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  • Jenica Barrett

Zero Waste Cold & Flu Solutions

When I got my first cold during my zero waste journey, my whole system fell apart. Colds are hard to handle as is and when you can’t use any one-use items? Nearly impossible. There are however a variety of zero waste options for reducing trash when sick.

After recovering from my first cold during my zero waste journey, I set out to create a "Zero Waste Cold Kit" that had all the supplies I needed to keep my illness as low waste and plastic free as possible. These suggestions below contain a variety of zero waste products and home recipes to help ease your cold while also avoiding single use plastic.

Zero Waste Cold & Flu Remedies Pinterest Pin Reusable tissues, DIY cough drops, homemade vapo rub & more cold solutions

Zero Waste Alternative to Tissues

My first endeavor turned out to be a rather easy one. I had grown up my whole life using disposable Kleenexes to fight every running nose but, obviously, that wasn’t going to fly anymore. I came up with several options that work quite well for cleaning up runny noses while avoiding disposable tissues.

Also, in case you are wondering, traditional tissues can't be recycled. If you buy ones that are free from plastic and any harsh chemicals, you may be able to place them in your compost bin. And no, tissues won't break down in the landfill if you toss them in the trash.


Any 100% cotton fabric can easily be turned into a homemade hanky. Additionally, a trip to your local thrift shop can easily turn up nice handkerchiefs as well.

Hanky Books

If you hate the idea of opening up your handkerchief to find old boogers or accidentally touching some when you reach in your pocket, HankyBooks are a great alternative! I discovered these around Christmas and LOVE them.

It’s basically a small “book” of handkerchiefs. You use each page once and then move on to the next one. There is no mess because the pages stick together once used so it opens right up to a clean one! Once it’s full or you just feel like starting fresh, it can be popped into the wash!

If you are trying to last out a cold only on these, I would recommend four books to make it through (although more may be needed depending on how long you are sick for!).

Old Laundry

I know it sounds gross but laundry waiting to be washed is just asking to be used to blow your nose. This option isn’t really portable as some people might stare if you blow your nose into a cotton tank-top; but for at home, this is very easy and very practical.

Just remember that using rough materials can make your nose red and sensitive really quickly so best to use your softest t-shirts for nose blowing.

Zero Waste Tea Options

There are a variety of ways to keep drinking tea during the cold months without filling up your trash can. Did you know that traditional tea bags actually have plastic in them? Yep! You've been drinking hot cups of tea with a side of steaming plastic.

Loose Leaf Tea

Loose leaf tea can be purchased locally at the Bellingham Food Coop or online from a variety of producers. In order to drink it, you will need a tea ball (such as this one) or a strainer cup (such as this one).

Compostable Tea Bags

Flying Bird Botanicals brand sells tea in compostable bags. They can be purchased at the Bellingham Food Coop or online here. My favorite is the CedarWood Chai flavor!

Homemade Tea

You can easily make different teas at home. My go-to tea when I am sick is just lime/lemon juice and honey together. It is wonderful for easing a sore throat.

Zero Waste Cough Drops/Syrup

Now this one was a lot harder for me. Unless you make cough drops at home, I can’t seem to find a brand that uses recyclable/compostable packaging (ergo, more trash). Many cough suppressant bottles however can be recycled. If you don’t feel like making your own, just make sure to properly recycle the bottle. But fair warning, the chemicals in traditional cough syrups aren’t fantastic and aren’t as effective as simple honey (read the study here).

Homemade Cough Drops

DIY Cough Drops

Making cough drops at home takes a little advanced planning as you're not likely to want to take this on while also fighting a cold. It can be really fun though to do on a cold day! It requires some candying which, if you've never done before, make sure to read carefully as the sugar can burn. These peppermint honey cough drops are simply my favorite!

DIY Vicks Vapo Rub

Try out my recipe and make your own cough vapo rub! My mother swears this stuff is better than the original! It also doesn't leave my chest red with a rash from the chemicals and can easily be adapted to be child safe (by excluding the peppermint essential oil).

Homemade Cough Syrup

DIY Cough Syrup

Bea Johnson, the creator of the Zero Waste Home website and book, lists the following recipe as a DIY cough suppressant syrup. It's intense when you drink it - but I find it effective!

  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger

  • 1 T honey

  • 1 T apple cider vinegar

  • 2 T water

Mix all the ingredients together in a small jar and then either sip or chug it like a shot. I find that I need to drink it as fast as I can in order to get it down.

Zero Waste Sinus Relief

Our sinuses often feel like they're housing an impending bomb when we're sick and the pressure can cause horrible headaches. It's also nearly impossible to sleep when your nostrils are so stuffed up you can't even swallow. Although over the counter drugs exist for sinus relief, they typically can't be used for extended periods of time and simply mask your symptoms.

Neti Pots

Although a Neti Pot won’t wipe up the snot you already have rolling down your face, it will help clear out your sinuses and help prevent more build up. I highly recommend you do it whenever you have the chance – especially right before bed and right when you get up!

Remember not to do it with cold water though; otherwise it feels like you’ve snorted up pool water!


A little bit of hot steam can often do the trick! This helps relax and calm the tissues in our sinuses and reduce the inflammation. You can create a homemade vaporizer by putting hot water in a pot and covering it and your head with a towel.

For added effect, add a few drops of peppermint and eucalyptus essential oil. A hot bath also works great!

Zero Waste Cold & Flu Solutions Pinterest Pin

Zero Waste Options for Medications

When it comes down to specific medications you may be required to take when you’re sick, you will ultimately have to make that decision. If you are in need of some pain relief, antibiotics, etc., ponder these questions first before you decide:

Is there an option available in a recyclable container?

Check bottles to see if they can be recycled in your area. And if available, always choose glass bottles over plastic ones.

Have I researched alternative options?

I would have never known about DIY cough syrup unless I had googled it. You never know what research is out there that might support a natural method! Obviously, if it is a serious condition, natural methods may not have the potency to control it completely. Taking the medicine prescribed, even if it produces trash, is better than a life threatening illness.

Will this really help me?

Many of us are attached to rituals when it comes to being sick. We crave soup because our mother’s fed it to us and we sigh in relief when we smell Vicks. But take a moment to consider whether what you are about to ingest, breathe, or swallow is actually beneficial to you.

I, for example, have always used Ricolla Cough Drops for my sore throats. When I was last sick, however, I paid attention to how much relief it actually provided. Unless I had a cough drop in my mouth, the soothing effect was immediately gone! The cough drops were not more effective than drinking a sip of tea or taking a spoonful of honey.

So take a good look and make sure that the medicines you are taking for your cold ACTUALLY WORK. If not? Then maybe taking a chance on a more natural option might not come with any risk at all!

Other than that? I don’t use much else when I’m sick. A long bath or hot shower always helps. Nice company is a plus. A good book helps to pass the time. For the sake of everyone reading this, I hope you never get sick!

But realistically…you should book mark this page for when the winter cold sets in.

*Just to be clear, I am not a physician and am in no way providing medical advice for any condition.

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