On Environmentalism and Joy

On environmentalism, self-reliance, community, and joy | Litterless

To be an environmentalist means to take on a certain measure of the world’s burdens. If that seems like a raw deal, well, even so we wouldn’t have it any other way. And yet, after recent depressing ruminations on the state of the climate and affairs generally, I thought it was only fair to give equal airtime to the flip side: joy. Though this may not be the case for you, for me living sustainably has meant shifting many aspects of my life in a way that has made my whole life better, not just my environmental impact.

Biking and walking places instead of driving is one of the truest pleasures I know - the added exercise, the wind on my cheeks, the leaves underfoot. When I lived in Chicago, I commuted a half hour by foot each way nearly every single day, even during the winter. (If you’re curious about walk commuting, I wrote more about my experiences - and best practices - here). The morning walk was a time to gear up for the day, and the evening walk a time to process the workday and leave it behind for the night.

Now, in Madison, I love the feeling of soaring on bike pedals on the way to the grocery store or having twenty minutes to soak up the view of the lake while walking to yoga. Julian bikes to work most days, too, and has implemented a rule for himself: if he’s not sure whether to bike or drive that day, biking will always feel better. Driving is convenient, and for some people and places, necessary. But how much better it feels to get somewhere myself - I’d do it this way even if cars ran on fairy dust instead of fossil fuels.

When we do have to drive somewhere, I’m learning that carpooling with friends to a get-together instead of driving separately means more time spent with friends and less time fast-forwarding through podcast ads. Alongside the slight inconvenience of having to coordinate schedules and set aside more time to get to our location, carpooling also means closeness and piling into a car together and asking about each others’ days, instead of going it alone.

And that is maybe the crux of it: the most unexpected benefit of zero waste for me has been how much it has meant learning to lean on myself, my friends, and my community, and how much doing so has improved my life. So much of what is sold to us as convenience can have the effect of encouraging us to believe we can’t do things for ourselves, that the things we need can only be found in stores. Choosing to try to buy less and to waste less means taking back some of that power. I can buy canned pumpkin, or I can make pumpkin purée from a whole pumpkin and in doing so learn something about cooking and about self-reliance.

On environmentalism, self-reliance, community, and joy | Litterless

To me, zero waste means gratefully accepting a friend’s old toaster instead of buying a new one, hosting a community swap, giving away extra food before leaving on vacation, and texting friends about extra zero waste gear to ask, “Do you have a use for this?” It means a simmering pot of cinnamon-scented applesauce bubbling away on the stove instead of a plastic jar of Mott’s, having a friendly conversation with a barista when I hand over my reusable mug, browsing thrift shops with a pal, and making homemade gnocchi on a Saturday afternoon instead of picking up a plastic package of it. (Note: homemade gnocchi is so good, omg, and surprisingly not really that hard to make).

I could buy canned pumpkin, buy applesauce, buy gnocchi, buy a toaster, buy new clothing, and buy coffee in a paper cup. Of course I could, and sometimes I do. But instead of buying something that’s packaged or brand-new, I can often make it or find it in my community. Doing so over and over and over again throughout the years has instilled in me a sense of security I didn’t have before. I can support myself, and when I can’t, the people around me can.

None of this is meant to be saccharine or to gloss over the difficulties of choosing to live more sustainably. Preparing food from scratch does take more time than buying it packaged; that’s a choice not everyone can make. Secondhand shopping takes more time than buying something new (but on the other hand, costs less money). I’m also mindful of the fact that the ability to make these choices depends on having an able body and being part of a community with extra resources to lend each other, both of which are incredible privileges.

I’m wary of movements that claim to have all the answers for everlasting happiness and peace, and I’m not arguing that zero waste is a happiness quick-fix. Really, I’m only just starting to articulate all of this to myself after four years of making these kinds of choices. But, it’s true. Tuning into the impact of my choices has made me choose differently - and these choices have made me, generally, happier. Practicing environmentalism can look like deprivation; anything can look like deprivation. But it can also look like joy.

Ideas for going zero waste without buying anything new, here. More essays, here.

Pictured, drying herbs (thyme, oregano, and chocolate mint) from our small patio garden. (Here’s a how-to).

Nothing New: Tools For Bulk Shopping

How to shop in bulk without buying anything new | Zero waste kitchen and pantry | Litterless

There’s nothing like keeping something out of the recycling stream a little longer by putting it to use in your house: satisfying, more sustainable, and, if you’re anything like us and live on the fifth floor of an apartment building, somewhat of an arm-saver as well.

You can buy new tools for shopping in bulk, or you can reuse things you already own. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between those two extremes, but in case you’re still building a grocery shopping kit of your own, here are some of the things you might already own that would work for buying bulk foods:

-Muslin bags that came with purchases: the dust cover to a handbag or the cloth bag that contained a new journal. Like me, you may have these lying around with no memory of where they came from. Wash and use them.
-A paper bag from the bulk aisle, taken once and then brought back for use until it finally begins to fall apart.
-An old sheet or square of fabric, sewn into simple drawstring bulk bags if you have the skill, or, if not, left as a square and folded as a furoshiki cloth.
-A pile of Ziploc bags you still have hanging out around your kitchen, cleaned and dried.

How to shop in bulk without buying anything new | Zero waste kitchen and pantry | Litterless

-The plastic containers that the bulk aisle provides, taken once and then washed and reused again and again and again.
-A plastic yogurt container, cleaned and dried.
-A glass jar that once held capers, olives, artichoke hearts, salsa, etc.
-The plastic containers still lurking around in the backs of your kitchen cabinets from when you used to bring your lunch in them. Sure, they’re a bit spaghetti sauce-stained, but they’re just fine.
-Scrubbed glass vinegar bottles (like so), or the bottle your olive oil, honey, maple syrup, or whatever you’re trying to buy originally came packaged in.

How to go zero waste without buying anything new: Shopping the bulk aisle using containers you already own | Litterless

Other resources
-What you may want to include in your grocery shopping kit.
-“Sustainability is not about purchasing green products.
-Mixing old plastic containers into your zero-waste shopping kit, here.
-Use those wide-mouth peanut butter jars for freezing.
-Repurpose your plastics.
-Find a store selling bulk foods near you, here.

Other ideas for scrounged-up, repurposed tools for lower-waste grocery shopping?

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

Secondhand Wardrobe: Fall 10x10

How to dress in all secondhand clothing this fall | Litterless

As a teenager, the secondhand items in my wardrobe – from thrift shopping with friends, from family member’s closets – tended to lean toward the outlandish. Vintage cardigans, printed t-shirts my dad had held onto since the 70s, one particularly notable pair of bell-bottoms passed along from my mom, and anplaid shirt snatched from my youngest brother were all mixed together, in the way of teens everywhere, with more standard pieces bought new.

The only secondhand item still hanging in my closet from those thrift store runs is a gold-and-black dress that I occasionally wear to winter holiday parties. It’s both fuzzy and shiny, but in a cool way, if you can even imagine such an article - I know. After college, I thought thrift shopping was no longer for me. I was weary of combing secondhand racks and finding nothing remotely like what I’d want to wear day-to-day.

It can be frustrating to search for secondhand clothing until you know where to look – and then a treasure trove can open, and it can be hard to restrain yourself. Over the past several years, I’ve gotten back into the secondhand shopping, only this time I’m able to find pieces I’ll wear every day.

I thought it would be fun to share ten days of secondhand-only outfits for the Fall 10x10 wardrobe challenge. The premise of the challenge is this: choose ten items of clothing, and wear them (and no others, if you can help it) for ten days.

How to dress in all secondhand clothing this fall | Litterless

The ten items I’ve chosen are all secondhand. I’ve included where I originally bought them in the notes below, in case the sources help you in your own secondhand hunt. Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased.

-Elizabeth Suzann olive twill Clyde pants, bought secondhand on SellTradeES.
-Levi’s black jeans, bought secondhand on Noihsaf Bazaar.
-Atelier Delphine cream jacket, bought secondhand on The General Economy.
-Madewell plaid shirt, bought secondhand on Noihsaf Bazaar.
-Everlane black-and-gray striped long sleeve shirt, bought secondhand on ThredUp.
-Madewell chambray short-sleeve shirt, bought secondhand on ThredUp.
-Elizabeth Suzann navy linen Georgia top, bought secondhand at Crossroads in Chicago.
-J. Crew gray sweater, a hand-me-down from my mom.
-Linenfox navy linen dress, bought secondhand on Noihsaf Bazaar.
-J. Crew black leggings, bought secondhand on ThredUp.

How to dress in all secondhand clothing this fall | Litterless

I’ll be sharing my outfit every day for the next ten days on Instagram, in the hopes of showing that it’s possible to look stylish and eminently normal while wearing ENTIRELY USED CLOTHING. Used, secondhand, thrifted, whatever we call it: secondhand isn’t embarrassing, shameful, or the exclusive purview of teenagers. It’s for everyone, and it’s kinder to people and the planet. 

Do you have secondhand items in your wardrobe? If not, are there any stumbling blocks or questions I can help with as you think about adding a few? 

You can follow along with other folks doing the Fall 10x10 on Instagram, here.

More resources on building a secondhand wardrobe, here.

On Climate Change and Individual Action

Individual action on climate change | Litterless

For a report that mostly confirms what we already knew, the new United Nations Climate Assessment felt, last week, like a terrible surprise. The timeline faster, the consequences more dire, the predictions more concrete than what I’d been imaging when the words “climate change” crossed my lips. That climate change is here, now, not in the future, is not news. But that it’s here now, and will hit a crisis point in the next decade, felt like news.

I’ve written before about how climate optimism has been an essential ingredient to my environmental work. About how I’ve given myself permission to step back from the daily grind of environmental news and to focus my efforts on community action and writing in this space. That feels harder to justify now. Climate disasters feel, are, closer now. Action is more urgent.

I still believe that hopefulness and despair are necessary ingredients to galvanizing climate action. I still have hope and I still have despair. What's newly, slowly, painfully emerging is a sense that my work, that our work, doesn’t have one percent of one percent of one percent of the effect that it needs to. That everything needs to change so much faster than I believed.

I already knew this - but now I know it. The difference between the two feels vast.

On individual action and climate change | Litterless

For me, the zero waste movement has always been about channeling my frustration with government and business inaction on environmental issues into changes that I can enact daily. Four years ago, frustrated by living in a country that declined to take on the mantle of environmental leadership, I decided to do more myself. To vote, yes, to call legislators, yes, to patronize businesses that work to minimize their impact, yes, but also to do what I could in my own life to make sure my everyday choices aligned with the world I wanted to see.

Sometimes individual actions seem ridiculous when compared what policy could achieve. And, perhaps, they are. I believe strongly that we need both: we need policies that hamper emissions and pollution, and support clean energy, carbon sequestration, municipal composting, comprehensive recycling, and true corporate responsibility.

And yet we also need to rely less on disposable plastics, to mend and repair what we have, to not believe that the government will solve all of our problems, to do better ourselves. Both, and not one, will get us closer to where we need to be. We can’t solve climate change without huge policy changes and we can’t solve climate change without a dramatic re-thinking of what it means to be a consumer. Let’s get back to work on both.

How to do more, today:

-Talk about it. With your family, with your friends. Last night while making dinner Julian and I talked about the climate report and the dire predictions, and how we can do more for the environment beyond zero waste. We re-affirmed our commitment to eating local foods, to walking and biking instead of driving. We talked about ways to arrange our lives in the future so that we need to fly less. I set our thermostat schedule to lower the heat at night. I made a plan to write this post. All tiny things. All basically useless, in the grand scheme. And yet.

-Show up for environmental justice. Privilege has the effect of sheltering many of us from the worst of climate change, as it does from many other things. Particularly for white people in Western countries, like myself, this means we aren’t the ones facing the consequences of our over-consumption (as Polly put it here). If you have privilege, use it: donate money, volunteer time, consume less, vote. That is your job, and mine.

-Make sure you’re registered to vote. Though the midterm elections aren’t until November 6th, voter registration deadlines in many states are this week and this month. Resources for registering in your state, here.

How are you feeling? Where do you fall on a belief in individual action? Other ideas to share? Please do.

More essays, here.

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

Favorite Tools for Plastic-Free Food Storage

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

After a week away from home, settling back into our routine feels good. Last evening, as we unloaded food from a lunchtime run to the co-op and set about chopping vegetables for dinner, I snapped a few photographs to illustrate a few of our favorite tools for storing food with less waste.  

I’ve made use of glass jars for storing food since college, but over the past several years I’ve tinkered with other useful alternatives to plastic and disposable food storage methods, as well. Reusables are better for the planet, of course, but I also appreciate the added ease of never having to add plastic bags, tin foil, plastic wrap, or parchment paper to the grocery list. Instead, glass and metal storage tins, silicone Stasher bags, and Bee’s Wrap take the place of disposable plastics, and last for years.

We’ve been turning to EarthHero recently when we need to stock up on reusables; their stringent criteria for selecting and shipping products means that you won’t be surprised with greenwashed items or unwanted plastic packing materials. They’ve also developed a library of sustainability logos that make it easy to tell whether a product fits with your values, and to identify recycled, upcycled, organic, and low-impact products at a glance.

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

As long-time lovers of Stasher reusable bags – for sandwiches, for snacks – we were thrilled by their recent addition of a half-gallon size, for storing vegetables in the fridge or putting up larger quantities of freezer goods. Stashers last for years and years when washed gently with dish soap and a dish brush. They’re sturdy and durable, easy to throw into a tote bag or the fridge alike.

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

For dinner last night, we made a delicata squash and kale panzanella salad, with one of the first squashes of the season. We use Bee’s Wrap every day – to top a bowl of leftovers or vegetables cut in advance, around a loaf of bread to keep it fresh, to open the lid of a jar like so, to cover a pot of soaking beans.

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

Bee’s Wrap takes the place of plastic wrap, and a sheet can be washed gently with a little dish soap and used over and over (and over) again. They get softer over time, but each sheet lasts for six months to a year. We’ve long had a few pieces of their small and medium wraps, but recently added a larger wrap and a baguette wrap to our arsenal. (The Bee’s Wrap variety pack is an economical way to avail yourself of most of their sizes).

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

After dinner, we clean everything up for the next day. I work from home most days, so I store leftovers for my lunches in whatever container I have handy. Julian uses a large, divided stainless steel UKonserve to hold his lunch and a smaller, shallow divided version to hold granola and fruit for breakfast. (We use this granola recipe, made and eaten almost weekly). UKonserve containers are made from durable stainless steel, with a top that can be recycled at the end of its life (though we’ve had some of ours for a few years now, and they’re still going strong)

Zero waste, plastic-free food storage options | How to store food without plastic | Litterless

Most days Julian bikes to work, so having a trusty, leak-proof, unbreakable container is key. Though we mainly use glass containers in the fridge – being able to see what we have makes it that much more likely that our food will actually get eaten – stainless steel containers are our choice for on the go, lunches or otherwise. In the fall, in addition to our usual UKonserve containers, that also means soup in a stainless steel thermos.

For more simple swaps in your kitchen, EarthHero has corralled their favorite zero waste food storage solutions here. And, if you’d like, you can take 15% off your purchase at EarthHero with the code litterless2019 through December 31, 2019 .

What are your favorite food storage systems these days? Questions I can answer?

Tips for wasting less food, here.

(This post is sponsored by EarthHero, a one-stop shop for all things sustainable).

Travel Tip: Plan Ahead for Shaving

Zero waste shaving while traveling by plane | Litterless

This past weekend, we visited Asheville for a close friend’s wedding. As part of our pre-wedding sprucing up, we both pulled out a plastic razor from our toiletry bags. At home, we shave with metal safety razors that are plastic-free and nearly endlessly reusable. When flying, though, the blades don’t make it through the security checkpoint - nor should they. After being reminded of this the hard way on a trip last month, this month we arrived in North Carolina with razors un-confiscated, but also un-zero waste.

Over the past few years of traveling with a mind to making less waste, I’ve found myself on both ends of the spectrum: safety razor packed and the blade confiscated at the airport, and safety razor not packed and a plastic razor purchased later while on vacation. In the spirit of finding solutions that are both simple and effective, I’ve been making more of an effort to accept the inevitable: yes, I wish I could just bring my safety razor and blade in my carry-on. No, that doesn’t work and neither does ignoring the issue entirely. Instead, I’m working on taking the time to plan a solution ahead of time instead of throwing up my hands and leaving shaving on vacation to the whims of fate.

Zero waste shaving while traveling by plane | Litterless

In case you’ve been in a similar boat (er, airplane), here are some ideas about how to shave in a more zero waste way while on vacation. Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission on items purchased.

-Check your safety razor through. If you’re checking a bag, the choice is easy. Safety razor blades can be included in your checked luggage. Pop your standard safety razor in your toiletry bag - carry the blade in a small, hard-shell case or box to avoid the risk of cutting yourself accidentally as you dig through your belongings - and stow it in your bag to check.

-Buy a blade at your destination. Safety razors themselves are fine to go through security; it’s the blades that pose an issue. You can bring a blade-less razor in your carry-on with a plan to buy a blade when you arrive. To save time, take your razor out of your bag at security so they can quickly check it to make sure it doesn’t have a blade; otherwise, they’ll have to search your bag, which takes longer. Places to search for safety razor blades include Whole Foods, local food co-ops, zero waste stores, barbershops, and corner shops. This method works best for longer trips where you’ll have time to shop and time to work your way, at least somewhat, through a package of blades. You can also plan to leave the extra blades with a friend or host, or to check them through on the way home to avoid wasting an open package.

-Purchase a Preserve razor. I’ll admit to being a general skeptic of Preserve products, slightly irritated that their recycled and recyclable toothbrushes and razors come in packaging that is, to my knowledge, neither. But they offer the best semi-sustainable plastic razor out there; it’s made of recycled plastic and you can send it back to them to be recycled as well. Plus, once you buy the handle, you can purchase replacement blades to cut down on waste a little bit further.

-Use an old plastic razor. When I bought my metal safety razor, I stashed away the rest of my unused plastic razors to use while traveling. Since I only shave a few times each trip - if that - the pile of razors has lasted years. When they finally, finally run out, I’ll choose an alternative. For now, making do with what we already own feels like the easiest route.

-Skip shaving. Of course, this is always an option, on vacation and off. As with all things grooming, shaving is a personal choice and your body is perfectly acceptable as it is. If you prefer not to shave, you’ll sidestep the issue entirely. But if you prefer to shave, make a plan.

Other tips for traveling and shaving with less waste? Tips for switching to a safety razor here.

Read more zero waste bath and beauty ideas here.

Stock Up at the Farmers' Market

How to stock up for winter at the farmers' market to support local foods year-round | Litterless

The wisest words on local foods come, I think, from Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She writes, "If you’re reading this in midwinter and that is your solution, put the thought away. Just never mind, come back in six months. Eating locally in winter is easy. But the time to think about that would be in August."

Unlike going zero waste, unlike shopping secondhand, unlike mending your clothing when it rips, shopping locally as a way to reduce your environmental impact is something that can only be done a certain time of year. The time to think about it is August, June, even April, and, surely, October. Depending on where you live, the availability of local produce in the winter might be slim or none; many farmers’ markets closer for the season in October. But, if you have room in your budget, you can choose to buy a few extra, long-lasting foods now, and store them so that you can eat them in the months to come.

Preserving food need not be a huge kitchen operation, requiring bushels bought and a canning kettle and a whole weekend or two set aside for the endeavor. If you have the time and the inclination - by all means. But for us, this fall has been unexpectedly busy and it was all I could do to make applesauce and throw berries in the freezer and can five jars of pickles. This is all to say: putting up food gets a bad rap. It’s not just the purview of pioneers or farmers or urban homesteaders or the time-rich. Putting up local foods for the winter can equally mean storing some onions in a dark part of your pantry and purchasing a few extra squash to display on the countertop until you eat them. Some ideas for stocking up, easily, below.

How to stock up for winter at the farmers' market to support local foods year-round | Litterless

-Buy a few bunches of herbs to dry. Herbs in season at the farmers’ market are cheap and abundant, sold in huge and fragrant bunches. Contrasted with the plastic-packaged variety at the grocery store or the often-insipid dried variety, it makes fiscal and flavorful sense to dry your own. (Plus, this way you pay local farmers, not a global conglomerate). I think herb drying can be easier than we think; here’s my five-minute approach.

-Freeze tomatoes. If it seems criminal to freeze a peak-season, juicy, ripe, plump tomato, it might be even more criminal to forego doing so and thus resign oneself to months of a tomato fast, the canned variety, or - shudder - supermarket tomatoes in December. I freeze tomatoes whole, with the skins on. They won’t be good for eating raw after you freeze them, but they’re excellent in soups and sauces.

-Stock up on squash, onions, and garlic. All should last for months when stored in a cool, dark, well-ventilated area. When I purchase extras, I make a habit of checking on each squash or allium twice per week, so that I can quickly identify ones that are past their peak and use them up rather than letting them rot or grow feelers.

-Make an extra batch. If you’re buying apples for applesauce, buy double. If you’re buying a flat of tomatoes for soup, buy two and freeze the second batch of soup. It can be a pain to spend time to turn farmers’ market foods into something to freeze - especially when that time could be spent going on walks to watch the leaves change, or eagerly watching the thermometer climb back to cycling weather. If you’re already cooking, though, you might not notice the pinch.

-Look for items that are already preserved. Popcorn kernels, dried beans, locally milled grains: local foods where the work is done for you. If you’re able, grabbing an extra bag as the farmers’ market winds down for the year supports farmers, reduces the carbon footprint of your meals, introduces you to a new variety or flavor (cranberry beans, yum), and lets you find the holy grail: bulk AND local.

How to stock up for winter at the farmers' market to support local foods year-round | Litterless

Other favorite foods to stock up on in the fall? What’s growing where you live?

(Photos by Anna Zajac for Litterless).