Sometimes this “going green” thing is overwhelming. I have so many habits that need changing. Some changes require new skills, some take a little extra time out of my day, some replace the trusted staples I have used for years. It requires me to change my mindset, to care a little more, to expand my worldview. I know the changes I’m making are worthwhile, but sometimes I don’t know where to begin or where to go next. It takes effort I don’t always feel like putting forth.
On the other hand, it’s very satisfying to learn something new and put it to use. I’m proud of how much safer I’ve made my home and that I’ve branched out to try new things, successfully and unsuccessfully. It’s also fun to have something to show for my effort, whether it’s simply a “green” clean house, a cabinet full of homemade cleaning products, or what I made this week–cloth napkins. What I like most of all is the the thought that I might be inspiring others to do the same, and that all of our small changes together can compound into a meaningful difference to our families, our communities, and our earth.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by trying to go green, here’s what I can suggest from my experiences so far:
- Look at your every day practices and identify the key areas that need improvement. Narrow them down to just one or two areas that you can change fairly easily. Once you get into a good routine with those changes, add another. If you’re like me, you’ll feel more inspired to tackle a new area and more ready to make a bigger change once you have a few wins under your belt.
Design a system that makes your new practices work smoothly. What you don’t need is more clutter in your life. If you don’t have a working system, your new habits will fall apart. For instance, when we decided to become better recyclers, I knew I would never make it to a recycling center to drop off our junk. I also didn’t want to have piles of recyclables sitting around. We hired a recycling service to pick up our stuff once a month, then I designated a hidden corner of our house to sort out and store the recyclables until pick-up. The basement stairs are just beside our kitchen, so I installed hooks on the stairwell walls to hold plastic bags (which are being reused and recycled in this capacity) to sort what our recycling company requires, labeled the hooks, and put a skinny trashcan beneath them to hold items that can be mixed. When the bags are full, we tie up the handles and toss them into the larger receptacle outside. The trashcan is also emptied into the large receptacle when it is full. This system works well for us at controlling the recycling clutter and ensures that we actually do recycle.
- Choose one or two areas to focus on overall, and do them well. Make as many small changes as you see fit, but focus your passion and energies into something that you feel makes the most difference. In my case, I’m using cloth grocery bags, CFL light bulbs, and natural household cleaners–small, yet important changes. But anyone who knows me sees that I am passionate about cloth diapers (a subject for another post.) I see what a difference they make for my daughter, how much waste would be created if I didn’t use them, how seriously CUTE my daughter looks in them, and how much money I save. I feel compelled to spread the word about them. Seriously, I take every chance I get to tell people how much I love cloth diapers. Using cloth diapers has helped me make other changes, like using more earth-friendly laundry detergent and line-drying my clothes. My daughter wears cloth diapers everywhere she goes. The only times I ever use disposable diapers any more are when we are traveling and I know I won’t be able to do laundry, and then I use a chlorine-free brand. I am passionate about cloth diapers, and I go all the way with them. This may not be an area that so inspires you, but I encourage you to find something that you really find interesting and exciting and do it all the way. Be an advocate for it. It will be so satisfying. You will really begin to see the difference you are making.
With all this in mind, I decided I was ready to go paperless in the kitchen. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to go paperless in other some other parts of the house (i.e. the bathroom), but the kitchen I could do. Specifically, I traded paper towels and napkins for their cloth counterparts. I rarely use other common disposable kitchen products, like paper plates, plastic wrap, or sandwich baggies, but I use far too many paper napkins and towels.
I had a few cloth napkins on hand for impressing company, but I wanted to keep them nice and didn’t have enough of them for daily use. I could buy more napkins, but I didn’t want to spend that much money. So, I decided to dust off my sewing machine and make them myself. I made three kinds of napkins to suit different needs:
- No sew: I’m not very good at sewing, and I wasn’t sure my homemade napkins would be more than a pretty addition to my rag bag.
I needed an extremely easy solution. So, I simply bought a yard of no-sew fleece for $5, trimmed the edges, and cut 12 rectangles out of it. I used pinking shears on the edges to give them a finished look. They aren’t fancy, but the fabric is stain-resistant, easily cleaned, and fairly durable. They don’t dissolve like a paper napkin when you wipe up sticky fingers, and my daughter doesn’t mind when I wipe her goobery face with them after a messy meal. If my napkin doesn’t get very dirty during a meal, I can keep it at my seat and use it again later so I don’t have so many to wash (this really isn’t gross, trust me,) but I have plenty ready so I won’t run out of napkins if I do use a new one for each snack and meal. The fleece works great for every day use. The only downside I see with them so far is that it is a little weird to use something so fuzzy while you’re eating. Because of this I don’t use these to hold snacks, just for wiping my fingers and face. These napkins cost $.42 each.
- Casual dining:
I made 12 more napkins out of two yards of flannel I bought on sale for $6. I cut 24 even rectangles, put their “right” sides together, and sewed around the edges (wrong side out) leaving a small hole to turn them right side out. Then I sewed up the hole and used a decorative stitch setting on my machine to make seams around the edges so the napkins lay flat.
They actually turned out very cute and make great napkins. I might even use these for company! They only cost $.50 each, but similar items cost $1-4 each (or even more) in stores.
- Cocktail napkins: We go through lots of paper napkins when we have a party, so I made a set of small napkins to set out with drinks and appetizers at our next soiree.
I found a package of 30 brightly-colored quilting charms (5 in. x 5 in. fabric squares with sheared edges) on sale for about $5. I put them together with their printed sides facing out and sewed a zigzag stitch along the edges. Then I dabbed clear nail polish around the edges to deter fraying. This made 15 napkins at $.34 each. Now I have to throw a party so I can show them off!
After using my cloth napkins for a week, I don’t see a need to go back to paper ones. I hardly missed using paper towels, too. The times when I might have missed paper napkins or towels were when I had a snack (using a napkin for a plate) or when I cleaned a particularly germy mess and didn’t want to deal with a yucky towel. For snacks I got used to reaching for a plate or a (non-fuzzy) cloth napkin, and for germy messes I came to terms with rinsing out a yucky towel. Easy peasy. Sometimes when you replace paper with cloth you end up with extra laundry, but in this case it wasn’t an issue. The extra napkins and towels fit right into my existing kitchen laundry system (a mesh hamper on a hook near the recyclables), and hardly made a dent in my overall laundry loads this week. The work of making my own napkins wasn’t bad, either. I did most of the cutting and sewing with a stubborn toddler on my lap. I won’t be winning any blue ribbons for my craftsmanship, but I did create a functional product that actually looks decent.
The only one in our house who will be missing paper napkins is our dear beagle. Napkins are his favorite snack. If he spots a napkin in your lap he will stalk it as if he were hunting wild prey…and just when you let your guard down…he pounces! He snatches it out of your hand and gulps it down before you know what hit you. Yes, yes, our dog has issues, but I know he’s not the only beagle that does this. However, all this paper can’t be good for him so our switching to cloth will be better for him, too. Unless he takes up eating cloth.
This turned out to be a fun project that I may continue experimenting with in the future. I am looking forward to trying different fabrics and making napkins to match special occasions.
Next week I will make homemade air freshener. What are your tricks for making your home smell like, well, home?