In this episode about my zero waste journey, I share the principles that have absolutely changed my thinking and way of living. Zero Waste is not simply about my making YouTube videos about how to make zero-waste almond milk (though I will do that!), it’s a way of thinking that profoundly changes our approach to resources and production, going beyond “waste diversion” and striving to ensure that products are designed to be repaired, refurbished, re-manufactured and reused, creating a circular economy rather than a linear economy of “make, use, dispose.”
What you will learn in this episode is that Zero Waste is not about recycling.
Breakfast is my favorite meal. I’ve perfected my decades-long ritual of making my tea (a future post, indeed!), preparing my food, and sitting down for my morning read. This all usually comes after my morning run or workout. (Yes, I wake up early and love mornings!)
My breakfast choices (like with all my meals) tend to change with the season — I prefer fresh fruit and smoothies in the warmer months and oatmeal in the colder months, but one thing that has filled my freezer (and belly) every day for years is Trader Joe’s frozen blueberries. Versatile, inexpensive, perfect for smoothies, oatmeal, muffins, or just eaten straight from a bowl. That’s right. One of my favorite breakfasts is a huge bowl of frozen blueberries, drizzled with some agave nectar, and tossed about with some nuts and/or seeds. However, my freezer is now devoid of these once permanent bags o’ berries.
Changing one of my most regular pleasurable habits is indicative of how serious I am about this zero-waste, plastic-free endeavor. Yes, I could buy fresh blueberries and freeze them, but here’s the rub: blueberries aren’t in season year-round, even in produce-rich California.
And you know what? It turns out it’s fine, because it has forced me to make choices at the farmers market and for my breakfast that are revolved around criteria other than just simply habit or routine. Criteria that include:
locally grown (when possible)
and vegan, of course
I’ve talked often of the benefits and beauty of eating seasonally, but even *I* made exceptions over the years: frozen blueberries encased in plastic being Exhibit A. And so with making choices based on all of my values — not just some of them and only when they’re convenient — I’m buying fruit at the market that’s in season rather than buying a plastic bag filled with fruit grown out of season and out of my region.
It’s February, and the farmers markets are filled strawberries (among other fruits such as citrus and apples — yum!), and that’s what I’ve been centering my breakfasts on. And it’s been lovely. In fact, I never, ever ate oatmeal with strawberries, and now that I have, I love it!
Imagine that! Being open to something new actually reaps other rewards. Get out!
I do very much look forward to finding blueberries again at the farmers markets (anthocyanins and all that!), and I do plan on freezing some for future consumption, but in the event that I get to have blueberries or other seasonal foods only certain times of the year makes having them all the more special. And that’s just another added bonus.
DON’T FORGET: When you’re at the farmers market, you don’t have to take home the berries in the container they’re sold in. Simply dump them into your own reusable bag or container, and hand the basket back to the farmer. They’re happy to reuse them.
I don’t have allergies; I just have a runny nose in the morning. Every morning. My nose runs when I run (solidarity and all that). My nose runs when I hike. When I work out. When I watch Little House on the Prairie. (Seriously, instant waterworks within 5 minutes of an episode.)
Our bathroom wastebaskets are (were!) perpetually full of dirty tissues — one blow, one toss. Use once (maybe twice), forever in a landfill.
Why? Because used tissues cannot be recycled, and apparently there are mixed opinions as to whether they can be composted (germs that may remain and all that). I imagine the mixed opinions have to do mostly with home compost systems (which we have) versus municipal compost systems (which we have), and I just found out that used tissues can indeed be tossed into our “green bin” — the same bin we can use for food scraps, yard scraps, and even most paper products. It took me all of 5 minutes to talk to a lovely gentleman at Waste Management in Oakland (CA) to confirm this, so I recommend calling your own city if they have a compost service you pay for.
However, not only did I not realize that all these years I could have been composting my used tissues (self-flogging scheduled), I’ve already made a decision to stop using single-use paper tissues, and I’m sticking to it. I’m going to be using something I NEVER in a million years thought I’d use: reusable, washable handkerchiefs. Yup, the very thing I made fun of my father for using my entire life.
After all, the problem with single-use products is not just what happens at the end of their use. The problem is how they are created in the first place.
Before They Were Tissues, They Were Trees
Americans use upwards of 255,360,000,000 disposable facial tissues a year (yes, that is 255.3 billion).1 That doesn’t even include North Americans. Or South Americans. Just people who live in the United States.
Trees: Whether the facial tissue is made from virgin or recycled paper pulp it’s still made from trees, which can take years or decades to grow. Logging practices can degrade forests thus contributing to global warming, cause loss of habitat for plants and animals, and pollute waterways. And even recycled paper can be re-recycled only a limited number of times. Plus, have you ever wiped your nose with a recycled tissue? Makes me cry just thinking about it!
Production: Paper plants use huge amounts of water and electricity. They also pollute the air and water. Add to that the bleaching that takes place for most tissues and the packaging that contains plastic (that never biodegrades).
Transportation: Of course, the raw materials as well as the finished tissues are transported to and from factories via CO2 emitting vehicles.
And so…as always, there is a better way, and — as is often the case — it’s a bit retro. Enter the hanky.
It is by far the most Earth- and animal-friendly choice for your runny nose (or for removing makeup or wiping your hands). I know this idea might be unappealing to some, but for me, what is most unappealing is the unnecessary waste we’re creating. But look at it this way: as with most things from the past, there’s a certain quaintness attached to using a bit of fabric to dry our snouts, and there are other benefits as well.
Costs in dollars
You might be asking, “isn’t it more expensive to buy handkerchiefs vs. single-use facial tissues?” The short answer is no. The long answer is … your own calculations will depend on how many handkerchiefs you will need to buy to replace the paper tissues you normally keep. (Historically, I’ve had a box of tissues in every room of my house. No exaggeration.) But as with so many lifestyle changes, this will most likely be a one-time investment. More than that, you can buy affordable vintage hankies from a thrift store — wash them in hot water when you get them home —or you make your own hankies from old sheets and pillowcases. And that’s free! (See below!)
But let’s do some math. (Well, ZeroWasteBackPacker already did the math, so check it out if you’re interested.) In short, using washable, reusable hankies are far less expensive than buying single-use tissues.
Costs in non-renewable resources
You might be asking: doesn’t it take more resources to wash handkerchiefs? Again, someone else did the work for me so I didn’t have to, so if you’re interested, a thorough analysis and comparison of the problem was conducted by Greenlifestylemag and they concluded that when it comes to the water use, energy use, and waste, the humble hanky was hands down the more sustainable option.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: When you are buying brand-new hankies (not vintage ones), unbleached, organic cotton will be the best choice environmentally speaking. Better yet, just cut up old sheets you have lying around or head to the thrift store for old cotton sheets or vintage hankies.
Isn’t it … gross to use handkerchiefs?
Last time I checked: tissues are pretty gross. Basically, if — like with tissues — you blow everything out of your schnoz into a hanky then shove it into your pocket and repeat several times (and then forget it’s in there), yeah, that’s gross. But if you’re just wiping your nose, it’s really not that different than wiping your nose on a tissue and putting it back into your pocket or purse. But for serious blows, just use a clean hanky!
How do you carry them around? How do you not forget them when you leave the house?
The same way that in the past I remembered to bring paper tissues with me. It’s just one of the things I make sure is in my pocket or purse. In fact, while I use the cut-up sheets as hankies for inside the house, I bought some pretty hankies for me to keep in my purse — like the ladies of yore did — and I use a beautiful little bag my friend bought me for Christmas to keep the used ones in. (I suppose this isn’t how all ladies of yore did it. I remember my paternal grandmother usually kept hers shoved in her bra strap. Whatever works.) When I get home, I toss the used hankies in the hamper.
But what about for house guests and visitors? What if they want a tissue?
I had a couple sets of sheets and pillowcases sitting in my linen closet that were clearly never going to get used. Recently, I spent a few minutes cutting them up into tissue-size hankies, and I refilled all of my cute little tissue holders with them. I put a note on the inside lid of each to let people know they are washable / re-usable.
But here’s the BEST PART: the cute little wastebaskets I have in our bathrooms…have now become cute little hampers!
I. can’t. tell. you. how. happy. that. makes. me. My husband knows, because I gave him a giddy tour of our new system! So, guests…they’ll deal.
How do you wash handkerchiefs?
You can just add them to a regular load, but I would use warm water for their cycle. If you’ve had a cold or flu, use hot water. You can also use mesh laundry bags. And no, it doesn’t take more resources to wash hankies. Remember the water use from our paper products? Way. More. Water.
Permission to pasturbate (in this case)
Like most everyone, I pasturbate. (That’s my term for over-romanticizing the past.) Sometimes pasturbating is good (like how much I love Little House on the Prairie), sometimes not (like when we romanticize how we used to eat animals, tested toxins on them, and made them ride bicycles to entertain us. Oh, wait, that’s not in the past — yet).
My point is: when it comes to hankies, pasturbating is a good thing.
There was a time when people recognized that it doesn’t make sense to use something once, then throw it away. There was also a time when things were made to last…hence, my using a vintage handkerchief made 30 years ago or more. (There was also a time when dropping a handkerchief was a flirtatious act! I want to see you bring that back!)
Handkerchiefs had sentimental value, as well, and we can bring that back. When I got married, in the traditional manner of things, my mother gave me “something old,” and guess what it was? A handkerchief. I still have it today and think of her every time I use it. Prior to my zero-waste journey, I used it more as a doily; today, I use it the way it was meant to be used, and I think she would be proud. ?
Where should I buy handkerchiefs?
Ask your grandparents, parents, or an older friend if they still have some hankies at home. You might be surprised!
Purchase new hankies (organic recommended) online or at a department store (usually stocked in the men’s section). Some folks like to get children’s hankies, which are usually 8×8; women’s hankies are usually 10×10 or 12×12; men’s hankies tend to be larger.
Purchase vintage hankies on eBay or Etsy or in local thrift or vintage stores.
Make your own. If you enjoy sewing or DIY, make them yourself out of an old sheet, t-shirt, or favorite fabric you have lying around. I have no patience for such things, which is why my homemade ones won’t be as pretty as yours, but they do the job!
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.
This incredible makeup is vegan, cruelty-free, toxic-free, plastic-free, and zero-waste. Watch the video below to see the variety and colors, and use the discount code JOYFULVEGAN to start enjoying Elate!
They both work beautifully, keep my tea hot, and of course both can be used for coffee, hot cocoa, or cold beverages as well. With 500 billion disposable coffee cups being produced and discarded each year, it’s the least we can do, don’t ya think?
Of the two versions, I like the larger size and warmer color of the Leaf Life thermos, but Nifty Core’s 14 ounces is also great when a smaller size is needed.
Charlie and Michiko approve, too! (Actually, they don’t really care, but they’re cute enough to justify their participation in this post!)
My favorite teas are from Far Leaves, and if you enter “colleen” as the promo code, you get 10% off your order. Their tins are recyclable. (My favorite teas are Cloud Mist, Green Goddess, Dong Ding, and Dragonwell.)
Single-use cups and straws are wreaking environmental havoc, most of which are going into landfills or polluting the ocean and harming wildlife. About 30.9 billion disposable cups are thrown away along with 58 billion paper cups (not recycled) annually. 500 million straws are used in the U.S. every day. Having just returned from a trip I thought it would be a good time to share with you how I travel zero-waste, plastic-free, and vegan. I would never deny you your coffee, tea, or water while on the go, but we can make a huge difference by using reusables the moment we leave our house.
I stopped buying single-use plastic bottles years ago — even before I officially started on my zero-waste / plastic-free venture. (The only time I’ve had to make an exception is while traveling is when the local water supply isn’t safe to drink.) So, whenever I leave my house, my reusable water bottle comes with me. I have a couple stainless steel Kleen Kanteen bottles I still use, but as they have plastic lids when and if the time comes to purchase a new one, I’d opt for the Kleen Kanteen bottle with a bamboo lid or Simple Modern bottles. The latter comes in many sizes for both hot and cold beverages and contain no plastic.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a tea junkie who carries my favorite tea thermos everywhere I go. I was about to link to it since it’s one of the top questions I’m asked (“What is the tea thermos/infuser you use??” But in keeping with my plastic-free goal, I couldn’t in good conscious point you to it. HOWEVER, I’m THRILLED to share with youplastic-free tea thermos by NiftyCore. Now remember, there are plenty of plastic-free thermos options, but for infusing TEA, which is my priority here, the key is finding one with an infuser. (NOTE: This thermos can be used for coffee, too.)
500 billion disposable coffee cups are produced every year.
I’m not a coffee drinker so I can’t personally recommend a favorite plastic-free coffee thermos or to-go cup; however, there are plenty out there including the thermos I recommended above, which can be used for coffee as well as tea (or a hot toddy)!
Living plastic-free / zero-waste isn’t about buying new plastic-free items. It’s about using what is already available to us, being innovative, and checking out secondhand / gently used items at thrift stores. (Asking friends and neighbors is another great idea.) One way to enjoy beverages on the road is to just use Mason or Ball jars along with an EcoJarz lid that replaces the flats on jars with those that are secured with a rubber ring (if you need a lid). Glass jars won’t necessarily insulate hot or cold beverages, but if temperature isn’t an issue, they’re perfect — and tried and true.
Beverages on Airplanes
First, when traveling with your beverage container, be sure it’s empty before reaching the security line. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than seeing all of the un-drunk water bottles being tossed into the garbage. (There’s also nothing more heartbreaking than having to dump out your favorite tea because you forgot about security!) Once you’re through security, you can fill up your water at a filling station or water fountain.
Second (for tea drinkers), head to the nearest cafe and ask them to fill up your thermos with hot water (FREE!). Add your own tea leaves. I usually have that part done before leaving my house, but I also carry my own tea with me. Second (for coffee drinkers), head to the nearest cafe and request your thermos or whatever your beverage container be filled with your favorite coffee (NOT FREE)!
I drink a fair amount of tea, so whether or not I’ve gotten hot water for my tea thermos at the airport, I usually want more tea once I’m on the plane. During the beverage service, I simply ask the airline attendant to fill my tea thermos with hot water. HOWEVER, I have two things to say about this:
Even though I have my tea thermos, in the past, I’ve also requested an empty hot cup to pour my tea into once it’s steeped because it’s just too hot to drink straight out of the thermos. (Plus, I don’t want the tea to oversteep). To avoid this in future, I’ll start traveling with a mason jar or small ceramic mug so I don’t need to request a disposable cup.
This seems to vary according to the whims of the attendant, but occasionally I’ve been told that they’re “not permitted” to handle customers’ own cups in order to refill them. Most of the time, they refill them, but sometimes, they still grab a (most-likely-plastic-coated) hot cup to put my hot water into and then hand the cup to me to pour into my thermos. Grrrrr! I’ve noticed the easiest way to avoid this is to not ask for my hot water while seated during the beverage service but to go to the galley where the attendants are always happy to refill my thermos straight from the hot water tap. HOWEVER: Sometimes they still grab a disposable cup because it’s shorter than my thermos and easier to stick under the tap, but this is when my trusty jar/mug will come in!
Zero-Waste Snacks, Drinks, and Comfort
Making an effort to be zero-waste / plastic-free means being mindful in ways you never thought possible. But just as I advise people who are looking to eat vegan/more healthfully, it’s just a matter of planning ahead, and truth be told: when we’re traveling, that’s what we’re doing already. It’s just a matter of adding a few extra things to your packing list.
Bring your own snacks in their own containers rather than buy food on the plane. My favorite waste-free snacks are those that come in their own compostable packaging: fruits and veggies.
Apply what we’ve learned about being responsible campers/hikers: “pack it out.” Whether I’ve accumulated recyclable or compostable waste, I take it with me and dispose of it properly once I’m off the plane or at my destination. Yes, that means I always have a couple biodegradable compostable bags on me.
Bring your own utensils. Truth be told, I’m not a fan of the bamboo utensils sold on many sustainable websites. Just get some stainless steel flatware from a thrift store or garage sale, wrap them in a cloth napkin, and keep them in your bag.
Bring your own cloth napkins.
Bring your own pillow/neck rest and blanket. Rather than open up the plastic-packaged blanket offered on some flights, I just bring my own blanket that folds down compactly in my bag. As for the pillow, apparently many are just thrown out after the flight, so just clip a travel pillow onto your backpack, and you’ll have a comfortable flight wherever you’re traveling!
Carry your own stainless steel straw! It’s rare that I ever feel compelled to drink through a straw, but we do have some at home for summer cocktails, and I’ve started carrying one around with me. Ya never know.
Straw-Free in Restaurants and Bars
More and more restaurants are becoming aware of people requesting straw-free water (!), but it’s still too common and servers and bartenders are often too busy to stop and ask if you want a straw or they do it out of habit (or restaurant policy), so to preemptively avoid straws, it’s probably best just to say to the host who is seating you: “if water will be brought to us automatically, can you please ask them to not bring us straws? Thank you.”
At bars and restaurants, now when I ask for water, I just add “no straw” at the same time: “Hi there. May I have a water — and please no straw. Thank you.” It’s rare, but I’ve also noticed that in some bars, cafes, restaurants — even though they have pint glasses all over the place, they still serve water in plastic cups, so just being even more conscious of this than ever before, when I ask for water, I also explicitly ask for it to be served in a glass. This is not an unreasonable expectation. (Yes, it means they have another dish to wash, but adding another glass to their dishwasher is far less destructive than putting another plastic cup — often made of petroleum-based virgin plastic — in a landfill. Period.)
YOU CAN DO THIS! Although it might feel uncomfortable at first, you’ll quickly get used to asking for something in a reusable container.(Plus, it always sparks a wonderful conversation!) Kudos to you for doing more than just declaring yourself a friend of the animals but for actually manifesting your values in your behavior. After all, what’s the point of having values if you don’t stand up for them?
My favorite teas are from Far Leaves, and if you enter “colleen” as the promo code, you get 10% off your order. Their tins are recyclable. (My favorite teas are Cloud Mist, Green Goddess, Dong Ding, and Dragonwell.)
When I started this Zero Waste endeavor, I didn’t start with a blank slate, as I suspect is the case with many others on this journey. In other words, as I move ahead and venture to avoid creating new waste, I still have plenty of things in my home that are definitely plastic, definitely waste, definitely things destined for the landfill, and I’m neither going to let them sit in my closets without use nor am I going to just throw them away. That would — obviously — defeat the point! But:
there is such a thing as a lesser evil, especially those things that are truly recyclable and that I cannot yet replace. (See below.)
each day I find new resources to mitigate what I thought would be the inevitable waste of many existing plastic items in my home.
recycling is more than just our cities’ recycling programs.
The topic of recycling is complex, and I won’t get into it here; let’s just say I’ve made a near zero-tolerance rule for myself about recycling plastic; i.e. I’m avoiding plastic (as much as I can) in the first place so I don’t have to stress about whether it’s actually or properly getting recycled.
RECYCLING ALUMINUM In terms of items that are 100% recyclable, such as aluminum cans and aluminum foil, I quite rely on the former for my cats’ canned food and on the latter for the homemade vegan sausages I make (for instance), and I’m comfortable keeping them as part of my Zero-Waste plan (for now). Because aluminum is indeed recyclable in my city, I at least buy foil made from recycled aluminum, and I thoroughly clean the cans and sheets before adding to the bin.
Terracycle is an innovative recycling company that creates solutions for hard-to-recycle items. You can sign up for free with them, check out their many partnerships to send products directly to Terracycle, and even earn “points” for doing so that can be redeemed as donations to the nonprofit of your choice.
For instance, Tom’s of Maine teamed up with Terracycle to provide a second life for empty and used toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, floss containers, mouthwash bottles, soap packaging and antiperspirant and deodorant containers (I use most of these!). So, until I phase these out in my own home, I can at least send these items to Terracycle.
Some of the Terracycle free programs are full, but while you wait for a slot to open, you can put aside products for collection or even pay for a box / label to send to Terracycle. To make it more economical, you can create a program at your school or place of business (or even consider organizing a collection with neighbors).
COMPOSTING (NOT RECYCLING) TOILET PAPER ROLLS
I used to only recycle my toilet paper tubes, but now I add them to my compost bins. Creating the ideal compost is all about finding a balance between wet and dry ingredients, so these cardboard loo rolls are perfect for soaking up excess water while helping to aerate dense compost heaps.
RECYCLING & COMPOSTING AMAZON CARDBOARD BOXES
Made from cardboard Amazon boxes are recyclable or re-useable, and torn apart, I even add the bits to my compost bins. (Read here for more about composting cardboard.) What’s more: the tape Amazon uses is made from paper, so it, too, can be recycled. However, another way to re-use Amazon’s delivery boxes is to take advantage of the Give Back Box program:
Unpack your merchandise from your Amazon shipping box. (Give your cat some time to sit in it.)
Pack Your Box: Fill the box with usable clothing, accessories and household goods you no longer need and print your free shipping label from GiveBackBox.com.
Send Your Box: Let UPS or the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) deliver your box of donations to charity for you. (Be sure to remove your cat from the box first!)
But of course the best way to avoid having to deal with cardboard is shopping locally. My husband and I became a little to reliant on Amazon for a lot of items we can buy at a local store we can walk to, so that is definitely one area where my Zero Waste venture is forcing me to change my habits — for the better.
RECYCLED PAPER IN PLASTIC?
Of course, I’ve bought recycled printer paper for the last twenty years, but I didn’t even make the connection that I was buying recycled paper reams PACKAGED IN PLASTIC! Now I make sure I buy recycled paper packaged in …recycled paper! I also make sure I re-use and re-print all office paper as many times as possible before finally adding it to the proper recycle bin.
TACKLING JUNK MAIL! Coming soon!
So, while there are still ways to recycle, and it’s a legitimate service that more municipalities should provide, the bottom line is refusing and reducing is the best line of defense against waste.
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.