Monday, April 22, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 8, 2013

Zero Waste Product Shout-Out: Furoshiki Wraps

This post, summed up in one picture.

Stripe Furoshiki

(image source)

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Step Twenty-Seven: Explore Some Thrift Stores

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Step Twenty-Six: Organize Your Office

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zero Waste Product Shout-Out: Salad Spinners

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 22, 2013

Step Twenty-Five: Pamper Yourself

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

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

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

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

Wasteful, but Necessary Interuptions

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

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

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Step Twenty-Four: Reduce Your Meat Consumption

Our modern meat industry is one of the biggest sources of waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and not just from all those animals farting. The majority of animals are raised in feed lots, where they are fed on grains which have been grown on other industrial farms using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, then harvested, processed, and transported on trucks and machinery run by fossil fuels. The livestock themselves are transported across the country for butchering, processing, and shipping to your town's supermarket. The packaging for meat often involves plastic wrap and Styrofoam, both of which are difficult to recycle and impossible to compost. All of this results in an industrial meat complex which is incredibly intensive in its resource use, just so we can have cheap hamburgers on demand and never go a day without some kind of chicken product. Livestock cast a long shadow across our health, our global community, and our environment, not to mention our wallets. So today's step is to reduce our meat consumption, if only by one serving a week. This will save you money, contribute to a healthier lifestyle, and let you do your part for a healthier planet.

I am not a vegetarian, and am unlikely to ever become one, but I have come to believe for health reasons that meat should be an occasional part of our diet, not a daily staple. Though some disagree sharply, I think Dr. Campbell's book The China Study clearly establishes that a diet low in meat and other animal products is much healthier than our standard american fare. Books like In Defense of Food and Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy support Dr. Campbell's work, though are not so adamant about eliminating animal products entirely from one's diet. Having less meat, animal products, and refined or processed foods in our diets will make more room for plant-based whole foods that are richer in nutrients, provide more filling carbohydrates, and work with our bodies' processes, rather than stressing or over-taxing them.

I initially lowered my meat consumption out of budgetary concerns. I could afford five pounds of potatoes, or two pounds of beef. The potatoes went farther, so they won out. I'm a little better off now, but still consider meat to be a treat, not daily fare. I have tried to increase my bean consumption, as new studies show that increases lifespan and overall health. Plus they  cost pennies from the bulk bin, and are actually quite easy to make a part of any meal. When I do buy meat I can afford to get responsibly produced varieties (like free-range and grass-fed), and the rest of the time I can afford more interesting dairy products like cheddar from a local cheese maker, or raw milk to make my Greek yogurt from. Now my money goes towards food I feel good about purchasing and enjoy eating, plus I have enough to treat myself to top-quality cuts when I do eat meat.

Lastly, I keep my meat consumption to a twice-weekly event because it's good for the community and the environment. Less land has to be deforested and stripped to raise beef cattle, less chicken farmers get trapped in vicious cycles of debt trying to keep their contracts with mega-corporations, and less resources have to be devoted to packing, shipping, and chilling the meat. I use my spending to vote for small, lovingly-managed farms, humane animal treatment, and more organic produce in my local market.

If I had made these changes quickly, they probably wouldn't have stuck, so if you feel better gradually reducing your meat consumption, take as much time as you need. Use this opportunity to be more creative in your cooking, find ways to say yes to adding more vegetables to a recipe, or even to make things more simple for yourself by cooking more one-dish meals like rice pilaf or chow mein. Try making eggs or beans the protein feature in your food, rather than pork or chicken. These all can be small, enjoyable changes that help make your new lifestyle stick.

I found I didn't even need to try new recipes to reduce the meat in my diet. For example, I always used to make spaghetti sauce by sauteing ground beef and onions, then stirring in olives, mushrooms, Italian seasoning, and tomato sauce. When money got tight, I could afford everything but the ground beef, yet the sauce was just as flavorful and filling. Rather than dice ham into my cheesy potato-broccoli soup, I made due with all the rich flavors of cheddar and broccoli  and allowed myself to be satisfied by the fullness of potatoes. Cooked lentils go over rice just as well as beef stew, beans are as satisfying on fajitas as chicken, and feta cheese makes to-die-for lasagna, sans meat.

One thing I don't recommend is trying to find meatless varieties of foods, or tofu replacements. The facade only highlights the absence. Instead, have a hamburger, meatballs, or even a steak once in a while. You'll savor it more, and appreciate it better. The point with this step is not to eliminate meat entirely, only to reduce your consumption of it. Even if you just commit to Meatless Mondays, you'll be making a difference. Personally, I eat meat around twice a week, and am perfectly happy with that amount; it's just enough for me to find pleasure in life and my favorite foods; any more than that and meat becomes something I eat to fill up, not to enjoy.

Hopefully you're convinced that reducing your meat consumption is something you can do, and have fun with. If you need a little idea of where to start, I recommend trying some of the recipes or looking for inspiration on the Zero Waste Kitchen blog, The Whole Food Diary, the In.gredients Store blog, and, my favorite, Eggton.

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

Zero Waste Product Shout-Out: Bus Tokens

I live in Utah, where we deal with inversions, a natural bubble effect intensified by our mountains, which keep air trapped in the valleys without circulation. Because of this Utah has the strictest car emissions standards in the nation, and requires yearly tests with registration. Also because of this, when an inversion is present, it makes nighttime driving look like this:

I'm not fond of the inversion effect. It makes every day a hazy smog, and has terrible consequences for our health. I remember in physiology class in high school a guest lecturer brought in a lung from a native Utahan marathoner, and a person who had smoked for two years. Just by living in Utah and being outside frequently, the marathoner had the same amount of damage as the smoker. The one good thing about the inversion is the constant, physical reminder of our emissions. It led to the aforementioned strict vehicle standards, and played an effect in expanding the public transit system.

Because of this, today's zero waste product shout-out goes to the bus token. A humble, reusable thing, it is easy to carry extras, makes exact change unnecessary, and allows me to commute to work in an environmentally responsible way. It also saves me a ton of money by allowing my husband and I to share a car. $2.35 a ride seems expensive, until I realized that it costs around fifty to seventy-five cents a mile to purchase, register, insure, maintain, and fuel a car. (It costs much more if you consider parking, road maintenance  pollution costs, and  land value)

The Utah public transit system is much better than some areas, and a lot worse than others. It certainly doesn't have the ubiquity of the New York subway system, but it does give central and northern Utah residents a clean, reliable, and reasonably convenient way to travel. At this point, for Utah and many states, the best way to improve public transit is to get more people to use it more often. This causes more frequent stops, more and better routes to open up, and more efficient buses and trains to be used.  You may not be trapped in a valley full of air dangerous to breathe, but that doesn't mean air pollution isn't a serious problem. Take some time today to look up your local transit system, its routes, and how to ride it. Whenever possible, leave your car at home and walk or bike to the nearest bus or train station. Your health, wallet, and the planet will thank you.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Step Twenty-Three: Find a Local Farmer's Market, CSA, or Friendly Gardener

Buying locally helps keep money in your community's economy, encourage responsible business practices, and  often means less waste and chemicals put into production and shipping. Nowhere is this more true than with local food. When you can talk to the person who grew what your family eats, you'll get a level of assurance that beats any organic logo or freshness guarantee. Local farmers markets and CSAs  (Community Supported Agriculture) provide so many blessings to so many different groups that it doesn't make sense not to patronize them. Of course, that's if you can find one in your area.

Since local farmers markets tend towards the grassroots in their organization, it can be tricky to find one in your town or county if you don't know where to look. There are several directories and resources at the end of this post to start off with, but you can also check bulletin boards at health food stores, city hall, and locally-owned establishments. Additionally, look around your neighborhood to see who has fruit trees, a garden, chickens, or a beehive. It's likely that these people are willing to share their bounty, either to keep the food from rotting off the tree, for a little help with the work, or for a small fee. Often hobbyists with enough to share are enthusiastic in their passions, and would be glad to help you turn a corner of your yard into a food-producing Eden. If your neighborhood is devoid of food gardens and small farm animals, check your local library, Craigslist, and national directories to find seed exchanges, gardening groups, chicken clubs, and more. Give shyness the night off and make some friends who are as passionate about what they do as you are.

One of the greatest things about local food is the community that grows alongside it. And just like with the soil, the more love you put into community, the richer it grows.

Local Harvest
A national directory of farmers markets, CSAs, local food restaurants. Also has forums and photos. One of my favorite go-to sites.

Kind of like shopping online, but for fresh produce, and instead of delivering to your door, they assemble your order and bring it to a food community site. An interesting concept, but not available nationwide.

Pick Your Own
An international directory of Pick Your Own farms. These are places where farmers have raised vegetable, fruit, and herb crops, but leave them on the plant until customers show up and pick everything themselves. Quite a fun outing for a date or family night.

Neighborhood Fruit
It's the Craigslist of fruit trees. People who have too much fruit (and anyone who's not a farmer but has a fruit tree does) list their trees and let neighbors come pick for free. There are even trees listed on public land, and the site lists herbs, vegetables, and nuts as well.

A national directory of local egg producers and stands. With this kind of local food, you can ensure the chickens are truly free-range and well-loved, as many people consider their laying hens to be pets who just happen to pay a nutritious rent.

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

P.S. If you are very interested in local food, I highly recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She and her family eat only local food (within a five hundred mile radius, if memory serves, but most of the food is homegrown or bought from neighboring farms) for one year; it is a fascinating look at regaining a sense of the seasons, how delicious whole foods can be, and learning respect for the bounty the earth provides.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Step Twenty-Two: Organize Your Living Room

I love browsing through better living-type magazines and Pinterest in part because of the beautiful homes they showcase. Looking at an organized, color-coordinated, and cozy living room makes me want to jump into the picture so that I too can curl up with a book or host game night on a whim. Of course, it only took a few moments of introspection to realize that I don't want a cottage-style home or the latest side table from Pottery Barn, what I want is a clean, comfortable space of my own, where gathering friends and family is convenient and fun, and which only contains things I love, use, and am willing to dust.

Part of the appeal of a zero waste lifestyle is the clearing of things you don't need to make room for the experiences you want. Humans are social creatures, and so in one form or another we crave contact and positive interaction. That's why today's baby step is to clean, clear, and organize your living room. Having a comfortable common space will give you the opportunity to gather your loved ones together, enjoy your hobbies, and provide you with a concrete reminder of why you're working towards zero waste.

Many wonderful people advocate clearing out a space entirely when  reorganizing, then returning only the functional or beautiful things. I'm kind of lazy, so instead I like to take a pen and paper into a space completely separate from the one I plan to declutter. Sometimes that has meant leaving the house entirely, in which cases I've been very grateful for my local library. Being someplace out of sight of the space in question helps me to clear my mind of distractions so that I can freely visualize what I truly want the room to look and feel like.

When you think of your home's living room, what do you want from it? A place to watch TV, play games, have friends over, engage in hobbies, read, visit with loved ones, exercise, or nap? What furniture and items make you comfortable? Do you like walls lined with bookcases, family photographs, framed art, your children's drawings? How do you want to lay out the room so that you and your guests can comfortably move and interact? Would you rather usually be facing the TV, the window, or have options for both? Now is the time to daydream until you have a clear and happy idea of your ideal living room.

Once you have this picture in your head, write down what physical things are there. Furniture, electronics, decorations, and functional objects like scissors or clocks all should be written down. Don't be intimidated or feel pressured if your list is long; it often takes many things to make a home. The most important part of the exercise is that you write down only what you truly want in your ideal space. Any heirloom, just-in-case, or there-out-of-habit things that you don't freely imagine as part of your dream room don't get written down. I recommend writing a list because I tend to think in lists and charts, if you're more visual, draw a picture of your ideal space instead, or you could even assemble an inspirational collage.

It might take several tries before your list is refined and you feel confident that it's what you want. That's okay, take your time. Once you have your list, use it as a guide to clean, clear, and reorganize your living room. Don't be afraid to modify your list, even after you've started working from it. Being flexible is an important part of being happy.

When you're ready to tackle the physical work, start by clearing the room of things that don't belong. Donate things that you don't want or no longer use. Return out-of-place items and family member's belongings to the correct room. Compost, recycle, and even trash things that won't be useful to you or others. I find it helpful to have a dedicated tote bag for returnable things like movie rentals and library books so that they have a place when they're in your home, and you don't have to scramble when it comes time to return them.

Give everything that remains in the living room a designated home so that you and those you live with always know where to put it away. Now is the time to rearrange furniture if you like, or even to go shopping for any missing items that would enhance your quality of life (check the thrift store first!). Don't wait to paint the walls, hang art you've always loved, organize your personal library by color, or set out knick-knacks that make you smile. The more welcoming your living room is, the more time you'll spend in it, and the more likely you'll want to keep it neat  and usable.

If you have financial constraints and can't afford the extra bookcase you need, chair you'd love, or paint you adore, make space in your budget now to start saving for these items, even if you can only put away a little at a time. Freecycle and Craigslist are great resources for affordable things, or even just make-do items. In the meantime, use what you have until you can afford what you want. Books can be stacked on the floor and space left empty, it's likely no one will notice. While waiting you might even decide you don't need that thing after all, you may come up with a solution you love more, or, at the very least, you'll become more assured that you've made the right decision to buy the item you've waited so patiently for.

Now the best part, go live in your living room. Use it to scrapbook, talk, host cookie exchanges, tickle your children, watch Frontline, knit, sew, play games, send e-mail, pet your dog, assemble puzzles, gather your family around pizza and movies, take a well-deserved nap, write letters, and, most importantly, keep dreaming of what you want in life.

Feel like you need more intensive help in cleaning and organizing your living room? I highly recommend The Joy of Less by Francine Jay, and Unclutter Your Life in One Week by Erin Doland. These two books cover everything you need to know to simplify and streamline your home, and were my two favorites in helping me transition from pack-rat to minimalist.

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

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Step Twenty-One: Write a Letter

I make about a half gallon of garbage a month, more if you count the things I recycle. If I wanted to I could probably make less trash and recycling, but to do that I'd have to cut enjoyable and stress-reducing things out of my life. Reducing waste is important to me, but being happy comes first. However, if I could find these happy/necessary-conveniences in bulk or without waste, I'd get them that way in a heartbeat. To that end, I usually write about a letter a week to various companies asking them to find a better method.

I choose to send physical letters containing examples of the waste a company's product makes because I feel that these have more impact, and are less likely to end up in a junk folder on a computer somewhere. Even if they do get misdirected, I send letters every time I have waste from a specific company, so I know my voice is likely to be heard at least once, if not multiple times. The garbage made from the product still counts in my personal tally, but I think it becomes a little more useful if it can make a point about waste before going to a landfill. It's also pretty standard practice in offices now to recycle paper, so I don't worry about the physical letter becoming trash.

I typically start the letter by explaining that despite my zero waste efforts, I love the company's product(s), and have made an exception to my zero waste policy in order to continue using this thing that enhances my life. I then say that despite its quality and excellence, I wish the product came in a zero waste way (and often I can even volunteer that I'd be willing to buy it in bulk if that meant no garbage), and I go on to describe the various waste-free and low-waste options available for packaging products (usually packaging is the waste problem), things like cardboard boxes, plant-based compostable plastic, paper tape, shredded paper or cornstarch-based packing peanuts for shipment padding, and even mushroom-based packing forms in place of Styrofoam. If the product itself is an issue, I express the desire that the product be more easily recyclable or repairable. Lastly, I tell the company I've included the resultant trash from their product, and ask them to imagine that trash multiplied thousands, or hundreds of thousands of times to represent all of the waste their product is responsible for. I finish the letter by thanking them for their time and consideration, telling them they are welcome to contact me at any time, and referring them to my blog if they have further questions about zero waste.

I put the letter and the garbage (clean trash only, no food-soiled or greasy things) in a standard envelope, use a regular stamp (unless it will make the envelope too heavy, then I add a 20 cent stamp for the extra weight), write 'hand cancel' on the front if the trash is too stiff to go easily through the post office machines, and send it off. There's usually some sort of mailing address on a company's webpage, so finding where to send the letter to is easy, and I often address the letter to "[Company's Name] Customer Service Team" if I can't find a specific person in the company to send it to.  Sure, there's a little work involved in the process, but it's really quite easy once you've done it a couple of times. I find it about as bothersome as mailing in a check to pay a bill (can you believe some businesses still don't take online payments?), but reap considerable satisfaction once the letter is in the mail.

The hard truth of the world is that not all companies care about the environment. Some do, and some only care for money. However, if enough customers demand it, a company will bend over backwards to please them, so I make it my business to ask companies, politely and consistently, to change for the better. I believe we'll eventually have to move as a country, culture, and world to more conservative, waste-free practices, but I hope we can work together to make it happen sooner rather than later. Take some time to write a letter or e-mail to a company whose products you still use, or would like to be able to use, and let's move forward together.

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

P.S. In case you're wondering, the products I use regularly and the waste they create are as follows:

  • Fischer space pen cartridges. They come displayed in plastic with a cardboard backing, and have a plastic extender so the refill can fit a standard sized pen if the customer wishes. I send both of these back to the company and recycle the cardboard backing.
  • Moleskine shrink-wrapping. These notebooks make writing a joy, so I use them despite the shrink-wrapping, though I do send it back to the company.
  • Plastic clothing tags. Some of the thrift stores in my  area use those little plastic things to affix price tags to their clothing. Since this is a store issue, I simply write my letter, enclose the tags, and hand deliver it to the manager on my next trip.
  • Ghirardelli chocolate wrappers. I love Ghirardelli's chocolate squares, and still find myself buying them on occasion. The squares come individually wrapped though, so it's a habit I'm trying to break. In the mean time, I write my letters.
  • Res-Q Ointment shrink-wrap. This salve comes in a recyclable tin, but is sealed shut with a ring of shrink-wrap. 
  • Altoids shrink-wrap. My husband would be very unhappy without these mints, so I send the shrink-wrap back to the company, compost the paper wrapper inside the tin, and reuse or recycle the tin itself.
  • Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Peanut-butter Cups packaging. These delicious little candies are helping me break my Ghirardelli habit, but they come in a plastic tub (plastic #1, so I recycle it) which is sealed with a shrink-wrap band.  I send the band back, as it's not recyclable, and ask Trader Joe's to consider a wax-paper or cellophane bag for packaging, with a cardboard box if the candy needs more protection during shipping.
  • Shipment packaging. I order things from people on e-bay and various companies from time to time. Though I request they use plastic-free shipping products, my requests are not always honored. Amazon uses plastic air-pack bags, which are a better choice than Styrofoam packing peanuts, but still are not ideal. Almost everyone uses plastic tape on their boxes, but I usually let this slide.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Zero Waste Product Shout-Out: Res-Q Ointment

Burt's Bees makes a Res-Q Ointment that I could not live without, zero waste lifestyle or not. I originally got it in one of those little travel kits they sell, and I remember thinking that I would probably never use it.  But then I realized it's great on scrapes, makes cuts heal faster, magics away pimples, soothes my dry nose in the winter, heals bruises, cures bug bites, works as an intensive lip balm, stands in for lotion in a pinch, helps stave off bloody noses, smooths cuticles, and I've heard it's great as a post-tattoo balm.

I use Res-Q ointment for a multitude of problems on a daily basis. I have a tin in constant use, one in my emergency kit, and one in my supply of extras. I never want to be without this stuff, and I love that the packaging is so minimal. It depends on where you buy it from, but there is never more than the tin of product itself, and perhaps a box so the store can hang it on their display racks. The tin does come with a ring of shrink-wrapped plastic to keep it sealed, but I mail this back to Burt's Bees with a letter asking them to find a more waste-free way. I don't like the little bit of plastic, but it's much better than a plastic tube or bottle each for Neosporin, calamine lotion, zit cream, Vaseline, cuticle cream, and the other products I'd have to buy to do everything this ointment can do.

Burt's Bees as a company has zero-waste offices, and is working to make their manufacturing process waste-free in the next few years. They have a great reputation as a company, and are sure to back it up with transparent business practices, community involvement, and hardworking products. One of the few garbage-producing things I allow myself is their lip balm, as I've never found anything better. Though many of their products do come in plastic packaging, Burt's Bees has worked hard to minimize this, as well as use as much post-consumer recycled content as  possible. They're not perfect, but they are about as close to it as a international company with large-scale production and no bulk distribution can get.

To use the Res-Q ointment, simply rub onto the affected area using your finger. If you want to make sure you're not spreading germs around, put a few drops of tea tree oil (a natural disinfectant) onto the remaining ointment and rub around to make sure all surfaces within the tin are covered. I usually do this after rubbing the ointment onto the edges and a little ways inside my chapped nose when I have a cold, or when I'm worried I double-dipped while treating something that could spread, like pimples. I must admit, I have forgotten to disinfect my ointment sometimes, and I share the tin with my husband, but neither one of us has ever had a problem with cross-contamination or the problem area spreading, probably due to all the good and naturally bacteria-fighting ingredients already in the ointment.

And for those specifically looking for help with their pimples, I find that Res-Q ointment makes my pimples go away if I apply it a couple of times a day while they're still less than a bump. After that, I wait until I can extract them, then wash and dry the area and apply the ointment afterwards. This makes the scab and redness go away within two or three days, rather than the week or more it usually takes. In my experience it also helps prevent pigmentation, or those little dark spots that sometimes arise after a zit has gone.

I'm lucky to have a local store that stocks Res-Q ointment regularly, but I've heard most people have to order it from Amazon or off the Burt's Bees website. No matter how you have to get it, I highly recommend you find yourself a tin and start keeping yourself beautiful and healthy right away.