Every time I buy a tube of toothpaste, I fail.
Part of my intention with the Mayday Experiment is to change everything, and that includes what I buy, and what I put down the drain.
The drain issue is partially functional: Since I opted for only a greywater tank in the tiny house, I have to be aware of everything I put down the drain so that I’m not having to pay to dump blackwater. This way, if I only let natural products down the drain, I can drain it anywhere that’s legal to, and in a pinch, directly on the ground, since there will be nothing harmful in it.
However, I want to go a step further: I intend to build a system that will filter the greywater through my green wall of herbs and small vegetables – resulting in reuseable water for bathing or for drinking water for my cat. So everything that goes down the drain needs to be as safe as something I would ingest.
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But even in a traditional house, we need to raise our awareness of what we flush. Everything that goes down the drain eventually winds up in the ocean, and not everything can be filtered by wastewater treatment plants – and they aren’t even trying to filter much of it. New pollutants haven’t been added to the 126 on the Clean Water Act pollutant list since 1977, and most of what winds up in our water hasn’t been studied in depth in the environment. One case in point is the antibiotic Triclosan, something that is included in everything from toothpaste to soaps, but that researchers are beginning to suspect may eventually create ever more resistant bacteria, and that is already disrupting the hormones of bullfrogs. Or the commonly included sodium pyrophosphate – a chemical that prevents tartar build-up at the risk of contributing to ocean dead zones and algae blooms.
Of course, another concern in the tiny house is trash: Without a dumpster, where will I put it? Since I anticipate waste removal to be a continual challenge while on the road, my goal is to minimize what waste I create by buying in bulk and making as much as I can myself.
My plan, all along, was to switch to homemade, DIY, zero-waste recipes in place of each thing that I used up. That was easy with kitchen cleaning spray: Using the same bottle cleaned out, I tested several recipes before I filled it with the one that worked best. After steeping grapefruit rinds in white vinegar for a week, I filtered it twice and added three drops of tea-tree oil, and it cleans everything better than anything I’ve ever used before, with the tea-tree adding a disinfectant property and a fresh scent. The first experiment was a success.
But toothpaste was harder.
All of the recipes tend to rely on two main ingredients: coconut oil and baking soda. True: Your teeth feel so clean its as if they’ve been stripped down to the enamel after using it, but it tastes awful – gritty and salty and oily all at once, unpleasant for both its taste and texture. The only thing that tasted worse was the peroxide-and-baking-soda formula I tried, which left me gagging and foaming at the mouth like a rabid raccoon.
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So I started researching how to make it taste better…and came across the idea of ground cacao, which was supposed to be a gentle abrasive for your teeth. Chocolate-mint toothpaste? That would have to mask the unpleasantness of the baking soda!
Which it did. However, it added a different kind of gritty and very messy aspect to my daily routine, and too often I would find myself picking dark spots out of my teeth, desperately trying to avoid looking like I’d consumed a mud-pie for breakfast. Spitting into the sink required washing it out every time, lest it look too much like another bathroom fixture after I brushed.
Finally, I settled on just adding stevia and peppermint oil to the main recipe as the best solution. It still tastes awful, in my mind, but it's a mintier, sweeter awful that is almost tolerable if I brush my teeth quickly and rinse prolifically afterwards. I haven’t needed discipline to adhere to a tooth-brushing routine since I was five…but, suddenly, I found myself fighting the nightly trip to the bathroom, where I would dip my toothbrush into a Mason jar filled with the pasty concoction.
But after several months of disciplined zero-waste tooth-tickling, I caved. In a moment of weakness at Trader Joe’s, home of all moments of weakness, my hand lingered over the inviting print on the box of Fennel Toothpaste. The thought of a silky toothpaste, oozing out of a tube in white perfection, no grit, no oily clumps, and not in the least salty, almost caused me to swoon…and I broke. Filled with shame, I handed over $3.99 for my first tube of toothpaste in months. I fell off the wagon.
To waste it at this point would be even worse than the fact that I bought it…so even though I feel I should have that dramatic movie-of-the-week addict-getting-clean moment of dumping it all into the trash can in a sputtering snake of white goo, instead, I will savor it. I will make it last, using less than the recommended pea-sized dab until I have squeezed every bit of it from the tube, and then I will start over. The Mason jar is still there, ¼ of the way full of my future, waiting.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging about her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.