Nothing New: Zero Waste Storage for Fresh Herbs

How to store herbs so they don't go to waste | Zero food waste and a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

One of the best ways to go zero waste is training an eagle eye on food waste. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that prior to last year, food waste wasn’t something I thought very much about, believing the compost bin absolved me of any food-waste-related-sins. Of course, that’s not the case. Even local foods require work and effort and energy: food has to be planted, watered, weeded, harvested, stored, packed, shipped, stored again. Reducing waste in the kitchen is not just about plastic wrap and paper towels; it’s about eating what we buy, too.

Wasting less food is one strategy that lends itself nicely to making do with the tools we already have on hand; it can be done with nothing more than a grocery list and a daily peek into each corner of the refrigerator. During my own refrigerator peeks last summer, I noticed that the foods that we most consistently allowed to go bad prior to eating were fresh herbs, and resolved to do better.

There are a few strategies that have helped us reduce the number of slimy parsley stems (etc.) that find their way to the compost. The most efficacious has been growing a few of our herbs ourselves: right now we have thyme, oregano, and mint still alive despite the paltry winter sunlight, and this summer I hope to add other favorites like parsley and cilantro to the mix. Because we pick only what we need for that meal, we never have to store the herbs we grow and they never go bad.

How to store herbs so they don't go to waste | Zero food waste and a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Of course, that leaves many other herbs we don’t grow ourselves, which we instead buy and store. My experience has been that herbs can last for weeks or can go bad in what feels like seconds, and taking time to store them properly means the difference between the two. Here’s what I’ve learned:

-Remove bad herbs immediately: Whether you notice a few right when you get home from the grocery or later as you pull them out to cook, each time you see a yellowing or blackening leaf, pull it out and discard it. Sorting through a pile of some-slimy and some-fresh herbs is no fun; removing offenders immediately makes them less likely to adversely affect the others.

-Storing parsley and cilantro: These like to live in the refrigerator with a little, but not too much, moisture. We pick the leaves off the stems (laborious, but worth it - the stems are chopped and added to soups or beans), then layer them in a glass container with a piece of dry paper towel on the very bottom and a piece of slightly damp paper towel on the top. (We still have some paper towels leftover from older days since we basically only use them for this, but when we run out I’ll probably designate a few small cloths specifically for the purpose). The slight humidity keeps them from wilting. We also sometimes store parsley upright in a glass of water on the counter, which makes for a pretty tableau. If you do the same, change the water daily and make sure that no leaves are below the water line.

-Storing chives, sage, thyme, and rosemary: Unlike parsley and cilantro, these do best stored dry, wrapped in a dry cloth or paper towel in an airtight container in the fridge.

-When in doubt: Decide whether the herb is “soft” or “hard” and store accordingly. Soft: parsley, cilantro, mint, dill, and basil. Hard: chives, sage, thyme, rosemary, and oregano.

-Extra credit: Washing (and drying) herbs prior to storing them helps them last even longer. I’d like to say our lack of a salad spinner is what’s preventing us from doing this, but I think it’s more likely that sometimes even just getting them in their proper container seems like almost too much to manage on a weeknight evening. 

How to store herbs so they don't go to waste | Zero food waste and a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Perhaps the best way to store herbs is not to at all: to use them in everything until they’re gone. When we have some big bundles around, I make a concerted effort to use them at every possible turn. If I bought parsley for one recipe, there’s no reason it can’t go in another, or a salad, or a pasta sauce. Simply remembering they’re there is helpful. (And in an herb explosion, there’s always pesto or chimichurri).

Lastly, herbs that are fast escaping your ability to use them can be air-dried and stored in a jar or container for later use.

I’d love to hear: what storage techniques work best for you? Other tips for using bunches up?

More posts on how to go zero waste without buying a thing, here. More ideas for curbing food waste, here.

Nothing New: Saving and Repurposing Jars

Saving (and repurposing) glass jars for a zero waste kitchen | Litterless

Our kitchen cabinets are full of glass jars holding grains and beans and nuts and seeds and herbs and spices. It’s more a practical choice than an aesthetic one: glass doesn’t leach the harmful chemicals that plastic does, it’s easy to see what’s inside the jars, and they’re an airtight place to store decanted bulk goods. A devotion to jars is a cliché within the zero waste movement, but, of course, clichés exist for a reason. And in this case that reason is a photogenic pantry an inexpensive and convenient way to store food.

Many of our jars are from secondhand shops or swaps with friends, Ball jars and Mason jars and a few favorite Le Parfait and Fido jars, too. Just as many, though, are saved from food we bought. When I can’t find what I need in bulk, I try to buy it in a glass jar rather than a plastic container. Many of those glass jars I scrub and save and put back to use. We keep them around for sending friends home with extra food and leftovers, for storing small bits and pieces to donate (like so), for serving as makeshift votives or for re-melting spent candles into new ones. For water bottles, for extra glasses at a party. For anything.

I’ve written before about which jars are my favorites to save, with readers chiming in and offering their ideas, too. Here, other resources for putting saved jars to good use: 

-Remove those labels.
-On saving those plastic Ball jar lids (from mayo jars, from other foods) to use again, in the comments on this post.
-“Use what’s useful, but don’t let yourself drown in potential usefulness.”
-Bon Appétit’s editors share their favorite jars to save.
-How to freeze things in reused jars.
-If the lids still smell like pickles (etc), soak them in plain white vinegar for a few hours.

I’m also on today’s Live Planted podcast, chatting with Alyssa about this Nothing New series and why I love writing it. You can listen to the episode here, if you’d like.

Pictured up top, my very favorite jar, one that I took from my parents’ basement when I moved into my own apartment for the first time after college. It’s held oatmeal ever since, and I’ll never scrub off the cheerful label if I can help it. 

Other jar tips for the rest of us? Favorite jars to save, part two?

More thoughts on going zero waste without buying anything new, here.

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:

Bags
-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

Jars
-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.

Nothing New: Plastic-Free Travel Toothbrush Cover

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Until several recent spates of decluttering over the past few years, the bathroom I shared with my siblings in my childhood home was littered with all sorts of years-old items. Chief among them, several used and discarded plastic toothbrush holders, still slightly grubby and streaked white with spots of toothpaste. If you’ve ever had a plastic toothbrush cover of your own, I’m betting it looks somewhat the same.

There are some single-use plastic items that I miss since going zero waste, but plastic toothbrush holders are not one of them. They were hard to clean, hard to keep dry, and I rarely used each for more than a couple of trips before getting too grossed out to use it again.

Zero-waste, plastic-free travel toothbrush cover using just a handkerchief | Litterless

Instead, for the past several years I’ve wrapped my toothbrush in a clean handkerchief for a simple travel cover. The handkerchief keeps the head of the toothbrush clean, and I can lay the handkerchief flat once at the hotel so that I can rest the toothbrush and other items on a clean surface. Better still, after each trip the handkerchief goes into the wash and comes out perfectly clean. No toothpaste residue, no cracks and crevices to harbor bacteria or mold, no fussing about.

To wrap my toothbrush, I lay the handkerchief flat with the clean side facing up, place my toothbrush to one edge of the handkerchief, and double the handkerchief over it to enclose the portion with the bristles (most of the handle remains outside of the cloth). Then, I roll the handkerchief up around the toothbrush, and toss it in my toiletry bag. You could secure the roll with a rubber band, but I’ve never needed to; packed in a bag with lots of other things, the set-up seems to stay in place well enough without one.

Zero-waste, plastic-free travel toothbrush cover using just a handkerchief | Litterless

Sometimes a switch like this is so simple that I hesitate to write about it. But in preparation for a few upcoming trips, I’ve been reviewing my usual routines, and this one seemed like it might be helpful. I hope you find it so.

More resources:

-If you’d like a more traditional plastic-free alternative, Brush with Bamboo also makes a travel toothbrush case.

-How to make your own handkerchiefs.

-Another simple travel tip along these same lines.

Anyone else do this? Other simple zero waste travel ideas to share?

More posts on going zero waste without buying anything new, here.

Nothing New: Love Your Library

IMZero-waste library inspiration | How to use your local library | Litterless

It was a hot day in early June when I walked over to the nearest library to my first apartment in Chicago to get a library card. By contrast, last month I biked over to the big public library here in Madison on a cool, breezy evening to apply for a card. Since then, riding to the library has become a weekly tradition: dropping off old reads, picking up holds, browsing the rotating displays. It’s easier to get to the library here than it was in Chicago, so my reading habits have shifted away from using a Kindle back to picking up a stack of physical books. The routine reminds me of childhood summer days spent on the floor of our nearest library, selecting the Babysitters’ Club books that I hadn’t yet read – and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books I’d read a million times - and lugging home a basket almost too heavy for me to carry.

As a prodigious reader and a serial re-reader, buying books is something that I’ll always make space for, even as I try to limit clothes-buying and homegoods-buying to just the essentials. Yet to keep myself in enough books is an expensive habit, not to mention space- and resource-intensive, so leaning more heavily on the library lately has been a revelation.

Zero-waste library inspiration | How to use your local library | Litterless

While as a child I was content to plop down and explore what several favorite sections had to offer, as an adult I’ve become a bit more methodical about finding books to check out. I keep a Google document with lists of books I’d like to read, adding to it anytime I see or hear of a book that sounds enticing. (It helps keep the slightly stressful feelings of “Now what was that book?” at bay). Before a trip to the library, I log into the catalog at home and pick a few books from my list that I’d like to read that week. I place holds for any that aren’t available at my nearest branch, and for ones that are, I jot down the shelf numbers so I can find them easily. I only ever pick out a few beforehand, as lately my best reads have come from browsing the curated displays and certain favorite sections.

Zero-waste library reads | How to take advantage of your local library | Litterless

I still find it magical that I can get any book I want, anytime, for free. Sure, some come with long wait lists, but while patiently biding my time there are always plenty of other books to read, too. When I used to rely primarily on library reads checked out on my Kindle, I felt more constricted as to the choices available: often, I couldn’t access a particular e-book and had to choose between buying it or not reading it at all. But now that I use the physical library exclusively, a whole new world has opened up. I can find any book, and it I can’t, chances are another library has it. It’s a beautiful thing.

Zero-waste library inspiration | How to use your local library | Litterless

Other sources of library inspiration: 

(Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means Litterless may make a small commission if you choose to purchase a book linked below. Of course, use your library first!)

-Currently reading. (And this spellbinding memoir).

-My friend Laura is a library maven, and seeing the stacks of checked-out books she shares on her Instagram account always induces me to add a few new titles to my own list.

-Favorite books that have aided in my quest to fight food waste, here.

-A few inspiring sustainability books of late: A Life Less Throwaway by Tara Button, Give a Sh*t by my friend Ashlee Piper, The Unsettlers by Mark Sundeen (magical and inspiring), and I’m looking forward to Christine Liu’s upcoming Sustainable Home and Katrina Rodabaugh’s Mending Matters, too.

Favorite reads to recommend lately? Other library love stories to share?

More posts on going zero waste without buying anything new, here.

Nothing New: Resources for Swapping

Resources for swapping items | How to go zero waste without buying anything new | Litterless

I didn't know we needed a toaster until we had one. We used roommates' toasters, and then when roommate-less, toasted bread in the oven or in a cast iron pan on the stove. An energy waste, and with inconsistent results, but the bread was crunchy and toasted and fine.

During my last few weeks in Chicago before moving up to Madison, I invited a few friends over for an informal stuff swap, glad to have one more chance to see each other as well as a chance pass along items to loving new homes. A friend offered up an extra toaster, and I snapped it up.

I'm a believer in secondhand shopping, but also a firm believer in circumventing secondhand shops more often than not. When items go to thrift stores, they lose the stories behind them. Rather than being your best friend's frying pan that she gave you when she moved away, it's just a frying pan with a whole bunch of stains from a stranger's kitchen. I'd never buy a jar of half-used deodorant from a thrift store, but I'd take one from a friend. Giving items to - and borrowing them from - people you know instead helps preserve a sense of the item's value.

And then too, there's the phenomenon of the overburdened thrift store. Many don't accept electronics, or certain types of electronics (and rightfully so). Many have too much clothing pouring in and must send a portion overseas or to the recycler's. When dropping off items at our closest secondhand store, we've seen the volume of donations pouring in and wondering how sales can possibly keep up the pace.

So, the toaster. My friend didn't need two, and expressed a preference for her toaster oven over a pop-up toaster, anyway. (I feel the opposite, and love my pop-up toaster). It's a little stained around the top, but she cleaned it before handing it over, and I packed it to move up to Madison. We use it every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and each time I'm thankful not to have to keep an eagle eye on bread toasting in the pan, which always felt like it was three seconds away from being completely charred. In return, she took away a framed print I no longer wanted, some bowls, and terra cotta pots. It was a good trade.

Resources for swapping items | How to go zero waste without buying anything new | Litterless

Below, my favorite resources for finding swaps of your own:

-Friends. This is my favorite level at which to swap. I've given away a half-open jar of deodorant of my own, stopped by a friend's house the night before she moved to cart away some of her extra fridge food, and offered up a squash in return for extra beets. My beloved table and chairs are from a family friend who was also moving. Over Labor Day we slathered our faces with a tin of Raw Elements sunscreen that a friend offered up after realizing it didn't work for her skin. Books, clothing, extra food, un-needed make-up: it's all fair game.

If you don't have any relationships where you currently swap things back and forth, get started by offering up an item or two from your home to a friend you think might want them. All of my sharing relationships have started this way, with one friend or the other broaching an offering. With the best of them, the first swap turns into years of trading small items back and forth, never keeping track, just happy to help out a friend and get something unused into new hands.

-Barter at work. Coworkers at my first office job used to leave extra produce or baked goods on the kitchen counter with a "Free! Eat me!" sign; parents had a Slack channel where they were able to unload (or load, depending) baby gear that their kids had outgrown. Whether it's a specific swap like that or simply a general "Swap" Slack channel or email group, work might make a great place to begin bartering or donating, as, like your friends, your coworkers know you and so there's a higher chance that items will be in clean and working condition.

-Buy Nothing Groups. These informal Facebook groups help neighbors find and share items they need or don't need. You can post an "ISO", or "In Search Of" if you're looking for a specific item, or if you have something to donate you can share a picture with the item's description. Find your local group and keep an eye on the listings! (Recent offerings in the Madison-area group have been baby goods, extra house paint, and a wastebasket).

-Freecycle. Freecycle works much the same way as a Buy Nothing Group, I believe, but I've never used it. If you have an experience to share in the comments, I'd be curious to hear what you think!

-Host a swap. Whether it's for a group of your friends or for the wider community, hosting a swap can simultaneously let you offload your cast-offs and keep an eye out for things you might need, like a toaster. A swap can be as informal as inviting your friends over to your house for a few hours with anything they no longer want, or you can find a neighborhood meeting space and set up some rules. Either way, clearly delineate the parameters (clothing only? housewares only? books only? all of the above) and give everyone a few weeks notice to gather up some goods.

A note: Of course, as with any secondhand purchase, there's an element of caveat emptor to swapping that increases as you move out of your friend circle into the wider community. It goes without saying to not take opened food or toiletries from people you don't trust, and to clean secondhand clothing, dishes, furniture, etc. that comes into your house. For that reason and others, my favorite swaps are always done between friends or other close community groups that offer accountability.

Madison-area readers, we're planning a community swap for October 20th. Save the date! Once we have them, I'll share more details on my Events page and in the Madison Facebook group.

Any recent swaps to share? Or additional tips for the rest of us?

More posts on going zero waste without buying anything new, here.

Nothing New: Plastic-Free Food Storage

Plastic-Free food storage for a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

One of the easiest places to avoid buying anything new to go plastic-free is, I think, the kitchen. It's also one of the places that boasts the biggest abundance of special zero waste tools on the market. We have many of them, but we could do without most of them; most of the things we reach for on a daily basis are ones that we've had forever and that serve multiple functions.

Plastic-free food storage for a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

If we had to stock a kitchen from scratch, here's what we might repurpose to store food and keep bread:

Jars, saved and scrubbed. (Or not scrubbed).

If you're trying to cut down on food stored in plastic, you can't find a much cheaper or easier source of glass containers than jars. We use ours for everything; if I looked in the fridge right now, I'd find glass jars holding, among other things, a sourdough starter, vegetable scraps to make broth, foraged black raspberries, and so many other things. Open a cabinet, same story. 

You can buy jars of course, and we've bought many, some new, some from thrift stores. But you can also save them, too. Unless you're canning, there's nothing about a glass jar that formerly held olives that makes it work less well than a glass jar bought new. When I'm buying something in bulk, especially bulk liquids, I often like to save the jar from a packaged version to use. An old glass bottle that held vanilla extract is that amber-tinted color you'd want for storing bulk vanilla extract; old glass vinegar bottles, as I've noted before, are the perfect shape for pouring vinegar. 

Jars work for dry goods and bulk goods, soups and starters, but also for storing fresh produce, too. Asparagus keeps better tucked into a jar with a few inches of water, as do scallions. I store parsley at room temperature in a jar with water, though the same principle doesn't seem to apply to its sisters kale, chard, or cilantro. I'd say: experiment here, but keep a close eye on produce so you can rescue it if this method doesn't seem to agree.

Plastic-free food storage in a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

Plate-over-a-bowl, and other impromptu methods to top existing pans and plates.

If you have a plate, you have an instant lid for soaking beans, putting leftovers in the fridge, and so on. Also in this category: drape a tea towel over a pan of cake, wrap bread in a napkin overnight (but no longer), or rest a cloth or paper coaster on top of a jar of iced tea in the fridge (and then take care not to spill).

Since none of these methods are air-tight, they're of course less long term than others, with some risk of stale-ness and spoilage. Although I don't know about you, but when we have cake or bread or any prepared food around, it gets eaten more or less immediately. So.

Bread storage, without plastic. 

We store our bread in our dutch oven, sometimes wrapped in a tea towel, sometimes not. The pot is heavy enough to keep air out and moisture in, and it's a simple solution that allowed us to finally get rid of some of our very ratty old plastic bags that we'd used for bread storage formerly. If you don't have a dutch oven or stockpot or are simply curious about other approaches, I wrote more about storing bread without plastic, including many other great ideas sourced from readers, here.

One word of caution: be careful not to keep the stock pot on your stove with bread inside - we did so up until last week, when we (meaning I) accidentally lit the wrong burner and smoked out the loaf and towel inside. Oops. Now I've cleared a spot on the counter for the dutch oven to live when it's holding bread.

Plastic-free food storage for a zero waste kitchen, without buying anything new | Litterless

Etc.

If you'll allow me to recommend two things to buy, they'd be a large clear glass Pyrex-type bowl with a lid, plus a few sheets of beeswax wrap. In defense of the the former, we use ours for everything from storing bread and cookies and apples to soaking beans and keeping compostables and stashing away food scraps for broth. We have two, and they're some of the most versatile and most-used items we own; both of ours were from a thrift store or estate sale, for less than $5 each.

The latter, beeswax wrap, well, I did without it for many years of zero waste, but now that I have some, I'm hooked. It cuts down on the amount of food storage containers we need, as it turns bowls into covered containers, keeps bread fresh without tying up our stock pot, and is a simple way to cover a pan of sheet cake. You can make your own (look for a tutorial online), or buy a few sheets that are made in Vermont by the Bee's Wrap crew.

Other resources:

-I'm curious about #thejarmethod from @brownkids. Has anyone tried it? What did you think?
-Posts on food waste for when storage methods (and planning ahead) fail, here.
-How to make your own cloth produce bags, from Zero Waste Chef.
-Get your berries plastic-free this summer, parts one and two.

What else do you use repurpose into simple food storage? Things I missed?

More posts on going zero waste without buying anything new, here.