zero-waste progress report.

October 10, 2017

zero waste update | reading my tea leavesA few months ago, at a dinner out, Faye popped her head over the top of the restaurant booth and saw the party next to us drinking from cocktails with plastic straws. 

“That’s not for the environment,” she chirped.

The group exchanged confused glances and she clarified her point:

“Plastic is NOT for the environment.”

“Ah!” They chuckled at her nervy pronouncement. I nearly died of embarrassment. 

Mortification aside, the moment illustrates a tricky component of trying to go without some of the trappings of modern life that aren’t, perhaps, so great for the environment. Namely: It’s hard not to appear sanctimonious. Let it be known, we make a lot of efforts to reduce the waste we produce in our house and we’re still not perfect.

Since my last zero waste progress report, for instance, I’ve fallen out of the regular habit of only getting tofu at the neighborhood grocer where I can take it home in my own container. The homemade yogurt experiments I spoke of? I still avoid single serving containers, but making-my-own efforts have ground to a halt. 

But I think in matters of zero waste (and just about anything), shame isn’t a very good motivator. So instead of lamenting all of the ways where I’ve failed in my zero-waste efforts, I thought I’d share a few additional tactics that I’ve had success with since the last time I wrote about this stuff. In case they’re helpful, some tips:

Use local services/know local rules: We spent six years freezing our food scraps and bringing them to the neighborhood farmers’ market for drop-off. It wasn’t a terrible amount of work, but it did require some planning and some schlepping and there were weekends when toting a slowly defrosting bucket of frozen compost a handful of blocks to the market was the last thing I wanted to do on a Saturday morning. This summer, we got curbside food scrap pickup and we couldn’t be more excited. In New York City, curbside pickup includes all food waste, so even things like the macerated remains of a toddler’s burrito or the uneaten dregs of a soup pot can go into the bin. Since pickup started in June, our already modest garbage loads have gotten even lighter (and basically totally odorless, thanks to cloth diapers and wipes). But I’ve also been surprised at how few people in our building—and on our street—are using the service. Here’s a little encouragement to seek out what services your city might have. Far from every city has local curbside food scrap pickup, but it’s worth digging around a bit on your local sanitation department website and understanding what kind of local waste reduction services are available to you. (Usually there are more than you realize.) This summer, for instance, I realized that there was something I could do locally with plastic film that finds its way into our house. And it galvanized me to stop indulging so much in things that just plain old aren’t recyclable. (Here’s looking at you, potato chip bags.)  

Send things back from whence they came: Metal hangers from the laundromat, plastic pots from the nursery, berry baskets from the farmer…I’ve mentioned some of this before, but a really satisfying way to reduce waste and get used to keeping things out of the recycling system altogether, is to put them directly back into use instead. I see metal hangers sticking out of recycling bins on my street every week, but it’s just as easy to drop them back by the laundromat where they can be immediately put back into use. Last week, I bought two pots of mums at the farmers’ market. I didn’t have a bag to carry them home in, so I returned both pots and plastic bags back to the farmer when I was finished planting! For moments when you can’t avoid a disposable something or other, it’s worth pausing before relying on recycling.

Decide good enough is good enough: The spring before last, we ordered a new toilet seat to help with toilet training. When the seat was delivered, the wooden top of it had a ding. I immediately made plans to return it, but it occurred to me that once returned, the slightly damaged seat likely wouldn’t be repaired, it would just be thrown away. I decided good enough is good enough and kept the seat, ding and all. (If you can’t fix it, live with it?) This same philosophy can be applied to all sorts of things with minor imperfections. Making returns is expensive (especially for small businesses) and not without costs to the environment in terms of the restocking/repacking process, shipping, etc. The next time I’m tempted to return something, I’m considering the full picture.

Swap your garbage can: In the same way that a tiny closet can help you keep your clothing purchases in check, a tiny trash can can help you pay better attention to what you’re putting in it. Consider making more room in your recycling bin and less room in your trash bin. Our trash can is already tiny, so we’ve kept that, but we rarely need to empty it and we’re considering going bagless. If you have a larger can, consider exchanging it for a smaller one (or a glass jar) and pay attention to how often you need to empty it!

Other things:

+ As great as it is to be able to keep food waste out of the landfills, wasting perfectly edible food is a big problem in its own right. I’m excited to see the film, Wasted! The Story of Food Waste. It opens in theaters this week!

+ What about you guys? Successes? Failures? Stumbling blocks?

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  • Reply Brenna October 10, 2017 at 11:18 am

    I will certainly start returning my dry cleaning hangers. No reason to trash them.

    Manhattan doesn’t have curbside pickup for small residential buildings yet. What did you use to carry your food scraps down to the local pickup before you got curbside? Buying compost bags seems silly and like additional waste, but maybe the only way to make the drop off convenient on the way to work.

    • Reply Elizabeth October 10, 2017 at 12:27 pm

      From a fellow NYC dweller who has yet to be blessed with curbside composite pickup: Plain brown paper bags (like the kind you may acquire from take out) are compostable. We save these as they inevitably come into the house and put our compost straight into them in the freezer, no container necessary. That way we can just drop the whole bag into the neighborhood compost bin when we are on our way to do other things. Hope that’s helpful!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 10, 2017 at 12:27 pm

      We use a plastic bin with a lid that we keep in our freezer! Depending on how long your walk to work is, you can bring a paper bag (also compostable)!

  • Reply Samantha Tillapaugh October 10, 2017 at 11:35 am

    I do these things too! My failures include not composting left over food scraps, and I got to look into what SoCal has to offer on that! My husband who loves chips gave up chips all together! (We look forward to social events where chips are served at parties though). Sub kale chis and sweet potato chips, homemade and not as satisfying, but we “work with what we’ve got.” We try to buy zero plastic from the grocery store and succeed 99% of the time (darn plastic films that seal those straiss milk jugs! Close but we still fall short). I appreciate your post! I wish we could connect if you lived in Cali, I think we would be kindred spirits and good friends 🙂

  • Reply Elizabeth October 10, 2017 at 11:52 am

    We were super delighted to discover that we can drop our compost at the neighborhood market where we already shop almost every day. Scooping the food waste out of our refrigerator bin into a bag to carry over isn’t the most fun task, but we’re all happy that we have the option and don’t mind at all paying the small fee (25c/gallon). We have a countertop composting bin that we used in our previous apartment, but we can’t really use it in the warmer months unless we want our kitchen to swarm with fruit flies. Maybe we should use that bin for recycling instead?

    One thing that continues to frustrate me is having to use disposable packaging for bulk purchases. We buy our grains, dried fruit, nuts, etc in bulk and then reuse the bags for kitty litter or compost transportation but would love a greener option. I don’t get the sense that Whole Foods is on board with us bringing in our own jars, however. Any suggestions?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 10, 2017 at 12:26 pm

      Check with your local Whole Foods! Lots of them allow you to bring your own container! We use small bags for the purpose, not jars, which get so heavy in transit!

      • Reply Elizabeth October 10, 2017 at 2:46 pm

        Alas, they said no! I wonder if they would allow it if we are willing to pay the extra cost for the weight of our bags.

    • Reply Laurie October 10, 2017 at 1:11 pm

      I take jars and bags to Whole Foods for bulk items. They’ve never minded. In fact, some cashiers will give me the $0.10 bag discount for each jar I use as well. I also reuse their paper bags for things like coffee beans and oatmeal (things I buy every week).

      I wish I could get my son on board with the straws but he enjoys blowing the paper wrapper off at me.

    • Reply Audrey October 10, 2017 at 1:59 pm

      I had the same issue with bags from the bulk bins and ended up buying these wonderful bags on etsy! Totally solved our problem. There are two options, one is made of silk and therefore biodegradable when you are done using (although we have had ours for 2 years with regular use and there are no signs of wear) and the other is made of nylon and perfect for spices or flours that would leak a little out of the silk bags. They are the same weight as a plastic bag and close easily with the zip ties at the store. I purchased one set of the nylon and one set of the silk and sort of wish I had bought a third set. I would suggest getting the natural colored ones because they are slightly sheer and therefore the person checking you out can tell what you are buying (apparently some people will say they are buying something inexpensive and then fill their bags with a more expensive option-ughhh). I usually give them a quick rinse if I got something that left a residue like raisins or chocolate chips, otherwise I just give them a little dusting off if it was something less messy like grains. Hope that helps!

      Here is the link:

      • Reply Elizabeth October 10, 2017 at 3:16 pm

        Thanks, this is a great suggestion! I had simple nylon reusable bags years ago, but could never get traction in my household on using them. Or, rather, we would use them at the farmers’ market but would forget them elsewhere, which defeated the purpose of having them. It sounds like we’re overdue for a new, nicer set!

      • Reply Mackenzie @organicbutterflyblog October 11, 2017 at 5:40 pm

        Thank you for this Etsy link! I was wondering where I could get some reusable bags from 🙂 Much appreciated.

  • Reply Judith October 10, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    First things first, have you seen ‘Captain Fantastic’ with Viggo Mortensen? The description of Faye explaining plastic to strangers reminds me of another scene in that movie.

    My husband absolutely will not give up using plastic bags or putting things in them at the grocery store. So to cut back on the waste, I stick used ones in our grocery totes so they can be re-used. They also recycle them at our local grocery store. Also he loves zip locs — those get washed and re-used over and over. If you can’t beat ’em …. Other than that, we had a compost pile when we lived in the country, but now that we’re in the city, we are lucky to have curbside composting. All I can add is what you imply here, be patient with yourself. It’s a process!

  • Reply Ris October 10, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Here in Pittsburgh we are probably years away from getting curbside composting (the city is, ahem, farther behind the times on sustainability than I would like) but I did find a small local company that will do compost pickup once a week. They do composting off-site and it’s a small fee ($5/week) that I’m more than happy to pay. It has drastically reduced the amount of actual trash we throw out, which makes my tree-hugging heart very glad. My husband and I have also made it a rule that we cannot buy coffee out or on the go (our favorite treat/date/etc) unless we bring our own containers, so we always have a travel mug or glass jar and stainless steel straw with us.

    • Reply Celia October 11, 2017 at 9:41 am

      That’s what I do too, in Chicago. I love it!

    • Reply Elaina October 11, 2017 at 12:28 pm

      Also a Pittsburgher & can confirm that sustainability comment!–we have a yard composter and our neighbors think we are just the strangest for it!

  • Reply Stephanie October 10, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    We have mini food waste bins in the UK too, and in most counties you can even get smaller ones to sit in your kitchen (which are SO helpful when you’re feeling lazy)! I’m such a sucker for getting rid of things that are slightly broken but still work – I need to work on this!

    Steph –

  • Reply Starla October 10, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    Re: going bagless for a small trash can, we’ve been doing it for years (ever since I realized how odd it felt to buy bags, bring them home, fill the clean, new, single-use bags with trash, and send them to a landfill). We compost and strive for minimal packaging so it’s rare that there’s anything funky in the trash. We do have to clean the can more often but I don’t find it to be a big deal. I’d say go for it, Erin!

  • Reply Jennifer October 10, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    Food waste, yes! I so rarely read about food waste but I think it’s vital for both environmental and ethical reasons. There are many great solutions to preventing/dealing with food waste in Tamar Adler’s book (did you get a chance to read it?).

    Also, have you seen “Theater of Life” on Netflix? It’s about one of Italy’s greatest chefs and his mission to take wasted food and turn it into delicious meals for the hungry. It was beautiful and inspiring. Would love an entire post dedicated to cooking with what you have and not wasting anything. It’s one of my great passions.

  • Reply Jess October 10, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    Thanks for sharing successes & challenges, your framework of “habit shifts” has really helped me overcome my own cynicism about reducing personal waste. I’ve sewn up some cloth bags, of the bento and flip-top variety (thanks to a commenter’s link on your blog about snack bags) and that has made me more excited to find ways to use them to reduce waste, like for salad greens or travel snacks. Removing the labels off empty jars also makes the bulk buying experience more pleasant, and I like to think I get a bit of an extra workout carrying the glass home from the store. My partner is less on board than I am, so I’m trying to lead by example and problem-solve creatively rather than get dogmatic or judgmental — food choices are already so laden with emotion! But for instance, she is not convinced that the bees wrap we were gifted last year is as good at saving cheese as plastic wrap. And she loves to bake bread and is sort of attached to the various uses of plastic in that process (proofing, I think?). I’m trying to sway her by sewing linen substitutes where possible, but again I feel like it’s a fine line. A future post on tips for getting family & friends on board would be nice, if you’re so inclined.

  • Reply Kate October 10, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Congratulations on getting curbside compost pickup! I love it and miss it so much when we travel — we have been known to hide a kale stem or an egg shell here and there in the rest stop bushes.

    Our grocery store recently announced they will be accepting fewer plastics for recycling, including the piece that holds your six-pack of beer together. I’m not sure how to get around that one — so many great craft beers come in cans now, and I assume it takes less resources to ship than glass ones.

  • Reply Archana October 10, 2017 at 6:31 pm

    Your blog posts have really helped. I am glad you write about these issues. There is another blogger Ariana : She relentlessly fights for the cause and is very inspiring too. I followed her step by step instructions and have made good progress. She starts with 1) hide you trash can ( dont remove it but make it an inconvenience so that you are mindful ). I followed all the steps.

    This is my progress report so far :

    I dont have kids and have outdoor pets. So its not that hard for my case …..

    Faye is such a rockstar kid. I love all the stories you share about her. Those memes of her running are too cute.

  • Reply Chloe | Conscious by Chloe October 10, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    These are all such great insights!
    I’ve been through the same process for certain things: yogurt, tortillas, ice cream. I’ve learnt how to make them all, and sometimes I do not have the time or energy to do so. So I either decide to do without, or I indulge. But I’m always aware of the impact of my decisions. To me, that’s all that matters. Being conscious of the choices you make, on yourself, on others, on the environment.
    Right now, I’m giving the 10×10 challenge a try (10 items, 10 looks, 10 days). It’s a great way to reflect on your relationship to clothes, style, fashion.

  • Reply Ryan October 10, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    I think I take for granted that I live in a city that collects food waste (and has actually outlawed disposing of organic material in any other way), but I also agree that keeping a small bin is helpful in reducing garbage accrual. No one likes having to take the trash out, so there’s a real incentive to limiting how often that happens.

  • Reply Michelle October 10, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    I love “shame isn’t a good motivator.” I tend to beat myself up when I read about people like Bea Johnson and her Zero Waste Lifestyle, thinking if I can’t achieve zero waste like Bea does, then what’s the point. But I keep plugging along. I do what I’m able right now and that is something.

    Great post!

  • Reply Sonya October 10, 2017 at 9:29 pm

    I loved this post Erin! Recently I’ve found a way to recycle soft plastics in my city – I’ve been saving them and taking them to a supermarket down the road. I’ve bought a small set of recyclable produce bags, and while I haven’t been to my farmers market or food coop for awhile because of work travel, I’ve found a farm shop close to my work that stocks locally sourced produce and goods. Near enough is good enough some days, I was fretting about it til I read this post 🙂

  • Reply Jenny October 11, 2017 at 12:03 am

    Love this post 🙂

  • Reply Wb October 11, 2017 at 1:09 am

    Lovely post and great comments. Though I have to say having a toddler face peer over the top of a restaurant booth is one of my least favorite things. Courtesy toward others should also feature in any teaching moment.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE October 11, 2017 at 7:15 am

      Oh, of course! But tolerance of children in their pursuit of social graces also seems like a valuable lesson!

    • Reply Sid October 11, 2017 at 9:10 am

      Pro tip: smile, wave and then go back about your business.

      It’s much easier to ignore a face peeking over the seat than it is to ignore a bored toddler losing their minds while the poor parents try to eat their food as fast as possible. Courtesy to others is a two way street. Karma is too.

    • Reply Jay October 11, 2017 at 4:58 pm

      I have to admit I love toddlers peeking at me over the top of restaurant booths, from under tables, from wherever.

  • Reply Erin October 12, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    A big YES to “shame isn’t a good motivator.” — it’s easy to compare your efforts to others’ and feel discouraged, but I try to remember the improvements I’ve made, and give myself a break. There’s always room for improvement, but I find that if I rush into huge changes, they seem to “slip” after a month or so. Slow and steady changes seem to stick a bit better.

    • Reply Ikawati October 13, 2017 at 12:13 am

      Dear Erin… Yes!!

      Reading your blog makes me calm and help with my anxiety. I try to go zero waste but it`s impossible so I try my best to reduce my footprint. I mostly go to the same local seller and since they already know me now they never question when I hand them my own bag/jar. We live in the different continent but have the same vision. I feel not so alone 🙂

  • Reply Abhaya October 12, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Out of the mouths of babes, yes? You should be proud! Young ones who are nurtured in this healthy lifestyle will be our future heros.

  • Reply Lily Calfee October 16, 2017 at 11:44 am

    I appreciate your perspective that shame ISN’T a good motivator. I looooove the whole slow food/fashion movement but it is super demoralizing to feel like I’m not doing it “good enough.” Every bit counts, especially the bits that involve calling/faxing political representatives to remind them that they work for us.

    We do the tiny trash can thing and it’s amazing what a difference it makes. I’ve literally stood in the aisle of the grocery store trying to decide if the packaging of my favorite snack would take up too much of our tiny trash can and decided IT WOULD, so it’s a win-win: less mindless snacking for me and less trash in my trash can.

  • Reply Nessa October 24, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    I love that you don’t return serviceable items for small cosmetic issues. In the past I have contacted the company and told them of my issue and not wanting to add to waste by returning the item, but felt I shouldn’t have full price for a damaged item. I requested a price adjustment or credit for future purchases. Almost every time the company has gladly agreed.

  • Reply thefolia October 26, 2017 at 9:02 am

    I try my best to make an effort and set an example with my little ones. My challenge comes when my husband says I’m ridiculous and extreme by requesting no plastic and no straws at restaurants. I dont enjoy eating out anymore for the mixed message were sending our children.

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