Sustainability Starter Kits to Give or to Keep

A sustainable starter kit with plastic-free, zero-waste essentials | Litterless

If you’re a friend of mine, you probably mostly get zero waste items for gifts from me now. I would apologize, but I know you love those beeswax food wraps just as much as I do. Or you can give them back to me for my next birthday - that’s just fine too.

If you’re similarly pondering a few sustainable swaps for the folks on your gift list, EarthHero just launched new zero waste boxes, each full of tools for living with a little less waste. The boxes are meant for a gift to someone in your life who’s curious about zero waste, or simply as a way to grab a few essentials for your own household at a little bit lower cost.

A sustainable starter kit with plastic-free, zero-waste essentials | Litterless

Many of the items on offer are ones that we’ve had for years and can’t imagine doing without. I corralled some of our favorite zero-waste tools that are included in the boxes from our kitchen cabinets. Depending on which size box you choose, you might be the recipient - or giver - of stainless steel straws, a plastic-free water bottle like my trusty Klean Kanteen above, a Stasher reusable food storage bag, a Brush with Bamboo toothbrush or two, a set of travel utensils, and more. (After hearing friends rave about them, I’ve officially put a set of Food Huggers on my mental wishlist).

Because the boxes corral items from many different purveyors, they’re a good way to support the small businesses making zero waste supplies, like made-in-the-USA Khala beeswax wraps or compostable Brush with Bamboo toothbrushes.

A sustainable starter kit with plastic-free, zero-waste essentials | Litterless

The boxes come in three sizes, each with a different assortment of products - find what’s included in the small, medium, and large boxes, or check out all of their sustainable starter kits here.

If you’d like, you can take 15% off your purchase at EarthHero with the code litterless2019 through December 31, 2019.

(This post is sponsored by EarthHero, a one-stop shop for sustainable giving. Thanks so much for reading and supporting my work on Litterless.)

Zero Waste Travel, Made Simpler

Zero waste travel, made simpler | Litterless

It’s likely many of us are traveling later this week for the holiday. We’re road-tripping to Indiana on Wednesday and back up to Madison on Sunday. I’ve been away from home more often than usual in the past few months, and will be even more in the upcoming ones. In that spirit, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to simplify my travel routines: not leaving packing until the night before, bringing fewer items of clothing, and, a big one, bringing fewer items of zero waste gear.

My friend Kathryn joked in a post awhile back that “Zero waste doesn’t have to equal being a pack mule,” but it sure feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it? Especially a few years ago when I really took the “zero” in zero waste to heart, I would travel with way more gear than was feasible. I brought a tea strainer to Ireland in the hopes of avoiding single-use tea packets. That type of dedication may seem admirable to some, but from where I’m sitting several years later, it just looks foolish.

If you were truly hoping to stay zero waste while traveling, you might be tempted to bring more or less the whole contents of your kitchen with you. I’ve been there, done that. But what I’ve found is that regardless of preparation, travel makes trash. It just does. I can make Herculean efforts to avoid it, or I can save my Herculean efforts for something else.

Zero waste travel, made simpler | Litterless

If, instead, you were hoping to stay low waste while traveling like I now am, well, you could lighten things up a little bit. Here’s what I bring with me, in my newly pared-down travel kit:

-A couple of handkerchiefs
-A cloth napkin
-Reusable utensils (or pare it down to just a reusable fork)
-Water bottle, or better yet combination water bottle / thermos
-Food storage tin for snacks and leftovers
-Produce bag or two for snacks and purchases
-Reusable shopping bag
-Tin of travel soap, to avoid plastic-wrapped bars at the hotel

That list still looks long enough, but many of the items do double duty beyond zero waste, as well. Not everything will squeeze back in your suitcase as you’re leaving? Reusable bag to the rescue. Mopping up a spill in the car? Cloth napkin comes in handy. Found a compost drop-off spot near where you’re staying? You can save those food scraps in the food storage tin you brought for leftovers. Free apple at the hotel? Throw that baby in a produce bag and eat it on the plane.

Zero waste travel, made simpler | Litterless

Pictured above are two oranges wrapped up in a cloth napkin, furoshiki-style, in Boston a couple of weeks ago. Despite the fact that I couldn’t find a compost bin for the peels, purchasing a snack in its own packaging rather than in plastic felt like a small victory. (Though you better believe I had to buy some plastic-packaged snacks, too).

When traveling, maybe we can bring the things that are the most versatile and lightweight and useful. We can arm ourselves for the most likely scenarios and then make a little trash when there’s a paper-wrapped teabag at the Airbnb. We can let things go, and come home renewed and excited to keep on keepin’ on at zero waste. We can focus on our families at the holidays, not on attaining some gold standard of zero waste perfection.

Who’s with me? Safe travels this week to you and yours.

More notes on doing zero waste imperfectly, here.

Protecting Your Tech with a Compostable Phone Case

Zero-waste, plastic-free compostable and recyclable phone case from Pela Case | Litterless

It’s no secret that our phones are full of metals and components that are toxic both to the planet and to workers. Some of the components of phones and other electronics can be recycled, but the process is difficult and hazardous. In addition to the obvious reasons like the hefty price tag for replacing it, these are good reasons to make sure you can keep your phone around for as long as possible.

My phone dates to last year, but when I see someone with an iPhone 5, I feel a frisson of recognition, and respect. I’m hoping that, three years hence, I’ll be that person too: the one with the outdated - but still perfectly functioning - phone model.

My phone is currently protected by the plastic case I bought when I first purchased my phone. The clear plastic is yellowing in places and peeling away in others, and I know eventually the case will have to end up in the landfill, like so many others. My partner, on the other hand, has been without a phone case for the past several months after his first case became unusable, and his phone has suffered for it. (For example: all photos taken with it must now be selfies, as the camera on the back chipped during a fall).

Zero-waste, plastic-free compostable and recyclable phone case from Pela Case | Litterless

Clearly, neither of these - the plastic case or going without - is a good option for those of us who want to both extend the lives of our phones and minimize our plastic footprint. So I was delighted when Pela Case reached out to offer us one of their compostable phone cases. I promptly turned it over to my case-less partner, whose phone is now more than amply protected with a new black case.

The phone cases are made of a starch-based biopolymer and “waste” flax straw, which means they’re compostable, even in backyard settings. (More on that here). Better yet, Pela also accepts their old cases back for recycling into new ones.

Pela Cases are also matte, not shiny, which makes them easier to grip and, in our experience, harder to drop. Though I’m still using my older - and perfectly serviceable - plastic phone case from another company, I’m jealous of my partner’s new case, and when mine finally bites the dust, will upgrade to a Pela of my own. 

They also offer phone cases for most new and old smartphones, so if you’ve been having trouble finding a case for your older model, they most likely have an option for you. (Here’s their full list of current cases available, under the “Shop” tab up top).

Zero-waste, plastic-free compostable and recyclable phone case from Pela Case | Litterless

If you’d like to purchase a Pela of your own, you can use the code LITTERLESS for 15% off your purchase.

(This post is sponsored by Pela Case, makers of compostable and sustainable phone cases. Thanks so much for reading and supporting my work on Litterless.)

Tomorrow, Vote

Midterms 2018 | Resources for Voting | Litterless

Tomorrow, vote.


-Check your registration and find your voting location: can help you do both, as well as offering tools to set calendar reminders. If you aren’t registered already, many states allow voters to register at the polls on Election Day; the ACLU has a map of these states here.

-Preview your ballot: Ballotready lets you fill in a sample ballot for your state and district, which you can take with you into the voting booth on your phone to make sure you remember the choices you plan to make. Although Senate and Congressional races tend to have better-known candidates and thus clearer choices, local elections for judges, school boards, state congressional positions, governorships, ballot initiatives, and more are just as important and are worth researching ahead of time so you aren’t stymied day-of.

-Plan your transportation and bring your ID: Some states require photo identification to vote; you can find out if yours does by selecting your state on and scrolling down to learn more. If your state does require photo IDs, there are many acceptable forms besides a drivers’ license, so be sure to scan the full list of options rather than writing off voting entirely. (And then consider casting your ballot for politicians who will make voting more accessible, not less). If you need help getting to the polls, Uber and Lyft are offering free rides to polling places on Tuesday; there will be a button you can use within the app tomorrow.

-Know your rights: You have the right to vote. Though in all likelihood your voting will go off without a hitch, if you believe poll workers are mistaken about your registration or are trying to deny you that right, there are steps you can take then and there to make sure you can still cast your ballot. Here is a list of potential issues and steps to rectify them. Additionally, states with electronic voting offer you the chance to review your ballot - often a printed paper copy - before submitting. Though it may seem like a formality, it’s not. Make sure to review what the machine says you’ve selected to make sure it actually reflects your choices before you finalize your vote.

-Check in with your people: Text your friends to make sure they’re ready for tomorrow, or to make a plan to head to the polls together. I voted early in Wisconsin a few weeks ago, but I’ll make a point to chat with friends and neighbors about it throughout the day to keep the election top of mind for us all.

Tomorrow, vote.

Cheering you on. Holding my breath.

(Art by Libby Vanderploeg.)

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. My partner 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, 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.