Nothing New: Plastic-Free Food Storage

Plastic-Free food storage for a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

One of the easiest places to avoid buying anything new to go plastic-free is, I think, the kitchen. It's also one of the places that boasts the biggest abundance of special zero waste tools on the market. We have many of them, but we could do without most of them; most of the things we reach for on a daily basis are ones that we've had forever and that serve multiple functions.

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

If we had to stock a kitchen from scratch, here's what we might repurpose to store food and keep bread:

Jars, saved and scrubbed. (Or not scrubbed).

If you're trying to cut down on food stored in plastic, you can't find a much cheaper or easier source of glass containers than jars. We use ours for everything; if I looked in the fridge right now, I'd find glass jars holding, among other things, a sourdough starter, vegetable scraps to make broth, foraged black raspberries, and so many other things. Open a cabinet, same story. 

You can buy jars of course, and we've bought many, some new, some from thrift stores. But you can also save them, too. Unless you're canning, there's nothing about a glass jar that formerly held olives that makes it work less well than a glass jar bought new. When I'm buying something in bulk, especially bulk liquids, I often like to save the jar from a packaged version to use. An old glass bottle that held vanilla extract is that amber-tinted color you'd want for storing bulk vanilla extract; old glass vinegar bottles, as I've noted before, are the perfect shape for pouring vinegar. 

Jars work for dry goods and bulk goods, soups and starters, but also for storing fresh produce, too. Asparagus keeps better tucked into a jar with a few inches of water, as do scallions. I store parsley at room temperature in a jar with water, though the same principle doesn't seem to apply to its sisters kale, chard, or cilantro. I'd say: experiment here, but keep a close eye on produce so you can rescue it if this method doesn't seem to agree.

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

Plate-over-a-bowl, and other impromptu methods to top existing pans and plates.

If you have a plate, you have an instant lid for soaking beans, putting leftovers in the fridge, and so on. Also in this category: drape a tea towel over a pan of cake, wrap bread in a napkin overnight (but no longer), or rest a cloth or paper coaster on top of a jar of iced tea in the fridge (and then take care not to spill).

Since none of these methods are air-tight, they're of course less long term than others, with some risk of stale-ness and spoilage. Although I don't know about you, but when we have cake or bread or any prepared food around, it gets eaten more or less immediately. So.

Bread storage, without plastic. 

We store our bread in our dutch oven, sometimes wrapped in a tea towel, sometimes not. The pot is heavy enough to keep air out and moisture in, and it's a simple solution that allowed us to finally get rid of some of our very ratty old plastic bags that we'd used for bread storage formerly. If you don't have a dutch oven or stockpot or are simply curious about other approaches, I wrote more about storing bread without plastic, including many other great ideas sourced from readers, here.

One word of caution: be careful not to keep the stock pot on your stove with bread inside - we did so up until last week, when we (meaning I) accidentally lit the wrong burner and smoked out the loaf and towel inside. Oops. Now I've cleared a spot on the counter for the dutch oven to live when it's holding bread.

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


If you'll allow me to recommend two things to buy, they'd be a large clear glass Pyrex-type bowl with a lid, plus a few sheets of beeswax wrap. In defense of the the former, we use ours for everything from storing bread and cookies and apples to soaking beans and keeping compostables and stashing away food scraps for broth. We have two, and they're some of the most versatile and most-used items we own; both of ours were from a thrift store or estate sale, for less than $5 each.

The latter, beeswax wrap, well, I did without it for many years of zero waste, but now that I have some, I'm hooked. It cuts down on the amount of food storage containers we need, as it turns bowls into covered containers, keeps bread fresh without tying up our stock pot, and is a simple way to cover a pan of sheet cake. You can make your own (look for a tutorial online), or buy a few sheets that are made in Vermont by the Bee's Wrap crew.

Other resources:

-I'm curious about #thejarmethod from @brownkids. Has anyone tried it? What did you think?
-Posts on food waste for when storage methods (and planning ahead) fail, here.
-How to make your own cloth produce bags, from Zero Waste Chef.
-Get your berries plastic-free this summer, parts one and two.

What else do you use repurpose into simple food storage? Things I missed?

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

Refillable Dish Soap, in Every City

Zero waste dish soap with Fillaree | Litterless

When you’re your own dishwasher, you get picky about the tools you use. Round wooden bottle brush: the best for cleaning anything, pots or not. Small wooden pot scrubber: too stiff for other uses, it only comes out to clean the cast iron pan. Like choosing compostable wooden brushes over plastic ones, our choice of dish soap is one where we’ve also looked for a more sustainable alternative than those packaged in single-use plastic bottles.

In the absence of options available locally in bulk, for several years now we’ve relied on dish soap from Fillaree, which is shipped to us in a durable plastic bottle that we wash and return for reuse.

Fillaree is based in North Carolina and run by my kind and hard-working friend Alyssa; she and her team hand-make small batches of their bulk, non-toxic cleaning and bath supplies at their Durham storefront. Products are mild and unscented, or scented using only essential oils.

Zero waste dishwashing and dish soap | Litterless

Fillaree stocks local refill stations throughout the country (see if there’s one near you here), and they recently launched a new subscription offering to make it easy to purchase their bulk offerings even if you don’t live nearby one of their refill locations. We can vouch for the Clean Plate Dish Soap, which is the sudsiest we’ve ever tried. (It’s sooo good). I also like that it’s not thick and gloopy, so it easily flows out of a metal pour spout.

Here’s how the subscription works:

-Pick your products. Fillaree offers a hand and body soap, dish soap, and all-purpose cleaning spray. If you want to test one out before committing to a subscription, you can first purchase a glass bottle of any of the products to make sure you like it. Right now, we’re just signed up for the dish soap subscription, as we use bar soap instead of pump soap for our hands and in the shower, and we make our own all-purpose cleaning spray too.

-Pick your time frame. Though you can always change the time between deliveries to suit, select one to start out with. Alyssa recommends starting out with a delivery every three months, but I chose a six-month window since I know that’s closer to how often I need to replace my dish soap.

Zero waste dishwashing and dish soap | Litterless

When we receive our soap in the mail, we decant it into a clean glass bottle with a pour spout, then rinse out the container and let it dry before popping it back in the envelope it came in, slapping on the pre-printed label, and sending it back to Alyssa and the Fillaree crew. They reuse the shipping materials for as long as possible before recycling or composting them at their storefront. The only trash on mine was the backing from the sticker, which they request that you mail back to them along with your empty bottle - they don't currently have a way to recycle the sticker backing, but are collecting and keeping them all in the hopes of being able to find a solution soon! (What a commitment to circular systems!).

When you send the empty container back, you’ll get an $8 coupon code to apply to your next subscription. We’ve found our soap lasts a long time – it’s concentrated and a little bit goes a long way, so a bi-annual delivery is just right for us.

If you’d like to try out a Fillaree subscription for yourself, you can take $8 off your first month with code GOLITTERLESS.

(This post is sponsored by Fillaree, whose mission is to make package-free cleaning products available to all. Thank you so much for reading and supporting Litterless.)

Buying Berries Without Plastic, Part Two

How to buy zero waste berries at the farmers' market | Litterless

Despite how quickly the weeks have flown, it's still summer, still berry season, thank goodness. Not strawberry season anymore, sure, but there are currents and blackberries and raspberries and, my favorite, black raspberries. After this post on buying berries without plastic, a reader sent me an email asking for a little more detail on how to buy berries without packaging at the farmers' market. What do you say? Will they be okay with you bringing your own container? Will you get turned away? In the spirit of encouragement and community, I thought maybe you might want to hear the answer, too.

How to buy zero waste berries at the farmers' market | Litterless

Here's what to know:

-Most farm stands want to keep their containers to reuse. Those pretty blue baskets of berries don't buy themselves, you know. Often when I ask to buy a box of berries, the person behind the table immediately reaches for a plastic bag to dump the berries into to save the box for a future market, anyway. By bringing your own container, you're saving them money on a box or a bag.

-Most stands will accepts boxes back for reuse immediately. So, come prepared. While I've found that some stands will take a stack back at a later date, it's easiest just to ask then and there rather than cart everything home and back again and risk getting turned down later. Before I decant berries into my own container, I ask, "Do you mind if I take these home in my own container?," brandishing said clean, empty container as I speak. I usually end up pouring the berries into my container myself and handing over the box with a smile, so that they don't have to touch my container brought from home and risk potentially contaminating anything else at the stand.

How to buy zero waste berries at the farmers' market | Litterless

-Carry berries home in a box of your own, not a bag. If you've never seen the mess that a cotton produce bag full of squashed black raspberries makes, well. Let me save you the trouble. As careful as I think I can be, it's never careful enough. "Oh, it's fine, I'll just carry this bag or rest it at the top of my basket," I think breezily. Nope. Come prepared with a stainless steel container, glass jar, or old plastic container. Anything solid - just not a bag - will do.

-You probably won't get turned down. Your request is eminently reasonable, they've likely heard it before, and the people I've met tend to be either curious or appreciative or both. But if you get turned down, you can try again at the next stand, the next week, the next market, or the next year.

More simple scripts for asking zero waste questions in this post, if you're interested.

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

A Cup for You, a Cup for a Friend

OrganiCup zero waste menstrual cup | Litterless

This week, Julian and I have been moving into our new apartment in Madison. Hanging up clothing, setting aside duplicate spatulas to donate, finding a shelf for the food processor that won’t cause it to topple on our heads every time we open the cabinet. We love our space, but it’s a bit short on storage, and combining two apartments into one doesn’t help matters. Where possible, we’re paring down.

In our bathroom, space is especially at a premium. In my old Chicago apartment, favorite beauty products cohabitated alongside balms or lip colors I used once every month, if ever. With plenty of space to stack everything (precariously), it was easy to keep things around just in case. In our new bathroom in Madison, not so much. I’ve admitted that my bright red and very old RMS lip tint will never be one I wear, and into the recycling it went. Ditto a particularly unloved pot of lotion, and so on.

Whether in my Chicago bathroom or Madison one, though, one thing I’m happy to never have taking up space again: pads and tampons. Everyone with a period is familiar with the stacks of unsightly paper or plastic wrappers accumulating in drawers: different weights, different styles, ones bought in an emergency and favorite organic ones stalked at a local health-foods grocery. Having enough on hand could mean filling a drawer, and there are much nicer ways to fill a drawer, of course.

OrganiCup zero waste menstrual cup | Litterless

It took me a few years of hearing friends rave about it to finally hop on the menstrual cup bandwagon. First a friend in college told me about it years ago, then another friend mentioned she loved it, then I jumped on board and started telling other friends about it, too.

It’s easier to try something new and break out of your routine when a friend is doing it alongside. When I first started using a menstrual cup, I didn’t know too many others who used them, too. Now, to most of the women I’m friends with, they’re the new normal. No need to hide them in a drawer so the red stains don’t freak someone out, no need to preface statements about a menstrual cup with the phrase “I recently switched to this weird thing…”, no need to Google questions in a private browser when simply texting a pal will yield answers. It’s so good.

That’s why I loved the idea that OrganiCup recently reached out to me to share. They make silicone menstrual cups that come in a GOTS-certified organic cotton bag. This week, they’re offering a 2-for-1 package on menstrual cups so that you and a friend, sibling, or partner can take the plunge together. Just add their menstrual cup to your cart between now and July 17, and another one will automatically be added to your order when you use the code litterless.

OrganiCup zero waste menstrual cup | Litterless

You can buy one for yourself and casually hand one to your younger sis, text a friend to go in on an order together and split the cost, or even keep the extra in your desk at work just in case. They offer a cup in two sizes: A, for women who haven’t given birth vaginally, and B, for those who have. Just note that because the cup already in your cart will be doubled, you won’t be able to mix and match cup sizes in your deal.

To grab your two cups, use the code litterless between now and the end of the day on July 17. And if you’ve got questions about switching to a cup, leave them below (anonymously or pseudonymously is fine!) and I’ll do my best to answer!

This post is sponsored by OrganiCup. Thanks so much for supporting Litterless.

Nothing New: Zero Waste Utensil Wrap

How to go zero waste without buying anything new: make your own utensil wrap from things you already own | Litterless

In 2014, the first year I really started going zero waste, I bought the following things: three stainless steel metal food storage containers, a bunch of cloth produce bags, a wooden dish brush, and a tiny bamboo travel spork that could fit in the smallest of bags. That year, that was all the gear I had. I eventually added a few other things that I now consider indispensable: a menstrual cup, a reusable coffee mug, Beeswrap.

Largely, even back then I had what I needed. Tote bags, cloth produce bags. Metal containers, glass jars. Cloth napkins, cloth handkerchiefs. When I think back to those first purchases to aid in staying zero waste, what stands out clearly is how little, back then, there was to buy. Diving into the world of zero waste shopping now seems like it might be overwhelming to a newcomer. How do you decide what you really need? How do you choose from the thousands of products now catering to the zero waste market, if you don’t yet know what zero waste will look like for you?

I’m far from being anti-purchase, but I hope to be a resource to help you navigate what you really need versus what other folks say you need. Zero waste doesn’t have to look a certain way, and there’s nothing you absolutely need to own to consider yourself zero waste. (Though without a reusable water bottle, you’re going to be awfully thirsty).

To that end, this week I removed the “Essentials” page where I used to catalog my favorite zero waste products. In its place, I’m working on a new set of resources focusing less on things to buy and more on resourceful ways to get what you need, whether that means buying them from a small business or creatively reimagining what you already own.

How to go zero waste without buying anything new: make your own utensil wrap from things you already own | Litterless

So. Consider the fork, as they say. Travel and on-the-go utensils are one area where there must be a hundred different options for sale. I own several of them, both things I bought to use personally and a few that I keep tucked in my tabling kit as examples when I do workshops and public events. They vary from that first petite spork bought years ago, to a beautiful linen utensil wrap from Ambatalia, to a three-piece kit from Bambu.

Thing is, I found I don’t reach for any of those options very often; for some reason each is not quite right for me. The tiny spork takes up no space in my bag, sure, but when not wrapped in something else it’s bound to pick up every piece of lint and detritus that resides down there in the bottom. The multi-piece utensil wraps are wonderful in theory, but I rarely need a fork, spoon, and knife all at once. None of them come with napkins, which is the thing I really (really, really) need on me at all meals.

How to go zero waste without buying anything new: make your own utensil wrap from things you already own | Litterless

Instead, my preferred method to bring a utensil with me on the go is to wrap it in a cloth napkin and throw the wrap in my bag. Done. Usually it’s a metal fork pulled from my kitchen drawer, but sometimes it’s a pair or two of chopsticks. I like that this method comes with a built-in napkin, that the fork stays clean in my bag, and that it’s easy to tuck in the dishwasher and washing machine afterward.

You may love your utensil kit to high heaven, and that’s great, too. It’s not necessarily more virtuous to refrain from buying something that you’d really use just to say you refrained from buying it. The goal is to buy what we need and not buy what we don’t, and that’s so much easier said than done. In this case, if you’ve wanted to buy a utensil set but haven’t yet, here’s a method to consider trying first. Maybe for you, like me, it will do the trick.

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

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Chicago Apartment Tour

A zero waste apartment in Chicago | Litterless

A few weeks before I moved to Madison, Anna Zajac came over to my house to photograph a love letter of sorts, to my neighborhood in Chicago and my apartment, capturing a slice of what I loved about those years and what I’ll miss. Things like plants sprouting in the late afternoon sun of the big northwest-facing windows, the little blue dish of keys on the bookshelf, the soap dish found on a neighbor’s stoop. Things that have nothing to do with zero waste but that I thought you might want to see, anyway. An ode to a loved home.

A zero waste apartment in Chicago | Litterless

Coats and scarves hanging just inside the door, often much less neatly than this and a home to visiting friends’ coats, too.

A zero waste apartment in Chicago | Litterless

Desk-dinner-table-craft-station-extra-countertop all rolled into one, in the main room.

A zero waste apartment in Chicago | Litterless

Elsewhere in the same room, a couch, a chair, a footstool from my grandmother, a bookcase found out on the curb in college. A cactus from a friend who moved away, an aloe plant that the former tenant had left in my very first apartment, stacks of cookbooks.

A zero waste apartment in Chicago | Litterless

A treehouse feeling in the summer, my very favorite kind of tree (a locust) right outside.

A zero waste apartment in Chicago | Litterless

As with so many small city apartments, a kitchen almost too small to be worth mentioning, not much more than a sink-square of countertop-stove-fridge, what I’ll miss the least.

A zero waste apartment in Chicago | Litterless

Wooden dish brushes, some my own, some given to me by a friend who moved away (and who I hope sees this from her current perch in Morocco).

A zero waste apartment in Chicago | Litterless

The bedroom, a tiny closet, often crammed with things hidden from sight elsewhere, a secondhand headboard, a birthday gift of a blanket.

A zero waste apartment in Chicago | Litterless

We’re far from settled into our new Madison home, but time not spent putting clothing away has been spent on bike rides, making bread and hummus and dinners, tending to summer herbs on the balcony with a glass of iced tea. More on everything, soon.

(Photographs by the talented Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Packing for a Zero Waste Move, Part Two

Zero waste moving | Litterless

Last time I moved, I moved a mile. As the movers drove the truck from the old apartment to my new, I rode my bike to meet them. The night before, I’d filled a backpack and my arms with a few fragile items I didn’t want to pack and walked them over to the new place myself, which took all of thirty minutes round-trip.

I wrote about that move here. Much of what I wrote then rings true for this move, too.

But there are ways in which intra-city moves differ from inter-city moves. Tomorrow, I’m packing up and moving to a new state. This means that I can’t take advantage of my beloved rented reusable boxes to keep this move low-waste. Here, though, is what I have been doing, in case it’s helpful for planning a big move of your own:

-Start decluttering early. This is essential if you want to get unwanted items to the right places before you go. It’s tempting to leave everything until the week before the move, but slowly finding homes for things you want to donate over the course of a month or so gives things a better chance of being reused or recycled properly. More on the subject here and here, if you’re interested.

Zero waste moving | Litterless

-Use everything you have. Cut down on the packing materials you buy by letting other items serve as stand-ins where possible. I’m using cardboard boxes when I move, but I’m also filling wooden crates, wire baskets, suitcases, and backpacks. Depending on how you’re doing the moving, this might be more or less of an option for you. We’ve hired movers with a truck, and will be driving ourselves up to Madison in a car. Sealed cardboard boxes will go in the truck, while open crates or baskets will go in the car to ferry more fragile items, like the terra-cotta pots pictured above. Beyond makeshift boxes, clothing and linens can serve as packing materials for delicate items.

-Stock up on reused moving supplies. If you have the space, start gathering supplies a few months ahead of time. Save boxes that are shipped to your door, and beg them from friends, neighbors, and grocery stores. Put out a call for extra newspapers and packing papers. You can also search Craigslist, your local Buy Nothing Facebook group, or at local moving companies for secondhand moving boxes – many folks will let you have them for free just to take the boxes off their hands. The boxes I’m using are a combination gathered from friends and saved from deliveries. I’ve found myself with a few extra boxes after most of my packing is finished, so instead of jamming them into the communal recycling behind my apartment, I reached out to a friend who’s also moving this week to see if she could use any of them.

Zero waste moving | Litterless

-Use what you have first. As the saying goes, the most sustainable option is the thing you already own. I have a roll of plastic tape in my home, so I’m using that for this move rather than purchasing a new roll of paper tape just so I can check the box of “perfectly plastic-free move.” Next time I purchase a roll of tape, it will be a paper one, but for now I’m committed to using what I already have. Same goes for bubble wrap, packing peanuts, and other things typically anathema to the zero waster: if you happen to already have ‘em, use ‘em, then save them for a future move or pass them along for reuse or recycling.

(If you’re in the market for an alternative to plastic tape, a better choice might be paper tape or plastic tape purchased secondhand at your local creative reuse center).

-When in doubt, use more packing materials. I feel a push and pull between wanting to pack everything carefully and not wanting to use too many packing materials. If you, like me, are wavering between the two, a good rule of thumb I think is this: better to use more materials than to allow your objects to break in transit. A bottle of broken vinegar wastes the vinegar and the glass. A broken lamp might end up in the landfill, unable to be fixed or donated. A jar of olive oil that breaks can ruin everything underneath it. Broken ceramics aren’t recyclable, so if a plate or bowl breaks, to the landfill it likely goes. Choosing between a break and using some extra tape or newspapers becomes easier with that in mind.

-Post-move, reuse your packing materials before recycling. Though most moving supplies are recyclable, reusing them first is a much better option. You can use Craigslist, a Buy Nothing group, or a neighborhood forum to get the boxes to a new home. Or, if you know you’ll be moving again when your yearlong lease is up and you have the storage space, break down the boxes – or at least some of them – and tuck them away in a basement or storage spot to reuse yourself. (Having some in reserve can feel like a lifesaver when the close of the year feels like it comes sooner than you’d think).

Other tips to share? Catch you on the flip side (Madison!), folks. I'm taking some time away from here next week to get settled and tackle a few big projects - back soon!