I've managed to mostly give up disposable products in my life. A few years ago, in trying to imagine how I would do so, I felt completely overwhelmed. But now that I'm on the other side of making these changes, I can vouch for how easy it is. Life is actually no less convenient. It's about establishing a few habits, which become automatic once they've settled in, and about working out some new systems to replace the old ones. Making the change takes time, but I promise, living with it is easy.
To get started, make a list of all the disposable products in your life. Mine, a few years ago, looked something like this:
Make up wipes
Plastic plates & cutlery
Laundry liquid bottles
Dishwashing liquid bottles
Plastic cling wrap
Once you have your list, the next step is to start brainstorming non-disposable replacements. It takes time to work out a new system, and the right system for you may take a few goes. Just tackle a few at a time, and when they no longer feel challenging, add in a few more. Here's what I did for my list:
I collected hankies from op shops, and also sewed myself a set of hankies from an old pretty patterned sheet. If I was doing it again, I'd choose a flannelette sheets for some of the hankies - they are perfect when I've got a cold, but a bit bulky for every day.
I sewed myself some flannelette cloths to use for wees. I now use squares of paper torn from an old phone book for poo. It takes a bit of getting used to since it's not absorbent, but the paper is strong and wipes well. Don't crumple! This is still "disposable" but at least I'm disposing of something that is already rubbish.
I went to the op shop and bought a couple of fabric sheets / tablecloths in co-ordinating colours. I cut them into a variety of sizes to use as wrapping paper. I also bought a few silk and chiffon scarfs in colours that go with them to use as ribbons for tieing up my parcels. All these pieces now live in box, and whenever a birthday rolls around, I wrap the presents in the cloth, pin the cloth down with a sewing pin, and then tie it with a pretty scarf. At the end of each birthday, the cloths and scarves go back in the box. When giving gifts to people who don't live in my household, this method usually works fine, though I often skip the sewing pins. After the gift has been given, the piece of fabric generally lies on the ground - I just pick it up and take it home to use for next time. Occasionally the recipient wants to keep the fabric, in which case I just figure it's part of their present and am delighted. Or if they are impressed by the fabric-wrapping idea, I suggest they keep the fabric and use it when they give a gift to someone else.
We don't use these at home, but go through them at restaurants or when visiting other people. Nowadays, before I go to a restaurant, I slip into my bag a cloth napkin and a couple of food containers, ready to bring home any leftovers. On the rare occasions I forget, I simply don't use one - I lick my fingers clean instead. At friends' houses I simply wash my hands in the sink rather than using a napkin.
We used to use these to wipe up grease or spills. These days we use a facewasher instead, and chuck it in the washing machine afterwards. I scrape any food grease directly into our compost bin. When frying things that need to be sat on kitchen paper, we sit it on pieces of torn up paper bag instead.
These plastic brushes have to be thrown out every few months, which seems a horrible waste. I bought myself a wooden brush from an eco store, and some replaceable wooden heads. The wood is still disposable but at least it will biodegrade. However, the true change has been in how I use it. I never, ever scrub too hard with my dishbrush these days. The bristles on the eco-brushes last longer than the plastic ones, but with care, I got mine to last two years. For hard scrubbing, use a scourer - for soft rubbing, go the dish brush.
I thought I'd never be able to give up wettexes - those lovely absorbent sponges that seem to disintegrate far too quickly. However, these days we just use a facewasher, and chuck it in the wash when it gets too dirty.
Make up wipes
I have tried flannelette squares of cloth, sea sponges, face washers, old sheets and more - but they either don't remove the make up as effectively as the wipes, or they leave my skin raw and sore. I only use make up wipes when I'm performing, but when I'm doing a performance season, that's twice a day I need to scrub off a thick layer of make up, and my skin barely copes. The best I have managed is to buy a packet of wipes and an extra bottle of the cleansing solution I prefer. I use the wipe carefully, making sure not to damage it, then rinse it out and leave it to dry. Next time, I use it again, using the cleaning solution from a bottle. I can use one wipe up to ten times this way. It's still disposable but far less so. If you have a better solution, do let me know.
Strangely, I've found these the hardest of all to give up. I have a habit now, of putting a water bottle in my bag before I go out, so I always carry one with me. That part has been easy. Occasionally I've been stranded without one, and in that case I find a sink in a toilet room, wash my hands well, then scoop water into my mouth. The real difficulty has been in preventing other people from giving me water bottles. When I go somewhere to perform, there's often a water bottle given to me. I politely give it back. When I was hit by a vehicle at a fair one time, I was quite shocked. Someone asked if I wanted a drink of water and I nodded. I was given a fresh new bottle of water, with the lid already removed. It felt too rude to reject it at that point. In restaurants I have to explicitly ask for tap water, and even then, the waiters often kindly "upgrade" me to shop water. The same thing happens on planes. I think the best thing is to be at the ready with a polite sentence in which you explain that you are giving up bottled water for environmental reasons.
Plastic plates & cutlery
I am often given these at parties. These days when I go to a party I quite often slip a plate, cutlery and cup into my bag, especially if the party is at a park or in a public space. If the party is in a private home, and I don't have my own set with me, I sometime use the host's ceramic plates, and make sure to wash them afterwards. Or I stick to finger food. When hosting our own parties in the park, we always serve finger food so that no plates are needed. We have a set of cups that we use every party, wash and then store ready for the next one.
I have now found a place to buy shampoo in bulk, so I can reuse the same bottle over and over. Others have started using a shampoo bar, like a block of soap, because of reduced packaging. You can also mix bicard and water, use that to wash your hair, then rinse with vinegar in water.
Laundry liquid bottles and dishwashing liquid bottles
I now buy these in bulk too, but my next step will be to learn how to make my own, from bulk ingredients.
Tomato cans and fruit cans
These days we avoid using tins of tomatoes, fruit and vegies by canning our own. You can read my post on how to preserve tomatoes. This might sound like a phenomenal amount of work, but actually last summer I was able to bottle enough food to get us right through winter, just by devoting a few afternoons to the fruit preserving, and two days to the tomato preservation. The first time it will probably take longer, as you sort out your supplies and learn your way. But this can be surprisingly efficient. The other benefits are that you get to eat local food all year round, you create less rubbish, the food is much cheaper, and the taste is phenomenal!
Plastic cling wrap
Instead of using this to cover food in the fridge, put food in a container with a lid, or in a bowl, and put a plate on top of it.
We haven't entirely given this up and still use it occasionally, but very rarely. Instead of putting it in the bottom of our griller or oven, we wash the griller plate regularly. In the bottom of the oven we sit a metal tray, which we remove to wash. Rather than using it to cover food in the oven, we put the food in a casserole dish with a lid. And we mostly avoid dishes that require individual wrapping in foil - instead focusing on foods that can be made without.
And there you have it, folks. I'm sure your list will be different, but if you have any ideas to add, please do leave a comment. And let me know how you go with getting rid of your own disposable products.