Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

I am sure I am singlehandedly filling up a landfill with all the plastic spray bottles I have purchased in the last 25 years. I make many of my own cleaners, some I have even read about in Ask Umbra. I make my own bug spray, weed killer, linen spray, etc. But I seem to buy at least three plastic bottles for each job, which break and are often not recyclable. I am on a quest to find a spray bottle that would last a long time. Please help me.

Penelope J.
Mariposa, Calif.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Photo by El Finco.

A. Dearest Penelope,

I wish my name were Penelope. I also wish you were not singlehandedly destroying the planet with your penchant for flimsy plastic spray bottles.

I kid, of course. While your bottle habit is not ideal, your DIY habits are admirable. I bet we can find a way to make your vessels match your values.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

First, let’s look at your habits. I’m not quite sure why it’s taking three bottles to do each job — nor am I sure what constitutes a job in your very clean world — but you could try to lessen that. Are you spraying too vigorously, thus busting the pump mechanisms? Are you banging the bottles around, denting them and poking holes in them? My role is not to point fingers, merely to encourage a bit of reflection.

Second, you’re right that if you’re going to continue down this merry road of homemade cleaning and garden agents, you need more durable supplies. I should think this would benefit not only the landfill, but also your wallet. So I have a few thoughts:

  • Look online for a nice, sturdy glass bottle with a sprayer. You will not find a sprayer that isn’t plastic, but you will still be reducing your plastic waste immensely by investing in this refillable and recyclable item. I must warn you: Shiny aluminum bottles will tempt you when you conduct this search, but these are usually lined with plastic, so they do not accomplish our plastic-reduction goal (aluminum production is also extremely resource intensive). Stainless steel is another option, if you can find a model that’s unlined. (Here’s one.)
  • Consider reusing an old glass bottle. Here is a possible use for those perfume bottles people are always asking me about (my, what nice smelling readers I have). I’ve also seen people recommend reusing any glass bottle with a screw cap, such as a vinegar bottle, which can then be fitted with one of your old spray tops.
  • If these don’t seem to do the trick, I am going to hesitantly endorse the idea of visiting your local hardware store and buying a durable “industrial sprayer,” fancy talk for a heavy-duty plastic bottle. (This fellow has tried out a few brands.) Yes, they’re still plastic, but these should last longer than your cheap ones, and should be recyclable to boot.
  • I’m getting excited about the idea of you buying a stainless steel commercial sprayer like this one, but that might be a bit more than you need. Plus I cannot dive into its innards and find out what’s really in there.
  • A final thought: Do you need to spray? Could you simply pour a little of your creations onto a cloth for cleaning? I know spraying is sometimes handy, but I have now developed an image of you leaping about your home and garden, humming snatches of Broadway tunes as you aggressively spritz every surface in sight. See if it’s possible to dab or daub or dribble instead.

By the way, while I’m generally not in the business of shilling, I think this is a pretty brilliant idea: Recyclable plastic spray bottles that have recipes for household cleaning, produce wash, and pest control printed right on them. No more time frittered away scouring a certain advice column for recipes!

Penelope, I hope that helps. Before I leave you, a bit of trivia: The modern plastic spray bottle was popularized in the U.S. during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the onset of the Better Living Through Plastic Era. One of the first mass uses of this astonishing device was a squeezable deodorant called Stopette, which was a sponsor for the game show What’s My Line.


Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.