Plastics in the Powder Room
By Judith Glixon/
Some of you may be way ahead of me, but I'm proud to say that I’ve tried two new things this week: bottle-free shampoo (in bar form) & toothpaste tablets. What possessed me to do such unusual things? Well, I guess it bears repeating in yet another way: "The amount of plastic [in the world] is [now] greater in mass than all land animals and marine creatures combined" (The Guardian). Oh, yeah - that!
I have always believed in conservation, but you may wonder why I am concerned about how much shampoo or toothpaste, for example, I use? Obviously personal care products aren't endangered, but the less we use of the ones that are made of, or packaged in, plastic, the more we can prevent the ugly, toxic buildup of plastic waste throughout our planet. Like diamonds, plastics are forever, but (“for better or worse”) diamonds don't accumulate at an alarming rate or pollute oceans, rivers, air, and our bodies. (See previous article [November 2020] for more on this.)
Depending on your age, you may remember the early 1960s TV commercial for Prell shampoo, in which they advertise the exciting new replacement of their glass bottles with plastic tubes. (You can see that classic advertisement here.) In the ad we see that, to one woman's horror, another woman tosses her a tube of shampoo which falls hard on the floor. "It didn't break!” exclaims the first woman, amazed. Other people my age or older may have distant memories of tooth powder, sold in narrow elliptical metal cans with little red caps. These, too, were eventually replaced by the now ubiquitous plastic tubes. Yes, things have changed, but the improvements are negligible. Like the innovation of combustion engines, the invention of plastics to replace more environmentally friendly materials was both a boon and a peril.
Happily, I've been learning about some health & beauty product alternatives contained in sustainable, plastic-free packaging. Listed below are some descriptions of products I've discovered online, along with information about where they can be purchased. I recommend visiting some of these websites and perusing the myriad eco-friendly products that are becoming available. If we increase our awareness, even to the point of simply noticing which products we use that are made of, or packaged in, plastic, we'll be off to a good start. Then, when we're ready, we can try some of items like those described here. (Scroll down further for links to some vendors of the products listed.)
Only over the last few decades has liquid hand soap become popular for household use. Previously most household soap was found predominantly in bar form, generally packaged in paper. Let's consider returning to using bar soap, shall we? Another alternative is to purchase shatterproof glass dispensers (yes, these exist) and fill them with a solution of water and dissolvable sticks of liquid hand soap concentrate.
Hair & body products
Hand soaps aren't the only products that now come in bar form. Also available are shampoos, hair conditioners, shaving soap, and even hand lotion!
At many dental offices, at the conclusion of a regular visit, each patient is offered a plastic bag containing a brand new plastic toothbrush, a travel-size tube of toothpaste, and a miniature plastic-packaged sample of nylon dental floss. I now refuse (or sometimes donate) them. So much unnecessary plastic! So much waste! There are better options for dental care:
Toothbrushes: I've started using bamboo toothbrushes. Bamboo is as durable as wood, and is an easily renewable resource. There are many brands; find some by checking out one of the websites below or using your favorite online search engine. Most bamboo toothbrushes are made with natural bristles.
Toothpaste & mouthwash alternatives: Many toothpaste tubes are made of plastic, and the metal tubes aren't environmentally friendly either. What options do we have to avoid these? Happily, there are several:
- Toothpaste in glass jars
- Chewable tablets (also available for mouthwash)
- Tooth powder (back by popular demand!) in glass jars
These products may take some getting used to at first, but we humans are nothing if not adaptable! And isn't it worth it for the sake of a clean & healthy planet? As mentioned above, I recently purchased my first (glass) jar of chewable tooth tablets. They work great! (At first I was anxious about the cost, but soon realized that using just half a tablet is sufficient.)
Dental floss: Did you know that dental floss is part of the trash found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and, as is true with other plastic waste, ocean animals assume it is edible? Most dental floss is made of nylon - another petroleum product. If we don't want to contribute to the plastic mess and danger, we now have alternatives. Dental floss is available in cotton, silk, and bamboo (as it was when some of us were little). It's even possible to buy vegan silk floss which is harmless to the caterpillars from whose bodies it is harvested! Most of these sustainable brands of floss are sold in glass jars, and refills come in simple kraft paper packaging.
Deodorant, sunscreen, and cosmetics: All of these items are now all available for purchase in non-plastic containers.
Safety razors, replacements blades, hair ties, hair brushes, combs, etc.: Yes, all of these items are available in plastic-free form! (I'm still in search of plastic-free shower caps, however. What did previous generations use? They took baths, I guess.)
Feminine products: I won't go into detail, but it's good to know that sustainable alternatives are available!
Below, you will find a sampling of websites for companies that sell some of the products described above*.* Some have been recommended to me, and others I’ve discovered on my own. (Please note that I have no financial interest in any of these companies, and I have made purchases from only a few of them.):
While we're being so conscientious in our intentions, let's consider supporting local businesses! Here, for example, are a couple near where I live, just west of Boston:
Cleenland is located in Cambridge, MA. The store offers soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, and shaving products - all in bar form, and many other plastic-free products.
Yes!, in Arlington, MA, was started by a 2001 graduate of Lexington High School. Among many other items, Yes! sells:
- biodegradable and animal-free dental floss
- Solid (bar) shampoo & conditioner
- Sandalwood combs and bamboo hair brushes.
If you need help deciding where to buy what, here are some websites with general information about plastic-free items and, in some cases, reviews of various brands and vendors:
- Earth Friendly Tips
- NERC (Northeast Recycling Council)
- The Story of Stuff Project
- The Lessen
Please keep in mind that I'm not an expert on all this. I'm just a privileged beneficiary and unfortunate victim of the times. We've been sold a bill of goods for many years now. We've been taught to venerate plastics, to marvel at their convenience, and worst of all, to take them for granted. We've gone from naïve wonder to uncomfortable awareness, to feelings of helplessness, to complacency, and sometimes even to stubbornness. We've learned to value convenience over conscience. With this in mind, I'm just asking you to swim upstream with me - to swim against the plastic-ridden tide.
Neither am I a saint. I can find myself feeling as hopeless, or as rebellious, as the next person. As a musician who has spent innumerable hours in orchestras as one of 6-12 cellists in a section who are all playing the same notes, it's sometimes felt as though my presence there was making little difference. However, I've realized that if all the cellists in the section felt that way, nobody would show up, and there would be no cello section at all. Likewise, when I experiment with something I can do to help the environmental predicament we're in, thereby seemingly depriving myself of certain everyday luxuries for the sake of the greater good, I can become resentful and helpless, and may feel as though I'm the only one making those sacrifices, which isn't in fact true.
We live within a system in which the benefits of plastic have been ingrained in us, and we're frustrated that it takes so much individual effort to go against that grain. But our knowledge that we're not alone in our endeavor to improve the state of the world can help bolster our resolve. And when we share what we learn, we find even more reason for hope.
We can do this!