City Guide: Chicago

Zero waste city guide: Chicago, Illinois | Litterless

I've lived in Chicago for a few years, and I love it - it's a really walkable city with lots of public transportation options, a much-loved lakefront, beautiful architecture, and so many places and eateries explore. In case you've moved here recently or are planning a trip to the city, I'm sharing a few of my favorite things to do, as well as ways to stay zero waste while you're here.


-Millenium Park: This park is at the heart of the city - not just geographically, but also culturally. In every season, there's so much to do here. Free outdoor concerts, movies, festivals, and yoga in the summer, ice skating in the winter, and the famous Cloud Gate sculpture in all seasons. It's just a beautiful place to hang out, with plenty of benches to rest on and corners to explore. Worth all the hype.

-Lake Michigan waterfront and path: A path for walking, running, and biking winds along the lakefront for the entire length of the city, featuring gorgeous views the whole time. Rent a bike, take a walk, bring a picnic, play on the beach, sit and take in the skyline - I never tire of exploring here.

-Architectural boat tour: From spring to fall, you can take a tour of the city by boat along the Chicago River; learning about the local architecture is fascinating and such a good way to get acquainted with the city. It's a little pricey, but hands down one of the best things to do in Chicago.

-Lincoln Park boardwalk: I love this little natural oasis within the city, a gorgeous place to walk and watch the seasons change. Wildflowers, grasses, trails, and wildlife abound here; plus, it offers parks to play in and a beautiful view of the Chicago skyline.

-Wander: Pick a neighborhood and head there for the afternoon without a plan, walking around, popping into coffee shops, stumbling on a tiny restaurant for lunch or dinner. It's such a relaxed, low-planning way to explore the city. Try this in Wicker Park (get off the Blue Line at Milwaukee), Logan Square (take the Blue Line to the Logan Square stop), Lincoln Park (get off the Brown Line at Armitage or the Red Line at Fullerton), or Ravenswood (take the Brown Line to Montrose).

-Other ideas: Visit the wonderful Art Institute, check out a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style gem, take a walking tour with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, go to an indie concert at the gorgeous Lincoln Hall, or go to a street festival in the summertime.


-Antique Taco: Chicago is gripped by taco mania these days, and thank goodness for it. One of my favorite taco eateries is Antique Taco, which has delicious food (including great vegetarian options) and uses reusable dishes and napkins (awesome!).

-Buzz: Killer Espresso: This coffee shop offers high-quality, tasty drinks. If you drink your beverage in-house, they’ll serve it in a reusable mug or glass - which you’ll want to do, because Buzz bucks the coffee shop trend by boasting tons of open seating, even on the weekend. It's bright, airy, and a good home base for exploring the neighborhood of Wicker Park.

-Chicago Diner: If you're vegetarian or vegan and mourn the loss of traditional diner food from your repertoire, you'll love Chicago Diner. Their menu is composed of vegan versions of American classics: Rueben sandwiches, burgers, chili, milkshakes, pie. The food is all plant-based, all delicious. Bring your own napkin and refuse a straw to keep your meal zero waste.

-Farmhouse: Cloth napkins, swingtop glass bottles, reusable everything - even if this restaurant weren't committed to local, seasonal food (which it is!), it would totally have my heart. It offers upscale, interesting takes on classic American dishes, and they source from lots of Midwestern farms.

-High Five Ramen: A gorgeous, low-lit restaurant with rustic decor and amazing ramen - it's trendy, to be sure, but worth the hype, especially on cold, cozy evenings. Though most of their servingware is reusable, they do use wooden chopsticks and paper napkins, so bring your own to keep your meal litterless.

-Homeslice: This hip bar-slash-pizza joint boasts an outdoor patio and some of the best salads and pizzas around (so long as deep dish isn't your thing). Come in the spring, summer, or fall to sit on their patio under strings of globe lights for a cozy, delicious dinner.

-Intelligentsia Coffee: Coffee lovers, try this locally roasted favorite at one of their three Chicago locations. Chicagoans love its drip coffee and espresso, brewed right in front of you in true hipster artisanal fashion.

-Mana Food Bar: Mana features vegetable-centric, seasonally based small plates. The menu changes often, and it's always interesting and unexpected. With its gorgeous, minimalist setting, it's one of those dinners to stretch out and savor.

Stay zero waste:

-Grocery Shop: Whole Foods groceries dot the cities, where you can find organic produce that is package-free if you bring your own reusable produce bags. If you’re visiting in the warmer months, stop at one of the city’s many farmer’s markets. For longer stays, you can find package-free cooking oil and pantry staples at the Dill Pickle Co-op in Logan Square, or visit Heartland Cafe's small grocery store in Rogers Park for bulk grains, lentils, beans, popcorn, nuts, and kombucha on tap. You can also stop by Plenty in Wicker Park to fill your own swingtop bottle with the delicious, locally made kombucha that they sell on tap. And, farther out from the city, Sugar Beet Co-op in Oak Park also has a huge bulk section, featuring bulk dry goods, kombucha, liquid sweeteners (agave, honey, and maple syrup), soy sauce, oils (olive, canola, and sunflower), peanut butter, and coffee and tea.

-Compost: If you live in the area, try home composting pickup from Collective Resource. They give you a bucket that they pick up and replace weekly, biweekly, or monthly. They're efficient, friendly, and easy to use. Or, you can choose to participate in Healthy Soil Compost's pickup service, which is bike-powered and emission-free (find the list of neighborhoods that they service here). South Siders can try out The Urban Canopy, which collects compost to be used on their urban farms. Or, if you live in Andersonville you can choose to participate in Andersonville's community compost program.

-Zero Waste Chicago: Alongside two friends, I created this organization and website to serve at the ultimate zero waste Chicago resource. It can show you where to buy bamboo toothbrushes, stock up on bulk olive oil, drop your compost off at a community garden, and so much more. Go take a look!

I'd love to hear your ideas - fellow Chicagoans, what else would you recommend? And, if you're planning a trip somewhere, you can find more zero waste city guides here. Up next, city guides to Indianapolis and Madison, WI! (Can you tell I love the Midwest?).

Photograph from a zero waste workshop I gave at Freehand Chicago, a downtown hostel with a cool-kid vibe.

Previously in City Guideshow to stay zero waste in New York, Philadelphia, and Asheville.