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.