The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

January 18, 2011

Is It Possible to Reduce Home Care Plastic Waste?

I’ve been with my family in Maryland since Thursday.  It was meant to be a happy trip to celebrate my and my mom’s birthdays, but in the last two weeks, my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease has progressed to the point that she can no longer even speak to us.  We can’t tell if she knows who we are anymore.  My heart is breaking, and all I know is that I want to be near her as much as I can this year.

Mostly my attitude this weekend’s been “screw the plastic.”  Not for myself.  I’m still refusing single use disposables for me.  But when it comes to all the plastic necessary to take care of my mom (disposable diapers, wipes, medicine bottles, pads, creams, gloves, etc), I just can’t go there.  It just doesn’t seem important in the scheme of things.

But then again, what if everyone with a sick loved one felt that way?  Mountains of plastic trash are generated in home care, and those mountains are only going to get larger as the population ages.  Are there less wasteful methods?  Fortunately, My Plastic-free Life reader Ashely has thought about these questions and wrote about what she could do to reduce the waste generated from taking care of her grandmother.

Ashley took the Show Your Plastic Trash Challenge in November and collected her caregiving-related plastic waste.  One thing she’s trying is switching to reusable cloth bed pads.  Please check out her tally.

home care plastic waste

I’m wondering if any of you have experience caring for an ill person and taken steps to mitigate your waste while effectively managing their health.  What suggestions do you have to reduce the disposables?  I want to hear from you because I’m just a bit too emotional to get into the subject right now.


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Sorry that you are having to learn about this all at once. Since you’ve been so diligent in giving up plastic and are now feeling bad about using plastic convenience products for your mother….. I will “take up your slack”. I have only made a halfhearted effort to reduce my plastic consumption in the last two years. I’m gonna get SERIOUS about it now after reading your info. Don’t feel guilty. Make it easy on yourself – you’ve got a serious situation and it’s not going to get better. I will make a sincere effort to quit buying disposable plastic.… Read more »

Anna Bryant

Lots of good ideas, but…using cloth diapers…when you don’t have a washing machine….won’t work. Most laundromats post signs to prohibit such. I have a need to use diapers myself….and do not have a washer. So I’ll keep using disposables. As for wipes…I use them…washer again…but always use flush-able…but don’t flush….had a plumber tell me that is bad…as he replaced my toilet..if you use disposables…use wipes. If you have difficulty reaching….there are tools for this….don’t try to use toilet paper with these…much to frustrating. As for the RX problem….the Fed’s have fixed that…can’t refill … cross contamination. This is the time… Read more »


Just came back to say I’m thinking about you, Beth. Dealing with adults with dementia is really difficult and greivous, I hope you’re getting a lot of care and support yourself.


I was thinking along the same lines when I donated blood this week. The whole process is plastic with the exception of the needle and everything is thrown away, much of it in bins marked with the bio-waste symbol. I wonder if any is recycled?


Look into Nature Baby Care products for wipes, they are compostable and come in non-plastic packaging – made out of chalk I think


For the record, I’m probably in the “don’t worry about eh plastic in times like these” camp, but I still think it’s very important that you are sticking to you guns for yourself.

In any case, your story about your mom reminded me of an interview I heard with this author the other day. her mom also had Alzheimers and she wrote a graphic novel about it. It sounded very good. I don’t think it has a website, but just google Tangles and Graphic Novel.

Sabrina Lutes

Hello Beth,
I wont make this long, and maybe it’s a repeat…
But o-wool, has amazing bed liners. My toddler can stand and pee on the bed without it leaking into the mattress or having to continue wiping up nasty plastic. It dries instantly and doesn’t stink. They have puddle pads also. This would be way more comfortable. And probably more healthy than plastic.

Heather from New Zealand

Two final thoughts: 1. Don’t be too guided by what you would do if you were involved in the care of a baby, rather than your mum. The situations are less similar than they might seem. Adults are much bigger than babies so there’s much more laundry involved; the time they may need care for can be much longer; the emotional energy you have is much less as you are dealing with grief rather than the hope that comes with a new baby. So doing the same thing as you would with a baby is much much harder with an… Read more »

Heather from New Zealand

Hi, I am myself an adult who is largely bedbound so have some care needs in common with your mum. I am not incontinent but am often unable to get up to go to the bathroom so use a bedpan. I protect my sheets with a washable bed mat (I use one from these people , who are local to me, but you probably can find something similar close to you). They also sell adult cloth diapers – maybe you can find those, too, now that you know they exist. I wash the mat when it gets smelly but it… Read more »


oh, um I guess we should still say that you have to be willing to stick your hand in the toilet to rinse off really messy diapers and wipes–the washing machine won’t be able to do it all. I personally find disposable plastic much more disgusting than sticking my hand into my own relatively clean toilet. ; )


Beth, I am so sorry about your mom. I hope you get lots of good time with her this year. I have not taken care of adults yet, but I have several children, and want to echo what people are saying about disposable wipes. I made my own from old T-shirts–PERFECT!!!! I use them for “family cloth” too–I just keep a box of the clean cloths on the back of the toilet for convenience, and have a little tub (old big plastic yoghurt container) down by the trash can to hold the used ones, which I then throw in with… Read more »


I’m sorry to hear about your Mum Beth. My Nan has dementia, but this is your Mum which I know must be heartbreaking. When I visited my Nan I noticed all the plastic, a cup for each patient for each set of drugs, maybe 3 times a day. I once saw them stocking up the nappies & was amazed how many they get through. But then I felt so bad for even noticing or considering plastic, the carers are so busy doing an extremely difficult job. It felt as if maybe I was spoilt & didn’t have any thing more… Read more »


Beth, I am sorry about your mom. I hope you get to spend a lot of time with her. Yeah, it’s ironic but so much plastic use is from healthcare. Most of mine generates from my medical needs. I use an injectable medication once a day in single use pre-filled syringes. I could reduce plastic use slightly by switching to filling my own but that would mean preservatives in the medication and I’m allergic (wouldn’t want them anyway). For oral meds I get them in a 90 day supply (largest allowed) but it’s all plastic bottles. Another big plastic use… Read more »


Beth, I’m sorry for the pain you’re going through. I have nothing to add but sending you love and good wishes.

mrs spock

I am a nurse, and we used cloth “chucks”, or bed pads at the last hospital I worked at. The skin care gurus did not like someone sitting on a plastic liner all day, as it was not as breathable for the skin. I cloth diaper my son, and i often see cloth diapers for adults sold on ebay. I would warn you, though, that they do not wick away moisture as well as disposables, and moist skin is a huge contributor to skin breakdown and bedsores. A frail older adult is much less likely to be active than a… Read more »

Tiffany Norton

Oh Beth. I came over here to tell you some happy news, and see this… My heart is full of empathy for you. I am in the screw-it camp. Take care of your mother. There are plenty of good uses for plastic, and this is certainly worth it. Sure you can cloth diaper, and cloth wipe, (in fact, if you are interested, I will send you some for free, in plastic-free packaging and everything), but the bottom line is that you can’t worry about this right now… IMHO… But on a brighter note, my 8 year old son is doing… Read more »


May you and your family find all the support that is needed to see each of you and your mother through these trying times.


Beth, I am thinking of you and your family and I know how hard this is. I had my Dad at home with me for about two months before he passed away and I can give you at least one helpful suggestion. For pads to protect the mattress, I cut up an old white vinyl shower curtain and an old quilted mattress pad/cover, sewed a piece of each together and voila! I had four waterproof, washable, reusable protectors for the bed – and saved a bunch of $$.) I imagine an old terrycloth towel would work instead of a mattress… Read more »


I too have recently come across a challenge that has to do with care of an individual, but not an elder. In May, if everything goes well, I will become the adoptive mom of a newborn. Of course I will be using cloth diaper and cloth wipes, but as an adoptive mother I face the additional challenge of breast feeding a child that is not biologically mine. I am excited that I can induce breast feeding, but what I am not excited about is the plastic required. 1. Breast pump – not just an aoptive parents issue – so perhaps… Read more »


I’m of two minds about this one. On the one hand, I would say that the real problem is the vast quantities of plastic we generate in our daily lives without a second thought, not the plastic that comes in special situations. Plastic water bottles because we don’t think to bring our own, plastic bags because we don’t think to bring our own, plastic food wrap and plastic cutlery and all that stuff. If we target the “convenience plastic”, we’ll get the most bang for our buck, because most of it is fairly unnecessary. On the other hand, you make… Read more »

Denise Yribarren

Beth, I am so sorry that you have to experience watching the declining health of your mom. I had a similar experience with my mom; all I can really remember how tired I was at the time. But one thing I did for ecology was to buy an assortment of different colors of wash clothes. I even looked for florals. The way I could avoid disposable wipies and I looked forward to the various colors. I suppose I could have made the wash clothes but at the time, I could only concentrate on caring for my mom and getting dinner… Read more »


I agree that you– Beth– need not dwell on the plastics at this point. Focus on being with your mom…

But, on the note of plastics… I just read this article about a landfill in Hawaii that was in the Surfrider Newsletter… thought the timing was… hmmm… spot on.


I know exactly what you mean here, my mother has been in and out of the hospital since maybe september and it’s absolutely overwhelming how much waste is involved. I feel that same “why does it matter what I’m doing when they’re throwing out this much plastic every day” mentality. I try to think about what I would do if I were the patient (I think I would piss off all the staff and get myself neglected), but my mother hasn’t made any commitment to being plastic free, so who am I to complain about her plastic-usage, and it’s not… Read more »


Beth, others have given you good advice already so all I can say is how I sympathize with you and your mom. You’ll be in my prayers.


My heart goes out to you. I’ve had several close friends who have lost parents to Alzheimer’s and I know how devastating it can be. I think I’m sort of in the “screw the plastic” camp here. You need to take care of your mother and yourself. That being said, if a cloth diapering system would make her more comfortable (having your rear wrapped in plastic sounds like not a lot of fun to me) it might be worth it. In terms of gloves, you can get laytex gloves rather than vinyl, although my stepmom, who is an allergist, says… Read more »

Kay Pere

My heart goes out to you and your family. It’s good that you’re being gentle with yourself. I don’t have any answers, only hugs to send. Thinking of you.


One thought is yes, of course cloth diapers, but please don’t use flannel and rubber. Cloth has come a long long way baby. I teach cloth diapering classes and we have a lot of lovely materials to choose from. I would def. use cloth wipes, get a wipe warmer and then you always have a nice moist warm cloth to wipe faces, hands or bottoms with. Another thought is this, the plastic gloves, depending on what you are using them for, if they are just to protect your own hands, they can be washed hung to dry and reused hundreds… Read more »


Beth, my thoughts are with you. I can only imagine how difficult and emotional this must be.

Sandi Ratch

Beth, First off, I’m sorry about your mom. It is not an easy thing that you are doing. I’ve often wondered about the amount of waste comes out of hospitals. And when I do think about it, it makes my worry about buying things made of plastic seem really ridiculous. On a very realistic level, I don’t think our plastic consumption (on a world-wide level) is going to be reduced dramatically until we are forced to do so (either it becomes over-prices because of the drop in oil production, or our society collapses to such an extent that we no… Read more »

Sandi Ratch

Beth, First off, I’m sorry about your mom. It is not an easy thing that you are doing. I’ve often wondered about the amount of waste comes out of hospitals. And when I do think about it, it makes my worry about buying things made of plastic seem really ridiculous. On a very realistic level, I don’t think our plastic consumption (on a world-wide level) is going to be reduced dramatically until we are forced to do so (either it becomes over-prices because of the drop in oil production, or our society collapses to such an extent that we no… Read more »

Mike Lieberman

This is the kind of question that I’m always asking myself. When is single use plastic ok? When is it not? It’s always a tough one to answer.


Hi Beth, I am a nurses’ aide in a geriatric home and have been since 1985. While we now use disposables (a real blessing on such a grand scale for the workers), when I first started at the ripe old age of 15, we used cotton diapers. We had to make them up for each round and if they lasted one hour, we were lucky (disposables can go for a good 5 hours or more depending upon the individual). Anyway, they were made up with a rectangle of cotton flannel, a rectangle of plastic, another rectangle of cotton, and finally… Read more »

Reenie R

From my many visits to nursing homes to visit relatives, friends, strangers longing for company, I saw that the elders that were bed and wheelchair bound, and even the ones in walkers, were like giant babies. They need help with everything, showering, dressing, hygiene, etc. Two things that I did were: 1) bought a bunch of different size color beach towels and edging and made large bibs for the residents that were not “institutional” and showed a little of their personality. Because even if you’re out of it, there may be a part of you that is aware of this… Read more »

Sharyn Dimmick

I’m sure no one wants to hear this or think it, but I remember there being a diaper pail in the downstairs bathroom when my brother was a baby. So, how about this: hire a seamstress to sew a goodly supply of cotton cloth (flannel? padded flannel? panties for your mother and then get, find, or make some rubber overgarments — it’s the old diapers and rubber pants routine on an adult scale. You an other caregivers remove the diapers, clean up with homemade cotton wipes, leave soiled panties/diapers to soak in a pail with hot water and bleach. You… Read more »


My thoughts are with you and your family. When we met in NYC last summer at the Green Soiree, we were talking about taking care of the elderly as you had just finished your trip across the country with your Dad and I was taking care of a dying neighbor. And yes, the long term care or Home Care waste is nothing to sneeze at. The refillable med containers are curious as they should be, well, “refillable” if you bring in your old ones. Cloth diapers for adults? That shouldn’t be that hard to make. And they do have reusable… Read more »


I’m sure it’s not the same as taking care of an older adult but having children can present some of the same issues. To echo other folks on the wipes…if you sew or know someone (absolutely has to be someone in the ward) – cut 8 in square pieces of flannel and either serge them or triple zigzag the edges. Then, I bought a box of baby wipes, used them up and am reusing the heck out of the container. Folded in half, the wipes fit perfect. Use a bit of baby soap and water to soak the wipes. They… Read more »


My thoughts are with you and your family. To answer your question, there are some things that are reusable or have reusable options. Other things can be bought in bulk. If a caregiver is using a 1 time use item I know that you can find other options for purchasing. Buy the largest box/container you can find or write the company to see if there is another option. If you know you (or the person you are caring for) are going to need depends for years see if you can purchase a quantity packaged for bulk use? Watch craigslist and… Read more »


I am interested in this too. My son is JV diabetic. I love to be able to recycle some of his waste such as test strips, pods, etc. Any suggestions?

Condo Blues

Many moms I know make their own baby wipes with a stack of wash clothes soaking in a covered container of water and castile soap.

My dog had leg surgery and his care definitely increased our plastic tally. He had 5 prescriptions, a cone, and a clean reused IV bag to slip over his leg to keep it dry in the snow. I appreciate that my vet gave us a sterilized and reused cone and made the IV bootie out of something they would normally throw away. I returned the cone when we no longer needed it.


I’m so sorry about your mother. As a health care worker (geriatric occupational therapist!) I see way too much waste. But when staffing is low, I understand the difficulties. However, at home there is more you can do. One can ditch the wipes and opting for CLOTH baby wipes and a homemade solution. Not only do they clean BETTER but they’re softer and you’ll use fewer. I used them with my children when they were in cloth and just used water, but if you google cloth wipe solutions, you can find all sorts of good-smelling ideas. Gloves – I’m not… Read more »

Kristie Evans

I’m familiar with the conflict. While I’m not doing home care for a parent, I had a similar revelation when my daughter was in the hospital with pneumonia a year ago. I had been doing my best to reduce plastic and waste six months prior to her illness, but when I found myself by her bedside for days worried sick, I honestly didn’t care about the amount of waste I was creating. Every day presents a similar conflict for me. One child has Asperger’s syndrome, and my other child has mild autism and dyslexia. Both children and I have multiple… Read more »


Sending you and your family lots of love and healing. <3


So strange… I literally just read Ashley’s post and thought to myself “How in the heck can she reduce that plastic??” My first thought would be to ditch the baby wipes. My friend used to make her own baby wipes with paper towels. She would cut the roll in half and then make some kind of water/soap/oil solution to soak the paper towels in… can’t remember what she stored them in… maybe an old baby wipe container?? Also, the whole prescription bottle thing is strange. If you’re getting a refill of the exact same medication… I’m confused why they won’t… Read more »