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19 Zero-Waste Tricks Your Grandmother Has Been Using for Years

Long before the age of disposable products, our incredible grandmothers were living a much greener lifestyle.

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1 / 19
Adult woman and senior mother talking on front porchMoMo Productions/Getty Images

You can’t beat the classics

Starting a new eco-conscious routine can be incredibly intimidating. It seems like new eco-friendly hacks and gadgets are popping every day! Why are there so many new products to shove in our kitchens, and complicated habits to learn? And then there are all those “eco-friendly” habits that are actually worse for the environment. The good news is that this isn’t a totally new playing field. Long before beeswax “plastic” wrap and bamboo toilet paper were invented, someone else was running their households with very little waste: our grandmothers. Collected here are the tricks, tips, and products our grandmas have been using for decades to cut down on waste, costs, and in most cases, to just make life easier!

2 / 19
cloth towels

Stop using “disposables”

Paper towels weren’t popularized until the mid-1900’s. So what was everyone doing before then? Save the bamboo and other high-efficiency paper alternatives for your next party trick and head back to the original mess cleaner: cloth towels. They’re more absorbent, can be thrown in the wash, or hand washed very easily, and come in about a million designs to suit your kitchen.

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3 / 19

That goes for napkins, too

My grandmother often set out beautiful cloth napkins instead of the flimsy paper version we so often see. Not only was this far more cost-efficient—we’ve been using the same ones for decades and there’s not sign of needing new napkins yet!—but they work better, and are much better for the environment, too! An added bonus: I’ve found that using cloth napkins can make a meal seem extra festive and adds a bit of an elegant feel to even the most rushed breakfast burrito.

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4 / 19
floral napkinsvia

Blow your nose a bit greener

I can’t picture my grandmother without at least one handkerchief with her. In her purse, in her pockets, occasionally stuffed up one sleeve. The time of beautiful handkerchiefs has gone by the wayside as disposable tissues take off, but using a washable handkerchief isn’t just better for the planet, it’s also a must when going through a cold. The soft cotton or a similarly cozy fabric will be so much gentler on your nose and face than any brand of tissue, lotioned or otherwise. Another great tip? You can find hundreds of beautiful, delicate handkerchiefs, just like your grandmothers at any vintage or thrift store, often for pennies. They come in every color and design imaginable and you can easily get them embroidered or monogrammed for an added stylish flair.

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5 / 19
close curtainsCavan Images/Getty Images

Close your curtains

Your mom didn’t insist on you putting curtains in your first apartment for no reason, and it isn’t just to shield your eyes when it gets a bit too bright. Your curtains and shades can do a lot for the environment! Closing your curtains when the sun is shining can protect your furniture, and keep you from having to toss faded upholstery and buy new. Adjusting your curtains can also help keep your home cool in the summer, and warm in the winter, no AC or heating needed!

6 / 19

Vinegar and is your friend

Your grandmother probably didn’t have dozens of chemical cleaners stored under her kitchen sink like we all do. She didn’t need it. She had vinegar. From getting rid of water rings to unclogging your drains, vinegar and baking soda were your grandmother’s trick to a spotless home.

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7 / 19

Hand-powered vs. electric

Matt Daigle, CEO and Founder of Rise, the leading online authority in sustainable home improvement remembers his grandmother’s best sustainable home hacks. “Not only are our grandmother’s tools remembrances of family history, but they are incredibly well-built and useful,” he told Reader’s Digest. “Things like human-powered mixers and egg beaters can get the job done in virtually the same amount of time as their electric-powered counterparts but don’t need to add to your electric bill.” Don’t have the budget or access to “fancy” hand-powered kitchen tools? You’ll love these clever substitutions for everyday kitchen gadgets.

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8 / 19


There’s a reason you’ve been hearing a lot about composting lately. Food waste is at an all-time high, and decreasing the amount of food that goes to a dump would go incredibly far in helping our planet. If you are unable to set up a full, dedicated bin, Henry had another method that might work for you. “Another thing we used to do that we should adopt, is returning fruits to the ground,” she said. “When people eat fruits, we would be better to compost them or bury them at the base of any plants you’re growing in your yard. That way your plants can benefit from the nutrients of the rotting fruits.” Mix your fruit and vegetable refuse with soil and mulch to create a nutrient-rich meal for any plants you might be growing. Apartment dwellers, don’t write this off just yet. Just because you don’t have any land space doesn’t mean you can’t join in on the fun. Pretty much every city in America has community gardens, botanical gardens, or even just private individuals who are looking for more food waste to compost. A quick Google search will turn up a ton of great options, some of whom will even come and pick up your compost every week.

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9 / 19
Cropped shot view of barista hand holding a cup with ground coffee inside with paper filter before drip it.Boy_Anupong/Getty Images

Reuse those coffee grounds

No, we aren’t asking you to make a second pot with your old wet grounds, but your old grounds are just another thing your grandmother wasn’t throwing in the trash. If you’ve taken up composting, you can add your used grounds there, but if you haven’t been able to, you can still reuse your grounds! Lynell Ross, the founder and managing editor of Zivadream, recalls his grandmother doing just that. “My mother and grandmother lived through the Great Depression and I was raised with many money-saving, eco-friendly, earth-conscious ways of living that I practice to this day,” he told Reader’s Digest. “Save your morning coffee grounds to fertilize your outdoor plants. Using coffee grounds as fertilizer not only adds organic material to the soil to improve drainage and help microorganisms for plant growth, it attracts earthworms to aerate the soil and helps plants thrive.” If you have any large pots indoors, feel free to add some used coffee grounds to your soil there, as well.

10 / 19

Grow your own

My grandmother didn’t just have pretty flower pots indoors. It’s easy to grow herbs right in your own kitchen. I’ve even taken this advice so far as to grow a tomato plant on my patio. If you have some yard space, you might want to consider growing even more fruits and vegetables. My grandparents always kept a small garden with tomatoes, carrots, and even corn. Growing a fruit tree can take a little more work, but the amount of fruit you can get off of one tree will astound you. You can attempt to eat it all during the season, but if you want to truly follow grandma’s advice, freeze or can your fruits and veggies and have your own produce to eat all year long! If you’re not sure where to start, here’s how to preserve your summer fruits.

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11 / 19

Dump the plastic storage

Before plastic food storage containers, our grandmothers had dozens of reusable storage solutions. Not only do things like glass containers, waxed paper, brown paper bags, or reusable cloth bags not contain BPA, but they’re easier to clean, last longer, and are far, far better for the environment when it is time to dispose of them. They come in all shapes and sizes to suit your needs but our favorites can be found right at the Container Store.

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12 / 19
Young woman checking the books at the bookshelves at National library, Maputo, MocambiqueWestend61/Getty Images

Check out the library

Let’s face it, here at Reader’s Digest we have more than our fair share of book-obsessed writers and editors. We get how much you love the feeling of holding a new book in your hand, the scent of scoring yet another specially bound classic, we get all of it. New books, adding to your library, it can be addictive. But let’s face it, that’s a lot of paper. If it’s a book you’ll likely only read once, get it from the library! Library memberships are generally free which means you have access to nearly every book on the planet without spending a dime, and sharing those books with others means fewer trees getting cut down. If you really must buy the book, consider getting it second hand, or donating or selling your own books to a second-hand store after you know you’ve finished with them. A little secret: you can even get audiobooks for free from libraries! Here are more free things you didn’t know you could get with your library card.

13 / 19
Person riding a vintage bicyclesakhorn38/Getty Images

Make do before buying new

“Because my grandma was a child of the Great Depression, she was raised to be resourceful,” Kait Schulhof told Reader’s Digest. “She loved to tell me stories about how she made do with items her family already owned when she was a kid. For instance, as a little girl, she taught herself how to get around on her older brother’s large, hand-me-down bike by sitting on the middle metal bar side-saddle-style, pushing just one pedal with her feet. With that upbringing came a strong sense of making do without buying new.” Here are some tips and tricks to scoring that perfect vintage gem at a thrift store.

14 / 19
A high angle view of variety of succulent plantsKarl Tapales/Getty Images

Save water

Schulhof also told Reader’s Digest about her grandmother’s early conservation of water. “My grandma lived in San Diego, California, and was a very early adopter of the xeriscaping trend that has become popularized in more recent years. She had an incredible collection of succulents and other low water plants in her yard. She even had a portion of their lawn replaced with artificial turf in the ’90s when we grandkids were very young so she could still set up a playset for us and avoid the water waste.”

15 / 19
Close-Up Of Hand Cutting Rose Plant With Pruning Shears OutdoorsSrdjan Radevic / EyeEm/Getty Images

Source your flowers

We all love a fresh bouquet in our homes or giving some blooms to a special someone in our lives, but buying cut flowers from grocery stores, online, and even from certain vendors can include a long supply chain of shipping, the disposal of imperfect blooms, and a lot of other wasteful behaviors. This tip comes from my grandparents: source your flowers locally, and if you can, find some wildflowers instead of a storebought bouquet. Not only will the personalization add a special touch, but there are plenty of ways to get free flowers. If you have space to grow your own garden, it’s easy to cut a few blooms, but oftentimes wildflowers will grow on the sides of roads, or on the edges of farmer’s fields. Be sure to ask permission from whoever owns the land before harvesting your own florals, but often people are happy to share their flowers for free.

16 / 19

Put the vacuum cleaner away

You may think it’s more convenient, but there are a lot of times grabbing a broom or a mop are actually easier, faster, and far, far better for the environment.  Save the electricity (and save on the electric bill!) and use your broom unless the vacuum is absolutely necessary.

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17 / 19
I do my laundry once a weekgradyreese/Getty Images

Wash on cold

For those of us who have never actually looked at the washing machine settings—everything should just go on the normal setting, right?—this one’s for you. My grandmother only ever washed clothes on cold or warm water settings, never hot. A few pushes of a button or one click of the washing machine dial and you’ll save a ton of money on hot water costs, not to mention you’ll be doing the environment a favor, not heating up all that water. Here are some more laundry mistakes you’re making that are costing you.

18 / 19
drying rackvia

Skip the dryer

Content strategist Rhea Henry of shared her grandmother’s laundry method with Reader’s Digest. “Growing up in Jamaica, laundry machines and dryers weren’t so ubiquitous as they are in North America,” she said. “My grandmother washed our clothes by hand and hung them up to dry. Since we’ve realized how good for the environment and our wallets this is, it’s become trendy to incorporate in our lives. It’s actually not that difficult to wash clothes by hand.”

Even if you aren’t up to washing your clothes by hand, line drying can be a wonderful way to save both money, and our earth’s resources. “Nowadays, you can find clothes drying racks that suit the size and style of your home, reducing your need to use the dryer which is one of the highest energy-consuming appliances in the household,” Daigle adds.

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19 / 19
dryer wool balls dryer sheets alternativevia

Avoid dryer sheets

If you have to use the dryer, we can’t stress this enough: don’t even bother with dryer sheets. There’s a debate as to whether or not single-use, trash bound little sheets even work to begin with, and what negative effects they have on your dryer’s life but even if you swear by them, we have a much better solution. Dryer balls are easy to make yourself, or cheap to buy if you chose not to DIY, and can be used for thousands of washes. Want that fresh scent you love from your dryer sheets? Add a drop or two of essential oil to your dryer balls every few cycles and you’ll never know the difference. You’ll also want to be aware of these other ways you’ve been shortening the life of your washer and dryer.

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Isabel Roy
Isabel Roy is the newsletter editor at Reader’s Digest. She writes and reports on home, culture, and general interest stories. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse in 2017 with a B.A. in Rhetoric and Writing.