Friday, July 4, 2014

The humble handkerchief: Thinking about reusable vs. disposable items

When I was in college, I spent a semester in Costa Rica.  For part of my time there, I lived with a host family that had a small farm with six cows.  Every morning neighbors used to come to buy milk, bringing whatever containers they happened to have –old plastic soda bottles were common.  Items were reused over and over again.

Over the years, my family and I have eliminated many single-use, disposable items from our routine. When I was a girl, I used to pack my sandwiches for school in disposable plastic baggies.  My own kids now bring their sandwiches in washable containers.  Back then, every purchase came in a paper or plastic bag.  Now at my local supermarket, I see more and more people (myself included) bringing their own bags.

Interestingly, in some instances, the trend has been in the reverse direction.  If someone had a fever, we used a reusable glass mercury thermometer to measure temperature.  My family now uses a digital thermometer that comes with single-use disposable plastic sleeves.  Even better would be a washable reusable thermometer that has the safety and ease of use of our digital thermometer. 

When I conducted research in a biology lab, there was an enormous amount of single-use disposable equipment, ranging from disposable gloves to micropipette tips.  Similarly, there’s an enormous quantity of single-use disposable items used in health care.  Think about all of the disposable gloves, syringes and  plastic sleeves for thermometers that are used in many health care facilities. It would be interesting to compare the safety and carbon footprint of single-use equipment (including manufacture, transport and disposal) vs. the safety and carbon footprint of autoclaving or otherwise sterilizing and reusing equipment. 

Every week  Reduce Footprints blog puts out a #CTWW(change the world Wednesday) challenge.  This week’s challenge is to stop using a disposable, single-use product for a week.   When thinking about the disposable single-use items that I use on a regular basis, I was struck by how many of them are related to bodily fluids: tissues, toilet paper, tampons and sanitary napkins, to name a few.  I think many folks have an automatic “Yuck!” reaction when it comes to bodily fluids.  Year ago, I had a friend who was adamant that all new parents should use cloth diapers for their babies, but she herself was using disposable items rather than handkerchiefs and cloth sanitary napkins for her own bodily excretions! 

I have taken on this week’s challenge, and instead of using single-use tissues I will revert to the humble handkerchief. My husband always uses handkerchiefs, so we have a supply in the house that I can borrow. 

What about you?  I’d love to hear about any changes you’ve noticed in terms of using single-use vs. reusable items in your life. 

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