Use-It-Up Supper Club

Zero-waste supper clubs: an idea for fighting food waste | Litterless

I buy too many beans. Mint green flageolets, tiger-eyed Rancho Gordos from a trip to California, locally grown pinto beans at the farmers market, unidentified white beans from who-knows-where, dried pigeon peas bought in bulk simply because they were on sale.

It’s certainly fine to choose beans for their beauty and weirdness alone, but here’s the rub: I have to then eat those beans. And week after week I reach instead for black beans, chickpeas, navy beans, and lentils. At the grocery store I like to think I’m adventurous, but at dinnertime, routine wins the day and my specialty beans languish.

Zero-waste supper clubs: an idea for fighting food waste | Litterless

It’s good to have a friend who shares your penchant for buying too many bulk pantry goods. My friend Sarah is a chef and knows the best place to get bread in Chicago, what to do with your last five farmers’ market strawberries that have gone slightly mushy, and, luckily, what to make with extra beans.

With my move hanging over me and too many dry goods cluttering up both of our cabinets, we started mraaking a point to cook our extra food, together. The premise is simple enough: we cook dinner at her house or mine, using a few ingredients each that we’d like to use up. My sushi rice and nori plus her dried shiitakes and wasabi paste. My yellow eye beans plus her tomato sauce made from last year’s frozen heirloom beauties.

Zero-waste supper clubs: an idea for fighting food waste | Litterless

You don’t need a friend for using up languishing pantry goods, but you do need a plan. With a friend, reaching into the back of my cabinet and digging out ingredients for a meal becomes a celebration, an experiment, a reason to think more thoughtfully about how best to use each ingredient.

Zero-waste supper clubs: an idea for fighting food waste | Litterless

Monday night I took the train to her house, a tin of still-warm-just-cooked beans in my bag, my contribution to the meal. When I left after dinner, hours later, the same tin was full of leftovers to eat tomorrow. We’d made a pact to meet up again soon to trade my extra French press for her extra cookbook, and to make dinner again soon if we could find a time. And I left with a personal pact to make this recipe from Rachel Roddy again and again.

PS. Find more ideas for reducing food waste, here.

On Windowsill Gardening

Windowsill garden | Litterless

In two weeks, I'm moving. Two weeks ago, I planted a few pots with spinach and herb seeds. I started the seeds too late in the season, but they'll be fine. I've loved watching them start to peek out of the soil, slowly and surely.

I don't think I've grown any plants from seeds in two or three years. Summers have been full of weeks and weekends away from home: at my parents' house, on vacation, visiting Julian in Madison. Though each summer I've wanted to grow food on my back porch, each summer I've hemmed and hawed and finally decided not to plant anything, visions of parched pots withering in my absence floating through my head.

This summer, a move seemed like a great reason not to start any seeds or buy any starts. The pots might break en route, the soil might spill out in the truck, the plants might be neglected for several days before and after the move.

They might, and yet, so what?

I've spent several summers waiting for the perfect moment when the stars align and my calendar is clear, but of course that's unrealistic. Soil is free, seeds are cheap, and I passed on the extra seeds to friends who have more garden space than I do. There's nothing to lose by planting foods that might not get a chance to flourish and there's nothing to gain by skipping a gardening season.

I needed to realize that growing food isn't an all-or-nothing proposition: while planting ten pots might be better than planting three pots, planting three pots is a world better than planting no pots. I don't have the backyard garden of my dreams, the community garden plot of my dreams, or even the back-porch container garden of my dreams. But when I look at the tiny threads of basil, spinach, and chives slowly growing upwards in my three windowsill pots, not only do they seem like more than nothing, they seem like more than enough.

What are you growing this summer, big or small?

Buying Berries Without Plastic

Buying berries without plastic for zero waste folks | Litterless

I typically don't buy berries in plastic cartons as part of my effort to make less packaging waste. You may choose to keep buying them despite the rest of your zero waste efforts: surely, if there's something worth buying in packaging, it's plump and juicy blueberries, not pallid store-bought cookies. (Maybe you disagree, in which case, buy the cookies).

Bringing my own water bottle and reusable utensils with me when I leave the house: not a sacrifice. Spending nine months of the year without berries: a bit of a sacrifice. Here, some tips for making it less so.

How to buy berries zero waste and plastic-free style | Litterless

-Eat your fill, all summer long. I think of this as the Zorba method, after this quote from Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

"In Nikos Kazantzakis's novel Zorba the Greek, the pallid narrator frets a lot about his weaknesses of the flesh. He lies awake at night worrying about the infinite varieties of lust that call to him from this world; for example, cherries. He's way too fond of cherries. Zorba tells him, Well then, I'm afraid what you must do is stand under the tree, collect a big bowl full, and stuff yourself. Eat cherries like they're going out of season."

Eat berries like they're going out of season because, well, they are. Buy them from the farmers' market all summer long, first the tiny early strawberries of spring, then blueberries and gooseberries and blackberries and my very favorite, black raspberries.

You can buy them in the cardboard or wooden cartons that most farmers package them in, or transfer them into your own container at the market and hand back the carton to the farmer with a smile. Or, even better, go berry picking, eat your fill, then do step two, below.

-Freeze some, too. They taste best fresh, but extending the length of berry season is tempting, too. Frozen blueberries have been one of my favorite snacks all my life. (I used to show up to middle school with fingers tinted slightly blue from my breakfast of them). Now I make my own by buying lots of extras at the farmers market and freezing them in a single layer on a baking sheet, before transferring them to a sealed container in the freezer.

If jam is your jam, then do that, too. For me, jam - no matter how good - is a different animal entirely from whole berries. I might make a few jars of it this summer, but I'd rather freeze the berries whole and enjoy them that way. Either way, the trick is to eke them out over the course of the remaining months of the year; I've become resigned to the fact that mine usually vanish by September.

Buying berries without plastic for zero waste folks | Litterless

-Buy them as food waste. On a recent grocery shopping trip with Julian at our favorite co-op in Madison, I found the food waste section for the first time. Slightly damaged or too-ripe produce, marked down to sell rather than thrown away. They had a couple of plastic cartons of berries in which a few of the berries showed mold spots, but the rest were perfect. Reasoning they'd end up in the landfill anyway, we bought them, and to have blackberries unexpectedly early in the season was such a treat. If you use a food waste delivery service like Imperfect Produce, you could also snag the occasional carton of berries there, too. 

-Buy them at the grocery, then recycle the plastic carton. Buy them as a special treat to put on top of your birthday cake,  buy them because they're the only fruit your kids will eat, buy them because they're the treat you simply refuse to do without. You're only human. Berries are perfect and delicious. Do what you need to do.

Other ideas for plastic-free berries? Which approach do you use in your household?

Introduction to Fountain Pens

Introduction to using fountain pens for zero waste folks | Litterless

It's safe to say my partner Julian is a fountain pen pro. For him, they're a favored daily tool, at least one always tucked into his pocket (no ink explosions yet!).

Since they're refillable, fountain pens are also a zero waste alternative to the plastic pens that are designed to be disposed of once empty. But they can also be a bit daunting at first (I still sometimes need help with mine!). Julian kindly offered to share a mini tutorial with us; here's what he has to say. (Note: this post contains a few affiliate links).

With widespread access to smartphones and an overwhelming list of to-do list and note taking apps, it's safe to assume that reliance on pen and paper has decreased. Like many people, though, I still and enjoy writing the old-fashioned way. I'm no Luddite (I use Evernote extensively to supplement pen and paper), but there's something more convenient about grabbing my favorite notepad and scrawling a grocery list before I can unlock my phone and find the appropriate app. Physically crossing things off of my daily to-do list is way more satisfying than tapping a checkbox.

Even before I first became aware of zero waste, I cringed every time I dropped an empty Pilot G2 in the trash. Sometimes, I even wishfully put them in the recycling bin, hoping that magically the plastic would be reused. Eventually, I began purchasing refill cartridges and kept the same pen body.

In many cases, the available or affordable pens are not refillable (e.g., Bic). For some pens, you can recycle the bodies or ship the empty product to a program like Terracycle. This is a reasonably good solution, but recycling requires energy. If possible, it's preferable to avoid introducing new pens into the waste cycle.

Introduction to using fountain pens for zero waste folks | Litterless

My solution is simple: the fountain pen. To some, it may appear archaic. Fountain pens certainly did to me when I first found dried up Parkers in my parents' pen cups. They didn't write smoothly and made a mess of the paper and my hands. What I didn't know then is that the ink had dried in the pens due to years of sitting idle and with some easy reconditioning, they would work well.

As I see it, a fountain pen offers the following advantages for those with an eye toward zero waste:

-Fountain pens are designed to be refilled with ink, which may be purchased "in bulk" in glass containers. This obviates the need for additional plastic refills.
-There are many economical pen options that are made mostly of metal.
-The pens will last for far longer than a typical ballpoint pen if treated correctly.

There are, however, some obstacles to getting started with fountain pens. Fountain pens offer different writing styles based on the width and material of the nib, the ink you choose, the paper you write on, and even the way you hold the pen. You may have to experiment a bit to find what works best for you.

How to use a fountain pen for going zero waste | Litterless

I recommend an affordable and durable metal pen to get started:

-LAMY AL-Star: Time and time again this pen comes up as highly recommended. The nib writes extremely well, the metal pen is well-made and has a minimum amount of plastic, and the body is comfortable to hold. The clip on the cap makes it easy to bring with you. Plus, you can buy replacement nibs, ensuring this pen will last decades.
-Diplomat Traveller (pictured here): This is a nicely weighted metal pen with a quality nib. It is slimmer than the AL-Star and is more at home in a shirt pocket (if that's of interest to you!).
-Pilot Metropolitan: This metal pen comes in a variety of patterns and colors and is the most affordable of the bunch. The ink cartridge system is proprietary, but if you order a converter and refill it with ink from a bottle, this isn't a limitation.

Next, select a good quick-drying ink to make quick notes more accessible. Watery inks will smear if you smudge them (for example, when noting the PLU of an item in the bulk aisle on a piece of plastic-y tape).

-Noodler’s Q-E'ternity: Quick-drying and smear-resistant ink that works well for paper on which fountain pen inks typically bleed.
-Pelikan 4001: This ink comes in several vibrant colors and dries even faster than the above.

A bottle of either of these should last you years - or, you can plan split several bottles with a friend (or even one bottle among several friends!) until you find one you like.

Introduction to using fountain pens for zero waste folks | Litterless

When you purchase a pen and bottle of ink, be sure to purchase a converter, the piece shown above with the red cap. These piston devices replace the small disposable plastic cartridges that typically feed ink to a fountain pen. When your pen is empty, you remove the body, twist the piston such that it is closest to the nib, submerge the nib in the ink bottle, and draw the piston up to fill the converter with ink. (Here's a more in-depth look at how to use it). After a quick wipe down of the nib on a piece of scrap paper, you’re ready to write!

How to use a fountain pen for zero waste writing | Litterless

Fountain pens provide an easy and satisfying avenue for reducing waste at your office and at home. While they may seem a bit tricky to get started with, with a bit of practice, you can replace disposables with a reusable option.

If you have any questions - about getting started with fountain pens or even if you're a long-time user - Julian loves talking about all things FP. He's planning pop into the comment section below with answers, so ask away! Thank you, Julian!

How to Compost with a Pick-Up Service

How to compost with a pick-up service for a zero waste home | Litterless

I don't need to spend time here extolling the virtues of composting: I love it, you know by now that I love it, we can move on. I'll spare you the rhapsodizing and jump right in. For the past four years of living in small Chicago apartments, I've used a pick-up service to take care of my organic waste. Without the yard space to devote to a conventional backyard bin or the desire to manage my own vermicomposting bin, getting my compost picked up each month has been an easy way to divert my food waste and other organics from the trash.

If you're in a similar situation and have been thinking about composting but aren't sure how to fit it into your yard-less / busy life (or what have you), a compost pick-up service might be a good option for you, too. Here's how they work:

Getting started:

-Find a service near you. Over the last few years, the number of pick-up services in operation across the United States has skyrocketed. Since few cities offer municipal pick-up, businesses have stepped in to take up the slack and offer options to people who want to compost but lack the yard space (or time or energy) to support their own backyard bin. I've used a pick-up service all four years that I've lived in Chicago, and I can't say enough good things about it. I keep a guide to services across the United States - find out if there's one operating in your city here.

-Choose your service frequency. Most services that I know of use a five-gallon bucket as their container of choice, so the question here is how long will it take you to fill a bucket with kitchen scraps. The majority of services offer a weekly, bi-weekly, and a monthly pick-up option, or some combination thereof. Which you choose to start with will depend on how many people are in your family, how often you eat at home, and how often you’re out of town. For the first few years I lived in Chicago, a monthly option worked for me, but last year I switched to bi-weekly. (Something about all those squash peels filling the bucket up more quickly in the fall, or something).

-Learn what you can and can’t compost. Too much contamination makes the finished compost essentially unusable. Depending on what method companies use to break down the food scraps, putting things in your compost that don't belong there can cause major problems. For example, some compost facilities grind up the waste they receive so that it breaks down faster. This means that if a plastic fork accidentally lands in your compost bucket and doesn't get sorted out in the facility, it might get ground up and hundreds of small plastic shards will end up in the finished compost. Contaminated compost like that can't be used on farms to grow food; instead, it's down-cycled into soil for landscaping or landfill topper.

This is all to say: what you put in your bucket matters! Most companies should have a list or printable that you can post above your bucket or inside a kitchen cabinet until you have your routine down pat. And, like recycling, when in doubt it's sometimes just better to throw it out.

-Mark your calendar. Most services will give you a heads’ up to put your bucket out the night before it's scheduled. After all, they don’t want to make it to your house only to find there’s nothing to pick up. Mine sends me a text the night before, but I usually jot down each pick-up in my calendar a few weeks in advance so that if I’m planning to be out of town, I’m able to cancel or postpone that week's pick-up ahead of time.

How to compost with a pick-up service for a zero waste home | Litterless


Where do you keep your bucket?

I generally keep mine on the back patio I share with a neighbor. With the lid tightly closed, I've never had a problem with animals or weather or anything untoward. One year when I lived in an apartment without any outdoor space at all, I stored the bucket in a cabinet under my kitchen sink and no one was the wiser. 

In the winter, I often move my compost bucket inside, as well. Ice can make it difficult to open and close the lid, and at any rate there's a limit to the number of trips outside I want to make when it's cold. When the weather's nice, I move it back outside. There are of course many options for where to keep your bucket (how about a basement, if you don't have outdoor space but don't want to keep it in your apartment?), but the important thing is making sure to shut the lid tightly each time you open it.

Does it smell?

Well, yes and no. In my experience, the bucket only smells when it’s open. Otherwise, the lid forms enough of a seal that any odors are kept inside. Like I mentioned, a few years ago when I lived in an apartment without a back patio I actually kept the bucket inside my kitchen year-round! To keep odors at bay, I try to minimize how often I open the bucket. I store food scraps in a bowl in my fridge or freezer, adding to it each time I cook. Then, when the bowl is full - every couple of days - I transfer the contents to the bucket. When I have extra room in my bucket, I also sometimes throw in some paper, which further tamps down odors.

What can you compost using this method?

It varies by service, so before you sign up check the website or send them an email to make sure that what you can compost in the service will work for your lifestyle. If you eat meat and dairy and are choosing between two pick-up services, whether or not one accepts those might be a determining factor in which service you ultimately choose. As an example, here's a list of what I can compost using my current pick-up service.

It's also worth checking in with your provider on what to do about forks, cups, and other items that are purported to be compostable. Certifications, decomposition times, and materials vary greatly, so take note of what specific non-food items, if any, your service accepts. Biodegradable doesn't mean the same thing as compostable; what you're looking for here is the latter designation.

What less expensive options are out there for people who want to compost but don’t have yard space?

From what I've seen, services tend to run between $15 - $30 a month depending on how often you need your bucket picked up and what exactly is offered in your area. I used to pay $15 for a monthly pick-up, but now pay $25 for bi-weekly.

If you live somewhere without outdoor space and want to compost but can't squeeze an extra expense into your budget, there are other options out there, but (like any service!) they vary by city. Many farmers' markets will accept compost drop-offs (sometimes for a fee of a few dollars), or you can search around for other drop-off locations in your city. Perhaps a local community garden might take your food scraps if you send them a friendly email, or you could reach out to a friend with a compost bin and ask if you can swing by their house a couple of times a month to add to it. If none of those work, ShareWaste is a website connecting people who have compost bins with people who want to compost. Or, there's always vermicomposting...

I have a backyard compost bin, but we can't put meat and dairy in it. Could this be a good supplement?

Yes! Backyard bins shouldn't play host to oils, grease, meat, or dairy, since the compost typically doesn't get hot enough to break these things down quickly enough (plus, they're calorie-dense and can attract critters). If you compost at home but want to stop throwing meat and other oils in the trash, a pick-up service might be a nice once-a-month addition to take care of things you can't compost in your backyard. It would also give you a place to compost all those pesky compostable forks, etc., which likewise don't typically break down in the backyard. Before you sign up, double check that the service accepts everything you'd want it to accept: then go for it!

What other questions can I answer? Or other tips you'd like to share? How are you composting these days?

PS. Read more about how to compost here, and check out the guide to pick-up services in the U.S. here.

DotCup Giveaway

DotCup zero waste menstrual cup | Litterless

Last week when I went to a panel discussion about natural ways to support healthy periods, I got to meet the Betsy, the woman behind Dot Cup. Dot Cup is a Chicago-based company that launched in March that makes menstrual cups with a get one, give one model.

When Betsy offered up a cup to give away on Litterless, I jumped at the chance. This post isn't sponsored; I just think they do great work and wanted to share. A few things to love: the cups are black (no more staining!), they come in a gorgeous artist-designed pouch made of cotton (many of the other brands feature synthetic pouches, why?), they're made in the United States (just a state away from me - Wisconsin!), and for every cup purchased they give a cup to girls and schoolteachers in places where menstrual products are hard to come by. On the panel, Betsy noted that the first shipment (of 1,500 cups!) is going out to a school in Zambia later this summer.

There are many menstrual cups out there, and choosing one is so personal - based on fit, size options, and affordability, among many other factors. I haven't used a Dot Cup myself; since cups last for up to ten years, I'm still using the trusty one I first started using several years ago. But in case you're thinking of making the switch or need a new one of your own, Betsy is giving away one Dot Cup to a reader in the United States. To enter, just comment below before next Tuesday, June 12, and I'll randomly select a winner. Good luck! The winner has been randomly drawn and notified (congrats to Alicia!). Thanks to all who entered.

Update: If you don't want to leave a new menstrual cup up to chance, Betsy is kindly offering folks $5 off their purchase with code LITTERLESS

On Responsible Ownership

On responsible ownership and zero waste | Litterless

It only takes a walk through my neighborhood on the last day of the month to know that other peoples' relationships with their belongings are very different from my own. This past weekend was, in particular, a big move-out day in my Chicago neighborhood. Sights like the one pictured above seem to be more the exception than the rule: while walking around this weekend, running errands and meeting friends for meals, I saw so many things out for the trash that didn't need to be. Bed frames, tables, chairs, plates, bags, dishes, laundry baskets, shoes. Dumpsters and trash bins overflowing with things that are still useable and in good condition.

While we all have things we want to get rid of when we move, I think this type of throwing useful items away en masse is probably anathema to most of us. Though it takes effort to dispose of things in a more responsible way, I wager we'd all say that it's worth doing so when possible. I've been thinking about what marks the difference between the attitude toward disposing that lets you throw an iron bed frame like the one above in the trash bin and the one that means you'll call a local charity to come pick it up instead. I think for, me, it comes down to this:

Zero waste asks that we make a contract with each of our belongings. By buying you or accepting you, I'm committing to keeping you, using you, repairing you, and disposing of you responsibly.

This is true of purchases large and small. Buy an apple: it's a pledge to eat it and to try to compost the parts you don't. Buy a chair: a promise to use it, to repair it it breaks, and to donate it or give it away when you no longer want it. Buy a sweater: wear it, love it, mend it, donate it or pass it along to a friend. Without this sense that we are responsible for each of our possessions, they can get dumped pell mell into garbage cans, swept off to a landfill, never to be used again.

On responsible ownership and zero waste | Litterless

I believe this to be true. I don't believe it to be easy or necessarily fun. It's easy (logistically, if not on the conscience) to throw something in the trash if you don't want it. It's not easy to lug it to a donation site, to call five phone numbers to find someone who can repair it, or to take time to mend it yourself.

I'm currently in the midst of preparing to move, meaning that stuff and what we do with the stuff we don't want has been on my mind. I do feel responsible for getting everything to the right place for recycling or reuse. This has meant:

-Collecting and mailing old plastic gift cards to a recycling center in another state that will accept them
-Selling clothing online so it gets to someone who really wants it, not dumped on an overburdened secondhand market
-Selling clothing in person at a local resale shop (same reason)
-Taking old art and craft supplies to my local creative reuse center
-Hosting a stuff swap to get good things in the hands of friends
-Dropping by Little Free Libraries to leave unwanted books for someone else to take
-Figuring out where to donate my old laptop for resale and reuse
-Texting specific friends whom I think would use something I'm getting rid of, and setting up a time to meet
-Walking with Julian to a local drop-off point for old CDs and electronics, then depositing some of ours
-Collecting items for donations runs to the secondhand store; doing said runs
-Soaking and scouring pots so that they're more likely to get repurchased on the secondhand market
-Removing the bristles from old bamboo toothbrushes languishing under the sink; composting the handles
-Returning a glass growler back to the grocery store, where it's collected for reuse and refill

Clearly: being responsible for your things can be a burden. I feel lucky to have the resources to own the things I have, and for the time to make sure they go to others if I can't use them. I do a lot of making zero waste seem easy on this blog; I believe many parts of it are, but this isn't really one of them. I've held on to many items years after I stopped needing them because I didn't have the time or knowledge to pass them on appropriately.

If we commit to keeping items out of the landfill and in use, if we take this contract with each and every item we own, then logically we can only own so many things. I've talked before about my wary relationship with minimalism, but I think I'm heading more in that direction again. Each item I bring into my house means an investment of time and energy down the road, in a way that it doesn't for many other people who choose not to be responsible stewards (or who have never been taught to think of that as an option). I value my stuff. I value my time and energy more. As someone anticipating several moves in the upcoming years, this is motivation enough.

Thoughts on this? I would love to hear them.

PS. Read more musing like these on the "essays" tag, here.