Why and how to avoid disposable products

Did you know there are bibs, towels and window-cleaning cloths that are meant to be used once and thrown away? Every day brings more products that apparently make life easier for us: we don’t need to look after them, just keep buying them. Does the idea of a disposable mobile phone seem ridiculous? Not so long ago people would have seen disposable cutlery as equally ridiculous.

The production and consumption of these products involves a waste of raw materials, downward pressure on prices, and therefore quality and production costs, increasingly difficult and expensive waste management, and intensified levels of pointless consumerism.

How has such an unsustainable idea come to be so widely accepted? Mainly because it contributes to economic growth, which is seen as essential. However, what we propose is a world in reverse: making the present model of economic growth obsolete will help us to attain the sustainability we need and the social justice we long for.

What is preferable?

Thinking of you

  • Price. A product meant to be used only once will cost less but a quality item is an investment which will very soon pay for itself. For example, a menstrual cup, which can last throughout one’s life, costs as much as the amount a woman spends on sanitary towels or tampons in six months.
  • Convenience and time. Which is quicker and more convenient: going to a shop, buying paper tissues and throwing them away as you use them or washing a linen handkerchief, hanging it up to dry and folding it? The answer is subjective, it depends what you are used to and which option you find more acceptable.
  • Quality. A single use implies a low price and this usually involves poorer quality. We should value the pleasure of using quality products; drinking coffee in a paper cup is not the same as drinking it in a ceramic cup.
  • Hygiene. There has been increasing concern with excessive hygiene, surely because of vested interests. It may be justifiable for certain items (and only certain items) for use in medicine to be disposable but this does not apply to bibs, nappies, glasses or cutlery.
Thinking of everyone

A recurring argument in favour of disposable goods is that producing and transporting them can be more sustainable than keeping the reusable version.

Do we use more water and energy making paper serviettes than washing linen ones? It depends how you use them and wash them, and how long they last.

The requirements in terms of materials, transport and waste treatment are infinitely less (a linen serviette can last at least 15 years, in which time you would have used about 10,000 paper serviettes). Moreover, disposable goods are usually made of plastic, which is the cheapest option but also the most difficult material to recycle.

Disposable items need to be cheap, which obliges manufacturers to consider lower production costs as more important than other factors which may well be more important for the general interest.

A thousand and one uses

  • Use handkerchiefs, dusters, serviettes and coffee filters made of cloth rather than paper. Try them before you decide which is most suitable, and work out how many paper items you can save.
  • Use rechargeable items (batteries, lighters, etc.) and those with refills (pens, razors, etc.): the difference is barely perceptible in use—it’s a question of habit.
  • Choose containers that can be reused: take your shopping trolley, basket or cloth bag and pots, and buy bulk products (at markets it is common to find nuts, cooked legumes, grain, herbs, tuna and ready-cooked food, etc.).
Disposable goods that seem inevitable
  • Sanitary towels and tampons: you can use a menstrual cup or sponge.
  • The plastic coffee cup: you can take your own cup to the coffee machine.
  • CDs: they may be re-recordable and for some purposes external memory can be used.
  • Aluminium foil: you can carry your sandwich to work or pack the children’s breakfast in a sandwich box.
  • When you go out for the day take a drinking flask instead of a plastic bottle.
  • Instead of taking a carton of juice to school eat fruit at home and drink water from the fountain.
Look after them

Cover items to prevent stains, use drip catchers in the necks of wine bottles, etc.

Wash at a low temperature, using as little water as possible (efficient washing machines, flow regulators, reuse excess water from the sink), and if you need detergent, use as little as possible (soaking helps to remove many stains) and make sure it is ecological (see Opcions No. 2, 17 (central section and ‘Ideas’), and 21).

Use it more than once

If, after considering the possibilities and your circumstances, you choose disposable products, remember the following:

  • As they are soon to become waste, they should be made of materials which are quickly biodegradable or easily recyclable; avoid plastic as much as possible and items made of different materials which cannot be separated.
  • Lengthen its life: share a newspaper or magazine; use your paper serviette several times, until it’s really dirty, and take the thick paper serviettes you are given in bars and restaurants if you’ve hardly used them; at parties, put your name on your glass so that you can go on using it; use both sides of a sheet of paper; reuse plastic shopping bags for future shopping expeditions or for domestic waste; keep waxed paper and aluminium foil to use later; save wrapping paper to reuse for other gifts in future, etc.
  • You should also consider how to change the circumstances that make the reusable version less practical or less attractive for you.

It is very difficult?

  • In the long run, disposable products are much more expensive.
  • When our new approach has become a habit, it will no longer mean a special effort for us.
  • We’ll spend more time and take more trouble looking after things and less buying them and throwing them away.

What do you gain?

  • More room in the dustbin.
  • You’ll spend time looking after things and they’ll last longer.
  • You can enjoy using better-quality products and take satisfaction in appreciating them for their utility.
  • We generate less waste, save raw materials and energy and avoid driving prices down and worsening working conditions.
  • We’ll stop automatically associating a need with going to buy something and get used to using resources we already have.