What's worse: wasting packaging or wasting water?

Another thread reminded me of something I’ve tought about often. I reuse all sorts of packaging. I’ll reuse the cardboard box from the doughnut or cake shop; I’ll slide in another sheet of wax paper on the bottom. I’ll reuse the plastic bags the local bakery uses for their bread, and even the wax paper bags they use for their cookies. It can take quite a bit of water to clean these sometimes. Same with to-go cups, like for iced coffee.

I’ve always wondered, is any perceived benefit of reusing packaging offset by the amount of water/wax paper I consume in the process?

Side note: Once or twice a year, someone will understandably balk due to health department reasons. But overall, I’m surprised how well I’ve been accomodated in my reuse campaign. I was very afraid at first, but most everyone was extremely supportive.

I reuse foil almost all the time. Generally I’ve tented something with it. I also use and then reuse paper plates. If we’re having toast or a sandwich, why not? I have a daughter who’s always showing me way to recycle/reuse. When we get takeout food, they’re always giving us SO many paper napkins. Those get saved and used. I’d love to read about others uses.

I’m a fairly recent convert to Debbie Meyer GreenBoxes, reusable storage for produce that absorbs ethylene gas and retards spoilage. I rinse and either pat or spin dry everything I put in the boxes, and the vegetables stay fresh a freakishly long time. I think I’m both saving water and reducing waste, and I’m definitely cutting down on prep time.

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I wash and recycle the Dunkin Donuts iced coffee cups, so I wash the straws at the same time. I keep these in my car and refuse the new ones I am offered. Local recycling won’t take styrofoam but I wash the trays that carry meat and produce, then use them to hold sandwiches and snacks at home, and as cutting boards when prepping ingredients. There’s always one in the microwave to catch boil-overs. Then I throw them out. I think I’m using less soap and water that way than if I were washing cutting boards and plates.

There’s some packaging that can be used with just a little rinse, or as is. Plastic produce and bakery bags don’t need to be cleaned before reusing, IMO. I would not feel I needed to add wax paper to a bakery box before reusing. I’d just shake out crumbs and wipe off anything sticky. Germophobia and reusing/recycling may be irreconcilable worldviews.

Produce is a whole other discussion. When I get greens at the farmers market in-season, I have to use a lot of water to rinse them. The worse offender is spinach. It takes forever to rinse all the dirt out of it.

For takeout food, I’ve actually reused the containers quite a bit in the past. (I would only do it during slow hours.) These days we don’t takeout much, so I don’t keep the containers in the car like I used to. Just last week, however, we reused a pizza box. It required a new sheet of wax paper in the middle of the box, but the pizza shop uses a wax paper sheet anyway.

We reuse pretty much every plastic or glass container from the grocery store. You have to be careful because the jars retain some of the smell of their previous occupants. If you’re giving away cookies, e.g., use a “compatible” jar, like a jam or peanut butter jar. Otherwise the cookies end up smelling like sambal.

Great question. I think it depends what materials are being reused. I do remember some believe that using disposable paper towels is more environmental than using cloth towels (which need to be washed). Not sure if it is true.

For me, cloth towels over paper is all about the money. Paper towels are so ridiculously expensive.

Rinsing produce under running water is unnecessary. Fill a large bowl with cold water, swish the greens in it, then lift them out with your hands and place them in a colander or salad spinner to drain. All the dirt stays behind, at the bottom of the bowl. You could be extra-ecological by pouring that water through a coffee filter, after which it could be used again for washing or cooking.

Imagine that your pipes are broken and you can only use water from jugs or buckets. You’ll find you can accomplish meal preparation, and other tasks, with far less water than you are accustomed to using.


liquids for thought . . . .

old technology papermills require up to 45 gallons of water to produce one pound of paper. thin, bleached, food grade is on the highest end of that scale.

modern mills with extensive water recycling can reduce the demand to about 3 gallons per pound of paper.

I just weighed a generic store brand roll of paper towels; six ounces by weight.
water worst case: 6/16= 0.375 lbs * 45 gallons / lb = 16.875 gallons per roll
water best case: 1.125 gallons

now, how much water is used produce a cotton towel?

But a cotton towel lasts for five or ten years, right? At least mine do!

Yes, the towel lasts, BUT you are using hot water to launder it. So that’s water plus gas or electricity, and more power to dry it unless you use a clothesline. I have no idea how that shakes out, nor how the energy/resource uses in producing cotton and paper towels compare. If I’ve used a paper towel just to absorb water, I let it air-dry and reuse it.

So complicated! I’m probably half and half, I definitely do let water mop ups dry so I can reuse.

We use cloth kitchen towels as napkins and they go a LONG time between washings. And a couple of napkins that get tossed in with a regular load of laundry is going to be fine.

I assume everyone knows this whether they practice it or not. When the water in the kitchen is warming up we place a bucket under it. Sometimes we refill the dog’s bowl with it and sometimes use it to flush the toilet.

At first Costco’s half sheets of paper towels annoyed me but now I’m used to them and appreciate. And I reuse them a lot. If I’ve covered something to MW then it gets reused…and reused.

But you need to wash cotton towels all the time. The disposable paper towel does not.

Are Kirkland towels back to being select-a-size? When I first bought them, they were. I stopped buying them a couple of years ago when they changed to full-size, with a longer sheet than most paper towels, to boot. The texture changed too, for the worse. I discovered Wegman’s store brand, which are strong, absorbent, relatively soft, and select-a-size, for a lot less than Bounty. The pack of 12 jumbo rolls is $13, but frequently on sale for $11 with a store coupon.

What do you mean “all the time”??? Every couple of weeks or whenever a load of other towels is being washed.

I wash cotton towels after a few days mostly, unless it was something really gross. Disposable, I also do the same in general. To me, I own the towel immediately for the long run, where if it’s a paper towel I might just toss it after one use. Not really a big deal, I think it evens out in the end.

Agree with you.

I have many cotton towels too. I am not against them – I hope I didn’t come across like that. Just saying that there are many sides to a story. Like you, I accumulate my used cloth towel for machine wash. I often machine-wash these kitchen towels along with other things.

Beside the machine washes, I believe most of us often hand-wash these towels after each usage. For example, after wiping my kitchen counter, or my cast iron pans, I don’t just hang the towels up. I rinse them a couple of time in running water. Each hand rinse can easily take 2 quarts (even for small towels) of running water. So there are additional water usage which often not accounted for.

I agree with you that it is not a big deal and it evens out in many cases. I think kitchen towels are better for larger task where I may otherwise end up using an entire roll of paper towels, whereas paper towels are probably better for lighter jobs which require no cross-contamination. For example, I prefer to use paper towels to pet down and dry my shrimps or fishes – if needed.

Wow! You obviously don’t live in CA where we’re rationing water!!!

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Bessarabsky Market, Kyiv. Ukraine
Credit: Juan Antonio Segal, Flickr