household items are one of the first areas of consumption i reduced on my journey to live a simpler and less wasteful lifestyle. things like paper towels, a different cleaning agent for every surface of the house, and various fancy tools for scrubbing add up surprisingly fast once you start tracking your expenses. we all need to maintain our homes and selves, so instead of cutting these items all together, i have sought homemade and upcycled alternatives.
self-sufficiency is all about regaining control in your life and making choices that align with your values. personally, the expense of products that are harmful for the environment and expensive doesn’t fit into my belief system. so i sought alternatives. Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson was a huge inspiration when i began reworking this corner of my life. Make Your Place by Raleigh Briggs is also fantastic, and published by microcosm, a true DIY company. there are many resources on the internet about homemade products, but i’ve had to do quite a bit of experimentation to find things that actually work.
i subscribe to the idea that we vote with our dollars, meaning that every dollar we spend (or don’t spend) represents a choice. i feel that when i choose to make a product at home using non-toxic ingredients instead of purchasing pre-made all-purpose cleaner, i am voting for less environmental pollution. i also feel that when i purchase toilet paper made with 100% paper packaging, i am voting for less cheap plastics made from crude oil. large companies spend lots of money to convince us that we need this cleaner for this surface, or this scrubber for this purpose. when we re-evaluate our lifestyles and determine what we actually need, then spend more judiciously, we are voting against cheaply made and environmentally harmful products, and we are voting against throw-away culture.
in this way, small choices like switching from name brand cleaners to homemade products or making your own rags out of old clothes work synergistically to both save you money and allow you to live in accordance with your beliefs. the health of the environment, making sure what i use in my body and home is non-toxic, breaking the cycle of consumption and waste – these are all part of my belief set. it empowers me seek alternative choices that i feel uphold these beliefs.
happily, we now spend less than $50 per year on household supplies. below is a list (updated from 2016) of common household goods and our choices to either go without, substitute with something homemade, or seek a sustainable product replacement.
paper towels – DO WITHOUT – as with many of the items i “gave up,” i told myself that if after a couple months i really missed paper towels, i could have them back. this type of mindset helps me experiment with what i actually need vs what i just think i need. if i give something up and find that after a few months my quality of life is lower or more difficult, i pick it back up – no big deal.
two years later and we are still living without paper towels. i use old pieces of clothing – usually give-away t-shirts and old sheets – and cut them up into little squares. jersey and cotton fabrics are preferred for absorption. i keep all my rags in a big bin, and use them like paper towels. when one is dirty, i throw it in a bag under the sink (or if it was just used for dusting, straight into the laundry). once the bag is full, i was the rags in the laundry along with all my small rugs, and add a a cup of white vinegar to the wash. the vinegar is an extra disinfectant and removes foul smells. if a task is particularly gross (i.e. cleaning out kitty litter boxes, wiping down toilet, heavy grease), i just throw the rag away (100% cotton can also be composted). anytime a piece of fabric becomes unusable, i turn it into rags. this little system has served us quite well, and reduced the considerable amount of money we were spending on paper towels.
toilet paper – SEEK SUSTAINABLE REPLACEMENT– no way in hell i’m giving up toilet paper! i do try to use it more consciously (not tearing off 10 squares at a time to wipe my nose). when we restock, i buy this brand because no plastic packaging, it comes in mega bulk to diffuse price and shipping burden, and is made in the USA with 100% recovered materials. it’s also safe on septic. one case has lasted us two years and counting.
tissues – DO WITHOUT – mildly controversial, but we blow our nose with toilet paper. i have a strong distaste for items like tissues that only serve one purpose. if one of us gets sick with runny nose, which is pretty rare, we will go out and buy a box of lotioned tissues.
napkins – DIY – we are pretty uncivilized humans and mostly eat without napkins just fine. i’m making a set of six linen napkins that can be washed and reused. i love this option because not only it is way less expensive and wasteful than paper napkins, but you can pick cute and seasonal fabrics to match your tastes.
disposable plates and flatwear – DO WITHOUT – the idea of using disposables is kinda beyond me, especially in the age of the modern dishwasher … but we do bust out paper plates once a year for our huge oktoberfest party.
dish soap – SEEK SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVE – i tried for a whole year making my own dish soap. i must have tested dozens of recipe – some didn’t foam, some didn’t cut through grease. since we don’t have a dishwasher, useful dish soap is a must. i buy a few different brands available in the ‘natural’ section – i look for labeling that the product is free of harsh sulfates (SLS), not tested on animals, and made of post-consumer plastic. whenever you are buying a ‘natural’ alternative, beware of green washing and read labels carefully.
all purpose cleaner – DIY – this one is so easy! i try different recipes depending on what i have on hand, but here’s the basic: mix 2 cups hot water, 1 tsp borax, 1 tsp liquid castille soap (i like lavender), and 2 tb vinegar (white or kombucha if i have i one hand). pour into spray bottle. mix in 1/2 tsp essential oils. cap tightly and agitate. good essential oils for cleaning are – lemon, orange, eucalyptus, tea tree, lavender, and peppermint. i use this for basically everything – kitchen, bathroom, and kitty litter boxes.
windex – DO WITHOUT – i find that a slightly damp rag wipes my mirrors and windows perfectly clean. if there is a lot of gunk, i use my all purpose cleaner, then wipe again with a damp rag to remove streaking.
dusting wipes / clorox-type wipes – DO WITHOUT – again, i find that a slightly damp rag works perfect dusting, and spray plus rag subtitutes for bleach wipes.
toilet bowl cleaner – DIY – i’m lazy/ recipe-adverse, so i usually dump some baking soda in the bowl, followed by a gulp of vinegar and a few drop of tea tree essential oil. but here’s an actual recipe … mix 1/2 cup baking soda, 1/4 c vinegar, and 10 drops essential oil. pour into bowl and scrub. i think this works better than the uber-toxic store bought stuff.
drain opener – DIY – preventative maintenance is key – don’t let your drains stop up until water won’t flow, because it’s then it’s much harder to fix the issue. i installed a grate drain in our shower to prevent my hair from running into the pipes (cost about $4). if there is a clog, treat it when it’s minor by sprinkling a couple TB each salt and baking soda down the drain, followed by a swig of white vinegar. let sit 15-30 minutes and rinse with hot water. again, draino is quite toxic so think twice before pouring this down the drain and out into your city’s watershed.
laundry detergent – DIY – this was my very first DIY, because this crap’s expensive and the harsh sulfates irritate my skin. here’s my tried and true recipe: mix 2 parts washing soda, 2 parts borax, and 1 part grated castille soap. i use 1/8 cup (2 TB) per load. i make a huge batch that usually lasts 6-8 months.
trash bags – ACTED CONSCIOUSLY – we own one large trash can and it’s in our kitchen (there is one smaller one in the bathroom – in which i use old grocery bags). we compost all food scraps, so we don’t have to constantly be changing our trash can (i’d say we change it once/ month). two years ago, we made a conscious effort to start cutting down on our waste by implementing the above suggestions, buying food without packaging, and setting up a compost system and it’s one of my proudest accomplishments to date.
Some Helpful Implements
a high quality broom, with an angled cut for getting into corners; a few buckets; stainless steel sponges (they last forever); a heavy duty scrub brush that can be washed and boiled (sanitized) for dishes and cleaning food; a bio-degradable dish sponge (can be composted) or fabric dish sponges that can be turned into rags when spent; a solid bagless vacuum; a toilet bowl brush (although for a long time, i cleaned the inside of the bowl by hand). we also own these reusable produce bags that i love, and that save us from needing to use the flimsy plastic ones at the grocery store. and of course, reusable tote bags.
i buy wood and stainless steel products over plastic, and always opt for quality and manufacturing integrity over price – even on the little items like scrub brushes.
A List of Basic Ingredients For All Your DIY Needs
everything i use can be made with only the following items. most of these items serve other purposes as well, ranging from cooking/ baking to homemade beauty products and herbal remedies. this is a great place to start for someone who wants to use simpler goods. all these items can be purchased for under $30 total.
- Baking soda
- Washing soda
- White distilled vinegar
- Essential oil (these are expensive – if just beginning, simply pick one – make sure it has anti-micobial properties)
- Castille soap (liquid and bar)
the best part about DIY cleaners (besides saving money and the planet) is that when you run out of something, you don’t have to get in your car and drive to the store to go buy a replacement – you can make it one the spot. happy cleaning!