Friday, January 22, 2010

Five frugal and environmentally-friendly product swaps

When I was a little girl visiting my grandmother in Germany, I noticed that Oma, like many of her friends, always took her own well-worn cloth bags with her to the grocery store, drugstore, bakery, and meat market. She never set off to make a purchase without them, and she never bought more than what she could fit into those bags. Thus, she never had to bother with paper or plastic.

Then we’d go back home to America and shop - cloth bag-less - at our own grocery store, where the ratio of plastic to product was approximately 1:1: a plastic bag for the jar of pickles. A plastic bag for the carton of milk. Two plastic bags, doubled up, for a couple liters of soda. We never knew quite what to do with all of those bags after unloading the groceries (this was before most big towns had recycling centers). Throwing them away seemed wasteful, but keeping them was inconvenient. You’d open the pantry door and a tsumani of plastic would tumble onto your head.

For the last year or so, Trent and I have followed Oma’s suit. When we shop, we bring our own cloth bags with us. (Sometimes we even get praised for it. “Thanks for making an effort to be kind to the environment,” said the Whole Foods bagger the other day, and smiled as if we’d saved half the planet from certain destruction.)

Hopefully, cloth bags are just the start of it for us. Over the past year or so, we’ve been re-examining our choices in an effort to save money and live in a more environmentally friendly manner. We started cooking most of our meals from scratch, meaning we eat fewer processed foods and takeout and therefore generate less plastic and cardboard waste. We traded in regular light bulbs for compact fluorescents. And we’ve made a number of other easy product swaps that have eased our spending and lightened the load on the environment, however incrementally:

(Excuse the cell phone-quality picture. A new camera isn't in the budget quite yet.)

1. We ditched the plastic and bought a water filter. I hate to say it, but the tap water in our town tastes like it’s been stewing in a big vat of chlorine. I refuse to drink it straight up, regardless of how safe it’s supposed to be. In the past, I’d buy at least one gallon of water in a plastic container every week. It wasn’t that expensive – about a dollar a gallon at Target – but it generated a lot of waste. A few months ago, we wised up and purchased a pitcher with accompanying water filter for about $22, including the filter. Now I have clean, tasty water on hand all the time, and our recycling bin isn’t cluttered with giant containers.

2. Goodbye, paper towels. Hello…diapers? Last year, I wrote about how we decided to substitute pre-fold diapers for paper towels. Given that we have a three year old, and given that we do cook nearly every night, we deal with grime and goop and spills on a near-constant basis. We were easily going through an entire roll of paper towels every week. So we spent about $20 on a couple packs of basic cloth diapers. They’re much more absorbent than paper towels or regular kitchen rags, and we wash them with whatever else happens to be in the hamper. We use them to mop up the counter, wipe off sticky mac n’ cheese-covered fingers, clean the windows, etc.

3. Take a load off, oven. The toaster’s filling in tonight. We’re a small family and our meals aren’t that large. Sometimes it seems silly to rev up the big oven just to bake a plate of fries or roast some veggies. It's a waste of energy. So when we can, we use our little toaster oven instead. Because it’s small, it heats up quickly and slices a few minutes off of most baking times. We’ve used our toaster oven to cook a variety of foods: chicken, potatoes, pizza, and fish, to name a few.

4. It doesn’t smell as good as other cleaning products, but it works just as well. We’ve replaced most of our household cleaners with two cheap and basic substitutes: vinegar and baking soda. They’re effective, and I don’t worry about using them around my son. These products sell for about a dollar each at the grocery store, and a little of either goes a long way. I cleaned the entire bathroom with them the other day, and although it didn’t exactly smell pretty afterwards, the porcelain and chrome were definitely gleaming.

5. We started purchasing biodegradable laundry powder. The $12 4-pound bags we purchase from a local soap company last about three months. You need only about a quarter of a cup of powder per load of laundry. The powder doesn’t suds up the way many other detergents do, but we’ve used it for more than half a year, and I can say that our clothes always look clean and smell fresh ( least, no-one's told us otherwise...).

I'm not sure why we didn't make some of these changes sooner, especially when Oma - one of my lifelong role models - served as such a commendable example of a conscientious consumer. Better late than never, I guess. We’ve started to realize that frugality and green living can mesh very well with one another: a wallet-conscious choice is often an Earth-conscious choice, too.


  1. I got my first "bag" yesterday. I went shopping with a friend and she always brings her own bags. She bought me one and you would have thought it was a new pair of earings I was so excited about it. I will need to collect more now!

    It's the little things.....they all add up.


  2. Thanks for your comment! I doubt we've saved a *significant* amount of money by making these changes, but we do feel good about them... Throwing out paper towels or plastic makes me feel so guilty!

  3. Diapers! Cloth diapers are a brilliant idea. I'm off to share that with my husband now and then buy some in the next few days!

  4. The great thing about it is, not only are you doing your part for the environment, but you’re also saving more in the long run. Like the water filter, for example. Sure it’s not that cheap, but compared to buying bottled water constantly, you’d save more. And the best part is that you’re ensuring your health is guaranteed as well.

    Capital Plumbing & Heating Ltd.