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.