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).

Ideas for Repair Night

How to get any item repaired | Litterless

On Tuesday, I wrote a little bit about the habit shift that it takes to begin spending a few moments to repair an item, rather than letting the task go undone for years until the item is no longer worth the few minutes you'd spend fixing it.

Today, I'm writing about the mental shift necessary to see an item in disrepair and first think, "Maybe I could do something about that," rather than the more automatic "Guess it's time to replace that."

There are things that do warrant replacement, sure. But there are also things that simply warrant a few moments of attention to get them back in tip-top shape. An item's fix can take many forms. There are:

Things you can fix yourself.

Simpler repairs that make use of the skills you already have, or that allow you to barter tasks with a friend to get done, are some of the easiest repairs to make happen. A few things that come to mind in this category:

Sewing. Small holes, big holes, rips, tears: take to your needle and thread. The result might not be perfect (if perfection's what your after, a tailor or seamstress might be the better choice), but you'll have fixed an item and perhaps marginally improved your own skills along the way. Easy-enough fixes in this category include sewing a strap back on a cotton tote bag, patching a pocket on the interior of a pair of pants, sewing a small rip in a cotton bulk bag.

General sprucing. A super-pilly sweater isn't brokenper se, but nor is it exactly in fine working order. Taking time to try to get the stains out of clothing, removing the pills from a beloved woolen item, snipping stray threads: anything you can do to get an item that's feeling dreary and drab back in good wearing order is, I've found, worthy of the time it takes.

Things you can ask the manufacturer to fix.

Who better to deal with your issue than the company that knows the item intimately? A few categories where I email the company right off the bat, knowing that any attempted fix on my part isn't going to be what the item needs:

How to repair anything | Zero waste item care ideas | Litterless

Electronics. Meddling about with the inner workings of an electronic item isn't safe, so I don't do it. Instead of giving up on electronic pieces, though, I may send the manufacturer an email explaining the problem and asking what they'd recommend for a fix. Sometimes I've been sent a new part - for free - that I simply have to screw on. (That was the case with the small humidifier nebulizer, pictured above). Other times, they've suggested other easy-enough things I can do at home, or offered to fix it themselves if I send the item in. If they're not able to help me repair the item, I'll ask if they can take the item back for safe disposal. Regardless, when dealing with electronics, it's important to follow expert advice (not mine).

Parts and pieces. When the majority of an item is still in good working order, save for one small piece, oftentimes it's worthwhile to ask the manufacturer if they'll replace the part for you. I recently mailed in a small broken buckle from a backpack to Kelty, who replaced it for just the price of shipping. I called Klean Kanteen to ask if they could replace the gasket on my leaky thermos, and they promptly mailed me two new gaskets, free of charge.

When in doubt. If you're not sure about how to fix something, it never hurts to simply ask the folks who made it. An email or phone call rarely takes more than five minutes, and at least you'll have an answer. I've gotten a beloved bracelet soldered back together for $20 - who knows what you'll find out if you simply ask the question?

If a company proves less than amenable to helping you fix your item (or dispose of it properly if it's unfixable), well, then, you'll learn that they might not be someone you'll want to turn to in the future. I've found that the more that I choose to purchase items from companies who fully stand behind them, the longer I'm able to keep those items around.

Things you can take to an expert third party.

There are whole professions devoted to careful fixing of certain items: cobblers, tailors and seamstresses, furniture restorers. When such a person exists, sometimes it's best to leave the doing in their hands.

Things you don't care enough to fix.

No thrift store wants your broken item. My boyfriend bought an alarm clock last night at a secondhand shop, only to open it and find that the battery casing was corroded beyond repair. (He was only out ninety cents, though, so not a big deal). In the case of something that no longer works but that you don't care to fix yourself, perhaps by listing it for free on craigslist or in a local Buy Nothing Group on Facebook - with full acknowledgement that it comes with a little elbow grease needed - you can find the item a new home and a new owner who's willing to take that time.

Other resources.

-Creative reuse stores. Need thread to fix a garment, a container to hold small parts and pieces, a small set of tools? I've come to love my local secondhand craft supply store for this. It sells art, craft, and making supplies donated by community members, and it very often has just the right supplies for my next project. To see if there's a similar resource near you, search "creative reuse store + your city," or "secondhand craft supplies + your city."

-iFixit.com"The free repair guide for everything, written by everyone." I've never turned to this online guide, which I just recently found while working on this piece. Have you used it? It seems like it has the potential to be so helpful.

-Repair Cafes. Spots where folks can gather to borrow from a shared stash of tools, seek semi-expert help, or simply execute repairs in the company of a friendly, likeminded bunch. See if there's one located near you here

Now, how to actually make time to get these things done? I've started a list where I jot down a repair task anytime I see an item in need of it. That way, I don't have to take the time to figure out the repair right then and there, but neither does it get lost in the swirling eddy of time and mental to-do lists.

Then, I can tackle a task on the list whenever I want to make productive use of a spare moment: emailing a manufacturer or researching a local cobbler in a spare five minutes in front of my computer, setting aside a few pieces of mending to do while watching TV or chatting on the phone with a friend, throwing a few items in a tote to bring with me to repair night at a friend's house, dropping off a pair of shoes at the cobbler on my way to the grocery. When I've got those tasks all corralled in one place, I can feel the satisfaction of finally checking something off.

What have you guys been fixing, or getting fixed, lately? Any other ideas for items or companies with whom this works particularly well? Recent wins to share?

Previously in Home: Takeback programs for reuse and recycling, and how to stop the flow of junk mail.

On Waiting to Make Purchases

Thoughts on waiting to make purchases instead of impulse buying | Litterless

On Tuesday, I mentioned that I keep a running list in my head, or sometimes on paper, of things that I want or need to buy. It's separate from the more urgent weekly list of sweet potatoes, Tylenol, quinoa, greens, almonds. Instead, this other list goes something like: new sheets, black dress, new cover for sofa pillow, The First Mess cookbook?, sneakers, extra tote bag, alarm clock. In other words, though they might be things I need, they aren't things I need right now.

The beauty of this second list is that it hangs out in my head for a long time, slowly getting crossed off as I find the right item, or deleted when I decide I don't need something after all.

I'm not saying it's revolutionary to not buy something the minute you think of it, to instead wait and make sure you need it, to let it come to you in its own time. In fact, it's so not revolutionary that I've been doing this for a few years now without really thinking that it was an actual strategy. But, over lunch with a new friend today, we were chatting about all this, what happens when you don't buy something immediately. Turns out, I'm not the only one who thinks it can kinda lead to magic.

Here's what can happen:

-My friend wants some beeswax food wrap for her kitchen, and realized that her mom has some that had been sitting around for a year or so, and maybe she could see if it was up for grabs.

-I'm slowly collecting bulk spice jars of a certain type so that my motley assemblage of spice jars can look more standardized (insane). This year, my mom and a friend have both had empties of the kind that I wanted and kindly passed some along. I could have bought some: instead, I waited it out.

-My friend mentioned that she'd been wanting a new, heavier duvet for her bed (those Chicago winters though), but she realized that the one on her childhood bed would be perfect, so she'd wait to get one until she could get back home next.

-I'd been idly wanting a soap dish for my kitchen for a few years, but never really getting to the point of needing one. My neighborhood has a sweet tradition where folks who are moving out leave unwanted goods on their stoops for others to scoop up. So, last night, I found my soap dish (and the white platter pictured beneath it, as well) on a moving neighbor's steps. Bingo. Two-year (very lazy) quest solved.

By not immediately purchasing something when it first came to mind, we instead inadvertently gave ourselves space to find it in other, more interesting ways. Things came to us for free from family members or friends, from neighborhood stoop swaps, at thrift stores, cheaply. These methods all have the benefit of getting unwanted stuff to a good home - so much better than the resources required to manufacture a brand-new item. Waiting on a purchase can save money, it can save time (no more reading Amazon reviews: you just take the soap dish that fate deems right for you), and it makes you feel like the luckiest person ever when the right thing just happens to fall into your lap.

Of course, you can up your chances for lucky finds by setting up stuff swap events in your community, checking a local Buy Nothing Group on Facebook, or routinely asking your friends if they want your nice things before you give them to a secondhand shop (chances are, they'll start offering back). And, of course, there are always purchases that will have to go on that immediate purchase list instead. Sometimes a new duvet is an immediate must-have purchase. 

I'd bet we all have stories like this. What serendipitous finds have come your way because you didn't purchase them first? Anything you're still hoping for?

Stopping Junk Mail

Stopping junk mail

When you've gotten into a good zero waste routine, small pieces of trash can start to loom larger in the imagination. Now that it's one of my main pieces of recycling, unwanted mail has taken on an outsized proportion of my zero waste energy.

Over the past few years, I've gotten into a rhythm with unsubscribing from print mailing lists. I can't say I receive no junk mail, and I still feel I receive way too much. Sometimes it feels like playing Whack-a-Mole - I get rid of one piece and more spring up in its place. Still, I try. Here goes, my method - and I'd love to hear yours.


Yep, totally worth a pound of cure - it's typically faster to prevent your name from being added to a list than to get it taken off. A few ways to ensure your address stays (semi) private:

-Don't give out your zip code at the register when checking out at a store. If you pay with a credit card and state your zip code when asked, stores will have enough information to cobble together your address and put you on their catalog mailing list. A polite refusal works wonders here.

-In general, don't give out your address if you can help it. If you can feasibly leave the address blank on a form, do so. Being as protective as you can be of your information is a good way to make sure fewer retailers have it.

-Use an account when making online purchases from retailers with catalogs. If you check out as a guest, for many stores you'll be automatically re-added to their catalog mailing list every time you make a purchase. So, unfortunately, suck it up and make an online account, and then ask to be removed from their mailing list. I hate making accounts so I've pretty much stopped buying from places that send out catalogs, but you needn't be so extreme.

-At Opt Out Prescreen, you can opt out of credit card and insurance offers for a either few years or for the long haul.

-Setting up paperless billing for things like your Internet service, utility bills, and bank statements - if you're comfortable with it - can also cut down on your inbox clutter.

-When you make a charitable donation, the charity will likely stick you on their mailing list for eternity - and may even trade or share mailing lists with other similar organizations. Yikes. No good deed goes unpunished? But, in seriousness, it's not fun to watch your junk mail multiply exponentially from a single source. So, every time I make a donation, I immediately send the organization a note via email asking them to make sure my name doesn't go on their print mailing list, and doesn't get shopped around to other organizations, either.

Stopping junk mail

Quick mailing list removal.

Now, for the actual removal when the above tips don't go far enough.

The quickest way to get started on clearing your mailbox out is to sign up a free account at Catalog Choice. They're a non-profit working to end junk mail, and they allow you to set up a profile with the address you'd like to remove and then search for catalogs and companies whose mail you'd like to stop. For each mailing list you request to be removed from, Catalog Choice sends an automatic note to the company on your behalf asking that you be taken off the list.

And, for $2, you can register with DMAchoice, an outpost of the Data & Marketing Association, to manage the mail you receive from their partners. I haven't tried this, because it feels weird to willingly give my address to a mailing organization, but if you've used them I'd love to hear your experience.

Pros to Catalog Choice: It's easy, fast, and has a delightful user interface that makes this chore feel like less of a chore.

Cons to Catalog Choice: In the name of honesty, though joining Catalog Choice has had limited utility for me. I got frustrated submitting requests to be removed from mailing lists but still finding the same mailers in my inbox regularly. Catalog Choice works well for requesting removal, but I wanted a method that would give me assurance that time spent requesting my removal from mailing lists actually resulted in said removal.

The slower (but more effective) way.

What I do now is more time consuming, but it works well for me and has seemed to stop unwanted mail more effectively than Catalog Choice

For each piece of mail I receive, I contact the company directly to ask to be taken off their print mailing list. I look on their website for the best way to contact their customer service - I typically find an email address, but occasionally use their Live Chat option or call them on the phone.

I log this all in a spreadsheet that I keep - I note the company, the date I asked for mail to be stopped, the method I used to contact them (email, etc.), whether or not I received I reply confirming I was off their list, and finally their email address or phone number in case I need to contact them again.

As I write this, I realize it may sound slightly insane. Like most things, though, this method developed organically because I was tired of not remembering whom I'd already contacted. Now too if someone continues to send me mail when they've said they wouldn't, I can say "I already requested removal on X date." Knowledge is power, friends, right?

If you haven't been happy with the other solutions - Catalog Choice, DMA - but this seems like a little much, you could certainly contact companies via email yourself without keeping a spreadsheet. Maybe even corralling all your removal request emails in a folder in your inbox would help you keep track well enough! I find my method to be surprisingly quick and easy, though - the spreadsheet only takes me a few extra seconds to update, and saves me the hassle of constantly trawling my inbox to find out what I've already done.

If you want to go all in on my method, you can download a copy of the spreadsheet I use, here (for free, of course!). And, here's the email template I use to contact the company directly (I just keep a copy of it saved in my email drafts folder, then quickly fill in the blank fields each time I need to use it).

Stopping junk mail

A few more tips that I use to make this process go smoothly:

-I save my mail in a stack each week and tackle the lot all at once, so that I don't have to work on this project daily. I typically have four to five companies I need to get in touch with each week (UGH), but you may have less, or way, way more.

-When you're requesting that companies take you off their list, make sure you enter the address exactly as it appears on the piece of mail (which is part of the reason why it's helpful to save the mail in a stack rather than just making a note of the company and recycling the catalog or letter with the intention of requesting removal later). If the name and address you tell them doesn't exactly match what they have on file, they might not be able to find and remove you from their list.

-You'll also need to expressly forbid the company from selling, swapping, or otherwise sharing your information, so that they can't give your name and address to other marketers. The email template I use (which you can download for free by clicking here) has some language on this!

-It typically takes 6 to 8 weeks for all the mail that was pre-prepared with your name and address to make its way to you, even after you've been taken off the list. If you receive more mail from a company within that time frame, just let it go. If after that you're still getting mail from them when you shouldn't be, let them know.

So, that's my method, in all it's rambling and time-consuming glory. I'm not suggesting you need to devote this level of effort and organization to the job of stopping junk mail - I'm merely suggesting that you can, and seeing your spreadsheet fill up and your mailbox empty out feels awfully satisfying.

How do you approach this task? Or do you? Would love to hear - I'm sure there are other methods that work well, too!


A few weeks back, I spotted this copy of The New Yorker in my parents' recycling stack and grabbed it, excited for the read. Once I finished, I passed it along to my boyfriend, also a New Yorker fan. When he's done, we'll take it to a local Little Free Library and leave it there for a passerby to take, read, and return.

I really love the idea of circulation, that many people can read and enjoy the same thing, passing it along to others once finished. There are so many reading materials - books, magazines, newspaper sections - that can be read once and then passed along.

Books can be sold to secondhand shops, lent to friends or swapped for another book, donated to your library book sale or school, or dropped off at your nearest Little Free Library. Erin's neighborhood features an informal stoop swap, where books left on stairs and sidewalks get scooped up by their next readers.

Magazines can be sold to Half Price Books, given to a friend (or even a stranger next to you on an airplane), or left in the waiting room with other magazines if you're at a doctor or dentist appointment. Blacking out the address with a marker first, instead of ripping it out, keeps the magazine in better shape and ensures its longer life.

Other ideas for getting those items used before they hit the recycling bin: If you finish your newspaper in the morning, can you take it with you when you grab coffee from a nearby coffee shop and leave neatly it on a table for others to enjoy? Or ask your child's art teacher if they need any newspapers for cleanup or magazines for collages? Do you live near a nursing home who might be grateful for your magazines? You don't need to drop them off one at a time, but can save up a stack and take them over all at once.

I don't subscribe to any print materials these days, but I've been the happy recipient of many shared reading materials, and these I've passed along to others many times, too.

Do you subscribe to anything? Do you have any ideas for creatively passing things along? I'd love to hear.

PS. Other things can circulate, too. :)

Setting a Zero Waste Table

One of the benefits of forgoing disposables (paper napkins, etc.) is that it has the potential to help make everyday tasks and events more lovely. Above, a photograph of a place setting when I hosted a friend for dinner a few weeks back. My everyday linen napkins have held up beautifully for the past few years, getting slightly soft and crumply in the wash. My plates are hand-me-downs from my parents. My glasses at the moment are Weck jars that can do dual duty as food storage if need be.

As you can tell, I have a consistent crush on linen napkins, simple dishes, and unfussy dinner parties. I used to wonder if asking that my objects be beautiful in addition to useful was un-environmental, frivolous. If I should choose the most sustainable option and forget the rest. But now I think that choosing things I really love means that I'll care for them and be happy with them for years and years. Finding things that make me happy when I look at them - like those above - engenders a longer-term feeling of contentment and enoughness. When I do this well, I like what I have. I don't need to search for more or better. This approach has become one of the keys to keeping my home and objects more simple, minimal.

I'm wondering where you fall on this one - do you agree, disagree? This is something I mull over lots, and I'd love to hear what you think. And, if you'd like to see, I keep lots more inspiration for a zero waste table here.

Making a New Home

A few weeks ago, I moved to a new apartment. I love the process of settling in, of putting things away and then putting them away again when I think oh, maybe this would fit better here, or be easier to reach there. Last time I moved, I was transitioning to a tiny space, so I mainly just shuttled my stuff from one apartment to the next, unpacked my boxes, and called it done. This time, though, I've moved to a larger apartment, and so now the process of making a new home also includes furnishing it.

In thinking about furnishings, I've tried to balance wanting my home to feel settled and finished as soon as possible with knowing that taking a slower approach to furnishing it will allow me more time to get acquainted with what I might need for my new space and what I really don't. Holding out for a few weeks until I found a set of patio furniture that felt right meant forgoing several weeks of porch sitting before I stumbled upon what I wanted - but it also meant paying less, finding a used set with less of an environmental footprint, and feeling really good about what I finally selected and brought home. On the other hand, dilly-dallying earlier in the summer about what couch to buy means that after work I'm still stuck relaxing on a wooden kitchen chair while I wait for my sofa to be built.

Regardless of when and what I need to gather to help make my home comfortable and functional, I'm trying to make thoughtful, considered purchases without falling down the rabbit hole of being unable to choose, of waiting so long for the exact right thing to come along that I never end up with what I need. Wanting to fill my home with things I love and use makes it hard to settle for things that aren't just right, but sometimes that can be the better choice, too.

Either way, I love my new home. It's bright and calm, filled with plants and books and kitchen tools and just what I need and not too much else. Making a new home also means noticing the morning light through the windows and the way the locust tree just outside my big windows makes me feel like I'm in a treehouse or a secret hideout. It means going ahead and hosting guests in my sofa-less living room anyway. Spreading out at my dining room table to work. Feeling more relaxed each night as I get inside, drop my keys, and slip off my shoes.

A few of my favorite bloggers have smart things to say about making a home, too: thisthis, this, and this are some of the posts that have helped shaped my thinking or just have clicked with me recently, mostly thoughts on small changes in the home that can really matter. And, I'd love to hear how you approach settling in and making your home feel like yours - has anyone else moved recently, too?