On Zero Waste and Simplicity

On zero waste and simplicity | Litterless

These days, I think a lot about how to slow down the pace of my weeks. They’ve been very full, full to bursting, so much so that I haven’t been able to show up here on Litterless as much as usual. I’m working on it, and trying to get back into the swing of things here while also remaining in the swing of things elsewhere.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed for Erin’s Simple Matters series over on Reading My Tea Leaves today. (You can read the piece here). Since then, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which zero waste has made my life simpler, and the ways in which that sentence might seem almost oxymoronic. Zero waste, especially to people who might be newer to it, may seem daunting and complicated and, most of all, very time-consuming. I wanted to share both why that is true and also, why it isn’t. 

Zero waste certainly requires a large investment of time at the start. A beginner’s checklist might look like: figuring out how to compost, learning more about local recycling ordinances, finding where to shop for bulk foods nearby, researching reusable alternatives to single-use items, and purchasing those alternatives (or scouring secondhand stores for them).

While I’m a proponent of a strategy that changes habits slowly and one at a time (more on that here), that’s a list to daunt even the most enthusiastic. But once you’ve made those changes, they by and large stay made. The upfront work fades, and I think what is left is less time-consuming than what came before.

On zero waste and simplicity | Litterless

Since much of practicing zero waste is about replacing disposables with reusables, your home becomes stocked with things to wash and reuse again. Once you’ve got your handkerchiefs, your kitchen rags, your water bottle, your reusable food storage containers, your cloth napkins, whatever you decide will be part of your toolkit, then, pretty much, you’re set. For me, it feels much easier to throw something into the washing machine than to write it on the grocery list. I’ll happily stand over the sink washing a piece of Bee’s Wrap, but I won’t happily run to the store to replace a box of plastic wrap. I feel less frenetic never having to think about buying paper towels, tissue boxes, water bottles, tinfoil, plastic wrap, parchment paper, paper napkins, cotton balls, razors, tampons, and a host of other disposables that now have nearly eternally-reusable replacements at our house.

Replacing disposables is only one part of zero waste, of course. Alongside may come cooking a few more things from scratch. We don’t make our own tahini, for example, but we do make our own hummus (usually). We don’t buy cans of beans anymore (usually), but cooking dried beans takes no more than five minutes when you have a slow cooker (ours is from a secondhand store) and the headspace to think about dinner a day ahead. Sometimes you just have to throw in the towel and get take-out, in which case, we might go to Chipotle for the compostable bowl, or get food to go at a local spot in a container brought from home.

My point is that routines become, well, routine. I don’t much miss the convenience of pre-zero-waste because I don’t much remember it; these are just our routines now, same as any other.

The equating of zero waste and simplicity isn’t true for every household, most likely. For you, dishes and laundry may be your particular bugbears, in which case having to wash more things rather than just go to the store for new ones may fill you with anxiety. I don’t mean to sugarcoat the matter and imply that zero waste is your ticket to a blank calendar and a calm frame of mind; I just think aiming to make less trash has the potential to simplify routines and strip away a few of the tasks on our to-do lists.

There are aspects of zero waste that remain complicated and time-consuming to me, and they likely always will. Making sure hard-to-recycle items do get recycled takes effort and research. I spend time looking up where to bring lightbulbs and electronics and gift cards and fabric scraps for recycling, and then making sure these things get where they need to go. (I’ve compiled some of that information, here).Right now in our apartment we drop off our compost at a local site, but eventually we’ll probably move somewhere that dictates setting up a backyard compost bin. We’ll also at some point have to replace our handkerchiefs, cloth napkins, beeswax wrap, and other reusables as they wear out. But replacing them less often than their disposable counterparts continues to feel like a plus.

I would never say that my life is simple, but I do think my zero waste practices have become so. Each day, my routines are rarely more complicated than remembering a metal fork when I go out to eat, grabbing a few produce bags on the way out the door to the grocery, and putting food scraps in the compost bin while making dinner instead of in the trash can. We’d have to take out the trash, anyway; now we just take out the compost, too.

How about you—simple, complicated, easy, stressful, somewhere in the middle? 

More essays and thoughts like these, here.

(Photographs by Anna Zajac for Litterless).

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).

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 my partner 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. 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).

On Windowsill Gardening

Windowsill garden | Litterless

In two weeks, I'm moving. Two weeks ago, I planted a few pots with spinach and herb seeds. I started the seeds too late in the season, but they'll be fine. I've loved watching them start to peek out of the soil, slowly and surely.

I don't think I've grown any plants from seeds in two or three years. Summers have been full of weeks and weekends away from home: at my parents' house, on vacation, visiting my partner. Though each summer I've wanted to grow food on my back porch, each summer I've hemmed and hawed and finally decided not to plant anything, visions of parched pots withering in my absence floating through my head.

This summer, a move seemed like a great reason not to start any seeds or buy any starts. The pots might break en route, the soil might spill out in the truck, the plants might be neglected for several days before and after the move.

They might, and yet, so what?

I've spent several summers waiting for the perfect moment when the stars align and my calendar is clear, but of course that's unrealistic. Soil is free, seeds are cheap, and I passed on the extra seeds to friends who have more garden space than I do. There's nothing to lose by planting foods that might not get a chance to flourish and there's nothing to gain by skipping a gardening season.

I needed to realize that growing food isn't an all-or-nothing proposition: while planting ten pots might be better than planting three pots, planting three pots is a world better than planting no pots. I don't have the backyard garden of my dreams, the community garden plot of my dreams, or even the back-porch container garden of my dreams. But when I look at the tiny threads of basil, spinach, and chives slowly growing upwards in my three windowsill pots, not only do they seem like more than nothing, they seem like more than enough.

What are you growing this summer, big or small?

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.

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.

Climate Optimism

Cause for climate optimism | Litterless

To work on issues of climate change (like I do) or to worry about issues of climate change (like we all do), is to live in the strange land of a hope that can feel doomed, the knife edge of optimism and despair.

My mood swings up when kind readers leave comments here about the small changes they've made in their own lives, when going to a friend's house and seeing their compost bin has come to be more the rule than the exception, when a Zero Waste Chicago event is packed with folks who want to learn about how to reduce their impact on a daily basis.

My mood swoops down when I read about the current EPA gutting the Clean Power Plan, when I pass a trash can full to the brim with Starbucks cups, when I think about all the promises made and broken (Paris, etc). That sick feeling of fear and anger in my gut is one I know too well. I'm sure you do too.

Truth is, you might be surprised at how loosely I follow the environmental news these days. I read articles about zero waste, plastic pollution, environmental justice, and the Chicago environmental space. I don't read much about what's happening in our National Parks, what's happening in the current EPA, the current science on climate change. To do my environmental work, I have to believe there is cause for hope, or how else could I work at it?

It's a balance: knowing the severity of the problems facing us is both utterly galvanizing and utterly demoralizing. You might find yourself more motivated the more you learn; I've found that the more I learn the more I feel paralyzed. Instead, I've given myself permission to keep my fears to one side and let myself dwell in the possibility and hopefulness of change. I've found it easier to work on the environmental problems right in front of me, in my life, in my community, when I don't force myself to bear the burdens of the entire world all at once. Not just easier, I suppose: that focus is the only thing that makes my work possible.

This is all to say: here's an essay on how climate journalist Eric Holthaus balances on the knife edge of climate despair. It's rare that I hear folks speak frankly about this, and I appreciated his honesty. In the spirit of kinship, here's a little bit of my own. Onward we work, because and despite it all.

Photograph from an Introduction to Zero Waste workshop we gave in Chicago last September.