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The Conservationist Wet Shaver

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There is a saying that I like: inch by inch is a cinch; mile by mile is a trial. This means that small adjustments over time can result in significant changes. I apply this to many problems that I’m trying to solve for myself or my dietetic clients.  Wet shavers can contribute as well, and having a positive effect on carbon emissions, plastic dumped into the environment, and conservation of energy, raw materials (such as iron and steel), landfill space and more.

When we apply this to the environment challenges, there are many small adjustments to our lives that we can make, and if those adjustments are maintained by a large segment of the population, significant changes will result.

The shaving tweaks that I advocate won’t make any difference in the big picture if just I do them or if just you do them, but there is power in collective action. If a million (or ten million or 100 million) men make some of these little adjustments to their lifestyle and routine, the benefits for the human race can be significant.

Get Off the Can, Get On the Puck

One of the easiest and most pleasurable adjustments to one’s shaving routine is to get off the can and get on the brush — the shave brush and soap or cream, that is.

Many shaving aficionados tout the supremacy of comfort, fragrance options, reduced messiness (no need to apply lather with the hands) and quality of shave when using shave soaps and creams lathered with a shave brush. I tend to agree with these benefits.

However, from the point of view of a conservationist (of the planet and the human race), there is another fundamental benefit from ditching the can and going old school.

There’s nothing to put in the landfill — that is, if you purchase shave soap with recyclable packaging. Cans of foam or gel, on the other hand, are difficult to recycle because of their combination of materials — specifically metal and plastic — as well as the complexity of their packaging assemblies.

My favorite eco-friendly soaps come with simple paper wrapping, and these are most often sold by small, craft soap makers. Others may come in a simple cardboard box; one example of this is the Williams brand. Other shave soaps may come in plastic containers that can be re-purposed or, when marked with recycle symbols, can be recycled.

Shave soaps and creams to avoid are those that come in packaging that can’t be recycled such as plastic tubes with no recycle symbols. (Note to soap sellers: Use recyclable packaging that is appropriately marked as such.)

Think for a moment how many canned foam and gel users might today be using the last of their shaving lube from their current pressurized-can dispenser. They then throw that can in the trash.

Now in our imagination, let’s take all those cans from the rubbish bin and put them in one pile. How big is that? How much space does that take up? Once added to the landfill and covered up, how long does it take for that to disintegrate or decompose? 100 years? 1000 years? Never?

If all those canned-lather users instead used properly packaged shave soap, that giant pile of empty pressurized cans disappears. Period. Instead, paper, cardboard, and plastic return to the cycle of reuse, where those materials are processed and incorporated into other products and packaging, and thereby create recycling jobs. Sounds like a winner to me.

Stop Using Disposable Plastic Razors!

Plastic is becoming recognized as an environmental bane of our age. Many have thought of it as a material that doesn’t decompose at all — and that may be bad enough. After all, who wants tons and tons of old, used up plastic containers and items slowly filling up precious, limited real estate that could be much better used for other purposes?

But that isn’t really the end of the plastic story. Some plastics break down, not into their constituent elements, but rather into smaller plastic bits. (This is especially true of “disposable” plastic bottles that find their way into oceans — which is a primary cause of the massive, semi-visible, sub-surface plastic “island” in the Pacific ocean, for example.) These micro beads of plastic are finding their way into the broader environment including our food stream, and, thereby, into us!

Plastic disposable razors include one-piece blade-and-handle assemblies as well as separate cartridges and handles. Disposable: the whole concept of disposability is completely wrong headed. They aren’t disposed of at all! They are merely removed from our personal space. They go to a landfill or are perhaps dumped in the ocean. Yet they persist. More waste polluting our no-longer-pristine Earth.

Items that are “thrown away” are just litter that is relocated out of our immediate view. Virtually nothing can be “thrown away.” It is merely refuse that is relocated from one place to another.

But the problem is that we don’t pay attention. We focus on our private activities and miss the big picture. Your actions matter, though they may seem insignificant.

This is because you, and your next-door neighbor and the guys down the street are all making the same seemingly-insignificant action, which, when viewed from a macro perspective, is significant indeed. Every day, tons of razors are thrown away. But thrown away from what? Our homes, yes. Our nation, our land, our environment? Certainly not.

Better than disposable razors are those that have a long useful life. Even better are those that can be recycled or repurposed after their useful life is over. Virtually all double-edge, single-edge, and straight razors fit into this long-useful-life category. Those that require replaceable blades are also environmentally-responsible choices as long as the blades are not “thrown away” and instead are saved and later recycled!

Wet versus Electric Shaving

Electric razors are complex and expensive. However, at least they aren’t repeatedly used for a short time, tossed in the trash, and replaced often. However, their high complexity and small size makes them difficult to recycle.

The simpler instruments of wet shaving — razor, steel blades, soap and brush — in the big picture these are likely the more environmentally-friendly option: durable (razors and brush), recyclable (blades), and biodegradable (soap).

Electric razors may be a more responsible choice than the so-called disposable plastic wet-shaving razors. However, I would argue that double-edge, single-edge, and straight razors are a more environmentally-aware choice.

Maximize Your Blade Life

The early Gillette old-type razors were sold with 12 blades. These blades were not disposable but instead were reusable. The user could return used-up blades to Gillette, where they were reconditioned to a like-new status for reuse and re-purchase.

The early Gillette advertisements suggested that each blade was good for 20 to 40 shaves before needing to be replaced! (That’s right, you read that correctly: 20 to 40 shaves!)  And keep in mind that these were not stainless-steel blades, so they were highly susceptible to rust.
Of course, I don’t really know if the average old-type user actually got an average of 30 shaves from each blade. I do know that he didn’t use a blade one to seven times and then toss it into his return-to-Gillette container — or worse, into the trash!

Were the old blades more durable than modern DE blades? I doubt that, but I do know that I routinely get 21 good shaves from most DE blades that I use. I also know that frugal users of modern multi-blade “disposable” razors get many, many shaves from their razors before replacing them. Yet I’ve read in shaving forums that many (if not most) of today’s DE users will replace a blade after only one to seven shaves.

The point is that because DE blades are inexpensive to purchase, many users don’t feel a need to fully explore the performance envelope — in particular, the durability — of their blades.

Yet the simple act of rinsing clean and drying the blade after each use can greatly extend the useful life of the blade.

Lightly stropping the blade may further extend blade life. (Stropping is a controversial issue. Some say it merely cleans and dries the edge. Others say it helps straighten microscopic deformations of the edge. Still others warn that stropping will remove edge coatings and thereby diminish the quality of the shave. Others warn that stropping will actually dull the edge.

My long-time practice is to rinse clean, press dry, and palm strop my blades with two strokes per edge side after every shave.) I should emphasize that stropping is not sharpening. To properly strop any edge, the strop surface should be parallel rather than at an oblique angle to the blade surface.

Even if you insist on using so-called disposable razors or cartridges (not encouraged, though!), their useful life can be extended greatly by thoroughly rinsing clean and removing as much water as possible before setting to dry. Many users go further by blowing excess water from the blades and stropping the exposed side of the blades on their forearm or other suitable surface such as the denim of their jeans over their thigh.

Shaving technique can also extend useful blade life. Oblique shaving strokes increase the effective sharpness of a blade (not the actual sharpness of the edge itself, but rather the cutting ability of a blade). An oblique stroke is one in which the edge is slightly off perpendicular to the stroke direction. This can be easily and safely done.

To make any oblique stroke, make the stroke direction as you would in your normal shaving routine. However, just ensure that the razor’s edge is slightly canted off perpendicular to the stroke direction.

Oblique strokes are only difficult when one tries to approach them with the opposite concept in mind; that is, to hold the razor perpendicular to one’s normal stroke direction, but then try stroke in a slightly diagonal direction to what is commonly done. The first method is easy-peasey; the latter method can be downright dangerous.

Get or Make a Blade Bank

If you use a razor that requires replacing blades periodically, use a blade bank to retain blades that are used up. Then when the container is full, seal it, mark it as containing used razor blades, and deposit it at your location which will accept blades for recycling.

Steel blade banks can be purchased. However, metal food cans can be used as well. There are ideas on the Internet that can be easily found for making used-blade banks easily and cheaply. These generally include hitting your local grocery store and buying the cheapest can of sauce or broth available. Then with a sharp piercing tool punch a small hole in the top and a larger slot in the top — or, using a hacksaw, you can cut a slot in the side of the can near its top. Then drain out the contents and rinse until the interior of the can is clean.

There are even printable labels available on the Internet, some of which have a nineteenth-century look, which can be attached to your home-made blade bank to dress it up. When your little project is done, you’ll have a blade bank that will last you a long time before it’s filled up and ready for the recycling center.

The point is, don’t send your blades to the landfill. This is especially true if you’re one of those that slips used blades back into the back of their plastic dispenser. This is just thoughtlessly dumping more plastic into the environment. It also wastes stainless steel that could be re-used for something else.

And just a reminder, if you are scoffing at this proscription of wasting steel and sending bits of plastic to the landfill, remember the massive impact of millions of individuals acting shortsightedly by sending bits of useful or hazardous material to be buried by our trash-handling system. The actions of the collective millions depends on the actions of individuals. That’s you, big boy.

Heat Shaving Water in a Microwave Oven

If you have to run your bathroom water for a while before you get hot water for shaving, this is a waste of water and, potentially, the fuel to heat unused water that gets left in pipes and goes unused.

I have found that empty, repurposed Greek yogurt cups are ideal for heating a few ounces of water in the microwave and using that water to make warm lather with soap and brush. This process is not only thrifty and ecologically responsible, it actually saves me time in the morning. It’s quicker for me to nuke my yogurt cup full of water for a minute than it is to run the water in my bathroom until the water runs hot.
Upon returning to my bathroom for my shave, I then dip my shave brush in the hot water and then let most of it run back out, helped along with a vertical shake or two. Then I load my brush with soap, and face lather.

I typically face lather twice, and prior to the second lathering lay out the rest of my shaving accoutrements and touch the tips of my soap-laden brush in the hot water — merely for an added bit of moisture and warmth for that final, pre-shave lathering.

While shaving, just before the lather-filled razor gets too sloppy, I’ll rinse the accumulated lather from my razor with cool water — and this can be done in the stoppered sink or using a brief, slow stream of water directly from the spigot. Then I dip the razor head in the yogurt cup of warm water so that the razor is warm and comfortable on my skin.

Save and Reuse Clean Lather

At the conclusion of the shave, I do squeeze out the clean, unused lather from the brush and return it to the soap cup to dry for use with another shave.  After that I put the brush in the warm water to soften the remaining soap, while I apply any after-shave products and put away my razor.

That done, I swirl the brush in the warm water to remove remaining soap and clean out the re-purposed yogurt container, and then vigorously shake both over the bathtub to remove most of the water and prepare them for drying on the counter until the next shave.

Turn Off the Tap

For those living in areas like the U.S.A.’s southwest, where water is truly scarce, you can further conserve water by filling a second repurposed Greek yogurt cup with cool tap water. This becomes your razor-rinsing water — this in lieu of a sink full of water for rinsing or using running tap water to sweep used lather from your razor.

Adopt and Share the Conservationist Perspective

Having the behavior of an ecologically-aware shaver can be thrifty — and often is. Unfortunately, those not attuned to the harm that we collectively do to our environment tend to see only the immediate and small cost savings to those individuals who act in ecologically-responsible ways.

So they mistake getting the maximum useful life from double-edge blades, for example, as being a penny-pinching exercise instead of one more small step to collectively not wasting resources. It’s the same with heating and conserving water, and not wasting perfectly good shaving lather by saving it rather than running it down the drain (and thereby wasting more water in the process).

It is this ecologically-unaware perspective that leads some to drive enormous and fuel-wasting vehicles, when they could do with something much more efficient.

But being able to afford wastefulness is not at all the point. It is the wastefulness itself is the point.  Mass wastefulness has gotten us to or beyond our current environmental tipping point.

It’s now clear that in the not-too-distant future, much of southern Florida may be under water. Our coasts in general may be threatened by rising seas from global warming and the resulting melting of arctic ice.

Fresh water is becoming more scarce as well due to the shrinking of mountain glaciers. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee: the world is a small and fragile place, and we are collectively spoiling it — to our own detriment.

Become conscious of your own actions, and how our wasteful and throw-away attitudes are causing harm to ourselves. Help others to understand that together, united we can address and solve this creeping problem. Inch by inch is a cinch. If we all become aware and engaged, we can all do our small, easy share, and together we can solve this problem. But it all starts with you, the conservationist shaver, paying attention to all your actions with an awareness of the potential big-picture impact.

Happy eco-responsible shaving!

Doug Hansford

Doug Hansford