plastic-free at the farmers' market.

Cauliflower from the farmers' market

I took a very sweaty meander through the farmers' market yesterday morning to pick up a few things for the week - cherries, purple cabbage, and cauliflower (for this recipe), among other things. Summer farmers' markets offer such a bounty. There are fruits and vegetables I can't find at the grocery store, period: loganberries, black raspberries, concord grapes, juicy non-mealy apricots, hot peppers with names I've never heard of, the biggest variety of squashes and radishes and leafy greens.

Of course, there are also fruits and vegetables at the farmers' market that I can't find at the grocery store plastic-free. I can buy berries at the grocery store, sure, but typically not without per-pint plastic packaging. At the farmers' market, though, berries come in punnets that can be returned to the farmer after I put the blueberries in my own tin to take home. Grapes, also, can be found without the big rustly plastic bags that encase them as the grocery stores. Cherry tomatoes, too, are freed from their plastic shells and set out just in cardboard containers, literally and figuratively ripe for the taking.

Cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables (um, tied with most other vegetables, I guess), but in most stores it typically comes wrapped in a plastic bag. Forgoing it most of the year makes it all the butter when I find a farmers' market stand selling unpackaged cauliflowers, pictured here. Like cherries and blueberries and tiny sunny yellow tomatoes, I place them in my cloth produce bag for a summer-only plastic-free treat.

Maybe for you going low waste won't look like forgoing cauliflower nine months of the year while you wait to have the perfect local, plastic-free version from the farmers' market. Maybe it will look like making cauliflower a once-a-month treat for most of the year and then enjoying the glut every week of the summer that you can find them at the farmers' market. Regardless of your strategy: enjoy the plastic-free bounty this summer and fall. It's berry and tomato and all kinds of goodness season, and I want to get my hands on so much fresh produce that I feel thoroughly sated when the market ends in November.

You can find other ideas for staying zero waste at the farmers' market (like what to do with those rubber bands, etc.), here. Also, I've written before about a few ideas for preserving farmers' market food to avoid plastic the rest of the year too, here and here.

iced coffee & tea.

So far, this summer has looked like this: watching fireflies on an evening walk, eating berries my friend picked in her neighborhood, working in the evenings but with the windows open and music on, heading out of the city for a few weekends to rest and reset. And, of course, summer has also looked like this: trying hard to avert my gaze as trash cans in my neighborhood pile up with plastic Starbucks cups, each with the ubiquitous green straw poking out and the dregs of half-melted ice cubes still wilting in the bottom.

I'm not knocking the occasional emergency beverage. I think most zero waste folks can name a time when they were caught unexpectedly sans water bottle and had to accept a plastic cup (I know I can. The friend sitting across from me as I write this can, too). Buuut, being prepared to get a zero waste icy drink isn't something on many people know is a possibility, and I think we can change that.

Here's how we do iced coffee or tea around here: we might get it in a real glass and sip on it at the coffee shop, sans straw. We might bring a thermos to the coffee shop and ask the barista nicely to fill it up. Or, we might make it at home and drink it from a glass, metal straw clinking as we reach for another sip.

The closest you can get to a pure Starbucks-type iced coffee or tea experience is, I think, a little kit the one pictured above - a reusable thermos and reusable straw tucked in your pocket or purse or under your arm as you head to the coffee shop. In fact, I'd go as far as to say the zero waste version of the experience is the superlative one. I can vouch for the fact that a thermos like the Klean Kanteen picture above keeps ice, well, icy overnight and well into the next day, as long as the lid is kept firmly closed. This makes for a more refreshing, less-watered down beverage - which is, of course, is the summer ideal.

A little more on this tip here, if you'd like to see.

mailing a zero waste package.

Mailing a zero waste package

Things I've recently popped in the mail: packages to long-distance siblings, a birthday gift to a faraway friend, an old computer sent in for refurbishment, a pair of shoes returned, a secondhand belt to a new home. And that's just in the last few months. Point is, I send and receive packages somewhat frequently, and you probably do, too.

To mitigate the impact, I've learned to be a little savvy both when purchasing things and packing them up: reusing old supplies, taking care to wrap things securely but lightly, asking the seller if they'd mind wrapping my package in something other than plastic. Sending a package is never going to be the most sustainable activity there is, but we can approach it how we approach everything else: thoughtfully. Here's what I've found works for me:

For sending:

-Hoard used supplies. When I receive a package, I tuck it into a box in my closet for future use. Mailing envelopes are easy to store, of course, and boxes can be dismantled so they store flat, too. Then, when I need to mail something else, I check for an envelope that's the right size and use it again! Reusing them as many times as possible is always preferable to recycling them or buying new envelopes made from recycled materials. Just make sure you firmly cross out any past labels and tape over any areas that are showing too much wear and tear.

-Look for secondhand mailers. If you do need to purchase mailers, "new" ones are better than new ones. Look to see if there's a creative reuse store near you - one near me accepts donations of art supplies, crafts, mailing supplies, and more, and sells these secondhand items for a low price. I've gotten secondhand mailers that were never used and still in perfect condition. Choosing secondhand helps keep new items from being produced, which is a win. Admittedly: sometimes I also sneak empty mailers out of the recycling bin at work, but you certainly don't have to go to that extreme.

-Write a note on the mailer. If the mailer is recyclable - entirely cardboard or recyclable paperfill, with no plastic on the inside - a gentle reminder can help the recipient remember to get it to the right place once they've opened it. A friend of mine has taken to writing "Please recycle me!" on letters and packages she sends my way, which I think is genius - and now I've adopted the method, too. A smiley face or little drawing keeps it from feeling too judgmental.

-Switch to paper tape. I'm still working through my last stash of clear plastic tape, but when I run out, I'll switch to recyclable paper tape like this stuff.

For receiving:

-Shop small. Sustainably-minded small businesses will likely have a shipping policy that's more in line with your own. They might pack their boxes with kraft paper rather than styrofoam, use paper tape in lieu of plastic, and group items into fewer shipments. Finding companies whose ethics you trust and sticking to them can be a boon here.

-Ask for the type of packaging you want. When possible, politely ask the seller to package your items thoughtfully. For example, when I'm purchasing a secondhand item from someone directly, I ask if they'd mind shipping their item in an old, reused mailer instead of a new one (and people are always happy to do so!). If you're buying from an Etsy seller or a small business that allows you to include a note with your order, request that they send your items without plastic packaging, bubble wrap, and the like. Because you're the customer, they should be able to honor your request, as long as you're not purchasing something incredible fragile.

-Return bubble wrap and packing peanuts. When you've implemented the above measures and you get a package filled inexplicably with plastic packing materials, don't despair. Or do. But then move on and take them to your nearest UPS Store, which accepts bubble wrap and packing peanuts for reuse.

What else do you do to keep your mailbox in line with your zero waste lifestyle? Share, please!

grocery shopping without bulk, part three: kroger.

Grocery shopping without bulk at Kroger

This summer, I'm tackling what low-waste grocery shopping could look like, if stores near you don't make truly zero waste grocery shopping easy or doable. (Find parts one and two of the series). I've said it before, but since progress is the goal here, not perfection, it's totally fine if your grocery haul currently looks more like the above than, well, something more like this.

So, in the spirit of things, next we're headed to another Midwestern grocery chain: Kroger. While visiting my parents in Indianapolis last month, I took my mom's grocery list to the store and attempted to stick to it in spirit, if not in letter. I chose zero waste or low waste alternatives where I could, and honored her requests when I couldn't. Below, a peek into each item on the list:

-Bananas. I learned from a friend that single bananas are more likely to go unpurchased and be thrown away than bananas in bunches or pairs. So, I've been picking them up myself!

-English cucumber. Those long, skinny cucumbers called English cucumbers almost always come entirely sealed in plastic (why?). So, instead I purchased a regular cucumber and tucked it into a reusable produce bag. Yes, I am a grocery store tyrant, sorry Mom.

-Garlic. Since you don't eat the skin, it doesn't really need to go in a bag. I placed it in my cart loose.

-Lemon. The first lemons I saw at the store were packaged in a net mesh bag containing a few lemons. Nope. Usually stores who sell bagged lemons that way also sell individual ones. After another moment of looking around, I found the single lemons and popped one in my cart, sans produce bag.

-Flat leaf parsley. Many stores now sell large bundles of unpackaged herbs, in lieu of those small plastic clamshells of herbs. Always look around to make sure you can get the herbs package-free before resorting to plastic-packaged. Luckily, this was the case with parsley, which I just placed into a cloth produce bag.

-Cremini mushrooms. When I purchase mushrooms at the farmers' market or my local Whole Foods, they're loose and I'm able to fill my own bag with only what I need. Loose mushrooms are fairly rare at other grocery chains, though, which really leave you no option but to buy them packaged. I'll recycle the cardboard box, but the plastic wrap will become trash. (Instead, you could seek out mushrooms at the farmers' market or even grow your own).

-Two boxes of spring greens. Instead purchasing two smaller boxes as requested, I bought one bigger box to save on packaging. And, this box is recyclable, which gives it a leg up over plastic bags of washed salad mix. If you wanted to go a step further, you could buy a head of lettuce instead and chop and wash it all at once, so that it's just as easy to reach for in your fridge as a box of pre-washed baby greens.

-Brown rice and green lentils. This one was tough. Brown rice and green lentils also came in plastic boxes, which would have been recyclable (to my knowledge, the bags these came in - pictured above - aren't). But the boxed rice and lentils were conventionally grown, and I wanted to stick to organic, which meant buying the bagged versions instead. One of the times that zero waste is most frustrating is when I have to choose between organic / not zero waste and conventional / zero waste. I took the bags back with me to Chicago, where I'll use them as makeshift "trash cans" under my sink before I toss them for good.

-Ranch dressing. Always a crowd pleaser, ranch dressing was requested for a salad to bring to a potluck. I found it in a glass bottle, which could be recycled, donated, or even upcycled - with the label removed, wouldn't that be a cute flower vase? Or a pencil holder? As a bonus, I loved the smaller size, since I thought that a larger one would go unfinished at our house.

-Sandwich thins. I chose the variety with the least amount of packaging. Some of the options on the shelf came packaged in a plastic bag inside another plastic bag, what?!

The verdict: this was pretty different than my standard grocery haul, but it represents a good compromise, I think. If this is similar to what going zero waste looks like for you, don't sweat all of the perfect photos of unpackaged, bulk grocery hauls you see on Instagram. I've thought for ages that imperfect sustainability from all of us is what we need, not perfect sustainability from a few of us. My pal Meredith summed it up thus:

"I’m not trying to 'win' zero waste. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone on Instagram or online about how little trash my family can produce. I’m setting myself up for the long haul – for a lifetime of my family being mindful about how we view materials and treat our planet through decisions big and small."

YES, emphatically.

Okay, now fess up: how similar to or different from your weekly haul is this? Would you have approached any of these choices differently? I'd love to hear. Back next month with the next installment in this series - leave me a comment with what you'd like me to tackle in that one!

PS. You can read the rest of this series right here.

composting while traveling.

Composting while traveling

Composting while traveling is hard. I've had my home composting set-up figured out for years, and when at home in Chicago I compost pretty much everything. Alas, this routine has also inculcated in me not only a devotion to composting but also a strong sense of guilt when I don't.

So, when I travel, I try to find places to compost the inevitable detritus of eating, of being a person: fruit peels, snacks that fell on the ground, cooking scraps, tea bags. Over the years, I've cobbled together a hodgepodge of various methods to try when I'm on the road. Below, the various strategies I use - and I'd love to hear yours, too.

Compost options while traveling.

-Check if the city offers composting. This, of course, is the ideal scenario. In the past year, I've traveled to two cities that offer municipal composting - Seattle and San Fransisco - and wow did that make it easy to stay zero waste. In Seattle, we collected food scraps in a bowl in the fridge of our Airbnb, then dropped them off in the apartment's communal compost bin for the city to pick up. Easy, peasy. In San Fransisco, I saw a compost bin as soon as I walked off the plane, and happily disposed of my orange peel and stale popcorn there. Then, I used my friend's compost bin in Oakland for anything else I acquired during the trip. Portland, Boulder, and Minneapolis offer public composting, too.

-Check if there are any local drop-off points. Even if the city doesn't collect compost, someplace within it might. In Asheville, we saved our food scraps to periodically drop off at the grocery store around the corner. (Of course, it helps to be in a slightly crunchy city where grocery stores do compost). In Philadelphia, I've bought a tea at a certain coffee shop just for the chance to toss my apple peel in their compost bin. In Madison, Wisconsin, we've utilized the university's public compost bins - which are always nearly empty, so I love the feeling that by using them we're helping prove that they're useful and needed.

The ethics of this choice are, of course, a tad murky; if possible, it's probably best to ask first if you can deposit a little compost from home in exchange for a purchase. But I will admit that in certain cases I've resorted to sneaking my compost bag in. You do what you do.

Composting while traveling

-Take it home with you. On a roadtrip, composting becomes a little easier, since you have all the room in the world to bring things with you. For an overnight trip, I'll bring a container like the one above, or a few containers of that size if I'm planning on cooking. My favorite move is to save a compostable takeout container from a past restaurant meal, because then at the end of the trip you can just put the whole thing straight into the compost, rather than having to deal with scraping out the food scraps and washing a less-than-pristine container.

If you'll be away on a roadtrip for a little longer, consider popping a compost bucket in the car. I've found that the five gallon bucket I use to hold my compost before it gets picked up doesn't smell if it's kept firmly closed, making it a contender for holding compost on the road.

Of course, none of this is really feasible on a longer trip, but maybe you can still collect a few small articles that aren't imminently perishable - the toothpick that came in your sandwich, the paper napkin from your restaurant meal - in a bag to take home with you to compost after the trip. Composting a little bit is always better than composting nothing at all.

-Reach out to someone local. This, of course, is a bit harder and more nebulous - but I've met so many lovely and generous people in this online zero waste community. Maybe you have a favorite blogger who'd be happy to meet up, or whom you can simply ask if they know of any hidden spots in their city to compost. Maybe you can message your burgeoning Instagram pal to ask if you can buy her a coffee in exchange for a place to compost. In Sonoma this April, I met up with a friend for dinner, and she graciously took my banana peel home with her, saying "What else are friends for?" Indeed.

-Use this guide to find a spot nearby. I keep a city-by-city list of where you can compost in the U.S. and Canada here, and my hope is that it's full of resources both for residents and for travelers. If you're headed somewhere new, take a peek! Maybe it will unearth just the composting tip you need.

Make it easier in your city.

If you'd like to make it a little easier on the next zero waste traveler to come to your town, a few ideas:

-Work toward municipal composting in your city. More thoughts on that, right here.

-Or work toward a smaller, easier solution. Maybe you volunteer at a community garden that you think could accept small donations of food scraps, or maybe you own a coffee shop and you'd love to open up your compost bin to the public in exchange for a donation or a purchase. 

-Update the guide with insider tips for your city. Check out your hometown here, and if you have something to add, use the form at the bottom of the page to send me your local composting ideas.

I'd love to hear how you approach composting while traveling, too - let's work together to make it easier for all of us! Tips to add?

Pictured here, a bit of compost from my weekend away.

planning ahead: roadtrip.

Zero waste roadtrip

This is the beauty of a roadtrip: you can throw as much stuff as you think you'll need in the trunk of the car and get going. No need to carefully pare your zero waste traveling kit down to the bare essentials, like you might if you were hopping on an airplane.

Over the long weekend, we got in a car and headed to Indiana to spend some time with family. Luckily, the place we were staying offered a full kitchen, complete with metal straws, forks, cloth napkins, and washcloths for cleaning up, which made planning and packing much easier on this nearly zero-waster. What I ended up bringing along on the trip:

-A few thermoses to house our ever-changing collection of iced tea / water / iced coffee / sparkling water. (These stay cold for a stunning amount of time, and hot in the winter for just as long).

-Cloth bags full of simple road trip snacks like fruit and dark-chocolate-covered raisins. Homemade popcorn, sandwiches, and toasted nuts are all good options, too.

Reusable bag

-A big reusable bag, a useful choice for groceries, for picnics, for the pool, for carrying home the overflow of things that just don't quite fit in your suitcase on the way back.

-A metal container, for holding snacks and restaurant leftovers and cut-up fruit for the fridge, and for taking home some compost at the end of the weekend.

And, what you don't see here: sunscreen in a recyclable tube and handkerchiefs! (Summer allergies, man). I also meant to bring a tea strainer and a jar of loose leaf tea to make tea, but I forgot to this time around.

If you want to really want to make sure you're prepared, you could also bring a bar of soap or a little jar of castile soap to serve you everywhere from the bathroom to the kitchen. You could bring your favorite zero waste coffee set-up, be that a French press or a pour-over with a reusable filter. You could bring a big container (or even a bucket!) for carrying home any compost - mine was too small to really make a dent this time, unfortunately. You could bring a bandanna, to alternately use as a sunshield / napkin / handkerchief (with a wash in between, naturally). And if you want even more ideas for what might be useful to bring, you can check out the wonderful comments section on this post.

I think vacation isn't the time to worry about being perfectly zero waste: I think it's a time to try to be generally zero waste, and to relax about the rest. But if you're loading up the car for a trip anyway, why not tuck in a few of the above items? Almost all of them are multipurpose, and I find I always use them each in a few different ways.

What else would you add to the list? Tomorrow, I'll be back here with a post on composting during vacation, something that I almost always find to be tricky. Happy summer vacationing, friends!

walk commuting.

Walk commute

On June 9th, I entered my fourth (?!) year of commuting to work on foot. What started as the default choice of a new-to-Chicago girl hesitant to figure out the public transportation system (don't worry: it's easy, and I'm a pro now) has turned into one of the most sustaining routines of my workdays.

Almost every weekday, I head the mile and a half to work and then the mile and a half home. In three years, I reckon I've logged about three thousand miles. In other words, I could have walked across the United States - but instead I just burned a hole in the pavements all over Lincoln Park. In all seasons and weathers, using my feet to get where I need to go has proved satisfying and grounding, somehow feeling simpler than the much quicker option of hopping on a bike, bus, or train.

Of course, the walk commute isn't an option for everyone: it sure helps if you're brand new to a city and happen to be able to choose your apartment based on its proximity to your office. It sure helps if you live in a city, period. Later on this summer, I hope to convince my boyfriend to write a little bit about bike commuting - he's devoted to it - and of course there's also run commuting, taking public transportation, and carpooling to make your commute a little more sustainable.

But, in case it's helpful to anyone, I thought I'd share what I've learned over the years of daily walking:

On clothing choices:

-Durability is queen. Not for me are slinky silk blouses in the workplace, sheer gauzy little tops, strappy sandal whatevers, though I love them all. Nope, my clothing's gotta be able to go those daily three miles with me, without letting it show after just a few wears. I gravitate to cotton, linen, denim, and other hard-wearing fabrics. Of course, you can always opt to change clothes at work instead (see below!).

-Walking shoes. Your shoe collection might be taken over by more sneakers than you've ever owned before. If you're lucky, some of them you'll deem cute enough not to need to change out of at work. Or, maybe you'll keep some shoes specifically at work to slip into when you get there. I go for a mix of both. Lastly: Do NOT wear a new pair of shoes for the first time on your walk, no matter how "comfy." I repeat: just probably don't. 

-Be mindful of your pack. I used to carry a backpack each day, hip strap cinched tight to evenly distribute the weight. No more, my friends. I have myriad complaints relating to it, ranging from the hip belt made my clothes pilly where it rubbed, to the cinch wrinkled my clothing, to it encouraged me to carry more than I needed. But really, it was too heavy itself, special ergonomic features aside; carrying it hurt my back and neck. Now, I just carry a lightweight reusable grocery bag filled with whatever I need, which oddly works so much better for me.

-Layer up. If I'm not slightly cool when I first step outside, I've learned I'll probably end up too hot. Even on very cold days, walking quickly for miles is a surefire way to get to me to eventually unzip my coat when the mere idea seemed ridiculous fifteen minutes before. Wearing a few layers lets me dress up or down and is a good stopgap against any temperature fluctuations between my walk in the morning and my walk home in the afternoon.

-Change on hot days. Few things in the summer feel more instantly refreshing than slipping out of my sweaty commuting clothes into a cool, dry outfit change when the temperatures are pushing ninety. Though it's too much of a bother to do everyday, when it's that hot, I try to wear exercise clothes while walking instead of my normal garb.

-Maybe ditch the minimalism thing. Although I'm a firm believer in trying not to own too much more than you need, I will admit that I believe I need my two pairs of rain boots (one short, one tall), two rain jackets (one short, one long), two winter coats (one less warm, one more), and two umbrellas (one large, one small for keeping at work). Oops, does that sound excessive? Does it help if I say that I wear them all and think they all serve different purposes? Also, I lied about the umbrellas. I have three.

On boredom, or lack thereof:

-Vary the route. For the first year of walking to work, I took one of two routes, every day, with no variation. Then, I moved a little farther away, so instead of walking straight south, I now had to walk south and west. And a whole new world of zig zagging through the neighborhood opened up to me. I love striking out in the direction of my office without quite knowing which roads I'll take today. Also: you don't have to take the route Google says is the fastest. You get to take the route you say is the nicest.

-Treasure hunt. On walks to and from the office, I've found redbud branches blown down by a storm, still with the flowers on them, perfect for scooping up and placing in a vase in my apartment. I've found a $20 bill and countless quarters for laundry. I've taken home a stack of small terra cotta pots a neighbor set out for the garbage. I've eaten mulberries off the tree by the high school, pinched lavender between my fingers for the scent, and stopped by the anyone's-welcome community garden to take home a fistful of strong-smelling mint. I've run into coworkers headed my same direction and walked together for awhile. I've been wowed by the perfect combination of white Christmas lights left up to tangle with the Bradford Pear blossoms in front of a nearby bistro in April. You can let yourself be wowed, too.

-Maybe skip your tunes. Surprisingly, I enjoy my walk more without music or podcasts. I found early on that the traffic on a few of the busier streets can drown out the sound from my headphones when a particularly large truck goes by, and being consistently interrupted got on my nerves. So, a month or so in, I ditched the music while walking and have never looked back. Having good, solitary, uninterrupted thinking time helps me unwind from the day. Plus, one of the things that makes my walks so refreshing is that though they bookend an eight-hour workday spent largely on the computer, they're entirely screen free themselves.

On protection:

-Stick to sidewalks. Well, duh.

-Wear a hat or sunscreen. Or both! I usually leave my arms and legs un-sunscreened in a nod to Vitamin D production (although it is Chicago, so from September through May they're covered anyway). But, I'm vigilant about sunscreening my face, topping it off with a hat, and sticking to the shady side of the street - which also helps me arrive at work ever-so-slightly less sweaty.

-Take care of your body. Walking is gentle, but walking five days a week on pavement, not so much. Pay attention to how your body feels. Do yoga when your joints hurt and start slowly in cold weather to give your muscles a chance to warm up. I got a stress fracture in my foot the first year of walk commuting, and the miserable few months of bus riding that healing it entailed mean that I'm careful now about the shoes I wear and the mileage I tackle.

-Vary the route, part two. Another aspect of taking a slightly different way each day means that there's no rhyme or reason to where I am day after day. You couldn't set your clock by my movements, and though my neighborhood is very safe, it feels prudent to make sure that each day's journey is unpredictable.

And that, my friends, is three thousand miles worth of wisdom distilled down for ya. Any fellow walk commuters out there? What would you add? And would you like to see a post with a few bike commuting tips, as well? I'd love to hear.