A lot of answers to the question of how to reduce waste in your day-to-day life come down to finding a non-disposable alternative to a commonly disposed-of item. When I’m at home, that’s mostly manageable. Rags and cloth napkins replace paper options; glass and stainless steel containers keep leftovers and veggies fresh and easily replace disposable alternatives; we used cloth diapers instead of disposable and a broom and a dust pan instead of a Swiffer, and the list goes on. After just a few habit shifts there’s a whole pile of potential trash that disappears without producing very much in the way of extra work.
It’s when I’m out and about that things get a little trickier. There tends to be a fair bit of lugging to be done in the quest for less waste: there are cloth bags, and reusable water bottles, and empty containers for filling with hummus or pickles or whatever else is on the grocery list. As someone who’s on foot around the city most days (not to mention as someone who lives on the top floor of a walk-up building), sometimes all of the toting can get exhausting. Refilling my peanut butter jar is easy in theory, but it means needing to lug my empty glass jar down the stairs, over to the store, and back home again. Repeat that for laundry detergent, maple syrup, tofu, takeout, etc. and add a toddler onto my hip and let’s just say there’s not much need for a dedicated weight-lifting regimen around here. I’m not complaining, really, just acknowledging that sometimes simple things get complicated (and heavy).
Still, there are little things that I can carry with me that take up almost no room but that also reduce small amounts of daily trash when I’m on the move. I’ve written about my daily habit of stashing of a water bottle and a reusable grocery tote in my work bag, but I’ve just committed to adding two other things to the list: a cloth napkin and a stainless steel straw.
Yes. I am now the woman sitting in the café sipping her lemonade with a stainless steel straw and dabbing at the corner of her mouth with a cloth napkin. Weirdos unite! One could argue I could simply abstain, of course, but napkins and straws are things that I tend to use when offered to me (who doesn’t like slurping listlessly through a straw?), and so I decided to bring my own instead. Like anything else, once I started to pay attention, it was surprising to see how much I was throwing away without thinking about it. On a given morning at work in café there might be the napkin under my coffee cup, another one used to sop up the splash of cold brew I landed on the counter, another under my muffin, a fourth in my lap. Five icy drinks in a week and I’d thrown away at least five plastic straws. Small potatoes, maybe, but it sure feels good not to throw away of them away.
A few details:
BYO Napkin. Any cloth napkin will do and thrift stores and grandmothers’ linen closets tend to have them in bulk. I’ve been using this one lately. I like that it’s small (just 7″ x 7″) and fits discreetly into my work bag. Keeping it around means that I can halt the impulse to grab a stack of paper napkins to keep my glass iced coffee cup from condensing all over the table next to my computer. Also, cute.
BYO Straw. Yes, it’s nerdy to pull out your own metal straw in lieu of scrunching down the paper wrapper on a plastic one, but my nerdiness apparently knows no bounds. I’m fairly new to stainless steel straws—we had two glass straws for years—but I love that I don’t have to worry about breaking a glass one (and Faye is v. into them, too). You can find them locally in lots of cooking stores or food co-op-type places, or online right here. (Update: We got a set of smaller cocktail straws for the kids to use at home more easily!)
What about you guys? Any zero-waste progress to report?
More on zero waste here and here. More habit shifts, this way.
It’s funny that you mention Grandmother’s linen closet because that is exactly where I got all my cloth napkins. As a young person starting out my household, cloth napkins are something I probably wouldn’t have invested in for a few years, but now that I have my grandma’s I am all set.
Yas! So great!
We have those straws! Ours are from a pitstop we had at Brook Farm General Store on a trip we took to NYC. A very easily packable and useful souvenir .
Your bag looks amazing…can you share where it is from?
Oh, how I miss that place! My bag is from Billykirk!
I try to carry a mason jar or small glass container in case I grab a bite out and want to bring leftovers home.
I like that idea.
I found a 3 pack of stainless steel straws at Starbucks for 5.95. Also where did get the bag from?
My bag is from Billykirk! It’s an old model, but they have other similar totes.
After reading your post I fell in love with your bag. I saw in another comment that you thought it was heavy. I’m looking for a bag similar to yours and maybe even from that brand. Do you feel like the bag is worth the $$?
It’s a beautiful and beautifully made bag, but it is a little heavy! I got the floor sample so I paid a significant discount for mine. Can’t make the call for you whether it might feel worth it!
Very topical for me! It sounds so dumb but I also just clued in that straws are actually terrible one-use items. [See also an article in last year’s National Geo about sea turtles with straws up their noses. :(((] I try really hard to remember to bring my reuseable mug and iced-coffee thingy but if I am disorganized, I have tried to opt out of the lid and straw. My colleagues think I’m weird but a) what else is new and b) most importantly, so far I manage not to spill it on the way back up to my desk after a few slurps. Small wins. Love these habit shifts! Next goal: bring my own container for peanut butter.
Thanks for the tip! I’ve been searching for the perfect cloth napkins to purchase. These are beautiful. <3
I love your zero-waste efforts and find them inspiring for my own. Weirdos unite for sure! 🙂 I carry around a reusable fork/spoon/knife all in one. Foonife? Knispork?
Love that! We have two sets of those we use for camping and picnics, but I hesitate to tote daily because of the weight. Luckily post of my regular haunts have washable flatware!
I have been carrying a set of bamboo cutlery with me for a few years. It works really well and comes with a. Handy case. I just wash everything when I get home. So easy!
what’s the best way to clean those little guys? I’m getting one soon but just thinking of smoothie junk gives me heebie-jeebies.
right away! and with a tiny brush if you can find one! (the ones i linked to come with a cleaning brush!)
Oh! Tiny cleaning brushes, how brilliant. I’ve been hesitant to pick up a reusable straw for the cleaning reasons since I don’t have a dishwasher and I’ve never figured out a good way to get into them by hand. Will have to investigate!
Definitely useful, but admittedly we used glass straws for years without a cleaning brush and just washing right away with hot water worked just fine!
The baby sippy cup straw cleaners in most baby sections…they have long ones that work perfect in these straws!
Baby stores also sell small brushes that will fit into a straw. I used them for sippy cups with straws. 😉
Another way to clean straws is to get a clean length of string, cord, or yarn, get it wet, and run it down through the straw. (Might need to pre-soak straw in soapy water if there’s actually a mess inside.) Then pull the ends of the string so that it wipes against the interior sides of the straw, and work your way around the interior. Do this with soap and water and you’re good to go again–the yarn or string will provide the friction needed to remove all the “smoothie” junk.
If your straw is bent, obviously you won’t be able to get the bend all the way, unless you double-up your cord or yarn until it completely fits the interior diameter of the straw.
Agreed! Making zero waste swaps in the house have been fairly easy and welcomed but it gets trickier once you go out in the world. I think for the very reason you mention. I don’t want to lug even more around with me than I already have to. I recently brought a napkin and handkerchief to work one day and it has helped reduce my trash at work a lot. Now I can easily clean up spills and eat my lunch waste free. Smart thinking to put one in my purse as well.
totally with you! here’s what we keep in our car: http://janejojulia.weebly.com/blog/lessen-the-waste-car-kit i feel sort of lucky to have the space to fit it in the car…but would also love to be able to walk everywhere! weirdos unite! 🙂
Love your kit!
This is so genius! I am absolutely adopting these little habit shifts into my daily routine. Thank you for linking to the straws that come with a little cleaner!
Are you able to put hot drinks in that water bottle? Trying to find a solution for both hot and cold.
I think you posted about this earlier, but the need to preemptively stop restaurants from giving your toddler water in a plastic cup is real. At the very least it seems like Portland restaurants (our current stop on our travels) give out glass cups with a plastic top and straw. Tiny struggles!
Yes! Often do! Love that damn bottle. And yes! The struggle is real with the toddler cups!
What kind of water bottle is it?
It’s a klean kanteen. I have one and they are awesome for hot and cold drinks. They come in a kid’s size as well. You must get one!
Erin, you’re so inspiring! My family and my boyfriend make fun of me when I happen to have a clean container from lunch I brought to work with me at dinner out, and even more when I actually bring the containers out to dinner with me on purpose. I need to be more consistent with it, though–and convince my boyfriend about actually USING the cloth napkins sitting on the table instead of thinking they’re too nice. It would be an easier proposition if we didn’t have to drive a few miles to do our laundry, though.
(When are restaurants going to start using reusable containers that you bring back in when you pick up a new carryout order? I think it would be so great! We’re drowning in Thai food boxes, and disposable chopsticks and plastic bags. But I’m not the one ordering or eating it, so there’s no opportunity for this weirdo to insist that they not prepackage my order with all the disposables I don’t need when I’m eating it at home.)
I really wish take out restaurants would willing pack in your own containers. I’ve been rebuffed often – and oh yes, I have tried. Chipotle (I know, I know) absolutely WILL NOT pack in your container. Has to be in the plastic lined bowls. *sigh* We try to minimize take away, but it’s probably our major source of non-recyclable trash still.
It would be a great idea. Unfortunately for sanitary purposes I don’t think restaurants will get on board.
Always worth an ask! We’ve had some good luck on this front!
I have a reusable water bottle and grocery tote with me at all times, but I have to admit I’ve never thought about doing the same thin for my straw and napkin. Thanks for inspiring me!
This is a great idea! I need to upgrade my cloth napkins a bit before they are pretty enough for public viewing – but I will try it!
I just bought my first set of stainless steel straws yesterday!
I also stopped buying paper towels once I ran out and started using cloth napkins that I got from Trader Joe’s instead :).
I’m never so sure about the total economies of all these little tricks. How much energy was used to produce those little steel straws (most likely in China), what’s the human cost to labour in the top steel producing nations etc. Then the water and soap used to wash those steel straws and to launder those cloth napkins. I’d just forgo using those things full stop.
Also, where I live in California the council collects food scraps for composting – kitchen towels are just cellulose and are welcome in that mix too.
It’s hard to really weigh out impacts and sometimes it appears to me that all those little choices are really just there to feel better about the modern, guzzling lifestyle we all lead (I’m not an exception).
I know. It can feel like a lot to figure out and it’s easy to get cynical. But I do think that in general repeated production and disposable is ultimately more wasteful than using the same single thing over and over again. Paper towels might be compostable, for instance, but the water and other raw materials used in their continued production surely outweighs those used to maintain the reusables. Complicated for sure, and abstaining is always likely the most sustainable option, but I don’t think it’s all bleak!
I’m in the same camp and try to make choices that are easy on the environment daily. Most of the ideas you advertise I was simply raised with, so it’s just second nature. I even felt a bit relieved when you wrote about not flushing the toilet so often – so that’s not just me being a bit wild 🙂
This is more what I mean: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/sep/24/ethicalliving.recycling
Do we say no to the paper napkin, but yes to the long-haul flight etc.
Ah, yes. I get it. Just feels so very cynical and sad!
This is awesome. Do you ever wonder what the world would be like if it were completely filled with conscientious people such as you? It would make me far less worried for the future, for sure!
I am trying to be more like you–bringing my own lunch to work and all–but lately have been so busy have just been darting down to the Fresh & Co or Hale & Hearty or Chopt in between meeting breaks, and I feel so crappy when I throw away the salad bowl, bag, napkin, plastic spoon, etc. after every meal. I’m wondering if you’ve ever tried BYOing a dish at an NYC lunch chain? Did they look at you like you were insane? Is it even worth trying?
Ha! I’ve never brought my own dish to a lunch chain, but I have asked our local sushi restaurant to fill up our containers with our takeout! If they’re not too busy, they’re happy to do it!
Weirdos unite, indeed! I really enjoy your habit shift posts and am excited to have found a waste reducing kindred spirit. I completely agree that changing habits when you’re out (or travelling) is much harder than at home. A stainless steel straw would be a great tool to add to my arsenal, but I think I’m going to need a bigger purse!
It’s so inspiring (and refreshing) to see how you manage in the city. We’re also in a (5th floor) walk-up, and are having a baby in a few months, and I’m already driving myself crazy thinking of how we will manage, let alone with regard for the things that are important to us (cloth diapering, creating less waste, etc.). Thanks for reminding me we can do it. Do you have any local (Brooklyn) recommendations for reusable container-friendly places?
You can do it! I promise it’s not so bad! Not sure where you are in Brooklyn, but our local grocery store Perelandra has a nice bulk section, that we can bring our own containers to to fill up. Most other places are kind of random. I ask at a lot and most places say yes! I’ve gotten cream cheese and bagels filled at Shelsky’s, hummus filled at Damascus on Atlantic Ave, tofu from the little fresh market on the same block, etc.! And then I just head back to the same spots to refill when I can!
I have these awesome reusable baggies for veggies and the like that I got from a Mighty Nest Fix a few months ago (before you posted about them). They are pretty great and have a variety of uses. Now, if I could only REMEMBER them when I go to the store!
Ha! Totally been there!
Thanks for the link to the straws that come with a cleaning brush. I’d hesitated to buy them as I wasn’t sure how to keep them clean.
This is such a fascinating and important subject that I have been wanting to do more with for a long while now. Being on the road all the time though has not helped in my attempts of reducing waste, particularly when it comes to grocery shopping! I’m so enjoying see how you’ve been adapting to a zero waste lifestyle, can’t wait to hear more!
Good weeks and bad weeks, for sure!
Love the straw idea. Also, just a thought for you.. I was recently dropping my son off at my parents and my mother showed me some of her recent projects (soo many projects.. ) She made a bunch of coasters out of upcycled wool. My son spilled a drink and it was the only thing nearby so I used it to “mop” it up and then apologized a million times.. she looks at me like.. that’s what I do all the time anyway! Wool has magical powers and a tiny coaster size scrap would take up zero space in your bag! Essentially no need for washing it either. Could be a nice diy project for you! Or, she made a million, I could send you a couple?
You’re very sweet! I’m all set in the coaster department, but I’m a huge fan of felt! xo!
I’m loving the Billykirk tote, too! Does it run heavy or light?
Alas, it’s actually fairly heavy. I’ve never owned an all-leather bag and I hadn’t factored that in!
Love this! I found a 6 pack at TJ Maxx for $4.99 today that comes with a holder and a mini pipe cleaner!
100% support these ideas! Often we have to not just remember our grandmothers’ closets but their habits too. I am in favor of bringing back the handkerchief for example. Perfect replacement for tissues, kids wipes and a napkin in a pinch. Maybe not all on the same day but a square of fabric in a purse can be a useful thing. Love the napkins you linked to but this is also a perfect project for a beginner on a sewing machine. My kids pick out fabrics from my fabric pile and have their own personal napkins and placemats. Also nice to tuck into school lunch boxes….
I love the aesthetic of your bag, haha… it looks so nice! I heard about zero waste for the first time a couple months ago and it piqued my interest. I’ve been wanting a metal straw ever since, and this just reminded me of that! Thanks for sharing 🙂
I’m living in Japan right now and in many ways it’s hard to be zero waste here with no bulk shopping etc. But one thing I love about Japanese culture is EVERYONE brings their own bag to the store. It’s not really even a question about protecting the natural environment, plastic bags simply cost money so everyone just brings their own. Another thing about Japan is most public bathrooms do not have paper towels. Some have hand dryers. But Japanese people just carry a small towel in their purses or bags to dry their hands. I started doing it too!
My four year old is still really against using hand dryers. I usually have a cloth napkins with us for our snacks but it never crossed my mind to use it to dry our hands! Thank you so much for writing this! Now we won’t be walking around with wet hands. ^_^
We just got a compost bucket and bees wraps. We love using cloth napkins and cloth rags! But I find that little kids end up wasting so much (water, paper, coffee filters, etc) in an effort to create and experiment, not to mention they love the straws and cups and all the wasteful things they get when we’re out – I struggle to raise them to be conscientious users without being a Scrooge about it all, esp when the rest of society around them seems so happy-go-lucky about overusing resources and enjoying disposables.
It only seems weird /nerdy because it’s not the norm for you yet. The first time I brought my own containers for restaurant leftovers totally made me feel weird but now that it’s normal for me I get really excited when I get to avoid waste out in the wild world of disposables! Going zero waste also encourages me to be more mindful of my trips out & of planning my time better (eg plot out multiple errands in one go instead of popping out whenever I think of something), which generally means I am saving myself time & gas money in the long run. I typically will bring glass containers for leftovers + utensils & chopsticks + cloth napkin when I eat out. And I always carry my water bottle with me because I need to stay hydrated 🙂 My friend who is even more vigilant that I about zero waste has also been telling servers “no straw please” when she orders a drink. I need to remember to do that!
I recently added a set of metal camping cutlery to my bag. I didn’t like that I was always throwing away plastic forks whenever I ate my lunch from pret.
Nothing groundbreaking, but we have finally set up a compost bin. My 2.5 year old son is OBSSESSED with composting. It’s the highlight of his day. I was pretty excited to learn about all the stuff I can toss in there: shredded junk mail, dryer lint, dust and pet hair from the vacuum cleaner canister, etc.
I’ve never considered putting the dust from the vacuum in the compost. Thanks for the heads up
We also have been making similar shifts. You might only use 5 straws a week, but if that is every person in the US that’s a ton of straws. My big problem are the surprises, like when the server brings the kids a plastic cup of water before we have a chance to pull out their Kleen Kanteens. Or when I convince the ice cream shop to put a milkshake in my mason jar and they add in a plastic straw and spoon. I hope those things become less reflexive for shops.
I agree. I don’t know how many times Ive gone to the grocery with my own bags and still end up with plastic ones because they will double wrap my meat in plastic etc. before I can even refuse. One time I told the cashier I brought my own bag and he still bagged my stuff and I repeated it afterward since it was only an item or two. so instead of reusing the bag for the next customer he wadded it up for the trash.
My oldest starts kindergarten in two weeks. Each morning, I’ll be stuffing one of our estate sale napkins into his waxed canvas lunchbag, alongside his reusable water bottle. I like to start my nerds young.
Little cotton cloths for nose-wiping (especially when out with my toddler)! I’m learning not to tell people that they’re actually the flannel wipes we used on said toddler’s butt while cloth diapering – but I like that little fact because a) repurposing power and b) obviously they are clean, that’s how laundry works.
And three cheers for the urban-walking-schlepping-top-floor-apartment-toddler-life fitness routine! More effective than any regimen I’ve dabbled in before.
Thank you for the inspiration to bring my own straw and napkin. When we travel we always bring our cloth napkins, and we always carry a hankie with us everywhere….but I love that you have given me more ideas for less waste. I have stainless straws already for drinking my apple cider vinegar so it will be easy to just put a few in my bag with some napkins!
Nice inspiration! I was actually wondering where your computer case is from? Looks like wool? Thx!!
It is! From Byrd & Belle.
I admire you so much for encouraging the masses to re-use. I am a,ocean advocacy warrior and straws are dangerous. Birds , marine mammals die from eating straws. Thank you so much.
I ALWAYS ask for my iced espresso in a paper cup with no lid, or straw. I just cannot bear the single use plastic cup. Sometimes I am told that the plastic holds up better but I don’t mind, and the paper cups are strong.
Thanks for the reminder to pack a cloth napkin too! I carry them with snacks for my daughter but should carry one in my bag too for those times when I am on my own.
A question about your Klean Kanteen, Erin. How do you clean it out thoroughly? I have the regular water bottle than I can clean out easily, but my insulated bottle retains so many icky smells and tastes that I rarely use it. Coffee tastes weird and slightly pepperminty, yet tea tastes slightly of coffee. Help!
Is your insulated water bottle also stainless steel? I’ve never had any trouble with cleaning or smells!
Mine’s exactly like yours. Don’t know why I’ve had this problem. Maybe I didn’t clean it out promptly once?
I try and take my reusable coffee cup everywhere but I’ve found a couple of cafes grabbed a disposable plastic lid to write my coffee order on which kind of defeated the purpose.
I was once told (by an American lady) that straws, plastic or otherwise, give you wrinkles above your upper lip … powerful motivation not to use one 🙂
Love the idea of stainless steel straws.But am worried about how to clean it.any suggestions?
I really don’t worry about; just wash it right away. But the straws that I linked to in this post come with a small brush for cleaning!
So this is my question with the reusable napkins… how does everyone keep the stains off them?! lol. Especially that pretty light linen pattern! Same goes for tea towel, all of ours end up so stained.
I use the same Wash and Stain bar mentioned above to get out things like tomato sauce splotches, but I’m also really not too precious about them! Mine are all a little tattered, but not really worse for the wear!
I absolutely love your bag! May I ask where it is from?
Our rug is from Joinery!
I haven’t yet found a thermos mug I like, but I always carry a spork, a napkin and a hand knitted cup sleeve plus my water bottle in my handbag, and saying “no lid, please” has become second nature. Now if only I could find a metal straw remember to ask for no straws when I have a drink.
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