Cleaning up the bathroom

Cleaning products—both for our bodies and our spaces—are tremendous sources of plastic waste. Good news: Your medicine cabinet is full of opportunities for easy wins.

I’ve been using a natural deodorant lately. You know the type: comes in a cardboard tube, big-print list of easily recognizable ingredients. I use it unless I have to see other people. If I have to go to a business event or a social thing, I reach for that familiar blue puck, rising up from its polypropylene carapace, demurely whispering its catalog of chemical components from which you could probably also construct a nuclear bomb. 

Why the switch? Natural deodorant sucks—or at least, mine does. It smells like I dumped half the spice drawer and some pine needles onto a eucalyptus-oil-soaked rag and then smeared it all under my armpits. This delightful bouquet lasts a few hours, at which point I will either reapply or just shrug an apology at my officemate (a lamp I sometimes talk to) and then go back power-eating pistachios and reading about climate change. I work from home, and I rarely smell bad enough that my family or the UPS guy are in danger.

I’m gonna stick with this situation, though, and here’s why: I go through about six bars of deodorant a year, and my mass-market sticks each wear a shell comprised of 34 grams of polypropylene. If I can mostly use the natural stuff and cut it down to 1 stick of Manhattan Project every 12 months, I’ll save 170 grams of plastic annually. I’ll clear a kilogram in six years, and, though my math on this is squishy—I’m using the numbers for a tube of cosmetics, which is the closest figure I could find—that could amount to more than 2 million pieces of microplastic I’ll keep out of the world. 

You may be reading this and thinking something along the lines of pfffftttt snort so what, loser. And yeah, a kilogram of plastic over the course of 6 years is not going to fix the planet. But looking for every easy opportunity to reduce our impact will. That is the game. Tell your friends.

Back to the math. Let’s assume it’s really squishy—off by an order of magnitude, even—and say I’m keeping a million pieces of microplastic out of the ocean. If a million of us, which is barely 0.3% of the U.S. population, each saved that same kilogram over the course of 6 years, that’s a trillion tiny pollution shards that, after basically zero effort, won’t end up in a tuna or in your kid’s cereal or in your blood. There’s no downside to easy wins.

But maybe I’ll find a brand of refillable or paper-clad deodorant that actually works, and get this particular source of plastic out of my life completely. If the robots who run social media ad-targeting are still aces at predicting the future, the cleaning and personal care worlds are seeing the need to cut down on harmful packaging. Experts agree.

“Beauty creates a ton of waste, but recently there’s been a lot more acknowledgement of what we are doing to the environment,” says Sarah Brown, Executive Director, Violet Lab at Violet Grey, the cult online beauty store. That title means she leads the team that chooses the products Violet Grey sells; that last name means she is my sister, which is why she took my phone call. 

Brown has been a leading figure in the beauty industry for more than 20 years, so she’s had a front-row seat from which to witness companies evolving their practices to address the environmental crisis. “It used to be that any time you bought a beauty product, it came wrapped in cellophane,” she says. “That made it feel special because you knew nobody had put their fingers in it before you. They came with these little plastic spatulas and all sorts of other accessories.” These practices have largely ceased, says Brown, who has seen companies not just cutting out the harmful materials, but reengineering packaging to meet consumer demand. “In the beginning it was you can recycle this. Then it was, this was recycled. Now it’s, this will biodegrade.” 

This is all positive progress, but reducing the amount of packaging overall—no matter what it’s made of—has got to be the goal. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, “The personal care and beauty industry produces more than 120 billion units of packaging every year globally.”  

Brown believes that the industry gets it. “We are seeing a lot of companies embracing the idea of the refill,” she says. “You’ve got this beautiful glass jar—why throw it out every time?” You could see how a limited edition container or something like that might even add to the feeling of exclusivity that high-end beauty products convey, but it’s an open question as to whether consumers will pay big bucks for the refill. Some of these products cost hundreds of dollars for a small amount of actual stuff, and it’s harder to justify heating up your credit card when you don’t get something that looks expensive in return.

Companies are paying attention to consumer behavior, though, which means you could be an important data point; check to see if your salve of choice offers a refill. You might be surprised to learn that it does. “It’s also a question of compliance,” says Brown, noting that though loyalty is a huge factor in the beauty biz, consumers are, like everywhere else, fixated on trying the Next Big Thing. This might send many reusable cream-sculptures to the back of the medicine cabinet—or the landfill.

Whether you’re looking to top up an old standby or try something new, a search for “refill” on Violet Grey will return everything from creams to mascara to toothbrushes and blush. That’s a decent haul for a shop that prides itself on only offering the few best products, and yes, that is a shameless plug for my sister’s work. Come at me. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the universe…

A man steps out of a Volvo. He pays $5.32 to pump clear liquid into quart-size mason jar from a hip-high blue plastic drum. 

No, this is not a transaction involving moonshine, which would cost way more than five bucks a quart. This guy’s buying laundry detergent at a bulk refill store, mainstay of college-town business districts since the days when you had to get your Birkenstocks from Germany.

They’re popping up everywhere these days. Volvo Guy was at a shop that’s 20 minutes from my house, and if my hayfield boasts that kind of proximity, those of you closer to population centers can probably do better. There are nine in Manhattan; the Bay Area and LA have a zillion between them. Wyoming has two, and Alaska, with eight, represents pretty damn well for the nation’s most sparsely populated state. Litterless maintains a very comprehensive list of stores, and there are probably more. 

If you haven’t been to a refill store, just go. The one near me is called the O Zone, and the first thing you see when you walk in is a row of five-gallon pump containers full of dish soap and laundry detergent. They are a question made physical: just how loyal are you to Tide?

While each of the refill stores I’ve been to has a home-brewed vibe, it’s not like every detergent they sell is made out back by an amateur soaper mixing mutton tallow with lavender. Yes, the O Zone will sell you unscented castile soap, an all-natural, all-purpose cleanser that you can mix with the scented oil of your choice. But you can also buy professionally formulated cleaners from national companies like Ecos, Common Good, and Sapadilla. (All of these companies ship direct to consumers, by the way.) For those of you who feel most comfortable in Corporate America’s warm embrace, Sapadilla is owned by the Gorilla Glue Company, and though their dish soap is touted as all natural, many of its ingredients would not look out of place in a chemistry textbook.

I’m not being flip here; that mainstream pop is important to me too. The stakes are high when you’re washing germs off your family’s dishes or trying to get a stain out of your favorite Zoom-shirt. Modern chemistry may have propped up the petroleum industry, but it has also delivered us outstanding surfactants that are way better than river water at getting dirt to give up its grip. That doesn’t mean you should punt another 60 grams of polyethylene into the landfill every time you re-up, though. Rinse out that detergent bottle, take it to a refill store, and spend a few bucks to give it a try.

You don’t have to replace every single cleaner and cream with one that you pump out of a vat, but each one you do is a dramatic reduction in waste over the years. How much do you really love your dish soap? Are you actually that impressed with your counter-cleaner’s grease-obliterating action, or is it possible the marketing is better than the spray? Every single disposable bottle you replace with a reusable option is a victory, so crack open the under-sink and start planning some wins.

This is an incredibly easy way to lower your personal impact, and not just in terms of plastic. “I like to use laundry detergent as an example,” says Amelia Legare, proprietor of the O Zone, pointing at a 55-gallon drum. “For high efficiency washing machines, that’s 7,040 loads of laundry,” she says. That’s more than 70 family-size containers of Tide that P&G didn’t have to mint, and shipping one barrel to Legare is far more efficient than shipping 70 jugs to a grocery store—or, as is more likely the case, to an ecommerce distribution warehouse who in turn ships it to you. It’s way cheaper, too.

The math gets even better with powdered detergent. A 5-gallon bucket of the stuff is good for 2,320 loads in a high-efficiency washer. Which means that three buckets—just 15 gallons—is just about equivalent to one of those 55 gallon drums. It’s way more efficient to produce, ship, and store. And Volvo Guy’s mason jar, which netted him 32 loads of laundry, would be good for almost four months of daily washing if he bought powder instead. Imagine the impact of this behavior at population-scale.

Brown sees the same thing in the high-end personal care world. “A lot of a product, whether it’s a window spray or a body wash, is water,” she says, pointing out that the added cost and fuel you have to expend to ship water to someone who undoubtedly has a faucet is wasteful. “Smart people in the industry have realized, what if we gave you the tablet and you mixed water into it and it became the product…” This is happening everywhere from toothpaste to shampoo to detergent, and Brown points out that, though it may be a trend right now, it’s rooted in something that isn’t exactly new science. “It’s a solid soap that you mix with water to create foam,” she says. 

Sounds familiar. And honestly, was bar soap so bad? Brown and I tried to remember when it was the body wash took over everyone’s showers. Her bet is that when those puffs swept the nation back in the 80s, we all got used to pumping our cleaners out of bottles instead of spinning bars in our hands to make lather. It probably takes a few seconds longer per shower to wash up, and yeah, that scum that accumulates on the soap dish is kind of grody, but if refills aren’t for you, maybe pick up a bar the next time you’re in the body wash aisle. They’re super fashionable these days.

Programming note for people who read to the end: You might see an email from me in your inbox, asking if you want to chat for a few minutes about one5c. It’s not spam—that’s actually me, actually interested in what you think. I’m reaching out to a small number of you who read regularly to find out what subjects are resonating, how you found out about one5c, and what you’d like to see more of. I’d be grateful for your time.

Take care of yourselves—and each other


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More on plastic:

The plastic hit list

What *is* plastic?