Eco Etiquette: 5 Green Ways To Fight That Cold

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

It seems like every time I get sick, I wind up buying a bunch of stuff that's not very eco-friendly -- lots of tissues, medicines, junky takeout food, etc. Should I just cut myself some slack, or is there something I can do?


I've got to tell you, it's not easy sneezing green. (Well, it is, but not the kind of green you're asking me about.) When your head is pounding with congestion and you've been hacking up a lung all night, likely the furthest thought from your mind is, Gee, how can I make this experience more eco-friendly? Times of crisis do not a conservationist make: It's pretty much a free-for-all of whatever will provide relief, whether that's thrice-daily deliveries of tom yum gai or a medicine cabinet full of decongestants. I speak from experience: I'm just getting over a week-long bought with bronchitis, and my apartment is starting to look like the Great Pacific Kleenex Patch. I feel quite guilty about this, of course; yesterday, I actually stood in the tissue aisle of the drugstore for a full 15 minutes, debating whether my weary nose was worth the destruction of old-growth forests.

In this particular case, dear reader, I must admit: I decided it was. Had I felt like my normal, healthy, eco-crusader self, I would have made the longer schlep to the supermarket that I know stocks sustainable -- albeit scratchy -- boxes of 100 percent recycled, chlorine-free Seventh Generation tissue. But I had already shuffled down the street to my nearby Walgreens, I was feeling dizzy from less than six hours' sleep in two days, I was on the verge of another violent coughing fit, and I decided, The hell with it, I'm grabbing this box of virgin-pulp Kleenex and I'm getting out of here. Excuses, excuses, I know. But it got me thinking: When you're sick, does sustainability have to be tossed in the trash along with last year's bottle of expired Robitussin?

I don't think it does. With a bit of know-how, even the most pathetic of cold-sufferers can lessen their feverish footprint. Some ideas:

Hand out the hankies. A few weeks back, I wrote about reusable toilet paper, but somehow the idea of an old-fashioned handkerchief doesn't inspire quite the same sense of disgust. Maybe it's because my husband's Bubbe always carried around beautifully embroidered ones in her pocketbook, but I think that washable tissues are a totally doable -- even elegant -- eco-friendly option. In the privacy of your home, who cares if you look like a granny when you're blowing your nose in an old-timey tissue? They're also a nice alternative to recycled facial tissues, which feel about as soft as a sheet of sandpaper.

Trim down the takeout. It's not fun to cook when you're sick, but a week's worth of wonton soup delivery can add up to a pile of trash, thanks to all that unnecessary packaging (does anyone need 10 packets of soy sauce?). Cook up a giant pot of soup that's chock full of organic veggies instead -- or ask a friend or family member to do it for you -- and you'll improve your health and the earth's at the same time.

Swap sanitizer for soap. With the threat of H1N1 this flu season, it seems like everyone's a bit overzealous with the hand sanitizer. But many conventional sanitizers contain harmful chemicals like phthalates, and can actually promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria if they contain the antimicrobial triclosan, a suspected endocrine disruptor. Bottom line? To prevent your illness from infecting others, nothing is as safe and effective as washing your hands with soap and water. Just make that regular soap: The antibacterial kind contains triclosan, too.

Antibiotics are not the answer. Speaking of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (which ranks up there with AIDS as a worldwide public health threat), don't pressure your doc into prescribing an antibiotic for your runny nose. The common cold and flu are viral illnesses, and while it's frustrating to wait it out for a week while your cough subsides, a dose of amoxicillin will not make you better. In fact, it could harm you, since every time you take an antibiotic when you don't actually have a bacterial infection, you increase your risk of later developing a life-threatening superbug infection.

Ditch the drugs. It's tempting to arm yourself with an arsenal of decongestants, sleeping aids, and expectorants, but most of these medications come with a slew of side effects -- and do nothing to lessen the duration of your illness. They also wind up polluting our soil and groundwater with chemicals once they're thrown away. Interestingly, some of the most effective remedies are also the most eco-friendly: a salt water gargle to soothe a sore throat, hot lemon water with honey to calm a cough, and a neti pot for nasal congestion.

I could go on, but I think it's time for me to slap on some eucalyptus chest rub and catch some z's...