Plastic Containers in the Zero Waste Home

Is there a space for plastic containers in the zero waste home | Litterless

The picture above reveals the sordid underbelly of my zero waste habits. Just kidding, it's not sordid: but it is plastic. Most of the zero waste folks I know still use some plastic, and I do too. I don't usually talk about it, but I'm slowly getting over the idea that people won't think I'm a good enough zero waster if I share that I use plastic containers / don't brush my teeth with baking soda / insert other habit here. In fact, I'm slowly coming around to realizing the opposite: that revealing the unconventional ways I've made zero waste work for me could help you find ways - and, more crucially, permission - to bend the rules to make zero waste work for you, too.

And so: sharing a photograph of the plastic containers that are still in rotation over here. Before I talk about how and why I use these guys, I want to preface it with this: there are many, many good reasons to move away from plastic, most of which you probably already know. Plastic degrades in quality during the recycling process, so eventually it does become landfill trash at the end of its life. It leaches chemicals, many of them very harmful, into food and beauty products. And, of course, plastic pollution in waterways and oceans has been well documented and is at best demoralizing, at worst horrifying.

All that can be true and yet there still can be space for plastic containers in the lives of folks working toward zero waste. To wit: reducing your plastic consumption is a worthy goal. But what happens to plastic containers we already had before going zero waste, or plastic ones picked up at the grocery or a restaurant in a pinch? 

That's where my small collection of plastic containers come in. I keep most of my food, toiletries, and leftovers in glass and metal containers, many of which I've picked up secondhand and a few of which have been new purchases, carefully considered. Glass jars are inexpensive, but larger glass and metal containers are not. I've found that the ones I have take up a lot of space, don't stack very well, and are of course heavier if you're bringing them with you to the grocery or a restaurant.  Most of the time I don't mind that, and I reach for my glass and stainless steel containers first when putting food away. But sometimes, having a small stash of plastic back-ups does come in handy.

All of these plastic containers were picked up in the bulk aisle of the grocery, either at stores that don't let me bring my own containers or during times when I had to purchase a bulk food unexpectedly and didn't have a bag or jar with me. You've probably been in a situation like this before, too: You forgot your takeout container and, faced with leaving three-quarters of your soup behind or taking the plastic container, you've chosen the plastic container. At home, you have yet further choices: Do you give it away to a friend who could use it, or a thrift store? Keep using it as needed? Recycle it right off the bat and be done with it?

I've done all three of those, and I suspect you do some combination of them, too. I keep a mental note of friends who store food in plastic restaurant prep containers and always have room for one more in their collection. I've recycled some, too, and the ones pictured above are ones that I've kept around. They're useful for freezer storage when I don't want to tie up one of my favorite glass containers for months on end, for bulk grocery runs where I don't have the space to bring as many jars as I'd like, for sending friends home with leftovers or a sample of lotion that they wanted to try, or what have you. In the latter case, it's a relief not to have to chase down the whereabouts of a stainless steel container that cost $25 to begin with.

Here's what I think: trying to eliminate plastic completely is both a legitimate, worthwhile goal and sometimes crazy-making. You can go completely plastic-free or you can keep your plastics around until they're worn out and need replacement. Just wanted to say that I'm in the middle of it, and either way you choose to go is fine with me.

Have you wrestled with keeping plastics around? Other scenarios where you find it comes particularly in handy?

Previously in Zero Waste: Snack ideas to make yourself, and how to make cloth napkins work for your regular life.

Nothing New: Bottles for Liquid Bulk

Clean out old vinegar bottles to fill with bulk liquids in a zero waste home | Litterless

Last month, I dug around under my kitchen sink for old glass vinegar bottles, rummaged in kitchen cabinets, grabbed the tote bag where I used to keep my reusable cloth produce bags crumpled, and started putting together a zero waste grocery shopping kit: keeping everything in one place (a dusted-off basket that used to hold shoes) to make packing for a grocery run easier. The move also allowed me to set aside some old, cleaned-out vinegar bottles specifically for future bulk vinegar purchases; previously, all the old bottles had been jumbled up under my sink, an assortment used variously for cleaning vinegar, sometimes, and eating vinegar, other times. Much better to keep those two purposes separate, if only for peace of mind.

For this installment of Nothing New, the series where we chat through how to start going zero waste without buying.... anything new, I wanted to make a plug for keeping and cleaning out old glass bottles instead of purchasing brand-new ones. It's a note I'm directly mostly to myself, though maybe you'll take me up on the idea, too. I've tried lots of containers for purchasing bulk liquids: swingtop glass bottles, mason jars, even water bottles in a pinch. 

All worked fine, none worked perfectly. For some of these, I was been able to store the liquid in the container I used for purchasing it, which is always my preference for simplicity's sake. For others, like the water bottle (for obvious reasons) and the mason jars (because the metal lids rust in contact with vinegar) and wide-mouth jars (they get drippy when pouring liquids), I've gotten the bulk liquids home from the store only to have to decant them again into a different container. 

Clean out old vinegar bottles to fill with bulk liquids in a zero waste home | Litterless

I'd bought bulk liquids in old vinegar and olive oil bottles a few times too, but kept thinking I would find a magic, better container than the bottles saved from past vinegar purchases. Something a bit more uniform, or easier to clean. I had this nagging feeling that old vinegar bottles weren't a long-term solution: that something else was bound to come along, that something bought especially for said purpose would surely work better than something merely reused.

Noooo. Noo no no no no. It's true: sometimes things bought specifically with for a given purpose work better than something scrounged up from around the house. But certainly not always, and when my mind jumps to buying something new before using what I have, I try to take a step back and check in. I'm not always as good at this as I'd like to be. I have a weakness for things that are both functional and beautiful and have trouble loving things that don't fall into both camps. These old glass bottles, scrubbed clean of their original branding, however, do. I can overlook the plastic caps with their stamped-on best-by dates and admit that, actually, these are the solution I've been looking for.

Case in point: they're literally meant to hold vinegar and other cooking liquids. They're designed for that purpose. What other thing out there on the market could possibly be better? (Note to self, nothing). The lids don't rust, the sides don't drip, the glass doesn't leach. They're a solution that will last me years, until the vinegar eats away at the plastic lid eventually. (Does that happen? Seems like it might. Gonna put it to the test).

A few notes on using old bottles anew:

-I've taken to scrubbing the labels off. I like the look of the clean bottles better than the look of the labeled ones, sure, but I also think it's less confusing for cashiers: if they see a bottle with a traditional label, they may not recognize it as a bulk purchase and instead might try to scan the barcode instead. Better to remove all doubt, even if it takes some elbow grease.

-Bottles with wide bodies and small necks can take longer than expected to dry after washing. I check to see if they're fully dry by turning them upside down and waiting a beat. If a stream of water runs out, they're definitely not dry (duh). If no water runs out, I still like to leave them uncapped for a few more days to make sure they're fully dry; I'd hate to have a few drops contaminate a bottle of oil and cause it to spoil more quickly. Safe, not sorry.

-For bulk oils that may not stay so happy when exposed to light, you can save an old dark glass olive oil bottle instead of a clear glass one, or simply store your clear bottle full of oil in a cabinet, out of sight of the light.

-I can't find certain favorite vinegars in bulk near me (white wine, where are you?), so bottles to reuse are easy enough for me to acquire since I still occasionally purchase vinegar in glass rather than in bulk. If you have great bulk options available to you and never need to purchase packaged vinegar, I bet you could convince some friends to save their glass jars for you instead.

-The any jar will do philosophy works for things besides bulk liquids, too, of course.

Tips on reusing these bottles for the rest of us? A favorite brand of bottle you like to hoard? Would love to hear.

Previously in Nothing New: A lunch kit.

Creative Reuse Centers

Secondhand craft supply stores and creative reuse centers | Litterless

Have you heard of creative reuse centers? They're essentially spots designed to, well, get reused materials back into circulation for creative projects. I like to think of them as secondhand art and craft supply stores, but they often have much more than that: odds and ends from around the home, school supplies, tools, esoteric supplies for makers of all stripes. Though many regular thrift stores offer a small selection of craft supplies and other tools, having a whole space dedicated to solely that means you're more likely to find what you're looking for.

The first time I visited one was a few years back, a stop by The WasteShed, a creative reuse center here in Chicago. Browsing inexpensive, secondhand craft supplies was a joy: everything was affordable, there was so much choice, and best of all I could pick up things that normally I would hesitate before buying. Birthday card in a plastic sleeve? It was secondhand, so into my basket it went.

Secondhand craft supply stores and creative reuse centers | Litterless

Since then, I've visited a couple in other cities, as well. I took these photographs back in September, when I stumbled up on the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland while walking to lunch. I wasn't in the market for anything specific, but couldn't resist ducking in for a browse. They had books, paper, picture frames, pottery, magazines, fabric, knitting tools, art supplies, and so much more: all secondhand, all priced accordingly.

Good things to pick up at a store like this: poster board for a school project, a new-to-you pencil sharpener, some basic tools for a new hobby you want to try but aren't sure you'll stick to, craft supplies for kids, basic supplies like tape, scissors, and filing folders, and more. I've purchased things ranging from an embroidery kit to a small print for a friend to a spool of thread and more.

Here are just a few of the spots located in the United States:

-Scrap PDX in Portland, Oregon
-The Scrap Exchange in Durham, North Carolina
-Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse in Pittsburgh
-The WasteShed in Chicago
-East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland, California

This list may tell you if there's a store near you, or you can do some searching around using the terms "creative reuse" and "secondhand art / craft / school supplies." Do you live near one? Ever picked up anything good at yours?

Previously in Secondhand: Resources for finding clothing online, and the beauty of waiting.

How to Use Up Citrus Peels

How to use up citrus peels for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

It's that time of year: citrus finds its way onto the table for every meal, my fingernails acquire a bright scent and orange tint from digging into satsumas, lemon juice stings small cuts on my hands. Citrus peels pile up in a bowl on the counter waiting to be used themselves as the slices get eaten. Winter is a good time for experimenting with using the peels after I've used the juicy centers. It's satisfying work to play with using as much of something as possible, especially in the kitchen, and citrus lends itself well to experimenting with cast-offs.

Here, a few uses I've tried, and some I haven't, for using up those peels before adding them to the compost:

-Tuck zest in the freezer. There are only so many ways to use lemon zest the day you make it, but if you have an abundance of lemons (or limes, or oranges), the zest will keep when frozen. Spread it in a thin layer on a baking sheet or small plate to freeze, then transfer to a jar or container to keep for a few months.

-Steep your own limoncello, et al. Limoncello is, at its heart, just vodka in which citrus peels have been left to sit, then removed and replaced with simple syrup. It's an easy thing to make and nice to be able to control the potency of both lemon and sugar. This recipe is a good place to start.

How to use up citrus peels for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

-Add dried orange and lemon to tea blends. A friend of mine made the above tea for me for a holiday present, based on this loose-leaf chai recipe. She cut orange peels into thin strips and dried them in her oven to add a blend of spices and rooibos. You could also dry strips of a different type of citrus, or dry citrus zest to add to any type of tea you fancy. I think a small pinch of lemon zest in a mint or floral tea would be lovely.

-Make citrus salt. I've never made a fancy salt, but I'm very into the idea. Adding citrus zest or long strips of peel to a jar of salt and letting it sit will infuse the salt with tangy brightness. Choose a fruit, find a recipe, and put it to the test.

How to use up citrus peels for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

-Clean with citrus-scented vinegar. Find my original post on the subject, including instructions for making it, here. As a bonus, an in-progress jar like the one above looks sunny and festive in winter months (it looks like California in a jar to me!).

-Candy the peels. Whether as candied peels, chocolate-dipped orangettes, or marmalade, sugar cuts the bitter waxiness of the peel and makes eating it a pleasure.


-Peels from organic citrus pieces are like gold to me, and they're the ones I store up to use again. But whether you're using conventional or organic, be sure to give the fruit a very good scrub if you're planning to use the peels again, to remove dirt and get as much food-grade wax off as possible. This is easiest to do while the fruit is still whole.

-Most of these recipes work with any type of citrus you can think of: lemons, limes, grapefruits, cara cara oranges, blood oranges. As you experiment, take note of what you like and what you don't like. For example, I don't love the thought of adding grapefruit peels to tea, but there's nothing like a mouth-puckering grapefruit marmalade in the dead of winter. 

-Additionally, some types of citrus have thinner peels (think clementines versus navel oranges), and so will naturally yield different results when put to the test. Try and try again, I say, or find a recipe to follow when in doubt.

Other ideas? Which is your favorite type of citrus to put to which purpose? I'd love to hear.

Previously in Food Waste: A use for veggie scraps, and my favorite places to find inspiration.

Nothing New: a Zero Waste Lunch Kit

How to make a zero waste lunch kit without buying anything new | Litterless

If you're going to be zero waste for the long haul (and you are, right?), it's nice to have a few things that are purpose-built to make it easier and more convenient and, dare I say, a bit lovelier. Sometimes I talk about those things here (and here).

And yet: you can sure make huge steps toward zero waste without purchasing anything new. A special travel fork is nice, but also, you already own forks: if you take them with you, they become travel forks. Trying to make sure the glass jars in your pantry match in size and shape and kind can yield a lovely organized shelf, but the road there can also be look too much like stickler-y madness.

So, in this new series, I'll be talking about how to go zero waste with absolutely nothing new. A water bottle, a cloth tote bag, a glass peanut butter jar. Many of the tools we need are already all around us: let's bring them to the forefront and put them to creative use.

How to make a zero waste lunch kit without buying anything new | Litterless

Up first: the simplest, cheapest zero waste lunch kit you ever did see. Sure, you can invest in a stainless steel container ready-made for packing a lunch without reusables. You can also stuff pasta, soup, or salad in a glass (or, heck, plastic) jar that originally held something else. I like glass peanut butter jars that have a wide mouth, which makes getting food into and out of it easier. If you want a bigger lunch, you can size up to two jars. (Soup and salad, anyone?).

Paired with a fork or spoon from your normal cutlery drawer, you've got yourself a free (and plastic-free) way to bring lunch on the go. If you have a cloth napkin, wrapping your fork in that will keep it clean and give you something to spread on your lap or dab at your mouth. If you don't have a cloth napkin, a clean washcloth or tea towel would do just fine, too.

Said glass jar is good for other things, too, of course. I tucked one in my coat pocket Sunday night when meeting a friend for dinner, in case of leftovers. Until the day before, the jar shown here had held loose-leaf tea. Versatile and easy, not fancy but just the ticket.

So, that's it: a zero waste lunch kit, no purchase required. Anything else from around the house that you'd add to your kit? I'm excited to share more ideas on the nothing new front in the coming weeks.

Weekend Reads

Imperfect produce | Litterless

If it's been a bit quieter around here lately, it's because I'm working on a big overhaul of my bulk shopping and composting guides. (More on that, here). I'm excited to unveil the finished updates next week: I hope you find them helpful. In the meantime, I wanted to leave you with some things to poke through as we head into the weekend:

-Makin' my podcast debut.
-A zero waste quilt box.
-What it's like to run a compost company.
-Worms make magic.
-A favorite winter recipe (spaghetti squash!).
-Made-in-California legging lust.
-Knit your resistance.
-A zero waste kit that costs zero dollars.

Above, a sunny corner that feels a bit less wintery than the rest of my house at the moment.

Making Zero Waste Snacks

Ideas for making zero waste snacks from bulk, package-free ingredients | Litterless

I got sick of the snacks available near me in bulk within the first year of going zero waste, I think. Garlic and herb cashews? Good in theory, but I'll be happy if I never have to eat another. Wasabi peas? Overdosed on 'em way back in college. Sesame sticks? Never liked them. Trail mix? Ditto the cashews, eaten so often it completely lost its charm. Dried papaya? Delicious, but leaves my mouth reeling from the sugary after-taste.

I think all of us who try to focus on buying food without packaging encounter some form of this: eventually, the options can get kind of... boring. For you, maybe the issue is the grains you can find in bulk, and the thought of eating quinoa for another meal makes you want to scream a little. Maybe you're tired of drinking the same old black tea that your co-op stocks on its small wall of tea. Maybe you've eluded this completely and are perfectly happy with the options available, or maybe you have a magical bulk aisle near you that always seems to spring fresh offerings anew. Either way: for me, the area where I can't find bulk things I like anymore seems to be the snack aisle.

Ideas for making zero waste snacks from bulk, package-free ingredients | Litterless

The upshot of this is, when I'm hungry, I'll look in my pantry and see grains and beans and nuts, then look in my fridge and see leeks and carrots and kale. There's plenty of food, but there's rarely anything snack-like. I could make a pot of stovetop popcorn, eat a square or two of dark chocolate, munch an apple, eat yesterday's leftovers: the latter is usually my choice. But I miss the saltiness, the sheer fun-ness of foods meant especially as snacks. Let's just say if I could buy pretzels and hummus near me in bulk, I might be hard-pressed to ever eat anything else.

Zero waste snack ideas you can make at home using bulk, package-free ingredients | Litterless

Unwilling to just spoon plain cooked beans into my mouth any longer, the last few weeks I've been taking snacking matters into my own hands. Sure, I don't like the bulk snacks available to me, but there are plenty of bulk snack ingredients available to me. I'm trying to make a few different things each week to keep on hand to fill the gaps between lunch and dinner. I've been favoring a mix of salty and slightly sweet, and switching up the recipes helps keep me from feeling like I'm sliding back into the boring routine of same-old, same-old.

A few things I've been making:

-Curry-spiced cashews (salty, and a good way to use up extra curry paste), pictured above.
-Breakfast cookies from this favorite cookbook (sweet).
-Chia pudding made with homemade almond milk (sweet).
-Homemade hummus to eat with raw or blanched veggies (salty).
-Granola (sweet).
-Coconut curry almonds (salty).
-Crunchy roasted chickpeas (salty).

I'd love a few other ideas to add to my rotation too. Have you been making anything these days?