5 Tips for Reducing Waste as a Caregiver

If there was anything as certain in caregiving as medication schedules and wrestling with insurance companies, waste would be it. For caregivers with medically-complex loved ones especially, waste can be an all too prevalent reality.

When my husband and I were taking care of Mom, we lived in an apartment complex that charged a mandatory monthly fee for “trash valet”. Essentially, Sunday night through Thursday night, a service would come by each door and pick up trash and recycling bags to be taken to the apartment complex dumpsters for you. Nice, I know. And boy oh boy did we take advantage of this service.

Between a handful of (full) adult diapers every day, disposable bed pads, food waste, drink bottles, packaging materials, you name it, we loaded up the trash service significantly and regularly.

It always felt like so much waste though, even though we recycled a ton. Over the years and even since Mom passed away, I have discovered helpful ways to eliminate waste and do right by the environment. Find some of my go-to methods below:

What sorts of items contribute to waste?

  • Bottles – pill bottles, drink bottles, liquid medicine bottles, bottles of thickener, personal care items (shampoo, conditioner), and more.
  • Boxes – of adult diapers, of nutritional shakes, of wipes, of medical supplies, etc. (And don’t you just love when Amazon sends you a package that’s essentially a box inside another box inside another box?).
  • Packaging – everything you order online comes in packages (boxes, padded envelopes, etc.) with their own additional wrapping and packaging, i.e. soft plastic, bubble wrap, etc. Things you buy in the store also have their share of packaging materials that surround and protect them until they’re opened.
  • Food – the USDA estimates about 30 to 40 percent of the food supply ends up as food waste. That’s astounding! Caregiving can be touch and go though and we all know food can end up not getting eaten, spoiling, and simply ending up in the trash.
  • Paper – the paper bags prescriptions come in and the drug information attached, brown paper bags you get from the grocery store, junk mail, superfluous paper that comes with medical supplies, and so on.

5 Ways to Reduce Waste 

Learn what you can recycle

Do you know what the little recycle triangle on the bottom of hard plastics with a number in it means? It’s actually a symbol representing the type of plastic that item is made of. For example, a triangle with a 1 in it stands for Polyethylene terephthalate (or PETE). Most soda and water bottles are made of this type of plastic as are pill bottles. 

The numbers can range from 1 to 7 – I like this breakdown with more information over on Good Housekeeping. Recycling is super important but your local curbside recycling that your city or county conducts might not pick up all the numbers. It’s worth doing a quick google search to find out. Also, with the recycling crisis really starting to make waves in the U.S., simply reducing the amount of stuff you bring to your house so you don’t have to worry about recycling it is probably a good idea.

Start recycling your soft plastics 

What are soft plastics? Think bubble wrap, plastic packaging, shrink wrap around prepackaged food . . . essentially the flexible plastic that you can physically tear yourself or scrunch up in a ball in your hand. Once you start collecting instead of trashing it, you’ll realize quickly just how much of it has invaded your home. The wrapping around adult diapers and disposable bed pads, the plastic pillows that pad the items shipped to you in boxes, the shrink wrap around food you buy in the grocery store, the list goes on and on.

While your local city government may not pick up soft plastics with your normal recycling, there are stores that you can take it to to be recycled. Target, for example, offers soft plastic recycling (in addition to plastic, glass, aluminum, and cellphone and ink cartridge recycling!). We typically stock up our soft plastics in a big plastic bag and take them once or twice a month to Target.

A good way to start reducing the number of soft plastics you bring home is to take reusable produce and grocery bags with you to the store. We like these reusable/mesh produce bags we found on Amazon and you find reusable grocery/tote bags all over the place these days. You’ll be amazed at how much less soft plastic you have to worry about!

Use reusable food storage 

Reusable food containers are essential to storing leftovers and meal prepping as a caregiver. Not only do they eliminate the need for resealable plastic baggies (sandwich, quart, and gallon bags), but they can also eliminate the number of plates you have to wash because they themselves can be reheated and eaten out of.

In addition to reusable food storage, reusable food wraps are also becoming popular. A new product, Beeswrap, is composed of cotton sheets dipped in beeswax that can wrap tightly around food like plastic wrap but are reusable. Simply wash them off in cool water and re-use them for up to a year. No more plastic wrap!

Use reusable cups and bottles for drinking 

Single-use plastic is rarely more pervasive than with drink bottles. When it comes to caring for someone, especially a loved one with special dietary needs, it can often be so much easier to grab a single-use plastic bottle for a quick drink than it is to get a cup, filling it, trying to prevent spills, and then washing us.

For us, we collected our share of Ensure, water, juice, Pedialyte, and Gatorade bottles in a matter of days when taking care of Mom and it led to an insane amount of recycling. Bottles take up so much volume and space as well, which can lead to storage issues. What we ended up doing after some time was buying larger bottles of the drinks that offered it (i.e. Pedialyte) and then filling reusable glass bottles for Mom that were even easier for her to drink out of.

These colorful kid-friendly reusable bottles were great for feeding mom soups and smoothies as well as drinks. 

Take advantage of local programs

Check with your local pharmacy or police department to see if they have drug take-back programs coming up. If you have any leftover or unused prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs in the house that you just don’t know how to dispose of, they will take care of it for you.

We have also taken advantage of “hard to recycle” events in our city put on by local environmental organizations. Quarterly, they organize a giant volunteer-powered collection service where local residents can drop off all the hard-to-recycle items they have been holding on to – computers, tv monitors, styrofoam, batteries, water filters, etc. You might also find special recycling programs (for lightbulbs, e-waste, batteries, etc.) at your local Lowes or Home Depot too.

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