there has been an unprecedented demand for masks, gloves, and gowns;
plastic-free swaps like reusable grocery, produce bags, mugs, and food containers have been banned;
the plastics industry is using this moment to stoke fears about reusables and lobby to reverse single-use-plastic legislation;
oil prices have plummeted, making plastic — a petroleum product — cheap to make;
municipalities around the world have curtailed their recycling schemes since it’s cheaper to make virgin plastic;
the locked-down masses have been panic-buying, online-shopping, and consuming home deliveries from restaurants in record numbers — adding to plastic pollution.
What’s a conscious consumer to do? Is it possible to reduce our plastic consumption when we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic? Can we still aspire to be low-waste or zero-waste (which was already aspirational in the best of times)? Take a listen to this episode for tips on reducing your plastic consumption when it comes to:
Properly Disposing Plastic Waste
Enjoy some ideas for reducing plastic waste at home and in your own life.
When I first made the decision to eliminate plastic containers and bags from my life and “go zero waste,” some switches were easy peasy. Some had me in a panic. Like finding zero waste hair care in general and shampoo and conditioner in particular.
My attachment to my favorite vegan hair care products (sold in plastic bottles) had me wondering if I would just have to make an exception when it came to styling my locks. But with a little time, a lot of research, and an irrational determination to see things through to the end, I made some new discoveries.
I have not yet found a zero waste solution for all of my hair care needs such as styling products (future post coming!). But in the meantime, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned and what I love so you can get started, too.
It took me decades to figure out what my fickle hair needed — in terms of the right style, the right stylist, the right shampoo and conditioner, and the right styling products.
Of course for all of these decades the main criteria for choosing hair products have been first and foremost: vegan and cruelty-free. (That is, free of animal products and free of animal-testing). I’ve tried a gazillion products over the years, and the brand that ticks all of my ethical, vegan, and beauty boxes is Aveda. Having used and loved this brand for over a decade, the thought of switching brands was not something I relished.
Because Aveda primarily sells their products to Aveda-approved salons, for a time I thought that my solution would be to ask my hair stylist if I could just fill up my existing Aveda containers with shampoo and conditioner from the large bottles she would already have open for washing clients’ hair.
While this would slightly reduce the existence of additional plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles in the world and while I think it’s a brilliant stop-gap (you can steal this idea!), I was open to exploring other solutions that would bring me closer to the zero-waste goals I was trying to achieve.
And a solution I found!
Let me cut to the chase and tell you about the zero waste hair care products I love so much that they successfully helped wean me off of Aveda. Then I’ll provide some other ideas so you have a bunch to choose from. (Keep reading for your 15% off coupon code!)
When I heard about a sister-owned company that made cruelty-free, plastic-free, chemical-free, zero waste, biodegradable, vegan shampoo and conditioner, I had to give them a try! (Plus, they have body lotion and body wash!) They were kind enough to send me some products to test, and I was hooked immediately.
Even so, I wanted to give my hair some time to experience the products before I shared my enthusiasm. Now that time has passed, I’m here to share why my enthusiasm has only increased. I’m hooked.
Plaine Products come in aluminum containers that they refill for customers again and again and again. Here’s how it works:
For your first order, you order the products you want with a pump for each aluminum bottle.
When you run out of (or are running low on) your products, you order a refill! Then, you say “no” to the pump option (since you already ordered them in your first shipment). Finally, you opt for a return label to be sent with your order.
When your new order arrives, you just switch the pump over to the new bottles! Next, send the old bottles back using the same box and the label (that you don’t pay additionally for). They sanitize the bottles, refill them, and send them to their new home for other customers.
As you learned from the podcast episode called Zero Waste: It Ain’t About Recycling, very little of the plastic we buy gets recycled. And because it lasts for so long, every bit of plastic ever created still exists on this planet. Experts predict that at our current rate of plastic use and disposal, soon there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. That is a depressing thought.
What you also learned is that when it comes to materials, glass is indeed 100% recyclable (though we should re-use it rather than recycle it when it’s perfectly functional). So is aluminum. And in the case of Plaine Products, the aluminum bottles are sterilized and used a number of times before they even get recycled. AND, the recycling process for aluminum requires even less energy than was needed to make the bottles in the first place!
What’s more: the boxes they use to ship (which you can use to send your bottles back) are custom-made to fit their bottles. That eliminates the need for peanuts or packaging! AND they’re made from a mix of 95% post-consumer waste and 5% post-industrial waste. Absolutely NO new materials are used in the manufacturing of their green shipping cartons. They even use plastic-free tape.
AND…everything comes in two natural scents: Mint + Rosemary or Citrus + Lavender. Both are divine!
Buy Your Plaine Products for 15% Off!
If I haven’t convinced you to give them a try yet, then experience their awesomeness yourself. Use this link anytime you make a purchase, and enter “compassion” as the coupon code to receive 15% off your order! The shipping is a flat $5, which is pretty amazing.
The Aveda conditioner I was using before cost $44. You might think that’s crazy, but for a fantastic, cruelty-free, toxin-free, vegan, natural conditioner that I loved, I was willing to pay it — especially because I had tried so many others that just didn’t work for my hair.
The fact that I’m paying 1/3 less now for a zero-waste, sustainable, plastic-free, vegan, toxic-free, biodegradable conditioner (and shampoo, etc.) is the icing on the cake! By the time you factor in your 15% off coupon code using this link, I think you’ll be happy with that, too!
Other Zero Waste Options
Shampoo Bars – I’ve never tried them, but I’ve heard mixed opinions about shampoo bars. Give them a try yourself, and let me know what you think.
Refilling from Bulk Section – Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco is the closest store to me that has bulk shampoos and conditioners with which you can fill your own bottles. HOWEVER, the brands they have aren’t vegan or cruelty-free. But look to stores near you with good bulk sections!
DIY – Make your own. Good luck. 🙂
REMEMBER TO USE ANY OF THE LINKS BELOW AND USE “compassion” TO RECEIVE 15% OFF YOUR ORDERS
Before I started this zero-waste journey, I shopped in the bulk section of local grocery stores. I brought my own (plastic) bags to fill up with dried beans, grains, and nutritional yeast, but when I didn’t have my own plastic bags to re-use, I tore one of the gazillion plastic bags off the roll in the bulk section, filled it up, and wrote the bin code on the twisty tie. And repeat.
Before I started this zero-waste journey, I shopped at Trader Joe’s (among other stores) and — as I placed the plastic-wrapped fennel bulbs and the plastic-packaged lettuce into my basket — lamented about how much plastic packaging there was in the produce section. Trader Joe’s isn’t the only store that sells plastic-wrapped produce; in fact, you’ll often find that organic produce is wrapped in plastic where non-organic is not. (More on that in a subsequent post.)
NOTE: When it came to buying flour, I used to buy Trader Joe’s brand flour wrapped in paper. But once I bought Bob’s Red Mill and assumed that surely a company as socially aware as Bob’s Red Mill would use sustainable packaging. NOT SO. They recently changed their packaging for such things as flour to be completely UNsustainable: plastic, non-renewable, non-recyclable. Not. Okay. Just thought you’d like to know.
I can walk to Trader Joe’s from my home, so it’s been a convenient place to shop, especially when in need of frozen blueberries, tofu, or … fennel bulbs, which is often. (I kind of eat fennel every day.) I also didn’t think twice about buying a head of organic cauliflower wrapped in plastic from Whole Foods.
But all that has changed. Now, instead of complaining about all the plastic wrap on veggies and fruits while I’m in the middle of purchasing them, I just don’t purchase them. (Brilliant, I know.) I simply forego buying a vegetable wrapped in plastic and buy a non-plastic-wrapped vegetable instead or I wait until I’m at the farmer’s market or see a non-plastic version at another grocery store — and it turns out I’ve survived. It’s no different than the choices I make as a 20-year vegan. It’s not that I can’t buy / eat something that’s wrapped in plastic / that’s not vegan. It’s that I don’t want to.
Many habits have remained the same: I shop at our local farmer’s market every week, I stop in the bulk section of grocery stores, and I walk to Trader Joe’s. Then, I turn right — to a little locally owned produce store that has what I need when I’m in a pinch. And guess what? They have fennel bulbs NOT wrapped in plastic!
The main difference is that I don’t just take my canvas bags with me for the groceries I buy; I take with me my mesh bags for fruits and veggies and my cotton sacks for the finer-sized bulk items like flour. And I love it.
I was a late bloomer when it came to what I used to call the Trader Joe’s cult anyway. When I taught my vegan cooking classes years ago and would recommend where people could buy products, students would invariably ask me if they’re available at Trader Joe’s. “I have no idea. I’ve never been to Trader Joe’s,” I would reply — to the shock of my audience. I would explain that I shopped at (what was at the time) my local (and locally owned) neighborhood grocery stores such as Farmer Joe’s and The Food Mill — both of which are on Macarthur Blvd. in Oakland. (Farmer Joe’s also opened a second larger location on Fruitvale Ave.)
So, since I started this endeavor, I haven’t really shopped at Trader Joe’s. I get how convenient they are. I get how cheap their products are. I get how many vegan products they have. But I also really get how much plastic is harming wild places and animals — only a small portion of which is getting recycled or even can be recycled at all. (See my post on why recycling is not the answer.)
Just because it’s convenient for me doesn’t mean someone else isn’t inconvenienced.And when it comes to the waste we humans create, we’re inconveniencing millions of non-human individuals.
As for cost, it’s astronomically more affordable to purchase bulk items. So, just as there’s a myth that eating vegan is more expensive, there’s also a myth that zero-waste is more expensive.
Because I live in a city, I’m lucky to have a number of grocery stores with bulk sections near(ish) me, including Whole Foods and Berkeley Bowl, but as Whole Foods is expensive and Berkeley Bowl is just too far for me (I hate driving), I started thinking about where else I could shop in bulk. So, I started making a list in my head.
There are a number of small produce / convenience stores that have bulk bins, but I treat them as such: places of convenience; they’re just too expensive for regular groceries.
Sprouts opened on Broadway not too long ago, and their bulk bins are vast, so they’ve become a regular store for me.
Farmer Joe’s also has bulk bins and a good variety at that.
But I also started wondering where I would find smaller bulk items, such as unsweetened cocoa powder, baking powder, active yeast for baking bread, maple syrup, olive oil.
And then it hit me. I had completely forgotten about a staple in Oakland known for its bulk bins: The Food Mill, which I used to shop at all the time when I lived in that neighborhood. Not only are they even closer to me than any of the stores mentioned above and not only do they have the most affordable bulk items (including organic), but they also have the items I didn’t think I’d be able to get in bulk, namely unsweetened cocoa powder, yeast, baking powder, olive oil, and…maple syrup! (They also carry a huge variety of spices and dried herbs, but I also love my Oaktown Spice Shop for those.)
My husband makes fun of me all the time, because I do get pretty excited about this stuff, but I was giddy with delight filling up my jar with maple syrup and cocoa powder. (I realize other stores have these items in bulk, so this might not be news to some of you, but it just feels good to returning to support a neighborhood store in my beloved city of Oakland.)
Still, the point is: I have options — and more than I realized or remembered. I understand that I live in a city, so my choices tend to be a little greater than someone who lives in a more suburban or rural area, but even I had forgotten about some stores that are right in my backyard. Perhaps you have, too.
Have you explored stores near you that have bulk bins? What are some near you? What are your favorite bulk finds?
Organic Cotton Muslin Bags (great for flour and fine bulk items — in a variety of sizes)
Cotton Flour Sack Towels (great for wrapping and storing veggies / bread)
*if you buy from Amazon, you can send them an email telling them that you would like a note added to your account that when you place orders, you would like to avoid plastic packaging and avoid extra packaging when possible.
Today was our first trip to the farmers market since starting my zero waste endeavor. As someone who for years has already been bringing a bevy of canvas and cotton bags to the market to avoid getting plastic bags for my produce, I would have thought I wouldn’t have to make any changes in this particular scenario.
I was wrong.
In the past, it’s true we would never take a new plastic bag for any of the fruits and veggies we bought, but some lettuce mixes that David preferred already came in plastic bags, my favorite Medjool dates were sold in plastic containers or plastic bags, and I never even thought about the twisty ties and rubber bands that bound many veggie bunches together. Also, this time I brought glass jars with me in case I bought more delicate items (like mushrooms or berries).
So, in scenario one, David decided to forego getting the braised greens in the plastic bag (he was going out of town anyway so wasn’t going to have time to eat them), and in scenario two: after paying for our edible wares, I politely asked the vendors if I could give them back whatever was holding our bunches together — rubber bands or twisty ties — and they enthusiastically agreed saying they would re-use them. However, I forgot to do so at one stand, so three bunches of kale came home with twisty ties, which I’m thinking I’ll bring back to the same farmer next week.
And then came scenario three: the true test of how serious I am. David asked if I wanted to get my dates, which I get every week from the same (and only date) vendor that happens to have the plumpest, juiciest Medjool dates. I walked over knowing that they didn’t have open bins for their dates and that the only option they offer are pre-(plastic)packaged bags/containers.
In my mind, I had already decided that I would forego buying my favorite dates but decided to ask about package-free options anyway just as another couple was approaching the table. Those who know me to be an unabashed, outspoken vegan might not know that I’m actually someone who doesn’t like to call attention to myself, so when I asked if she had any dates not packaged in plastic and she enthusiastically responded with “oh, are you zero waste??” for fear of sounding arrogant or seeming trendy, I quietly said, “well, yeah, just doing the best I can to not buy plastic.”
She went on to say that she hates how much plastic they use (and said “they use a lot”) and that she’s trying to get the company to use less or even go zero waste and that even though they don’t normally do this, if I wanted to, I could pick out individual dates from their sample box and put them in my own container. I. Was. Thrilled. I whipped out one of my glass jars.
At the same time, I was self-conscious about the other couple who had just arrived and overheard my conversation. The gentleman was quietly telling the woman he was with that I was asking for dates not wrapped in plastic (I thought he was annoyed I was taking up so much time), and so I looked directly at him in indicate to him that I could hear him, and so began a lovely conversation about how prevalent plastic is in our world, how challenging it is to try and live plastic-free, how there’s evidence that even more plastic is bring produced despite the zero-waste movement — but how it was worth it to try and do our best.
As he walked away, he said, “We can all certainly do more to reduce,” as if contemplating this endeavor for himself, patted me on the shoulder and said, “keep up the good work.”
The entire encounter was validating and heartening and left me hopeful about how people are inclined to do the right thing. It just takes us stepping up and asking for what may seem like a small, insignificant thing but what may make all the difference in the world. Our asking for what we need to reflect our values in our behavior — whether it’s vegan versions or plastic-free options — actually has the power to inspire others as well.
I’ve already reached out to the date farmer to tell them what a good experience we had, how much we love their dates, and to encourage them to consider selling their dates in an open bin rather than in pre-packaged bags. I imagine it might change the type of sales permit they have, but I also imagine it will at least prod them in the right direction.
That’s the best we can all hope for: moving in the right direction and doing the best we can to do our best.
As the daughter of parents who grew up during the Great Depression and the granddaughter of nannies and poppies who had to toil and scrape for everything they got, I subconsciously absorbed an aversion to wasteful and frivolous purchases and a healthy amount of guilt for not valuing the things I did obtain.
That’s certainly not to say I didn’t (and don’t) indulge in materialism, especially as a teenager, or devalue the items my parents worked so hard to give me, but let’s just say I’ve never been comfortable with it. I don’t make purchases lightly, I’d rather have experiences than things, and I cringe at the idea of disposing of something that’s in relatively good condition when it could be repaired.
David and I waited ages to get smart phones when they first came on the scene. My flip phone worked perfectly fine, so why would I replace it with something new and shiny?
It took us ages to finally get one of those fancy schmancy flat-screen TVs that everyone had, and when we finally did, it was a modest 36″ version. Despite being devout film junkies (and very much appreciating good cinematography and art direction that only a high-quality screen can highlight), it was only very recently that we decided to upgrade that 13-year-old flat screen and indulge in a 65″ display that will enable us to really appreciate our favorite movies. Seven Samurai deserves better.
Just to give you context, generally speaking, I have to be at the point of pulling my hair out with frustration over obsolete technologies before I allow David to persuade me to upgrade to a faster laptop or a better network drive. (As much as David shares my aversion to unnecessary indulgences, he’s also much better at knowing when to stop suffering for naught.)
Which brings me to our phones — the phones we love, the phones we depend on, the phones we hate, the phones that bind us, the phones that rule us all. Our iPhones.
As is common knowledge, practically every year, Apple comes out with a new version of their iPhone, and every year David and I have the conversation about what this means for us. And every year, I revolt and protest and hem and haw at the built-in obsolescence of these devices. And every year I’m reminded that the bulk of my work is done on this amazing blasted thing — and that comfort and ease is not a bad thing.
And so I compromise. David gets a new version (his work is also technology-based), and I take his old phone. I donate my old phone, and I celebrate how much easier my life is to use a device that actually works.
And then it happened. The iPhone 10 came out, and my iPhone 6 (David’s old one) got slower and slower and slower, driving me madder and madder and madder. Oh, the pain of trying to photo-capture a beautiful moment when two of the deer outside our home are playing or head-butting or grooming — only to miss the shot because it takes literally 90 seconds for the camera app to open. Oh, the pain of the phone spontaneously shutting down in the middle of writing an important email.
Not to mention the fact that while foraging for greens to make a natural holiday wreathe, I inadvertently dropped my pruning shears on my phone and have thus been enduring a cracked screen for a good part of a month.
And so, we had the conversation — again. And again and again. What to do about the iPhone 10. What to do about my awful phone. I bristled at the idea of getting a new one, but as David was tired of seeing me have an aneurism every time I tried to do a simple task, we decided that once again…he would get the new version and I would get his nascent one-year-old iPhone 7.
But while being deliberate about making a new purchase, as we’re wont to do, we embarked upon (or rather, I embarked us both upon) this quest to be more mindful about how we live and what we purchase. Zero waste and all that.
Our delay came with many boons and benefits.
During our contemplation, it came to pass that Apple was getting so much flack for the short lives of their batteries that they decided to substantially discount the cost of replacing them. We also did our annual budget, and we realized that we had been paying for insurance with our cell phone service provider such that getting a cracked screen fixed would be a fraction of what it would normally cost.
And so here we are.
David got his iPhone assessed, and his battery is just fine. No need to replace. So, he’s holding onto his iPhone 7 — in tact and in perfect working order.
Today, I got my screen replaced for $29, and I didn’t even have to leave the house! iCracked is a mobile mobile phone repair company that comes to your house (they also have repair kits so you can do it yourself!)
David made an appointment with Apple to take my phone in early next week to get the battery replaced for (also) only $29! And it’s possible — just possible — that in a few days I will no longer be deterred from capturing all of those fleeting cute kitty moments (and all the other important things I do with my phone). Victory awaits!
And this brings me back to what had been instilled in me long before there was a thing called Zero-Waste: that when things are broken, you fix them. That there is value in the things you work for. That seamstresses and cobblers and TV repairmen and tinkers are the original Zero Waste Heroes. Zeroes? (Hmm…I’ll work on that.)
I was taught this when I was young. I aspire to it as an adult.
And I’m grateful Apple has figured it out.
Before there was a thing called “zero-waste living,” there was the idea that when things break, you fix them. That there’s value in the things you work for. That seamstresses and cobblers and TV repairmen and tinkers are the original Zero Waste Heroes.
I’ve been vegan for almost 20 years, and my husband just a little less than that.
We compost every bit of food waste in both our own compost bins as well as in the city’s bin (though we tend to use that for yard waste).
We compost all of our yard trimmings.
We greywatered our plumbing and so we irrigate one of our gardens with our used bathroom shower and sink water.
We have tanks that hold 1,000 gallons of rain water to irrigate another garden.
I work from home (thus I don’t commute), and my husband walks to the car pool to get into work and walks home from the bus stop on the way back.
When we do drive, it’s a 14-year-old Prius that still gets 40 miles to the gallon.
We shop for produce at our local farmer’s market each week, often walking there instead of driving.
In fact, I walk everywhere — to the local stores for groceries, to my bank, to my post office, to restaurants, even to hiking trails.
I make all my own legumes, lentils, and grains from scratch (no cans or packaging).
We use canvas bags for all our groceries.
We tell restaurants not to give us straws.
We wash and reuse the few plastic bags that do wind up in our house.
And yet…I can do better. And I’m aspiring to.
I announced to David that one of my intentions for this year was to live as close to zero-waste / plastic-free (they kind of go hand in hand) as possible, and the journey has thus far been enlightening and exciting. The best feeling after the first week was not having to put our garbage can out on garbage day (even my friend across the street noticed). We put out the compost and recycling bins — but not garbage.
Now, that’s not to say I won’t be contributing to landfills at all. We have plenty of packaging in the house that — until we use it all up and never replace it — will be thrown out, but the idea is to:
reduce consumption of non-renewables as much as possible
replace the prevalence of plastic in our lives
recycle what we’re forced to (without becoming over-reliant on things that appear to be recyclable)
repair what we already have without buying something new
rely on foods that can be made from scratch, like my homemade bread and homemade peanut butter for breakfast today!
In the first week, I’ve already made a number of changes, first and foremost letting good friends know this is our goal so we can avoid the awkward moment when they buy or bring me something made from plastic.
I’ve also put items back on the shelf I was about to purchase but realized were made from plastic. Not that I couldn’t find good crusty bread at the farmer’s market (in paper) or peanut butter in glass jars (or something I can press myself into my own glass jars), but this week I’ve been having a lot of fun making my own peanut butter (with roasted salted peanuts), baking my own bread (from a sourdough starter given to me by a friend), making my own almond milk, and of course continuing to use my beloved pressure cooker to make beans and grains.
Discoveries and Disappointments
*During the week (before I was able to get to the farmer’s market), when we went to a couple different local stores for produce, we had to forego romaine lettuce and cauliflower because the only available versions were wrapped in plastic, so now I know which local stores sell them without plastic.
*I noticed that the Bob’s Red Mill all-purpose flour I have in the pantry is packaged in a plastic, non-recyclable bag. Very disappointing. Not a big deal because I can bring containers to the bulk section of stores to buy flour but disappointing for a company that strives to do so many things right.
*I decided to finally invest in a Le Creuset dutch oven, but I didn’t want to buy a new one, so I found a fantastic deal for a gently used one on eBay! (Blog post about that coming.)
*Gotta figure out the cat litter thing (blog post pending about this, too!)
*My iPhone 6 has a cracked screen and a ridiculously slow battery. Can’t wait to tell you what I decided to do! I’ll leave that for the next post! 🙂
This is a journey, and like I always say related to being vegan: Don’t do nothing because you’re can’t do everything. Do something. Anything. So, we’re trying. And there’s a lot we can do!
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