zero waste takeout.

Zero waste takeout

That little dish of messy red heaven up there is vegetable bibimbap from the Korean restaurant a few blocks from me. I cook often, but WOW there are some nights when it just isn't going to happen. I can't really rely on ready-made packaged foods - pizzas, bags of frozen veggies, cans of whatever, microwaveable things - and stay zero waste at the same time, so I use the wonderful restaurants on my street as a safety valve for nights when cooking feels impossible.

Here's the trick for zero waste take-out if for you, like me, asking a restaurant to put food in your own containers is too daunting. Though perhaps it shouldn't, it makes me shy to ask for something so unusual - and the bigger reason is that I don't want to ask the restaurant to break any health code rules by bringing my dish from outside back to their kitchen. Instead, I choose places with a walk-up counter and a five to ten minute wait time and I order my dish "for here." Then, once it gets to my table, I pull out a spoon and sealed container from home, transfer the dish, clear my table, and head on home.

If you live somewhere walkable or bike-able, find a few restaurants close to you and wander over some night. If you rely on your car to get from your home to the restaurants you like, maybe keep the container in your desk or in your car so you can stop somewhere on the way home. Either way - a ten minute dinner and zero waste takeout, no mustering up courage required.

grocery shopping without bulk, part two: jewel-osco.

Grocery shopping without bulk at Jewel-Osco

First up in my summer series of trying to shop zero waste at a few of the large Midwestern grocery chains, we've got that Chicago cult fave: Jewel-Osco. Jewel-Osco is pretty much your standard big-box grocery store: a small organics selection, lots of conventional produce, and then basically a whole store of packaged foods and no bulk aisle. Come walk with me through the grocery store as I take you through how I made the decisions I did!

I visited on a Sunday night to grab ingredients for a few days' worth of meals. Because I live within walking distance to work, where there's a grocery store with a bulk section two minutes away, I typically shop for just a few days rather than picking up ingredients for a whole week's worth of meals. It's so easy to pop in and out of that store, and my evenings these days can be unpredictable (always up for a last-minute hang-out with pals). This helps ensure that I actually eat what I buy, and means that I have flexibility to do whatever I want in the evenings rather than worrying about what produce might be going bad.

So, I went to Jewel-Osco with a few thoughts of what I might eat the next few days bouncing around in my brain, but no firm plan. I think that's the best way to approach shopping zero waste at stores where it's a bit harder: having some sense of what you might want to eat, but being flexible in case what you want is only available in some form of heinous plastic packaging. It was HOT that week, and I wanted a few simple, low-oven meals: sandwiches, panzanella, salad, and then some healthy snacks.

With my cloth bags and reusable produce bags in tow, I made a bee-line for the organics section - although it's worth noting here that you certainly don't need to choose organic to be zero waste. I picked up celery, carrots, and apples for simple snacks throughout the week. Instead of baby carrots or shredded carrots, I bought whole carrots, which came with just a twist tie instead of a plastic bag. If you rely on baby carrots for lunches or snacks, you could purchase whole carrots and then cut them up into sticks yourself to store in the fridge. In the produce section, I also picked up a lemon (to put in water for a summery beverage) and tomatoes for the panzanella.

Next, I visited the bakery section to grab bread. Choosing loose mini loaves instead of plastic-packaged shelf-stable loaves enabled me to use my own cloth bag from home, zero waste style. I toasted these babies into croutons for salad and panzanella, and split them lengthwise for simple veggie sandwiches.

The other things I needed were beans to add body to the panzanella and to turn into homemade hummus, as well as vinegar for the panzanella and for salad dressing (I was using olive oil I already had on hand at home). I chose to buy beans in cans, knowing that the cans were recyclable. I also considered buying them dry in larger plastic bags, but I ultimately wasn't sure if the stretchy plastic bags were recyclable; I collect stretchy plastic bags that come my way and take them to a local drop-off for recycling, but I never am confident that they actually get recycled. So, cans it is. However, dried beans have a lower transportation weight (there's water in the cans), and you get more beans in the package - essentially a form of buying in bulk. So I think it could go either way on that one. I also purchased a small glass bottle of vinegar. I chose this one because it looked like the tastiest one on offer, but as a bonus it's packaged in glass (recyclable!) and I can take the cork on top to be recycled too, unlike a plastic cap that other ones would have. The bottle is so pretty, though, that I might peel off the label and include it with my next thrift store donation - I bet someone would love to reuse it.

I also grabbed soba noodles in packaging. I've been unable to find soba noodles in bulk anywhere in Chicago, and for years I did without - but I love them, they're protein packed and cook quickly, and I just find that my life is way better with them. So though they're not zero waste by any means, I still buy them. And I'm so happy that I do. I chose this brand because it's organic, inexpensive, and I can compost the cardboard insert. Since I gave away my trash can a few years ago, I keep non-recyclable plastic "bags" like the one the soba noodles come in under my sink to corral small pieces of trash I make. I like being able to upcycle them once before they hit the landfill.

Total non-recyclable trash from this trip: a receipt, five produce stickers, three twist ties, and the plastic sleeve on the soba noodles. Not too bad, right? The major key to staying zero waste here was purchasing mainly produce and then bringing it home in reusable cloth bags rather than plastic. In total, I spent around $30 on this haul, but many of the items - celery, carrots, vinegar, soba noodles - lasted for a while. And, I could have chosen less fancy vinegar to bring down the total.

Is this similar to or different from a typical shopping trip for you? Anything you would have done differently?

For more in my series on how to grocery shop without access to bulk foods (and to see who's profiling groceries in other parts of the country), hop over here.

grocery shopping without bulk, part one.

Grocery shopping without bulk

If you've tried to go zero waste, there's one thing you already know: in many ways, it's all about what you can find in bulk near you. I've experienced the joy of finding things I need in bulk and the frustration of not having access to other things package-free.

We probably all wish our bulk options were a little bit, or maybe even a lot bit, better. And yet, there are so many places where bulk grocery options are truly nonexistent. Maybe there isn't a bulk aisle near you; maybe there's one in your city, but it's too far from you to be a viable option. I'm fortunate to have the time and money to be able to prioritize bulk shopping, even if it means going out of my way to do so (which it often does), but not everyone's in the same camp.

So, this summer I'm excited to be partnering a with a few other zero wasters from around the country to share how to shop lower-waste at some of the bigger chain stores where you might already shop.

Throughout the summer, I'll take you to three local Midwest grocery stores that aren't my typical zero waste go-tos, and we'll talk through the choices I made and how I stayed low-waste there. Then, at the end of the summer, I'll share the breakdown of what I've learned about how to think about shopping zero waste sans bulk, with hopefully lots of nuggets of advice you can tuck away for your next trip to the grocery.

If you're not in the Midwest, don't worry! We've got ladies from all regions of the United States on board. Take a peek at the line-up:

-East: Meredith of Meredith Tested will be profiling Trader Joes', Costco, Hannaford Supermarket, and Wal-Mart.
-South: Manuela from Girl Gone Green will be going to Aldi, Publix, Thrive, and Wal-Mart.
-Midwest: That's me! I'll be taking you to Kroger, Jewel-Osco, and Wal-Mart.
-West: Andrea of Be Zero will be featuring Lucky's, Safeway, and Wal-Mart.
-Pacific: Kathryn of Going Zero Waste will be visiting Target, Grocery Outlet, and Wal-Mart.

Before we start, know: I'm a big fan of shopping locally and small. Farmers' markets can be some of the best places to find package-free produce, and if you're choosing produce wisely it can be affordable, too. For example, tomatoes in June are pricey, but tomatoes in the August glut are less expensive. Plus, many markets accept and match SNAP benefits (if you live in Chicago, here's a list of which Chicago area markets do). It's good to keep food dollars in the community, with farmers and co-ops and smaller stores. That much is for certain. But if that approach doesn't work for you - time, money, transportation, the constraints of geography - that in no way disqualifies you from being zero waste. It just means you may have to get a little creative at your supermarket.

Do you struggle with finding access to places where you can shop zero waste-ish? What have been the biggest challenges for you? If you leave them in the comments below, we'll tackle them together. Back later this week with the next installment!

Pictured is my current grocery shopping kit: a Baggu bag bought secondhand, as well as cloth produce bags from Dans le Sac and Simple Ecology. You can find more thoughts on what to pack when you go to the grocery, here.

zero waste tea, three ways.

Zero waste tea, three ways

This post is sponsored by Arbor Teas, makers of sustainable, organic teas in compostable packaging.

I am that rare thing: a non-coffee-drinking adult. Tea, however, is a constant in my days. As usual, I have a cup beside me now as I work, and a jar of sun tea brewing in the windowsill at home, an easy way to celebrate summer (happy June!).

There are three main options for zero waste tea: buy it in bulk, grow it yourself (no packaging needed!), or buy it in thoughtful, sustainable packaging. I've done all three methods, and though I'm a big fan of my local bulk aisle, you may not have great bulk tea options available near you. Below, the low-down on each of these options, including ideas for getting your tea fix if you can't find bulk tea. Brew a cup using your favorite tea strainer or French press (these teas are all loose leaf!), and let's chat:

Shop in bulk.

This one's self-explanatory, I think: any time you're able to buy something in your own containers sans packaging, zero waste asks that you seize that opportunity. If you're not familiar with bulk shopping, here's a quick rundown - and, if you're looking for where in your city might offer bulk tea, you can check for it here.

My cabinet is always full of (one could say, cluttered with) bulk teas decanted into various jars. I like to keep lots of different types on hand, because part of the ritual that makes drinking tea such a treat is, I think, choosing exactly the variety that suits your current mood. I mostly drink herbal teas, but the herbal varieties sold in bulk at my go-to groceries are fairly tame - I love a good, plain chamomile, but not every day - so I often bring back bulk teas as a travel souvenir, too. 

Grow your own. 

Being an herbal tea devotee has this benefit, too: often when I want tea I'll just pluck a few sprigs of mint from my beloved mint plant, pictured here. Obviously, this option is not so feasible for those who prefer caffeinated teas - green, black, or white - or other, specific types of tea, like rooibos. But, there are plenty of herbal tisanes that you can grow and blend yourself, or pick up as fresh bundles of herbs from the farmers' market in the summer. Try herbs like mint, chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, rosehip, lemongrass, sage, or mix a few of these together into your ideal concoction. These work either fresh or dried, chopped or left on the stem.

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Choose compostable packaging.

If you don't have bulk tea near you, Arbor Teas offers the best alternative that I know of. Trying to find fully recyclable, compostable packaged tea on grocery store shelves has been, for me, a losing proposition. Each brand of loose-leaf packaged tea that I've tested has had some form of non-recyclable plastic packaging; regardless of the beguiling cardboard or stainless steel canister it comes in, there's always a plastic sleeve inside to hold the tea. And, individually wrapped teabags are culprits too: the single-serve packages are typically plastic or plastic lined (even Traditional Medicinals, which appears to be just paper, has a thin film of plastic on the inside), and sometimes the actual tea bags aren't compostable either, especially the "silk" plastic mesh kind.

Arbor Teas, on the other hand, offers loose leaf teas whose packaging is entirely compostable in your backyard composter - no industrial composting needed. Their thoughtful packaging is as thin as they could make it (lighter weight means a lower transportation footprint, fewer resources needed in manufacturing, and quicker composting), and the paper labels are fully compostable, too. When the box appears at your door, you can recycle the cardboard and the invoice, decant the tea into your own container to keep it fresh for longer, and then pop the bag straight into your compost. Done. As close to zero waste as packaging can get, pretty much, and a great option for you tea lovers whose nearby bulk selection isn't cutting it.

Arbor teas

Their tea comes in sample, regular, and bulk sizes, pictured above, so once you find a blend you love, you can size up to the bulk package to reduce the amount of packaging per serving. I tried their chamomile mint, masala chai rooibos, and ginger chili tisane - all fun twists on classic flavors, and all organic and often fair trade. You can read more about their sustainability creds - carbon offsets for their whole supply chain, solar powered offices, and industrial composting of any organic waste that's generated before it hits your door - here, and more about their compostable packaging here.

If you'd like, you can visit their online store right here. And, New Yorkers, you can currently purchase Arbor Teas at the Package Free Shop pop-up in Williamsburg! Hop to.

Any fellow tea devotees out there: how do you approach buying and brewing tea in a zero waste way? Do you have any other suggestions? I'd love to hear.

PS. More low-not-zero waste options for those without great bulk offerings near you can be found here, and even more coming at you later this week.

This post is in partnership with Arbor Teas. All opinions are my own; thank you for reading and for supporting Litterless.

july chicago meet-up.

Zero Waste Chicago Meet-up July 2017

Excited to share the details of our July Zero Waste Chicago meet-up, for any local readers and friends! We'll be getting together over a picnic potluck at Monarch Community Garden in Humboldt Park to chat, eat, and enjoy summer in the garden.

Monarch is located on California Ave between Adams and Cortez, directly across from Adams & Sons Garden Center. Street parking is available, or the garden is also easily accessible via the California or Division buses. Please bring a snack or dish to share, as well as a plate, utensil, and drinking glass or water bottle for yourself. We'll make sure that vegan and gluten-free options are available. And, if you're planning on coming, I'd recommend signing up for the Zero Waste Chicago email list (click here and then "subscribe" down in the bottom right-hand corner), so we can make sure to let you know if the event gets rained out last minute!

And, don't forget about our June meet-up tomorrow, June 10th. We're joining forces with Urban Rivers to plant a garden that will later be installed in the Chicago River, to provide a habitat for wildlife and help keep the river clean and trash-free. Full event details here - hope you can make it!

diy cleaning spray.

DIY vinegar cleaning spray

I know the contents of that bottle don't exactly look like something you'd want to clean with. Rest assured, though, that it's just water and vinegar scented with citrus peels. Before trying this out, I was skeptical that something so simple could clean well enough, but it's pretty magical (try it once on your stove and you'll be hooked forever). I now use it for everything - cleaning my stove, countertops, sinks, floors, windows, and bathroom.

As a bonus, the spray is completely non-toxic. Even the supposedly non-toxic store-bought cleaning spray that I used to use made me cough, which was a little sobering. This, on the other hand, is so safe that you could put on your salad (though admittedly, that sounds kind of gross). Read on for the how-to, and to share how you use a spray like this in the comments!

Supplies for DIY vinegar cleaning spray


-A jar or other wide-mouthed container of white vinegar. You can decant it from a larger bottle of white vinegar, or check here to see if it's available in bulk near you. Also, I've found that I like to choose a jar with a plastic lid (so, maybe save something like an old mayonnaise jar for this purpose!), which won't rust like standard mason jar lids, even during prolonged contact with vinegar.

-Spray nozzle and bottle. You can purchase these together (a la this), but mine are from an old vinegar bottle with the label removed and a spray cap from an old, store-bought cleaning spray. If you're making your own spray bottle rather than buying one, try a few bottles with your spray cap until you find one that fits, and then trim the bottom of the plastic stem down to size.

-Peel of 2 - 3 citrus fruits of your choice. I've used lemon, lime, and clementine, but you could also try grapefruit, Meyer lemon, or whatever else you have on hand (more ideas below!). I love that these peels can get another use before ending up in the compost.


Well, now, that's the easy part. Remove the white pith from citrus peels so that only the colorful part of the peel remains. Add them to a jar along with undiluted white vinegar, and let them soak in the jar for about a week or until the vinegar smells slightly citrusy.

Strain out the peels and fill the spray bottle halfway with vinegar. Fill the rest of the spray bottle with water, and leave the remaining vinegar in the jar sans peels until you need to top off the spray bottle.

For cleaning, simply spray the mixture as you would any other cleaning spray! It's best if you spray it onto the surface and then give it a few minutes to work its magic before wiping it off. I use it to mop my floors, wipe down my countertops, and clean my stove, where it works like a charm on any baked-on messes.

You can also change up the items you soak in vinegar to try different scents. I've thought it might be fun to choose new ingredients each season: soaking pine needles in December, for instance, grapefruit peel in January, lemon in the summer. Just make sure to use things that don't decompose quickly - I imagine strawberries, for instance, would quickly start to look not so appealing.

Cleaning with vinegar, it's a magical thing. Would love to hear your variations on this spray - and are there any ways that I should be using it that I haven't thought of yet?

menstrual cups.

Menstrual cup

Today, we're GOING THERE. I'm a pretty private person, so it's taken me awhile to get up the courage to go there, here. But, I feel more and more these days that we need to get comfortable with talking about all aspects of being a woman, including the reproductive functions that we typically ignore in public discourse. Hello, institutionalized misogyny. So, I'm setting aside my shyness today in case a discussion of zero waste periods might prove helpful, reassuring, or interesting to you. Here we go!

Of course, there's no one solution fits all for sustainable period planning, just as there's no one solution fits all for non-sustainable period planning. So, first up, I'm sharing what I and many others consider the gold standard of zero waste periods, if you can hack it - the menstrual cup. But, I also have a few other options listed at the bottom of this post, if menstrual cups just aren't for you. Let's do this, ladies. (Men are of course welcome to read along, too).

You may already know the reasons why switching to a menstrual cup might make sense: it's completely reusable, which keeps pads and tampons out of the production stream and the landfill (an estimated 15,000 are used per woman between her first and last periods). It decreases the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome and appears to be healthier for the balance of vaginal flora. Plus, menstrual cups can last for years and years (up to 10!), meaning that after the up-front cost of $25 - $40, they can save you so much money and time at the drugstore down the road. For me, using the cup helps me feel like my period is just another part of the month, rather than a medical event necessitating the constant sourcing of an influx of plastic-wrapped supplies. I like that, a lot.

There are reasons not to use it too, of course - some women can't use them comfortably or have a medical issue that precludes it, and they aren't always compatible with IUDs, so ask your doctor first if that's an issue. A few months back, my friend Ashlee passed along this hilarious Buzzfeed article which details some of the woes of using a menstrual cup, and my friends and I spent a happy few moments laughing and swapping our favorites (mine is #20) on our text thread. But, overall, my experience and many women's experiences have been so, so positive - maybe worth a try, yes?

Tips for newbies (& some for oldbies):

-Menstrual cups are often called Diva Cups, like we tend to say "Kleenex" instead of "tissues." But, the Diva Cup is just one brand among many, and each brand offers slightly different sizes and shapes. Many women* (*anecdotal evidence not backed by actual evidence beyond myself and my friend circle) may opt to try a second brand if the first one doesn't work out, finding some versions to be more comfortable than others. I settled on a Lunette Cup, which I love. (It's the brand most of my friends have settled on, too. You can snag one for yourself here, or on Amazon here). A few other brands out there: Keeper Cup, Mooncup, and the LENA. If you'd like to purchase yours locally, I've found that most Whole Foods stores sell the Diva Cup brand.

-Most brands come in two sizes and offer guidance on the box as to which size might be right for you, but if your first one doesn't work out, consider trying the other size. Is it too uncomfortable, even after giving yourself a couple of cycles to get the hang out things? You might need to size down. Feeling like you have to change it too often / it's leaking in between changes? A size up might do the trick.

-If you've found yourself with two menstrual cups via either of the above methods (choosing a different brand or re-sizing), consider keeping the spare somewhere that it might come in handy in pinch - the office, your locker at the gym, your car, your partner's house, downstairs if you're too lazy to walk upstairs, wherever.

-Every cup has a little stem at the bottom, which helps you remove it. You can trim the stem to be shorter if it's uncomfortable, but I'd suggest not doing so until you've given it a good couple of wears and gotten the hang of inserting / removing it. You might find that it ends up being comfortable as is and wish you hadn't trimmed it. (Read: I wish I hadn't trimmed it).

-For the final day or two of your period, consider finding an alternative to a menstrual cup, like reusable pads or period underwear. Because gravity pulls them down when they're heavier, menstrual cups are easier to remove when they're full than when they're not, so on lighter days you might find that they're harder to use and not worth the trouble. I've linked to a few additional options in the second half of this post.

-Find some soap and a container to carry along with you. It's best to use a gentle, non-toxic, unscented, non-castile soap to wash your cup. Finding something that meets those criteria in a public restroom is pretty rare, so when I leave home, I carry my own soap with me in a little metal container (I use this one). The container doesn't hold a regular-sized bar of soap (and I don't want to carry a full bar with me everywhere, anyway), so I cut a bar into smaller pieces and take a piece with me instead. Another excellent thing about this trick: the soap and container combo is easy to pop in my suitcase for vacations, so that I can avoid those wrapped bars of soap at hotels. Nothing quite so satisfying as a good dual purpose item.

-Once you've transitioned away from tampons or pads, consider giving your extras away. Stock the bathroom at work or at school, give them to your girlfriends, or ask if a local homeless or domestic violence shelter will accept them. Even so, you might want a few extras around, just in case. Maybe you'll flying cross-country and reluctant to wrestle with your cup in a tiny, gross airplane bathroom (ugh, been there). Maybe you'll be traveling to an area without clean water and won't feel comfortable washing it. Maybe you'll accidentally leave your menstrual cup elsewhere in anticipation of your period and will be glad when you have a few extra tampons knocking around at home or at work. What I'm saying is, you never know, and you can always get rid of them later. Or, you can do what I haven't done yet and opt for reusable pads or period underwear (see below!) as your back-up methods instead.

Other options for a zero waste-ish period:

-Reusable pads. Reusable pads are cloth versions of the plastic drugstore standard - they typically snap onto or around your regular underwear and can be washed and reused indefinitely. You can purchase a version at the online zero waste store Tiny Yellow Bungalow, find a purveyor on Etsy (there are many!), consider making your own if you sew, or I think most Whole Foods stores sell them, too.

-Period underwear. Never owned 'em, can't speak to 'em, but I do think they sound useful and simple. Here's a little article that speaks to them more and offers a few recommendations. (And here's something to keep in mind if you're considering the brand Thinx).

-Applicator-free tampons. If you're loathe to quit the tampon, you could consider switching to one without an applicator. This cuts down on packaging waste (they're tiny, so more fit in a box) and the waste from applicators, which are typically plastic.

One last note: I would never recommend that you do anything other than what makes your period the healthiest and happiest it can be for you - it's such a personal thing! - so take these tips with a grain of period blood (nice image, right?), and keep doing you if making a change isn't feasible.

And, if your experience has been different or you have something to add, would you share in the comments so that we can all learn some other tricks / options / alternatives? Feel free to list your name as "anonymous" or a pseudonym! Thanks for reading, friends - sister on.

Pictured is a brand-new Lunette Cup destined for zero waste workshops.