Zero Waste Week – Day 1

Today was the easiest day of zero waste week because it was a holiday and I wasn’t tempted by the junk food at work. Instead around lunch time I made a huge pot of vegan chili full of various diced veggies. FYI, this is also a great way to use up random veggies that would otherwise go bad. To start out the week, I’ll share the foods I stocked up on this weekend in preparation for this no-fast-food week. Not perfectly zero waste, but fairly close.

I knew I would need plenty of sweet fruits to avoid the week without regressing to soda so I picked up some peaches, pears, and holiday honeydew (maybe?). Plus there are a few canary melons in the backyard which are almost ripe.

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Fresh grub from the farmers market

Likewise, plenty of bread for satiety.

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Package-free bread and bagels

More carbs and plenty of nuts, plus peppercorns for good measure. (I’m already fully stocked on beans).

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No mason jars required!

Extra veggies, with a few stickers just to taunt me. I got these pears before getting the farmers market pears shown above and probably should have skipped these. And I know avocados aren’t the most eco-friendly item to buy these days, but my husband is so happy to eat the occasional avodado.

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Non-local produce
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Mixed greens and garlic that somehow avoided being in the previous photo

Then of course, there are the weekly wasteful things. Milk is a necessity for my husband and he’d be rather upset if I didn’t get him any… and then go out and get it himself. As for the toilet paper, well, at least the wrapper and cardboard core will be composted, and I imagine some of the tissue particles will wind up in Dillo Dirt.

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The wasteful things

To make up for that waste, though, I did something adventurous to make sure the pumkin blooms in my backyard weren’t going to waste. This morning there was both a male and female flower open, so I pulled off the male flower, stripped it down to the stamen, and showed that female flower a good time. I’m usually less concerned about wasting future food, so this is my first lesson learned for Zero Waste Week.

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Well, that’s it! Time to get to sleep early so I’ll be less tempted by the caffeine tomorrow.

Zero Waste Week 2016

Could you go Zero Waste for one week?

Could you go for one week without disposable cups, straws, napkins, bottles, or other single-use disposables? Well great news! Next week, September 5-9, is Zero Waste Week.  Sign up to participate. Or just try it on your own.

I, uh, drank a can of soda today and also picked up some fast food for lunch with significant packaging so I definitely have some room for improvement. For at least one week I can be prepared with bringing my lunch every single day! I’ll make sure to stock up at the market this weekend so I don’t fall to other temptations later in the week. And who knows, maybe it’ll really stick this time.

Zero Waste Week 2016

Every year they have a theme for those who have already mastered the previous years’ challenges, and this year the special theme is “Use it up!” You may hear a lot about plastic waste, but food waste might just be the worst waste of all. We’re talking about food that uses up good land and water, pollutes other water sources with artificial fertilizers, and so much more. And all that for food that doesn’t even get eaten!

So even if you feel like you can’t get away from disposable napkins for a week, consider some of the other things that you may be able to do to help reduce your food waste:

  • Buy only what you need.
  • Have a no-new-food day or two, and just eat leftovers or whatever other perishables you may find in your fridge. Consider making this a regular thing.
  • Learn a new recipe like how to make older apples into applesauce.
  • When you go grocery shopping and you see a wonky carrot with two legs, buy it instead of letting it get tossed out by the grocer later.

There are more less-waste ideas on the Zero Waste Week website.

So what do you think? Are there any Zero Waste changes you’re interested in trying out for a week?

Compost – a better land fill

In 2014 we were staying with my mom while saving up for a house, and there was a large backyard used mainly for the exercise of mowing the lawn. But then, I learned about composting. It was incredible. The onion skins, the carrot tops, the apple cores that were filling up the trash can every day and making it all stinky could instead be thrown out into the backyard. After the labor of raking up a yardful of leaves, instead of stuffing them into brown paper bags for yard waste pickup, they could just be piled up in the backyard messily.

Even though my mom’s not a gardener, composting piles were immediately useful as there were some dips in the yard and a couple of holes where shrubs had been dug up and wouldn’t be replaced. All the compostable material went right into those spaces. It would mound up for a while, but then it would break down or compact. Then more could be heaped on top and eventually that would flatten out also. Of course, this is similar to the concept of sanitary landfills, but without having to put all the produce trimmings in plastic bags first and then sealing them underground forever where they wouldn’t benefit the soil.

Fast forward a couple of years to this February. My husband and I had just bought our own house. One of the very first projects on my agenda was to set up a compost bin so I could have plenty of rich humus for future gardening projects. Being frugal, I found some hardware cloth that had been abandoned in the back yard, secured it into a cylinder shape with some twist ties (my husband has a whole collection that he’s saved), shoveled the grass off of its new location, and “planted” it. Success! All the food scraps we had, all the yard waste, I just threw it in there for our first five months without ever turning it, watering it, or whatever else it is that people do with compost piles.

From the outside it hasn’t looked like much has happened and I didn’t really expect much when finally turning / moving the compost to a new bin this weekend. But I was hoping, and was rewarded with this.

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Rich on the inside!

Although the outside was dry and didn’t sustain any kind of life, some of the inside was rich, moist, and full of bugs helping to break it down further. So now I understand why you’re supposed to turn the pile, to get some of that other material on the inside and benefiting from this goodness. Maybe in the future I’ll turn it more than once every five months. We’ll see.

As for the new compost bin, I needed one that was just a little larger. Strolling around the neighborhood during bulk pickup week turned to my advantage when I found a perfect-sized portion of chickenwire, which I’ve used as my new enclosure.

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The new compost pile

You can see a bit of the mess I made shoveling out another section of grass and some of the heavy clay soil underneath. I should probably add that back into the compost. The pallet was used for a gardening project earlier in this year, but it had bugs around it that looked like termites so into the compost it went too! At least it’ll help serve as a support. The new bin is about half-filled from the contents of the other full compost bin. And I’ll start filling up the old bin again (it’s closer to the house) while this one breaks down. If I wasn’t so lazy, I just might have compost for the fall garden. But, meh, I’ll settle for spring. 🙂

Interested in learning more about composting in your backyard? Zero Waste Chef has a great post on Composting for the Lazy.

Can “package-free” be sustainable?

This month Josh Blaine, manager of the in.gredients grocery store here in Austin, stopped by at the beginning of our Talk Green to Me book club to discuss zero waste and other efforts. The discussion tied in with many of our read books including this month’s The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, and of course Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free.

in.gredients was launched in 2012 as a package-free neighborhood grocery, which is pretty awesome. Of course, Beth Terry heard about this, and Josh describes her as “like a kid in a candy store” when she came to check out the shop.

I hadn’t heard of the store before reading Plastic-Free as it was nowhere near my neighborhood. When I visited the store about a year and a half ago, I think getting there on the bus took nearly two hours. It was definitely not my neighborhood grocery and visiting was anything but sustainable. It was a bitter-sweet visit too because this was after in.gredients had made the difficult decision to also sell packaged goods.

At times I’ve fantasized about opening up my own neighborhood grocery store (not too seriously) which really is package-free, but after Thursday evening I have a much better understanding of just how difficult that might be. Josh explained that they wouldn’t have been able to stay in business as a package-free grocery. When customers bring in their own containers, they’re less likely to pick up other things. Potential customers may skip a visit to the store or go elsewhere if they don’t have the right supplies on hand. And some things that customers want may not be available package-free, like coconut oil or soymilk.

Package-free food also doesn’t always last as long, which sometimes is irrelevant but sometimes is really important like for beer which is only at really good quality in kegs for a couple of days. That means it has a much shorter time frame to sell within. in.gredients is also a smaller neighborhood store, so having something things packaged like in kegs means that there’s going to be a lot less variety for customers to choose from. Unfortunately, there are so many reasons why packaged goods can be better for business.

To get more customers, in.gredients switched from all package-free to a focus on local foods 18 months after it opened. But that’s not just lipservice. Food sold at this store may be as local as vegetables grown in the garden in their front lot. They also work with many local farms like Urban Roots and Green Gate Farms. After hearing Josh talk about how closely in.gredients works with the vendors I’m more tempted to go back just because I know I’ll be able to pick up anything I see and buy it knowing that some really good people have already done the hard work of finding vendors with earth-friendly and community-friendly processes.

Josh is part of the Austin Zero Waste Alliance, and zero waste is definitely still one of the core values of the store. I don’t remember the specifics, but I think he said that the average amount of trash created by a person per day is five pounds, which is what their store creates in a month! They’re able to do this by making it a priority. They even work closely with local vendors to arrange for deliveries in reusable packaging like buckets of granola that go directly into the bulk bins before being cleaned and swapped out during the next delivery.

There’s so much more that was discussed, like involvement in the community or fair pricing, but my current dream is just to be able to buy what I need without getting a lot of extra trash as part of the deal. They still have a bulk selection filled with good food, though, and fresh local produce free even of stickers. So if you’re in Austin, stop by in.gredients to pick some up or other local goodies.

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The Reused Water Bottle

You hear a lot about using reusable water bottles instead of disposables, but most of the time it’s quickly followed up with an evaluation of the best reusable water bottle to buy. Creating new reusables tends to use more resources than single disposables, so there’s a break-even point at which your investment becomes better for the environment than continuing to use disposables.

Want to get to the break-even point instantly? The greenest water bottle that you can buy is the one you already own. Maybe it’s sitting in your recycling bin at this moment. Maybe it’s at the thrift shop. Or maybe it’s a kombucha bottle that someone else drank from and struck your fancy (as mine is). In the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle priority list, reuse comes before recycling every time. You save one container from disposal or recycling costs and another one from the expense of being created.

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My beautiful water bottle

I’ve been using this bottle for the past year. It’s enhanced by a coozie from my college days that was just sitting around and doing nothing. Sure, I browsed Etsy looking at the billions of lovely creations that could have graced my bottle to provide the much needed grip, but I had to be honest with myself and admit they weren’t needed with this alternative.

Some zero waste advocates are just following the trends and using the movement as an excuse to buy new stuff, but don’t be fooled. Many zero waste swaps are super frugal or even free. The next time you’re tempted by some zero waste instagram pics, look around at what you already have and hang onto your money for the things that are really important to you. For most people, that isn’t a super fancy water bottle, or a particular kind of jar just to store trash in.

P.S. – If you’re still buying disposable water bottles, take a moment to calculate how much money you spend in a year on just water. Once you do that, the switch should be obvious.