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Whether it involves personal care, grooming, beauty or just general privacy, the bathroom is a space that’s varied in its use, but we tend to overlook the amount of single-use plastic and paper products we use in that space compared to other spaces in our homes. A 2014 report from Johnson & Johnson’s Care to Recycle initiative found that 95 percent of people self-report recycling in their kitchen, but only half report recycling in their bathroom. The most common reason? Lack of recycling bins — not interest.
Daniel Esty, JD, a professor of environmental law and policy at Yale and an expert in corporate sustainability, previously told us that shoppers are increasingly aware of where their purchases come from and their environmental impact, and many companies aim to follow suit with environmental standards nods from nonprofits like Climate Neutral and B Lab.
Our everyday plastic use has skyrocketed over time, with the packaging of cosmetics and food in the U.S. accounting for 82.2 million tons, or 28 percent of total waste generation in 2018, more than 120 times what was being produced in 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Nearly 70 percent of that plastic waste is sitting in landfills. Finding the right alternatives to plastic and non-reusable products popularly used in the bathroom, such as deodorant, toothbrushes and makeup wipes, can help reduce the waste produced and thrown into landfills.
The most environmentally-conscious decision is always to reduce your overall consumption and buy less when possible.
Alex Payne, Publicist, TerraCycle
How to reduce plastic use in your bathroom
When you “absolutely need” to buy new beauty products, strive for “reusable and refillable options,” said Alex Payne, a publicist at recycling and waste management company TerraCycle.
“Look out for package-free options or, when all else fails, simple packaging that is easier to recycle like metal or glass rather than combinations of materials,” he suggested. Packaging made from organic and biodegradable materials are eco-friendly alternatives, like sustainable-sourced bamboo (not grown in areas that were deforested for the purpose of growing bamboo) since it grows quickly.
Even if your plastic shampoo container or glass lotion bottle is technically recyclable in your community, the packaging could still make its way to the landfill if it contains residue or non-recyclable materials. Payne suggested rinsing out the packaging before putting it in your bin. “The presence of any residual product may force municipal recyclers to redirect it to the landfill, so it won’t contaminate the otherwise recyclable material in the process,” he said. “Also, be sure to check with your local recycling center what they can and cannot recycle before tossing your packaging into the recycling bucket.” Online resources like Recycle Coach or Call2Recycle can let you know what recyclables are accepted in your area.
Best sustainable bathroom products in 2021
Whether you’re upgrading in moderation or completely revamping your bathroom into an eco-friendly space, we’ve compiled some highly rated and sustainable bathroom products to consider.
Made from 100 percent bamboo, Cloud Paper’s 3-ply toilet paper is an eco-friendly alternative to tree-based toilet paper. According to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, “Tissue products made from bamboo release 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than tissue made from virgin wood.” Cloud Paper products, including Cloud Bamboo Paper Towels, are 100 percent plastic free (typical in packaging) and source paper from manufacturers certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, according to the brand. You can get Cloud Paper products via a one-time purchase or subscribe to receive refills every two, three or four months.
If you’re hoping to cut down on your use of toilet paper altogether, a bidet toilet seat attachment is a sustainable (and more affordable) option. This bidet by TUSHY takes approximately 10 minutes to install and includes a nozzle adjuster and pressure control knob to adjust the angle and water pressure for convenience. The brand claims the bidet cuts your toilet paper usage by 80 percent and leaves you feeling cleaner.
Sanitary pads and tampons tend to incorporate a lot of plastic, both in their packaging and the material used to make them. DivaCup’s menstrual cups are made from medical grade silicone with no chemicals, dyes or plastic, and they’re totally reusable — the brand says the DivaCup can be used for up to a year with routine cleaning, and worn for up to 12 hours depending on your menstrual flow. Menstrual cups like the DivaCup are not only a less wasteful alternative to pads and tampons, but they’re also more affordable. A 2019 study published in peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet found that, over time, menstrual cups cost “a small fraction” of the price of regular tampons and sanitary pads, and they produce much less plastic waste compared to other period products.
This men’s razor by Schick is a fully recyclable disposable razor that comes in recyclable packaging. According to the brand, it’s the first disposable razor on the market made with 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. It features an ergonomic grip without rubber and Aloe lubricant for sensitive skin. Schick also launched a recycling program that lets people mail in their eligible Schick razors for free so that the brand can properly recycle them.
If you’re hoping to eliminate your use of plastic shampoo bottles, these package-free shampoo bars from EcoRoots are offered in seven scents (one unscented option) and last for more than 50 washes each, according to the brand. They're vegan, color-safe, travel friendly and 100 percent plastic-free and package-free. EcoRoots also offers conditioner bars that’ll make your hair care routine more eco-friendly.
While the nylon bristles of this toothbrush aren’t biodegradable (and need to be thrown away separately), the handles on these bamboo toothbrushes will decompose in your home or in an industrial setting, which makes them a great alternative to plastic toothbrushes you throw out every few months. They come in a pack of four and the packaging is 100 percent biodegradable.
“Completely redesigning one’s beauty routine may seem daunting so individuals are encouraged to start with simply swapping out disposable makeup wipes and sponges with durable, multi-use alternatives that can be washed and used again,” suggested TerraCycle’s Alex Payne. These reusable rounds by makeup artist Jenny Patinkin are made from organic bamboo and are fragrance-free, hypoallergenic, antibacterial and antimicrobial. Reusable cosmetic rounds and wipes are also a great alternative for single-use makeup wipes which, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, typically contain non-biodegradable materials that take a long time to break down in a landfill. You can also opt for reusable and gently exfoliating muslin cloths.
Myro offers seven different colored cases that you can refill with your choice of deodorant from nine scented, recyclable deodorant pods. The case is refillable — you can buy another pod and simply snap it in place. The case is dishwasher safe, so you can keep it continuously clean as you reuse it or fill it with a new scent. You can also pick a subscription plan, which costs $10 for your first month’s starter kit, $40 for your first refill box with four deodorant pods of each scent and $30 for all refills after that (which you can get every three, four or six months).
If you’re looking for an alternative to plastic-packaged dental floss, this refillable 33-yard spool of dental floss is made from mulberry silk that is entirely biodegradable and coated with plant-based candelilla wax. The refill spool comes in a polylactide acid bag created from the lactic acid in plants. According to the brand, the floss composts in three to six months at a commercial facility and six to 10 months in homestyle bins.
The Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit advocacy group, reports that 8 million metric tons of plastic went into the ocean in 2020, and single-use plastic-stemmed cotton swabs are part of the problem. Although popular cotton swab brand Q-tips has officially transitioned to biodegradable paper sticks in recent years (its packaging, however, is only partially recyclable), bamboo cotton swabs like these from By Humankind are 100 percent biodegradable and come in a fully recyclable packaging. When you finish the pack, you can recycle the paper tube and compost the cotton swabs at home or in an industrial composting facility.
TerraCycle developed the Zero Waste Box program as an at-home or in-store recycling solution for difficult-to-recycle products. A business or shopper selects a Zero Waste Box from the online shop, fills the box with the appropriate waste stream and then ships the box back to TerraCycle with a prepaid shipping label. While there are 10 different box options depending on the items collected (safety equipment, kitchen items and coffee capsules, for instance), the Bathroom Separation Box allows you to separate bath and shower accessories, cleaning accessories, health care packaging, storage containers, personal care accessories and other packaging for recycling. The collected plastic is cleaned, melted and formed into plastic pellets that can then be recycled into new plastic products such as park benches and picnic tables. Collected metals are smelted and remolded to make other metal-based products. “TerraCycle developed the Zero Waste Box program as a solution to bridge the gap between what is not accepted through local municipal recycling,” said TerraCycle’s Alex Payne. “This gives users the freedom to recycle all brands of a specific waste stream.”
Should you reduce plastic use in your bathroom?
The beauty and personal care industry is a major culprit of our heavy plastic footprint — 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were made for packaging personal care and beauty products like hand soap, face wash, razors and shampoo in 2018, according to the most recent data from Euromonitor International, a market research company based in London, England. And a study by Zero Waste Europe found that 120 billion units of plastic packaging are produced by the beauty industry globally each year. With the market size of the industry expected to jump from $81.1 billion in 2019 to $128.7 billion by 2030, transitioning to more eco-friendly and zero waste bathroom products can be a worthwhile investment with an eye toward the 51st anniversary of Earth Day.
“The old saying we learned as school children, ‘reduce, reuse and recycle,’ is just as relevant as it was back then,” said Payne. “The most environmentally-conscious decision is always to reduce your overall consumption and buy less when possible.”