Back in August

Simple zero waste | Litterless

Consider this the Internet equivalent of a “Gone Fishing” sign.  As I mentioned, I’m taking a few months away from Litterless, both here and on social media, to travel with my partner.

While I’m away, there’s still lots to explore on Litterless! Click on a category at right to delve into the archives. If you’re new to zero waste, you can find a round-up of simple tips for beginners under Getting Started. A few other suggestions oforplaces to browse are in Nothing New, Food Waste, and Travel, or for longer reads you’ll find that Essays is the right spot.

A few housekeeping notes: 

-I’ll be periodically dropping by my inbox, but will be deleting most emails rather than responding, except to matters that are extremely urgent or important. If you email me and I don’t respond, please send your email again after August 1, and I’ll be sure to get back to you then. (Promise!)

-I won’t update the Where to Shop and Where to Compost guides when I’m gone, so they may get slightly out-of-date. As always, pop by the store’s website yourself before dropping by a grocery store to confirm its hours. Please feel free to continue to send me updates to the guides if you have suggestions for places to add or remove, and I’ll address them en masse when I return later this summer, if I’m not able to get to them all while traveling. 

I’m grateful for your readership over the years and to the many thoughtful comments, bulk grocery store and compost service submissions, and the conversations we’re had here. Hoping you have a good few months!

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

What To Bring Around the World

What to bring around the world to stay zero waste while traveling | Litterless

Next week, my partner and I are leaving Madison to travel for a few months. It’s something we’ve been planning for a long time, and we’re excited. While we’re gone, I’m taking a hiatus from Litterless, both here and on social media; I’ll miss this space, especially when I encounter a new bulk grocery store (you know those are my jam), but I’m very much looking forward to everything else we’ll be doing while we’re away.

So: what do you bring around the world to stay zero waste?

The most important thing to bring, I think, is the knowledge that a big trip probably (certainly) won’t be zero waste. I don’t imagine that we will never buy a piece of packaged food, that we will always happen upon a bulk aisle when we need one, that we’ll find a compost bin in every locale.

What we’ll do is our best: to walk, to use public transportation, to minimize the number of flights we take, to seek out recycling bins and to brush up on local recycling rules, to carry our water bottles and refill them with tap water wherever possible.

And, of course, to bring a few pieces of zero waste gear.

What do you bring around the world to stay low-waste, then? I’ve been pondering the question for months now. The answer, for me, is very little. I haven’t tried to prepare for every possibility under the sun. I’m not carrying a tea strainer, a glass jar, a fountain pen, a safety razor, a coffee thermos, my usual two Nalgenes, a stainless steel straw.

What to bring around the world to stay zero waste while traveling | Litterless

Instead, I’m bringing what feels like the bare essentials to me: a water bottle, a cloth napkin, a utensil kit, a stainless steel food storage container, two produce bags, a bamboo toothbrush, a menstrual cup, a tin of bar soap, a plastic-free stain stick, a few handkerchiefs. I’ll try to keep my habits as sustainable as possible while I’m away and to let go of guilt or frustration when I can’t.

The process of winnowing down my entire stash of zero waste supplies into only what I’ll bring has been an exercise in remembering that there are many things I can do to reduce my waste and impact without buying or owning a specific object. Just like at home, we’ll try to only buy food that we’ll eat and to give away what we can’t, to bring a reusable container with us to restaurants to cart home leftovers, to order coffee and tea in a mug to stay, to hang laundry to dry rather than use a machine, to buy very little.

In some ways, I feel strange and slightly sad (wistful?) about stepping away from this beloved space for a bit, but mostly I’m excited to have a chance to rest and be present and think deeply about what’s next. I’ll be back to posting here in about six months (if I don’t get an itch to come back even sooner). You can sign up here to get an email when that first post after the break is up. Thank you so much for your readership over the years and for the thoughtful comments, emails, and exchanges. See you in August!

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Zero Waste, Period

Zero waste period supplies | Litterless

Zero waste can sometimes feel prescriptive. To be zero waste you have to store food in glass jars, you have to own a reusable coffee thermos, you have to… use a menstrual cup. You can work towards zero waste and do these things, and you also don’t have to.

I’ve used a menstrual cup for years and it has made my life (or at least four days each month) much, much easier. No more running to the store for tampons! No more forgetting tampons! No more taking out the bathroom trash! And so on.

Through my work on Litterless, I have a few menstrual cups: some brand-new and never used that I keep as props for zero waste workshops, a clear cup I purchased years ago that is now very stained but just as functional as ever, and a Dot Cup (pictured above), which I love because it doesn’t show stains and is manufactured here in Wisconsin. (Plus, to quote a certain Marie Kondo, that perfect handmade pouch brings me joy).

I’ve written fairly extensively about menstrual cups before, with thoughts on how to choose one, which soap to use, and other notes; you can read that here, if you’d like.

Much of the zero waste period advice out there boils down to just use a cup. And, well, yes, just use a cup, if you can and want to. I can’t overstate how simple and convenient and comfortable I’ve found it. And yet you may not want to switch or it may not work for you. If just use a cup doesn’t feel like helpful advice, there are so many other options for a lower-waste period. A few of them, below.

Note: some of the links below are affiliate links, if you’d like to support Litterless if you make a purchase.

Period underwear
These are the best, best, best, best. I have a few pairs and really love them. They can be expensive, but unless they’re the only thing you want to use, you probably don’t need a pair for every single day of your period. I rotate my two pairs in and out in a combination with other methods.

-Dear Kate: Dear Kate period underwear has no plastic films or layers, although the fabric is a nylon/lycra composite and it does arrive in a small, reusable zippered plastic pouch for storage on the go. The nude pair pictured above is their Nellie hipster.

-Lunapads: These folks are better known for their reusable pads, but I like their period underwear, which comes in a wide range of styles, including a high-waisted version and boxer briefs (for anyone, but perhaps especially helpful for queer or trans folks).

Zero waste period supplies | Litterless

Reusable pads

These are new to me, and great. They come in a wide range of patterns (or no patterns), absorbencies, shapes, styles. Here’s the ones that have caught my eye:

-GladRags: The plastic-free pads pictured at right above are made from soft and comfortable flannel in a range of colors. They’ll omit extra packaging material upon request and ship products loose in a kraft paper mailer; I was so, so pleased to shake pads out of the mailer with no added packaging whatsoever. Midwest readers can find a local supplier for GladRags at Litterless sponsor Green Life Trading Co.

-Hannahpads: I rarely choose patterns when I could choose solids or neutrals, but Hannahpads are just so cheerful without being garish or twee; their patterns make me smile when I see them in my drawer. You can buy their variety of absorbencies as a single pad or a set. They fold up and snap for easy stowing in a purse, backpack, pocket, or palm.

-SckoonPads: Reusable pads made from colorful patterns with a brown inner lining, so you won’t have to see stains compound month after month. They’re made from organic cotton and dyed with metal-free, low-impact dyes.

-Reusable silicone Stasher bags can take the place of a single-use plastic bag for storing a used pad throughout the day; perhaps choose a Stasher in a different color than the ones you use in your kitchen so you can always tell them apart.

Zero waste period supplies | Litterless

Applicator-free tampons
We’ve all seen tampon applicators wash up on beaches or lakefronts and avoiding them is simple. Though tampons without applicators are packaged in plastic, they come in much less plastic than the version with applicators. When possible, choose organic cotton tampons, which doesn’t contain pesticides or other toxic chemicals.

In lieu of choosing just one option, stocking your cabinet with a range of them can be nicer. Though a menstrual cup is generally my preference, there are days or nights in which period underwear is more comfortable or when not having to think about where I’ll remove the cup is a relief. (In a word, not on airplanes, please).

What other products or brands are your favorites? Other strategies to share?

(Many thanks to Dot Cup, Dear Kate, GladRags, Hannahpads, and Stasher for the samples pictured above.)

Nothing New: Zero Waste Storage for Fresh Herbs

How to store herbs so they don't go to waste | Zero food waste and a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

One of the best ways to go zero waste is training an eagle eye on food waste. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that prior to last year, food waste wasn’t something I thought very much about, believing the compost bin absolved me of any food-waste-related-sins. Of course, that’s not the case. Even local foods require work and effort and energy: food has to be planted, watered, weeded, harvested, stored, packed, shipped, stored again. Reducing waste in the kitchen is not just about plastic wrap and paper towels; it’s about eating what we buy, too.

Wasting less food is one strategy that lends itself nicely to making do with the tools we already have on hand; it can be done with nothing more than a grocery list and a daily peek into each corner of the refrigerator. During my own refrigerator peeks last summer, I noticed that the foods that we most consistently allowed to go bad prior to eating were fresh herbs, and resolved to do better.

There are a few strategies that have helped us reduce the number of slimy parsley stems (etc.) that find their way to the compost. The most efficacious has been growing a few of our herbs ourselves: right now we have thyme, oregano, and mint still alive despite the paltry winter sunlight, and this summer I hope to add other favorites like parsley and cilantro to the mix. Because we pick only what we need for that meal, we never have to store the herbs we grow and they never go bad.

How to store herbs so they don't go to waste | Zero food waste and a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Of course, that leaves many other herbs we don’t grow ourselves, which we instead buy and store. My experience has been that herbs can last for weeks or can go bad in what feels like seconds, and taking time to store them properly means the difference between the two. Here’s what I’ve learned:

-Remove bad herbs immediately: Whether you notice a few right when you get home from the grocery or later as you pull them out to cook, each time you see a yellowing or blackening leaf, pull it out and discard it. Sorting through a pile of some-slimy and some-fresh herbs is no fun; removing offenders immediately makes them less likely to adversely affect the others.

-Storing parsley and cilantro: These like to live in the refrigerator with a little, but not too much, moisture. We pick the leaves off the stems (laborious, but worth it - the stems are chopped and added to soups or beans), then layer them in a glass container with a piece of dry paper towel on the very bottom and a piece of slightly damp paper towel on the top. (We still have some paper towels leftover from older days since we basically only use them for this, but when we run out I’ll probably designate a few small cloths specifically for the purpose). The slight humidity keeps them from wilting. We also sometimes store parsley upright in a glass of water on the counter, which makes for a pretty tableau. If you do the same, change the water daily and make sure that no leaves are below the water line.

-Storing chives, sage, thyme, and rosemary: Unlike parsley and cilantro, these do best stored dry, wrapped in a dry cloth or paper towel in an airtight container in the fridge.

-When in doubt: Decide whether the herb is “soft” or “hard” and store accordingly. Soft: parsley, cilantro, mint, dill, and basil. Hard: chives, sage, thyme, rosemary, and oregano.

-Extra credit: Washing (and drying) herbs prior to storing them helps them last even longer. I’d like to say our lack of a salad spinner is what’s preventing us from doing this, but I think it’s more likely that sometimes even just getting them in their proper container seems like almost too much to manage on a weeknight evening. 

How to store herbs so they don't go to waste | Zero food waste and a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Perhaps the best way to store herbs is not to at all: to use them in everything until they’re gone. When we have some big bundles around, I make a concerted effort to use them at every possible turn. If I bought parsley for one recipe, there’s no reason it can’t go in another, or a salad, or a pasta sauce. Simply remembering they’re there is helpful. (And in an herb explosion, there’s always pesto or chimichurri).

Lastly, herbs that are fast escaping your ability to use them can be air-dried and stored in a jar or container for later use.

I’d love to hear: what storage techniques work best for you? Other tips for using bunches up?

More posts on how to go zero waste without buying a thing, here. More ideas for curbing food waste, here.

Zero Waste, Wash Your Face

Zero-waste, plastic-free, package-free face wash for a more sustainable beauty routine | Litterless

There are probably just about as many ways to wash your face as there are faces: water only, bar soap, pump soap, oil cleansing, masks, and on in infinite combinations of ingredients and products and options.

There isn’t just one zero waste way to wash your face; any of the above can be slowly transitioned to a slightly less wasteful routine by taking note of packaging and disposables. However you wash, notes on choosing wisely, below.

Zero-waste, plastic-free, package-free face wash for a more sustainable beauty routine | Litterless

Note: some of the links below are affiliate links, if you’d like to support Litterless if you make a purchase.

-Water only: Skin hero Adina Grigore notes in her book Skin Cleanse that for many people, washing with water only might be less irritating and just as cleansing as washing with soap. She recommends doing 10 to 20 splashes, moving your hands up and down your face once per splash. The simplicity appeals, though for heavy make-up wearers and others it might not suit. 

-Face soap in a pump bottle: What I’ve used for years, though I’m trying to transition away as I eke out the last few drops of my current bottle. Though most face soaps come in plastic bottles, there are a few companies packaging theirs in glass or metal. Plaine Products offers bulk face wash (and facial moisturizer) online in refillable metal bottles that they’ll take back for reuse, or non-bulk options packaged in glass or metal include face wash made by S.W. Basics, evanhealy, or Goddess Garden. While glass and plastic can of course both be recycled in most municipalities, the pump itself is made from multiple materials and is almost always trash. With glass bottles, I try to save and reuse them myself, or pass them along to a friend to do the same.

-Bar soap: Entering the world of bar face soap is a little nerve-racking, as bar soap can be so drying. I’ve been on the look-out for bars that are specifically formulated for faces. Meow Meow Tweet sent me a bar of their pink rose clay facial soap to try, pictured above, which I’ll do once my current bottle is empty. Other folks making bar soap for faces include Little Seed Farm (local to the Midwest) or Sappo Hill (local to the West Coast).

-Oil cleansing: Though these usually come in packaging as well (the ones at my local co-op are almost all bottled in plastic), at least they’re just one single, simple ingredient, and they feed thirsty skin. I use rosehip or jojoba oil to cleanse a few times a week, and I wipe the remainder away with warm water on a thick washcloth. (My favorites, the pillowy versions shown here, are a gift from Natural Linens made from organic cotton fabric and organic cotton thread, compostable!). You might find a different oil works better for you; again I’ll recommend Adina’s genius Skin Cleanse from the library or elsewhere.

-Buy it in bulk: You might be able to find bulk oil or face wash near you (check here). Bulk options let you try a small sample before you commit, choosing to fill a very small container at first before going back a week later for more. For containers, you can refill a plastic or glass pump bottle left over from a used-up product, a reusable squeeze bottle like a silicone GoToob, or fill a glass jar and screw on a pump top.

-Etc: If you use cotton rounds for make-up removal or anything else, they are such a great reusable to keep on hand as opposed to the plastic-packaged single-use kind. (The cotton rounds pictured were a gift from Natural Linens, or you can also make your own). Mine kept getting stuck in the door of our front-loading washer during the spin cycle, so I recently purchased a small mesh bag from Fillgood to keep them together in the wash. (Anything to make life 0.0005% easier).

Other suggestions for a lower-waste routine?

DIY Tea Blends

IMG_1355.jpg

I’m not, by nature, someone who loves winter (resignation just about sums up my attitude). But even I can admit there are redeeming factors: less to do outside allows for more time cozy inside, dark nights mean lighting candles while cooking dinner, and a craving for homemade polenta or pizza warms the apartment pleasantly, instead of turning it into a nuclear furnace like it would have in the summer. And, of course, there are the many, many cups of tea, which help too.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

This winter, my partner experimented with making his own tea blends, some for holiday gifts and some to keep at home for us to use. It was a genius idea, and I wanted to share some of the ingredients we now keep on hand, and how to think through blending them.

It’s good to start with a couple of the plain loose-leaf teas you like best, perhaps purchased in jars in your local bulk foods aisle. If you always have a cup of black tea, that might serve as your base. I prefer herbal teas, so we bought rooibos (my favorite), chamomile, hibiscus leaves, and dried lavender.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

To the store-bought teas, you can then add your own flavors. We dried lemon peels, orange peels, and ginger as additions, but other foods would be work too: sage or mint from indoor herb plants, turmeric shavings from a leftover root wilting in your crisper, or lemongrass cuttings from the recipe that didn’t quite use it all. Drying the peels and ginger proved to be much easier than I’d imagined: for the peels, simply remove the pith from organic citrus peels, chop them into thin squares or strips, and dry them, stirring occasionally, in a low oven (275 degrees). For ginger, same thing: to make it easier to shave into strips, we froze whole roots, allowed them to thaw slightly, and then used a peeler to peel them into wide, thin pieces that we slid into the same low oven.

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

Once you have a few different ingredients at the ready, blend away. We chose combinations like rooibos + ginger + lemon or lavender + chamomile + ginger. You could make a homemade chai, a blend for mornings and a different blend for evenings, a soothing recipe for a friend in need of comfort, or simply a homemade version of your favorite blend that you usually purchase pre-made. I find myself reaching for a pinch of dried ginger for tea most mornings, and it’s nice to have it on hand in a jar that’s easy to grab, rather than tucked deep in the freezer where using it is more laborious.

So far I’ve only made blends based on taste and common sense, but there are more formulaic and scientific ways to think through tea blends, too. Friends of mine who had the same idea last holiday season introduced me to this chart, which explains how to choose a base and several top notes that work well together.

I noted recently on Instagram that DIY projects are not necessarily more sustainable than their ready-made counterparts, but that they do give us the opportunity to choose materials carefully and thoughtfully, with an eye toward the sustainability of each. With this project, I think, that’s very much true. Making my own teas from separate components allows me to choose a base that’s bulk and fair trade and to cut down on food waste by throwing extra food into the oven and then a tea blend. It turns citrus peels from scraps to food, extra ginger or herbs from a nuisance to a delight, one jar of plain rooibos tea into ten different possibilities. 

Make your own zero waste loose leaf tea blends | Simple zero food waste tip for using herbs and citrus peels | Litterless

Have you ever made your own tea? Or other blend suggestions to share, or things to dry?

(Photos of me by Liliana Coehlo for Litterless).

How to Compost in an Apartment

How to compost using a drop-off location | Composting for free in an apartment | Litterless

Composting has been shedding its stereotypes. It’s not just for farmers, for suburbanites with a backyard, for gardeners, for the time-rich, for environmentalists, for other people. Over the last four years, there’s been a huge shift in the resources available, and I’ve loved (LOVED) watching it become more accessible, affordable, and much, much easier to finagle in a small space.

I’ve lived in an apartment since college, and I’ve composted ever since the second month of living on my own. I’ve used pick-up services, drop-off locations, lobbed squash stems in my parents’ backyard bin, and checked out friends’ vermicomposting and bokashi composting set-ups. It all works.

If you, too, live in an apartment and have wondered if composting might fit into your home and routines, here is a run-down on the small-space solutions out there. All of the methods assume you don’t have yard space, and some of them don’t even require scrap of balcony, deck, or basement space.

How to compost using a drop-off location | Composting for free in an apartment | Litterless

-Pick-up services: When I lived in Chicago, I used a compost pick-up service for four years, and LOVED IT. For $15-$25 a month, all I had to do was dump my scraps in a bucket that the service provided and haul said bucket down to the curb once or twice a month. And the haulers took care of the rest!

If you elect to go with a pick-up service, it’s worth doing a little research to make sure you like where your food scraps (and dollars) are headed. Providers should be transparent about the method they use to compost food scraps and where the finished compost ends up. Ideally, you’d want the compost to go to landscaping, farms, gardens, or back to customers, or perhaps fed to animals; some lower-quality compost ends up as landfill topper, which ideally the company you’re considering doesn’t support.

Now more than ever, there are so many pick-up services out there, often several options in any particular city. (You can search your area on the Where to Compost page). If you can afford it, choosing a pick-up service is a wonderful way to support what is most likely a fairly new sustainable business in your area, and it is possibly the very easiest way to make sure your food scraps end up as compost. (If you’re curious, more notes about pick-up services, and the answers to a bunch of FAQs, in this post).

-Drop-off spots: No pick-up services in your area, or no wish to spend twenty bucks a month on one? Try dropping off your compost somewhere near you! This is how we currently compost from our home in Madison: every few days, we empty our countertop compost into a five-gallon bucket we keep sealed on our patio. When that fills up every few weeks, we drive it a couple of miles over to a local food scrap collection site. (This summer we may try to figure out how to haul that bucket in a bicycle panier or trailer).

I keep a list of drop-off spots on my Where to Compost guide, but if there aren’t any listed in your area, it’s worth doing some further research yourself. What you’re looking for is not a little compost bin at your favorite coffee shop, of course, but a specific community space that welcomes your food scrap drop-offs. Check with local farmers’ markets, community gardens, urban farms, community centers, your local area on ShareWaste.com, or even with neighbors and friends. Some drop-off spots will charge a fee for deposits, but it’s usually around $5 or less, and many are free.

One thing I love about using our drop-off service is that by the very act of depositing scraps, we’re driving demand to keep it running. The bins into which we empty our food scraps here in Madison are often empty or nearly empty. It would be easy for the provider to think that nobody uses the service and to stop investing in it; by adding our scraps each month, we help ensure the continued existence and success of the program.

-Vermicomposting: Worms! If worms are fascinating to you, chances are this is the method for you. If worms are not fascinating for you and-that’s-putting-it-mildly, skip ahead. Vermicomposting uses a special breed of worms and a small collection of bins to break down food scraps right inside your house or apartment (my brother keeps his vermicomposting set-up under his kitchen sink). When I visited him in New York last fall, I was surprised to find that his worm bins didn’t smell like anything other than wet newspaper and that they fit out-of-sight in a small cabinet. If you’re curious about “vermiposting,” as it’s often called, learn more here.

-Bokashi composting: This method is new to me, but I got to see it in action last year for the first time at my friend Moji’s apartment. Bokashi composting uses bokashi powder, or “bran,” to break down food scraps more quickly than traditional composting does; for this reason, it’s great for very small spaces. This article explains more about it without trying to sell you anything.

How to compost using a drop-off location | Composting for free in an apartment | Litterless

Other notes:

-You can freeze your food scraps to buy yourself more time to deposit it in the location of your choosing.

-Each method above allows you to compost a slightly different combination of items; in the case of pick-up services and drop-off locations, this will also vary by provider. Make sure to choose one that fits the way you and your family eat. If you have lots of meat scraps, perhaps commercial composting with a pick-up service will be your best bet; if it’s all carrot tops and apple cores around here, seeing if your friend will let you deposit scraps in her backyard bin may be just the thing.

-You can try lots of methods to see how they work. Love your pick-up service but winnowing down your monthly expenses? Try to find a drop-off spot. Worm care not meshing with your travel schedule? Consider bokashi. You don’t have to compost the same way forever, and each method you try is one you get the chance to learn a little more about.

-Our compost bucket pictured here is a gift from EarthHero. We sometimes line our bin with these compostable liners, but more often we leave it liner-less and just wash it after we empty it. (Note: these links are affiliate links, if you’d like to support Litterless as you shop).

Questions about apartment composting? Hurdles you just can’t quite cross? Send ‘em my way, please.

More posts on composting, here.