“Mindfulness isn’t difficult. We just need to remember to do it.”
– Sharon Salzberg
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, disposable products leapt off the shelves at a pretty alarming pace. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Safety ranks as far more important than Self-Actualization—where things like concern for the environment tend to fall.
That makes sense, and it was reflected in the way that we consumed items that make us feel safe: masks, gloves, sanitizer, and—interestingly—toilet paper.
Safety is a top priority for all of us, and when Personal Protective Equipment (or PPE) is flying off the shelves, having something feels a lot better than shopping for the best thing.
But now that the initial rush of fear has passed and we’re settling into that “new normal” we keep hearing about, we should take a moment to consider the environmental impact of COVID-19. Specifically, the increased use of disposable goods like masks, gloves, cleaning wipes, paper towels, etc.
Trash might seem like it magically disappears into a dumpster or a garbage truck, but of course, we know that it doesn’t. One way or another, these items will have a negative environmental impact when they’re thrown away.
Picture the bag(s) of garbage that you and your household produce each week. Now, add disposable masks, gloves, and cleaning wipes to that pile. Then multiply that pile by the 7.8 billion or so people on the earth today. You get the picture.
Reducing your waste is, at its heart, another form of reducing clutter—literally and figuratively. You’re reducing the amount of stuff in your life if you throw away less, but you’re also reducing mental pressure:
Making a positive impact, feeling good about your choices, and cleaning up the environment around you are all good things for body and soul.
The best part is, you don’t need to make huge and dramatic changes to reduce your impact. You can stay safe during a global pandemic, and declutter your life by focusing on three easy areas of impact:
#1 – MASKS AND GLOVES
A quick PSA to start this section: only front-line healthcare workers like doctors and nurses, or those who are severely immunocompromised, should be wearing N95 masks. There is still a shortage of these kinds of masks, and fabric masks or hobby masks are plenty of protection for the rest of us, according to the CDC.
So—we know that disposable masks and gloves are putting more waste into our landfills. What are some alternatives that still keep us safe?
Disposable items just feel more sanitary, since they’re only used once. But this actually isn’t the case. Studies have found no major difference in protective ability between disposable medical masks and cloth masks that cover the same parts of the face.
That’s great news, but if you don’t have a cloth mask yet, where do you start?
The CDC has some excellent resources on how (and why) to make cloth face coverings yourself. YouTube and Instagram tutorials abound. In the age of the internet, there’s no shortage of direction if you’re the DIY type, especially if you’re handy with a sewing machine.
Sadly, that’s not me.
So, if making your own mask isn’t for you either, log into Facebook or Nextdoor and you’ll likely find several people in your local area making masks. Maybe you already have some friends who have been volunteering to make masks for first responders.
My BFF, Jenifer Madson, has been doing just that and she was kind enough to gift me a mask. Here I am modeling it.
Cloth masks allow you to stay healthy, reduce your spend, and protect the environment over the long haul. Just be sure to wash them regularly, especially after they get wet.
Eco-friendly alternatives to disposable gloves are trickier; in order to provide protection, gloves can’t be washed or reused. However, you can be mindful of when you wear them.
According to the CDC, you only need to wear gloves when cleaning or when caring for someone who is sick. If you’re currently wearing gloves to run errands or at other times, consider reducing your use and using hand sanitizer or soap and water instead.
When you do need gloves, consider gloves that are compostable or made from recycled materials.
Regular hand-washing, keeping a distance of 6 feet or more from others, and avoiding touching our faces remain the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And none of these require any disposable materials!
Eco-friendly alternatives to disposable masks and gloves aren’t just better for the planet (and your budget). They also mean you’re not constantly having to toss and replenish your supply—freeing up your time for what’s most important.
#2 – PAPER TOWELS
Paper towels are another particular offender right now. At a time when we’re constantly washing (and drying) our hands and disinfecting surfaces, use of disposable paper products has gone way up.
Even before the pandemic, you probably used more paper towels in a single day than you think.
The United States alone uses 6.5 MILLION TONS of paper towels every year. We’d need to plant 51,000 new trees EVERY DAY to replace that amount of paper. And that’s just in the U.S.
Switching to a reusable alternative—like simple washcloths—won’t just save the environment. It will also save you time. (How much time have you spent chasing down paper products in the past few months?)
There are lots of ways to reduce your paper towel usage:
- Use cellulose sponges or washcloths for cleaning. The washcloths can be thrown in with your regular loads of laundry and will last for years.
- Use cloth towels to dry hands after washing, or use air dryers in public restrooms.
- Create your own washing rags by cutting up old clothes, towels, or bedding. You don’t need to buy something new to reduce your waste.
If and when you do need paper towels—because let’s face it, there may be some messes you just don’t want inside your washing machine—choose paper towels made from post-consumer recycled materials.
This is another time when ‘good’ is better than ‘perfect,’ and each step you can take toward living more sustainably is a net positive for the environment (and for you, too).
#3 – PLASTIC BAGS
I’ve written before about plastic grocery bags, which are one of the worst offenders when it comes to waste. They’re used for an average of 12 minutes, but take 500 years (or more) to degrade in a landfill. When they do degrade, they turn into microplastics that continue to pollute the environment.
Consider too that all plastic ever manufactured is still on the surface of our planet. There’s no “away” to throw plastic—it’s forever, in one form or another.
Basically, plastic bags are bad news. And it’s not just grocery bags.
Disposable plastic sandwich bags like Ziplocs are the same type of plastic material, and can easily be swapped out for reusable alternatives.
Washable Tupperware food containers are a fantastic way to reduce your use of plastic sandwich bags. Often, the ways we store food or other items come down to simple habit. Do you really need to use a plastic bag to take those baby carrots on the road with you, or is that just the way you’ve always done things?
Usually, it’s just an unconscious habit that can be unlearned.
Where space is at a premium and you really do need a bag, there are reusable silicone options. These not only work better since they don’t tear—they’ll also save you money in the long run, since you won’t need to buy more plastic bags.
If you just can’t quit using Ziplocs entirely, see where you can reduce your use instead.
Reducing your environmental impact and decluttering your life is not about perfection—it’s about mindfulness.
These things are closely related because they’re both centered around being mindful—mindful of the decisions you make every day, AND the things you choose to bring into your life.
Always make sure that you’re evaluating your actions relative to your values. If you care about reducing your environmental impact, any action that gets you closer to that goal is a win. It’s not just about replacing a disposable item with a washable one. It’s about considering what those decisions mean for you and your life.
You probably won’t always be able to use the reusable option, and that’s okay.
Perfection isn’t the goal. Progress is.
Also, remember that whether it’s reusable or disposable, everything you bring into your life should have a “home.” Don’t let the extra things that life throws at you creep up and overtake your time. Even if one of those things is a global pandemic.
It doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about your wallet and keys, or your “new normal” face mask.
Make sure none of it becomes the new item you waste your time searching for.
THE BOTTOM LINE: TAKE ACTION NOW
Take a few minutes to sit and think about where you’re wasting time and money on disposable items that you could easily replace with a lower-impact alternative.
I stopped using paper towels and switched to rags (really repurposed T-shirts and other garments) and dish towels a long time ago so I didn’t panic when Costco started rationing paper products. That doesn’t make me special … just maybe a bit less frantic.
So see what you can easily swap out without beating up on yourself or making yourself crazy.
Identify three things that jump out at you and start there.
The important thing is to start.
And here are some resources to kick off your little meditation on waste:
- 13 Eco-friendly Cleaning Products
- The case for high efficiency washing machines
- General info on reducing waste
Living mindfully isn’t difficult—it just involves paying attention to some of our unconscious habits.
The best way to change any habit is to start small, and keep your changes simple. You don’t need to go from disposable everything to a zero waste lifestyle overnight. That kind of dramatic change isn’t even the point.
Just the three small changes outlined above can make a huge difference for you, your budget, and the environment.
If three feels like too much, tackle one to begin with … and then, move onto the others.
Just don’t kid yourself: taking a single action and calling it “done” is not the end point—it’s the leaping off point.
This is about uncovering and shedding the unconscious decisions we make every day—where we choose what is easy over what we truly stand for and value.
This is another step toward waking up to ourselves, unstuffing our lives, and living with less stress and more joy.
Making room for the people and experiences that matter most doesn’t have to take up lots of time and effort. The idea is to free up mental space, not occupy it, so don’t over-complicate the process—or give up before you’ve made a dent.
Start wherever it makes sense to you. But make sure you start somewhere. And keep going.
And hey—you’re not alone in this. Sign up for my FREE De-Stress Your Mess 5-Day Challenge and let’s do this together. Click here to learn more and register!