Zero Waste Essentials

Zero waste essentials | Litterless

Today, I'm excited to share a project that's long been in the works: a guide to the zero waste items I reach for day in and day out, the things I consider my absolute essentials. These are the things I use every day, that you've seen in my pictures a thousand times, the answer to so many "How do you keep X activity zero waste?" questions.

But, even better, the guide tells you how each item is packaged, how to take care of it, and how to keep it out of the landfill at the end of its life, if possible. I wish retailers took more responsibility for giving us all of that information - until then, I hope my new guide is helpful in learning how to use and care for your zero waste items.

You can find the guide here, or in top navigation bar under "Essentials." I'll be adding a few things over the next few weeks as well, as I wander through my house and think, "Hey, that's pretty essential, too." Anything else you'd like to see a packaging / use / care / disposal guide on there for?

Previously in Zero WasteTen companies that will take their products back to reuse or recycle, and how to stay zero waste while traveling.

How to Care for a Bamboo Toothbrush

How to care for a bamboo toothbrush | Litterless

This post is sponsored by Brush with Bamboo, makers of bamboo toothbrushes in compostable packaging.

It's really easy to know how to care for a plastic toothbrush: in a word, you don't have to. You throw away the packaging, use the toothbrush for a few months, and throw away the toothbrush. Making the switch to a compostable bamboo toothbrush is actually almost as simple: you compost the packaging, use the toothbrush for a few months, and compost the toothbrush. Same number of actions, radically different end game. But, there are a few little nuances that can make your switch to a bamboo toothbrush go a little more smoothly. Below, in partnership with Brush with Bamboo, I'm sharing what I've learned about making my toothbrush last longer, upcycling it, and composting it when it's worn out:

Compostable bamboo toothbrushes by Brush with Bamboo | Litterless

Deal with the packaging. One of the reasons I like the toothbrushes from Brush with Bamboo is that their packaging is entirely compostable. Whole Foods stores in Chicago now sell bamboo toothbrushes... that come packaged in plastic. It's hard to see the point of a compostable toothbrush when the packaging still goes to the landfill. Brush with Bamboo toothbrushes come packaged in a cardboard outer layer and a compostable inner liner. The cardboard outer layer is both compostable and recyclable, so you can take your pick of actions there. Note that the inner liner does need to be commercially composted: if you compost at home, you could save the inner liners to give to a friend who uses a commercial compost pick-up program, or ask a local business that composts commercially if they'd mind taking yours every few months when you come in to make a purchase.

How to make your compostable, zero waste bamboo toothbrush last longer | Litterless

Keep it dry. Not being made out of impenetrable plastic, bamboo toothbrushes require just a tiny bit more care than a regular toothbrush. All this means is that I dry mine quickly on a towel after each use, and that I store it upright in a clean glass container. This ensures the bamboo stays dry throughout the day, keeping the toothbrush in better condition longer. You may notice that the wood changes color slightly over time as you use it. In the picture above, the newest toothbrush is shown at left, while the other two have had their handles darken a bit over time with use. Totally normal, and just the sign of a well-loved toothbrush.

Upcycle it. If you can reuse your worn-out toothbrush before you compost it, so much the better. I've cleaned an old one (by boiling it for 3 - 5 minutes) and used it to clean grout in my shower, to gently scrub a stain out of clothing, to smooth melted beeswax over fabric to make homemade beeswax food wraps. In these cases, I like to write "CLEANING" on the handle of mine so that there are no disastrous mix-ups. You could also write "Basil" (etc.) on it and stick it in your garden or a pot as a natural plant marker. 

How to remove the bristles from a bamboo toothbrush | Litterless

Remove the bristles. Before the toothbrush heads to its ultimate resting place (the compost), make sure to remove the bristles. Before I removed them for the first time, I thought it would be a bit tricky, but it's not. Simply grab a pair of pliers and start pulling at the bristles. I find a quick diagonal motion works best to remove them. Provided your pliers are nice and grippy, the bristles should slide out fairly easily. Continue until no more bristles remain.

How to remove the bristles from a compostable bamboo toothbrush | Litterless

Compost it. Once you've removed the bristles, you'll have a nice little pile of plastic bristles and tiny metal staples, like the one pictured above. Though the plastic bristles may technically be able to recycled, the reality is they're likely too small to make it through your city's recycling system. So, to avoid gunking up the recycling works, I set mine aside to throw away. The bamboo handle, though, can of course be composted. If you have a backyard compost set-up and are worried it won't break down fully, I'd recommend (very carefully) taking a hammer to it or otherwise breaking it up a bit before depositing it. However, if you use a commercial composter, you can leave it intact: breaking it down will be no problem for them!

How else have you upcycled your toothbrush? Or any bamboo toothbrush issues I can help troubleshoot?

Previously in Bath & Beauty: The easiest zero waste swap of all time, and a recipe for DIY body butter.

This post is sponsored by Brush with Bamboo. As always, all thoughts are my own. Thank you for supporting Litterless and the companies who make supplies for a more zero waste world.

Use Beeswax Wrap to Open Jars

Use beeswax food wrap for a zero waste jar opener | Litterless

In addition to the standard hitting it against the counter, running it under hot water, drying it off, shaking your hands out and trying again, sometimes you just need a little help opening a jar. I was excited to see a tip recently that beeswax food wrap can also be used to open a jar! It’s grippy and a bit sticky, just like the rubber kind of jar opener. I’ve used it a couple of times and each time it’s worked like a charm. Sometimes what you need is already in your kitchen drawer, it seems.

Previously in Home: How to host houseguests when you're zero waste, and everything I know about stopping your junk mail.

How to Store Bread Without Plastic

How to store bread without plastic for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

It's no secret that I don't always have all of the zero waste answers (because, shhhh, nobody really has all of the zero waste answers). But when I've gotten stuck, I've posed questions in this space, and my genius readers have picked up the slack. Thank you!

A few months ago, I asked how folks store bread without plastic. At the time, I didn't have a great answer: either I stored my bread in a cloth bag - making it stale in merely a day or so, or I used an increasingly ratty ziploc bag to keep it fresh for longer. Well, you weren't about to let me carry on like that, were you?

Storing bread zero waste style | Litterless

Among the many smart tips that readers suggested, the one that's worked best for me has been to store bread in a bag in my enameled dutch oven. It basically functions like a breadbox, keeping out extra air and keeping the bread fresh. I love this for method for several reasons: first, and most importantly, it really works! Bread stays fresh so much longer, even without the benefit of plastic. Plus, this method doesn't require me to buy any new tools, makes good use of something that I already own but 90% of the time stands empty (in a small kitchen, saving space wisely is key), and it holds even the largest round loaf of bread that was tough to squeeze into said ratty ziploc anyway.

Here's how I now store bread without plastic:

When I buy bread at the grocery, farmers' market, or bakery, I put it directly into a cloth bag. If the loaf is too large for any of my bags, or if all of my nicely-sized bags are dirty, I might wrap it up in a cloth, furoshiki-style. Then, I put the cloth-wrapped bread straight into my dutch oven, pictured above. In my experience, the bread lasts about a week this way. That's if I can avoid making avocado toast five times within the first two days.

Other ideas from the crowd:

-Store the cloth-wrapped loaf in a bread box, old wooden box, or even a kitchen drawer. I bet a stainless steel soup pot would work just fine for storage, too.

-Wrap the bread in beeswax food wrap and then the box, drawer, or dutch oven for even more staying power.

-Buy less bread more often, to keep it from going stale so quickly. A reader suggested purchasing a couple of individual buns as needed.

-Immediately stash half the loaf in a cloth bag in the freezer. A few readers mentioned slicing it before putting it in the freezer, so that it's easy to pull out just one or two slices at a time.Caveat: be sure to use it up fairly quickly so that it doesn't acquire that terrible freezer taste.

How to store bread without plastic for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

To read the full gamut of reader tips, visit the comments section on the original post. Other bread storage techniques you've found? Or any questions you'd like answered via crowdsourcing?

Previously in Q & A: Baking-soda-free deodorant for sensitive skin folks, and tips for using a safety razor. The comments sections of each contain some true, helpful gold.

Buying Soap Ends

Buying soap ends for a zero waste bathroom | Litterless

If your tolerance for small slivers of soap is low, this might not be the blog post for you. On the other hand, I'm counting on these candy-colored beauties to look delightful enough to win you over.

I'll back up: since first writing about making the jump from pump soap to bar soap earlier this year (though I'd been a bar soap devotee long before that), I've been considering bar soap from other angles. Thing about soap choices is, they're pretty nearly infinite. What if you want to avoid palm oil? Does sustainable palm oil mean anything? (More on that in a future post.)How can you tell which bar soap packages are plastic-lined paper and which are just plain old recyclable paper? If there's a rabbit hole, you'll find me in it.

While musing and muddling around, I was excited to find another zero waste soap angle that I hadn't before considered: purchasing soap ends. Most small-batch soaps are poured into long, rectangular blocks, then cut into individual bars once they've cured. This means that the ends of those blocks, which are often thinner, wonkier, or otherwise a little different, can go to waste unless a thoughtful soapmaker chooses to repurpose them or re-sell them.

Well, where there's waste, you know we like to swoop in. You can buy soap ends, thus turning the wasted trimmings into the main event.

Besides the virtuousness of the endeavor, there are other perks, too. Soap ends are typically much cheaper by weight than regular bars, you can try out lots of different scents without getting bored, and you get the cheap thrill of pulling out a new bar of soap more often than you would when using full bars. They allow you to try out new soapmakers, scents, and add-ins without a month-long commitment to a full bar. They would make lovely and useful party favors, allow you to give houseguests a fresh bar of their own, and are just fun to look at and pick up to sniff, as the above photographs attest.

Buying the ends of soap bars for a zero waste bathroom | Litterless

It's worth looking for soap ends wherever you buy your bar soap locally: at the grocery stores where you can cut your own soap from big blocks of soap, at smaller bath and beauty stores in your area, or at a farmers' market stand selling locally made soap.

Or, if none of those appeal, there are a few online spots where you can pick some up. Below are a few offerings from around the web that I've found lately:

-The Kirk Estate: This husband-and-wife team in upstate New York grows the herbs they use in their soaps themselves, from heirloom seeds. Owner Jen notes that they try to produce as little waste as possible in their business, composting their scraps to use in their garden and shipping in recycled packaging. You can purchase ends from their cold-processed soaps in their Etsy store.

-Little Flower Soap Co: These pretty soaps are made in Michigan, and you can buy a set of ten pieces of soap ends at their Etsy store, here. Make sure to note in the order notes that you don't want it packaged with extra gift materials like ribbon and decorations.

-Oregon Soap Company: Their "Assorted Scraps" set boasts a 50% savings over their regular soaps. And, I love that their soap end bars still look thick and robust - like regular bar soaps, but in miniature.

-Rocky Top Soap Shop: These cold process soaps are made by hand in Maine in a process that sounds downright contemplative. Find their soap end sampler for purchase here. Note that each end comes packaged with a paper label, which you can recycle or compost, and a small piece of plastic tape, which you can't.

Other spots to try: Mud & MatterComfort & Joy, or simply searching Etsy for "soap ends" or "soap scraps." If you're having trouble choosing between these, going with the soap maker located nearest you makes the shipping more efficient and less resource-intensive. And, if you're making a purchase online, consider adding some order notes letting the seller know you'd love your order packaged in reused packaging, sans bubble wrap or extra plastic or anything else decorative.

Now, about the using of these small bars. How not to let them slip down the drain, slivers of soap slithering out of reach? I've had good luck so far by being careful as I hold them and by corralling the small pieces in my soap dish, but I wonder if a soap bag like this one by EcoBags would do an even better job. You could lather up the bag with the soap inside, no trying to hold on to small slippery bars required.

Soap ends - have you tried using them? Any tips for the rest of us, or a favorite company that makes them?

Previously in Bath & Beauty: About menstrual cups, and everything I've learned about using a safety razor. Plus, exactly how to make the switch to bar soap, here.

A few of the folks mentioned above sent soap ends my way to photograph - and sniff - for this post.

Zero Waste Chocolate

How to purchase zero waste chocolate | Litterless

The first place to look for zero waste chocolate locally is probably your nearest bulk aisle. In mine, you can find semi-sweet chocolate chips, dark chocolate almonds, dark chocolate-covered coconut chews (HEAVEN), peanut butter cups, and lots more. Bring a jar or bag and fill up on a few to see what you like best. (Um, it's all in the name of sustainability research, guys).

Now, I'm an occasional purchaser of dark chocolate almonds and an even more occasional purchaser of dark chocolate-covered coconut chews (because I have proven I can't be trusted around them). But what I prefer to keep around the house are plain, normal, slightly boring bars of super dark chocolate. And those don't come in bulk, sans packaging.

Luckily for me, I recently did some extensive research on chocolate packaging to finally settle which non-bulk chocolates might be the best zero waste option. Upshot: I've identified a few types of packaging to look for and a few to avoid, plus now I have tons of chocolate on hand for snacking. FUN.

What to look for:

How to purchase zero waste chocolate | Litterless

Recyclable wrappers. Paper or foil-packaged bars can have their wrappers recycled. The brands pictured directly above - from left to right, Lindt, Ghiradelli, Green & Black's, and Chocolove - all come wrapped in a paper outer layer and a foil inner layer. Both layers can be recycled, but take care not to tear the foil too much, as small pieces that come loose from the main portion aren't likely to actually get recycled once they make it to the recycling facility. Bonus: the gold foil layer lends the bar quite the "Golden Ticket" look.

Compostable wrappers. Barring bulk chocolate, another might be to look for a bar in a compostable wrapper, typically a bar that's wrapped solely in paper. This matcha crisp bar in a compostable wrapper looks delicious.

Fancy individual chocolates. Sometimes I like to visit the fancy chocolate shop in my neighborhood, where I pick out a few dark chocolate truffle-y turtle-y things and ask for them either on a plate or in my own container. A package-free, yet expensive and slightly inconvenient option, one I don't turn to as often as I probably should.

Make your own. Take those semi-sweet chocolate chips from the bulk aisle, melt them slowly in a double boiler, throw in peanut butter or dried fruit or nuts, and enjoy a package-free treat that's less sad-feeling than snacking on the original chocolate chips.

What to avoid:

How to buy zero waste chocolate | Litterless

Foil-backed paper wrappers. I've loved supporting Endangered Species chocolate - it's based in my hometown of Indianapolis and gives a percentage of its profits to, well, endangered species work. Also, their bars with dried fruit are delicious. But, after a closer inspection, I don't think the packaging is actually recyclable. The inner paper liner is backed with foil (see the picture to the left, above). At least in the recycling system where I live, mixed materials like this (metal + paper) can't be separated by the machines and therefore get trashed - for example, coffee cups, which are paper lined with plastic, aren't recyclable. Then again, is this just metallicized paper that IS recyclable? I'm not sure, and the Internet couldn't tell me. If you know the answer, I'd love to hear.

Plastic wrappers. Sometimes, plastic wrappers are obvious: Hershey's, Snickers, and Butterfingers all wear their plastic wrappers proudly on the outsides of their packaging. Sometimes, though, plastic is lurking beneath innocent-looking paper wrappers, as is the case with the bar of Equal Exchange in the photo at right. The paper on the outside is recyclable, but the plastic liner inside isn't.

A hard thing about this calculation is that sometimes, to give up a bad thing (Equal Exchange plastic wrappers), you also give up a good (fair trade). Is a foil-wrapped bar made by Lindt, surely not with fair trade chocolate, really any better than a fair trade plastic-wrapped bar by Equal Exchange?

As with everything, zero waste is not the only thing at stake here. So I say: do a little research. Pick the chocolate that tastes the best in the packaging you can live with and the ethical code you stand behind. I'll probably be avoiding Equal Exchange - I just can't countenance the plastic - but continuing to eat Endangered Species chocolate and hoping for the best when I stick that foil-backed paper in the recycling bin.

Zero waste chocolate: what's your strategy? Favorite brands that hit the ethical / zero waste sweet spot?

Previously in Food & DrinkA food waste tip, and a zero waste tip.

Ideas for Repair Night

How to get any item repaired | Litterless

On Tuesday, I wrote a little bit about the habit shift that it takes to begin spending a few moments to repair an item, rather than letting the task go undone for years until the item is no longer worth the few minutes you'd spend fixing it.

Today, I'm writing about the mental shift necessary to see an item in disrepair and first think, "Maybe I could do something about that," rather than the more automatic "Guess it's time to replace that."

There are things that do warrant replacement, sure. But there are also things that simply warrant a few moments of attention to get them back in tip-top shape. An item's fix can take many forms. There are:

Things you can fix yourself.

Simpler repairs that make use of the skills you already have, or that allow you to barter tasks with a friend to get done, are some of the easiest repairs to make happen. A few things that come to mind in this category:

Sewing. Small holes, big holes, rips, tears: take to your needle and thread. The result might not be perfect (if perfection's what your after, a tailor or seamstress might be the better choice), but you'll have fixed an item and perhaps marginally improved your own skills along the way. Easy-enough fixes in this category include sewing a strap back on a cotton tote bag, patching a pocket on the interior of a pair of pants, sewing a small rip in a cotton bulk bag.

General sprucing. A super-pilly sweater isn't brokenper se, but nor is it exactly in fine working order. Taking time to try to get the stains out of clothing, removing the pills from a beloved woolen item, snipping stray threads: anything you can do to get an item that's feeling dreary and drab back in good wearing order is, I've found, worthy of the time it takes.

Things you can ask the manufacturer to fix.

Who better to deal with your issue than the company that knows the item intimately? A few categories where I email the company right off the bat, knowing that any attempted fix on my part isn't going to be what the item needs:

How to repair anything | Zero waste item care ideas | Litterless

Electronics. Meddling about with the inner workings of an electronic item isn't safe, so I don't do it. Instead of giving up on electronic pieces, though, I may send the manufacturer an email explaining the problem and asking what they'd recommend for a fix. Sometimes I've been sent a new part - for free - that I simply have to screw on. (That was the case with the small humidifier nebulizer, pictured above). Other times, they've suggested other easy-enough things I can do at home, or offered to fix it themselves if I send the item in. If they're not able to help me repair the item, I'll ask if they can take the item back for safe disposal. Regardless, when dealing with electronics, it's important to follow expert advice (not mine).

Parts and pieces. When the majority of an item is still in good working order, save for one small piece, oftentimes it's worthwhile to ask the manufacturer if they'll replace the part for you. I recently mailed in a small broken buckle from a backpack to Kelty, who replaced it for just the price of shipping. I called Klean Kanteen to ask if they could replace the gasket on my leaky thermos, and they promptly mailed me two new gaskets, free of charge.

When in doubt. If you're not sure about how to fix something, it never hurts to simply ask the folks who made it. An email or phone call rarely takes more than five minutes, and at least you'll have an answer. I've gotten a beloved bracelet soldered back together for $20 - who knows what you'll find out if you simply ask the question?

If a company proves less than amenable to helping you fix your item (or dispose of it properly if it's unfixable), well, then, you'll learn that they might not be someone you'll want to turn to in the future. I've found that the more that I choose to purchase items from companies who fully stand behind them, the longer I'm able to keep those items around.

Things you can take to an expert third party.

There are whole professions devoted to careful fixing of certain items: cobblers, tailors and seamstresses, furniture restorers. When such a person exists, sometimes it's best to leave the doing in their hands.

Things you don't care enough to fix.

No thrift store wants your broken item. My boyfriend bought an alarm clock last night at a secondhand shop, only to open it and find that the battery casing was corroded beyond repair. (He was only out ninety cents, though, so not a big deal). In the case of something that no longer works but that you don't care to fix yourself, perhaps by listing it for free on craigslist or in a local Buy Nothing Group on Facebook - with full acknowledgement that it comes with a little elbow grease needed - you can find the item a new home and a new owner who's willing to take that time.

Other resources.

-Creative reuse stores. Need thread to fix a garment, a container to hold small parts and pieces, a small set of tools? I've come to love my local secondhand craft supply store for this. It sells art, craft, and making supplies donated by community members, and it very often has just the right supplies for my next project. To see if there's a similar resource near you, search "creative reuse store + your city," or "secondhand craft supplies + your city.""The free repair guide for everything, written by everyone." I've never turned to this online guide, which I just recently found while working on this piece. Have you used it? It seems like it has the potential to be so helpful.

-Repair Cafes. Spots where folks can gather to borrow from a shared stash of tools, seek semi-expert help, or simply execute repairs in the company of a friendly, likeminded bunch. See if there's one located near you here

Now, how to actually make time to get these things done? I've started a list where I jot down a repair task anytime I see an item in need of it. That way, I don't have to take the time to figure out the repair right then and there, but neither does it get lost in the swirling eddy of time and mental to-do lists.

Then, I can tackle a task on the list whenever I want to make productive use of a spare moment: emailing a manufacturer or researching a local cobbler in a spare five minutes in front of my computer, setting aside a few pieces of mending to do while watching TV or chatting on the phone with a friend, throwing a few items in a tote to bring with me to repair night at a friend's house, dropping off a pair of shoes at the cobbler on my way to the grocery. When I've got those tasks all corralled in one place, I can feel the satisfaction of finally checking something off.

What have you guys been fixing, or getting fixed, lately? Any other ideas for items or companies with whom this works particularly well? Recent wins to share?

Previously in Home: Takeback programs for reuse and recycling, and how to stop the flow of junk mail.