Return of the Green Shopping List: Stuff You Don’t Need Edition

Return of the Green Shopping List: Stuff You Don’t Need Edition July 9, 2013

Earlier this year, I wrote about three of my favorite eco-friendly items on my shopping list. However, as I pointed out last month, “reduce” is a better option than “reuse” or “recycle”. So today I’d like to help you knock three things off your shopping list that you probably don’t need anyway, saving you money and cutting down on your use of resources.

Fabric Softeners

Fabric softeners are one of the biggest wastes of money out there. Static cling is a minor inconvenience at best; I’ve been doing laundry without dryer sheets for over a decade and I only rarely get anything staticy (and it just takes a few shakes to make it dissipate). As to “softening” the fabric? They don’t actually soften anything. Instead, they coat the fibers of the clothing with slippery chemicals, making them seem softer. These chemicals are not a substitute for a well-worn t-shirt, that’s for sure.

In addition, almost all of them are petroleum based, meaning they’re laced with all sorts of toxins that you really don’t want against your skin. Some people even have allergic reactions to them. They’re also manufactured with a fair bit of industrial waste, and they’re not biodegradable. Is it really worth having slightly softer-feeling clothing for all that?

If you want the same effect but without the environmental cost, invest in some reusable dryer balls. There are plastic ones, though they come with the usual caveats with plastics in general. A more eco-friendly alternative are wool ones (here’s just one option on Etsy). Not only do they make clothes softer, but they reduce static, too! And while there is a bit of an initial investment, they’ll last long enough to pay you back many times over.

Or, for the super-frugal, just add a bit of vinegar to your wash–here’s how. And for added static removal, try dryer balls made from common household aluminum foil.

Bottled Water

I’ve been one of many people protesting Nestle’s desire to put a bottled water plant in the Columbia River Gorge. It’s not just that I don’t want this beautiful place further degraded by unnecessary industry pollution. It’s also that bottled water simply isn’t necessary to the degree some people think it is.

Admittedly, I live in Portland, Oregon, which has some of the best tap water in the country, hands-down. I know there are places where the water tastes terrible (I’m looking at you, Long Beach, CA). There are plenty of ways to fix this. A water filter, either on the tap or in a pitcher, helps filter out a lot of the stuff in the water that makes it taste bad. Chilling it before drinking also improves the taste, and leaving it in the fridge overnight so the chlorine can evaporate helps, too. You can also put a clean magnet in the bottom of the pitcher to help draw some of the metals out of it—just use the water on the top of the pitcher to drink, and use the rest for watering house plants and other nonpotable purposes.

Bottled water is also expensive. This article points out that not only does it cost five cents per ounce (as opposed to a penny or less per gallon for tap water), but it also racks up a pretty hefty environmental cost in terms of gas and other resources needed to get it from the spring (or municipal source) to the bottling plant to the stores and then to you.

Finally, there’s the waste issue. Yes, the bottles are recyclable, but recycling is still problematic in that it requires energy and produces pollution as a byproduct. And many bottles are still simply thrown away. Some even end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and not every bottle gets rescued to be recycled into neat things like this). Stopping plastic pollution in the oceans starts on land, and you can start by saying no to bottled water.

If you still want a case of bottled water for emergencies, that’s fine. And there are places where the water simply isn’t safe to drink, even with boiling and filtering. But in the U.S., most places have perfectly safe (if sometimes not tasty) water that can be easily served up with better solutions than bottles.

Disposable Kitchenware

I grew up in a family that sometimes used paper plates. Not for every meal, mind you, but I remember the brightly-colored floral patterns on heavy-duty Dixie plates, and I cringe to think of how many even our small family threw away over the years (to say nothing of the paper napkins used at every meal, regardless). Paper plates and napkins are usually made with brand new pulp, and even the manufacturing process for those made from recycled content still results in a lot of energy use and pollution, to say nothing of the gas and carbon exhaust needed to make and ship them all over. I’ve heard people try to excuse their paper goods by saying the water and energy use for washing reusables is worse for the environment than the manufacture of disposables, but that’s just not true at all.

In my household today, paper and plastic plates and disposable cups simply aren’t allowed. If a dish or glass is broken and needs to be replaced, Portland is full of thrift stores with plenty of kitchenware (sometimes never used) for cheap. We have an unfortunate takeout habit that sometimes results in plasticware getting shoved into the bag (yes, I have plans to get us more reusable containers for leftovers and the like), but the plastic forks and such end up washed and reused just the same. I’ve been collecting secondhand cloth napkins for several years that are in constant rotation, and we only have paper towels (made from 100% recycled paper) for soaking up those rare but really awful, terrifying messes that need to be immediately disposed of.

If you aren’t concerned about making sure everything matches perfectly, why not go the secondhand route? It’s more fun, I think, to have a diverse patchwork of colors, shapes, sizes, and designs in the cupboard, especially when everyone in the household gets to choose their own. If you’re a DIY sort of person, cloth napkins are about as easy a sewing project as you could hope for. And they’re thin and light enough that you can just use them to top off an ordinary laundry load without noticeably increasing your laundry costs.

So what if you’re putting on a big festival or party or other event and you don’t want to be stuck with a mountain of dishes and cloth napkins to clean afterward? Ask people to bring their own. I’ve been going to Sunfest here in Oregon for several years now, and every year there’s a big potluck on Saturday evening. Everybody is responsible for providing their own reusable dishes and utensils. And you know what? It works just fine. I’ve never seen a single paper plate or plastic fork in attendance. If you’re extra-prepared, you can bring a few spares to loan people who forgot; just ask them to return them clean. Don’t feel so bad about using the dishwasher to keep your party guests happy, either—if loaded properly and using an eco-friendly detergent, it actually uses less water and soap than hand washing. If you really, really, really have to use disposables, get the heavy-duty plastic ones that can be washed and reused, or if they absolutely have to be pitched, get ones made from recycled paper.

Finally, you only have to buy the ceramics, silverware, and glasses once (and if you’re a savvy thrift shopper or yard sale hunter, you can fill your kitchen for under $50). They’ll last through thousands of uses, quickly becoming a much cheaper option than that $5 pack of plates that only lasts a week or two.


We buy all sorts of things that really aren’t necessary, not because they’re fun or related to relaxation, but because we’re convinced they make our lives easier. Really, they don’t make that big a difference, if any at all, and they’re not worth the long-term environmental cost. Plus getting the eco-friendly alternatives is a cheaper choice overall—and who doesn’t want to save money on their weekly shopping trip?

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