Travel Tip: Keep Your Transit Card

Zero Waste Travel Tip: Keep your transit card | Litterless

You won’t hear me saying that staying zero waste is the only – or even the best – way to reduce your environmental impact while traveling. (And good thing, too, because staying zero waste while traveling can be tricky). For example, eating most meals in restaurants can be a food waste bonanza, so I try to be realistic about what I order, even if I’m dying to try most everything on the menu.

Another saving grace for both my wallet and my conscience is trying to rely on public transportation whenever possible. Of course, not all locales have a good enough transit system to make this feasible, but many do, especially big cities: there’s BART in the Bay Area, trains and buses in Seattle, SEPTA in Philadelphia, MTA in New York, the Underground in the UK, the CTA here in Chicago, and so many others.

Most public transportation services give you the option to buy either a single-use ticket or a reloadable plastic card. The single-use tickets, while typically made of paper, aren’t always recyclable: they tend to be plastic-coated, are often printed on paper containing BPA, and usually have a magnetic or metal strip that makes them difficult or impossible to recycle into another type of paper. This may be one instance in which choosing the version made of plastic, which can be used again and again, is actually the better choice long-term.

Zero Waste Travel Tip: Keep your transit card | Litterless

Choosing the reloadable plastic card keeps all those individual paper tickets out of the landfill, but recently I’ve been taking things a step further and making an effort to hold on to my plastic card once the trip is over. There are some cities I return to again and again: New York, San Francisco. For these, keeping the card tucked away in a drawer and pulling it out again in a few years for my next trip makes perfect sense.

There are other cities for which the idea of going back before the card expires seems like a long shot. For this, my friend Ann recently texted me with a brilliant solution: lend those cards to friends headed to that city. As long as you haven’t connected the transit card to your credit card or bank account (usually done by registering the card online), your friend should be able to use it just fine, adding their own money at a kiosk once they arrive. And once they’ve borrowed it, it’s your call: do you want it back, in case you travel there again? Or do you want to ask them to pass it along to the next friend heading that direction?

If all else fails, you can look for a gift card recycling program for any extra plastic transit passes. But starting a little borrowing club among your pals or your local zero waste community keeps old cards out of the landfill, reduces the demand (however slightly) for brand-new cards to be made, and means that maybe you’ll get to use the remaining $5 left on your friend’s transit card that would otherwise be wasted.

Would you do this? Have you?

Zero Waste Grocery Shopping in London

Zero waste, bulk foods grocery shopping in London, United Kingdom | Litterless

If you're interested in London grocery shopping recommendations from someone who has never lived there but who always pokes around for new zero waste finds while on vacation, this post is for you. (If not, it's probably not, wink wink!).

When we were in London earlier in April, we did a lot of non-zero-waste-specific things, of course. You don't need a cloth produce bag to lie on a bench in St. James Park and feel the sun on your face, and you don't need a reusable water bottle to walk on cobbled streets in the slight misting rain. But, of course, I wanted to visit a few of the zero waste spaces in the city, because I'm always interested in that kind of thing. As well you know.

In case it's helpful, today I'm sharing a few spots you might go yourself if you were on the hunt for bulk foods in London. These places also sell a small selection bulk snacks in addition to the more typical beans and oats that you typically see in bulk aisles, so they're good spots to keep in mind for visitors to the city, too.

Zero waste, bulk foods grocery shopping in London, United Kingdom | Litterless

Here's what I found:

Hetu: The photographs in this post are all from the gorgeous Hetu, a small zero waste shop in Clapham Junction (though they may move in the future, so stay tuned on their site for updates). Hetu sells package-free foods, cleaning supplies, and zero waste gear that you might need; you'll find lots of dry goods for cooking, dried fruits and vegan chocolates for snacking on, and reusable gear for your home and bathroom. One thing I especially loved: they had a small shelf of extra jars and containers that community members had donated from their own cabinets and pantries at home, which ensures that jars have a chance to get reused before being recycled. Such a thoughtful detail. (I borrowed one for filling with chocolate-covered ginger. Score.)

Unpackaged: I also visited two of the bulk aisles that Unpackaged maintains at Planet Organic grocery stores (you can find their locations here). These offered reusable cotton bulk bags for purchase and paper bags for those who arrive without a container brought from home. Expect to find mostly dry goods for cooking (like lentils and beans), but also some chocolates, nuts, and dried fruits. Unpackaged lists the products available at each site on their website, here, in case you'd like to check before you go.

Zero waste, bulk foods grocery shopping in London, United Kingdom | Litterless

The Source: Australia's favorite bulk foods grocery chain just opened their first location in the United Kingdom! I didn't have time to visit their Chiswick shop, but a friend told me it's a great spot for stocking up on bulk foods and other zero waste items. If you've been there, please leave a comment with how you liked it!

Bulk Market: I believe Bulk Market is currently between locations, but it's another completely package-free spot in London to keep your eye on.

Zero waste, bulk foods grocery shopping in London, United Kingdom | Litterless

Londoners, have other shopping suggestions for us? Your city has so much wonderful work happening in the waste space - I loved getting to sample a small portion of the good offerings during my trip.

Imperfect Zero Waste Travel

Imperfect zero waste travel | Litterless

I hope it’s clear that when I talk about zero waste I really mean “low waste.” “Zero waste ish.” “I’ve made some big lifestyle changes to reduce my reliance on disposable goods but I still make some trash of course, because I’m human and that’s life in our current system that prizes convenience over everything.” You know. That kinda thing.

For me, nowhere do I feel the challenge of striving for zero waste (read: low waste) more strongly than when I’m traveling. At home, I’ve spent years building routines that feel simple and doable. I know what to bring with me when I go to the grocery store. I know what to bring with me when I’m going out to eat. I know where to compost. I still make bits and pieces of trash: twist ties on bunches of kale, accidental plastic straws, the little detritus of life. I’m comfortable with where I’ve landed, somewhere in the sweet spot between making little trash and also living a very normal life through it all.

When traveling, though, boom, it’s all instantly upended. On my recent trip to London, as on most trips, I packed my bag with zero waste in mind, bringing a few of the items I use at home every day: cloth produce bags, handkerchiefs, a reusable thermos and water bottle, a stainless steel container for holding food. I was optimistic about my ability to mostly follow my normal zero waste routines, but found myself making more trash than I had anticipated.

Imperfect zero waste travel | Litterless

This used to be the type of story I would keep to myself. It must be because I didn’t try hard enough to be zero waste on this trip, I’d think. Next time I’ll try harder.

But, truly, no. I really just think staying zero waste while traveling is itself hard, and all we can do is go into it with the best of intentions and kindness toward ourselves when we inevitably can’t do it as well as we’d like to.

I joked to my mom one day in London that I’m only vegan in the United States, meaning my butter and clotted cream consumption while in England received carte blanche. After all, the point of going somewhere new is to be truly there, to have the experiences that are worth the long journey. Zero waste isn’t necessarily enjoyment-inhibiting, but stressing about doing it perfectly, of course, is. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m only zero waste in the United States, but the sentiment stands: when I’m not home, I can’t make as little waste as I can when I am home.

When traveling, especially abroad, I want to be able to pick up weird and delicious-looking foods at the grocery without worrying hugely about the packaging they’re in. When the bulk section at the grocery store I visit is mostly full of things that need cooking (oatmeal, lentils), I want to give myself permission not to spend time at the stove on my trip, but instead to search out snacks in recyclable packaging and be fine with it.

Imperfect zero waste travel | Litterless

I want other things too, of course: to be able to find somewhere to deposit compostable materials. (Here’s how to find places to compost when you’re traveling). To avoid plastic water bottles and coffee cups by bringing my own. To remember my own travel soap in case the hotel’s soap is packaged in plastic.

Pictured above, what was underneath the sink at our Airbnb in London. A trash can, and nothing else. I made a small pile for recyclables, and another for compostables. I found a public recycling bin on the street for depositing the recycling, but the compost went in the trash as I wasn’t able to figure out a place to bring it.

Two years ago, having to place compostable items in the trash would have made me think things like, “But shouldn’t my trash fit in a jar?” (Answer: no). This year, having to throw them away made me think things like: “Shouldn’t London have a better answer for public composting?” (Answer: yes).

My point is: there are things I can easily do to stay zero waste while traveling. There are things, too, that I can’t easily do. The less guilt I feel over supposed failures, the more energy and motivation I have to keep doing zero waste long-term. And that, friends, is my goal, not reaching perfection on any given trip.

Thoughts on traveling? Is this philosophy horrifying to you? A relief?

PS. I’ve started a tag to corral thoughts like these on doing zero waste imperfectly. Find other posts in the series, here.

Off to London

Packing for a zero waste trip | Litterless

Just a note to say: I'm headed to London tonight for a couple of weeks, and won't be in this space while I'm gone. (Vacation!). On the agenda: exploring, eating, walking, stopping by an Unpackaged location to grab a few bulk groceries, lots more.

You can follow along on Instagram in the meantime, and otherwise I'll be back here mid-April. Hope you have a good few weeks!

Building a Zero Waste Grocery Kit

How to build a zero waste grocery kit | Litterless

The grocery was the first place I started with zero waste. That was several years ago now, but what I do remember is that a set of produce bags was one of the very first purchases I made when I decided I was finally brave enough to start emulating the few folks I'd heard about who were working on paring down their waste. Four years later, and those same produce bags are still in rotation every week. (Albeit quite stained and a little worn, but hey).

The grocery store is not, of course the place that you have to start, but I found that starting with changing up my grocery run was an angle that offered a good measure of instant gratification. And that can-do spirit I felt when I watched my kitchen trash shrink each week motivated me to make changes in other areas, too. Groceries are by volume and number the largest amount of new things I bring into my home each week, so it makes sense that slashing my packaging waste in that arena propelled me on to others.

How to build a zero waste grocery kit | Litterless

A little forethought and some time spent assembling gear means you'll be ready to tackle a lower-waste grocery run, too. Or, even if you already have, sharing some of the stuff I take along might give you a behind-the-scenes thrill. Here's what I tend to bring:

Containers for liquid bulk.

When liquid bulk goods like vinegar, olive oil, or tamari are on the list, I make sure to bring along a few glass jars. I like to use repurposed glass vinegar bottles when possible, since the plastic lids don't rust like metal Ball jar lids do, and the narrow neck means I don't waste any food when pouring. Luckily, as I've mentioned before, glass bottles like these are better hoarded from past uses than bought new, although you can certainly purchase something like a glass swing-top bottle to do the trick for these instead. (They're also worth scouring thrift stores for).

If you're buying something super sticky like honey or molasses, a narrow-neck bottle might not work as well as a wider-mouth jar, where you can get a spoon in and clean that sucker out at it gets empty. Luckily, honey and molasses and the like are less likely to rust a metal lid than corrosive vinegar is, so you're probably in the clear with a standard Ball jar.

How to build a zero waste grocery kit | Litterless

Containers for produce.

Produce bags comprised my very first zero waste purchase, and I'd posit that they're a good one. Wrestling open clingy, squeaky plastic produce bags is not something I miss. I keep a big stack of cloth produce bags around because I use them for everything: produce, sure, and bulk dry goods, but also holding craft projects while traveling, as a makeshift lunch bag, to send extra food home with friends (a la this), and on and on. It's nice to have enough that I can make a grocery trip even some of my bags are in the laundry pile.

The bags shown here are these mesh bags and solid cotton bags, which were a recent gift from EcoBags. It's a treat to have a few bags that aren't stained (yet), and I'm especially glad to have the mesh bags, which mean that I answer fewer questions from the cashier at check-out about what's in each bag, since they can see through the mesh. (Otherwise, our interactions can look something like: "What's in here?" "Lemons." "And here?" "Kale." "What's in here?" "Cremini." "Are these fuji apples?" "Nope, pink ladies.")

Containers for bulk dry goods.

These can be glass jars, plastic containers (like these very un-fancy ones), or even cloth bags like the ones you'd use in the produce section. To make my life easier, I try to grab my bulk dry goods like beans and nuts in glass jars when possible, so that I can put the glass jars directly into my pantry when I get home, rather then spending time decanting purchases into different containers.

Looked at another way, though, carrying a big load of clanking, heavy, breakable jars to the grocery can be anything but convenient. Bringing some cloth produce bags or plastic containers in addition to your glass jars can mean a lighter load. Where possible, I choose to put items with larger pieces (beans, nuts) in produce bags, and items that will be harder to decant, like cocoa powder, spices, and tiny grains directly in the glass jars in which I'll plan to store them.

How to build a zero waste grocery kit | Litterless

Containers for bringing it all home.

A.k.a. tote bags. Reusable tote bags are the only piece of zero waste gear that's been pretty much universally adopted, so you probably already have way too many. And thank goodness for it. Store them in the trunk of your car, piled on a hook in the coat closet so you see them each time you reach for your coat to head out the door, keep an extra folded up in each purse. The string bags pictured here, a gift from EcoBags, are a recent favorite version of mine, as they make me feel farmers' market-y, even in the winter when there's no market to be had.

And, the ability to remember to bring it with you.

The best-stocked kit in the world won't help you if it's in your hall closet as you head to the grocery. Like all habits, this one can take a while to build, but it does eventually stick. Now I'd no more leave the house for a grocery run without my produce bags than I would leave without my wallet. If you have a car, keeping a small box in your trunk with clean containers and produce bags might be the trick you need; if you tend to walk or take public transportation to the grocery, you could hang your tote bags on your door handle to remind you, or put up a temporary sign like this.

How to build a zero waste grocery kit | Litterless

What you choose to stock your kit with, of course, depends on what you can find in bulk near you. (You can use this guide to help you find local options). If you are lucky to have a place to buy liquid bulk items like olive oil and white wine vinegar, you'll want to prioritize a few bottles that seal tightly. If you only have dry bulks goods available, maybe glass jars or plastic containers and a stack of produce bags will be all you need.

Over time you can add to and take away items as you figure out what you use most during a normal month. If you have extra produce bags, they make great holders for knitting supplies, travel toiletries, snacks on the go, really anything. And if you have extra glass jars, well, those are darn useful elsewhere too.

What does your grocery kit look like these days? Favorite things to keep on hand?

Homemade Wood Conditioner

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

Winter feels like it’s coming to a close in Chicago these days. The sky as I write this is that shade of bright blue that would have seemed miraculous in January, but now seems normal. Evenings are longer, I stopped in my tracks at the sight of snowdrops in someone’s yard the other day, and everyone’s mood is a little brighter. Midway through March, a good place to be.

Towards the end of winter, I always seem to use up the last of my spoon butter and need to make another small pot to last me through the following winter. Spoon butter, sometimes called wood conditioner, is a simple beeswax-and-oil salve meant to lock in moisture on dried-out wooden kitchen implements. After months of stirring up stews and soups, my wooden spoons take on a decidedly dry aspect and need some care to keep them from remaining that way permanently.

Enter homemade spoon butter: a simple and satisfying DIY project that you can whip up in about ten minutes. Here’s how:

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

-Gather your materials.

You’ll need beeswax (I prefer the pellets, which melt more quickly, but you can generally also find blocks of beeswax unpackaged at your farmers’ market), coconut oil, and a small amount of a liquid oil (I used grapeseed oil here, but walnut oil is particularly good, if pricey). Some recipes recommend mineral oil, which I avoid because it’s made from petroleum (ick).

You’ll also need an old tea towel that you don’t mind getting a little oily, some cotton rags you’re willing to compost, a double boiler for melting the ingredients (it should be one set aside specifically for projects like this, because once you melt beeswax in it the residue will stay fairly stuck; I got mine secondhand so that I don’t mind it getting waxy), and one or more jars for holding the finished product.

If you aren't sure where to buy these ingredients in bulk, there's a little note at the end about where I got mine in reusable glass packaging. Note: a few of those links are affiliate links.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

-Combine the ingredients for the butter in your double boiler.

Like most projects, I tend to eyeball this one, going for two parts coconut oil to one part beeswax, and a small splash of the liquid oil I’m using. The beeswax is what makes the salve firm enough to lock in the moisture from the coconut oil, and the liquid oil helps make the salve a little more malleable. A mixture of just coconut oil and beeswax can be too firm to scoop, especially in the winter when the coconut oil hardens.

If you want an exact recipe to follow, try one-third cup beeswax pellets, two-thirds cup coconut oil, and two tablespoons of your liquid oil. (You’ll probably need a jar slightly bigger than mine). You can scale that up or down to make as much or as little as you’d like, but I try to make enough to last me about one year – which equates to about the amount shown in these photographs – so that I can make a fresh batch often enough to ensure the oil stays in good condition.

-Slowly melt the ingredients over low-to-medium heat.

Place the double boiler over a pot of gently simmering water, and stir slowly and intermittently to combine the ingredients. The coconut oil will melt first, and you’ll need to keep stirring until the beeswax is melted, too. I like to stir the mixture with a wooden spoon, which saves me the trouble of onerously scraping the beeswax off my spoon; instead, I just rub it right into the spoon when I’m finished.

Take care not to let the mixture boil; it shouldn’t be able to in a double boiler, but it bears saying anyway. You want it all to melt slowly together until it’s a uniform bright, clear gold with no visible beeswax particles.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

-Pour the melted mixture into your jar.

You’ll need to work carefully and quickly once you remove the double boiler from the pan of water underneath, since beeswax starts to harden as soon as it cools in the slightest. Turn off the stove, and use hot pads or over mitts to pick up just the top part of the double boiler, leaving the water bath where it is. Use a tea towel to wipe any condensed water off the bottom of the double boiler; you don’t want it to drip into your mixture when you pour it. Then, tip the double boiler over your jar or container to decant the mixture.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

Let the jar cool completely; it will turn from clear to opaque over the course of several hours.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

-Once cool, rub it into your wooden spoons, cutting boards, and more.

I use my hands to coat each piece with a thin layer of the spoon butter, then I lay each piece out on a ratty old tea towel for a few hours or overnight. After some time has passed, I use a very small cotton rag cut from an old t-shirt to buff the butter deeper into the grain and to smooth off the extra butter so the pieces no longer feel sticky or tacky. I compost the rag when I’m finished with it, since it’s oily enough that I don’t want to wash it. Repeat this process as often as you remember, especially during the winter when you notice your cutting boards or spoons look dry.

How to make DIY, homemade spoon butter and wood conditioner from zero waste ingredients | Litterless

As for where to find the beeswax, coconut oil, and grapeseed oil in bulk, it varies based on where you live, of course. You can check out the guide to bulk groceries in the U.S. and Canada here to see if these are sold somewhere near you. Or, you can buy them online in sustainable packaging.

(Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased).

My friend Brit from Refill Revolution sent me the beeswax, coconut oil, and grapeseed oil shown here, in glass jars that I plan to reuse down the line once they’re empty. Though coconut oil and grapeseed oil can be bought in glass jars at most groceries, I appreciate that the containers Brit uses are ones that are more likely to remain useful in my home. (If you’d like, you can use the code LITTERLESS to save 10% off your order at Refill Revolution).

Previously in DIY: A simple make-up remover, and a deep-winter body butter.

On Minimalism and Zero Waste

How zero waste and minimalism are related | Litterless

There are folks who think minimalism and zero waste are inextricably linked, that one without the other can't exist. There are other folks who posit that the current minimalism trend is in some ways antithetical to zero waste: as anyone who's read about Marie Kondo's decluttering style of literally throwing away as many trash bags of possessions as possible to achieve a tidy home can attest, it's a fair point.

As with most philosophies zero waste, I fall someplace in the middle. The fewer resources we can use to live happy and healthy lives, the better for the planet, undoubtably. And unused things lying around are in some ways just waiting to become trash. If you clean out your bathroom cabinet and find a jar of six-year-old body lotion, you're probably not going to want to use it; into the trash goes the lotion (and into recycling the jar), when if you'd found it four years earlier it might have gotten used up just fine. The examples in favor of a more minimalist home being more conducive to zero waste are legion: elastic stretches beyond repair on clothing left in drawers too long, spices wither and get flavorless. And so on.

Using something yourself in its prime eliminates these possibilities, or passing unused items along to someone else allows them to be useful while they can be. Where I find minimalism problematic is in some of its most vocal proponents' assertions that it is IT: the path to happiness and peace and a calm home and life. Owning less certainly can be a path to that, but more likely you'll still be the same person with the same worries before and after you get rid of your toaster.

Getting rid of things you'll use isn't necessarily more virtuous than keeping things you'll use. Our things can get devalued when passed along. You know the history behind your favorite skillet, which kept you company in your first apartment; given to a thrift store, it's just another stained piece of cookware in a stack of stained pieces of cookware. I own three wooden spoons, and after putting two away to make more space in my current tiny kitchen, found I could actually make do with one. But the other two are beloved to me; I remember the farmers' markets where I purchased them in college, and the turmeric tint reminds me of years of past meals. I'd hazard that if given to a secondhand shop or a friend, someone would scoop them up and use them, but might later discard them more cavalierly, as the spoons would lack the sense of history for them that they hold for me.

I've found balance in, well, a balance. I'm good about passing along things that I truly never use or no longer want, but have no compunction about keeping extra things tucked away if I know I'll find them useful in the future. Extra bars of soap, bamboo toothbrushes, wooden spoons, tea towels: though I don't actively seek out extras, when I find myself with extras, I'm okay with having more than I actually, truly need at any given time. I think that's a perspective that's rare in the zero waste world, where we often hear that we need to get rid of every single thing we don't use at a given time. To me, that seems unrealistic and a little austere. (Though it certainly does work for many people). I've found I like life better with a little cushion. But not, of course, too much.

On minimalism and zero waste | Litterless

This month, I've been playing a twist on the Mins Game. Created by the some of the same vocal proponents whose strident statements rub me the wrong way, it's nevertheless become a tool in my zero waste arsenal that I appreciate. Have you heard of it? The idea is that you give yourself a month to take the time to sort through your possessions and find what you can get rid of. The first day of the month, you get rid of one thing; the second day, two; the third, three, and on until you hit thirty-one.

A friend of mine started the game among a group of our friends in February of last year, and when the same month rolled around this year, I was pulled again to the idea of a fresh start. The game is a good motivation to tackle the big task of getting rid of the clutter, the unused, that can be easy to put off nearly-forever until that jar of body lotion slinks to the back of your cupboard, not to be discovered for another six years.

However, as zero wasters, we play the game with a few twists. Repairing, cleaning, or otherwise getting an item back in circulation in your home counts just as much as getting rid of something. Of course, we also take the time to get things to their proper homes: rather than stuffing it all in a trash bag, items get donated to the right places, recycled, and composted. (A guide to sustainable decluttering, here). And, we stop when we're finished; if we don't have enough items to get rid of sustainably, we can end early. Simple as that.

For me, the game is a way to take stock of all the small odds and ends lying around. I rarely get rid of larger things en masse anymore; I'm happy with my wardrobe, the items in my kitchen have earned their place there, and just generally there aren't really many big items in my home that don't deserve to be there.

But I can admit to a penchant for buying new lotion or making new body butter before my current stash has run out, and to a reluctance to dig my fingers way down deep to get at the last bit in the jar when the new jar is so pleasingly, temptingly full. I have a few used-up bamboo toothbrushes waiting to have their bristles removed and their handle composted. Junk mail piles up in a corner before I can get around to emailing the companies that I'd like to be taken off their mailing list. If I can use up the last bit of lip balm in a tin, I can use that tin for something else. A game that takes on tackling the small tasks of caring for small objects enables me to periodically give everything a total once-over. I like it.

Want to play along? Other thoughts on the zero waste and minimalist divide? I'm fascinated: please share.

Previously in Home: Waiting to make purchases, parts one and two.