A Plastic-Free Stain Stick, for Travel and Everyday

Plastic-free, zero-waste stain stick from Meliora Cleaning Products, for travel and everyday | Litterless

I’m not historically the most efficient packer out there, which perhaps is why I felt inordinately proud of myself this past Labor Day weekend. After I threw all my clothing in my favorite weekend bag to head to a lake house with friends, said bag remained a good one-third empty. I marveled at its lightness and the way the top of it squashed down, a far cry from my usual luggage, which is full to the hilt and more.

I’m learning to be better about choosing multipurpose items when I travel: instead of pajamas, leggings that work for yoga or lounging or sleeping. Instead of three handkerchiefs, a handkerchief and a cloth napkin and we’ll see how it goes. 

Plastic-free, zero-waste stain stick from Meliora Cleaning Products, for travel and everyday | Litterless

In my arsenal since earlier this summer, the soap stick from Meliora Cleaning Products. It’s intended to serve as a laundry stain remover, which it does with aplomb, but since I’ve been carrying it around with me, I’ve found it works for other things, too. It does dual duty as bar soap in a hotel bathroom where you’d rather not unwrap the plastic-packaged bar by the sink. Or, dare I say, the gas station bathroom that is somehow out of soap entirely.

Typical plastic stain removal pens not only aren’t recyclable, but they also can’t serve as hand wash in a pinch or make suds for sock washing in the sink. They’re full of junky and toxic chemicals that you probably wouldn’t want to wash your hands with, even if you could. Conversely, Meliora’s stick is just soap. Soap that’s been especially formulated to optimize stain removal – Kate and Mike, the founders, are both engineers and trust me when I say I’ve heard them get deep in the weeds on the science that makes their products so effective – but also soap that you could use as a body wash if you need to, or for rinsing out duds in the river on a camping trip, or for lathering up your kid’s hands in the park.

Plastic-free, zero-waste stain stick from Meliora Cleaning Products, for travel and everyday | Litterless

Or, say, the power went out at the lake house you and twenty other people had rented for Labor Day just at 7 pm when you were all trooping in from a day swimming in the lake. Since the running water for showering was out too, of course, you might want a biodegradable soap that you could jump right back in the lake with and lather up. Same applies to backpackers and camping enthusiasts. I’m glad to have a multi-use option that lets us lighten both our load and the planet’s. 

A few further details: the soap stick comes packaged in a cardboard box, which you can recycle or keep around for storing it. For traveling, it’s hard-wearing enough that it won’t crumble if you tote it around in a bandanna, napkin, washcloth, or small travel tin. I keep one with my travel toiletries, near our washing machine, and sometimes carry one in my tote bag, too. The soap stick is also palm oil-, cruelty-, and fragrance-free, and boasts the Made Safe certification. (Not to mention that Meliora is also B-Corp and pledges 1% for the Planet; you can learn more about their certifications here).  

Plastic-free, zero-waste stain stick from Meliora Cleaning Products, for travel and everyday | Litterless

You can find the soap stick on their website right here, or browse their other products, like laundry detergent and an all-purpose cleaning spray that we’ve lately become entirely reliant upon for nightly kitchen straightening.

Orders placed on their website come packaged in a cardboard box with all-paper wrapping, including paper tape. And if you live in Chicago, where they’re based and do their manufacturing, you can find Meliora products locally at Dill Pickle Food Co-op, the Whole Foods at North and Clybourn, and at Sugar Beet Food Co-op, which also carries their laundry detergent in bulk.

(This post is sponsored by Meliora Cleaning Products, makers of cleaning products with the highest standards for safety and sustainability.)

Farmers' Market in Early Fall

Zero waste at the farmers' market | Litterless

A rainbow of chard, matching the rainbow of carrots and squashes and the earliest apples.

Zero waste at the farmers' market | Litterless

The last of the cucumbers, to be quick-pickled or eaten plain, with salt.

Zero waste at the farmers' market | Litterless

A sheer glory of fiery, globular tomatoes.

Zero waste at the farmers' market | Litterless

Pattypan squash, yellow and green zucchini. Some overgrown, for bread and fritters, some slender and springy, for eating as is. (I love the biggest ones best, for an excuse to make zucchini fritters for dinner).

What are you buying this time of year?

Nothing New: Resources for Swapping

Resources for swapping items | How to go zero waste without buying anything new | Litterless

I didn't know we needed a toaster until we had one. We used roommates' toasters, and then when roommate-less, toasted bread in the oven or in a cast iron pan on the stove. An energy waste, and with inconsistent results, but the bread was crunchy and toasted and fine.

During my last few weeks in Chicago before moving up to Madison, I invited a few friends over for an informal stuff swap, glad to have one more chance to see each other as well as a chance pass along items to loving new homes. A friend offered up an extra toaster, and I snapped it up.

I'm a believer in secondhand shopping, but also a firm believer in circumventing secondhand shops more often than not. When items go to thrift stores, they lose the stories behind them. Rather than being your best friend's frying pan that she gave you when she moved away, it's just a frying pan with a whole bunch of stains from a stranger's kitchen. I'd never buy a jar of half-used deodorant from a thrift store, but I'd take one from a friend. Giving items to - and borrowing them from - people you know instead helps preserve a sense of the item's value.

And then too, there's the phenomenon of the overburdened thrift store. Many don't accept electronics, or certain types of electronics (and rightfully so). Many have too much clothing pouring in and must send a portion overseas or to the recycler's. When dropping off items at our closest secondhand store, we've seen the volume of donations pouring in and wondering how sales can possibly keep up the pace.

So, the toaster. My friend didn't need two, and expressed a preference for her toaster oven over a pop-up toaster, anyway. (I feel the opposite, and love my pop-up toaster). It's a little stained around the top, but she cleaned it before handing it over, and I packed it to move up to Madison. We use it every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and each time I'm thankful not to have to keep an eagle eye on bread toasting in the pan, which always felt like it was three seconds away from being completely charred. In return, she took away a framed print I no longer wanted, some bowls, and terra cotta pots. It was a good trade.

Resources for swapping items | How to go zero waste without buying anything new | Litterless

Below, my favorite resources for finding swaps of your own:

-Friends. This is my favorite level at which to swap. I've given away a half-open jar of deodorant of my own, stopped by a friend's house the night before she moved to cart away some of her extra fridge food, and offered up a squash in return for extra beets. My beloved table and chairs are from a family friend who was also moving. Over Labor Day we slathered our faces with a tin of Raw Elements sunscreen that a friend offered up after realizing it didn't work for her skin. Books, clothing, extra food, un-needed make-up: it's all fair game.

If you don't have any relationships where you currently swap things back and forth, get started by offering up an item or two from your home to a friend you think might want them. All of my sharing relationships have started this way, with one friend or the other broaching an offering. With the best of them, the first swap turns into years of trading small items back and forth, never keeping track, just happy to help out a friend and get something unused into new hands.

-Barter at work. Coworkers at my first office job used to leave extra produce or baked goods on the kitchen counter with a "Free! Eat me!" sign; parents had a Slack channel where they were able to unload (or load, depending) baby gear that their kids had outgrown. Whether it's a specific swap like that or simply a general "Swap" Slack channel or email group, work might make a great place to begin bartering or donating, as, like your friends, your coworkers know you and so there's a higher chance that items will be in clean and working condition.

-Buy Nothing Groups. These informal Facebook groups help neighbors find and share items they need or don't need. You can post an "ISO", or "In Search Of" if you're looking for a specific item, or if you have something to donate you can share a picture with the item's description. Find your local group and keep an eye on the listings! (Recent offerings in the Madison-area group have been baby goods, extra house paint, and a wastebasket).

-Freecycle. Freecycle works much the same way as a Buy Nothing Group, I believe, but I've never used it. If you have an experience to share in the comments, I'd be curious to hear what you think!

-Host a swap. Whether it's for a group of your friends or for the wider community, hosting a swap can simultaneously let you offload your cast-offs and keep an eye out for things you might need, like a toaster. A swap can be as informal as inviting your friends over to your house for a few hours with anything they no longer want, or you can find a neighborhood meeting space and set up some rules. Either way, clearly delineate the parameters (clothing only? housewares only? books only? all of the above) and give everyone a few weeks notice to gather up some goods.

A note: Of course, as with any secondhand purchase, there's an element of caveat emptor to swapping that increases as you move out of your friend circle into the wider community. It goes without saying to not take opened food or toiletries from people you don't trust, and to clean secondhand clothing, dishes, furniture, etc. that comes into your house. For that reason and others, my favorite swaps are always done between friends or other close community groups that offer accountability.

Madison-area readers, we're planning a community swap for October 20th. Save the date! Once we have them, I'll share more details on my Events page and in the Madison Facebook group.

Any recent swaps to share? Or additional tips for the rest of us?

More posts on going zero waste without buying anything new, here.

Produce Bags to Make or Buy

Cloth produce bags for a zero waste home | Litterless

Swapping cloth produce bags in for plastic produce bags was one of the first zero waste changes I ever made and one of the best. I have a visceral reaction to the squeaky sound that clingy plastic produce bags make as you attempt to get them open; once I learned more about plastic pollution and waste, I developed an environmentalist's aversion to them, as well. There are a few zero waste changes where I've never had a moment's regret for making the switch - menstrual cups, bamboo toothbrushes, cloth napkins - and this is one of them.

In case it's a change you haven't made yet, I put together my favorite resources for finding cloth produce bags. They're easy to make, and even easier to buy. I look for produce bags that are all cotton or linen. While I've also owned plastic mesh produce bags which have ripped within a year of use, my cotton and linen bags I've had for years and nary a hole.

Cloth produce bags for a zero waste home | Litterless

Below, tutorials for those who'd like to make their own, and a list of favorite brands for those who wouldn't. Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased.

Make

-Tie a furoshiki cloth: The simplest produce bag of all is one that starts with a square of fabric - a tea towel, a napkin, an un-hemmed scrap. In a pinch, you can place produce in the middle and then tie the edges together to form a small sack. I've made use of this technique when caught at the farmers' market without a spare bag (evidence, here).

-Sew a drawstring bag: If you've sewn before, making your own produce bags is simple to master. I've made my own in the past, and I like that you can make any size you need. Two recommendations for those planning to DIY: I use French seams for mine, which ensures that edges left unfinished don't fray into whatever food you're buying. And, wash and dry the fabric several times prior to cutting and sewing to pre-shrink it. Around here we've ended up with a few accidentally shrunken bags, once fit for a baguette and now more suited to buying bulk carrots. If you're new to sewing, this homemade cloth produce bags tutorial is helpful.

-DIY Bento bags: You can also, of course, sew your own bento bags. They're a piece of fabric wizardry that, with a bit of folding and pinning, turns a single length of cloth into a three-dimensional bag. Once you have a few of these, you'll find you use them for everything: in addition to holding produce, mine have been knitting project bags, lunch boxes, dopp kits, foraging bags, and gift wrap. Here's a pattern for making your own.

Cloth produce bags for a zero waste home | Litterless

Buy

-Simple Ecology: The first produce bags I ever purchased, my set of Simple Ecology bags from the summer of 2014 is still going strong. A bit stained, a bit softer, but no holes or worn patches to speak of. The external tags on the bags note the tare weight in ounces and grams.

-EcoBags: I like their mesh bags for larger items with skins like oranges and onions, and their solid cotton bags for smaller items like bulk salad greens, grains, or nuts. They also have a three-piece set of printed bags, but it's made of a thinner cotton that feels a bit flimsier.

-Ambatalia: Molly DeVries makes beautiful, reusable cloth goods for the home out of her studio in Mill Valley. Her bento bags are among my very favorite produce bags. I have a large one for bread and greens, and a few smaller ones that I use for everything from organizing snacks while traveling to buying a few apples to keeping small items corralled in my daily tote bag. She also makes a jar tote bag with fabric dividers for easier bulk shopping.

-Dans Le Sac: Made in Quebec out of tough, heavy-gauge cotton, these bags are long-lasting and designed to hold specific items. If you're a weekly baguette buyer, their long and skinny baguette bag may just solve all (or at least some) of your worries. See also their bread bag or drawstring sacks.

-Small makers: There are some beautiful ones available on Etsy. I love this selection of bags in printed linen, or these bread bags in solid colors of linen. This set shows the tare in ounces, pounds, and grams, which is helpful when checking out.

Cloth produce bags for a zero waste home | Litterless

Other favorite produce bags to make or buy? What are you using these days?

Make or Buy is a series that acknowledges that sometimes we want to make things ourselves, and sometimes we want to buy their sustainably made equivalent. Other zero waste gear to make or buy, here.

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Five-Minute Dried Herbs in Late Summer

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

I can’t force summer to stick around, but come late August, I always try. Evenings that are dark this early are never long enough for all of the walks and bike rides and outdoor dinners I want to cram in, but cram I do, regardless.

August is also a time to take in the bounty of late summer. We only have a small balcony garden, but nightly walks past our nearest community garden remind me of the riches that plants offer up this time of year. And so, a balance: preserving what food we can while also preserving precious evening hours for time spent outdoors, activities more enjoyable than spending an hour indoors stringing up herbs to dry for the winter.

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

Enter my new favorite method: lazy herb drying. It’s as easy as washing what you pick, laying the sprigs out to dry on a towel, and then setting the towel – or moving them to a bowl – somewhere they can rest for a couple of days. I turn the leaves every day or so to make sure each surface has a chance to dry, and then I transfer them to a glass jar when they seem as dry and brittle as they're going to get (this seems to only take about a few days to a week).

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

No stringing things up, tying bundles, being fussy. Better yet, it keeps drying herbs from feeling like a capital-P Project and more like a five-minute task you can slot in between dinner and a bike ride. Though the time saved may only be ten minutes, getting over the need to find ten extra minutes sometimes means the difference between a project done and a project wished-for.

In my experience, this works best with herbs that are structured enough to hold themselves up a bit. Place a handful of basil leaves in a bowl, and they’ll slowly meld together into a wilty mass. Do the same with thyme or rosemary, though, and their sturdier stems will hold them in place well enough to allow air to circulate between the leaves.

Currently drying at our place, some lavender buds on a towel and some thyme in a bowl. Before we head out of town this weekend, I also want to snip and start some of the oregano and mint currently outgrowing their pots on the porch.

Easiest dried herbs | Zero waste kitchen DIY | Litterless

More involved herb drying, here and here. (Writing about this appears to have become somewhat of a late summer tradition).

What are you preserving this time of year?

(Our bowl is the Everyday Bowl, a gift from East Fork Pottery. These links are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased.)

Zero Waste School Supplies

Zero waste school supplies | Litterless

It’s been many years since the chill of fall in the air last meant a return to school to me, but the thrill of new school supplies nonetheless still holds. Growing up, back-to-school shopping was a cherished time to pick out just the right binders and folders, to carefully affix labels to everything, to organize and reorganize pens and markers and backpacks and lockers.

But, alas, the zero waste Grinch comes for everything beloved. I’m joking, of course – for back-to-school, you’ll always need something, but I’ll submit you may not need everything. A strategy for buying school supplies more sustainably looks the same as the strategy for buying anything more sustainably: first, use (and reuse) what you have, then search for a secondhand option, and lastly choose new items carefully, only when the first two categories have been exhausted.

This means a trip to the store may be to pick out folders and pencils to accompany reused binders and pens. Or, maybe, choosing to replace two binders, not five. Regardless of what works for you, some thoughts on zero waste alternatives to traditional school supplies might be helpful as September looms.

Zero waste school supplies | Litterless

Zero waste alternatives:

Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased.

-Binders: Once the plastic binders already in your home are splitting at the seams (an inevitability, per my recollection), cardboard binders are a replacement that can be taken apart and recycled once past their prime.

-Notebooks and folders: Since these are both primarily paper, low-waste versions are easy to find. Purchase some secondhand, reuse last year's, or dig out those freebie notebooks from ages ago. If you're in the market for something new, Decomposition Books are my favorite. 

-Pencils: Are abundant in the world already, stuffed in kitchen drawers. Dig them out and put them to good use. If possible, choose a high-quality analog sharpener, which won’t become trash at the first sign of a jam. (This one, pictured above, was a gift from Wisdom Supply Co. that I hope to use for the next decade-plus).

-Pens: As for pencils, the most sustainable pens are the ones already clogging your drawers and pencil cups. Once you've run out of those, though, there are low-waste alternatives out there. For older students responsible enough to take on a project, consider a fountain pen; here's a beginners' guide to using them. For everyone else, a refillable rollerball (like this one) minimizes waste while still being easy to use.

-Highlighters: I was thrilled to learn about highlighter pencils, which achieve the same effect as their plastic cousins, but don’t run dry and don’t need to end up in the trash.

-Tape: Paper washi tape replaces plastic tape, and is lovelier and more cheerful to boot. Look for washi tape packaged without a plastic wrapper; this is easier to find on Etsy (for example, this charming set) than in stores. 

-Packing lunches: Reusable silicone Stasher bags can replace Ziplocs, and metal tins are lightweight and unbreakable alternatives to heaver glass containers. Life Without Plastic sells versions of these tins with compartments (like this one, or this one), which are great for kids.

Zero waste school supplies | Litterless

Resources: 

-Creative reuse stores: These stores are wonderful community resources for secondhand art, craft, and school supplies. If you have one near you, it’s likely to be a rich source for secondhand folders, pens, markers, and anything else you might need. If there isn’t one in your local area, general secondhand stores often curate seasonal displays; this time of year, that may mean binders and backpacks and other school supplies are featured front and center.

-Wisdom Supply Co.: The women behind Wisdom Supply Co. rigorously vet the school supplies in their shop to be the most zero-waste-friendly out there. Items are beautiful, durable, and designed to last through many years and many kids. They sent me their pencil tin set, pictured above, and I've been smitten ever since.

-eBay: For graphing calculators, textbooks, and other specific supplies, chances are someone just a few years ahead of your kids has already used it and decided to part with it. In addition to supporting secondhand, you'll save money by going this route, too. 

-Terracycle: For non-recyclable supplies you just can't avoid, Terracycle offers recycling boxes for various items; purchase one, fill it up, and ship it back, then they'll take care of the rest. You could purchase a small one for your household and store it in the mudroom or a closet, or donate one to your school for general use. Of particular interest here, their pens, pencils and markers box and their office supplies box.

If you’re not a school-age family but still want to get into the spirit, consider taking a few moments to support local schools. Many schools and community centers host school-supply drives this time of year, to which your years-old stock of extra supplies might be a welcome donation. Or, you can support a project in your area at DonorsChoose, where teachers solicit needed supplies that their districts are unable to provide.

Other zero waste tips for the school-aged?

More ideas for zero waste schools or offices, here.

Indigo Dyeing Clothing

How to indigo dye clothing | Litterless

The busiest part of moving to a new city might be apartment hunting, or job hunting, or packing, or cleaning, or decluttering, or unpacking, or cleaning again. Or it might be running around your old city in the final few weeks before moving, trying to see as many friends as possible and do everything you talked about wanting to do sometime. Picnic in the park? Squeeze it in. Ducking into your favorite taco place one last time? Necessary. Need one last coffee networking date with your newest pal? Indubitably.

Thus, my last Friday in Chicago I took the train up to a friend's house to finally do our long-awaited dyeing project. We'd both been wanting to try out indigo dyeing, so we pulled together an assortment of white fabrics and a few hours on a rainy Friday afternoon to do the project together in her basement.

Dyeing the fabric is a good way to give old life to things faded or stained. I wanted to refresh some white shirts that had sported various stains for too long, a handkerchief whose green color I'd never liked, and some white fabric I had lying around. My friend Ann dyed a blue rug from her kitchen that had long been faded, some fabric and some clothing, and a handkerchief of her own that she, too, had long disliked.

Indigo dyeing clothing, zero waste style | Litterless

We put together a dye bath and slowly dipped each item over the course of several hours, watching the blue color slowly deepen with each dip. After we finished dyeing each piece to our satisfaction, we washed the fabric with a cup of white vinegar to help set the dye. I washed each piece several more times over the next week or so to make sure the dye wouldn't rub off on light-colored fabrics or furniture.

I'm not an expert on indigo dyeing, but in case it's helpful, I've included some better resources below. What I do know is that stained or faded items are unlikely to be purchased if donated to a secondhand store, so dyeing them in an effort to keep them in circulation in my home and closet made a good low-waste project on a rainy day.

Indigo dye resources:

-A dye kit from A Verb for Keeping Warm (and their book, on my wishlist).
-A recent indigo dye project from Jenny Gordy.
-Refashioning old clothing with indigo on Fairdare.

More low-waste DIY ideas, here.