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, 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.

Zero Waste Weekly Planners for 2019

Zero waste weekly planners for 2019 | Litterless

Freshman year of college was the last time I was without a yearly planner. Lacking a school-issued version like in middle school and high school, for several months I used a system of post-it notes, lists, and a journal to keep track (or fail to keep track) of to-dos and appointments, until a particularly stressful stretch of weeks sent me scurrying to the local stationery store in search of better overall life organization.

Zero waste weekly planners | Litterless

The planner I purchased at first didn’t suit, but a few tries later I found the type of planner I’ve used ever since, a Moleskine. While the paper inside my Moleskine is recyclable, the covers, elastic tie, ribbon bookmark, back folder, and plastic-wrapped packaging are not. The past few times that I’ve purchased each year’s replacement, these details have weighed on me. I thought I could do better, zero-waste-wise, but some habits are hard to think about changing. This year, I finally have.

Zero waste weekly planners and calendars for 2019 | Litterless

When the women behind Wisdom Supply Co offered to send me a copy of the zero waste planner they designed, I jumped at the chance to finally switch to something fully recyclable (or, hey, compostable). Below, notes on that and other options for keeping track this year.

Zero waste weekly planners for 2019 | Litterless

Note that a few of the links below are affiliate links, if you’d like to support Litterless as you shop.

-Wisdom Supply Co: When they couldn’t find a planner that met their specifications, the women behind this zero waste school and office supply store made their own: all-paper, made from recycled content, nothing metal or plastic that can’t be tossed straight in the recycling bin. I love the large size, and the ruled pages for each week that give plenty of space for (most) to-do lists. They also make a beautiful version geared towards students.

-Going paperless, without going paperless: For those looking to avoid paper altogether, a stone-paper planner from Karst is a beauty, and is recyclable or biodegrades within a year; learn more here.

-Wall calendar: If you’re more of a large-format wall-calendar person, this one is made from recycled paper that’s designed to be reusable as list-paper once the month’s through. Or, better yet, go with one single sheet for the year, like this beautiful version by Egg Press. (Perhaps to be reused as wrapping paper come December?)

-Look for vintage calendars: The years 1991 and 1963 have the exact same parameters (dates, days, and lengths) as 2019. If you’d like to go secondhand, an eBay or Etsy search might turn up an old calendar you can make new again.

-Bullet journaling: The beauty of the bullet journal system, which you can learn for free here, is that you can do it with any notebook, be it lined, unlined, or gridded. Choose one that’s both recycled and recyclable; this and this are good options for sustainable notebooks purchased new. Even better, pick up a secondhand notebook up at your local creative reuse store or dig one out from a stack of office supplies languishing deep in your closet.

Of course, too, there are completely paperless solutions. I have friends who are reliant on Google Calendar or apps like Todoist. I doubt that I’ll ever fully go digital (why even do something if you don’t get to cross it off a list?), but if you have favorite online resources to share, please do.

Other calendars you’ve turned to this year? Questions to ask?

A Year of Zero (Ish) Waste

Happy 2019! To ring in the New Year, a look back at a few of my favorite posts from last year, one from each month of the year:

De-mystifying and de-fancying cloth napkins in January.

How to switch to cloth napkins for a zero waste home | Litterless

In February, same thing for cleaning without paper towels.

Cleaning without paper towels in a zero waste home | Litterless

In March, assembling a simple zero waste grocery kit.

How to build a zero waste grocery kit | Litterless
Zero waste, bulk food shopping at grocery stores in London | Litterless

Figuring out where to donate rubber bands in May.

Where to donate rubber bands for a zero waste home | Litterless

Berry buying (and moving!) in June.

How to buy berries without plastic | Litterless

July, plastic-free food storage without buying anything new. (Featuring the last of June’s asparagus).

Plastic-free food storage in a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

Zero waste school supply explorations in August.

Zero waste school supplies | Litterless

In September, a paean to swapping.

Resources for zero waste swaps | Litterless
Zero waste razors and shaving when traveling by airplane | Litterless

And in November, the same for thrift stores.

A zero waste thrift store tip for secondhand shopping | Litterless
On zero waste and simplicity | Litterless

Many thanks to you for reading last year and this. Here’s to a 2019 full of small changes that add up to big changes. Any waste-y resolutions you’re working toward this year?

(Final photograph by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Sustainability Podcasts for Holiday Travel

Sustainability podcasts for holiday travel | Litterless

What are you listening to these days? Tomorrow I’m headed away with my family for the holidays, and I’ve been stocking up my podcast queue, hoarding new episodes of old favorites and looking for new ones, too. In case you’re traveling, here are a few of the sustainability-themed podcasts I’ve loved this year:

-Live Planted: Alyssa is such a good interviewer, warm and wise and interested in going deep on topics related to veganism and living sustainably; listening to the show feels like chatting with a new friend. Recent faves of mine include a chat about cooking techniques that minimize food waste and a zero-waste Q&A. I spoke with Alyssa on the podcast a few weeks ago about environmentalism and joy and trash jars and more, which you can listen to here if you’d like.

-A Sustainable Mind: Sometimes I need help remembering that there’s a big environmental movement out there beyond zero waste. A Sustainable Mind’s host Marjorie Alexander talks to people working toward a sustainable world in so many ways, from farming to industrial design to corporate sustainability efforts. When I have some extra time, I’m looking forward to tuning in to this recent episode about climate adaptation.

Sustainability podcasts for holiday travel | Litterless

-Mothers of Invention: Mothers of Invention showcases female-driven solutions to climate change. (“Climate change is a man-made problem—with a feminist solution!”). Smart and funny Mary Robinson and Maeve Higgins talk to women around the world who are leading the fight for a stable climate. A place for finding new heroes, like Yvette Abrahams and Sarra Tekola.

-Slow Home Podcast: Host Brooke McAlary isn’t interested in doing things other people’s way; good, because I’m not either. Listening to how her family has slowly downshifted to choose a life slower and richer and lighter on the planet leaves me encouraged and inspired. If you’re feeling frantic and looking for ideas for slowing your holidays—or regular days—start here. (Her Australian accent is a balm to the winter-bound, too).

-Forever 35: Everyone’s favorite podcast just spoke with Natalie Harris of The Tiny Closet (listen here) about sustainable fashion, shopping less, and affording ethically made clothing. So often I think conversations about smaller closets and ethical fashion sound the same, but Natalie’s perspective was unique in many ways, and so fascinating.

What else is on your list for listening? Very happy holidays to you and yours.

Nothing New: Saving and Repurposing Jars

Saving (and repurposing) glass jars for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Our kitchen cabinets are full of glass jars holding grains and beans and nuts and seeds and herbs and spices. It’s more a practical choice than an aesthetic one: glass doesn’t leach the harmful chemicals that plastic does, it’s easy to see what’s inside the jars, and they’re an airtight place to store decanted bulk goods. A devotion to jars is a cliché within the zero waste movement, but, of course, clichés exist for a reason. And in this case that reason is a photogenic pantry an inexpensive and convenient way to store food.

Many of our jars are from secondhand shops or swaps with friends, Ball jars and Mason jars and a few favorite Le Parfait and Fido jars, too. Just as many, though, are saved from food we bought. When I can’t find what I need in bulk, I try to buy it in a glass jar rather than a plastic container. Many of those glass jars I scrub and save and put back to use. We keep them around for sending friends home with extra food and leftovers, for storing small bits and pieces to donate (like so), for serving as makeshift votives or for re-melting spent candles into new ones. For water bottles, for extra glasses at a party. For anything.

I’ve written before about which jars are my favorites to save, with readers chiming in and offering their ideas, too. Here, other resources for putting saved jars to good use: 

-Remove those labels.
-On saving those plastic Ball jar lids (from mayo jars, from other foods) to use again, in the comments on this post.
-“Use what’s useful, but don’t let yourself drown in potential usefulness.”
-Bon Appétit’s editors share their favorite jars to save.
-How to freeze things in reused jars.
-If the lids still smell like pickles (etc), soak them in plain white vinegar for a few hours.

I’m also on today’s Live Planted podcast, chatting with Alyssa about this Nothing New series and why I love writing it. You can listen to the episode here, if you’d like.

Pictured up top, my very favorite jar, one that I took from my parents’ basement when I moved into my own apartment for the first time after college. It’s held oatmeal ever since, and I’ll never scrub off the cheerful label if I can help it. 

Other jar tips for the rest of us? Favorite jars to save, part two?

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

On Zero Waste and Simplicity

On zero waste and simplicity | Litterless

These days, I think a lot about how to slow down the pace of my weeks. They’ve been very full, full to bursting, so much so that I haven’t been able to show up here on Litterless as much as usual. I’m working on it, and trying to get back into the swing of things here while also remaining in the swing of things elsewhere.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed for Erin’s Simple Matters series over on Reading My Tea Leaves today. (You can read the piece here). Since then, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which zero waste has made my life simpler, and the ways in which that sentence might seem almost oxymoronic. Zero waste, especially to people who might be newer to it, may seem daunting and complicated and, most of all, very time-consuming. I wanted to share both why that is true and also, why it isn’t. 

Zero waste certainly requires a large investment of time at the start. A beginner’s checklist might look like: figuring out how to compost, learning more about local recycling ordinances, finding where to shop for bulk foods nearby, researching reusable alternatives to single-use items, and purchasing those alternatives (or scouring secondhand stores for them).

While I’m a proponent of a strategy that changes habits slowly and one at a time (more on that here), that’s a list to daunt even the most enthusiastic. But once you’ve made those changes, they by and large stay made. The upfront work fades, and I think what is left is less time-consuming than what came before.

On zero waste and simplicity | Litterless

Since much of practicing zero waste is about replacing disposables with reusables, your home becomes stocked with things to wash and reuse again. Once you’ve got your handkerchiefs, your kitchen rags, your water bottle, your reusable food storage containers, your cloth napkins, whatever you decide will be part of your toolkit, then, pretty much, you’re set. For me, it feels much easier to throw something into the washing machine than to write it on the grocery list. I’ll happily stand over the sink washing a piece of Bee’s Wrap, but I won’t happily run to the store to replace a box of plastic wrap. I feel less frenetic never having to think about buying paper towels, tissue boxes, water bottles, tinfoil, plastic wrap, parchment paper, paper napkins, cotton balls, razors, tampons, and a host of other disposables that now have nearly eternally-reusable replacements at our house.

Replacing disposables is only one part of zero waste, of course. Alongside may come cooking a few more things from scratch. We don’t make our own tahini, for example, but we do make our own hummus (usually). We don’t buy cans of beans anymore (usually), but cooking dried beans takes no more than five minutes when you have a slow cooker (ours is from a secondhand store) and the headspace to think about dinner a day ahead. Sometimes you just have to throw in the towel and get take-out, in which case, we might go to Chipotle for the compostable bowl, or get food to go at a local spot in a container brought from home.

My point is that routines become, well, routine. I don’t much miss the convenience of pre-zero-waste because I don’t much remember it; these are just our routines now, same as any other.

The equating of zero waste and simplicity isn’t true for every household, most likely. For you, dishes and laundry may be your particular bugbears, in which case having to wash more things rather than just go to the store for new ones may fill you with anxiety. I don’t mean to sugarcoat the matter and imply that zero waste is your ticket to a blank calendar and a calm frame of mind; I just think aiming to make less trash has the potential to simplify routines and strip away a few of the tasks on our to-do lists.

There are aspects of zero waste that remain complicated and time-consuming to me, and they likely always will. Making sure hard-to-recycle items do get recycled takes effort and research. I spend time looking up where to bring lightbulbs and electronics and gift cards and fabric scraps for recycling, and then making sure these things get where they need to go. (I’ve compiled some of that information, here).Right now in our apartment we drop off our compost at a local site, but eventually we’ll probably move somewhere that dictates setting up a backyard compost bin. We’ll also at some point have to replace our handkerchiefs, cloth napkins, beeswax wrap, and other reusables as they wear out. But replacing them less often than their disposable counterparts continues to feel like a plus.

I would never say that my life is simple, but I do think my zero waste practices have become so. Each day, my routines are rarely more complicated than remembering a metal fork when I go out to eat, grabbing a few produce bags on the way out the door to the grocery, and putting food scraps in the compost bin while making dinner instead of in the trash can. We’d have to take out the trash, anyway; now we just take out the compost, too.

How about you—simple, complicated, easy, stressful, somewhere in the middle? 

More essays and thoughts like these, here.

(Photographs by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Choosing More Ethical Tech with Nimble

Choosing ethically made, sustainable tech with Nimble | Litterless

Buying electronics might be one of my least favorite chores. (Yes, including cleaning the bathroom). When something breaks or desperately needs an upgrade, I generally put off replacing it for as long as possible, unwilling to do the research to find out what I should purchase next. (Retina display? Battery life? Who cares?).

Now that I screen all of my purchases for sustainability factors too, well, the process has gotten even more complicated. I try to choose secondhand tech whenever possible, but sometimes you just need a certain thing, or you need a certain thing right now.

So I’m heartened by a shift that I’m seeing in the sustainability space towards companies offering more ethical, eco-friendly technology options. Our electronics are likely always going to have an outsize environmental impact, but folks are investing in decreasing that impact, and making the choice easier for picky shoppers like me.

One of the companies making an effort to provide better tech options is Nimble. I’ve been using their five-day portable charger, which I’ve found helpful for trips, airport charging emergencies, and even workdays at coffee shops when an outlet is hard to reach. (Especially workdays at coffee shops when an outlet is hard to reach). They also make portable chargers with smaller or larger capacities and wireless chargers, in addition to standard wall-mounted plugs and cables, in case you need a replacement or extra cable to keep on hand.

Choosing ethically made, sustainable tech with Nimble | Litterless

Nimble sources their production materials as sustainably as they’re able; my portable charger is made using recyclable aluminum, plant-based bioplastics, and other materials with a lower environmental impact than traditional materials. Better yet, I’m making every effort to take very good care of it so that it lasts as long as it possibly can, by tucking it into a small fabric pouch instead of throwing it loose into my tote bag. 

Their products come in plastic-free packaging (down to the paper tape!), wrapped in paper and cardboard made from 100% recycled materials. Instead of using inks and dyes, which can be toxic and energy-intensive, they simply emboss their logo into the cardboard packaging surrounding their products.

 Better yet, each item comes with a small pouch that you can send back to Nimble with a piece of old electronics that you’d like to recycle. (Just print a free label on Nimble’s website). For every Nimble product you buy, you’ll be able to send up to a pound of old e-waste back to them for responsible recycling and disposal.

Choosing more ethical tech with Nimble | Litterless

 You can look through Nimble’s products here, and follow them on Instagram at @nimbleforgood. They’re currently offering 30% off site-wide through the end of the week (no code needed).

(This post is sponsored by Nimble. Thanks so much for reading and supporting my work on Litterless.)