In some ways, the pandemic has been good for the environment. Heavy industries slowed down and there have been fewer cars on the road. But environmentalists have also sounded the alarm about the increased use of single-use plastics, as more people buy disposable items out of concern for their safety.
In the home, this has meant more plastic water bottles, hand sanitisers and wipes, packaged foods and the ubiquitous disposable face mask.
While the recycling movement has gone from strength to strength, picking up converts along the way, studies show that most people are still unaware of the amount of plastic waste they generate in their bathrooms.
According to Recycle Now, while 90 per cent of packaging is recycled in kitchens in the UK, only 50 per cent is being recycled in the bathroom and, consequently, accounts for 30 to 40 per cent of total landfill waste.
It is time, then, to turn to alternative and eco-friendly personal-care products – from shampoo and toothpaste to deodorants. Thankfully, to help us with this, a number of brands and websites have sprung up in the UAE to cater to those looking for sustainable products that are good for the environment as well as overall well-being.
Eco-friendly shops in the UAE
Sukriti Verma and Namrata Budhraja launched Shift Eco, a website that sells eco-friendly products in the UAE, in October 2020, after they discovered how easy it was to make small changes that have a big environmental impact.
“It all started when Namrata picked up a wooden toothbrush from a supermarket,” Verma recalls. "Then we started thinking if this were such an easy change to make, why aren’t more people doing this?"
The problem, they found, was availability, or the lack thereof.
“There was no place where you could find plant-friendly products. And if we did find them, a lot of them were extremely expensive or of poor quality,” says Verma. Also, she adds, many of them were greenwashed.
“Greenwashing is basically false claims companies make about their eco-friendly products, while in reality they aren’t, from production techniques to ingredients and packaging,” says Verma. “It’s a huge problem.”
Shift Eco now stocks more than 1,000 products, spanning personal care, home care, baby products, accessories and food.
Pallavi Santhapuram, a civil engineer who founded the Eco Loop online shop four years ago, made the shift to a more eco-friendly lifestyle after studying environmental design for green buildings.
“When I was trying to change my habits, I couldn’t find much in terms of products to help me make the shift,” she says. “That’s what made me start sourcing these products, first for myself, then my friends. Once I realised there was a demand, the website was born.”
The products on Eco Loop touch every aspect of your life, she says, from kitchen products to organic cotton bags and storybooks for kids about eco-friendly warriors, made from recycled paper.
Making your bathroom plastic-free is easier than you think, says Verma. “First look at some of the products you use every day and consider the alternatives,” she says. “Then, you can slowly start working your way to all the products in the home.”
The most obvious and easy change to make, says Verma, is the toothbrush. “We go through so many toothbrushes in a year and most of the products on shop shelves are made of plastic. With a wooden one, you won’t even be able to tell the difference while brushing, but it has such a big environmental impact,” she says.
A plastic toothbrush will take up to 400 years to decompose, according to a research by Tap Warehouse, the UK retailer of bathroom sinks, taps and accessories.
Santhapuram says plastics from toothbrushes often end up in landfill because they are too thin and tiny, and not economically viable to recycle. “Sometimes they get stuck in the machines. So they are often ignored and just left in landfill where they will be for hundreds of years. Bamboo toothbrushes, on the other hand, can be easily composted in your backyard.”
Most toothpaste brands also use plastic packaging. Verma suggests shifting to toothpaste tablets that come in cardboard packaging. “They are as natural as they get, use much less water to produce and work exactly the same way as your regular toothpaste in a tube.”
Another personal care staple is deodorant, many of which contain harmful gas propellants or come in plastic packaging. Look instead to deodorant creams that come in glass jars, which are reusable and refillable or can be repurposed after use.
Shift Eco also sells deodorants that come in compostable paper packaging.
“You’ll be surprised that a small stick can last you up to three to four months, meaning that the packaging is being maximised, unlike other deodorants, where the actual product is so proportionately less given the size of the packaging,” says Verma.
In the shower
Ditch the plastic container, even if it claims to have been recycled, and look at shampoo bars instead, recommends Verma.
“Shampoo bars are a lot more concentrated and will last longer than regular liquid shampoo in bottles. Average bottles of shampoo last up to 25 to 35 washes, while one bar lasts for up to 50 to 70 washes. So they are much more economical.”
Many of the shampoo bars on Shift Eco are made in the UAE, so you’re also supporting local business while reducing your environmental footprint, she adds.
The same goes for shower gels, most of which comes in plastic packaging.
Soap bars are another way to go and last much longer than liquid refills, says Santhapuram, whose Eco Loop sells natural sponge loofahs, made from vegetables.
“Many of the plastic varieties are made using synthetic fibres that contain microplastics and are harmful to the environment,” she says. Awareness is growing for environmentally friendly products, but old habits will take time to change, she adds.
“People are so used to picking up stuff at the supermarket without thinking about their long-term effects."
In 2017, a photograph of a sea horse tugging along a discarded plastic cotton swab by National Geographic photographer Justin Hofman went viral. The photo was a stark reminder of the state of our oceans, and also our joint responsibilities. Cotton balls, a major part of skincare routines, are also filling up landfills.
One option is to switch to cotton swabs made with sustainably grown bamboo or wood.
“Cotton is one of the most pesticide-filled crops,” says Santhapuram, who suggests the use of reusable pads made of bamboo fibre mixed with cotton. “You can just throw them into the washing machine and use them again.”
When it comes to make-up, Verma suggests picking brands that actively encourage recycling. “Brands such as Mac Cosmetics will let you return used containers and give you a discount for your next purchase,” she says.
Otherwise, go natural, says Santhapuram.
“Ultimately make-up [can] harm your skin because all these products have a lot of chemicals," she says. "And they all have an expiry date, which means you have to throw them away even before you finish using them.”
Santhapuram uses home-made products for her face, recipes for which she’s perfected over the years.
“I use dried orange peels, powder them and use them as scrubs. It works great as an exfoliator and removes tans, too. For disinfecting the skin, I use chickpea flour mixed with yogurt and a pinch of turmeric. It’s also great for acne.
“To soften the skin, absorb excessive oil and improve overall complexion, I use fuller’s earth, which is easily available.”
Women use an average of four sanitary napkins a day during their periods, says Verma. “That’s approximately 20 pads a month, which is staggering considering they will stay in the environment for 500 years.”
She suggests picking brands that are largely plastic-free or turning to reusable menstrual cups. “Many of them are made from 100 per cent medical grade silicone, with no chemicals or plastics,” she says.
The bottom line
The biggest misconception about plastic-free or sustainable products, Santhapuram says, is that they are expensive.
“They’re not expensive. Yes, the price is a bit higher than what’s largely available but that’s because plastic is really cheap,” she points out. “But if we all prioritise good-quality natural products rather than just buying more products, the prices will also come down.”
- A version of this story was first published in April 2021