Monday, December 17, 2012

Step Twenty: Zero Waste Snacks

If I'm feeling cranky, frustrated, or tired, usually a good snack helps. When switching to zero waste, I almost gave up because of what I perceived to be the dearth of convenient, simple, and appetizing zero waste snacks. However, I did a little research, tried a few things, and now never find myself without a zero waste treat I look forward to eating, which is important for me in order to keep my productivity up.

If you're finding you have the same problems, I encourage you to look at what you require from  your snack food (convenience, portability, appeal, etc.), and then brainstorm how you can meet those requirements but with little or no packaging. I've found I need to invest half and hour a week into preparing my snacks (washing, chopping, mixing, etc.), but I do this immediately after returning from the grocery store, so it's become an expected part of putting away the food when I get home.  The following is a list of goodies I always keep on hand, and am sure you'll enjoy as well.

Trail Mix and Nuts: At its simplest, I mix one cup peanuts to three-fourths of a cup of chocolate chips. I don't care much for the texture of dried fruit, so raisins and the like rarely make it into my mix. When I'm feeling more adventurous I'll mix in almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, white chocolate chips, or M&Ms. Quite a few stores that stock bulk food will also have a few varieties of trail mix in bulk, so getting it can be as easy as bringing an extra cloth bag on your next shopping trip. Often I'll keep jars of nuts on hand too, as it's nice to just grab a handful of almonds occasionally. I use old Altoid tins, small cloth bulk bags, and small metal containers to carry my trail mix or nuts when I'm out and about.

Dried Fruit: This is not my cup of tea, but any store with a bulk section will stock some kind of dried fruit, and usually a good variety of it. Raisins, craisins, prunes, banana chips, and the like are very healthy, require only a jar to store them in, and are one of the most convenient snack foods you'll find.

Cookies: I love cookies, so I usually make a batch every Sunday, and help myself to a few every day out of the cookie jar. It's easy to wrap a couple of cookies in my Bird-e towels for when I want to pack them along. If I were disinclined to bake, as I have been at times, I just bring my own box or bag to the bakery and ask for them there. One inquiry means you'll know the baking schedule, and can often put in requests the day before so that your cookies are ready and waiting package-free for you.

Carrots and Celery Sticks: I thought carrot and celery sticks would be my zero waste snack salvation, but I've found that if I don't cut them up as soon as I get home, I never snack on them because of the preparation time (I didn't think about how spoiled I was by those bags of baby carrots, or about how much waste I made because of them). So now I rinse, peel, and chop up whole celery and carrots as soon as I get home from the market. Some people keep them in water in their fridge to retain their crispness, but as long as I can just reach in and grab them I always eat my vegetables faster than they go limp. I like my carrots naked, but I have been meaning to try out a homemade ranch dressing recipe for the rest of the family. Celery I always eat with peanut butter bought package-free and freshly made from the peanut butter station at the health food store. When I travel with these things, I carry a little metal bento box with a scoop of peanut-butter in one corner.

Fruit: I keep a fully-stocked fruit basket at all times. I don't find fruit to be filling, but it does take the edge off of hunger and gives me a healthy snacking choice. Plus it's the easiest, most convenient, most portable zero waste snack I can think of.

Crackers, Pretzels, and the Like: As stated before, I'm lucky enough to live near a Winco, so I'm never left wanting for all the great snack foods they carry, like goldfish crackers, pretzels, cheese doodles, pita chips, and popping corn (There's a great how-to video on popcorn over at Small Notebook). Honestly though, if I didn't have Winco I'd buy the biggest packages of these things I could find (usually at Costco; the bigger the package, the less plastic waste to food ratio there is) and dole them out over a few months. When traveling I use a bento box or other lidded container, but I'm coveting these snack wraps for regular use.

Candy: I don't consider candy a snacking item, but a little sweet treat now and then can hit the spot just right. Again, Winco has a wide range of candy (my favorite are the jelly beans, hot tamales, and tootsie pops (the wrappers and sticks are compostable)), but I've found that many drugstores have Jelly Bellys in bulk, and I love the decadence of buying a pound of See's candies at a time (from the counter, not in the pre-packaged boxes) and enjoying one truffle a day. I dream of having a special wooden box like in the movie Matilda designated  specifically for my chocolate indulgence. Many malls have some sort of chocolate shop where you can buy taffy, truffles, and even plain squares of chocolate in bulk and packaging free. I know these options are more expensive than just buying a candy bar at the Walmart, but I appreciate more, and eat less, when it's something special. Of course, I've sometimes made homemade Twix candy bars and eaten half the batch in one sitting.

Rolls and Bread Items: I'm happy to just smear bread with homemade Nutella, peanut butter, or regular butter and snack away, but I've picked up bagels, doughnuts, dinner rolls, crescent rolls, and cinnamon buns at the local bakery  in bulk from time to time. Again, if you request them made fresh, or find out  what the baking schedule is, it's easy to get these items packaging-free. I've also found that the best way to keep butter fresh on the counter is in a butter crock, which immerses the butter in water to keep it well-preserved, but lets it be warm enough to spread on bread without any problem. I change the water in mine everyday, and would never be without it.

Yogurt: I love Greek yogurt, and always have some on hand. I like mine with just a little honey drizzled on top, or maybe a pinch of cinnamon, but other appetizing options are to stir in some fruit, granola, preserves, or even nuts.

Granola: As always, this is easy to find in the bulk foods section, but there are many recipes to make it yourself online. I like to pour a little milk over mine, but have also been known to eat it by the handful as well. I especially like stirring in some dehydrated strawberry slices to add a different texture and extra layer of flavor.

Cheese: I buy my cheese at the upscale grocery store in my neighborhood. I can get all kinds of cheeses, from hard to soft, and in my own containers. Cheese and crackers are always appetizing, and I love spreading a soft goat cheese or brie onto a bagel. I also find it easier to cut slices of cheese when I'm dealing with a glass storage container, rather than the fussy little plastic wrappers cheese normally comes wrapped in. Of course, I always keep Tillamook cheddar on hand, just stocked from the regular store's deli counter (even Walmart will do this)(honesty time: while I buy it from the deli counter, my family eats enough of this cheese that I just buy the giant five-pound bricks they normally sell for deli use. I cut the brick into smaller, more manageable blocks and store them in lidded Pyrex containers in my fridge).

Soup: This one of my dirty little secrets; I eat canned soup (and even Spaghetti-o's). When nothing else is appealing, I have no money for pizza, and I'm at the point where I'm shaking from hunger, a can of soup always hits the spot. Cans are problematic because of their plastic liners and the fact that new cans aren't made from old cans, so there's not true recycling, but I still indulge in this food on occasion. It's a little more hearty than a simple snack, and allows me to work longer after eating it. Of course, I rinse and recycle the cans, and try to save this as a true treat, rather than a regular staple. I am looking into better, faster homemade soup and ramen recipes, but I'm still in the researching stage, so it'll be a while till I'm ready to write about it. Still, the point of me listing this food is to emphasize the fact that it's important to keep yourself healthy, comfortable, and well-feed, even if that means dealing with a little food packaging.

I hope you've found some inspiration in this list for you and your family, or at least can use it as a springboard to make your own favorite treat. As always, share your ideas with us in the comments, and happy snacking!

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

Step Nineteen: Green Your Cleaning

Cleaning is literally a chore, but I've found it becomes much easier when I simplify my routine, get rid of clutter, and use zero-waste methods to clean my home. I have less products to decide between, never suffer from nasty chemical smells, and am always confident that my family is safe from the worst kinds of bacteria and grime. What I like most of all is that my entire cleaning arsenal fits in an old ice cream bucket, with my broom and dustpan right next to it.

What I hated most about switching over to zero waste cleaning was doing it responsibly, by using up what cleaning products I had. I feel that working your way through what you have is the best way to get rid of things, and for me it helps drill home the message that I'd rather be doing things in a more natural way, so that when I finally do run out of the store-bought product and recycle the container, I'm not at all tempted to just buy another one. Additionally, using up what I have allows me a long experimentation time, so I can figure out what's the best way of doing things in the new, natural way.

If waiting isn't your game, you can drop off old cleaning products and chemicals (current and expired) at your community's hazardous waste dump, or even give them to friends who aren't quite on the zero waste bandwagon. Pouring them down the drain or throwing them in the garbage isn't recommended, as this could lead to groundwater contamination. Once you're rid of your old cleaners (no matter what method you choose), I'm sure you'll love the following zero waste ways to keep your home sparkling clean.

Before we start I thought I'd warn you: this is mostly going to be a post extolling the virtues of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, because I use it to clean everything in my house, including myself on occasion. Many people advocate using baking soda and vinegar for most ecologically sound household work, and while I employ these on occasion, my fallback is always Dr. Bronner's, because it's produced by a responsible company, leaves a wonderful, natural scent wherever I use it, and can be used on almost anything, meaning I have less hassle when it comes to cleaning and more space under my sink.

My go-to solution is two tablespoons of liquid Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap to five cups of water. I mix this in a spray bottle I saved from my before-days, and use it to clean counters, sinks, tubs, toilets, appliances, and floors. I make sure to wipe down whatever it is I'm cleaning several times after spraying it to make sure no soap residue is left behind, but this is worth it to me because of the confidence I have in my cleaning and the wonderful peppermint smell (Dr. Bronner's comes in multiple scents, I just like the peppermint the best right now). I also use a tablespoon in a sink full of hot water to do my dishes (for dishwasher detergent,  you lucky dogs, I trust Crunchy Betty and her recipe), or just a dab on a wet sponge for cleaning just one or two dishes.

For anything that requires scrubbing, I pour some baking soda on it and scrub away. I've yet to find the thing that can withstand this treatment, and it costs a pittance to clean the worst of things, so I don't worry about finding anything better.

To keep my drains clear, I pour 1/4 a cup of baking soda down them, followed by 1/2 a cup of vinegar. The chemical reaction helps clean out the drain; I follow this with a quart of boiling water a half an hour later. Applied weekly this keeps my sinks and tub working great; any time it doesn't work I've had to use a drain snake before the clog  is cleared (we have a lot of problems with tree roots in my area).

I use a pumice stone (just like the kind they use in spas to exfoliate your feet, though don't use one for multiple uses) to scrub the inside of my toilet bowl, and have never had to worry about icky toilet rings since I started using it. Don't scrub your sink or counter-tops with this though, as it can scratch some surfaces. Best to do a Google search or test an inconspicuous area first.

When the water build-up on my glassware gets gross, I use a 1:1 mixture of water and vinegar to gently scrub the marks away. I'm really coveting the Rig Tig Carafe Cleaner to help me clean all my reusable, narrow-necked bottles, but I'm making due by using seven paperclips. They get out any residue without leaving any scratches.

When it comes to cleaning windows, mirrors, and TV or computer monitors, I'll scrub the first two with the Dr. Bronner's mixture, then some vinegar if they need it, then do a final wipe-down with a slightly damp microfiber cloth. For electronic screens, only do the last step, as these surfaces can be easily damaged.

As for cleaning tools, I keep a spray bottle full of the water/Dr. Bronner's soap mixture described above, an old toothbrush for scrubbing odd areas, a coconut fiber sponge, a Trader Joe's kitchen cloth (which I will replace with a Skoy cloth when it wears out, as theirs come in plastic-free packaging), a microfiber cloth, a big plastic cup for dumping water over things, a cheap Ikea dust pan and broom set, and a weird rubber broom that also works as a mop. I also keep a pile of Bird-e towels in the kitchen to be used in place of paper towels. They're great for quickly wiping up spills, using as napkins, and for drying dishes. I can't recommend these highly enough, based on their versatility and how well they've held up over the years.

I've just started using homemade laundry detergent, and I love it. I finely grate a bar of Dr. Bronner's soap (more meditative and relaxing than it sounds due to the heavenly scent), and then mix it with a cup each of borax powder, washing soda, and baking soda (the first two can be found in cardboard boxes in the laundry aisle of most grocery stores). I make four batches at a time and store them in a large glass jar. I use three to four tablespoons per wash (a coffee scoop works great to measure with), and haven't noticed any difference in the cleanliness of my clothes.

Lastly, I mix up an all-purpose spray that I use for freshening rooms, furniture, fabrics, my dogs, as an accompaniment when I use a crystal for deodorant, and I spritz it on my toilet cloth when I want to feel extra-clean. Simply find a small spray bottle (the kind they sell in the toiletries section of stores to repackage products for airline travel work great), put in twenty drops (or whatever you like) each of tea tree essential oil, lavender essential oil, and lemon essential oil, then fill one third of the way up with witch hazel, and the rest of the way  up with water. I've never had any problems with this discoloring fabric, but as always, it's best to test on an inconspicuous area first. For extra odor-absorbing when it comes to carpets, I like to work baking soda into the rug with a broom, then wait fifteen minutes to an hour and vacuum it out.

Though it took a while to explain my cleaning routine, it really takes me less than two hours to clean my entire house, and I never end up coughing from chemical gas, I never have to worry about animals or children ingesting my cleaning solutions, and I can buy all the things I need in bulk from the local health food store. I'm sure you'll be just as happy with these  methods as I am. Happy cleaning.

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Step Eighteen: Re-Evaluate Paper Products

It seems as though everyone's talking about how we throw our money away, almost literally, by buying this or that; too much food, disposable diapers, or plastic utensils. Let's shift gears from this view to a simple question: would I rather deal with this problem myself, or pay someone else to do it for me? Lots of people hire a neighbor kid to mow their lawn, but relatively few people send their clothes to a fluff'n'fold service.

Paper products pose exactly that question. Would you rather pay a company monthly to supply you with dishes you don't have to wash, towels  you don't have to keep, and food containers you can throw away? Or would you rather spend a little more up front to buy permanent versions of these products and invest a little time into maintaining them?

Money is tight for me right now, so I know I'd rather spend the pennies to wash something rather than the dollars to pay to replace it every time I use a real one. My reusable paper towels are indispensable to me now, and when I do get a little more money in my  budget I look forward to putting that money towards travel and experiences, not stuff that will end up in the trash in less than a month.

To that end, I've compiled a list of common paper and disposable products, and their waste-free/environmentally-friendly counterparts. Try a few in your home today. I promise you'll find better quality, and more satisfaction.

Paper towels = reusable paper towels, rags, washcloths, regular towels, microfiber cloth, skoy kitchen cloths

Disposable dishes and utensils = regular dishes and utensils, or at least biodegradable picknikware packaged without plastic

Napkins = there are so many cute cloth napkins out there, paper ones just don't seem any fun

Saran wrap/tin foil = Abeego wraps, lidded glass containers, or simply a plate flipped upside-down over a bowl

Ziploc bags = lidded glass containers, to-go ware and similar metal containers, and washable snack bags

Waxed paper/parchment paper = Silicone baking mats, or sustainably produced, biodegradable parchment papers

Cupcake wrappers = Reusable,  silicone alternatives, or plastic-free, biodegradable options

Garbage bags = Leave your waste and recycling bins unlined. With a compost bin you won't have to worry about the bins getting too sticky, and a quick rinse every few months takes care of any other messes.

Paper and plastic bags = Carry your purchases home in reusable bags, and take lunches in furoshiki wraps, cute washable lunch bags, or a good old lunch box.

Disposable mops and brooms = microfiber sweepers, refillable mops, and traditional options

Two extra thoughts:

In cases where I'd rather buy the disposable version (toilet paper comes to mind for my family), look in health food stores and online to find biodegradable, plastic-free options that can go in your compost bin. This way your disposables become food for the soil, not poison.

Some people have questioned whether it's worth the water and energy to wash things, rather than to use disposable versions. Common consensus is that reusing is more earth-friendly, as it takes water and energy to make disposable products as well. Of course, on a per-use basis, reusable items take more water and energy to produce than disposable ones, but lifetime-use averages out to make reusables far less costly than impermanent products.

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Step Seventeen: Try Some Zero Waste Recipes

Good job! You have your pantry and fridge clean and  organized, you know where to go to buy things in bulk, and you're ready to forego packaging by bringing in your own bags and containers. So now what? You start cooking!

I always view this step with joy, as cooking allows me to work with my hands, enter a meditative state, and be creative. However, there have been many a night where I would give anything to have a pizza magically appear in front of me. Learning to cook from scratch can be challenging, but after a while you'll get the hang of it and it will be second nature.

Often I make zero waste meals that are comprised of rice and steamed vegetables. I cook the rice as usual, but add an extra half-cup of water and whatever chopped, rinsed, and possibly peeled vegetables that seem appealing to me that night. Top it off with your favorite sauce or seasoning, and you have a one-pot meal that's simple, healthy, and can be varied easily.

If you're feeling adventurous, or your family demands something else, there are a wealth of recipes in the in.gredients recipes section and on their blog, Eggton has a host of hilarious stories and delicious recipes (easily made zero waste with a little tweaking), and I run my very own zero waste kitchen blog full of recipes and tutorials, including the afore-mentioned tweaks to make standard recipes zero waste.

Often, if you don't know where else to start, a quick chat with someone at your local co-op, health food store, or bulk buy mecca will leave you with a multitude of good ideas and cooking inspiration. And a leisurely browse in your library's cook book section will yield a wealth of information and recipes. I particularly like the books What's a Cook to Do?, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, and The Joy of Cooking. Also, Cooking, a Commonsense Guide has never failed me and would be the one cookbook I'd save in a fire, but it's not widely available, so you'll likely have to hunt down a copy on the interwebs.

So now you know where to look for recipes, but it's up to you to start. The film director Robert Rodriguez said that eating is something everyone has to do everyday, so it's worth it to know how to cook and feed ourselves well. I fully agree with this and find cooking for myself and my family satisfying, physically and emotionally, even on my tiredest of days, and I wish you  the same contentment and satisfaction.

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

UPDATE: I don't know how I forgot about this, but The Whole Food Diary has recipes and tutorials that make me drool. If you only go one place for your zero waste recipes, go here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

Step Sixteen: Stop Getting Junk Mail

Junky, junky, junk mail, I hate you in my house. Credit card offers, catalogs, even bills are needlessly printed off and carted across the country, as all this information can easily be found on the internet, or stored digitally on your private computer.  I still look forward to my Netflix, letters from friends, and the occasional package from Amazon; but as an extension of my home, I feel only things  that I invite should come into my mailbox.

The sad story is, for most mail you'll need to call customer service directly (often several times) and ask to be removed from their mailing lists. I started by making one call a day, and my junk mail has been considerably reduced. It also helps to not be put on the lists in the first place; sweepstakes, drawings, even warranty registrations are ways for companies to get your contact info, which they may then sell to other companies and mailing lists.  Sure, you could win a five thousand dollar shopping spree, but it's more likely you'll end up with mail you didn't ask for and offers you don't want.

Decline to give your information at the register when you make purchases, uncheck boxes requesting permission to send you information, and only give to charities that will keep your information private (sadly, many charities, upon receiving your donation, will sell your information to mailing lists). Guard your address like your social security number; give it only to people and organizations you trust, and take reasonable precautions to make sure your information is being sent over a secure connection and that the recipient will keep it private.

It is possible to see a rapid decrease in junk mail by signing up with a few services, many free. You can put a stop to most credit card offers by going to, a site run by the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion) which can stop "firm" offers of credit for either five years or permanently, depending on the method you use (a mail-in form is required to stop offers permanently). By going to the Direct Marketing Association's webpage, you can request that your name be removed from their lists and affiliate member's lists(though you'll need to register with them, an annoying step). Lastly, the independent organization Catalog Choice will contact companies you list on your behalf and request that you be removed from their mailing lists (a registration is also required for this site, though it can be done through Facebook). Catalog Choice also offers escalating layers of protection and convenience in stopping junk mail for nominal fees. For thirty-five dollars, the company 41 Pounds will guarantee the removal of your name from all junk mail lists for five years.

Remember, by stopping junk mail you'll save paper and plastic waste from entering the environment, avoid wasting your own time each day corralling paper clutter, and let companies know that you, and others, aren't interested in their wasteful practices. Yes, there is initial time investment to keep junk mail from getting to you, but it's nothing compared to the feeling of getting only mail you actually look forward to.

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Product Shout-Out: Skoy Cloth

Picture of a SKOY cloth in retail packaging

Going zero waste means shopping less, but also that the decisions we make when we do buy something are more important and have longer-lasting consequences. Because of this, I'd like to start a product shout-out feature on Zero Waste Baby Steps, to help guide people towards responsible purchasing choices.

In a little while we'll be reviewing paper products in our homes and whether or not we really need them, but in the meantime I wanted to give a zero waste product shout-out to Skoy cloths, a reusable kitchen cleaning cloth that is responsibly produced, isn't wrapped in plastic, and is completely biodegradable once it's finished its useful life.

Most people have heard of the Sham-wow, a cleaning cloth that can hold ten times its weight in water, yet releases it all with a simple wring. I used to use these, and found them to be great for wiping down counters, cleaning up spills, soaking messes out of carpet, and even for moping the floor. But Sham-wows are ecologically irresponsible in their production, so I started looking for better alternatives, and stumbled upon Skoy cloths. My favorite features are the plastic-free wrapping, and the ease of disposal once it's worn out (just toss it in your compost bin), as well as its workhorse performance in my kitchen and cleaning routines.

Make an easy step towards zero waste by buying a pack of these the next time you run out of paper towels. You'll have less to carry home from the grocery store, more money left over at the end of the month, a sparkling clean kitchen, and create less negative impact on our environment.

Disclaimer: I was not paid to review Skoy cloths, I just am really, really happy with how well mine worked, and I was excited to find a product that's effective and environmentally responsible. However, if the good people at Skoy wanted to send me more of their products, I wouldn't complain.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Step Fifteen: Build a Bulk Buy Kit

Most bulk food grocers have little plastic cups, thin bags, and styrofoam containers to take your bulk food goodies home in, but that's not how we do things in zero-waste land. Eliminating garbage from your life means a little preparation before you head out to buy food, but remembering your bags and containers will soon become second nature, like remembering your keys when you leave the house or your briefcase when you head to work.

Building a bulk buy kit can seem a little daunting, but a few clicks on Amazon, Etsy, or Reuseit, and you'll be ready to buy your food, waste and problem free. Many health food stores will sell bulk bags, and Ikea is a great resource for all sorts of reusable glass and plastic containers, but after years of experimenting, this is what my bulk buying kit looks like:

[Camera not working (i.e. I'm a lazy camera operator); picture to come]

  1. Foldable bags: These are my favorite reusable bags to carry, as they fit in my purse with no problem, meaning I always have a zero waste way to carry the extra bits and bobs I acquire throughout the day.  I also always take these along while I'm grocery shopping, as I usually need more bags than I think I do, and these come in handy. It's also nice to be able to buy all my produce, let it roll down the check-out counter (no worrying about the cashier not being able to see the produce numbers through solid cloth), then scoop it all into one easily-reached bag. Chicobag and  Baggu both make great compact bags.
  2. Canvas bags: When I know I'm going shopping, I grab a handful of Trader Joe's canvas bags. I've bought a lot of cloth bags at a lot of places, but Trader Joe's bags have the best construction, are easily obtained, and hold up the best to regular use. There are a lot of great options out there though, so get what tickles your fancy, though this kind and this kind are great places to start.
  3. Cloth bulk bags: Eating zero waste means eating a lot from the bulk bins, which means needing something to use instead of those flimsy plastic bags the grocery stores provide, so I have a large collection of small bags to buy bulk goods with. I used to use a watercolor pencil to write the bin number on them, but now I just make a note in my phone and read it off to the cashier when checking out. I find the planet bag produce sacks to be the most versatile, but the bulk bags wonder thunder makes are an awful lot of fun, and these ones are great for carrying produce in when you don't want to make the cashier have to open the bags to figure out the numbers on the fruit stickers.
  4. Plastic food containers: Most of the cashiers at the stores I go to don't know how to enter in the tare, and I get embarrassed having to insist they figure it out, so I like to carry practically weightless containers to buy my wet goods with. I put the meat, cheese, and peanut-butter into glass jars when I get home, then wash and re-use the plastic containers when I next go to the store. I bought mine before my switch to zero waste, but any relatively lightweight container  will do. If I didn't suffer from social anxiety, I would carry Droppar jars or these lidded Pyrex dishes, and then either have the tare engraved on the side professionally at a trophy shop, or do it myself with etching paste.
  5. Bottle bag: This comes in handy for carrying glass bottles home from the store and to the recycling center. Ideally, I would buy my vinegar, olive oil, soy sauce, and milk from a supplier that  lets me bring in my own bottles, but working within limitations I believe glass bottling is the next best option. I found mine at Trader Joe's, but there are other options here, here, and here.
  6. Refillable bottles: There are a few liquids I've found I can buy in my own containers, like honey and soda, so I keep a few of these around. I found mine at Ikea, but Specialty Bottle has a ton of great options.
  7. Furoshiki Wraps: I love the knot wraps Lush offers, and there's a great line of reusable gift wrap here, and Furochic not only makes great furoshikis, but also has a wonderful guidebook for creative wrapping. This site has a huge selection of furoshikis, as well as a wealth of information about them. This isn't the best solution for flour or coffee grounds, but when carrying apples, wine bottles, books, or bath bombs, furoshiki can't be beat when it comes to simplicity and versatility. Plus they make cute scarves.
There are as many different bulk buy kits as there are bulk buyers; this is just what I use to buy my food and goods package free. Let us know in the comments what you re-use time after time to keep your home waste free.

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

Step Fourteen: Explore Your Bulk Buying Options

The key to zero waste in our modern society is bulk buying. I don't mean loading up on Costco palettes of canned soup, or buying economy-sized packs of toilet paper; but buying as much as we can from bulk bins, without any packaging. Even potentially reusable packaging, if we keep buying the same thing again and again, becomes wasteful. There are only so many second lives and craft projects for aluminum cans, spaghetti sauce jars, and Altoid tins before we've run out of ideas, but are still stuck with the product packaging.

Initially, I wasn't very resistant to packaging. I let cans and bottles slip into my house wrapped neatly in my canvas bags. It was easier and more convenient to buy ready-made food than it was to try to make everything from scratch, or find another way of buying it. But then I read somewhere (when memory recalls, I'll link it) that we are letting companies and their design teams decide the look for our homes. Sure, you may have picked the curtains in your kitchen, but if you buy food in any packaging, someone else is deciding what the focus of your kitchen will look like. For some reason, the design angle appealed to me more than the environmental one did, and gave me the extra push I needed to find everything in bulk. Now when I bring home purchases, finding a place for them is easy, because there's an empty jar or container waiting to be filled up. I've picked frosted jars, so the food becomes decorative in my home, and I can quickly take inventory before going to the store.

So, with beautiful Droppar jars on my shelves, I went in search of bulk food. Depending on the area you live, this could be easy for you, or it could be tear-inducingly frustrating. I wish all of you the former. A good place to start is your local health food store. They'll have a huge wall of pills and supplements in plastic bottles, and maybe a juice bar or a deli, but somewhere between these two things will likely be bulk bins. You should at least be able to find flour, sugar, oats, rice, and nuts here. A lot of places carry couscous now, which I've come to love for its easy preparation and versatile recipe use. Between these bulk bins, the produce section, and any local bakery, you'll find a lot of your food needs can be met.

It's nice if a grocer in your town has a deli, as they'll be able to slice meats and cheeses into your bulk containers. If your regular store doesn't have this, try an upscale grocer. Things here will be more expensive, but higher quality, and you'll savor and appreciate them more. Specialty grocers also often have olives, noodle salads, and soups that you can buy from the deli counter and put in your own container. Delis are also good places to go for roasted meats, picnic-style potato dishes, and whole chickens. If you can find a store with a butcher counter, you can buy meat, fish, and bones (for soup stock) for your family. Make friends with your butcher, and they'll give you the benefit of their knowledge.

When you're at the bakery, don't limit yourself to just the bread. See if they make bagels, cookies, crackers, cakes, dinner rolls, brownies, doughnuts, and cinnamon rolls. If you come at the right time, or if they are constantly baking, you can request all of these things straight from the cooling rack to your bulk bags.

Dairy products are a little tricky. If you live in an area that has Strauss farm milk or St. Benoit yogurt, you're in luck, as these companies pack their goods in returnable glass and ceramic containers. The next best thing (in my opinion) is if you can get raw milk. State laws vary on the legality of this, but I've found it doesn't irritate my lactose intolerance, and is easier to make into other dairy products. Whole milk will do just fine though. Personally, I buy milk and butter, make ice cream and yogurt, and end up only with the plastic milk jug, cardboard butter box, and wax-paper butter wrappers. I recycle the plastic and cardboard, and want to compost the butter wrappers (try to find out if the wrappers are true waxed paper or a plasticized version before you compost. I'm still waiting to hear back from the butter companies, meanwhile I have a growing collection of butter wrappers in my freezer). There are recipes out there for homemade soy and almond milk, but I haven't tried these yet, so I can't speak to their quality.

If you are lucky enough to live near a store with a large bulk food selection, you may wonder why people bother to buy food in packaging at all. The universe has blessed me with a Winco less than a mile from my house, so I'm able to buy candy, cereal, cookies, trail mix, and all manner of baking mixes directly from the bulk bins in whatever amount I like. I'd love to have a bulk section that also dispensed soy sauce, oil, vinegar, and various soaps, but that's not a reality where I live yet.

It's the things that aren't easy to get in bulk that provide the most challenge, and sometimes the most fun. I get my soy sauce bottle refilled at a Chinese restaurant, buy tortilla chips from a Mexican restaurant, and buy solid, packaging-free body products from Lush. See's sells me chocolate by weight. Teavana lets me enjoy specialty teas from my own refillable tins. Petco even has a variety of dog treats for my little furry friends.

Eventually, I'd like to create a bulk-buy directory to help people find the closest, most convenient ways to fulfill their needs in a zero waste manner. If you come across a bulk source, be sure to share it with us in the comments; perhaps with enough input I'll find the motivation I need to catalog and cross-check everything. In the mean-time, keep your chin up, and Google handy, and I'm sure you'll be surprised at just how many things you can buy packaging-free.

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

Friday, August 31, 2012

Step Thirteen and a Half: Evaluate Your Food

In Step Thirteen: Set Up Your Pantry, we took time to clean out, refresh, and organize our pantries (or other food storage areas), but since our goal is a zero waste pantry, not just a clean one, now we'll take the time to evaluate our food and eating needs. Doing this allows us to find out what foods work for our families, what we'd like to change about our eating habits, and helps us prioritize our hunt for bulk food. Let's jump right in.

Get some paper and a writing utensil, and take stock of your food. What does your diet look like now? What will and won't your family eat? Would you like to make any changes to your diet? What are you comfortable cooking? What would you like to learn to make yourself (cookies? ketchup? dinner rolls? mayonnaise?)? Most importantly (for our specific purpose of going zero waste), what kinds of garbage do you make most, and from what kinds of food? Are there a lot of plastic bottles from juices, teas, and sports drinks? Plastic bags from frozen vegetables and finger foods? Soy milk containers? Soda cans? Plastic Ramen wrappers or styrofoam cups? Milk jugs? Boxes from quick meals? Frozen dinner trays? Granola and power bar wrappers? Yogurt cups?

These questions aren't to make you feel guilty, just to help you evaluate what you have, what you can replace, and what you can't do without. I used to live on Ramen noodles, until I decided to go zero waste. It took me a while to break the habit, but once I realized I ate them because they  were fast and convenient, I started keeping other snack food on hand, like raw almonds, home-made yogurt, chocolate squares, avocados, home-cut carrots, bagels, and celery with peanut butter. I like all of these foods as much as Ramen noodles, they're all just as fast to make/serve, and I feel better when I eat them because I know they're healthy for me and the planet. Try evaluating a favorite family food in the same way to see what it is you like about that food, and what you can replace it with that will create less waste.

Almost everyone I know has "eat better" on a goal or to-do list somewhere, and zero waste makes that almost effortless. Because so many processed foods come in packaging, and packaging creates waste, running a zero waste home, or at least a zero waste kitchen, will largely eliminate your consumption of packaged foods. There isn't any added salt when you chop and steam vegetables yourself, you don't have to worry about how much sugar is in the spaghetti sauce you made, and there's no worry about what kind of preservatives are lurking in homemade cookies. If you want to improve your family's eating habits, now is a great time. Again, write down what it is you want to change or modify. More vegetables? Less starch? Less junk-food? More time spent around the dinner table together? Eating zero waste food will naturally solve a lot of problems, but you still need to be aware of what it is you want to change, and why.

Lastly, we're going to make a list of foods that we need to find in bulk, stat. We all need to eat, and it's nice to eat things we like, so it's important to find zero-waste ways to make food you and your family enjoys, or you'll meet with a lot of resistance. It's also important to make sure that you're not putting too much work on yourself to eliminate garbage from your kitchen. Frozen vegetables used to be a staple in my diet, but the plastic bags they come in are notoriously hard to recycle, so now I just buy them fresh at the supermarket. In the winter-time, this means I'm buying produce shipped in from California, South America, or even Africa, but that's the compromise I make to have vegetables and fruit in my diet. I could can or freeze these things while they're in season and eat more locally, but that just doesn't work for my lifestyle right now, so I don't stress about it. If your baby needs formula, you could save yourself a few temper-tantrums by buying your kids fruit snacks, or your significant other will buy himself bottled tea on the down-low anyway, don't worry. They may come around in time, but for now it's better to keep yourself content than it is to blow all your energy on achieving perfect zero-wasteness.

Let's take a look at the things you wrote down. Ideally, you'll have a list of snacks and meals the people in your household gladly eat, a few goals for your diet, and maybe some items that create waste but are not on the bargaining table at this point. You'll also likely  have written down some foods your family doesn't like, food waste you make on a regular basis, meals you'd like to have but don't know how to make, and a list of foods you have no idea how to find in bulk.

This last item is the one most people have a hard time with. If you have a Winco or a Whole Foods in your area, pat yourself on the back; your bulk food quest is over. If not, it's okay, we'll go on a little adventure together in the next post and find the best, and easiest way to zero waste together. In the meantime, use the other items you've listed to help guide you in your shopping, cooking, and researching processes. A few minutes with Google will help you find new recipes, time-tested techniques, and the inspiration you need to transform your kitchen to zero waste.

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

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Step Thirteen: Set Up Your Pantry

Procrastinating Writers Note: I know blog posts are more fun with pictures, so expect some to be posted in the next few days or so. In the meantime, I'll be charging my camera. Sorry.

The last time I helped my grandma clean out her pantry, we found a canned chicken from 1976. My sisters and I treated that chicken as an honored family member, and, after setting a place for it at the dinner table for a week, we put it in the back of the pantry for our own children to one day find. Needless to say, my grandmother does not have a well-organized pantry. Buckle up though, because after some intensive reading, you're about to.

I promise, organizing your pantry will have great benefits (zero waste and otherwise). First of all, you'll be able to see what you have so you can use it up before it goes bad (something in there already turned? No problem, just compost it). Second, you'll know what foods your family consumes most and least, which will allow you to prioritize your bulk-food hunt. Lastly, having an uncluttered pantry will give you peace of mind and allow you to prepare meals quickly and easily, a boon to any household, not just a zero-waste one.

Let's dive right in by taking everything out of your pantry. Anything that isn't nailed or glued down should come out. If you're lucky, it will all fit on your counter and/or table space, if not, get creative with chairs and other furniture. Now that you have an empty pantry, take some time to clean it out. Scrub away any spills or sticky spots, wipe the dust off of everything, and sweep out the floor or the bottom of the space.

Now take a look at all the things you've taken out of the pantry. Odd items (old grocery bags, cans of WD-40, and stray toys) should be put away in a designated home that makes sense to you. If you like having spare light bulbs in your pantry, leave them ready to go back there, but if those items could be more sensibly stored elsewhere, find them a spot now. Next, look through all the food items. Anything that's gone stale, sour, mushy, or is past its expiration date should be composted, and its packaging recycled. Remember, food has a lot of nitrogen in it, so balance out your compost heap by adding some newspaper for its carbon content if you find you have a lot of stuff from your pantry to dump.

This next part is the step I find most fun, though I understand some people don't quite get the high out of categorizing and ordering that I experience. Again, the idea is to make a system that works for you. Try to put food back in a pattern that makes it simple for you to access and restock your pantry. Some people put like with like (all the spices on one shelf, all the cans on another), and others organize by meal (macaroni and cheese boxes next to the canned peas, noodles by jars of Alfredo sauce). A lot of houses and apartments don't have a pantry, so you may be organizing your food by cupboard, or you may want to put kid-friendly snacks and cereals on a lower shelf for the little ones, while foods that need more preparation find their place on the higher levels. Take some time to figure out what makes the best sense for you and your family, I promise the extra thought now will be worth it later.

At this stage don't worry about what food packaging you're putting back onto your shelves. It's better to eat through what you have than get rid of everything and start with a new and unfamiliar system. We'll address the zero waste transformation of your food later.

Once you've gone through this process with  your main pantry, continue through the rest of the food-centered locations of your kitchen. Turn out food storage cabinets, empty out all cupboards, clear off all shelves, and brave the depths of your refrigerator and freezer. Clean the space thoroughly, toss rotten food, and return the rest of your goods in the system you've decided on. Now pat yourself on the back for all your hard work, and take a moment to admire your beautiful new kitchen (sneak yourself a treat while you're at it; what's the good of knowing where the cookies are if you don't eat one?).

Stay tuned for part Thirteen and a Half: Evaluating your Food. This post was getting long, and this really deserves a step all its own. In the meantime, enjoy your lovely, easy-to-use food system.

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

Monday, July 30, 2012

Step Twelve: Learn to Love Embarrassment

Going zero waste can be embarrassing. I wish it wasn't so, but this is the truth. It takes courage to ask for your chow mein in a container you brought from home, to ask the clerk at the store to un-bag all your purchases because you brought your own, and to explain to your Aunt why you really don't want her plastic-wrapped make-up samples. Zero waste just isn't how our society operates. There are a lot of people working hard to change that, but for the time being we often find ourselves in potentially embarrassing situations.

One exercise therapists give their clients with anxiety is called Rational Emotive Imagery, or embarrassment-attacking exercises. These can be quite effective in eliminating shame as a knee-jerk reaction. Picture a time when you were embarrassed. Say the day you had to explain to the check-out girl what a tare is and why you don't use those little plastic produce bags when you buy from bulk bins. Really put yourself in the same mindset you were in at that moment in time. The lady is nice, but anxious for her shift to finish, the customers in line behind you are getting fidgety, and anyone you brought with you on this shopping trip is surely thinking about what a weirdo you are for refusing to make even the tiny amount of garbage a produce bag would have resulted in. Are your hands sweaty, your cheeks flushed, and can you feel a bout of stammering coming on? Good, because this is where your present self can step in and start to amend your view of the situation. Change your emotion from shame to something else, like anger that taring isn't a standard part of super-market training anymore, or frustration that we've built such a hugely unsustainable system, or annoyance that more people aren't waste-free already.

Do you feel better? Certainly no one likes to feel angry or frustrated, but it's a big improvement over feeling embarrassed or ashamed. This annoyance can be channeled into a more productive activity, like speaking with the store manager, writing a well-phrased letter, or finding a better solution to your problem.

When you're guilty and ashamed it's hard to think about anything other than what a bad person you are, and how you need to be better. Those feelings aren't helpful, even if they're what reminds you to bring in your reusable bags. Going waste-free should be a mostly positive experience; something you do out of love and desire to improve (be it yourself, your finances, or the world), not self-loathing and obligation. There will be problems and frustrations along the way, and that's okay. The point with this step is to deal with those bumps in the road, rather than cancel your journey altogether.

When you're frustrated or angry, you're turning your feelings out onto the world.  This does NOT mean you can yell at the cashier, lecture rude bystanders, or push your personal relationships to the brink with your insistence on zero waste. Instead, make a clear complaint to the store, offer the simple explanation of "I don't have a trash can", and surprise your loved ones with a zero waste meal. By being annoyed, we're trying to test the limits of the system so we know where to focus our action; by being ashamed, we're only testing our own limits of endurance and increasing the likelihood that we'll just give up.

So next time you feel yourself becoming sheepish over refusing that free bottle of water or asking the deli to fill a container brought from home, take a moment to focus on turning your feelings from shame to frustration, and then figure out the most positive thing you can do with that frustration. Often, being frustrated means you've found a real-life puzzle to solve. Those can be tricky, but not impossible. And by ditching embarrassment, you've left the problem of other people's judgments right where they belong, in their plastic shopping bags.

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Step Eleven: Think Before You Take

A clerk at the bank offers a free pen, the giant sandwich on the street hands you a flier, the fry girl at McDonalds stuffs some extra napkins in the bag. We are swimming through a world of freebies and giveaways, and it's not even stuff we like or need. By taking a pause before you accept anything, you can stop clutter in its tracks, discourage gimmicky marketing practices, and do a little bit to save the planet. It might be hard at first (it's free, it could be useful, maybe I'll need the information), but with a little practice it will become second nature to smile and say, "no thank you".

If you're still having problems with the idea of not taking free things, think of all the time you'll save when you don't have to clean up stacks of paper or throw away broken bits of unidentifiable junk. Isn't it nicer to write with a well-made pen than have to sift through dozens of dried-out plastic ones? Honestly, the only free things I've ever consistently used were perfume samples, so I'll accept them on occasion, but everything else I don't even look at before holding up my hand and politely refusing. It is so nice to not carry around a stack of fliers and a bunch of cheap junk whenever I go to a fair or convention, and even nicer to not have to figure out what to do with it all when I get home.

Things can also sneak in your home as hand-me-downs, dumpster finds, and gifts. As good as the intentions associated with these acquisitions may be, take a moment to think if you will actually follow through with them. Do you really need another sweater, more hobby supplies, or an extra side table? If so, then by all means, take it; getting things secondhand is a great way to save money and benefit the environment, but if you think it might sit in a bag in a closet for a while, better to let it go on its way. Oftentimes gifts, no matter how lovingly given, don't quite fit your lifestyle. Write a gracious thank you note, and let the item go. Someone else will treasure it more, and in the future a few well-chosen words will guide the gift-giver towards something you can use.

Thinking before you accept anything doesn't just apply to free stuff, though it is the stuff that we tend to accept most quickly. Carefully considering purchases can go a long ways towards ensuring that you'll have only things you love and need. I don't even look at clothing sales any more, unless I'm already out shopping for a specific item. I avidly thrift, but only for a short list of things I already know I want (why are immersion blenders so hard to find secondhand?).  More often than not, waiting before I buy something shows me that I don't really want or need it. For the few times I do miss the item, I appreciate it that much more (and care for it that much better) when I've had to wait to get it.

Once I got used to thinking before I accepted or acquired any items, I started thinking about the food I eat, the water and electricity I use, and the methods I use to get around town. While I still have a huge weakness for long showers, I have much healthier eating habits, take the bus and walk more often, and am much more aware of my energy usage. I have to be careful not to overwhelm myself, after all, everyone needs to take something to live, but it is nice to see how much less I have to take to survive and be happy than I previously thought.

Thinking before I take has saved me money, time, and space. Honestly, creating less waste is just an extra bonus for me. I still choose to take things and resources, but I do it much more thoughtfully, conservatively, and thankfully.

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Step Ten: Get to Know Your Local Library

There are thousands of things we use only once or twice a year, so why use money and resources to keep them around all the time? Most obviously I'm referring to books (specific books, not books as a category), but this also extends to tools, sports and camping equipment, specialized cooking utensils, crafting supplies, and more.

What you use often or not that often depends entirely on you and your preferences. I use a salad spinner and my knitting needles every day, where-as I only use a casserole dish and a sewing machine a few times a year. I'm happy to re-watch movies over and over again through Netflix, but I find I do better with owning books on my Kindle rather than borrowing them from the library. Knowing these things about myself was part of finding my style, but know that I know it, I'm finding resources to support it. Not buying things has saved me hundreds of dollars, lots of space, and countless hours that would have been spent finding and caring for the objects themselves. However, just because I choose not to own something, doesn't mean I can't ever use one.

This concept is familiar to most of us, though perhaps not in ways we recognize. Of course library books (and magazines, and movies, and cds) come to mind, but if you think about it, sharing is everywhere. Every time we fly on a plane, we're really just renting part of something we couldn't afford on our own. We rent moving trucks, share green-space in our city parks, and share information with each other constantly over the internet. While we certainly wouldn't want to share everything (my underwear are mine and mine alone), I think we can vastly expand our idea of what is share-able.

Sites like Swap Baby Goods, Zipcar, and Rentalic are helping people to share valuable commodities like cars, cribs, and iPads, while sites like U-Exchange and Air BnB even let people share their homes. These services aren't free, but they're a whole lot cheaper than the actual item. Sometimes I like to borrow things to see if it would work for me and my lifestyle; I'm currently renting a camera, and I'm glad I did, because I found out a DSLR is just too big and clunky for me. Other times I just rent something knowing that I don't need it most of the time, just once in a while; every year I rent a truck to haul mulch for my and my loved ones' gardens.

Getting to know your borrowing options will make you more confident when it comes to using somebody else's stuff, as well as help change your outlook on life. Wouldn't it be nice to just borrow something, rather than worry about caring for it indefinitely? Helping the planet by consuming less will leave you with less stress and more money and space. Besides, if you find you need something after borrowing it, well, you'll already know what kind you want, and how to use it, which will save you time when you do get it.

The following is a list of the sharing directories and resources I've compiled thus far. If you know of one I missed, by all means, share it with us in the comments.

Zipcar: the company owns cars which are rented to the public. Cost includes gas and insurance. Located in select cities in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom.

RelayRides: Located in the U.S., RelayRides is a platform for car owners to rent out their cars to candidates screened and insured by the site.

SwapMarket: An all-purpose trading site that lets you "turn what you have into what you want". Users are allowed to list and trade whatever items they want, and may exchange items in person or through the mail. The site has a leg-up over Craigslist and Freecycle (which I still use constantly) as the users are monitored and receive feedback from other members.

NeighborGoods: Users create groups within which they can share goods. The service will close down at the end of July, but will still operate under the new name Favortree.

Rentalic: This site lets you loan or borrow things within your community. Listings are free, though you do pay a fee to rent things. The site monitors transactions, but does not provide insurance.

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

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Step Nine: Set Up Your Recycling System

For this post I'm going to try something different. I find it's very easy for me to rave about zero waste and all the ways of going about it, but I worry that it makes my writing a chore to slog through and that I'm alienating my readers because they look at it and automatically respond TL;DR (too long; didn't read).

So here is the short version of this post, followed by the long version. Kindly tell me which version you liked better, and why, in the comments so that I can better edit my writing for all you budding little greenies. Also, how many pictures do you like in the average post (none this time, sorry, my camera is on the fritz)?

The Short Version: Set Up Your Recycling System

In my quest for zero waste, I don't consider things which can be recycled indefinitely, or which are biodegradable at the end of their recycling lifetime, to be garbage. I think that managed responsibly and used in moderation, things like cardboard, canned food, and glass bottles are fine. Because of this, I need to have a system in place to make sure these things get recycled. Having a system ensures that even when I'm feeling tired or lazy, all I have to do is put something in the right bin, and it will get taken care of.

Eventually I'd like to build a rack to hold matching canvas bags, with a box at the bottom, and a compost bin on the side. Sort of like this Ikea version, but made of ecologically sound materials. For now I have a rag-tag collection of old wastebaskets and beat-up gardening pots. It's not very pretty, but it works.

I have a bin for paper, cardboard, metal, plastic (I'm the only member of my house to fully commit to zero waste, everyone else is holding out until I show them that Gatorade isn't a necessity), glass, and compostable items. I also have two boxes; one for donation items, the other for odd bits and bobs that can be used in art projects, like spent gift cards, scraps of yarn, and found earrings.

When any of the bins get full, I pack up the contents and take them to the nearest business or organization that recycles that material. I empty the compost bin often, and find it's very handy to have a whole mess of cardboard just waiting to supplement my pile, should it ever run low on good carbon sources. I always rinse out food containers so my recycling doesn't become a haven for pests and curious dogs, and I make sure to write anything of value I'm donating on the side of the thrift store box so I'll remember to get the tax credit.

Overall, having a recycling system lets me save time and keep my house tidier, though I have had to re-sort things once in a while when other members of my household slip-up. This could be solved by clear labels, in both words and pictures, and a more uniform set of bins. I think I see a summer project.

The Long Version: Set Up Your Recycling System

Though some may disagree with me, I'm of the mindset that things which can be recycled indefinitely are okay to use, so long as I make sure to buy the recycled versions of these products to begin with, advocate actively to make recycled versions the standards in these industries, and avoid buying products than can be replaced by reusable counterparts reasonably. This means I don't use paper towels, canned tomato sauce, or  subscribe to print magazines, but I do keep a roll of recycled toilet paper handy, indulge in canned clams occasionally, and write numerous e-mails requesting all-recycled packaging and components.

Since I have recyclables to take care of, and since curb-side pick-up is not an option in my current apartment (the city offers it, the landlords just don't participate), I find the process of recycling is made much easier by having a designated recycling station in my home. When any of the bins are full, I just cart them to the local business or organization which recycles those particular materials. I even have bins designated specifically for thrift shop donations, craft project reuse, and possible-to-compost materials.

Currently I use a rag-tag collection of old trash cans, garden planters, and beat-up kitchen containers to separate my recyclables, but as my family grows, I think I slim it down to a uniform system with clearly designated labels.

I realize that many communities (mine included) have single-stream recycling programs, but when possible I like to participate in programs that require you to separate your waste. This creates less-contaminated recycling material, which in turn encourages more efficient and more prevalent recycling. Additionally, this helps me examine my cast-offs easily to see if there's a more sustainable alternative I could be using.

Using these Ikea bags as inspiration, I think I'll eventually make my own recycling station out of canvas with a wooden support frame. Of course, these bins would work great as well, especially in a home with limited floor space, though they seem a little frustrating to empty. The most important thing though, is to set up a system that everyone in your home can understand. If you entertain frequently, perhaps lids with bold labels could help guests from putting a soda can in with the newspapers. For homes with preschool aged children, labeling your recycling station with pictures instead of words could help little ones know where to put that empty juice bottle. If you live with chronically disorganized people, the most fool-proof solution (and what I often resort to with my husband) is to have only one small trash can accessible in the house; after they throw garbage in, you sort recyclables and composting out. This last option is work-intensive, but I find it the easiest, and most tension-free, solution in my home.

Two key components of my cast-off sorting system are boxes for donations and reusables. Almost always, while decluttering, I'll find something I don't use anymore, but which could still be useful to someone else. Rather than deal with these objects individually, I just put them in a cardboard box. When the box is full, off it goes to the thrift store. Likewise, in my various activities I find little bits of material that have the potential to be useful, just not immediately so. I have an old shoe-box I use for little bits of yarn, fabric, or embellishments. In my old apartment, I used to tie these to a chain-link fence as colorful reminders of the little bits of waste that slip through the cracks. It made for an interesting, purposeful collage, and I very much enjoyed making it. Now I just use the scraps to decorate current projects I'm doing (old beads for doll eyes, etc.), and when the box begins to overflow I donate it all to a local preschool, where the kiddies use up the scraps in their craft projects far faster than I could.

As always, composting is my first choice for waste, and I do all I can to make sure that what refuse I do create will biodegrade  easily. Eating a diet with lots of vegetables and other unprepared foods provides plenty of material for the compost bucket, buying only used clothing made of natural fabrics (like cotton, wool, and linen) ensures that I'll have the lightest impact with my sartorial choices and can confidently compost my garments when I'm done with them, and accepting only take-out food in biodegradable containers means I can take a night off from cooking without harming the planet. I find that sorting my recyclables additionally helps with my composting, as it's easy to dump the cardboard and paper bins into my compost pile whenever it's lacking in a source of carbon.

In short, setting up a sorting and recycling system in my home makes it easy to responsibly handle my recyclables, monitor the amount of waste I generate, and keep on top of removing unneeded things from my home. Maintaining a good system is like writing things down; it helps keep me prepared for life and lets me throw away as little as possible.

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Tipping Point

Nature recently released a study showing that we have pushed earth to a tipping point and without committed changes will affect the planet forever by drastically reducing biodiversity. This article nicely sums it up and examines different viewpoints regarding the study, as well as offers a general guide for reform. A nice, short read, but one which people with anxiety should approach with caution.

Here is a funny, if crappy, picture to turn your hyperventilation into laughter.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Prized Possessions or Junk?

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for my main blog, Writer Extroidinaire, but I felt like it could be of some help to people having a hard time letting things go in their quest for Zero Waste.

I used to be a pack-rat, and in a horrible way. I would save programs that had my name on them, not because the event was special, but just because the piece of paper had my name on it. When I moved out on my own for real (to an apartment, not just a college dorm), I decided that I wanted to have all my stuff in my house with me. Then I realized how much stuff I had, and spent a month getting rid of a lot of it.

This first round of simplifying and decluttering was easy; there were tons of books I didn't particularly like, clothes I didn't wear or attach sentimental value to, and slips of paper with my name on them that I could get rid of with ease. I got rid of a third of my stuff with no guilt at all, and moved the rest over to my tiny apartment.

Over the next few years I was able to slowly go through a box at a time and downsize my collections. I religiously read to keep myself motivated and inspired. Occasionally if I had fond memories of something but didn't need it in physical form I would take a picture of it. My Scottie dog sweater from second grade makes me smile, but I get just as much happiness from looking at a picture of it as I do from holding it, so I donated the sweater and keep the picture, which takes up no space at all on my hard drive. This picture taking habit served as a useful and justified crutch, and I was steadily making my way towards a streamlined household that only contained things I loved, used, and could store and care for in a respectful manner.

Then I got evicted. It happened with little warning, when I had no safety net, and for reasons that had very little to do with my qualities as a tenant. My apartment was the first real home I had made for myself, and losing it hurt. A lot. Worse, compounding my problem of having no money, no place to live, and very little time to solve both of these problems, was the fact that I still had boxes of stuff left to evaluate.

With everything happening at once I got rid of stuff. A lot of stuff. I opened all the boxes before I donated them, but that was about it. I panicked, and made a bad situation worse by getting rid of stuff that I used and loved. Moving from a hundred and fifty square feet of apartment to fifty square feet of storage unit and whatever could fit in my car made me freak out and get rid of clothes, books, and project materials that I wasn't really ready to part with.

In an effort to clear out my life's problems, I made a list of everything I needed to live. A tiny wardrobe, a few cooking necessities, and the barest bones of hobby material. Artwork, fun-but-impractical clothing, childhood treasures; none of these things made the list, and so a lot of them got donated. My bright orange coat that made me look like a pumpkin when I wore it was donated, despite the fact that I loved wearing it, and was even designing a leaf hat to enhance the pumpkin look. A juicer that I didn't use on a daily basis was listed on freecycle, even though I was steadily increasing my juicing efforts. A typing table that was tiny but faithfully useful was given away, even though it left me with no place to write.

After the purge, when I had finally settled with my fiance at his parents' house, I started to feel guilty and remorseful. Yes, I got rid of some stuff that I would have gotten rid of anyway, and the fact that I managed to take time to donate or recycle everything brought me some comfort, but the fact of the matter was I'd gotten rid of too much too fast. My anxiety and depression turn this into a worse problem than it actually is, but the situation of losing things that were useful and loved remains.

And here is where this post falls apart, because here is where I am right now. I have a lot less stuff, but now the worry of not having it is replacing the worry of having it. I'm slowly beginning to realize that it was never about the stuff in the first place. I'm worrying because I still really don't have a home, years of work to improve my life was blown to hell in less than a month, and things that enhanced and improved my life are now gone. I can (and do) replace some of the best things on e-bay (let's just say I'm knitting myself a green leaf hat for winter), and the rest I'm starting to realize wasn't that important to begin with. Sure, my Chi hair straightener will cost a lot to replace, but the likely-hood that I'll ever need to do that is small, since I wear my hair short now. And in the case of sentimental objects, I try to remember that releasing them back into the universe to give others joy is a lot better than losing them in a natural disaster, or even than letting them molder away quietly in a box sealed for safekeeping.

If I could do it all over again, I'd definitely do things differently, but I'm living well now with what I have, I'm doing well replacing gnawing guilt with simple regret, and I'm learning to love myself regardless of what I own or what bad decisions I've made. Plus, I'll always have pictures of my favorite dinosaur friends.

Step Eight: Write Things Down

I love lists, calendars, and notebooks. My fiance might accuse me of being obsessed with them, but I like to think that I am just well-organized. I consider my network of paper and computer files a way to outsource basic tasks so I can free up brain-power to work on more difficult problems (like how to get Ghirardelli to package their delicious chocolate squares in biodegradable cellophane, rather than the plastic-based packaging they use now. I'm not ready to give up my daily chocolate square). By writing things down, I don't have to devote mental energy to remembering them, I simply make checking my notes a regular part of my day.

If writing isn't your thing you can always draw stuff.
This is all well and good from an organizational and productivity standpoint, but it also significantly helps me in my zero-waste lifestyle. By keeping an updated calendar it's easier for me to take the bus or walk places, rather than have to drive there in a rush when I realize I'm half an hour late. Knowing what I'm going to do on any given day allows me to prepare with the necessary tote bags, take-out containers, or biodegradable poop bags (for the dogs, fyi). Keeping track of errands I need to run lets me do them all at once and save on gas, rather than one at a time. Most importantly, writing things down helps me keep undesired junk and garbage out of my house; I have a list of what items I need to get, gifts I know people will like, and business websites to check out. That eliminates unnecessary purchases, saves me time in stores, and lets me refuse flyers and freebies while maintaining confidence that I'll remember to follow up on products or services I like.

Of course, living in the marvelous time that we do, one needn't carry any paper at all; most of this information can be contained on a single smartphone kept in a pocket. For those of us on the poorer end of the spectrum, or for those who maintain their suspicions about Skynet, a single notebook makes an affordable, handy alternative. I used to carry over half a dozen notebooks everywhere with me to keep track of my finances, ideas, to-do lists, calendar, knitting patterns, journaling, and school-work. But recently, with the addition of a kindle and completion of school I've been able to slim my notebooks down to one Moleskine, which I make tabbed sections in for finances, ideas, and calendar items. I journal through the rest of the book, keep fleeting, impermanent notes on post-its that I've stuck inside the cover, and keep track of my to-do lists on separate index cards which are held in the back pocket. This sounds complicated, but in practice it's become quite easy and works well for me, as I now need to carry only one notebook, leaving more room in my bag for other things, and helping to correct my spinal oddities.
It's very satisfying to see stuff get done.

Though I'm convinced my system is the best, I acknowledge that this likely isn't the case. Many people feel more comfortable carrying a planner, maintaining their finances online, using a single sheet of paper for to-do lists, or keeping reminders of things on the  front of their refrigerator. Some people find lists distracting and would rather just do things as they come up. Many families find that a large communal calendar with a section for notes keeps everyone coordinated.

No matter what system you find works best for you, I'd definitely recommend at least writing down appointments you have to keep, and things you need to do. Think of your brain's frontal cortex as a small table; you can do infinite activities on this table, but your innovation and flexibility decrease dramatically when clutter fills up the table. If you're trying to remember to call your Aunt Minnie while you're working on a report for your boss, it's like having a picture of your aunt and a large telephone on the table while you're using a typewriter, reading through previous reports, looking at a picture of your possibly angry boss, and going through stacks of charts, graphs, and other information you need to write the report in the first place.

As much as we like to think we can multitask, we really can only do one thing well at a time (possibly two, if one is a physical activity and the other is mental, but that's about the limit). By making a note outside of your brain to call Aunt Minnie, you free space on your tabletop to focus on what you're doing, which also allows you do it well.  Unfortunately, mental notes don't help in this situation, because it's like putting the telephone and picture of your aunt on your lap--sure, it's not in your real work-space, but it's still cluttering up your unconscious mind and hindering your ability to work at your best.
Nothing says you can't be colorful.

By writing down appointments to keep and tasks to do, you'll better be able to evaluate your needs and plan your day. Additionally, it's easier to see the nonphysical waste in your life when you write it down. I didn't enjoy watering my lawn, so I got rid of the lawn, freeing up my time for more enjoyable pursuits, like tending to the food garden I used the space for instead. Likewise, I found that keeping up with my family is important to me, and so I gave up some television time in order to write everybody once a month. Lastly, my time isn't eaten up with the nagging feeling that I've forgotten something at the grocery store or missed a doctor's appointment. When I outsource things to my notebook, I know where to look to make sure everything gets done, instead of wondering about it and dawdling while I try to think.

Arguably, using paper to write things down may be wasteful, but most types of paper are recyclable, and the rest is usually biodegradable (I compost my post-it notes), and I feel the benefits far outweigh the negatives. By writing things down I free up precious space in my brain, have a centralized location to check what I need to do for the day, and allow myself  to stay on track by jotting notes about to-do items that float through my head and then return to the primary task. I promise you, establishing the habit of writing things down, in whatever form you choose, will help you significantly to have a happy, remarkable, waste-free life.

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

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Step Seven: Perfect Your Wardrobe

On the day of the Oscars, when so many of us are focused on who wore what and how well, I think it might be fitting to turn the focus inwards and find our own sense of style. We don't always have stylists, make-up artists, and thousands of dollars at our disposal, but that doesn't mean we can't look and feel fabulous every day. When you find your personal style, whether it's regarding what you like to cook with to how you like your hair, you can breeze through life feeling confident and  put together.

It took me almost a decade to find my style, and to be self-assured enough to follow it in everything I do. There was a lot of research, journaling, and trial and error involved, but now when I do purchase something, I know it will serve me well for years, and I'll love using it. I don't need to constantly unclutter, and caring for my things is a joy, rather than a chore. Best of all, being a gatekeeper has become second nature. I already know if I'll like something when it is offered to me, so I don't bring unnecessary things into my home.

Of course, while finding your style will touch all parts of your life, it's easiest to start with your wardrobe. Picking out what you wear sets the mood for the rest of your day, and communicates to others the kind of person you are. Whether you have a uniform like Steve Jobs, a sense of adventure like Carrie Bradshaw, or a focus on comfortable functionality like Hilary Clinton, owning a stylized, organized wardrobe will speed your morning along, relieve frustration over what to wear, and allow you to live your life in clothes that make you happy.

Everyone has a different style, so everyone will have to discover their style in their own way. However, it helps a lot if you do these things:

1.  Pull out the clothes, shoes, and accessories you love. Look at what these things have in common, how you like to use them, and how they make you feel. Now pull out some things you don't like, or even hate. Ask yourself why they don't work for you, if there are ever situations in which you'd wear them, and how they made it into your closet in the first place. Keep these common themes and answers in mind as you evaluate the rest of your wardrobe. For example, I love a long sleeved shirt I have because I can dress it up or down, layer it well, and it's easy to wash. I dislike a bra my sister handed down to me because it doesn't fit me right, is white (so it shows dirt easily), and is padded (I usually don't want to enhance my bust). Looking at these things lets me know that I want things that fit well, allow me to get dirty, and work in a variety of situations.

2.  Think about what fashion pictures you've seen and admired. For most of us, this means looking through a magazine, but you might find your sartorial inspiration online, through the television, or from things you've seen people wear in real life. Ask yourself what you're drawn to, what you already have in your closet, and why you like the things you do. Though most sources won't advise you to collect clothes for a life you don't have, I think it's alright to dress for your aspirations, as long as you're actively working towards them. For example, I don't often wear heels, but I still own a few beautiful pairs, because when I want to look amazing for an event, I tend to pull my look from the pages of Vogue, where everyone is incredibly, impractically, beautiful..

3.  Now that you've examined your stylistic tendencies a little bit, let's dive into your closet. Ideally you'll have all your clothing clean and in one room, but I had to go through several stages of decluttering to pare down my closet, so if you have to make more than one sweep, I promise I understand. Pull out any clothes that you don't like, that don't fit you, or that are irreparable. These can be donated, recycled as rags, or composted if they're made of natural fibers like cotton or wool. Empty the pockets, slip them off the hangars, and put these clothes directly in bags or boxes labeled with their intended destination. Remember not to donate any clothing to charity that is unwearable, as this taxes thrift store resources unnecessarily. In my own wardrobe, I had a few sweaters given to me by my father for Valentine's day. I love my dad, and the thought he puts into his gifts, but I never wore the sweaters, and was not fond of them. Letting go of them was hard at first because of the sentiment involved, but the guilt that weighed me down every time I saw them was huge, so I decided to release them into the world, and focus on my good relationship with my dad, rather than a few misguided but well-intentioned presents.

4.  Since all the clothing you dislike and cannot wear are now gone, the rest of your wardrobe may think it's safe, but it's wrong. Now you'll want to pull out anything that doesn't match the rest of your clothing, any duplicates that you don't use (white shirts are prime suspects), and any clothes that you haven't worn in more than a year. Some clothes get away with being worn less than that, like swimsuits if you haven't been swimming since your vacation in 2007, or a tuxedo that only gets worn to formal occasions, but these garments are few and far between, as well as easy to recognize. Getting rid of clothes for these three reasons may seem hard at first, but with a little practice you'll be able to do it without much effort, and I promise you'll notice quickly how a little culling on these guidelines will produce big results in how you look and feel. For example, I had eight pairs of pants that I was able to pare down to three, because they were all a similar color and cut.  Though they all looked good on me, it was a waste of time every morning to try and decide which wide-leg navy blue pants to wear. By eliminating the duplicates, I now save time, know exactly which pair to reach for, and have no trouble with storage space.

5.  Last of all, maintaining your wardrobe is key. Only bring clothes into your home that flatter you and which you love wearing. Keep your clothes clean and in good repair. Set up clothes systems which you will actually use to store your clothes in, rather than just tossing them on the floor or over a chair. As time passes, you may note that a certain garment doesn't get worn. Feel free to donate it if it's not earning it's keep.  Likewise, if you notice that you have a need for an item, find a version you love and that matches the rest of your wardrobe, and wear the  hell out of it. In a well-selected closet, all your pieces will work with others, suit your needs, and make you feel great every time you put them on. Last August was the first time I've purchased a piece of clothing in over a year, but I bought a purple cardigan that I wear several times a week and love to death. It matches the rest of my clothes, and because it was a carefully considered purchase, I have no doubt  that my money and effort were well-spent.

When I work on anything, I like to remember that perfection is reached when nothing can be added, and nothing can be taken away. I love all the clothes I have, and though my closet is full, I couldn't do without any of them. Perfection will mean a different number of clothes and combinations for everyone, but you'll know you've gotten there when getting dressed feels easy and fun.

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