Making Zero Waste Snacks

Ideas for making zero waste snacks from bulk, package-free ingredients | Litterless

I got sick of the snacks available near me in bulk within the first year of going zero waste, I think. Garlic and herb cashews? Good in theory, but I'll be happy if I never have to eat another. Wasabi peas? Overdosed on 'em way back in college. Sesame sticks? Never liked them. Trail mix? Ditto the cashews, eaten so often it completely lost its charm. Dried papaya? Delicious, but leaves my mouth reeling from the sugary after-taste.

I think all of us who try to focus on buying food without packaging encounter some form of this: eventually, the options can get kind of... boring. For you, maybe the issue is the grains you can find in bulk, and the thought of eating quinoa for another meal makes you want to scream a little. Maybe you're tired of drinking the same old black tea that your co-op stocks on its small wall of tea. Maybe you've eluded this completely and are perfectly happy with the options available, or maybe you have a magical bulk aisle near you that always seems to spring fresh offerings anew. Either way: for me, the area where I can't find bulk things I like anymore seems to be the snack aisle.

Ideas for making zero waste snacks from bulk, package-free ingredients | Litterless

The upshot of this is, when I'm hungry, I'll look in my pantry and see grains and beans and nuts, then look in my fridge and see leeks and carrots and kale. There's plenty of food, but there's rarely anything snack-like. I could make a pot of stovetop popcorn, eat a square or two of dark chocolate, munch an apple, eat yesterday's leftovers: the latter is usually my choice. But I miss the saltiness, the sheer fun-ness of foods meant especially as snacks. Let's just say if I could buy pretzels and hummus near me in bulk, I might be hard-pressed to ever eat anything else.

Zero waste snack ideas you can make at home using bulk, package-free ingredients | Litterless

Unwilling to just spoon plain cooked beans into my mouth any longer, the last few weeks I've been taking snacking matters into my own hands. Sure, I don't like the bulk snacks available to me, but there are plenty of bulk snack ingredients available to me. I'm trying to make a few different things each week to keep on hand to fill the gaps between lunch and dinner. I've been favoring a mix of salty and slightly sweet, and switching up the recipes helps keep me from feeling like I'm sliding back into the boring routine of same-old, same-old.

A few things I've been making:

-Curry-spiced cashews (salty, and a good way to use up extra curry paste), pictured above.
-Breakfast cookies from this favorite cookbook (sweet).
-Chia pudding made with homemade almond milk (sweet).
-Homemade hummus to eat with raw or blanched veggies (salty).
-Granola (sweet).
-Coconut curry almonds (salty).
-Crunchy roasted chickpeas (salty).

I'd love a few other ideas to add to my rotation too. Have you been making anything these days?

Zero Waste Body Lotion

Zero waste body lotion | Litterless

Another winter, another zero waste lotion update. Last winter's lotion of choice was this DIY version. I still like and use that same recipe for homemade lotion, but it really feels like more of a balm or body butter - it's thick and gloopy and take a minute to absorb. At the start of this winter, I went on the hunt for a more, well, lotion-y zero waste body lotion, and since my new routine has been working well for a few months now, I thought I'd share it with you.

Since I'm lucky enough to have a few stores near me where I can buy bulk body lotion, the answer was fairly simple. I brought a clean glass Mason jar to one, read the ingredients labels on the bulk dispensers and chose a lotion, then at home I replaced the lid of the jar with a stainless steel Mason jar pump that a friend had given me for my birthday one year. (You could also just wash out an old plastic lotion or shampoo bottle and use that, of course!). So that's it, a very normal lotion situation that's been zero-wasted a bit.

If you don't have bulk lotion available for purchase near you (you can check the guide here to see if there's a store near you), a few other options to consider:

-Lotion in a returnable bottle. Plaine Products makes a body lotion that they'll mail to you in their refillable stainless steel bottles. Once you're done with the lotion, you can mail the bottle back to them for free to be sterilized and reused. (PS. You can use the code LITTERLESS for 10% off your purchase).

-Bulk lotion purchased online. If you have a family and think you'll be able to use this quantity up in a year or so, you could always purchase a bulk lotion dispenser for yourself, like this or this. Since this is how bulk lotion is sold in most stores, you'll be cutting down on waste to the same degree that you would be if you filled your own jar up at a retail store, like I did. Keep the large dispenser out of the way in a closet or under the sink, and fill smaller bottles with it to keep around the house. Alternatively, you could gather up a few zero waste friends and ask if they'd like to split this, too.

-Lotion bar, DIY or not. I haven't used lotion bars, but I know folks who do. You could pick one up package-free at a store like Lush, or find a recipe online and make your own. (If you have a favorite bar or recipe, I'd love to hear).

What's your routine like right now? Any other suggestions for folks without bulk options available?

Previously in Bath & Beauty: Soap ends and menstrual cups.

Zero Waste Chocolate

How to purchase zero waste chocolate | Litterless

The first place to look for zero waste chocolate locally is probably your nearest bulk aisle. In mine, you can find semi-sweet chocolate chips, dark chocolate almonds, dark chocolate-covered coconut chews (HEAVEN), peanut butter cups, and lots more. Bring a jar or bag and fill up on a few to see what you like best. (Um, it's all in the name of sustainability research, guys).

Now, I'm an occasional purchaser of dark chocolate almonds and an even more occasional purchaser of dark chocolate-covered coconut chews (because I have proven I can't be trusted around them). But what I prefer to keep around the house are plain, normal, slightly boring bars of super dark chocolate. And those don't come in bulk, sans packaging.

Luckily for me, I recently did some extensive research on chocolate packaging to finally settle which non-bulk chocolates might be the best zero waste option. Upshot: I've identified a few types of packaging to look for and a few to avoid, plus now I have tons of chocolate on hand for snacking. FUN.

What to look for:

How to purchase zero waste chocolate | Litterless

Recyclable wrappers. Paper or foil-packaged bars can have their wrappers recycled. The brands pictured directly above - from left to right, Lindt, Ghiradelli, Green & Black's, and Chocolove - all come wrapped in a paper outer layer and a foil inner layer. Both layers can be recycled, but take care not to tear the foil too much, as small pieces that come loose from the main portion aren't likely to actually get recycled once they make it to the recycling facility. Bonus: the gold foil layer lends the bar quite the "Golden Ticket" look.

Compostable wrappers. Barring bulk chocolate, another might be to look for a bar in a compostable wrapper, typically a bar that's wrapped solely in paper. This matcha crisp bar in a compostable wrapper looks delicious.

Fancy individual chocolates. Sometimes I like to visit the fancy chocolate shop in my neighborhood, where I pick out a few dark chocolate truffle-y turtle-y things and ask for them either on a plate or in my own container. A package-free, yet expensive and slightly inconvenient option, one I don't turn to as often as I probably should.

Make your own. Take those semi-sweet chocolate chips from the bulk aisle, melt them slowly in a double boiler, throw in peanut butter or dried fruit or nuts, and enjoy a package-free treat that's less sad-feeling than snacking on the original chocolate chips.

What to avoid:

How to buy zero waste chocolate | Litterless

Foil-backed paper wrappers. I've loved supporting Endangered Species chocolate - it's based in my hometown of Indianapolis and gives a percentage of its profits to, well, endangered species work. Also, their bars with dried fruit are delicious. But, after a closer inspection, I don't think the packaging is actually recyclable. The inner paper liner is backed with foil (see the picture to the left, above). At least in the recycling system where I live, mixed materials like this (metal + paper) can't be separated by the machines and therefore get trashed - for example, coffee cups, which are paper lined with plastic, aren't recyclable. Then again, is this just metallicized paper that IS recyclable? I'm not sure, and the Internet couldn't tell me. If you know the answer, I'd love to hear.

Plastic wrappers. Sometimes, plastic wrappers are obvious: Hershey's, Snickers, and Butterfingers all wear their plastic wrappers proudly on the outsides of their packaging. Sometimes, though, plastic is lurking beneath innocent-looking paper wrappers, as is the case with the bar of Equal Exchange in the photo at right. The paper on the outside is recyclable, but the plastic liner inside isn't.

A hard thing about this calculation is that sometimes, to give up a bad thing (Equal Exchange plastic wrappers), you also give up a good (fair trade). Is a foil-wrapped bar made by Lindt, surely not with fair trade chocolate, really any better than a fair trade plastic-wrapped bar by Equal Exchange?

As with everything, zero waste is not the only thing at stake here. So I say: do a little research. Pick the chocolate that tastes the best in the packaging you can live with and the ethical code you stand behind. I'll probably be avoiding Equal Exchange - I just can't countenance the plastic - but continuing to eat Endangered Species chocolate and hoping for the best when I stick that foil-backed paper in the recycling bin.

Zero waste chocolate: what's your strategy? Favorite brands that hit the ethical / zero waste sweet spot?

Previously in Food & DrinkA food waste tip, and a zero waste tip.

Grocery Shopping Without Bulk, Part Three: Kroger

Grocery shopping without bulk at Kroger

This summer, I'm tackling what low-waste grocery shopping could look like, if stores near you don't make truly zero waste grocery shopping easy or doable. (Find parts one and two of the series). I've said it before, but since progress is the goal here, not perfection, it's totally fine if your grocery haul currently looks more like the above than, well, something more like this.

So, in the spirit of things, next we're headed to another Midwestern grocery chain: Kroger. While visiting my parents in Indianapolis last month, I took my mom's grocery list to the store and attempted to stick to it in spirit, if not in letter. I chose zero waste or low waste alternatives where I could, and honored her requests when I couldn't. Below, a peek into each item on the list:

-Bananas. I learned from a friend that single bananas are more likely to go unpurchased and be thrown away than bananas in bunches or pairs. So, I've been picking them up myself!

-English cucumber. Those long, skinny cucumbers called English cucumbers almost always come entirely sealed in plastic (why?). So, instead I purchased a regular cucumber and tucked it into a reusable produce bag. Yes, I am a grocery store tyrant, sorry Mom.

-Garlic. Since you don't eat the skin, it doesn't really need to go in a bag. I placed it in my cart loose.

-Lemon. The first lemons I saw at the store were packaged in a net mesh bag containing a few lemons. Nope. Usually stores who sell bagged lemons that way also sell individual ones. After another moment of looking around, I found the single lemons and popped one in my cart, sans produce bag.

-Flat leaf parsley. Many stores now sell large bundles of unpackaged herbs, in lieu of those small plastic clamshells of herbs. Always look around to make sure you can get the herbs package-free before resorting to plastic-packaged. Luckily, this was the case with parsley, which I just placed into a cloth produce bag.

-Cremini mushrooms. When I purchase mushrooms at the farmers' market or my local Whole Foods, they're loose and I'm able to fill my own bag with only what I need. Loose mushrooms are fairly rare at other grocery chains, though, which really leave you no option but to buy them packaged. I'll recycle the cardboard box, but the plastic wrap will become trash. (Instead, you could seek out mushrooms at the farmers' market or even grow your own).

-Two boxes of spring greens. Instead purchasing two smaller boxes as requested, I bought one bigger box to save on packaging. And, this box is recyclable, which gives it a leg up over plastic bags of washed salad mix. If you wanted to go a step further, you could buy a head of lettuce instead and chop and wash it all at once, so that it's just as easy to reach for in your fridge as a box of pre-washed baby greens.

-Brown rice and green lentils. This one was tough. Brown rice and green lentils also came in plastic boxes, which would have been recyclable (to my knowledge, the bags these came in - pictured above - aren't). But the boxed rice and lentils were conventionally grown, and I wanted to stick to organic, which meant buying the bagged versions instead. One of the times that zero waste is most frustrating is when I have to choose between organic / not zero waste and conventional / zero waste. I took the bags back with me to Chicago, where I'll use them as makeshift "trash cans" under my sink before I toss them for good.

-Ranch dressing. Always a crowd pleaser, ranch dressing was requested for a salad to bring to a potluck. I found it in a glass bottle, which could be recycled, donated, or even upcycled - with the label removed, wouldn't that be a cute flower vase? Or a pencil holder? As a bonus, I loved the smaller size, since I thought that a larger one would go unfinished at our house.

-Sandwich thins. I chose the variety with the least amount of packaging. Some of the options on the shelf came packaged in a plastic bag inside another plastic bag, what?!

The verdict: this was pretty different than my standard grocery haul, but it represents a good compromise, I think. If this is similar to what going zero waste looks like for you, don't sweat all of the perfect photos of unpackaged, bulk grocery hauls you see on Instagram. I've thought for ages that imperfect sustainability from all of us is what we need, not perfect sustainability from a few of us. My pal Meredith summed it up thus:

"I’m not trying to 'win' zero waste. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone on Instagram or online about how little trash my family can produce. I’m setting myself up for the long haul – for a lifetime of my family being mindful about how we view materials and treat our planet through decisions big and small."

YES, emphatically.

Okay, now fess up: how similar to or different from your weekly haul is this? Would you have approached any of these choices differently? I'd love to hear. Back next month with the next installment in this series - leave me a comment with what you'd like me to tackle in that one!

PS. You can read the rest of this series right here.

Grocery Shopping Without Bulk, Part Two: Jewel-Osco

Grocery shopping without bulk at Jewel-Osco

First up in my summer series of trying to shop zero waste at a few of the large Midwestern grocery chains, we've got that Chicago cult fave: Jewel-Osco. Jewel-Osco is pretty much your standard big-box grocery store: a small organics selection, lots of conventional produce, and then basically a whole store of packaged foods and no bulk aisle. Come walk with me through the grocery store as I take you through how I made the decisions I did!

I visited on a Sunday night to grab ingredients for a few days' worth of meals. Because I live within walking distance to work, where there's a grocery store with a bulk section two minutes away, I typically shop for just a few days rather than picking up ingredients for a whole week's worth of meals. It's so easy to pop in and out of that store, and my evenings these days can be unpredictable (always up for a last-minute hang-out with pals). This helps ensure that I actually eat what I buy, and means that I have flexibility to do whatever I want in the evenings rather than worrying about what produce might be going bad.

So, I went to Jewel-Osco with a few thoughts of what I might eat the next few days bouncing around in my brain, but no firm plan. I think that's the best way to approach shopping zero waste at stores where it's a bit harder: having some sense of what you might want to eat, but being flexible in case what you want is only available in some form of heinous plastic packaging. It was HOT that week, and I wanted a few simple, low-oven meals: sandwiches, panzanella, salad, and then some healthy snacks.

With my cloth bags and reusable produce bags in tow, I made a bee-line for the organics section - although it's worth noting here that you certainly don't need to choose organic to be zero waste. I picked up celery, carrots, and apples for simple snacks throughout the week. Instead of baby carrots or shredded carrots, I bought whole carrots, which came with just a twist tie instead of a plastic bag. If you rely on baby carrots for lunches or snacks, you could purchase whole carrots and then cut them up into sticks yourself to store in the fridge. In the produce section, I also picked up a lemon (to put in water for a summery beverage) and tomatoes for the panzanella.

Next, I visited the bakery section to grab bread. Choosing loose mini loaves instead of plastic-packaged shelf-stable loaves enabled me to use my own cloth bag from home, zero waste style. I toasted these babies into croutons for salad and panzanella, and split them lengthwise for simple veggie sandwiches.

The other things I needed were beans to add body to the panzanella and to turn into homemade hummus, as well as vinegar for the panzanella and for salad dressing (I was using olive oil I already had on hand at home). I chose to buy beans in cans, knowing that the cans were recyclable. I also considered buying them dry in larger plastic bags, but I ultimately wasn't sure if the stretchy plastic bags were recyclable; I collect stretchy plastic bags that come my way and take them to a local drop-off for recycling, but I never am confident that they actually get recycled. So, cans it is. However, dried beans have a lower transportation weight (there's water in the cans), and you get more beans in the package - essentially a form of buying in bulk. So I think it could go either way on that one. I also purchased a small glass bottle of vinegar. I chose this one because it looked like the tastiest one on offer, but as a bonus it's packaged in glass (recyclable!) and I can take the cork on top to be recycled too, unlike a plastic cap that other ones would have. The bottle is so pretty, though, that I might peel off the label and include it with my next thrift store donation - I bet someone would love to reuse it.

I also grabbed soba noodles in packaging. I've been unable to find soba noodles in bulk anywhere in Chicago, and for years I did without - but I love them, they're protein packed and cook quickly, and I just find that my life is way better with them. So though they're not zero waste by any means, I still buy them. And I'm so happy that I do. I chose this brand because it's organic, inexpensive, and I can compost the cardboard insert. Since I gave away my trash can a few years ago, I keep non-recyclable plastic "bags" like the one the soba noodles come in under my sink to corral small pieces of trash I make. I like being able to upcycle them once before they hit the landfill.

Total non-recyclable trash from this trip: a receipt, five produce stickers, three twist ties, and the plastic sleeve on the soba noodles. Not too bad, right? The major key to staying zero waste here was purchasing mainly produce and then bringing it home in reusable cloth bags rather than plastic. In total, I spent around $30 on this haul, but many of the items - celery, carrots, vinegar, soba noodles - lasted for a while. And, I could have chosen less fancy vinegar to bring down the total.

Is this similar to or different from a typical shopping trip for you? Anything you would have done differently?

For more in my series on how to grocery shop without access to bulk foods (and to see who's profiling groceries in other parts of the country), hop over here.

Grocery Shopping Without Bulk Options

Grocery shopping without bulk

If you've tried to go zero waste, there's one thing you already know: in many ways, it's all about what you can find in bulk near you. I've experienced the joy of finding things I need in bulk and the frustration of not having access to other things package-free.

We probably all wish our bulk options were a little bit, or maybe even a lot bit, better. And yet, there are so many places where bulk grocery options are truly nonexistent. Maybe there isn't a bulk aisle near you; maybe there's one in your city, but it's too far from you to be a viable option. I'm fortunate to have the time and money to be able to prioritize bulk shopping, even if it means going out of my way to do so (which it often does), but not everyone's in the same camp.

So, this summer I'm excited to be partnering a with a few other zero wasters from around the country to share how to shop lower-waste at some of the bigger chain stores where you might already shop.

Throughout the summer, I'll take you to three local Midwest grocery stores that aren't my typical zero waste go-tos, and we'll talk through the choices I made and how I stayed low-waste there. Then, at the end of the summer, I'll share the breakdown of what I've learned about how to think about shopping zero waste sans bulk, with hopefully lots of nuggets of advice you can tuck away for your next trip to the grocery.

If you're not in the Midwest, don't worry! We've got ladies from all regions of the United States on board. Take a peek at the line-up:

-East: Meredith of Meredith Tested will be profiling Trader Joes', Costco, Hannaford Supermarket, and Wal-Mart.
-South: Manuela from Girl Gone Green will be going to Aldi, Publix, Thrive, and Wal-Mart.
-Midwest: That's me! I'll be taking you to Kroger, Jewel-Osco, and Wal-Mart.
-West: Andrea of Be Zero will be featuring Lucky's, Safeway, and Wal-Mart.
-Pacific: Kathryn of Going Zero Waste will be visiting Target, Grocery Outlet, and Wal-Mart.

Before we start, know: I'm a big fan of shopping locally and small. Farmers' markets can be some of the best places to find package-free produce, and if you're choosing produce wisely it can be affordable, too. For example, tomatoes in June are pricey, but tomatoes in the August glut are less expensive. Plus, many markets accept and match SNAP benefits (if you live in Chicago, here's a list of which Chicago area markets do). It's good to keep food dollars in the community, with farmers and co-ops and smaller stores. That much is for certain. But if that approach doesn't work for you - time, money, transportation, the constraints of geography - that in no way disqualifies you from being zero waste. It just means you may have to get a little creative at your supermarket.

Do you struggle with finding access to places where you can shop zero waste-ish? What have been the biggest challenges for you? If you leave them in the comments below, we'll tackle them together. Back later this week with the next installment!

Pictured is my current grocery shopping kit: a Baggu bag bought secondhand, as well as cloth produce bags from Dans le Sac and Simple Ecology. You can find more thoughts on what to pack when you go to the grocery, here.

Zero Waste Tea, Three Ways

Zero waste tea, three ways

This post is sponsored by Arbor Teas, makers of sustainable, organic teas in compostable packaging.

I am that rare thing: a non-coffee-drinking adult. Tea, however, is a constant in my days. As usual, I have a cup beside me now as I work, and a jar of sun tea brewing in the windowsill at home, an easy way to celebrate summer (happy June!).

There are three main options for zero waste tea: buy it in bulk, grow it yourself (no packaging needed!), or buy it in thoughtful, sustainable packaging. I've done all three methods, and though I'm a big fan of my local bulk aisle, you may not have great bulk tea options available near you. Below, the low-down on each of these options, including ideas for getting your tea fix if you can't find bulk tea. Brew a cup using your favorite tea strainer or French press (these teas are all loose leaf!), and let's chat:

Shop in bulk.

This one's self-explanatory, I think: any time you're able to buy something in your own containers sans packaging, zero waste asks that you seize that opportunity. If you're not familiar with bulk shopping, here's a quick rundown - and, if you're looking for where in your city might offer bulk tea, you can check for it here.

My cabinet is always full of (one could say, cluttered with) bulk teas decanted into various jars. I like to keep lots of different types on hand, because part of the ritual that makes drinking tea such a treat is, I think, choosing exactly the variety that suits your current mood. I mostly drink herbal teas, but the herbal varieties sold in bulk at my go-to groceries are fairly tame - I love a good, plain chamomile, but not every day - so I often bring back bulk teas as a travel souvenir, too. 

Grow your own. 

Being an herbal tea devotee has this benefit, too: often when I want tea I'll just pluck a few sprigs of mint from my beloved mint plant, pictured here. Obviously, this option is not so feasible for those who prefer caffeinated teas - green, black, or white - or other, specific types of tea, like rooibos. But, there are plenty of herbal tisanes that you can grow and blend yourself, or pick up as fresh bundles of herbs from the farmers' market in the summer. Try herbs like mint, chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, rosehip, lemongrass, sage, or mix a few of these together into your ideal concoction. These work either fresh or dried, chopped or left on the stem.

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Choose compostable packaging.

If you don't have bulk tea near you, Arbor Teas offers the best alternative that I know of. Trying to find fully recyclable, compostable packaged tea on grocery store shelves has been, for me, a losing proposition. Each brand of loose-leaf packaged tea that I've tested has had some form of non-recyclable plastic packaging; regardless of the beguiling cardboard or stainless steel canister it comes in, there's always a plastic sleeve inside to hold the tea. And, individually wrapped teabags are culprits too: the single-serve packages are typically plastic or plastic lined (even Traditional Medicinals, which appears to be just paper, has a thin film of plastic on the inside), and sometimes the actual tea bags aren't compostable either, especially the "silk" plastic mesh kind.

Arbor Teas, on the other hand, offers loose leaf teas whose packaging is entirely compostable in your backyard composter - no industrial composting needed. Their thoughtful packaging is as thin as they could make it (lighter weight means a lower transportation footprint, fewer resources needed in manufacturing, and quicker composting), and the paper labels are fully compostable, too. When the box appears at your door, you can recycle the cardboard and the invoice, decant the tea into your own container to keep it fresh for longer, and then pop the bag straight into your compost. Done. As close to zero waste as packaging can get, pretty much, and a great option for you tea lovers whose nearby bulk selection isn't cutting it.

Arbor teas

Their tea comes in sample, regular, and bulk sizes, pictured above, so once you find a blend you love, you can size up to the bulk package to reduce the amount of packaging per serving. I tried their chamomile mint, masala chai rooibos, and ginger chili tisane - all fun twists on classic flavors, and all organic and often fair trade. You can read more about their sustainability creds - carbon offsets for their whole supply chain, solar powered offices, and industrial composting of any organic waste that's generated before it hits your door - here, and more about their compostable packaging here.

If you'd like, you can visit their online store right here. And, New Yorkers, you can currently purchase Arbor Teas at the Package Free Shop pop-up in Williamsburg! Hop to.

Any fellow tea devotees out there: how do you approach buying and brewing tea in a zero waste way? Do you have any other suggestions? I'd love to hear.

PS. More low-not-zero waste options for those without great bulk offerings near you can be found here, and even more coming at you later this week.

This post is in partnership with Arbor Teas. All opinions are my own; thank you for reading and for supporting Litterless.