Ever since the coronavirus outbreak hit American shores, I’ve noticed an increase in the amount of garbage I produce. Like so many others, I bought those handy disinfecting wipes, but every time I use one and then throw it away, it feels wasteful. In addition to that, I’ve also been using far more paper towels than usual and my recycling bin is full of tiny bottles of hand sanitizer I’ve gotten for free from various political campaigns or conferences.
Of course I want to do everything I can to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, but a lot of the suggestions for how to do this involve disposable products. Surely there had to be a better way. To find out, Lifehacker spoke with several environmental experts. Here are some of their best tips:
Though it may be tempting to switch over to disposable cups, silverware and dinnerware—either out of convenience or because you think it’ll help stop the spread of the virus—it’s not the best idea. (We’re not talking about those who normally use disposable kitchen stuff because of health issues; think the great plastic straw debate of 2018.) According to Matthew S. Hollis, president of Elytus—a third-party administrator that helps restaurants and retail establishments streamline waste and recycling operations—he has not come across any scientific evidence that disposable cups and dinnerware will make you safer from the virus while you’re in your own home.
“Simply ensure reusable items are washed or disinfected thoroughly in between uses,” he tells Lifehacker. To make sure your dishes are actually being sanitized, put your dishwater on the “sterilize” setting (if you’re lucky enough to have one). Otherwise, here’s information on how to sanitize dirty dishes when you’re washing them by hand.
And while we’re on the subject of washing dishes, it may seem like using the dishwasher uses more water than hand washing, but that’s not the case. “With everyone in the house all the time, you can quickly end up with an avalanche of dirty dishes and a constant need to clean,” Jarrid Lentz, the owner of Lentz Wastewater Management tells Lifehacker. “Many people are surprised to learn that running the dishwasher actually uses less water than washing dishes by hand. That’s important to think about if you’re on a septic system and already putting a strain on the system because all family members are home at the same time.”
So you’ve gone out and panic-bought as much as you could fit in your shopping cart (including that little shelf underneath the body of the cart). Mazel tov on grabbing the last pack of English muffins, but what now? Sure, stocking up on frozen food is a good idea during this time of uncertainty, but what about all the perishable foods you now have stuffed in your fridge? “Most foods can be frozen and it’s a great way to prolong the life of a food item and prevent it from going to waste,” says Emilie Woodger-Smith, who operates a site called Simply Sustainable after working in the recycling and waste industry for seven years. Here’s a handy guide breaking down what you can and can’t freeze. On top of being good for extending the life of the perishable foods you stockpiled, the freezer is also great right now because you can cook larger portions of a dish than you’d usually make and freeze it, so you’ll have a ready-made meal on those days when you just can’t cook.
Now that a lot of people have a fully stocked fridge, if you bought a lot of perishable items—and didn’t freeze them, when appropriate—you may have to throw out a good chunk of that food if it spoils before you’re able to use it. As we just mentioned, your freezer is a great way to avoid that.
But wait, there’s more. Sophie Egan, the editorial director for strategic initiatives at The Culinary Institute of America and author of How to be a Conscious Eater: Making Food Choices That Are Good For You, Others and the Planet shares a few other strategies for reducing food waste with Lifehacker:
“Make sure you’re meal planning ahead of time and using a shopping list, to ensure you truly make use of all the food you do bring home. It’s more precious than ever…Refrigerate foods like bread and produce to make them last longer rather than tossing them in the garbage. You can also buy some cool produce storage bags that lengthen shelf life by slowing the ripening process.”
If your local grocery store looks anything like mine, all of the paper towels and disinfecting wipes have been out of stock for around two weeks. Sure, these disposable cleaning tools are incredibly convenient, but I feel guilty whenever using one, and wondered about reusing rags or clothes instead. According to Laura Alexander Wittig, the co-founder of Brightly, a new platform focused on conscious consumerism, this is entirely possible.
“Utilize rags to clean up instead of using paper towels. Bonus points if you can cut up old T-shirts that were meant to go to Goodwill—spoiler alert: they don’t usually end up there anyway,” she tells Lifehacker. “Keep an easily cleanable, sealable hamper around to store rags once used. When washing, use hot water and a CDC-approved sanitizing agent—like bleach—to prevent cross-contamination. Many popular cleansers are not [CDC-approved].”
If you’re short on rags, Sofia Wilson, who runs Daily Detox Hacks, recommends going online and looking for face and hand towels that hotels have rejected because of a defect, like a small hole or a mark. “I use these to dry my hands and then put them into a big five gallon plastic bucket with [a] strong disinfectant after I have used them,” she tells Lifehacker, and then washes the rags in the bucket and repeats the process. She recently purchased 200 of these rejected hotel clothes and towels for around $20 on ebay.
Money is one of the biggest non-health concerns resulting from this outbreak. And of course, many people are not in a position where they can invest in new appliances right now. But if you got a Sodastream for Christmas a few years ago but have never gotten around to setting it up, all the while guzzling seltzer as if your life depended on it, now’s the time to put it to use.
Or if you have a bidet still sitting in a box, install that puppy already! With all the panic-buying of toilet paper that’s been happening, bidet searches and sales are surging. In fact, sales of one attachable bidet—TUSHY—are 10 times what they were before the current toilet paper shortages. Americans use around 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper annually, and some experts think that making a switch from toilet paper to bathroom bidets could potentially save 15 million trees. We’re not saying you need to totally give up on toilet paper, but if you’re looking to reduce waste and save money on paper you flush away, a bit might be a good option.
Of course, keeping yourself, your family and the general public healthy should be your primary concern right now, and some of these strategies do take more time. But if we’re able to make a switch or two, that could add up.