Top 5 Plastic-Free Alternatives for the Bathroom
Spoiler: Also an article about how I'm in love with bamboo
Photo by Speedy McVroom at Pixabay
Did you know? Plastic is doing awful things to the planet! Of course you did. We’ve all seen at least a handful of the news headlines from the last ten years about how plastic pollution is ravaging our earth.
Except that isn’t fun. Not even slightly.
In the weight of what feels like an insurmountable issue, it’s common to become disenfranchised and to feel powerless. It can also be so difficult to stop using the damn plastic that’s causing the problem—it’s literally everywhere!
Governments and corporations are reluctantly waking up and enacting change. But this takes time, whilst laws need to be passed and product lines changed in the meantime.
A lot of us operate day-to-day within a capitalist society of some form or another.
One thing that you can therefore be certain of is that we have buying power. Each and every one of us. When we buy a product, we cast a vote to signal that we agree with its production, and we encourage the future of the company behind it.
Although the impact is undoubtedly small, the more of us who start making awesome, ethical choices, the greater change a company with good intentions is able to make. Supporting companies who are trying to break the mould is powerful! Why wouldn’t we?
There have been a lot of widespread call-to-arms about some types of plastic usage. Where I live, in the UK, bars and restaurants are replacing plastic straws with paper ones, and a full ban on these is planned in England as soon as April 2020. Buying bottled water just doesn’t seem as socially acceptable anymore. I’m also seeing reusable coffee cups everywhere.
But what about other products that we’re using in our daily lives? These can have just as great an impact, and besides, small changes add up to big ones.
Although it always carried an energy cost anyway, recycling isn’t even slightly the cure-all that we were once led to believe. This feels especially real when learning that only 9 percent of plastic ever produced has been recycled. The UK is also recently getting to hear more about how our good intentions to recycle don’t often mean that’s what really happens to our plastic bottles.
It’s best to tackle the issue at the source. Let’s focus specifically on changing some of the items that are kept in the bathroom, to wonderfully plastic-free versions.
The average lifespan for a person in the UK now is 81 years, and 79 years in the US. If you replace your toothbrush around once every three months, this means you’ll throw away 320 toothbrushes in your lifetime.
Plastic toothbrushes take around 400 years to decompose. And they’re generally not recyclable either. Just for a little recap on how long 400 years is, around 400 years ago Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded for treason against King James I of England.
This is an easy win for replacing the plastic with an alternative! Bamboo toothbrushes have been a thing since the 15th century, when they were made up of boar hair bristles and bamboo handles.
Bamboo toothbrushes are one of the easier products to get hold of online, either from an independent company or a larger ethical goods supplier. I recently bought some from Bambaw with charcoal-infused bristles, which I’m hoping will colour my whites a little pearlier.
The bamboo itself will decompose within 5-10 years if thrown in the trash, or 4-6 months if placed in a regular composter. The nylon bristles, once removed with pliers, can usually be recycled. This super-useful page from Bamwoo provides more details on how to do that.
In case it passed you by, yes, unfortunately even the bamboo toothbrushes aren’t 100 percent plastic-free. However, the only current alternative is sourcing toothbrushes made with pigs’ hair bristles, which, due to requiring a by-product from livestock, carry their own set of ethical and sustainability complications.
I’m holding out with faith and patience for a fully compostable and animal-free toothbrush, which only seems now a small step away.
The squeezy tubes for toothpaste are most often made from a blended combination of plastic and aluminium. This, along with being small and containing leftover toothpaste, nearly always makes them too difficult to recycle.
A tube of toothpaste usually only lasts a person a few months. For this reason, 1.5 billion tubes are thrown away globally every year.
Toothpastes in some form date back to the Egyptians, as early as 5000BC. However, the ingredients of early toothpastes varied, from ox hooves’ ashes to burnt eggshells, from bark to crushed bones. It’s time to rethink what we’re putting on our teeth, and to not only consider the paste-like substances that we’re used to. Whilst it is possible to buy toothpaste in glass jars with recyclable lids now (like these lovely ones from Butter Me Up Organics), you will find that your options to buy plastic-free only increase if you try out tabs or powder too.
It’s going to be a personal decision to go for fluoride or non-fluoride, but I’ve generally found that the pastes, tabs and powders available will all allow you choice over this controversial ingredient.
The most ethical tooth powder maker award probably goes to Dirty Hippie, who boast absolutely zero waste, are 100 percent vegan, do not use any slave or animal labour, accept empties for refill (within Australia), and support a number of charities to boot. The product is packaged in a glass jar with aluminium lid and packaged in recycled newspaper, paper tape and boxes.
A little closer to my own home in the UK are Anything But Plastic, who distribute toothpaste tabs in handy little jars of one month’s or six months’ supply.
Another way to cut down on your plastic consumption is to make your own toothpaste (provided your ingredients don’t come wrapped in plastic of their own)! You’re likely to also save some money this way. Authority Dental provide an excellent guide on how to decide which ingredients you might want to use for this, whilst acknowledging that not everyone has the same priorities with their dental health.
Whichever way you approach this, if you can house your purchase or creation in a glass jar, then that can be reused time and time again, and recycled at the end of its life.
This is a tricky one, yes? Just when you might have got settled into using the right products for you in terms of both quality and price, here I am to tell you that you need to start again, go back in time and look for bars of soap a la the 1950s, or every hotel room ever.
However, consider that this fresh look at buying bar products is going to help you with re-sourcing and cutting out the plastic from your soap, shower gel, bath gel, shampoo and conditioner – it’s a 5-in-1 deal.
Bar soap tends to last longer, due to its lower water content. This also, of course, makes it more cost effective.
Liquid soaps require five times more energy to produce the raw materials and twenty times more energy to package than bar soaps do, a 2019 Swiss study found. Other observations included that whilst we do run more water each time to wash our hands with bar soap, we use one sixth of the amount of product.
Sulphates in liquid shampoo are what cause all of that lather to appear, out of very little substance, when you rub your hands together. However, they also generate some very real concerns over allergies, sensitivities, and the removal of natural oils from your skin.
If considering bar products (yes, go you!), just think about the following:
- Buy versions wrapped in minimal packaging, free of plastic
- Avoid chemical ingredients (because I can’t promise all bar soaps will automatically be free of those)
- Avoid soaps that use palm oil in their production
- Avoid farmed animal fats and oils, because of their associated environmental problems
- Try to buy locally
In the end, if this all just doesn’t work out for you, you can at least buy bottled shampoos and gels in salon-sized bottles or bulk, and from companies using recycled plastic (just make sure you can put these in recycling too!). I think it’s important to sometimes acknowledge a halfway point, which is better than making no change at all.
Cotton Buds/‘Q Tips’
Cotton buds came in 7th place in 2018 of items most often found on beaches by Marine Conversation Society volunteers—yikes. They’re one of the products that people think you can flush—but that you really, really shouldn’t. As a result, they pass through the sewage system (which is not designed to filter these large items out), into the sea, and sadly then the stomachs of marine life.
Even if you dispose of them ‘correctly’, let’s admit it, that stem is an awful lot of completely unnecessary plastic for a single use of whatever. They are not recyclable, so they’ll definitely still be sitting in the ground in hundreds of years. And yet, in the UK alone, we still use 1.8 billion, mostly both single use and plastic, cotton buds every year.
It’s time for the reappearance of our all-natural friend, bamboo! Bamboo and wooden cotton buds are both 100% compostable and a dream for the environment. Look out for certified organic cotton wool when purchasing, too.
There are FSC-certified paper stem cotton buds out in the market, if those tickle your fancy instead.
Don’t think you necessarily have to settle for buying in a plastic box either – better brands are using cardboard as packaging for these cotton buds instead.
Staying on the theme of packaging, ever noticed how plastic completely covers every purchase you make of toilet rolls? And then you take them out of the plastic and… Well, you throw it away. It’s now ripped, distorted and not really useful for anything else. Unless you’re careful enough that you can maybe make a little bin liner out of it.
We don’t need to settle for plastic as the only way to keep paper products secure and dry. Come to think of it, we never did.
Look for compostable packaging, in the form of paper wrap, or cardboard box. I consider it unnecessary for any brand to wrap their toilet rolls individually, even if in paper. At the same time, I don’t have the space in my home to get 48 rolls delivered all at once, in a large cardboard box. I tend to settle for a middle ground, like these highly respectable and all-natural rolls from Cheeky Panda.
You may choose to take your conscientious toilet-time thoughts even further than plastic-free, and consider switching from tissue paper to… you got it, bamboo! It grows more quickly than trees, yielding up to 20 times more timber, and is also free from so many harmful chemicals, like chlorine bleach, which are used as part of the standard toilet paper-producing process.
There are also companies offering recycled and chemical-free paper toilet rolls. So, whilst I’m biased towards bamboo, I know that it’s not the only answer to all of my problems.
Once you start looking for plastic-free toilet roll packaging, you’ll notice that there is a lot of overlap with the brands also offering better quality of toilet roll material anyway. So, with a little shopping around, you can be kind to the planet and your bum at the same time.
In conclusion, please don’t throw away the products you already have in your bathroom. After all, they have already been produced, and to get rid of perfectly good things prematurely would be even worse for the environment.
However, my question to you is this—when a product in your bathroom next comes close to running out, will you replace it with a plastic-free alternative?
And if you’d like yet more information on how gosh darn terrible plastic is, I recommend a visit to the National Geographic’s dedicated site area on plastic pollution, "Planet or Plastic?."