At the beginning of 2016, I committed to trimming my waste. After years of using this blog to gently reinforce the message that mindless consumerism is a problem, I decided to take off the gloves. Inspired by the zero-waste movement, I joined Be Zero's #makelesstrash2016 challenge and declared my intention for the year: to trim my waste. Because we are literally consuming ourselves. And we need to wake up.
What have I learned this year? That every small change matters. That avoiding plastic packaging is incredibly difficult. That avoiding single-use plastic is not nearly so difficult. And that putting my money - and my energy - where my values are is worth it.
Here are 45 tips, takeaways and learnings from 51 weeks of trimming my waste:
1. Remake old clothing - it's liberating
If you don't think of yourself as someone who "sews", liberate yourself and hack up old garments. I've always loved doing it for Ms R - it's harder to fit things properly for me. But it's still fun and a great way to keep clothing you can't donate out of landfills. See: my mom's top and my shirt rescue.
I have always hemmed jeans that are too long. This year I made more of an effort to not only refashion but also just fix. Alter, repair and mend.
3. Use what you have
Instead of throwing out rubber gloves, cut them up into rubber bands. Similarly, don't toss your ripped pantyhose. Cut them up into great hairbands.
4. Rethink your old clothing altogether
Ultimately, old clothing is just fabric waiting to be reused. My friend Natasha needed to make a sweater for a tiny, very cold puppy. She used an old sweatshirt of her daughter's to do it.
5. Buy gently used when you can
I definitely bought some new clothing this year. But my preference is always to start at my favorite consignment store. And when possible, charity and thrift stores.
Low-waste kitchen (groceries, food storage, organization and cleaning)
6. Reduce your reliance on paper towels
I have a roll of paper towel in the kitchen as a backup. But my kitchen cloths do most of the work. I have one that's only for Ms R to use when she's eating. That's been the case since she was a baby and she doesn't ask for anything other than "a cloth". (Side note on trash and raising small humans: cloth diapering is doable. If I could do it, anyone can!)
7. Simplify your cleaning products
I made my own dish soap. But no matter how much I played with concentration, it didn't work. So I've reverted to buying a locally, conscientiously made product that works. To clean surfaces, however, nothing beats lemon juice and baking soda. If the drain gets smelly, I throw a little vinegar down it and sprinkle it with baking soda.
If your coffee-making process involves throwing something away, reconsider what you're doing. It's so easy to trim the waste from this ritual.
9. Ditch plastic wrap now!
Reusable food wrap has changed my life. I was gifted two different products and haven't bought plastic wrap since. It's also possible to make it yourself.
10. Bamboo utensils are the easiest way to move away from plastic in the kitchen
11. Compost if you can
We compost at my office so, now and then, I'll take in a container of vegetable cuttings from home. But composting in my apartment doesn't make sense - I don't generate enough of it to pay for a service and I don't have a back yard. But there are *great* services in Chicago (and lots of other cities) that will pick up your compost on a schedule that suits you. For couples and families, this makes a lot of sense. See Urban Canopy and Collective Resource.
I'm still not shopping as much as I'd like to in the bulk section of my grocery stores. I don't really eat enough grains, flour, dry beans, pasta etc. My grocery stores are also really resistant to customers bringing in their own containers. So, what does low-waste eating look like for me?
13. It looks like making jam when the berries are growing wild on a neighborhood hedge.
This was a first for me and I loved doing it!
14. It looks like packing lunch every day for both myself and Ms R
I wish I could rave about reusable snack bags the way I do about reusable food wrap. I packed Ms R's PBJ in one every day and it started to smell really bad, very quickly. It didn't matter what I used to clean it, the smell was awful. I now use two little plastic containers for her lunch. Yes, it's plastic. But her school lunch is zero waste and so is mine.
15. It looks like produce first, and cooking from scratch
My gateway to reducing my grocery shopping waste this year was changing my diet to boost my immune system. I now eat a ton of produce and buy as much of it as possible unwrapped (I don't use the green plastic bags that dot the produce section of the average US supermarket). Read more here and here. And for those wondering if it's worked? Yes. I've had one cold since September and I kicked it in a couple of days!
16. It looks like bringing reusable bags to the store
It hasn't stopped mattering. And as more and more US states (and countries around the world) ban plastic bags, we're going to have to shift our perspective on the value of plastic convenience. Chicago's bag tax just kicked in - if you forget your bags you pay 11c for plastic and 4c for paper.
17. It looks like choosing a product because the packaging is recyclable.
Eggs are a good example. Why buy them in a styrofoam carton when they're so easy to get in a recyclable package made of paper pulp?
18. Bamboo toothbrushes are lovely. So are Preserve's
Plastic waste from toothbrushes is easily avoided. I have both a bamboo brush and one from Preserve. Preserve is a great example of circular economics in motion - everything is created by upcycling post-consumer plastic. Everything they make can be returned to be put back into the cycle.
19. Hard soap is zero-waste and it works
When were we conned into buying "body wash" in a plastic bottle? Yes, it took me a while to find a version of hard soap that is moisturizing enough. But I found it and it's packaging free.
20. Zero-waste deodorant
I made my own deodorant this year and I love it. However, I don't have a lot of control over the heating in my apartment so my deo often melts (making it unusable). As a back-up, I buy (and love!) Schmidts. Why bother? Well, deodorant packaging isn't recyclable. Not the way it's being made right now anyway. Schmidt's comes in a little glass jar. And it appears to work :)
21. Zero-waste shaving
Again, I buy Preserve. I send back used blades but the razor itself is probably 6 years old.
22. Skin products - oy
I have almost 44-yr-old, sun damaged skin. A splash of water and some coconut oil doesn't cut it I'm afraid. So I use good, plant-based products from a conscientious company.
23. My shower curtain is a vintage sheet
Ha! I bought the sheet through Etsy and hemmed it. That's it :)
24. I can afford to be picky about toilet paper
In the US, it's easy to buy toilet paper (and paper towel) made from 100% recycled post-consumer paper. Why would you not? Consumer demand shapes everything. Be demanding.
25. Cleaning with the most basic products is empowering
As I've said already, baking soda, lemon juice and white vinegar take care of almost everything.
26. I use concentrated Method laundry detergent
Method products are made in Chicago in a factory that has not only created jobs in an area that needs them, but also a vegetable garden. The roof of the building houses a massive hydroponic greenhouse. Before they moved in, Pullman was considered a food desert - so this is a company I want to support.
27. Wash in cold water
For the washing most of us do, cold water works just fine. Especially in combination with a detergent that's been formulated to be effective.
28. Line dry
I'm lucky to have a line in the basement of my building and I use it. But I also hang things in my apartment. Line drying is not only an energy saver, it's a clothes saver. I promise your clothes will last longer!
Low-waste craft - aka, upcycling
Upcycling has always been my way into talking about hyper consumerism and waste. I love to remake junk and that didn't stop this year. Here's what I shared:
29. A roundup of 40 of my favorite upcycling projects from recent years.
30. How to turn a sentimental cork into a fridge magnet.
31. How to give a discarded souvenir clock a new life with white paint and line drawing.
32. How to build a hallway coat rack out of palette wood and vintage hangers.
33. How to repurpose tea/coffee pots and thrift-store glass.
LOWER carbon footprint
These are probably the most significant changes I made this year. Aligning your values and your spending (and saving and investing) is powerful.
34. Switch to clean energy
If you're interested in supporting clean energy sources, send your money their way.
35. Invest in good rechargeable batteries
36. Break up with your big bank
How big are big banks? Big. And even bigger since the financial crisis - go figure. Here's a list of the biggest in the US: bankrate.com/finance/banking/americas-biggest-banks-1.aspx
How dirty are they? Dirty. So consider breaking up with your megabank. I'm not rich, but I have savings and investment accounts. I recently closed my Capital One savings account and am in the process of moving everything (checking, savings and credit card) to Amalgamated Bank. Why them? They're credit-union owned, have an actual policy around climate change and have a good banking app. So I'm not losing any of the conveniences offered by US megabanks.
37. Divest from fossil fuels
I'm also working on moving my investments out of funds based on fossil fuels to those focused on companies and industries with good CR records. This will be slow going because selling and buying stock isn't as simple as moving cash out of your savings account. Want to check how dirty your investments are? Go here.
38. Here's a long list of ways to deal with stuff you don't want
39. Here's a list of ways to recycle things you didn't know you could recycle. From bras to tennis balls.
40. Share what you're doing - it can have an impact
Convenience-driven consumerism is a habit we won't easily break. But in the last year, I've watched my office of 35+ people change some of their habits. Here are 15 ways we're reducing waste at work.
Not all upcycling is ideal. But I always like to show off what is attempted around me every day. Like these glass-bottle borders.
42. Go to festivals and support upcyclers
I admire - and am inspired by - anyone who takes defunct materials and turns them into new, beautiful, useful things. This year, I had help covering Chicago's Remix festival and was able to spend a lot more time talking to the makers I wrote about.
44. Trim your holiday waste
This year I tried hard to buy vintage, used, consumable or really useful gifts. And my tree? Well, I didn't grow up with real Christmas trees so I have no sentimental attachment to them. I *am* sentimental about ornaments though... most are gifts from friends, souvenirs from my travels or just reminders of home. And this year my mother brought me this little wire tree from South Africa. I'm guessing this is what the holidays will look like in my home for many years to come.
45. Don't wait to start. Just start.
I committed to changing my habits this year. And I've made some big changes... but I can do more. Much more. If you've been following me this year, thank you for your support. And if you're wondering where you should start... don't overthink it. Start by remembering your reusable bags more often. By rejecting little plastic stirrers and drinking straws. Find lots of inspiration at Be Zero.