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.)

Secondhand Containers, Brand-New Lids

Buying brand-new lids to give new life to secondhand containers, for a zero-waste home and kitchen | Litterless

Almost every one of our glass food storage containers is secondhand. If you’ve ever walked up and down the aisles of a secondhand store’s kitchenwares aisle, you’ve likely seen the makings of a thrifted glasswares collection yourself. We tend to fill up our cart with glassware that is still perfectly fine except that it lacks a lid, and then purchase the lids ourselves. Below, how we do it:

Buying brand-new lids to give new life to secondhand containers, for a zero-waste home and kitchen | Litterless

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

Lids you can replace:

-Tops for Ball and Mason jars. This is, of course, self-evident. Glass jars can be found for fifteen cents to a dollar at most secondhand shops, and replacing the lid with a shiny new version costs not much more than that. Jar lids can be found locally at grocery stores, food co-ops, and home and kitchenware stores, and they’re usually packaged without plastic in a cardboard box.

-Gaskets for Le Parfait, Fido, and Weck glass jars. Often, I’ll see a beautiful glass wire bale jar with a gasket that looks like it’s from 1980. Rubber gaskets only last so long before they start to ossify and crack, but replacements are fairly affordable. You can find Le Parfait gaskets here, Fido gaskets here, and Weck replacement gaskets here. (Be sure to carefully check the size before ordering).

Buying brand-new lids to give new life to secondhand containers, for a zero-waste home and kitchen | Litterless

-Lids for glass Pyrex containers. The lids for these are often just plain old missing from thrift store shelves, but when we had an epiphany that we could buy the bases secondhand and then just replace the lids, we hopped online that very day to order a few (found here). The lids alone are not as inexpensive as you might think, and are often only available for purchase in packs of two rather than one. However, buying new lids is still less expensive than buying a new lid and a new container - plus, you can feel virtuous knowing the glass base is secondhand.

Buying brand-new lids to give new life to secondhand containers, for a zero-waste home and kitchen | Litterless

-Lids to water bottles and coffee mugs. At a local secondhand shop a few months back, a friend and I found not one but two bkr glass water bottles and a glass-and-cork KeepCup, all without lids. (We think a zero waste fairy left them for us). I recently hopped on the bkr site and purchased a new lid for my favorite not-new, but new-to-me, water bottle.

-Other things. If you’re not sure whether replacement lids are sold separately, take out your phone right there in the aisle and check. They’ll often be on the manufacturer’s site, under “accessories” or “replacements.” It’s also prudent to make sure that the size and shape of lid you need is still being sold, but if you want to take a gamble and buy without researching prior to, chances are you’ll only be out a few dollars anyway.

Other things you can top with a brand-new lid and call it a day? Secondhand glassware wins to share?

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

Sustainability Starter Kits to Give or to Keep

A sustainable starter kit with plastic-free, zero-waste essentials | Litterless

If you’re a friend of mine, you probably mostly get zero waste items for gifts from me now. I would apologize, but I know you love those beeswax food wraps just as much as I do. Or you can give them back to me for my next birthday - that’s just fine too.

If you’re similarly pondering a few sustainable swaps for the folks on your gift list, EarthHero just launched new zero waste boxes, each full of tools for living with a little less waste. The boxes are meant for a gift to someone in your life who’s curious about zero waste, or simply as a way to grab a few essentials for your own household at a little bit lower cost.

A sustainable starter kit with plastic-free, zero-waste essentials | Litterless

Many of the items on offer are ones that we’ve had for years and can’t imagine doing without. I corralled some of our favorite zero-waste tools that are included in the boxes from our kitchen cabinets. Depending on which size box you choose, you might be the recipient - or giver - of stainless steel straws, a plastic-free water bottle like my trusty Klean Kanteen above, a Stasher reusable food storage bag, a Brush with Bamboo toothbrush or two, a set of travel utensils, and more. (After hearing friends rave about them, I’ve officially put a set of Food Huggers on my mental wishlist).

Because the boxes corral items from many different purveyors, they’re a good way to support the small businesses making zero waste supplies, like made-in-the-USA Khala beeswax wraps or compostable Brush with Bamboo toothbrushes.

A sustainable starter kit with plastic-free, zero-waste essentials | Litterless

The boxes come in three sizes, each with a different assortment of products - find what’s included in the small, medium, and large boxes, or check out all of their sustainable starter kits here.

If you’d like, you can take 10% off your purchase at EarthHero with the code LITTERLESS.

(This post is sponsored by EarthHero, a one-stop shop for sustainable giving. Thanks so much for reading and supporting my work on Litterless.)

Zero Waste Travel, Made Simpler

Zero waste travel, made simpler | Litterless

It’s likely many of us are traveling later this week for the holiday. We’re road-tripping to Indiana on Wednesday and back up to Madison on Sunday. I’ve been away from home more often than usual in the past few months, and will be even more in the upcoming ones. In that spirit, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to simplify my travel routines: not leaving packing until the night before, bringing fewer items of clothing, and, a big one, bringing fewer items of zero waste gear.

My friend Kathryn joked in a post awhile back that “Zero waste doesn’t have to equal being a pack mule,” but it sure feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it? Especially a few years ago when I really took the “zero” in zero waste to heart, I would travel with way more gear than was feasible. I brought a tea strainer to Ireland in the hopes of avoiding single-use tea packets. That type of dedication may seem admirable to some, but from where I’m sitting several years later, it just looks foolish.

If you were truly hoping to stay zero waste while traveling, you might be tempted to bring more or less the whole contents of your kitchen with you. I’ve been there, done that. But what I’ve found is that regardless of preparation, travel makes trash. It just does. I can make Herculean efforts to avoid it, or I can save my Herculean efforts for something else.

Zero waste travel, made simpler | Litterless

If, instead, you were hoping to stay low waste while traveling like I now am, well, you could lighten things up a little bit. Here’s what I bring with me, in my newly pared-down travel kit:

-A couple of handkerchiefs
-A cloth napkin
-Reusable utensils (or pare it down to just a reusable fork)
-Water bottle, or better yet combination water bottle / thermos
-Food storage tin for snacks and leftovers
-Produce bag or two for snacks and purchases
-Reusable shopping bag
-Tin of travel soap, to avoid plastic-wrapped bars at the hotel

That list still looks long enough, but many of the items do double duty beyond zero waste, as well. Not everything will squeeze back in your suitcase as you’re leaving? Reusable bag to the rescue. Mopping up a spill in the car? Cloth napkin comes in handy. Found a compost drop-off spot near where you’re staying? You can save those food scraps in the food storage tin you brought for leftovers. Free apple at the hotel? Throw that baby in a produce bag and eat it on the plane.

Zero waste travel, made simpler | Litterless

Pictured above are two oranges wrapped up in a cloth napkin, furoshiki-style, in Boston a couple of weeks ago. Despite the fact that I couldn’t find a compost bin for the peels, purchasing a snack in its own packaging rather than in plastic felt like a small victory. (Though you better believe I had to buy some plastic-packaged snacks, too).

When traveling, maybe we can bring the things that are the most versatile and lightweight and useful. We can arm ourselves for the most likely scenarios and then make a little trash when there’s a paper-wrapped teabag at the Airbnb. We can let things go, and come home renewed and excited to keep on keepin’ on at zero waste. We can focus on our families at the holidays, not on attaining some gold standard of zero waste perfection.

Who’s with me? Safe travels this week to you and yours.

More notes on doing zero waste imperfectly, here.

Protecting Your Tech with a Compostable Phone Case

Zero-waste, plastic-free compostable and recyclable phone case from Pela Case | Litterless

It’s no secret that our phones are full of metals and components that are toxic both to the planet and to workers. Some of the components of phones and other electronics can be recycled, but the process is difficult and hazardous. In addition to the obvious reasons like the hefty price tag for replacing it, these are good reasons to make sure you can keep your phone around for as long as possible.

My phone dates to last year, but when I see someone with an iPhone 5, I feel a frisson of recognition, and respect. I’m hoping that, three years hence, I’ll be that person too: the one with the outdated - but still perfectly functioning - phone model.

My phone is currently protected by the plastic case I bought when I first purchased my phone. The clear plastic is yellowing in places and peeling away in others, and I know eventually the case will have to end up in the landfill, like so many others. My partner, on the other hand, has been without a phone case for the past several months after his first case became unusable, and his phone has suffered for it. (For example: all photos taken with it must now be selfies, as the camera on the back chipped during a fall).

Zero-waste, plastic-free compostable and recyclable phone case from Pela Case | Litterless

Clearly, neither of these - the plastic case or going without - is a good option for those of us who want to both extend the lives of our phones and minimize our plastic footprint. So I was delighted when Pela Case reached out to offer us one of their compostable phone cases. I promptly turned it over to the case-less Julian, whose phone is now more than amply protected with a new black case.

The phone cases are made of a starch-based biopolymer and “waste” flax straw, which means they’re compostable, even in backyard settings. (More on that here). Better yet, Pela also accepts their old cases back for recycling into new ones.

Pela Cases are also matte, not shiny, which makes them easier to grip and, in our experience, harder to drop. Though I’m still using my older - and perfectly serviceable - plastic phone case from another company, I’m jealous of Julian’s new case, and when mine finally bites the dust, will upgrade to a Pela of my own. 

They also offer phone cases for most new and old smartphones, so if you’ve been having trouble finding a case for your older model, they most likely have an option for you. (Here’s their full list of current cases available, under the “Shop” tab up top).

Zero-waste, plastic-free compostable and recyclable phone case from Pela Case | Litterless

If you’d like to purchase a Pela of your own, you can use the code LITTERLESS for 15% off your purchase.

(This post is sponsored by Pela Case, makers of compostable and sustainable phone cases. Thanks so much for reading and supporting my work on Litterless.)

Tomorrow, Vote

Midterms 2018 | Resources for Voting | Litterless

Tomorrow, vote.


-Check your registration and find your voting location: Vote.org can help you do both, as well as offering tools to set calendar reminders. If you aren’t registered already, many states allow voters to register at the polls on Election Day; the ACLU has a map of these states here.

-Preview your ballot: Ballotready lets you fill in a sample ballot for your state and district, which you can take with you into the voting booth on your phone to make sure you remember the choices you plan to make. Although Senate and Congressional races tend to have better-known candidates and thus clearer choices, local elections for judges, school boards, state congressional positions, governorships, ballot initiatives, and more are just as important and are worth researching ahead of time so you aren’t stymied day-of.

-Plan your transportation and bring your ID: Some states require photo identification to vote; you can find out if yours does by selecting your state on Vote.org and scrolling down to learn more. If your state does require photo IDs, there are many acceptable forms besides a drivers’ license, so be sure to scan the full list of options rather than writing off voting entirely. (And then consider casting your ballot for politicians who will make voting more accessible, not less). If you need help getting to the polls, Uber and Lyft are offering free rides to polling places on Tuesday; there will be a button you can use within the app tomorrow.

-Know your rights: You have the right to vote. Though in all likelihood your voting will go off without a hitch, if you believe poll workers are mistaken about your registration or are trying to deny you that right, there are steps you can take then and there to make sure you can still cast your ballot. Here is a list of potential issues and steps to rectify them. Additionally, states with electronic voting offer you the chance to review your ballot - often a printed paper copy - before submitting. Though it may seem like a formality, it’s not. Make sure to review what the machine says you’ve selected to make sure it actually reflects your choices before you finalize your vote.

-Check in with your people: Text your friends to make sure they’re ready for tomorrow, or to make a plan to head to the polls together. I voted early in Wisconsin a few weeks ago, but I’ll make a point to chat with friends and neighbors about it throughout the day to keep the election top of mind for us all.

Tomorrow, vote.

Cheering you on. Holding my breath.

(Art by Libby Vanderploeg.)