Zero Waste: Getting Started

Maybe you’ve heard of Zero Waste. Maybe you haven’t, but you’ve heard of at least one of those incredible (or crazy, depending on your perspective) people who can fit a year’s worth of trash in a mason jar. Or maybe you just read that and thought, “What??? There are people who do that???”

Yes. There are.

No, I am not one of them. Yet.


If you’re now expecting me to declare some great bloggy mission to the tune of, “hence forth, I decree that I shall never send anything to a landfill again and will regale the great, wide Internet of all I have accomplished”… well, you wouldn’t be wrong. Not completely.

But here’s the thing. Part of me loves hearing those stories of the rare, amazing people who immediately adopt a drastic new lifestyle and promptly change the world (or at least a small corner of it). Those stories are inspiring, and inspiration is good. But I have to be honest, there’s no way in heck that’s ever going to work out for me, and it always saddens me to see other people give up before they start simply because the task appears too daunting.

So no, I’m not going to trade in my trash can for a mason jar right this second, but I am going to work on reducing waste, little by little. Maybe not all of us can cease sending anything to the landfill, but even if we throw away one less thing per day, think about how many things that is  over a lifetime. What if we even manage TWO fewer things? It all adds up. Maybe you can’t fit all your trash in a jar (or even several jars) but that one, small change can still have an impact, and it doesn’t have that much of an effect on how you go about your life.

It’s with that in mind that I have decided to work toward Zero Waste. Am I committing to never creating any garbage ever again? No, because quite frankly, I’m not there yet. But I can take steps toward getting there. In fact, I’ve already taken a few without even intending to take it this far. I’m sharing a few of those steps with you, dear Internet, in the hopes that you might consider joining me on the journey.

What I’m Already Doing

  1. I use a reusable glass water bottle. This is something I’ve been doing since high school, long before I even heard the words “zero” and “waste” put together. I started out with a stainless steel bottle and used that fairly religiously for years. Still, I found stainless steel could often give a slight metallic taste to the water, and more than that my favorite bottle had a silicone bit on the top that would not stop growing mold no matter how carefully I cleaned it. It began to bother me that I couldn’t really see how clean the bottle was, and since glass didn’t give me a metallic taste the switch seemed like a no brainier. There are a growing variety of reusable options out there using different designs and materials, so the odds are good that you’ll be able to find something that works well for you.
  2. I bring my own bags to the grocery store. Another one I’ve been doing for years, and honestly it requires minimal effort. I keep the bags in my car so I don’t forget them, and from there I only have to grab them out of my trunk on the way into the store and return them to the car once I’ve unpacked everything at home.
  3. I make things from scratch. What things, you ask? Well, anything, really. I won’t say everything because that would be untrue. But just about everything I use on a regular basis is something I can make from scratch even if I don’t always do so. Everything from bread and tomato sauce to lipstick and conditioner, I can and do make myself from raw ingredients, which reduces the amount of packaging that comes into my house. (It also tends to be healthier!)
  4. I use cloth napkins. This may seem very minuscule to some, but for those who don’t already do it, cloth napkins can be one of those shockingly easy switches that will take that much more out of the landfill. And they really don’t require any more work; when you think about it, you’re doing laundry either way, and throwing a couple extra bits of fabric into your usual load really won’t make much difference in your usual habits.
  5. I use (mostly) loose leaf tea. My family has had an embarrassingly large tea collection for quite awhile now. About two years ago I finally put a moratorium on bringing any more tea into the house until we had used what we already had. My plan from there was to switch to loose leaf only. The waste from tea bags may seem minimal, but again, these things add up, and many tea bags can’t even be composted. On top of that, loose leaf tea tends to be better quality, and tea strainers really aren’t that hard to figure out.
  6. I have a reusable coffee filter. In a similar vein, I no longer buy disposable coffee filters. We have a reusable one that is easily washed by hand or thrown in the dishwasher. They are more expensive up front, of course, but they work just as well and you will never have to buy one again. You can also go for a French press of course, if that’s a method you prefer.
  7. I use reusable cloth sanitary napkins. If these are not a thing you need, feel free to skip ahead. For the ladies, it’s estimated that each of us will use an average of 17,000 disposable sanitary products over a lifetime. 17,000. That’s a lot. And even without landfills to consider, that stuff gets expensive. There are a lot of cleaner, greener alternatives, including cups, cloth pads, and sea sponge tampons. All of them are cheaper in the long run and far less wasteful. Personally, I use organic cotton pads from Party in My Pants. They’re insanely comfortable, shockingly leak-proof, and I wouldn’t go back to the disposable ones if you paid me. You’ll probably feel the same once you give them a try.

Things I Want to Work Toward

  1. Using cloth produce bags and food wrap. When I look at the trash I tend to create, most of it comes from food. When you think about it, food is probably the thing we use the most as we go through life. So with that in mind, I want to start minimizing waste from food packaging. I generally eat a modified paleo diet, which already helps since I avoid processed foods. Usually it’s the plastic produce bags and the meat packaging that get me. The latter is harder to deal with for me (I don’t quite have the guts to walk up to my local butcher with my own container. Yet. Like I said, it’s a journey.) but in the meantime, I can at least use cloth to corral my vegetables.
  2. Knitting my own socks. This may seem like a bit of an odd one. It’s certainly not one I see on most people’s lists of zero waste strategies. I, however, am sick of buying socks that get holes in them far too easily, only to find that the gauge is so fine that they cannot be repaired. (Not by anyone human sized, anyway. Part of me is still hoping for a friendly ant to come my way.) So I will slowly transition to knitting my own, and darning them as needed. I’m somewhat of a compulsive knitter anyway, so another part of my zero waste resolution is that my mindless knitting habit must be turned toward things that are actually useful, and not just there to occupy my hands while I watch TV.
  3. Conquering my fear of bulk bins. I love the idea of bulk. Really I do. And I want to love it in practice. But I can’t quite manage. I’ve been hurt, you see. I have spent the last few years battling a moth infestation that came home in some bulk purchased arborio rice. I know this fear shouldn’t stop me. Years before this infestation began I endured another one that came with very carefully packaged couscous. I shouldn’t blame it on bulk. And yet that fear gets reaffirmed. Just yesterday I found my local market had bulk rose hips. Rose hips! How often do you find that??  I thought, if there’s ever a time to get back on my bulk bin horse, this is it! I bought them with glee, got them home, and promptly found they were full of moths. Those rose hips have now been evicted from my house. But even with my terrible luck regarding moths, I’m still determined. The one upside to having fought this war is that I know how to fight it. If I keep everything in well sealed glass containers, hopefully I’ll be able to spot an infestation before it escapes the jar.Which is certainly more than I can say for most things that have been commercially packaged.
  4. Using rags instead of paper towels. I partially do this already, but not with as much consistency as I should. Like the cloth napkins mentioned above, it really doesn’t add much extra work to my standard routine, and cleaning rags are a great way to repurpose old clothes or sheets that are too worn out to use for their original purpose.
  5. Make my own yogurt. This is one I’ve dabbled in before, but never truly mastered. My yogurt was inconsistent at best, but since getting out of the habit of trying I’ve learned more about how to do it well. And when I make it myself, I can control exactly what’s in it and keep it in reusable glass containers. Sounds like a good deal to me.

So that’s my current list. How about you? What do you do to reduce waste in your life?

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    A Recipe for a Simple Red Sauce

    Tomatoes. They’re everywhere right now. At least, everywhere around me. For whatever reason, my family has always had a certain tradition when it comes to gardening: We pick a few varieties of fruits and vegetables to grow, we plant those, and then every other available square foot of our garden gets filled in with tomatoes.

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    A mix of Romas and various heirlooms from our garden, peeled and ready to be made into a sauce

     

    Why tomatoes? I don’t know exactly, except that we have always grown tomatoes. And we grow A LOT of tomatoes. We eat them raw in salads. We make tomato salsa. We put them on sandwiches. And somehow, we’re still up to our ears in them.

    Thankfully, tomato sauce is a lovely thing, and it uses up a fair number of those tomatoes too. Yes, peeling and cooking your tomatoes from scratch takes more effort than opening a can. And I admit, even I occasionally open up a can or a jar of pre stewed, pre seasoned sauce. But the truth is, tomato sauce doesn’t come from cans. It comes from tomatoes. This is my little rebellion against our “open a can” culture. And while it certainly takes more steps, it’s really not that difficult. And if you need to work your way through a bumper crop of tomatoes, this is an excellent way to do it.

    There are a couple things that I find crucial to a good red sauce. Tomatoes themselves are necessary of course, but in my book so is red wine, for instance. It helps deepen the acidic tomato-y-ness and brings a subtle, fruitier note to the party. And then of course, a good quality fat such as extra virgin olive oil or bacon fat which boosts flavor and gives the sauce a better consistency. And the aromatics — the garlic and onions that make this recipe oh-so-delicious— are a must. Don’t even dream of skimping on those. The beauty of red sauce, I think, is in its simple, wholesome ingredients, all brought together to form an exquisite flavor that none of them could give you on their own.

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    Some might say this is a lot of onion. They’d be right, but I would never dream of anything less in this delicious recipe.

    You can serve this as-is on pasta, or use it as a base ingredient for something else. Some of my favorites include throwing in some meatballs, making chicken cacciatore, or even cooking it down and using it in my favorite lamb stew recipe. The possibilities are endless; what do you tend to do with tomato sauce?

    The measurements here are somewhat flexible, partially because I’m a very improvisational cook and partially because this recipe lends itself well to adaptation. So go wild, experiment, and have fun.

    Ingredients

    • 16(ish) medium to large tomatoes
    • 1 large onion, chopped
    • 1 bulb of garlic, peeled and pressed/minced
    • 1 generous splash 9 (~1/4 cup) red wine
    • A few table spoons olive oil or other cooking fat (I also love bacon fat if you’re feeling decadent and non-vegetarian)
    • Several generous pinches of herbs (I usually go with oregano and thyme)
    • Gound black pepper to taste
    1. To start, slice off the ends of each tomato and cut a small X in one end of each. Blanch for a few seconds in boiling water and then immediately transfer to an ice water bath using a slotted spoon. From there, you should easily be able to slip off their skins without much fuss.
    2. Transfer your peeled tomatoes to a food processor or blender and purée them. (Many people use a food mill or other implement that will filter out the seeds here. Personally, I don’t have anything along those lines and am quite happy to leave the seeds in for added nutrition, but if you prefer another method, by all means, use it.)
    3. In a medium saucepan, heat your cooking fat and grind in some black pepper. Allow it to toast for a bit before adding the chopped onions and garlic. Sautée until the onions are translucent.
    4. Add the wine, tomato purée, and herbs and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for roughly 30 minutes, or until the sauce has lost about 1/3 of its original volume and has thickened to a reasonable consistency.
    5. Taste and adjust any seasoning as needed, then serve or use for your next recipe!

    P.S. If you really don’t want to bother peeling all your tomatoes or don’t have a bumper crop like I do, yes, you can just use a can of crushed tomatoes instead. If using that method, you will not need to reduce it for as long, so the simmering need only last long enough to infuse sufficient flavor. But really, is peeling tomatoes that bad?

    The Un-Blanket, or How to Stay Cool Without AC

    It has been stupidly hot around here lately. Maybe you’ve heard? Even for those of us without fires in our front yards, the heat has been rough. Monday broke a few records, and even after dark it was still 100+ and 5% humidity in some places.

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    My poor azaleas got fried after two days of insane heat 😦

    I don’t know about you, but that’s not my definition of fun. Fire is essentially a season here, so much so that it’s somewhat concerning when we have a summer where half the state doesn’t go up in flames. Why? Because the less things burn now, the more fuel there is for next time. The worst wildfires are almost always in places that haven’t burned for a long time.

    So knowing that this is not just the beginning of an insanely hot time of year, but also a season where things literally catch fire, it seems to be a good time to talk about ways to escape the heat.

    The general rule you’ll hear in the green living circles is “cool the person, not the room.” That’s all well and good to a point, but when it’s 100+ outside and nearly 90 inside, some of that energy sucking air conditioning sounds mighty appealing. Heat and I have never gotten along very well, so it’s perhaps lucky for Mother Earth that AC is simply not something I have access to. Less lucky for me, however.

    Thankfully, I stumbled across this little trick, which I am hereby dubbing the “un-blanket.” It uses no electricity, is surprisingly effective, and the only materials you need are a towel and some water.

    How to make an “un-blanket”

    Before we start, it should be noted that this may not work in extremely humid heat. It might even make things worse, though I can’t say I’ve tested it. But if you’re in a hot, dry, literally on fire kind of heatwave, this might be your savior. If you’re worried about the humidity issue, see how you feel after taking a shower. If that cools you off, bingo! But if it’s humid enough that showers just make you feel more sticky and gross, you might want to stay away.

    Step 1: Moisten your towel

    It doesn’t need to be sopping wet, but decently damp across the whole surface and on both sides. There are several ways you can achieve this; I tend to give it a quick spritz with cold water in my shower, though it’s easy to go overboard this way. You can also fill a squirt bottle with water and squirt down the whole thing on both sides. This takes longer, but offers more precision.

    Step 2: Drape the towel across yourself

    Wearing as little clothing as possible, drape the towel across yourself, making sure it’s touching your skin. It should feel cooling very quickly. I usually do this lying on a flat surface (usually I do it at night, when the thermometer just won’t drop even after the sun goes down).

    That’s it! You can keep it on you as long as you need to, and if it starts to dry out you can give it another quick spritz if you need more cooling power. More water tends to mean it cools you off more, so try to get a feel for how much water you like before you go overboard.

    So, why does this work?

    We have all likely felt at times that water has the capacity to cool things down. This relates to some simple principles of thermodynamics. For starters, scientifically speaking “cold” doesn’t actually exist. There is only heat or the absence of heat. Things can be exothermic (emitting heat) or endothermic (absorbing heat). When you touch an ice cube, it feels cold because you are emitting more heat than it is, and the ice is absorbing some of that heat from you.

    The same principle applies here, except with the added benefit of evaporation. The water takes away heat from your body, and then evaporates into the air, cooling you more completely. This is the same idea behind sweating, and it’s also why this may not work in situations with high humidity. The water can still absorb the heat, but if the air is already too saturated for it to evaporate it will just… stay there. It may feel good for the first few minutes, but after a time you’ll end up covered with water that’s just as overheated as you are.

    Is this a perfect cure all? No. For one thing, it really only works when you can afford to lie around and get nothing done. (Or are willing to get things done while wrapped in a damp towel.) But I will say this has been pretty much the only reason I’ve been able to sleep the last few nights, and it helps mitigate that horrible feeling of waking up to find you’re already sweating.

    Ah, summer. Why do people think you’re so glamorous again?

     

    Forgotten Skills: MacGyvering

    Hey look!  A wonky bit of wood!
    Hey look! A wonky bit of wood!

    Last night, I made this.  You’re probably thinking, “Okay, so she made a funky shaped piece of wood.  Why the heck do I care?”  I don’t blame you in the slightest for such thoughts — this little wooden doohickey doesn’t make a ton of sense without context.  So how about I give you a reason to care?

    This weird little wooden thing, made using a popsicle stick, a Swiss army knife, some glue, and a wood file, saved me and my family a ****ton of money.

    Okay, you’re probably intrigued now, but let me explain further.

    A few years ago, our dryer stopped working.  Well, sort of.  It sometimes worked, but there was absolutely no discernible pattern there.  And sometimes it would work to start out and then stop in the middle of a cycle — not fun when you were really hoping to wear those jeans tomorrow.

    Many people in this situation would probably call a repairman or get a new machine all together (this thing wasn’t exactly brand new at the time anyway) but we had other ideas.  We had noticed that sometimes it would start if you opened and closed the door again, indicating that there was something wrong with the closing mechanism, and it seemed quite silly to get rid of an otherwise functional dryer because of a faulty door latch.

    We discovered that there was a small switch near the opening which, when pressed by the door (or even a finger), allowed the machine to run.  The problem was that this switch had broken off, leaving only a little nub that sometimes caught on the door and sometimes didn’t.  So we could spend oodles of money on repairs and/or replacement parts (or heaven forbid, a new machine), or we could find a way to fix the switch ourselves.

    Enter my weird little wooden doohickey.  The one you see pictured is in fact version number 3, and thus far the best one yet.  (I’ve been refining my technique.)  The first one was one my friend made out of an old eraser and taped on with silk tape.  (She is an expert MacGyverer and was the one who figured out the exact source of the problem.)  That one was a good quick fix and it lasted about a year or so before it gave up — the thing about erasers (and apparently silk tape adhesive) is they have a habit of melting when repeatedly exposed to high temperatures.

    Still, that one had worked well enough that I decided to make a more durable version for the second time around.  I needed a sturdy material that could be shaped but wasn’t overly susceptible to melting. That was when wood came to the rescue.  I used a random scrap I had on hand (reclaimed from our old kitchen cabinets) and carefully shaped it into a nifty little switch extender.  A few drops of superglue later, we were golden for about three more years.

    Last night as I was doing laundry, that switch finally fell off.  I would have just glued it back on again (as I said, it was perfectly functional) but unfortunately it disappeared into the void.  So off I was again, and this time I went for a popsicle stick.  Let me tell you, those things are marvelous for MacGyvering — just soft enough to be workable when you don’t have anything resembling proper tools (or are too lazy to dig them out of your garage) but just strong enough to be useful.  They’re also quite easily filed down, which makes it much easier to make strange and/or tiny shapes like the one above.

    So what’s the point of all this?  We live in a culture where people tend to assume that broken objects aren’t worth fixing, or else that we can’t fix them ourselves.  I say that’s completely and utterly false.  It’s true that sometimes things are broken beyond repair, but often it’s just a question of a little creativity and some experimentation.  So grab your Swiss Army knives and your duct tape and leave your fear of experimentation behind.*  That seemingly broken dryer of yours may yet last you another ten years.

    *Do of course exercise common sense in any MacGyvering activities you may undertake.  If experimental fixes might risk your safety or that of anyone else, please know that sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable and worthwhile to bring in a professional.