A Zero Waste Picnic


This past Sunday, the environmental organization I work on with friends hosted a picnic potluck in Chicago, open to any and all who wanted to join. We gathered in a shady spot at a community garden, lush with overgrown squash plants and big plots of greens, to celebrate summer and just enjoy a meal with each other. And, of course, we thought through how to make it as low-waste as possible, always a bit of a fun challenge.

Picnics shouldn't be fussy, and neither should staying zero waste at them be. A picnic in a park with just yourself and your sweetheart/BFF/dog for company is, of course, easy enough to keep zero waste. Pop your meal in a reusable container, bring a water bottle and a fork, tuck some stone fruit in your bag for dessert, and you're done. A picnic with a larger crew and a potluck set-up requires a bit more planning, but we were so happy with how ours turned out.

In the invitation, we asked everyone to bring a dish to share, as well as a plate, fork, and water bottle for themselves. I made a simple summery vegetable pasta, as well as a few pitchers of tea that were conspicuously not as iced as would have been ideal. Other folks brought lemonade, quinoa salad, veggie dips, coleslaw, crumbles and scones, plums and berries, a killer beet tart, and a beautiful salad (pictured above!) that was entirely homegrown. It was a good spread, and the shared work of the potluck-style picnic meant that the whole affair felt easy enough on a hot day.

I loved seeing the creative ways that friends packaged up their food. Moira brought a bowl of potato salad covered with a simple sheet of Abeego beeswax food wrap. Amanda wrapped a big bowl of salad in the red scarf pictured below, furoshiki style (more on that, here). Other friends cut up a tart to fit in a metal tiffin, piled plums in a reusable produce bag, or simply brought food in a plastic container, which is lightweight enough not to be a pain to carry. And what would a zero waste picnic be without something in a mason jar, like the lemonade below?

Zero waste picnic with a furoshiki and mason jar

We made sure to have a few extra utensils and plates on hand for those who might have forgotten theirs. Empty jars served as extra drinking glasses that could go home with other owners if need be. We also kept an empty glass container nearby to take home for compost: things like peach pits, tart crusts, and other little scraps piled up slowly over the meal.

And, well, yes, there were some hiccups. It was a hot day, and we had too little extra water on hand. It turns out that lukewarm iced tea and lemonade do not, in a pinch, quite do the trick. There were a few too many heavy bags of supplies to tote to the site. We zero wasters sure do love our glass dishes, don't we? If this were to be a frequent occurrence, I might buy some lightweight reusable dishes (like these?) to keep around - lugging even a short stack of porcelain plates on public transportation is not an experience I am dying to have. Also, the party ended with us using a watering can to pour water on a few of the plates to get them clean enough to pack up and take home. I didn't mind - it was hot out and the water felt good! - but next time I could bring a dark-colored (read: stain-proof) towel to wrap them in, or better yet bring lidded containers like this for food instead.

Have you hosted any zero waste (ish) summer gatherings recently? Tips gleaned from them? Please spill, below. Happy end of July to you!

Walk Commuting

Walk commute

On June 9th, I entered my fourth (?!) year of commuting to work on foot. What started as the default choice of a new-to-Chicago girl hesitant to figure out the public transportation system (don't worry: it's easy, and I'm a pro now) has turned into one of the most sustaining routines of my workdays.

Almost every weekday, I head the mile and a half to work and then the mile and a half home. In three years, I reckon I've logged about three thousand miles. In other words, I could have walked across the United States - but instead I just burned a hole in the pavements all over Lincoln Park. In all seasons and weathers, using my feet to get where I need to go has proved satisfying and grounding, somehow feeling simpler than the much quicker option of hopping on a bike, bus, or train.

Of course, the walk commute isn't an option for everyone: it sure helps if you're brand new to a city and happen to be able to choose your apartment based on its proximity to your office. It sure helps if you live in a city, period. Later on this summer, I hope to convince my boyfriend to write a little bit about bike commuting - he's devoted to it - and of course there's also run commuting, taking public transportation, and carpooling to make your commute a little more sustainable.

But, in case it's helpful to anyone, I thought I'd share what I've learned over the years of daily walking:

On clothing choices:

-Durability is queen. Not for me are slinky silk blouses in the workplace, sheer gauzy little tops, strappy sandal whatevers, though I love them all. Nope, my clothing's gotta be able to go those daily three miles with me, without letting it show after just a few wears. I gravitate to cotton, linen, denim, and other hard-wearing fabrics. Of course, you can always opt to change clothes at work instead (see below!).

-Walking shoes. Your shoe collection might be taken over by more sneakers than you've ever owned before. If you're lucky, some of them you'll deem cute enough not to need to change out of at work. Or, maybe you'll keep some shoes specifically at work to slip into when you get there. I go for a mix of both. Lastly: Do NOT wear a new pair of shoes for the first time on your walk, no matter how "comfy." I repeat: just probably don't. 

-Be mindful of your pack. I used to carry a backpack each day, hip strap cinched tight to evenly distribute the weight. No more, my friends. I have myriad complaints relating to it, ranging from the hip belt made my clothes pilly where it rubbed, to the cinch wrinkled my clothing, to it encouraged me to carry more than I needed. But really, it was too heavy itself, special ergonomic features aside; carrying it hurt my back and neck. Now, I just carry a lightweight reusable grocery bag filled with whatever I need, which oddly works so much better for me.

-Layer up. If I'm not slightly cool when I first step outside, I've learned I'll probably end up too hot. Even on very cold days, walking quickly for miles is a surefire way to get to me to eventually unzip my coat when the mere idea seemed ridiculous fifteen minutes before. Wearing a few layers lets me dress up or down and is a good stopgap against any temperature fluctuations between my walk in the morning and my walk home in the afternoon.

-Change on hot days. Few things in the summer feel more instantly refreshing than slipping out of my sweaty commuting clothes into a cool, dry outfit change when the temperatures are pushing ninety. Though it's too much of a bother to do everyday, when it's that hot, I try to wear exercise clothes while walking instead of my normal garb.

-Maybe ditch the minimalism thing. Although I'm a firm believer in trying not to own too much more than you need, I will admit that I believe I need my two pairs of rain boots (one short, one tall), two rain jackets (one short, one long), two winter coats (one less warm, one more), and two umbrellas (one large, one small for keeping at work). Oops, does that sound excessive? Does it help if I say that I wear them all and think they all serve different purposes? Also, I lied about the umbrellas. I have three.

On boredom, or lack thereof:

-Vary the route. For the first year of walking to work, I took one of two routes, every day, with no variation. Then, I moved a little farther away, so instead of walking straight south, I now had to walk south and west. And a whole new world of zig zagging through the neighborhood opened up to me. I love striking out in the direction of my office without quite knowing which roads I'll take today. Also: you don't have to take the route Google says is the fastest. You get to take the route you say is the nicest.

-Treasure hunt. On walks to and from the office, I've found redbud branches blown down by a storm, still with the flowers on them, perfect for scooping up and placing in a vase in my apartment. I've found a $20 bill and countless quarters for laundry. I've taken home a stack of small terra cotta pots a neighbor set out for the garbage. I've eaten mulberries off the tree by the high school, pinched lavender between my fingers for the scent, and stopped by the anyone's-welcome community garden to take home a fistful of strong-smelling mint. I've run into coworkers headed my same direction and walked together for awhile. I've been wowed by the perfect combination of white Christmas lights left up to tangle with the Bradford Pear blossoms in front of a nearby bistro in April. You can let yourself be wowed, too.

-Maybe skip your tunes. Surprisingly, I enjoy my walk more without music or podcasts. I found early on that the traffic on a few of the busier streets can drown out the sound from my headphones when a particularly large truck goes by, and being consistently interrupted got on my nerves. So, a month or so in, I ditched the music while walking and have never looked back. Having good, solitary, uninterrupted thinking time helps me unwind from the day. Plus, one of the things that makes my walks so refreshing is that though they bookend an eight-hour workday spent largely on the computer, they're entirely screen free themselves.

On protection:

-Stick to sidewalks. Well, duh.

-Wear a hat or sunscreen. Or both! I usually leave my arms and legs un-sunscreened in a nod to Vitamin D production (although it is Chicago, so from September through May they're covered anyway). But, I'm vigilant about sunscreening my face, topping it off with a hat, and sticking to the shady side of the street - which also helps me arrive at work ever-so-slightly less sweaty.

-Take care of your body. Walking is gentle, but walking five days a week on pavement, not so much. Pay attention to how your body feels. Do yoga when your joints hurt and start slowly in cold weather to give your muscles a chance to warm up. I got a stress fracture in my foot the first year of walk commuting, and the miserable few months of bus riding that healing it entailed mean that I'm careful now about the shoes I wear and the mileage I tackle.

-Vary the route, part two. Another aspect of taking a slightly different way each day means that there's no rhyme or reason to where I am day after day. You couldn't set your clock by my movements, and though my neighborhood is very safe, it feels prudent to make sure that each day's journey is unpredictable.

And that, my friends, is three thousand miles worth of wisdom distilled down for ya. Any fellow walk commuters out there? What would you add? And would you like to see a post with a few bike commuting tips, as well? I'd love to hear.


Lake Michigan in Chicago, Illinois | Litterless

When I first moved to Chicago a year and a half ago, I only knew one person (and, barely, at that). And, yet, the city so quickly felt like my home. There are so many things I love about living in the city: walking e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e (and public transportation when I can't), the people I've met, and the volume of new places to explore. What's been harder is the fact that, despite my adoration for public transit, I've found that I'm hopelessly suburban at heart. I love stepping out of a front door onto grass, taking a walk in the woods, and sitting on a large back porch that is equally enticing for large dinner parties or a summer nap.

I live in Chicago, though, and I plan to be here for a long time. So, I find nature where I can, scraps of it here and there: in parks and and medians and windowboxes and lakefronts. Spending time outdoors each day brightens my mood and keeps me calm, settled, and content in a city where the pace of life is anything but. If you need some encouragement to make room for outdoor adventure in your life, consider this it.