Monday, April 22, 2013

Step Twenty-Eight: Start Eating Out in Zero Waste Style

Home cooking has its benefits, but sometimes you'd really like for someone else to worry about dinner (and the dishes). I need this relief a few times a month, but want to be able to fully relax knowing I'm living up to my zero waste standards, so I've developed a few techniques to eat out in zero waste style.

The first, and most important thing is to eat at a local, independent establishment. National food chains have centralized national shipping centers, which means your food spends months in plastic packaging either in transit or waiting to be in transit. Franchises often pay their workers poorly, are slow to change, and will usually put making a profit above any other considerations. I still occasionally eat at national brand places, but it means more work to make things zero waste on my end, and a lot of feedback to get them to change the waste practices on their end.

Eating at a local joint doesn't automatically mean you'll have a zero waste meal, but it does mean your suggestions will be more easily heard, and that workers will have more liberty to fulfill your requests. There's also a better chance that their employees are fairly treated and compensated--not a zero waste issue, but just a good thing in general.

The second step to eating out in zero waste style is to bring along a few reusable containers and utensils (and possibly even some condiments). This will eliminate your need for styrofoam to-go boxes, plastic forks, and flimsy paper napkins. I like to carry a home-made utensil kit with me (including a napkin, metal silverware, and a glass straw), but there are several ready-to-buy options as well. I also usually carry a bento box and small metal container with me to hold any leftovers I might come across. I use these for other things as well, like collecting compostable garbage I find throughout my day, impromptu and package-free purchases, or gathering found objects for art supplies. I realize that I am a bag lady though, and that few people regularly carry a purse as large as mine, so it will likely be more practical for you to pack an eating-out kit and leave it in your trunk, by the door, or next to your shopping kit.

Lastly, you'll want to change your mindset about eating out. Growing up, going to a restaurant was a great treat reserved for only a few times a year. I eat out more often than that now, but still view it as a special pleasure. I anticipate it, plan for it, and imagine the delicious food I'll enjoy at least a week before going out. This means that when the special day finally comes, I don't forget my reusables, I've mentally prepared myself to refuse the plastic straw, utensils rolled in a paper napkin, and other disposables, and I've pre-written a letter (either on paper or in my head) thanking the establishment for the experience, commending what they did well, and suggesting that they consider composting, locally sourcing ingredients, and eliminating disposables.

I also take care to go on a non-busy day, maybe even at a non-busy time, so that my questions and requests don't bog down the staff during a rush or when they're more likely to be stressed. Tuesdays are considered some of the best days to eat out, as most chefs take Monday off and come back refreshed and ready to enjoy cooking. It's also the day when the food is dependably the highest quality, as expired things get tossed Sunday night or Monday morning (rather than made into stew or Sunday brunch).

On a side note, I know that sometimes I just want to grab something quickly to feed myself and my family without any trouble or thought. These nights usually come when I've been busy doing chores and running errands, and realize on my way home that it's nine at night and I haven't eaten all day. In these cases my go-to restaurants are pizza places and In-n-Out Burger. With pizza, especially carry-out, I know the only garbage is the compostable cardboard box (it's not recyclable because of the pizza grease). None of the places near me include the little plastic table anymore, but at your pizza joint you may need to request that it be left out.  I also go to In-n-Out burger because they pay their workers a fair wage, are family owned, don't use frozen pre-made stuff, and pack most of their food in cardboard and paper, making it easy to compost the waste. These aren't ideal solutions, but when it comes to being cranky, hungry, stressed, and unprepared or having some compost to deal with, I always choose to deal with the compost. It keeps me sane and happy, which are two of the most important tools for having a zero waste lifestyle.

Eating out in zero waste style doesn't take more planning than any other nice meal or zero waste shopping trip would. Of course the first few times I tried it I made mistakes, but there's a learning curve in anything, and mistakes are just indicators of what doesn't work. So grab a few Tupperware, your favorite fork, and go out to your favorite restaurant tonight; your sense of taste won't waste any of it.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index

Friday, March 8, 2013

Zero Waste Product Shout-Out: Furoshiki Wraps

This post, summed up in one picture.

Stripe Furoshiki

(image source)

Few people are familiar with furoshiki, but once you learn about them, it's likely you'll find them indispensable in your zero waste life. A furoshiki is a square piece of cloth used to wrap, cushion, and package various items. These wraps can be only a few inches square, or be several feet across. Originating in Japan, but having common counterparts around the world, "furoshiki" translates roughly to "bath mat", as squares of fabric were initially used to wrap clothing, toiletries, and personal effects while at public baths. Later on, these cloths were used to pack Bento boxes, carry purchases home from the market, and even as suitcases and storage padding. In essence, we know furoshiki by the name "bandanna" or "kerchief", though it's unlikely you've ever used a bandanna as often or as versatily as a furoshiki.

Personally, I love the knot-wraps from Lush, as they were my first real introduction to furoshiki, and came with a handy little card showing me a few basic wraps. From there I found a website devoted exclusively to furoshiki, including a large directory on how to tie them, and a huge selection to purchase. Lastly, I love the site Furochic, and the creator's accompanying book Wrapagami for their beautiful, innovative, and ingenious wrapping techniques. Really though, one piece of square cloth and a few minutes spent with some Youtube instructional videos, or some books from Amazon, and you'll be wrapping and carrying all your treasures in no time.

Since picking up a few furoshiki of various sizes, I use them as headbands, scarves, toiletry bags, gift wrap, bottle carriers, tote bags, cushions for delicate items, picnic spreads, seat covers, and even once as a party dress. I keep one tied to the strap of my bag to add some appeal and whimsy, and have found it a nifty way to always keep one with me. I never know what use I'll have for a furoshiki, but I'm finding new ideas every day.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Step Twenty-Seven: Explore Some Thrift Stores

I have a confession: I love to shop. Even buying groceries brings me intense pleasure, so imagine what shopping for clothes or home goods does for me. This love for shopping was not well harnessed in my past, and it got me into some money troubles. Part of the appeal of zero waste was buying only what I needed,  and being surrounded only by things I loved and used often. I have drastically reduced my shopping and spending, and can truly say I only make purchases which I can afford and which bring some measure of utility or joy to my life. However, I still find myself in need of things occasionally, and so I have re-channeled the thrill of shopping into the satisfaction of the hunt. By purchasing items in thrift stores, I reduce my impact on the planet, spend my money on a good cause, and have a little fun exploring all the weird stuff people collect.

Today's baby step is to explore some thrift stores. For some this will be old hat, for others a novel, scary adventure. Thrift stores can be challenging, as they don't have multiple sizes, back-up inventory, or customer satisfaction guarantees. We've become accustomed to these conveniences, and so may balk at their absence, but how many things do you really need multiples of, or a lifetime guarantee for? I buy my underwear, socks, and shoes new, without hesitation, but everything else is much more interesting when I've found it after a long thrift store hunt. Coats with secret pockets, a porcelain pig pot that has a facial expression that is the definition of wabi-sabi, and even high-quality cookware are all treasures I've been amazed I only had to pay a few dollars for.

If you are new to the thrift store game, it's best to go with a rough plan of what you want. Remember back when we found our style? That will come in handy now. Knowing what gaps you have in your wardrobe, tool collections, or home inventory gives focus to your search. Knowing what characteristics you appreciate, what colors will mesh well with your home, and what features in an item you require will keep you from coming home with a dud. And knowing how much time you have to spend, what stores are the best organized, and which days stock is replenished will help expedite your search.

For example, in my home town, I have a favorite thrift store for clothes shopping, but I know my best bet is to check craigslist for gardening tools. It takes a little while to learn where to go for certain items, but I've found that stores are pretty reliable in what types of things and what range of selection they carry.

When I go shopping, I usually have an item in mind to fill a hole in my home, like khaki pants, a picture frame of a certain size, or a stainless steel mixing bowl. There are also times I have a nebulous idea of what I want, like a gift for a friend, or something I can turn into a planter. Even the roughest of ideas helps guide me through the store and narrow my search. Plus, then I can enlist the help of friends in searching the store, before we retire to a more entertaining activity, like gossiping over smoothies or people-watching at the mall.

Lastly, the key to thrift store shopping is patience. You won't always find what you want, and you may come home empty-handed. That's okay. Most of us are lucky enough to live free from true need; those extra dinner plates or perfect summer book can wait, and second-hand good can always be had almost instantly from e-bay if true need arises. Thrift shopping is something that takes a little bit of practice, but soon you'll be amazed at the great deals you can get with just a little bit of searching, and a sprinkle of savvy.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Step Twenty-Six: Organize Your Office

Whether you're a professional office manager or a first grader, paperwork is a part of your life. With paperwork comes tape, folders, paperclips, pens, scissors, staples, and a bunch of other stuff that clutters up drawers, desks, and entire office areas. Though paper is recyclable, it still seems wasteful when you think of all the business cards, calendars, newsletters, appointment reminders, and bills that have gone through your home. Today we're going to stem the flow and make your office, whether it's a  counter or a whole room, into a manageable, organized space.

Let's start by listing the things you need from an office. I surf the web, manage my finances, work on my writing, schedule appointments, write letters, put together photo albums, and review to-do lists.  You may draw, coordinate schedules, book vacations, conduct business, place orders, or plan for the future. An office serves many purposes, but I find it to be helpful to identify the ones you use most.  When you know what you do most often in your office, you know what processes you'll use often, and what supplies you'll need.

Luckily, we live in a time where almost everything  can be digitized and managed online. The fastest way to get rid of office supplies is to put everything online. When you e-mail documents, use Google calendar, shop and pay bills online, and keep digital records, all you need for an office is a laptop. I used to aspire to this kind of simplicity, but for many things I work more easily off of paper. For example, I keep a paper calendar, rely on a physical address book, and prefer to send handwritten letters and cards.  I also receive printed papers from organizations for my grant writing work, keep important documents in physical form, and relish writing and drawing in a journal. I used to have boxes of office supplies and paperwork, but have since cut my things down to one shoe-box of supplies and two magazine files of paper. I miss nothing, and actually find myself more creative without all the junk confusing my senses.

The first, and most expensive (but also most impactful) thing I did was get a scanner and scan everything I could. I took apart my yearbooks, went through years of letters, and got rid of all of my old schoolwork. I have everything in digital form now, which gives me peace of mind (further enabled by regularly backing up my computer), and I keep only the most important things in their original paper form. This allowed me to get a  few vertical files and keep all of my papers in six inches of bookshelf space, rather than several cubic feet of file-box storage.

Next, I went through my common processes, and looked at what I needed to complete them. A dependable pen with a few replacement ink cartridges in reserve, index cards, post-it notes, a pair of scissors, some glue, a Sharpie, a small amount of paper clips, note paper, a few vertical file folders, and some art supplies were all I really needed. Staples were replaced by paper clips, tape was replaced by glue, and I saved a lot of space by choosing not to have a printer. What I do need to print off I can go to the local copy shop for; the extra effort makes sure I don't mindlessly print anything I don't need.

Now I have more space in my home office (really just a desk in the corner), and I never wonder what to do with myself when something comes up. I have a dedicated to-do list on my phone, a calendar in the back of my journal, an index card full of thoughts and ideas, a computer for my bills, and a scanner for anything I want to look at later. I decline reminder cards by writing appointments in my calendar as soon as they're made, take pictures of business cards with my phone and hand them right back, and get so little junk mail that it's easy to call the company and be removed from their mailing list. By identifying things I do regularly, and working out the best way for me to take care of them, I've streamlined my time, gotten rid of clutter I don't need, and ended the once-endless flow of paper through my home. I have a lighter footstep on the planet, but more importantly, less weight on my mind.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.

Zero Waste Product Shout-Out: Salad Spinners

When you don't want to make any trash, you get a lot of food from the produce section. No bagged celery, baby carrots, or pre-sliced vegetables means buying plants in their whole, slightly dirty glory. That's why today's zero waste product shout-out goes to salad spinners.

I go shopping once or twice a week, and the first thing I do when I get home is what I call "processing the produce". I wash, dry, peel, and chop most of the vegetables I buy, in essence making myself a bagged salad without the plastic waste. Normally lettuce goes bad in a matter of days, but I've found I can make it last a week and a half if I spin it twice after rinsing and store it in a lidded container. I can fit two heads of lettuce in  my largest Pyrex bowl, which lets me have a generous salad for lunch for about four days.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, a salad spinner uses centrifugal force from spinning one bowl inside another to throw water off of greens. It's a handy little kitchen device that makes dealing with lettuce a joy, though it does take up a lot of space and is harder to wash than a regular bowl.

However, I've found other uses for my spinner to help justify the effort and space I devote to it. I use the insert of my salad spinner to rinse round or small fruits and vegetables (like tomatoes, zucchini, green onions, apples, plums, peaches, cherries, and red potatoes). I can save water by rinsing over the salad spinner's outer bowl, then dunking the insert in several times to thoroughly rinse things. I've used the bowl on it's own to serve salad, and I'd honestly use the spinner to store the salad in the fridge if space wasn't at a premium in my living situation right now.

At first I felt indulgent buying a single-purpose kitchen tool, but I use my spinner on a weekly basis, and have found the aforementioned other uses for it. The spinner I bought has a lock to keep the handle down for easy storage, a feature I sincerely appreciate, and has sturdy construction which I expect will last for decades. Of course, Ikea sells salad spinners for a very affordable four dollars, and Amazon has a plethora of options. Then, of course, you can always put your greens in a mesh bag and swing them around your head till your neighbors are scared of you or your salad is dry, whichever comes first.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Step Twenty-Five: Pamper Yourself

If you've followed along in the one hundred baby-steps to zero waste thus far, you are a quarter of the way done with the list, and now create significantly less garbage.  Congratulations on all your hard work and thoughtful effort. I'm confident that you've seen benefits in your health, your finances, and your free time. To celebrate, step twenty-five is to pamper yourself. Take a few hours, or the whole day, and do something to boost your happiness, help you relax, and commemorate how far you've come. It's likely that you already know what you want to do with your time, but keep reading if you'd like some (zero waste) ideas.

  • Take a friend, your significant other, or the whole family out ice skating, bowling, swimming,  or to an arcade. Even if you're a novice at the activity, you'll have a great experience playing with people you love.
  • Use your time to make it to that museum, art display, or botanical garden you've been wanting  to explore. Don't rush, part of pampering yourself is enjoying things leisurely.
  • I know some people will call this a waste of time, but I always enjoy a day at the movies. There are a lot of great films playing now, and most theaters don't have a problem putting popcorn in a bowl or bag you brought from home. If you want something a little more special, find a concert or play showing in your area and book tickets now.
  • Get thyself to the spa, or better yet, bring it home. Whip up some moisturizing recipes courtesy of Crunchy Betty, buy some waste-free beauty products from Lush or Etsy, or even just put a dozen drops of essential oil (easy to find at any health food or vitamin shop) in a hot tub and soak your cares away.
  • Read. It's so enjoyable, and we rarely give ourselves the time to spend a whole afternoon with a book. If it helps you feel productive, you can call it research, and use that as a justification to turn your phone off for distraction-free reading.
  • Eat with people you love. Homemade meals are a joy for some, but if you'd relish having someone else do the cooking (and the dishes) take tonight to try a local restaurant, and maybe find a new favorite hangout.
  • Move your body for joy, not exercise. For some this means tossing a ball in the backyard, playing Frisbee,  or just taking a walk around the neighborhood. In this weather I bet a lot of us could even go sledding. Whatever it is, make sure it's something you like to do, not something you're motivated to do purely for your health.

Whatever you do, remember that a big part of the reason we're reducing and eliminating waste is to allow ourselves to devote our resources to creating a remarkable, enjoyable life. Pampering yourself isn't a one-time reward, but a lifelong habit we want to make room for. If you relish your life, you're not wasting it.

First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.

Wasteful, but Necessary Interuptions

I want to take a quick moment to apologize for my recent absence. My writing work wasn't quite supporting me, so I took a job as the graveyard shift server at Denny's. This has thrown a huge kink in my schedule, so all I've done the past month or so is sleep and work. Luckily, since I already have my zero waste habits ingrained, I didn't have to spend any time on taking out the garbage or mindlessly shopping.

I've straightened things out now, and should be back to my regular posting schedule (100 steps to Zero Waste on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, and a Product Shout-Out on Friday). You can also look forward to a few rants on the waste involved in our convenience food chains. Tons of waste (literally) are generated regularly, even by my low-volume restaurant. Most of it could be avoided with a few simple changes, but I imagine the slight increase in cost will put off most food franchise CEOs, so we'll have a while to wait. All the more reason to implement zero waste in our lifestyles, and to spread the word. The sooner zero waste becomes a cultural norm, the sooner we'll all be able to eat out, go shopping, and travel with zero waste ease.