trash.

As you can see, we found quite a variety of items, some recognizable and some not! Some of these items likely washed up on the beach from other places or fell off of boats, but others were obviously left behind. It’s so important to remember to leave the beach cleaner than you found it! Plastic pollution exponentially increases annually and is harming everything in the food chain, including humans.

Below are a few of my favorite finds – a broken green-haired plastic mermaid, a fishermen’s glove, and two missile-shaped diving weights that we ended up using and keeping!

I also found these goggles, which at first I thought someone had dropped. But upon closer examination, I noticed that these had been in the ocean long enough to grow barnacles:

Jennette’s Pier

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Located in Nags Head, NC, and used for sightseeing and fishing, this pier is unique. It was originally built in 1939 by the Jennette family, hence the name. The North Carolina Aquarium Society bought it in 2003 with the intention of building an educational outpost for the Aquarium, but Hurricane Isabel severely damaged the pier later that same year. The Aquarium rebuilt the 1000-foot-long, concrete pier with educational panels throughout and it reopened in 2011.2 It is LEED certified and has 3 wind turbines:

""Harnessing

Wind turbine, looking from the bottom, almost straight up. Sky in background.
Wind turbine at Jennette’s Pier.

They had exhibit panels on birds and marine mammals and shorebirds, such as this one:

"Sea Turtle Rescue" sign explaining how sea turtles are rescued.
“Sea Turtle Rescue” sign at Jennette’s Pier.

They had others on many topics, including surfing, ocean processes, fishing, and trash. In fact, they had sponsored recycling stations for items like cigarette butts and fishing line:

PVC tube recycling station for fishing line.
Recycling station for fishing line.
PVC tube recycling station for cigarette butts.
Recycling station for cigarette butts, to be recycled by TerraCycle.

The Pier House features a small, free series of North Carolina Aquariums interactive exhibits. I highly recommend visiting this pier if you’re ever on the Outer Banks!

My son standing in front of one of the North Carolina Aquarium exhibit tanks, with fish at top.
My son standing in front of one of the North Carolina Aquarium exhibit tanks.

Other Cool Finds

Outer Banks Brewing Station

We ate at this brewery and restaurant, which was once featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. While we went to several good restaurants, I’m featuring this one because it uses wind energy! It was the first wind-powered brewery in the United States, and the first business to produce wind power on the Outer Banks. They use 100% of the turbine’s energy to supplement their electricity. Over the course of its operating life (at least 30 years), this 10 kW Bergey GridTek system will offset approximately 1.2 tons of air pollutants and 250 tons of greenhouse gases.3 Oh, and we enjoyed the food and brew!

My husband inside of the Outer Banks Brewing Station, with a flight of beer in front of him on a table.
My husband at the Outer Banks Brewing Station, preparing for his flight (of beer)!
Wind turbine against blue sky, at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.
Wind turbine at the Outer Banks Brewing Station.

The Surfin’ Spoon

This frozen yogurt shop in Nags Head was my son’s absolute favorite, and they also offered dairy-free ice cream treats that were delicious! This shop, owned by a former professional surfer, collects and donates money to Surfers for Autism, a non-profit that provides free surf sessions to children and adults with autism and other related developmental delays and disabilities.4

My son peeking through the Surfin' Spoon's sign.
My son peeking through the Surfin’ Spoon’s sign.

Dog friendly

Almost everywhere on the Outer Banks is super dog friendly! I found this pleasantly surprising and hope to bring our dog there someday.

Dog prints in the sand.

Overall, A Lovely Place to Travel

We saved up for this trip and felt privileged to be able to travel the Outer Banks, taking in many sights from Corolla all the way down to Emerald Isle, North Carolina. We saw several lighthouses, National Park Service sites, and other places that I didn’t have time to mention above. I highly recommend the Outer Banks for its beauty, dedication to conservation, and relaxed atmosphere. Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

My son playing on the beach in the early evening in Duck, NC.
My son playing on the beach in the early evening in Duck, NC.

 

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 13

Last updated on February 19, 2022.

Trash littered beach
Image by H. Hach from Pixabay

Welcome to this part of my Packaging series! If you read my last article, you learned about refillable options for personal care items. Today, we will look at food packaging.

I honestly cannot say enough about food packaging because there is so much encasing our foods. Sometimes this is to make packing and shipping easier. Other times, food is overpackaged to create a false sense of sanitation, as mentioned in my first article in this series. BASF, a chemical company in the business of making such packaging, argues that “good packaging can enhance the cleanness and freshness of food, while offering branding opportunities for food manufacturers.”1 This is a false notion, and plastic packaging causes more health problems than not using packaging.

In fact, a 2018 European study entitled Unwrapped: How throwaway plastic is failing to solve Europe’s food waste problem (and what we need to do instead) argued that “high levels of food and packaging waste signify inefficiencies in Europe’s food system and major failures of the economy. Rapid growth in single-use plastic packaging has not demonstrably reduced food waste in Europe, and most plastic packaging remains difficult to recycle or reuse.” The study concluded that “successful initiatives demonstrate that single-use plastic packaging is not necessary to bring quality food from farmers to consumers.”2 The U.S. has the ability to address these same issues.

“Plastic packaging is often heralded as a means of avoiding food waste but it has not provided a comprehensive solution…The use of plastic packaging, particularly single-use plastic, underpins convenience, supports an on-the-go culture and, in some cases, extends shelf-life. But packaging waste has grown alongside food waste, challenging its potential to contribute to reducing food waste.”3 

The Produce Section: Bagging

Produce in plastic bags
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The produce section is where I spend most of my time in the supermarket. When shopping produce, we are encouraged, even prompted, to bag the items. When I started going plastic-free, I bought my own reusable produce bags and continually use them at all grocery stores and farmers’ markets. You can buy bags like these, or even make your own:

Cloth mesh produce bags
Cloth mesh bag
Mesh produce bags
Mesh bags made from polyester or plastic. These aren’t ideal but they are reusable.
Cloth produce bags
Organic cotton muslin cloth bags

In her book, plastic-free expert Beth Terry notes that most fruits and vegetables have their own packaging.4 Produce like bananas, lemons, onions, garlic, and a host of others, have natural peels removed before eating. These do not require extra packaging.

Plastic bags have always been marketed to us as more sanitary. So much so, that you, dear reader, most likely cringe at the idea of not bagging your fresh produce. The truth is, that’s debatable and it comes at the cost of polluting the environments we live in. I wash most of my fruits and vegetables before I eat them anyway, whether they were bagged or not. 

Man holding unbagged produce over shopping cart
Image by CYNICALifornia from Pixabay

The Produce Section: Overpackaged

Plastic wrapping on produce can be extreme, and I’ve seen it in every type of grocery store. Such packaging is wasteful because it is so unnecessary. Here are numerous examples of overpackaged produce:

“Many single-use food contact materials, including plastics, may pose health risks to consumers due to chemical migration.”5 

Bulk Foods

Person filling jar from bulk bins at store
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

When I mention bulk purchasing, I do not mean the oversized packages of coffee, peanut butter, and toilet paper from Sam’s Club or Costco. I am referring to the bulk bins in grocery stores and other food product shops. You can fill your own containers, just have them weighed at customer service first so you are not charged for the weight of the container. You can buy foods like beans, flour, granola, candy, dried fruit, etc. from these bins. Use glass jars or reusable cloth bags and avoid packaging altogether. Also, avoid bulk foods sold in “convenient” pre-weighed plastic containers like the ones pictured below. They defeat the purpose.

Prepackaged bulk food items.
Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

There are companies nationwide that offer refillable food items, such as Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Sprouts of Colorado, Rainbow Grocery in California, and Sustainable Haus in New Jersey. You can find shops that sell bulk items by searching Zero Waste Home’s app6 or by searching Litterless.com.7

Jar filled with item from bulk bins at grocery store
My own jar that I filled at the grocery store. Photo by me

No bulk in your area?

If there are not bulk bins available in the stores where you live, you still have options. Always choose glass instead of plastic packaging, since glass is 100% recyclable and plastic is recycled at a rate of under 10%. If a Container Deposit system exists in your state, use it because it ensures a much higher recycling rate for all types of materials. Look for brands of dried pasta that do not feature a plastic window (and if you buy that, please separate the plastic from the cardboard and only recycle the latter). Reuse Ziploc bags from deli meats and cheese. Avoid individually wrapped snacks, as it’s cheaper and better for the environment to buy a larger package and separate the food into small metal containers or reusable snack bags.

Loop

Created by TerraCycle, Loop is a closed-loop model that partners with consumer brands to put products in specially-designed durable and reusable containers. This is a take-back program, or a container deposit program, which we learned about in Part 7 of my Packaging series. Here’s a two-minute video explaining the business model and one way we can solve the disposable problem:

For a while, this was only available in parts of the U.S., but now it is available nationwide. While I love this business model, it still encourages consumers to buy some of the same products without changing their habits much. As Tom Szaky mentioned in the video, “let them experience a throw-away mentality but be doing the right thing from an environmental point of view.” This does eliminate single-use disposable packages, but as a consumer culture, we need to rethink how we spend, how we buy, and what we purchase.

I have attempted to purchase items from Loop several times, but I find it expensive. I don’t mind the container deposits because I’ll get those back. But the products have an upcharge and unfortunately, I cannot fit these into my budget. This makes it inaccessible to many people who want to support the cause. The upcharge to buy products in reusable packaging should be absorbed by companies, not put on consumers.

“Reusing an object saves time, energy and resources and does away with the need for waste disposal or recycling.” -Loop

Convenience vs. Environment

Our desire for convenience, driven by marketing and busy lifestyles, is killing the environment with packaging alone. Many argue that consumers have to change the way they shop; others argue that companies must change the packaging for items consumers buy. I think both are right – companies and consumers must change. Chris Daly of PepsiCo. believes that the convenience of packaging will continue because it is less work for the consumer. “Because these habits will be slow to change, we must continue to focus on improving the packaging that consumers take home and planning better for what happens to it,” he wrote in The Future of Packaging. Additionally, stores have to implement expensive infrastructure including the bins, scales, and systems for quality control and shrinkage.

But others disagree. In a well-written article, Karine Vann wrote that the use of bulk sections in grocery stores are not maximized to their full potential.8 These sections need promotion, normalization, and stores should educate consumers on how to use them. I believe this is entirely possible! We must do all we can to eliminate packaging waste.

“To truly reduce waste, advocates believe bulk must be more than just an aisle in the store—it must become a deliberate system that starts at home and continues seamlessly into the supermarket.” -Karine Vann9

Solutions

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” —Robert Swan, author and explorer

For more ideas, refer to my page on “11 Ways to go Plastic-Free with Food.” There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging on the internet and I’ve included some articles under Additional Resources below. Last, don’t underestimate the power of growing your own food in your backyard or on your balcony.

Salad bowl with vegetables from garden
Photo by Elias Morr on Unsplash

Remember, we can all make a difference in how we consume and how we generate waste. We’re all sharing this planet and its’ beautiful and valuable resources, and we have nothing to lose by working together to create change.

If you’d like to read my Packaging series in full, please see this quick guide highlighting the contents of each article. And if you’ve already read it, I thank you and please subscribe! I’ll see you in my next post.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional resources:

Article, “How to Grocery Shop When You Can’t Bring Your Own Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated March 20, 2020. There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging when you can’t bring your own containers.

Article, “Eat your food, and the package too,” by Elizabeth Royte, National Geographic Magazine, August 2019.

Article, “The cost of plastic packaging,” by Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News, October 17, 2016.

Article, “Grocery Stores May Soon Offer Your Favorite Brands in Reusable Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated February 21, 2020. This features information about Loop.

Video, “Closing The Loop: The End of Disposable Plastics,” Fortune Magazine, June 12, 2019.

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 11

Last updated on December 23, 2023.

Water bottle refill center painted sign
Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

In my last article about the packaging industry, we explored companies with recycling built into their business models, have creative packaging, or use limited or no packaging. Today, we are going to look at refillable packaging.

Besides refilling bottles or jugs at a water refill station, other consumer refill options could make a significant impact on the amount of disposed of plastic and packaging. The idea is that you buy your products in containers that are either reusable or are returned to the company for sanitation and reuse or recycling. This eliminates disposable packaging and should be one of the major solutions to our packaging problems. I was encouraged to discover just how many companies offer refillable solutions!

“To protect the health of humans and fellow creatures who share our planet, the urgent priority must be to eliminate single-use consumer plastic, and to invest in reusable, refillable and package-free approaches.”1

Cleaning Products

Of the several types of refillable products on the market, I wanted to start with cleaners because they are the easiest to refill. Most cleaning products are made of about 90% water and almost all are sold in single-use disposable plastic bottles or pouches. Additionally, most major brand cleaners are full of harsh chemicals, toxic ingredients, and phthalates (“fragrance”). To make matters worse, in the United States companies are not required to list their ingredients on the label. So what can we do to get away from harmful products that are in disposable packaging? It turns out, there are lots of options!

I have not tried many of these products because I make my own Easy DIY Cleaner that I use for windows, counters, floors, and bathrooms. But I am still looking at options for liquid dish soap, laundry products, personal use items, and food items that have plastic-free packaging and non-toxic ingredients.

Supermarket aisle with cleaning productsSupermarket aisle with cleaning products. Photo by me

Fillaree

I discovered Fillaree earlier this year, and I love their business model.2 They sell liquid dish soap, cleaners, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and other products. You buy your first bottle and when you run out, you can bring it back to the store to refill. Their products are sold in stores, many in North Carolina where they’re based but also in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. If you don’t live near a store that sells their products, as I do not, they have a mail program for their dish soap, hand soap, and all-purpose cleaner. No packaging waste! Here’s a Fillaree chart showing how it works:

Fillaree mail in refillables chart

I’ve recently purchased their products and tried their mail-in program. The liquid dish soap comes in a glass pump bottle and the refill comes in a plastic jug that you mail back in a prepaid envelope for the company to reuse. This is an ideal system. I will fully review their products in a future post – but I can tell you that so far, it’s very easy to use. It’s just a little expensive.

Meliora Cleaning Products

Meliora banner plastic free packaging

Meliora Cleaning Products is a Certified B Corporation that makes non-toxic cleaners and detergents that are sold in plastic-free refillable packaging.3 Their All-Purpose Cleaner and the refill container can make 18 bottles. They sell powdered laundry detergent in steel and cardboard containers. You can buy refills in recyclable/compostable paper bags and have no plastic waste. I’m excited about this company! I tried their laundry detergent and oxygen cleaner and I like their products. You can read more about Non-Toxic & Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents.

Supernatural

Supernatural starter set with glass bottles and vials

This company uses all-natural essential oil blends for all of their cleaning products, with no chemicals.4 The customer mixes the solutions with water in reusable glass spray bottles. Supernatural’s products ship in glass vials and all items ship with only cardboard packaging. No plastic waste! “When I conceived Supernatural it was out of a desire to create something that’s never been made before: all-natural cleaning products that are sustainably sourced, with the lowest carbon footprint possible, that smell unbelievably amazing,” wrote the founder. They also sell aromatherapy products using essential oil blends.

Blueland

Blueland's products image

With a mission to stop plastic waste and pollution by selling cleaning products in reusable containers, Blueland sells reusable bottles and concentrated refills. Their products have no toxic ingredients, are vegan, and cruelty-free. They ship with all recyclable and/or compostable packaging.5

As I was writing this, Blueland announced that they are doing away with PVA in their laundry tabs! PVA is an acronym for polyvinyl alcohol, which is a petroleum-based plastic that dissolves in water but the plastic stays in the water system. It is commonly used as a wrapper for convenient pre-measured amounts of dishwasher and laundry detergent tabs. They are allegedly dissolvable and biodegradable, but recent studies confirm that all of the plastic does not break down. “PVA does not fully biodegrade in most wastewater treatment facilities. This can potentially result in an estimated 60-82% of intact, PVA particles released into our oceans, rivers and canals,” the company states. Blueland now sells naked laundry detergent tabs. This is a really big deal, and I’m even more excited about this company now!

ThreeMain

ThreeMain product line

This company’s mission is to eliminate plastic packaging in household cleaning products. Sold in aluminum containers and refillable, the company does not appear to use plastic packaging for shipping. They use limited ingredients and list all of them on their website. They are also a carbon-neutral company. The company does use plastic refill pouches but they will reclaim these to send to TerraCycle at their cost, where they will actually be recycled. They have a blog that covers healthy and sustainable living.6

Branch Basics

This company was founded by three women who experienced health problems, both personally and within their families, but discovered renewed health by removing toxins from their homes, food, and lives. They founded Branch Basics to get back to basic, clean living and to inspire others to do so. You select a bottle and buy “The Concentrate” which makes multiple types of cleaner – you use different amounts of water and concentrate in each type of cleaner. I really like that they have one cleaner for almost everything! It is a #1 plastic bottle, but it is significantly less plastic wasted since the product lasts so long. I am also excited about their Wellness Center resource page, which has articles about healthy living.7

Branch Basics The Concentrate diagram

“We believe choices like the food we put in our bodies, the paint we put on our walls, and the cleaners we use around our homes have power; the power to rob us of good health or to cultivate it.” -Branch Basics8

Replenish & CleanPath

Replenish bottle refill diagram

CleanPath, which is part of Replenish,9 are refillable bottle systems that offer concentrated cleaners and foaming hand soap, which saves time, resources, and money.10 The company’s mission is to eliminate waste from buying products in disposable plastic bottles. The founder designed a system where the consumer buys the plastic bottle once and refills it with a concentrated refill pod that attaches to the bottom of the bottle. Each pod can make 4-6 bottles of cleaner. By only shipping the concentrate and no water, it greatly reduces emissions and reduces plastic waste. However, I believe that the pods must be recycled at the end of their life, so this is still plastic waste although much less. Replenish and CleanPath claim to use less toxic ingredients and real essential oil bases for fragrance.

JAWS

JAWS (an acronym for Just Add Water™ System) wanted to reduce plastic waste and reduce emissions by shipping cleaning products without water. They founded their company on this principle: “Stop Shipping Water. It’s the Right Thing to Do.” The products are EPA Safer Choice certified but not necessarily all non-toxic. But they offer full ingredient lists on their website for each product.11 Like Replenish and CleanPath, the pods are not reusable which does still create plastic waste, albeit less plastic waste.

Grove Collaborative

As the name suggests, this collaborative company sells its own products but also sells products from other companies that manufacture like-minded products. They are a Certified B Company that sells household cleaners and personal use items that use safe, non-toxic ingredients but also offer some refillable products and containers. Grove uses a take-back program for their refill pouches, which customers return to them and they send them to TerraCycle for recycling. They have carbon-neutral and plastic-neutral practices, use ethical supply chains, and use sustainable materials for their products. This company might be a good solution as a one-stop shop, but it does seem to be subscription-based only.12
Grove laundry starter set

Truman’s

Trumans surface care starter kit

Inspired to create simple cleaning products, minimize the number of cleaners in the home, and reduce plastic waste, Truman’s created a system of refillable products. They ship them in fully recyclable cardboard packaging. While I respect any company that is trying to do something good, this company sells its pods in PVA, which I do not recommend using. Truman’s also includes upcycled polyester towels in their starter kits, and fibers from polyester (which is plastic) get into the water supply from washing machine drainage.13

Cleancult

Cleancult carton refill

Cleancult sells refills for its line of cleaning products, and its refills are shipped in 100% paper mailers.14 The company is very transparent in its ingredients and explains in detail what every ingredient does, which I really like! It is a carbon-neutral company too. However, Cleancult uses cartons for some refills. These are lined with a thin layer of plastic on the interior and exterior. If you read my article about cartons, you’ll recall that although they contain far less plastic than regular plastic bottles, cartons are not recyclable in many areas. Also, the company uses PVA for its dishwasher and laundry tabs. I do not recommend using any product with PVA, but I like that this company is taking steps in the right direction.

Cleancult Laundry Detergent refill, blue carton with a half coconut at bottom, and bubbles.
Photo by Marie Cullis.

Update January 2023: I tried Cleancult detergent, pictured above, and while I liked how my clothes came out and smelled, the carton went into the trash. There is no way to recycle these cartons in my area, and mailing them to the Carton Council is cost-prohibitive. Hopefully, the company will find another type of packaging in the future.

Common Good

Common Good dish soap glass bottle

Common Good began in an effort to develop products with non-toxic ingredients that were safe around children and pets, as well as reducing plastic waste.15 Its products are Leaping Bunny certified and their biodegradable cleaning formulas are refillable at nationwide refill stations (although there is not one in my area). When purchasing online, the refills come in plastic pouches. While these use 86% less plastic than traditional plastic bottles, Common Good does not take the pouches back. They must be taken to stores that accept plastic bags for recycling. It is not clear if these collection sites result in actual recycling, which I wrote about in a previous article, so these may end up in landfills.

Refillable Systems are on the Rise

Writing this post, I was so encouraged to learn that there are more refill shops than I knew about! I hope that you have discovered a few companies that you’d like to try out. We can all help end plastic packaging waste by using a refill system. I plan to try several of these products and once I do, I’ll be sure to review them! In my next post, I will cover refillable systems for personal use products. Thank you for reading!

“Plastic was meant to last forever, but most is only used once. 8 billion tons of plastic trash – that iced coffee you had last week, that toothbrush you used when you were 4 – are still on the planet.” -Blueland

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.

 

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