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How to Shop without Bulk Bins Shelves of plastic free produce in a local grocery store

How to Shop without Bulk Bins

Introduction

We all live in different situations. Some of us have multiple natural food stores, co-ops, and even zero waste shops to buy unpackaged bulk foods. Some of us just don’t. I personally don’t have many options around me. But even if I had easy access to bulk, sometimes you just can’t justify or paying 2 or even 3 times the price. So how can you shop without bulk bins and still reduce waste?

Reduce Food Packaging

First look for completely unpackaged items. This will usually only be fruits and vegetables, although you can ask the bakery or deli to get items without packaging (by bringing your own container or bag). They may say no, but it’s always worth a shot.

When you do need to buy something with packaging, limit the amount of plastic as much as possible. Choose cardboard, glass, and metal packaging instead. Sometimes metal cans are lined with BPA, a plastic coating that can be harmful and should be avoided. There are some brands who note their cans are BPA-free, but some studies have shown the alternatives used still disrupt hormones the way BPA does.

When purchasing naked produce, you don’t need to then put it in a plastic produce bag. Produce bags aren’t necessary, and few cashiers – if any – will care if your items are loose. You can always bring your own cloth or mesh produce bags too. If they are light enough, they won’t add any weight to your purchase. My produce bag weighs a little bit, so I remove the items before weighing at checkout and stick them back in afterward.

Reduce Food Miles

Produce stickers and price signs will sometimes say what country the items came from. By reducing the amount of travel your food had to do, you eliminate some pollution from the boats, trains, and trucks who brought the food from farm to grocery store.

Also check out any local farmers markets. These items were grown nearby and are usually organic. Vendors sometimes will take back the packaging (egg and berry cartons, for example) for future use. This prevents you from taking in waste and prevents the vendor from needing to purchase more containers. Small mom-n-pop butchers and delis are also good resources if you eat an omnivorous diet as they are more likely to be accommodating.

And if we’re reducing food miles, why not reduce them to zero? If you have the space, you can start your own garden with seeds, starter plants, or even kitchen scraps (link to something on Pinterest about the scraps)! All you need is a sunny spot so don’t think you need a yard. Balconies and windowsills work too.

Buy Organic

Packaging and food miles aren’t the only ways to shop environmentally. Organic goods were grown without harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Runoff from farms can contaminate adjacent ecosystems and waterways. Pesticides kill important pollinators like bees. Buying organic foods tell companies you care about the environment and its wildlife.

If you aren’t sure whether a product is organic, look at the produce sticker. Stickers numbers starting with ‘9’ mean the item is organic. Organic bananas always have a plastic wrapper around the stem. This is to slow the ripening process, but it’s also a good indicator of being organic. Sadly this means the bananas will come with some plastic.

Shop the Outer Perimeter

Most grocery stores are set up the same way: produce when you walk in with a deli along the wall, refrigerators and frozen on the back wall and opposite side of the store to the produce, then bakery in the far front corner. All the packaged and processed goods are stocked in the middle aisles. By shopping the outer perimeter of the store, you avoid being tempted by packaged foods. Your shopping cart will then mostly contain whole ingredients with minimal packaging.

If you must enter the middle for packaged items like pasta and canned goods, avoid wandering each aisle. Go directly to the aisle with what you’re looking for and return to that outer perimeter. Sticking to your grocery list will help prevent impulse buys along these aisles.

The Other Type of Bulk

Wholesale food clubs like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s are a double-edged sword when it comes to environmentally-friendly grocery shopping. On the one hand, buying larger quantities reduces the packaging ratio. For example, a 10 pound bag of rice will have less total packaging than ten 1 pound bags of rice due to the difference in surface area.

This larger quantity will take longer to eat and therefore can reduce the number of trips you take to the store, cutting down on transportation emissions. I can’t speak for other wholesale clubs, but BJ’s also sells a large variety of organic foods.

On the other hand, wholesale clubs have a very limited selection of unpackaged produce. The only things I usually see unpackaged are melons and pineapples. Otherwise everything comes in a plastic bag, cardboard box, or other packaging.

My pet peeve is items bundled together with extra packaging. A plastic wrapper or thick plastic ring will hold multiple normal items (peanut butter jars, juice jugs, etc.) together to ensure you are buying the correct amount and scanning the correct barcode. So for some items, wholesale bulk is a good option, but for others, you’re just creating more waste. Keep packaging in mind when buying in wholesale bulk.

Conclusion

Whether you can shop from bulk bins or not doesn’t prevent you from lowering your shopping footprint. You can shop without bulk bins and still create little to no packaging waste. In addition to buying sustainably, make sure to read my post from earlier this week on 12 Ways to Reduce Food Waste.

How to Shop without Bulk Bins Shelves of plastic free produce in a local grocery store
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12 Ways To Reduce Food Waste wire basket on table filled with tomatoes, squash, and other plastic free produce

12 Ways To Reduce Food Waste

The average American throw out over 6 pounds of food per week (over 400 grams per day). That’s about 340 pounds per year! Food waste accounts for 20% of what we send to landfill. Despite its organic nature, food can take years or even decades to break down in landfills because there isn’t enough oxygen to facilitate decomposition. This leads to the release of methane into the atmosphere. So it’s really important to go beyond reducing food packaging waste and reduce your food waste as well.

Before I started lowering my impact, I threw out a lot of food. I forgot about leftovers and was not able to compost until mid-2018. I had to take out my garbage before it was full because of the smelly foods inside. But now my food waste is mainly limited to dairy that my compost can’t accept and the occasional forgotten leftover (I’m still working on this one!).

I’ve come up with 12 great ways to reduce food waste that span from before you go shopping to after you’ve eaten. Let’s get started!

1. Shop when full

Shopping on an empty stomach will tempt you into buying more than you need or items that you should avoid (packaged, sugary treats). When you aren’t hungry while grocery shopping, you can more easily focus on sticking to your list. Speaking of which…

2. Make a plan and stick to the list

Before you even step food in the store or farmers market, you need a plan. What meals are you planning for this week? What is already in your kitchen you can create meals around? What needs to get used up before it expires? Answering these questions will help you create a list of the ingredients you’ll need for that week. You will be less likely to overbuy amounts that will go bad before you get around to it, buying duplicates of items, and wasting leftovers from last week.

3. Take the oddball fruits and veggies, single bananas, and slightly imperfect foods

Be less picky when it comes to selecting produce. Small blemishes and odd shapes do not make an item inedible. Single bananas often get left behind in favor of a connected bunch, but the table usually has a good number of singles ripe for the taking (bad pun…).

Global Waste is a documentary on Netflix that highlights the already high standards a fruit or veggie needs to meet before getting to the store, meaning so much is already being wasted. Imperfect produce left on the stand will be tossed out if no one sees past the brown spot or “unnatural” shape. There are services that will actually ship you some rejectable produce. Check out Imperfect Foods (previously Imperfect Produce) and Misfits Market!

4. Check the “Yesterday’s Bakery” and markdown sections

A few grocery stores around me (Stop & Shop and Shaw’s) have a Yesterday’s Bakery section as well as markdown sections for dairy and other goods that are nearing their sell by date or have damaged packaging. I always make sure to stop by these shelves in case I can save something from being wasted and get a good deal at the same time.

5. Only buy what you need for that increment between shopping trips

Buying only the quantity you will use between shopping trips has the same benefits as creating a meal plan. You won’t have all this extra food to quickly eat before it goes bad. With less to store, you will be able to more readily see your ingredients and avoid that hidden jar in the back of the fridge that went bad last month.

6. Have meals at the end of the week specifically be “leftover” meals to clean out the fridge

If you still have meal portions left over at the end of the week, be sure you eat them before they spoil. By planning in leftover meals before your next shopping trip, you won’t find moldy leftovers you promised you’d get to but this week’s meal prep was too delicious to pass up.

7. When food is served buffet-style, take less than you want and get seconds if you need them later

Grocery shopping is not the only place to reduce food waste. When at parties or out to eat, taking less than you think you want will prevent excess food waste. You can always ask for more later, but you can’t put back what you’ve already taken.

8. Eat out less

The less you eat out, the more control you have over how much food you receive, where it comes from, and how it was packaged. At home, you can make the amount of food you know you’ll be able to finish in one sitting. I find it’s less tempting to leave a few bites on the plate at home than in a restaurant, especially if you forgot your own container and would have to use a single-use one instead of grabbing one out of the cabinet in the kitchen.

9. Learn to properly store food items for longest life

Despite following what our moms and dads did, we might not actually know the best ways to stores our ingredients. For example, place herbs in a glass of water like flowers in the fridge, separate your bananas to slow the ripening process, or keep tomatoes on the counter instead of in the fridge.

Check out these links for more food storage info!

If you want to keep your items longer than they will last in the fridge or countertop, consider canning or freezing them.

10. Don’t throw out foods based on the printed date on the package

The “Best By” and “Use By” dates are not hard safety dates on food items. They refer to when the peak quality period has ended. It is perfectly safe to eat foods beyond their date so long as they have no signs of going bad (smell, mold, etc.). The only time a date is for safety reasons is the “Use By” date on infant formula.

11. Donate what you won’t use and accept leftover foods from others

Apps like Olio can be used to give away foods you won’t use to others who will, including businesses/restaurants. Olio is free to use and works both ways. You can accept other people’s items as well as give. Too Good To Go is another option to save food from going to waste. They began in Europe but recently launched here in the US.

You can also donate non-perishables to your local food bank or share with friends and family directly. Finally, always take home leftovers after eating out or at an event if possible. Be sure to bring your own containers!

12. Compost

For me, composting is one of the best ways to reduce food waste. Food scraps from cooking and bad leftovers can be composted to create nutrient rich soil for growing new food. There are many options for composting: barrels, piles, small bins, and pick up or drop off services. But don’t worry if you don’t have access to composting. You can still you most if not all the other 11 tips above!

Conclusion

Which waste reduction techniques do you use at home? Are there any others ways you reduce food waste? Let me know!

12 Ways To Reduce Food Waste wire basket on table filled with tomatoes, squash, and other plastic free produce
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7 Zero Waste Tips That Don't Help The Environment A plastic Starbucks coffee cup with a reusable straw is creating more waste than it's saving

7 Zero Waste Tips That DON’T Help The Environment

This post contains affiliate links. I will receive a commission if you make a purchase using these links, at no additional cost to you. Read more on my Disclaimer page.

Introduction

There’s a lot of information out there. You can find dozens of lists of 25, 50, even 100 zero waste tips. Obviously we trust the list to be the gold standard and therefore try to make all the changes we can in the hope that we are living a less impactful life.

But are all those tips actually helping the environment?

I’ve noticed some zero waste tips floating around on the internet and in books that either do not prevent any waste whatsoever or require a bit more information and care to properly implement.

The list below will discuss how these tips fall short and what better options are available to you. Some of these do-nothing tips are things I’ve seen people do or suggest in comments online, but others are some even big names like Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home (essentially the first zero waster) promote.

I hope this post will help you live more consciously and think about the bigger impact of the choices you make instead of just following the advice of others, even when those people are leaders of the movement.

1. Putting a “No Junk Mail” sticker on your mailbox

This is the tip Bea Johnson promotes in her book Zero Waste Home. Yes, this will perhaps prevent mail from entering your personal home and recycle bin (if the mailman even reads the sticker to begin with). But this does NOT prevent waste. The paper will be manufactured and printed on, mailed and sorted, driven all the way to your door, and then what? The mailman will just toss it out himself. Will he even recycle it? Just because someone else deals with it does not mean it is not your waste.

There are multiple ways to stop junk mail from even being created and mailed. I signed up for free at optoutprescreen.com to remove myself from the lists of credit card and insurance companies. DMAchoice.org will cost $2 and allows you to specifically choose which types of mail you receive. Of course, you can also contact the individual companies and ask them to remove you from their list.

In addition to junk mail that usually goes in the recycle bin without even being opened, you can prevent even more mail waste. Here are some better zero waste tips on junk mail:

  • Unsubscribe from any magazines or newspapers you do not frequently read or switch to their online versions if you do still read them.
  • Go paperless for all of your bills (utilities, credit cards, etc.).
  • While you’re at it, unsubscribe from all those junk emails you send to the trash bin. It still takes energy for servers to send emails around, but it’s easy to overlook.

2. Taking fruit without stickers or putting the sticker on another piece of fruit

This is very similar to the junk mail “zero waste tip”. If the fruit had no sticker to begin with, you aren’t preventing any waste. It never existed in the first place. If you move the sticker, then you are just pushing waste onto another customer. Doing this does not vote with your wallet or tell anyone you would prefer to not have to deal with those pesky stickers.

Local farmers markets will not have stickers on their produce. As an added bonus, they may also accept berry and egg cartons for reuse. If you do buy produce with stickers, they are artists like Barry Snyder from Stickerman Produce Art to whom you can mail your stickers stuck to white paper to be used as part of an art project.

3. Using biodegradable bags

A lot of people suggest using biodegradable or compostable bags, especially for pet waste, but stop short and throw them in the trash. Landfills are anaerobic environments without the oxygen and decomposers to quickly break down the bags. If the bags eventually do break down in this environment, they will release methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than CO2, into the atmosphere.

There are also many different levels and types under the “biodegradable” or “compostable” umbrella. Compostable is a subset of biodegradable. These bags will only breakdown fully and quickly in industry composting facilities which can reach the temperatures needed unless they are certified specifically as home or backyard compostable.

Oxo-degradable materials are NOT biodegradable. They are their plastic mixed with additives to quickly breakdown the plastic into microplastics. Microplastics cause a lot of harm to animals as they are mistaken for food and easily absorb and carry oils and toxins. They never fully breakdown and disappear.

If you use biodegradable bags for wet items, ensure they meet home composting standards. Bury them in your yard or add them to your compost pile. My town compost drop-off accepts home compostable bags; these are the ones we use. You could also place wet items in unrecyclable packaging like Pringles or Planters nut canisters. For dry trash, you can use paper bags or no bag at all.

4. Handwashing/Dishwashing/Pre-rinsing

This is a three-fold tip. Some people recommend handwashing over dishwashing, but many studies (study 1 and study 2) (and basic math) have shown that it takes the average user much more water to handwash a load of dishes than to run them through the dishwasher. The average faucet uses 2.2 gallons per minute whereas the average dishwasher uses around 6 for an entire load.

Now you might think dishwashing is then the better option. I have written a post about dishwashers which you can read here. Dishwashers are made with PVC (a plastic that releases harmful toxins during production and incineration), and I have estimated the average dishwasher contributes over 23,000 pounds of CO2 throughout its lifetime. Around 1600 pounds of that is from production. Check out my post for an in-depth comparison that shows why I prefer handwashing to dishwashers.

Another tip I often see is to skip pre-rinsing before putting dishes in the dishwasher. The only issue I have with this tip is it must make no difference by skipping. If you skip pre-rinsing and your dishes come out with food still stuck on, you will now need to re-wash the dish yourself. So much for the dishwasher, huh?

The most practical advice I have for making handwashing more efficient than the dishwasher is to soap up the dishes, scrub them to remove food, and rinse in water. Do this either by turning on and off the faucet or by filling separate bins/sides of the sink. This way you can prevent using more water than the dishwasher and save on energy to heat the water up to the higher dishwasher temperatures.

5. Bringing your own cup

What?! How could bringing your own cup for coffee be a bad zero waste tip? Here’s the caveat. Yes, bringing your own cup is a sustainable practice when the store acts sustainably. By this I mean the barista doesn’t just make your drink in a disposable cup and pour it into yours at the very end. This cup then goes in the trash, and waste is not prevented.

Make sure your cup is used for the entire drink-making process. If a store has a policy on not being allowed to use cups for that purpose, find a different coffee shop. Other alternatives include making your own coffee (cheaper!) using a French press which will eliminate the need for paper filters and can be plastic free. Check out this one if you’re in the market. The best option, of course, is to limit or quit coffee altogether, but that is up to you.

6. Using a reusable straw

Déjà vu, right? Now I’m against reusable straws too? Far from it! I have a set of them myself. Bringing your own straw is a great practice if you don’t just stop there. Straws are a menace and thankfully many restaurants are phasing them out, but what good is refusing a straw if you gladly accept the plastic cup and plastic lid? Even if Starbucks phases out over a billion straws per year as promised, that means it’s continuing to use over a billion plastic lids and cups per year.

Use your own cup and straws in tandem. If I buy a drink in a disposable cup, I will at least refuse a lid. Luckily the cups and lids can be recycled, but sadly not all is recycled. Besides that which lands in regular garbage bins, not all in the recycle bin will be recycled. In addition, a study by the World Economic Forum discovered a full 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic we produce ends up flowing into the ocean each year.

Lastly, don’t buy reusable straws in the first place if you will never use them. By buying things you don’t need, you generate a demand for more to be produced, increase the clutter in your life, and eventually add to the waste pile. If you own straws you don’t use, gift them to someone who will.

7. Buying “eco-friendly” products

This is yet another one of the zero waste tips that requires extra thought to be effective. There are no requirements for products to label themselves as “green” or “eco-friendly” or slap on a picture of clipart leaves to the label. Companies have been using a process called “greenwashing” to mislead consumers into buying their product under the guise it is environmentally friendly when in reality it isn’t.

In 2015, Futerra released a report called Selling Sustainability that outlines these ten basic rules to avoid greenwashing:

  1. Fluffy language – Words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g., “eco-friendly”)
  2. Green products vs. dirty company – Efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
  3. Suggestive pictures – Images that indicate an (unjustified) green impression (e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes)
  4. Irrelevant claims – Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green
  5. Best in class – Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible
  6. Just not credible – “Eco-friendly” cigarettes, anyone? “Greening” a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe.
  7. Gobbledygook – Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
  8. Imaginary friends – A label that looks like a third-party endorsement… except it’s made up
  9. No proof – It could be right, but where’s the evidence?
  10. Outright lying – Totally fabricated claims or data

So please, do your research before purchasing products that call themselves sustainable. What company is selling that product? What are that company’s business practices both environmentally and ethically? Are their reliable third parties supporting the product’s claims? What are the ingredients?

As a side note, the Environmental Working Group’s product rating system is not very trustworthy as they have many political ties and often misrepresent findings and mislead consumers. This Reddit post contains a handful of articles on their dubious practices.

Conclusion

I hope this list will serve as both an eye opener on some popular zero waste tips and as a guide for how we can do better. Are there any other tips you’ve found that don’t seem all that sustainable? Share them below and let’s try to find a solution!

7 Zero Waste Tips That Don't Help The Environment A plastic Starbucks coffee cup with a reusable straw is creating more waste than it's saving
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Dishwashing v. Handwashing A load of newly cleaned dishes sitting in an open dishwasher

Dishwashing v. Handwashing: Can I Beat The Dishwasher?

Introduction

Contrary to popular belief, many studies have proven that using a dishwasher is better than handwashing dishes. These studies cite comparisons of water and energy usage and the emissions from that usage to show how dishwashers are more efficient. I’m here to challenge the results of these dishwashing v. handwashing tests.

These studies fail to look at the broader picture of dishwashing v. handwashing. There are many more factors that should be considered: manufacturing and transportation emissions, end of life disposal, environmental effects, and even just practicality of always being able to fully fill a dishwasher.

In this post, I will not only take a closer look at these studies and examine what factors they conveniently exclude, but I will also perform my own experiment to see how efficiently I can wash a dishwasher’s worth of dishes by hand.

Study Says The Dishwasher Is Better

The average dishwasher uses 6 gallons of water for its entire cycle. Energy Star-rated dishwashers use 4 gallons. The water is heated by an electrical heating element in the dishwasher to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

In contrast, a normal kitchen faucet pours out 2 gallons per minute when fully open, and household water heaters are usually set to a max of 120°F (anything above this can scald/burn skin). So one would think there’s no way to wash all those dishes in just 2 to 3 minutes with the same effectiveness as an hour-long (or longer) cycle of the dishwasher.

Most articles online on the dishwashing v. handwashing debate are based on one of two things: water usage or monetary cost. Which is cheaper? Which is faster? Or which uses less water? There seems to be a shortage, however, of studies on which is more environmentally friendly (beyond water usage).

Bonn University Study

The same 2009 Bonn University study pops up frequently as “proof” that dishwashing is better than handwashing in multiple categories. It has been the only study I can find that actually performed an experiment to compare the two methods.

In this experiment, people from across Europe were left in a kitchen setup to clean 12 place settings of dishes in whatever manner they usually wash at home. The water use, energy use, soap use, time, and even “cleaning index” were all compared across nationality and then aggregated and compared to the average dishwasher. The results show the dishwasher beating out humans in every category.

The results of this experiment concluded the following averages for handwashing 12 place settings:

  • Water usage: 103 liters (27.2 gallons)
  • Energy usage: 2.5 kWh
  • Soap usage: 35 g (1.2 oz)
  • Time: 79 minutes

Here’s how those numbers compared to a modern dishwasher:

PHOTO

The cleaning index referenced in the table above is a measure of how clean the dishes were after washing. A higher number means a cleaner dish, so this experiment concluded dishwashers using a normal cycle did about the same as a person, and an intensive cycle resulted in a cleaner dish.

So it seems the dishwasher is both more water efficient (1/6 of handwashing) and energy efficient (2/5 of handwashing). It also is faster in terms of how long the person spends on the dishes (only loading and unloading). But is this study telling the whole truth about the water and energy usage?

Research Shows The Study Ignored Important Factors

What’s missing from this comparison? The study never looks at carbon or dioxin emissions caused by production, transportation emissions from factory to store to home, and the effects of disposal of the dishwasher versus a sink in its analysis.

Carbon Emissions

Production, Transportation, and Energy Use

To take a closer look at what’s missing in the dishwashing v. handwashing debate, let’s look at emissions. An assessment in Appliance Magazine from 2003 states it takes 4,300 MJ to manufacture a dishwasher. This is 1,200 kWh, which converts to 1,608 lbs of CO2.

In addition to production emissions, it takes about 18 MJ/cycle to run a dishwasher. According to Treehugger.com, a household dishwasher is used 215 times per year on average. With a 15 year lifespan, the average dishwasher will emit over 21,600 pounds of CO2.

Emissions from transportation are hard to calculate due to the many unknown factors: distances traveled by component materials as well as the final product, transportation modes, weight of load on each trip, fuel efficiency, etc.

According to my research, it is highly likely for a US dishwasher to be produced domestically in the US using a majority of US-made components. This is pleasantly surprising in light of the rise of the global economy pushing manufacturing overseas, but there are still carbon emissions involved.

Since all houses have a sink no matter what, I decided its production was negligible (versus a dishwasher which is an optional appliance that some homes do not have). We can still look at the carbon emissions from the water.

Water and Heating Water

I couldn’t find something specific to the US, but I doubt there’s much difference. This article states 0.59 grams of CO2 are required to produce one liter of tap water in the UK. This converts to 0.005 lbs of CO2/gallon.

This worksheet on the cost of heating water can be used to calculate that a gas tank heater at only 59% efficiency requires 847 BTUs to heat a gallon of water from 60°F to 120°F. This converts to 0.25 kWh/heated gallon or 0.34 lbs of CO2/heated gallon.

This worksheet does conflict, however, with Treehugger’s calculations for heating from 60°F to 120°F that show “heating the water with gas for each 2-gallon load emits about .17 pounds of carbon dioxide.” They use a higher efficiency and higher kWh to CO2 conversion, but that would result in 0.38 pounds per gallon using the worksheet so I’m not too sure who to believe. The Treehugger article also says heating with a tankless water heater results in 0.07 lbs of CO2/gallon.

Total Emissions

The Guardian put out an article listing the carbon footprints of various washing methods:

  • Almost zero CO2e: by hand in cold water
  • 540g CO2e: by hand, using water sparingly and not too hot
  • 770g CO2e: in a dishwasher at 55°C (131°F)
  • 990g CO2e: in a dishwasher at 65°C (149°F)
  • 8000g CO2e: by hand, with extravagant use of water

In this case, handwashing is the greener choice so long as you are careful about how you wash (not leaving the water running, mindful of temperature, etc.). The Guardian does make a case that water must be very hot or else bacteria persists. They provide a statistic but have no source. I searched around and this statistic popped up on many other sites, but not one linked a source so I have no idea where it came from.

Note: CO2e is a carbon dioxide equivalent which converts the effects of other greenhouse gases like methane into the equivalent amount of CO2.

PVC

Dishwashers are made using several types of materials, the main component being a type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Plastics are made from oil, a non-renewable resource with harmful extraction processes.

Due to the chlorine used to create PVC, PVC releases harmful chemicals called dioxins into the air during production and incineration at end of life. Dioxins disrupt biological processes (hormones, development, immune and endocrine systems) and are carcinogens.

There have been large reductions in dioxin emissions over the past few decades due to stricter standards in developed countries, but dioxins are still a large problem in other countries like China. A 2007 study in China showed people who lived near e-waste recycling facilities had much higher concentrations of dioxins in their bodies than other people.

Dioxins released into the environment are long-lasting and can enter the food chain. Since humans are at the top of the chain, they consume higher concentrations of dioxins.

PVC itself is a highly durable material that does not easily break down in the environment. Like all plastic, it will degrade over centuries into smaller and smaller pieces, but it will never truly return to organic components.

Incinerating PVC also releases hydrochloric acid, lead, and cadmium. Lead and cadmium are found in the ash after burning, which gets sent to landfill and could potentially leak into groundwater.

Other Considerations

How important is hot water? Some websites will say hot water (such as that of a dishwasher) is the only way to properly clean plates. In fact, The Guardian’s article on the CO2 emissions of handwashing and using a dishwasher actually says “(but the plates aren’t clean)” if you use cold water to wash.

Most people can only tolerate 110°F for short periods of time, and the EPA recommends boiling water for 1 to 3 minutes to effectively purify water of bacteria. Although hot water helps activate soap/detergent to remove stuck on food, oils, and grease that can harbor bacteria, the temperature of water used either by the dishwasher or the sink itself does not make much of a difference in killing bacteria.

There’s also the practicality of needing an hour-or-more-long, superhot cycle to wash a dish. Most dishes, in my opinion, are not filthily dirty with bacteria and grime that they would require the dishwasher’s intensity (you did literally just eat off the thing, didn’t you?). A quick rinse to wash away some crumbs or scrubbing and soaping away food bits with warm water seems like a much better alternative than leaving the dish to wait around until you fill up the dishwasher and run a cycle.

The Bonn University study also specifically looks at how a group of random people do dishes instead of people who are trying to lower their environmental impacts. For the sake of showing in the average case what method is better, that’s fine. But could conscious consumers use less water and energy than a dishwasher?

Dishwashing v. Handwashing Experiment

It’s experiment time! Many articles and studies say people usually use way more water than a dishwasher does. They make it sound hard to come even close. So I wanted to see if I could wash a dishwasher’s worth of dishes by hand using less water than the dishwasher would. If I failed, I wanted to measure by how much. I also wanted to document my washing process to share how I limit my water usage. As a side note, I do not have a dishwasher in my apartment so I must wash all dishes by hand no matter the outcome of this experiment.

Thanks to AP Chemistry in high school, I still mostly remember how to fully write up an experiment. Enjoy the nerdiness!

Purpose

To find out how many dishes you can wash with less water than a dishwasher uses.

Hypothesis

If handwashing a set of dishes comparable to what a dishwasher is said to hold uses less than 6 gallons of water, then it is better than dishwashing.

Materials

  • Scrub brush
  • Dish soap
  • Pot for holding water (and to wash, as shown below)
  • Dirty dishes
    • 1 pot (4 qt)
    • 1 large plate
    • 4 small plates
    • 1 short glass
    • 1 tall glass
    • 2 metal straws
    • 1 bread pan (9×5)
    • 4 bowls
    • 1 ice cream bowl
    • 1 glass bowl
    • 4 small containers (1.25 c)
    • 1 tiny container (0.5 c)
    • 1 sandwich container (3 c)
    • 3 big containers (5 c)
    • 1 tiny bowl
    • 1 small lid
    • 4 big lids
    • 1 spatula
    • 1 paring knife
    • 7 butter knives
    • 13 spoons
    • 5 small forks
    • 4 single serve yogurt cups
    • 1 takeout container with lid (around 4 c)
    • 1 big yogurt container (32 oz)

Procedure

  • Place pot under faucet
  • Quickly wet any dry dishes allowing used water to be captured in pot
  • Soap all the dishes with soap using the scrub brush
  • Rinse dishes under faucet and let all water drain into pot
  • Record how many times the pot fills with water before all dishes have been washed
  • Calculate total amount of water used
  • Compare to a dishwasher (scale to a similar number of dishes)

Results

Total Water Usage

I filled up the big pot approximately 2.5 times, but I also need to add on additional water for all the water that the dishes were soaking in while sitting in the sink waiting for me to wash them. This would probably be another 1.5 gallons (pot-fulls), leaving me at 4 gallons.

Scaled water usage: I washed over the 54 individual pieces the EPA says a dishwasher holds. I washed a bunch of random stuff like recyclables and containers, but I did 25 pieces of silverware, 6 bowls, 5 plates, 2 glasses, and a serving utensil. I believe all the other stuff I washed definitely counts as at least the missing 2 bowls, 3 plates, 6 glasses, and 5 serving utensils.

So in total, I used around 4 gallons. This is an assumption though since I couldn’t/didn’t know how to measure the water used to rinse and soak the dishes each time we put more in the sink prior to washing. Despite this, it’s assuredly less than the 6 gallons an average dishwasher uses.

Water Temperature

I couldn’t hold a constant temperature because I turn the water off and on repeatedly. It ranged from cool to hot, but I tried to avoid really hot as much as possible.

Soap Usage

I don’t know how I would have measured soap usage since I don’t have a kitchen scale, but I believe I am more of a heavy soap user.

Total Time

The total time I spent washing dishes was about 1 hour.

Conclusion – Who’s The Real Winner?

From water use to energy use to carbon emissions, I think it’s safe to say I beat the dishwasher. From the standpoint of convenience, the dishwasher wins. If you are very concerned about hygiene, the dishwasher may get your dishes cleaner.

If you’re stuck doing the dishes (and we all have to handwash some things like pots and recyclables), try either my method of soaping then rinsing by turning the faucet on and off with each dish, or filling up separate soapy water and rinsing water bins/sides of the sink to minimize water use. I personally don’t think the hot water makes much of a difference, but to each their own.

If you have a dishwasher and want to use it, go right ahead, especially if you don’t want to be constantly thinking about saving water and energy while still getting the dishes as clean as they can be. If you have a shorter or eco cycle, use that over the more intensive washes.

Although I believe I’ve found the winner in the dishwashing v. handwashing debate, make the best choice that works in your situation. What works for me may not work for you, and that’s ok!

Who do you think the winner is? Is there anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

Dishwashing v. Handwashing A load of newly cleaned dishes sitting in an open dishwasher
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7 Zero Waste Mistakes Beginners Make red wrong way sign indicating you have made a mistake

7 Zero Waste Mistakes Beginners Make

Introduction

If you are just starting out, what do you do? You go Google-crazy and look up as many tips, tricks, and swaps as you can. That’s what I did anyway. But what about looking up zero waste mistakes?

Some people say the best way to learn to do something is to learn what not to do. By familiarizing yourself with these top zero waste mistakes, you can learn from them without dealing with the setbacks or consequences that come with making them yourself.

Over the past two years, I have seen a lot of people getting sucked into the same handful of mistakes. I’ve made some of them myself and now want to help others not make them in the first place. Below is a list of 7 mistakes beginner zero wasters making on a pretty regular basis.

1. Setting Unrealistic Goals

Setting goals is one of the first things you do when going after something new, which is why setting unrealistic goals and being discouraged when you inevitably miss them is first on my list of zero waste mistakes.

My Experience

When I find something that interests me, I often dive in head first. I want to go all in, right away. I really wanted to be a “trash jar” kind of zero waster. So I set goals to start buying all zero waste foods in bulk and at farmers markets, growing my own food, and making my own products all within a short period of time.

But even now, I am not doing those things.

Why? Because there weren’t realistic (yet).

I am still working toward lowering my trash. I perform trash audits every now and again (sign up for my email list to get a free trash audit worksheet!), but I certainly couldn’t fit my trash in a little mason jar. This is mostly due to food waste and food packaging.

I don’t buy in bulk because my budget can’t justify spending 2-3 times as much on bulk items like rice and beans. For example, we can get rice for under a dollar a pound in a plastic bag, but bulk rice that I’ve seen has always been somewhere between $1.50 and $4.00. Instead we try to buy the biggest bags we can find as this is less total packaging than multiple smaller bags.

An apartment with very little natural light isn’t conducive for growing plants. And I’m still trying to use up all the body washes and lotions I’ve had stockpiled (and kept receiving as gifts).

But I set those goals anyway and often got down on myself for not achieving them. It was not realistic for me spend so much money on groceries. It isn’t realistic to go plastic free just yet.

Solution

I still have these goals, but their deadline has been changed to “eventually”. Instead, I focus on the changes I can make now, even if they are smaller in comparison.

I suggest taking it a lot slower and start with smaller accomplishments. Change takes time, and you need a strategy. Instead of saying “I will go plastic free by three months from now”, try “I will reduce my plastic by doing X, Y, and Z during the next three months.” In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a series about How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste filled with advice and tips for beginners. Stay tuned!

2. Throwing Out Useful Items

There are countless “Zero Waste Swap” lists online, and with how aesthetically pleasing a lot of them look, it is easy to be tempted into buying them. But what about the three bottles of shampoo under the sink, that brand new roll of paper towels, and your set of Tupperware? Throwing them out is the antithesis of living low waste.

By all means, switch to low waste options, but use up what you have first. Do NOT throw them out just because there’s a sustainable alternative on the market. The most sustainable option is the one you have.

I understand the draw of new items, and I feel the annoyance and guilt of waiting. I, too, am still trying to work through my long list of disposables, including a few disposable razors, a bunch of freebie boxes of floss from the dentist, and cleaning products. Until then, I can’t justify buying replacements, even sustainable ones.

It is annoying to wait. I feel like I have been waiting since I started my journey. But I keep reminding myself it is better to use these items up instead of getting rid of them right away just because I can.

And when those items do reach the end of their lives, recycle as much as you can. When transitioning away from plastic for health reasons, repurpose containers to organize non-food items and dry goods, or donate them to someone who will use them (classrooms, thrift stores, etc.).

3. Becoming A Sustainable Shopaholic

There are posts and videos about things zero wasters regret buying that became popular a while back. As I have said, it can be so tempting to buy up all the cute sustainable swaps, but you have to think before you buy.

Minimalism and sustainable living go hand in hand. You should not go out and buy an item if you already have something that serves that purpose. I repeat: The most sustainable option is the one you have.

Try looking for items that serve multiple purposes. For example, mason jars can be used when purchasing bulk foods from certain stores, storing all types of foods, freezing and heating up foods, organizing toiletry items, as a drinking glass or a bowl… the list goes on.

If you are up for a challenge, pare down your wardrobe into a small capsule wardrobe and donate the rest or live by the “One In, One Out” rule where a purchase means getting rid of another item.

Check out my 50 (FREE!) Little Changes To Live Sustainably post for cost-free ways to be zero waste.

Did you do your research on the items you’re buying? What are the values and practices of that company? Could you have found them secondhand? Will you really use this item often enough to miss it if you don’t have it (e.g. Keep Cup if you don’t drink much coffee or metal straws if you never used plastic straws to begin with)?

In summary, be mindful of your purchases and vote with your wallet.

4. Comparing Yourself To Someone Else

I have fallen victim to this mistake time and time again, and I think it’s one of the biggest zero waste mistakes. I’m not as good as “Blank” is so why should I even bother? Answer: Because some day you might be.

Everyone started somewhere, and no one is in the same exact situation.

If you are on page 1, how can you compare yourself to someone on page 100? There is a reason many call this a “journey” toward sustainability. Lowering your impact is a marathon, not a sprint.

Some people are further ahead solely because they got a head start. They are leaders and experts for a reason. They have had so much time to make some of these zero waste mistakes (or others), learn from them, and change their lifestyle before you even thought about joining the movement. It doesn’t make them inherently “better” than you are. Change takes time, especially large lifestyle changes like this one and especially after we’ve spent years or decades living with a completely different mindset.

In addition to when we start our journeys, everyone lives in a different situation whether that means where we live, how much money we have, who we live with, or what options are available to us. Put simply: it’s apples and oranges.

By comparing yourself to others instead of your past self, you risk lowering your self-esteem and motivation to keep pushing forward toward a better life. Focus on the changes you personally make and how you are better than you were last week, last month, and last year.

5. Thinking You Can’t Call Yourself “Zero Waste”

I see this over and over and over online. “I’m not zero waste, but…” Zero waste is not an exclusive club for those who fit trash in a jar. I honestly dislike the term “zero waste”, mainly for this vibe of exclusivity and perfection it gives to newcomers. Zero waste is a utopic goal, not a literal practice, but so many people take it as such and think it is incorrect or lying to refer to themselves as zero waste.

By excluding yourself from zero waste because you aren’t zero waste enough will lower your motivation and self-esteem. Zero wasters are just people who are trying to reduce their waste, not people who literally create zero waste (which is totally impossible by the way).

Call yourself whatever you want. I personally love Immy Lucas’s Low Impact Movement, which was started for this very reason. We can’t be perfect trashless beings. We still live in modern society where disposables are a fact of life. Not all of us have access to zero waste stores. She created this movement to be welcoming and inclusive and to celebrate whatever changes you can make in your own life, no matter how small or how few.

6. Thinking Only About Your Personal Trash

I see this a lot too. It’s a major reason why trash jars are pointless. A lot of people take lowering their own personal waste too seriously and can forget about the bigger picture of economy. You must also consider the upstream waste created to bring a product to market.

How were your package free groceries grown? Did they cut down forests for that land? Were lots of pesticides used? What about your clothing? The fashion industry wastes around 15% of its materials. Where did the fibers come from? How are workers being paid? How far did these items and their raw materials need to travel?

Bulk bins are NOT “zero” waste. And not every bulk bin is created equal. Food items will be shipped to the store in very large bags and then transferred into the bins. Some places like large grocery stores may get items in big plastic bags and just throw the bags away in the dumpster. A small zero waste shop may get paper bags and compost or recycle them. So it really all depends.

This week I’ll also be posting 7 Zero Waste Tips That Don’t Help The Environment. Some people take produce that doesn’t have a sticker or I’ve even heard of people peeling off the stickers and putting them on another piece of fruit so theirs was “zero waste”. That stops the waste from entering your personal home, but the waste still exists.

You have to look at the larger picture of production practices and which choices create the least total waste, not just the lightest bag of trash in your kitchen.

7. Giving Up

Last on my list of zero waste mistakes beginners make is full-on throwing in the towel, giving up, and returning to the way you lived before.

Once you open your eyes to our planet’s situation, you find so many reasons to feel like working toward sustainability in your life is hopeless and worthless. Every news cycle seems to contain stories on climate change, pollution, and mass extinction. Nearly 70% of all waste is created by just 100 companies. The IPCC report that came out in 2018 says we have just 12 years before we cause irreversible and devastating change to our planet. And what about Mistake #4, feeling like you could never be as good as someone else?

My Experience

Let me tell you a story: I fell victim to this as well. I dove in to zero waste and was so excited to make all of these major lifestyle changes. When I found myself running into obstacle after obstacle and really stagnating in terms of progress, I felt like it was worthless to keep trying.

I kept doing what I was currently doing, but I made little to no effort to do anything beyond that and eventually started to regress into wastefulness. I stepped over litter on the sidewalk, bought packaged snack after packaged snack, and stopped doing any research or following the experts I look up to.

Solution

Then I realized that we all must try our hardest. Because we only have a few years to bring about big change, because animals and forests are dying every day, because we all deserve clean air and clean water, and because we can all make a difference, individually and together.

The planet needs every one of us to speak for her and protect her in whatever ways we can. Because it does matter.

When you run into obstacles, try something else. Maybe you have no access to bulk, but you can talk to your government, reduce energy use at home, vote with your wallet, or pick up litter on the side of the road.

Most importantly, spread the word as far as you can reach and do not give up.

Conclusion

As someone new to zero waste and sustainable living, it can all sound overwhelming. So many changes, so little time. But what all these mistakes boil down to is this: Think about your choices on a larger scale, celebrate all of your progress even if it’s slow, and do the best you can.

Seasoned veterans, what are some other zero waste mistakes you have made on your journey? Newbies, what are you struggling with?

7 Zero Waste Mistakes Beginners Make red wrong way sign indicating you have made a mistake
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Living With Non-Zero Waste People green garbage can filled with single use plastic trash

Living With Non-Zero Waste People

Introduction

Starting your low waste journey is exciting, but what happens if those around you disagree and push back on your new ideas? What if you still live with your parents/family members and have little control over many decisions? What if your roommates just don’t understand why you should bother recycling?

It’s okay to be the “green sheep”.

In this post, we’re going to discuss how to stay motivated living with others while dealing with judgement and the proper ways to encourage others to make more sustainable choices in their lives.

My Story

During College

When I started lowering my waste and living more sustainably, I was living alone at college. It was easier for me to start making changes in my life because no one was around to discourage me. However, when I moved back home and later moved in with my now-husband, things got much more difficult. And I still consider my parents and husband to be very open-minded about zero waste and know they have made changes because of me or of their own will.

In college, I switched to a nearly 100% vegan diet. When I moved back home, that wasn’t an option. My mom has pushed back on me becoming vegan for years and years. My husband also disagrees with me going vegan mostly because he enjoys sharing meals rather than both of us making our own each night.

After College

At college, I cut out granola bars. But when I came back home, I fell back into my old habits of relying on single-serve snack foods. I would bring two or three granola bars or other snacks to work, along with a yogurt or applesauce. It took me about a year to kick that habit again, but I still fall victim to snack foods from time to time.

My husband has no desire to be as zero waste as I would like to be. He is a bargain-hunter and usually does not like to buy things that have a cheaper alternative even if the more expensive item is better (local, package-free, organic, etc.). So we still buy a lot of packaged foods. We have a few bulk places somewhat nearby, but the costs are just too high for us. We buy at warehouse stores to get the large “bulk” options whenever possible, but to me, these sometimes are just more waste than buying multiple of an item because it’s just two or three normal items plastic-wrapped together.

That said, my husband has transitioned to a lower-meat diet (poultry only) and often will make vegan meals with me from one of our secondhand cookbooks. He is all for bar soap,  wants to get a bidet when we buy our own home, and wants to give low waste gifts for holidays. He has truly embraced thrift shopping and worked with me on our lower waste wedding. But still there are times when I get discouraged that he doesn’t agree.

The Hard Truth

The fact of the matter is you can’t change everyone’s mind about everything. It’s a hard thing to accept, but it is necessary for the happiness of both parties.

People may have many reasons for pushing back on change. Our world has become one of convenience. For example, it’s easier to go buy a coffee in a plastic cup on your way to work than it is make one yourself at home. It’s easier to take the plastic shopping bags from the store than it is to remember your reusable bags. Some people don’t want to give that up.

Maybe they just aren’t aware of the consequences of their actions. Maybe their vision of trash stops at the edge of the driveway where the garbage truck picks it up each week. Maybe they don’t know about unethical human rights violations with regards to the fast fashion industry.

They could also just be set in their ways. “We’ve always done it this way. I’m not changing now.” Or they could be bargain-hunters and refuse to pay more for better products when there’s a cheaper version on the next shelf. Whatever it is, they have their reasons, but there are many ways you can open a dialogue and compromise with them.

Compromise

Start simple and suggest the easiest swaps first. Don’t go all in pushing for composting when you haven’t even tackled proper recycling practices yet. Check out my post on 50 (Free!) Little Changes to get started. They cost no money (in fact, many save money), and most are very easy to adopt.

You can also go the “buy it once” route. Ask them to opt for energy-efficient appliances and switch to a renewable energy provider. Suggest they buy a glass product over a plastic one of similar price. Put a stop to junk mail using optoutprescreen.com and dmachoice.org. This way there is no upkeep and extra work involved to living more sustainably.

If they don’t want to go and buy their own products, offer to let them borrow yours. Say they are welcome to use your reusable containers or bags. Let them clean up using your DIY natural cleaners. Encourage them to put food scraps in your compost bin.

You can also offer to do the “dirty work” involved. All they need to do is put the food scraps in the bin; you’ll take the compost from there. You will launder the reusable cleaning rags and kitchen towels that replaced the paper towels. You will handle growing some veggies in the garden, and they can cook with them.

But if you’re still making no progress, sometimes it’s better to just move on.

Focus On You And Bigger Issues

Sometimes I need to have a talk with myself and remember that I am separate from my husband. His trash is not my trash. I can make swaps that he doesn’t (such as recently going No Poo). It’s okay. Just focus on what you can personally change.

While this includes doing more to lower your own footprint, you can also turn to activism. Join an environmental group, write to companies explaining your disagreement with their practices and suggesting changes, and vote in every election. One voice may not seem like much, but the aggregation of everyone’s single voice can cause big change.

In sum, don’t let others get you down. Reach out to the zero waste community in your area or online. We’ve all been there before. Advice and support are waiting for you.

Lead By Example

The best way to encourage others is to lead by example instead of being all preachy that you have seen the light. No one likes to feel lectured to and told they are wrong. No one likes a know-it-all. So instead of speaking from a “You’re causing more X to happen so stop and be more like me” point of view, speak from a “I do this thing because X is happening and it’s so easy to do” point of view.

You can also do small things like packing an extra fork, bag, or container for them to use when you go out together. It shows you care and that it took very little effort to bring along. Don’t force things on them; just offer.

Respect is a mutual concept. If it’s still a hard no, you just have to accept it. Go on living your life as a silent example for them anyway, but accept they may never come around to zero waste.

Resources

Educating others is a great way to encourage sustainable living. You can hop over to my Start Here section to find posts on getting started with reducing your impact on the planet and share those with others.

You can also use science and facts to explain the issues our planet is facing. Statistics, reports, and news articles are useful tools, but make sure to look for ones written in plain English (or whatever language you speak) so they aren’t just a wall of science-y text. You can also suggest they read some books on zero waste living and environmental problems. Check out my List of Must-Read Books on Sustainability.

Better yet, skip the reading altogether and watch a documentary together. There are docs on everything from food waste to wildlife to fashion. Read some quick blurbs about a handful of awesome documentaries on my List of Must Watch Eco-Documentaries.

Finally, you yourself can also be a resource for others. Answer their questions. If you don’t know an answer, look it up and get back to them. Keep sharing information and leading by example, and they may start picking up on some of your habits.

Conclusion

How have you dealt with living with non-zero waste people? What tactics have you used to encourage others to act more responsibly? How do you stay motivated? Let us know in the comments!

Living With Non-Zero Waste People green garbage can filled with single use plastic trash
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List Of Must Read Books On Sustainability environmentalist on a bench reading a book on the social impacts of climate change

List of Must Read Books on Sustainability

This post contains affiliate links. I will receive a commission if you make a purchase using these links, at no additional cost to you. Read more on my Disclaimer page.

Introduction

These are a few of the books on sustainability I read when starting my journey to a more sustainable lifestyle. Many focus on reducing our waste, especially reducing our dependency on plastics and other single-use items. I will add to this list as I find new great reads. Be sure to check your local library or secondhand shop before purchasing these books new!

1. Plastic Free – How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry

My mom bought me “Plastic Free” as a Christmas present when I first started learning about zero waste. While recovering from surgery, Beth Terry stumbled across a photo of a dead albatross with a stomach filled with plastic.

That image inspired her to begin a journey of reducing her own waste and educating and encouraging others to do the same. “Plastic Free” is filled with personal stories, interviews with other environmentalists, and resources to help you kick the plastic habit.

2. Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson

Many regard Bea Johnson as the founder of the zero waste movement. Her family of four (plus a dog) only create a small mason jar full of trash per year. She was once like most of us: big American house, closets filled with clothes, and thought bigger was better.

After downsizing, she realized how living a minimalist lifestyle meant not only a more relaxed and enjoyable life with her family but also saved lots of money. In her book, she walks you through each space in the home and provides tip lists, recipes, and resources to help reduce waste and simplify your life.

3. Garbology by Edward Humes

“Garbology” looks at our “love affair” with trash. The average American generates 102 tons of trash in their lifetime, but where does all that trash go? Edward Humes visits landfills and interviews people at various stages of the waste stream to find out.

He also looks at solutions to our love affair and even interviews Bea Johnson. The book covers topics like the history of waste management, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and plastic bag bans to educate readers on how their waste never truly goes away.

4. Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff by Fred Pearce

“Confessions of an Eco-Sinner” is an investigative book spurred by Pearce’s desire to know where all of his belongings came from. From his wedding ring to his clothing and food, Pearce travels around the world to discover the origins of many everyday items and materials. In doing so, he learns the problems both workers and the environment face to produce all that stuff.

Conclusion

What books have you read on sustainability, zero waste, or the environment? Leave a comment below! I’d love to read something new!

List Of Must Read Books On Sustainability environmentalist on a bench reading a book on the social impacts of climate change
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How to Have A Sustainable Wedding red and white brooch bouquet covered in gold brooches of bows, flowers, and leaves

How To Plan A Sustainable Wedding

This post contains affiliate links. I will receive a commission if you make a purchase using these links, at no additional cost to you. Read more on my Disclaimer page.

Introduction

So a couple months ago, I got married to my wonderful husband! Luckily this is after I started being more conscious about my decisions, so we balanced the environmental impact of our wedding with our budget, desires, and other constraints like family to plan a sustainable wedding.

We went a fairly non-traditional route with our wedding. We decided to have a small ceremony on a Friday night at a restaurant closer to where we live with close family and friends and then a reception the next evening with the rest of our guests at a VFW closer to the majority of my husband’s family.

We had a very casual atmosphere, no wedding party, and were budget-conscious. Not having a wedding party meant our friends didn’t need to spring for new outfits and deal with the hassles of being a bridesmaid or groomsman. By being budget-conscious, this meant we didn’t always choose the most sustainable option, but we did what we could.

Guest List

Besides my parents, my entire family lives 1000+ miles away so those who came had to travel by plane. Only a portion of my family did come though, so there were less travel miles than originally expected. Be sure to account for travel emissions when writing up your sustainable wedding guest list.

We tried to keep our guest list small, but my husband has a large extended family. We ended up with about 90 people (we had a handful of last minute cancellations so I don’t remember exactly what the number ended up being).

Attire And Accessories

Him

Now because my husband is not as strict as me, he bought almost everything he wore new. He bought a regular black suit which he will use for years to come because he previously only had a grey one. He also never owed a true pair of dress shoes. Lastly, he bought his ring new online.

I did get to pick out his tie secondhand and the little orange flower brooch he wore in place of a boutonniere.

Her

Sustainable Wedding Bride with brooch bouqet and yellow pashmina

I either already owed everything I wore or bought it secondhand. I bought my dress from a consignment shop, and my wedding band was purchased pre-owned from Etsy. My mom found a tiara at a garage sale, and I wore a necklace and shoes I already owned. I also bought a yellow pashmina for taking photos outside since autumn breezes are very cold!

I plan on getting my dress tailored from floor-length to knee-length so I can easily wear it again on less formal occasions.

Decor

I tried to get as much of our décor secondhand as I could. If I planned earlier, I could have ordered things online from websites like Wedding Recycle and Bravo Bride. These websites are great resources for sustainable wedding planners. Unfortunately I bought a bit more new and disposable than I would have wanted.

Table Centerpieces

Our centerpieces consisted of:

  • A secondhand vase filled with autumnal fake flowers (some secondhand, but most new because thrift stores were lacking in the fake flower department)
  • A secondhand mason jar tied at the neck with a ribbon (new) filled with a floating candle (new)
  • A gourd (new and these came as a set of 12 in plastic netting)
  • Copper-colored wire that held a DIYed table number (all new)

I was surprised and thankful when our guests took home 8 of the 11 vases with flowers. We brought the mason jars back to the thrift shop (none had lids to begin with so they aren’t too useful for me). The ribbon and candles were waste. I thought the gourds would last as decorations, but they went bad and I threw them out.

Other Reception Decor

Sustainable Wedding Gift Table with card box, flowers, seating chart, and jenga guest book

On our gift table we had a basket of thrifted fake flowers, two secondhand glass bowl vases (like tiny fish bowls) with floating candles, a card box DIYed by my mom, and our guest “book” Jenga with markers.

Like the mason jars, we brought the basket and vases back to the thrift store, and my husband suggested keeping the card box so his brothers could use it whenever they get married if they wanted.

I felt having a traditional guest book was pointless and a huge waste of paper because how often are you going to read it? I scoured Amazon trying to find something better, and after probably literal hours found this Jenga set to act as my sustainable wedding guest book.

It was a larger than normal set, had no branding on the pieces, and came with a tent card to explain what to do. Now everyone’s messages have become a part of our growing game collection.

Sustainable Wedding Game Table with chess, Scrabble, and other fun board games

We also decided to have a game table with eight or so thrifted board games in case people didn’t feel like dancing. We made sure each game had all the pieces, and I created a little sign for the table propped up in a borrowed picture frame.

Paper Items

We did mail paper invitations because emails would not be possible for our guest list. We did, however, have people RSVP online instead of mailing us more paper back. The online RSVP still caused a few issues for some guests though.

The only other paper used was table numbers, a seating list, and a few signs for the buffet items, our game table, and our gift table. We did not have individual place cards or ceremony programs so as to cut down on waste.

Bouquet

If you couldn’t tell by the fake flowers in the centerpieces, I don’t like fresh flowers. Like at all. They also cost a ton. I can’t remember the exact price, but when my parents-in-law got remarried last year, 4 boutonnieres, 3 single roses, and a tiny bouquet cost like $100 or something. That’s insane.

So for my bouquet, I went a different route.

I present to you the wonderful world of brooches!

Sustainable Wedding Brooch Bouquet with fall-themed brooches

I created my bouquet using 50 or so brooches. All of them were already owned (passed down from my mom and grandma) or bought secondhand either online or at the Brimfield Antique Show. I also gave my parents and parents-in-law brooches to wear: silver flowers for moms and gold maple leaves for dads.

I bought a floral foam sphere and cone to create my bouquet. I just didn’t know what I could use in place of the foam so I relented and bought it. I cut the sphere to flatten it so I could glue it to the cone.

Then I wrapped secondhand fabric around everything (took many many tries). I finally tied a white ribbon around the bouquet which I took from my mom’s sewing basket.

I used floral wire my mom also had gathering dust in her sewing basket to wrap around each brooch to create the “stem” to stick into the foam. While not 100% secure, the brooches were held tightly enough to last both nights.

Although I could keep it as is, I think I’ll end up deconstructing the bouquet so the brooches are all wearable again. Too bad the rest goes to waste though.

Vendors

We initially weren’t planning on having any vendors besides a Justice of the Peace, or at least I wasn’t. In the end, however, we did also have a photographer and a DJ.

Our Justice of the Peace lived in the town where we had our ceremony so she barely needed to travel.  I chose her partially for this reason.

I dislike having my photo taken, and I usually prefer to enjoy a moment rather than photograph it. How many times do people go through their wedding albums anyway? To me, photos taken by friends and family would have sufficed. But my husband and family wanted a professional.

We decided to only have a photographer for the ceremony, and luckily we found someone who did by the hour rather than some whole day package. She only needed to come to one evening so that cut down on travel emissions.

After going to my cousin’s wedding earlier in the year, we realized how important a DJ was for keeping things moving. We ended up hiring a friend of my husband’s brother, and he did a great job being flexible with us.

Food

Because we had two events, we had two dinners to plan. The restaurant gave us a list of options which made it very easy, and our reception “caterer” was the local grocery store. Again, this was a huge savings in travel miles since the store was five minutes down the road.

Dinner and Dessert

I am a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and my husband is a pollo-vegetarian (poultry only, no seafood or red meat). Because of this, we avoided red meat in our food choices. You can plan a more sustainable wedding by reducing the amount of animal products at your dinner.

For our ceremony dinner, we choose their vegetarian pasta, chicken parmesan, and we did select beef lasagna although I don’t even know if anyone chose it. They gave everyone a colored tab so servers knew which dish you wanted, and I don’t recall seeing any pink slips.

For our reception dinner, we had a large variety of foods in a buffet. Chicken and turkey, eggplant parmesan, pasta primavera (delicious!), mashed potatoes, broccoli, mixed veggies, and mac’n’cheese for the kids.

We bought rolls and a small tub of butter for everyone at the start of the buffet and salt and pepper grinders to set at the end. This way we only needed a single tub of butter and a single seasoning set instead of eleven of everything at the tables themselves.

We had a decent amount of food at the end of the night, but family, friends, and we took it home for leftovers. My brother-in-law even took a big tray of salad to feed to his and his girlfriend’s guinea pigs!

Our dessert table was also a little non-traditional. We bought a simple cake, a couple pies, and a couple cheesecakes from the wholesale club. We also ordered a cookie and brownie tray from the grocery store. Some people (me) prefer other desserts so I wanted to make sure we covered the bases.

Tableware and Linens

We rented all of our dishes and linens because our original idea of thrifting it all had no end plan. What were we going to do with 100 plates and forks and knives and cups? Consider renting versus buying when planning a sustainable wedding.

Despite so many “just buy disposable” comments from family, I stuck to my guns and made sure there weren’t going to be huge bags of trashed single use plastics at the end of the night. In spite of my efforts, the rented items were wrapped in plastic, but this was less waste than disposable dishware and table cloths would have been.

Gifts And Favors

My husband and I are not big on gifts. We don’t really get each other birthday or Christmas gifts (we lasted like two years before giving that up). If we do, it’s an experience like dinner or a mini-vacation someplace. So we didn’t exchange gifts, and we also didn’t give our parents gifts beyond the brooches. The most sustainable wedding gifts are no gifts at all (haha)!

We did not create a registry because we already own everything we could need. We lived separately in college and have been living together for over a year now. We own all the kitchen gadgets and bath towels we need. Instead, we put up a “house fund” on our wedding website, but all but one person just gave us a monetary gift in a card anyway.

Neither my husband nor I wanted a bachelor/bachelorette party. But other people insisted. He had a very fun night out with a group of friends, and I ended up having a lunch with some family and friends. I made sure I brought my own container to the restaurant to take home my leftovers.

I had initially not planned on party favors because of all the waste and how pointless they usually are, but I got pressured. I ended up finding custom mint tins and actually really liked them.

But it ended up being a bit of a zero waste fail. It never crossed my mind the mints would come in a little plastic bag inside each tin (that’s not how it is in the pictures!). I minimized the waste and the mints were a nice consumable gift.

Conclusion – What I Would Have Changed

In an ideal world, I would have thrown a more sustainable wedding. I would’ve had those cute seed paper invitations, completely secondhand décor, and a farm to table organic caterer. I also wish those mint tins were like Altoids and didn’t have plastic bags inside.

All in all, I like how our wedding turned out, even if it was hectic because we had no hired help during the reception. The tables were as pretty as I pictured, the food was delicious, and our DJ played great songs. Even if it wasn’t as green as I dreamed, I did my best.

Are any of you planning a sustainable wedding right now? How are you incorporating a low waste lifestyle into your big day?

How to Have A Sustainable Wedding red and white brooch bouquet covered in gold brooches of bows, flowers, and leaves
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10 Sustainable Travel Essentials purple suitcase with reusable cutlery, water bottle, disposable razor, chico bag and toiletry bottles

10 Sustainable Travel Essentials

This post contains affiliate links. I will receive a commission if you make a purchase using these links, at no additional cost to you. Read more on my Disclaimer page.

Introduction

I felt inspired to write this post on sustainable travel essentials after a trip to attend my cousin’s wedding. One word: disposables.

Both hotels we stayed used disposables for their breakfast-ware. The plates were styrofoam (of all materials!), and the cups were either styrofoam, plastic, or the paper-lined-with-plastic and plastic lids for hot beverages. The utensils were plastic. I did not bring my little fork and spoon because I didn’t think they were allowed through airport security because they are metal. (Turns out: you can!)

Luckily at the first hotel, I snooped and found reusable plates and bowls under the counter. Since our hotel room had a kitchen, I ran upstairs and grabbed some spoons and forks so we could avoid the plastic. By then, we had already grabbed drinks. I opted for the plastic cup since it could be recycled, but my husband opted for the paper-lined-with-plastic because it wasn’t fully plastic. I saved my cup and recycled it later.

At the second hotel, we were out of luck. I chose to grab muffins in a napkin, a banana, and a yogurt. My husband made a waffle which we shared on the styrofoam plate. We also shared a single spoon for our yogurts and a single styrofoam cup for juice. Can I just say how gross it is to drink out of styrofoam? It feels so weird against my mouth/teeth. Afterward, I took the yogurt containers, washed them, and recycled them.

But this trip left us both frustrated.

So I decided to create a packing list to help avoid waste while on vacation. After all, it’s vacation; you should be relaxing not stressing over which cup material is best.

Note: these tips are based on TSA guidelines so your country may have different rules.

1. Reusable water bottle and/or coffee cup

First on my list of sustainable travel essentials are water bottles and coffee cups. Our Nalgene water bottles come everywhere with us. We even have a small 14 oz one that’s easier to bring along. As long as they are empty, you can bring them through airport security. You can then refuse your complimentary in-flight drink and avoid the napkin and cup that comes with it.

When at your destination, you won’t need to purchase drinks like bottled water. You can find water fountains around to fill up your water bottle, and sinks work just as well.  In hindsight, we should have not gotten juice when we had no reusable cups, but we can’t change the past.

You can also pack your reusable coffee tumbler to hold hot beverages. You can ask coffee shops to make your ordered drink directly in your cup. They may even give you a small discount for doing so!

2. Snacks

Avoid the freebie airline snacks or expensive convenient store snacks by bringing your own. You can bring food through airport security. “Gel-like” foods like peanut butter and hummus must be treated as a liquid (3 oz or less in the 1 quart baggie). Bring along granola, fresh fruit and veggies, chips, or whatever you like to munch on in a jar, reusable bag (we use (Re)zip bags that work great), or other reusable container.

3. Plate/Container

Don’t run into the breakfast problems we had. Bring your own plate and/or container. I don’t mean your ceramic plate from home though. There are lots of travel plate options like this 2-pack thanks to the campers and hikers out there so you can find something simple and durable to bring along. For storage containers, check out this snack container with divider and 2-tier tiffin.

4. Utensils

Despite what I thought, it appears you can bring metal eating utensils through security. Of course, you can bring bamboo utensils through security as well, but I do not have any. Be sure to keep them stored together so you don’t lose them along the way. Some utensil kits come with their own holder/wrap, but you can easily sew your own, use a rubber band around a reusable napkin, or keep them stored in a food container or bag.

5. Napkins

Speaking of reusable napkins… Keeping a reusable napkin has multiple benefits. First it replaces paper napkins. Second you can use it as a towel or wash rag if there is an unexpected spill or to dry something/yourself off quickly. And third you can use it to hold and wrap foods to avoid disposable packaging or plates. Check out this colorful set!

6. Bags

If you are going to do any shopping on you trip, don’t forget to pack your reusable shopping bags. I love the small collapsible ChicoBags that can fit in the palm of your hand because they are especially good for saving space in your luggage. If you don’t bring your own bags, try to go without when making purchases.

7. Liquid Storage

There are many TSA-approved reusable quart-size storage bags for toiletries on the market. These will always be plastic to contain spills and be see-through for TSA. You can also just keep using the same plastic Ziploc bag for years and years like I have.

8. Personal Care

Now that you have liquid storage taken care of, let’s fill up that bag. Bringing your own personal care items such as soap, shampoo, and toothpaste/tabs will prevent you from using the freebies in the hotel room. I only take freebies when they offer bars of soap in little paperboard boxes. I don’t use them on the trip, but instead I take them home for use there. Store your personal care products in reusable and refillable containers like this silicone 4-pack instead of buying travel size bottles and tossing them when they’re empty. I have been refilling the same travel bottles for years.

9. Razors

Unfortunately safety razors with blades can only fly in checked luggage. If you aren’t checking a bag, you have two options: you can either keep a disposable razor specifically for travel or you can forego shaving during your trip. If you bring a disposable razor, check out Preserve’s razor with a 100% recycled plastic handle.

10. Research

I added this at the end of my sustainable travel essentials list specifically because it isn’t a tangible product to pack. But by doing a tiny bit of research, you can greatly reduce the impact of your trip. What grocery stores or farmers markets are at your destination? Are there any zero waste shops? What public transport options are available and how do you use it? What tourist attractions are the most sustainable? Answering these questions can help you plan a more environmentally friendly vacation.

Conclusion

Together these sustainable travel essentials will reduce your trip’s total impact on the environment so you can rest easy on your vacation. What reusable items do you pack? How else can we prepare for a sustainable vacation?

Also check out my post on Sustainable Living Essentials!

10 Sustainable Travel Essentials purple suitcase with reusable cutlery, water bottle, disposable razor, chico bag and toiletry bottles
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How To Actually Use A Menstrual Cup reusable organicup against a painted blue background speckled with green leaves

How To (Actually) Use A Menstrual Cup

This post contains affiliate links. I will receive a commission if you make a purchase using these links, at no additional cost to you. Read more on my Disclaimer page.

Introduction

This post may be a bit TMI, but I’m a believer in de-stigmatizing periods, and I wish there was a post like this when I was deciding on a low waste period solution.

Before I bought my menstrual cup, I did a lot of research on what they are and how you use one. I watched videos and read the instructions on various companies’ websites, but nothing seemed to explain clearly enough how to use the darn thing. Eventually I bit the bullet and bought one.

I chose Organicup for a few reasons: there packaging is 100% paper, their cups are vegan, and they are not dyed. You can get one yourself here! They also have come out with a Mini version for teens or those who need a smaller size cup. What’s more, each cup comes with its own organic unbleached cotton storage pouch.

NOTE: This is NOT a paid advertisement. I have been using Organicup since 2018 and recommend them because of my positive experience.

Obviously, everyone’s bodies are different and what works for me may not work for you. The main takeaway should be menstrual cups should not be painful to insert, wear, or remove. If it is, ensure you are putting it in correctly otherwise maybe menstrual cups are not right for you. There are plenty of other options available including reusable pads, period-proof underwear, or even just applicator-free tampons and organic cotton disposable pads.

What Is A Menstrual Cup?

A menstrual cup is a low waste option for periods to replace disposable tampons and pads. Cups are made from medical-grade silicone so they are safe and flexible to insert. The blood collects in the cup portion, and the little stem helps in cup removal. The holes near the top of the cup help to create the seal.

The cup will form a seal against the vaginal walls and collect blood throughout the day/night. When I was trying to figure this all out, I thought they suctioned around the cervix. Totally not the case. The seal holds the cup in place and prevents leakage. This can be scary (how will I get it out?!), but don’t worry. Stay calm, and a good pinch of the cup should release the seal.

You can wear them for up to 12 hours although some people have claimed this long can start bacteria growth and suggest to wear it shorter. I wear mine for a max of 10 hours, usually less. The menstrual cup will hold the blood which you can dump into the toilet. Then you wash the cup and reinsert it. A single cup can last years, which cuts out hundreds of disposable tampons or pads.

Most menstrual cup brands have a pre-birth and post-birth sizing option. The pre-birth size is slightly smaller than the post-birth size. As I have said, Organicup also has a Mini cup that’s even smaller.

Worried about using a menstrual cup with an IUD? This study states there is no increased risk of IUD expulsion for women using a menstrual cup.

How To Insert A Menstrual Cup

First Time Prepwork

When you first receive your menstrual cup, you should boil it. Boil a pot of water on the stove that’s deep enough to fully submerge the cup. You do not want the cup to sit on the bottom of the pot as the high heat may deform the cup. Boil for 3-5 minutes, remove, and let dry and cool down.

You should do a dry practice run before your period to get comfortable with insertion and removal. There are two main methods recommended for insertion: the half fold and the punch down fold. The half fold is exactly what it sounds like, pinching and folding the cup in half. I use the punch down method because it creates a smaller initial insertion area as shown in the pictures below. For this fold, you push your finger down on the rim to press a portion of the cup inside itself.

The punch down fold for reusable menstrual cup insertion gives a smaller initial surface area
Punch down fold
The half fold for reusable menstrual cup insertion
Half fold

Insertion Process

I stand in a slightly squatted position for insertion. I pinch the cup with my index finger and thumb to hold it closed and push it inside. This usually involves bringing my fingers lower mid-insertion to ensure the cup fully enters the vagina. I then roll my thumb to one side to pull the wall of the cup to ensure it fully opens. It can get very frustrating when the cup refuses to open and you have to take it out, rinse (to clear the air holes), and try over and over. Rolling my thumb has been very helpful in making sure the cup opens, but it doesn’t work 100% of the time. Just remain patient.

You will feel the cup open and may here a “pop” sound. You should check with a finger around the bottom of the cup for dents indicating an improper seal. Using both your thumb and finger, you can twist the entire cup which sometimes will get it to open, but otherwise take it out and try again.

If the stem is too long and is uncomfortable, you can cut it (while not inserted) to a better length. To aid with insertion, you can also use a lubricant such as water or coconut oil. You should not be able to feel the cup while it’s inside of you.

What Next?

Many companies say their cups can be worn up to 12 hours, but there are some concerns about bacterial growth when the cup is left in for that long. Leave the cup in for as long as you are comfortable with, keeping under the 12 hour limit. I do not wear my cup overnight for this reason and because I just do not leak overnight so why bother?

Leaks can occur due to improper seals or positioning. I sometimes leak a little, but I think it is the blood that was below where the cup sits because it’s usually just a small bit shortly after insertion. Organicup recommends running your finger around the cup to remove this excess blood, and that has helped reduce my leakage.

Now you can exercise, swim, sleep, whatever! (Do not have vaginal sex while wearing the cup; that’s pretty much the only thing you can’t do.)

How To Remove A Menstrual Cup

When it comes time to remove my cup, I stand in the same position as for insertion. You should tense your abs to push the cup lower so you can reach it better. Personally, the stem of my cup will invariably get pushed against the vaginal wall so I use my finger to “loop” around the cup and re-center the stem.

Next I insert the same thumb and index finger used for insertion and gently tug the stem of the cup. Do NOT just pull the stem to remove your cup. The suction will not release that way, and it can hurt you. Gently tugging while tensing your abs will also bring the cup further down.

Once the cup is far enough down to reach it, you can squeeze the bottom to break the seal. Then twist and wiggle the cup back and forth while pulling it out. Keep the cup upright so as not to spill the blood. Finally I dump the contents into the toilet and wash the cup.

How To Clean A Menstrual Cup

During my period, I rinse the cup out with warm water and mild soap after each removal. You should be sure to clear the air holes. To do this, I repeatedly fill the cup with water, seal the top with my palm, and squeeze with my other hand to shoot water out the holes. Just be sure they aren’t aimed at you!

You can pat the cup dry before insertion. I will dry the cup for the first reinsertion attempt, but I usually don’t bother on subsequent attempts so the water aids with insertion. Then you can reinsert the cup following the steps above.

Once my period is over, I will boil the cup for 3-5 minutes using the same instructions as for the initial cleaning. This will kill bacteria remaining on the cup from use and ensure it is clean for next month. I use that funky spaghetti spoon when I boil my cup for several reasons: I can easily cradle the cup without it floating away thanks to the “fingers” creating a little barrier, I can put the stem through the center hole or support the cup from the inside using the “fingers”, and I can easily drain the cup out at the end because the “fingers” keep the cup in the spoon.

After boiling, let the cup dry and cool down, and then you can store it in its cute baggie for next month!

Conclusion

To repeat, everyone is different and has different methods, levels of comfort, and bodies. This post is my method for a low waste period and may not work for you.

Let me know if there’s something I didn’t address in this post! Where are you still confused?

How To Actually Use A Menstrual Cup reusable organicup against a painted blue background speckled with green leaves

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