When You’re No Better Than Your Parents: A Hand Soap Lesson

It seems adulthood is a series of choices we make to prove we’re not our parents. Take hand soap, for example.

Growing up, mom bought non-name-brand-but-not-quite-knock-off hand soap. It came in small, plastic dispensers wrapped in little designs, like seashells or flowers. And the soaps’ scents would be a version of something you might smell in nature, such as “spring rain” or “autumn spice.”

Mom never bothered with reusable soap dispensers. Maybe she didn’t want to fuss with cleaning them. Or, perhaps as a working mom of two who lived on a farm with a huge garden, she needed to take something off her plate.

A plastic bottle of hand soap on a bathroom counter.
Photo by Dan Farrell on Unsplash

So our family of four pumped the hand soap out of the plastic dispenser in which it came. When it neared emptying, mom would drop a little water in to make sure we got every last bit of soap. Then when the watered-down soap was thorough, into the trash can went the now-empty soap dispenser, and out came a new, full plastic soap dispenser.

It’s a cycle I followed as a young man. I bought hand soap sold in a plastic dispenser and used it until it was empty. Then I tossed it into the trash and got another plastic dispenser of hand soap.

But when I reached full-fledged adulthood, defined by my ability to eat at a fast-casual restaurant whenever I wanted without worrying about the cost, I decided to leave my childhood hand soap ways behind. In hindsight, I switched to a brand that was probably explicitly created to capture that “early-stage Millennial out to prove they’re not their parents” market. 

This hand soap brand boasted that its packaging came in recyclable materials. Sure, other brands’ plastic dispensers were recyclable, too, but this new hand soap brand talked about recycling. And it smelled like something you knew, real stuff from nature, such as rose, honeysuckle, and lavender. Plus, the hand soap’s label looked like something the soap maker made in her home. You felt like you were buying a more environmentally friendly hand soap while also supporting a small business.

And for a time, you were supporting a small business. But then a big company bought the hand soap maker. The hand soap’s name, labels, and scents remained, though you could no longer pretend that the brand’s namesake was mixing the soap in her kitchen.

Then, one day, you toss a used soap dispenser into your recycling bin, and you recall an article you recently read about how China is no longer buying as much trash as it used to, creating a glut of plastic and glass that we in the U.S. hoped would be recycled. And you remember all the stories you’ve seen about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive collection of gathered trash somewhere between Hawaii and California.

That’s when you understand that all this time, you thought your hand soap purchasing decision was superior to your parents’, but you now realize it’s not. 

You must do better. You wouldn’t take a boat out into the ocean and drop a plastic soap dispenser into the water, yet you’ll toss plastic into a recycling bin, knowing full well it’s as likely to ride the high seas as it is to be recycled. And even if the plastic soap dispenser finds a new life as, say, a milk jug, eventually, the plastic’s usefulness runs out

You wouldn’t take a boat out into the ocean and drop a plastic soap dispenser into the water.

Nicholas E. Barron

The plastic that was once your soap dispenser that became a milk jug that then became something else runs out of life. That’s when the plastic ends up in a landfill or floating in the ocean. And that’s what led me to recently making a switch in our home.

First, we bought reusable glass soap dispensers. Secondly, we changed to a hand soap that comes in non-plastic containers that are recyclable but will disintegrate if they end up in the ocean. And the soap’s made of all-natural ingredients.

The husband and I feel good about this change. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

Of course, it’s possible down the road we’ll have another epiphany and decide we’ve been wrong about our hand soap buying all this time. 

Because that may be the next stage of adulthood for us all, we first prove we’re not our parents. Then we find out we don’t want to be ourselves, either.


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