Archive | November, 2011


My search for the elusive package-free natural loofah sponge has come to an end. For a while I was hung up on the idea of finding a no trash source for this amazing little dried fruit. I had hoped to use it as a dish scrubber and a shower sponge. But, from bath and beauty stores to natural food stores and even online, every loofah product I’ve come across has been wrapped in some kind of plastic. I was using Twist sponges for a while but most of their products are no longer available without a plastic wrapper. I emailed the company and was told that the initial attempt to package their sponges in a simple paper sleeve had failed because the sponges shrank as they dried on store shelves, causing them to fall out of the sleeves. What a shame to have to put a biodegradable, environmentally friendly product inside packaging that ends up in a landfill. So, the time has come to rethink the kitchen sink.

What about hemp? A friend of mine suggested knitting my own washcloths from hemp yarn. I thought this was a nice idea. I figured I could knit some small dish scrubbers while I was at it. I visited my local yarn shop and discovered that they do not carry it. I found some suppliers online but the yarn is more expensive than I had imagined and it’s all imported. Oh, that’s right–isn’t there some kind of movement to legalize industrial hemp in the United States? I started to do some research. I’ve learned a little about why so many are looking at hemp as an alternative sustainable resource, and why it’s a touchy subject in our country.

Because of its long fiber and strength characteristics, hemp is a versatile material that can be used to make paper, rope, fabric, and building materials (particle board). It is a 120-day crop that grows well with little more than rainwater in a variety of climates, and its root system actually improves soil quality. New growth tree farms harvest wood on 20-35 year cycles, depending on the tree species. Hemp pulp is naturally whiter than wood pulp and requires less chemical processing to turn it into paper. Unfortunately, because it is a non-intoxicating variety of cannabis sativa (the same species of plant that marijuana comes from), it has been illegal to grow it in the USA without a special Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) permit since 1970. So far, it is still extremely difficult to acquire this permit. ‘Hempsters’ from coast to coast are working to change that. Progress is slow.

After much deliberation, I finally decided to order some hemp yarn from an online supplier. I bought 900 yards of fair trade, organically grown, unbleached yarn that is imported from Romania. The knit square pictured above is meant for dishwashing. The fiber is naturally mildew resistant and can be thrown in the washing machine. I’m hoping that when paired a stainless steel mesh sponge, the hemp scrubbers will make dishwashing a synthetic fiber-free cinch. Slightly larger knit squares will replace the cotton washcloths I have been using in the shower. Though it’s only a small square, I find that the cotton cloth is cumbersome when saturated with water and it’s not the most effective exfoliant. Time will test the durability of my cannabis cloths.

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Bumps in the road

Last night the temperature outside was a balmy 60˚F. I packed a clean jar, a couple reusable produce bags, and a stainless steel container in a backpack and set out on my bike to Whole Foods. At the store I filled my jar with almond butter and one of my mesh bags with Brazil nuts. I went to the fish counter and got a piece of hake in my container, but the fish man was a little confused by my request for no packaging and he used a piece of tissue paper to weigh my hake. I should have been more specific. By now I know many local grocery store and farmers market employees, so most of the time I’m able to ask for help from someone who is familiar with my reusable container routine. But sometimes on the occasions that I shop outside of my usual hours, I’m met with the puzzled faces of strangers who aren’t sure why I’m trying to hand them my own container. I’ve learned that there are a few things I can do to help make this interaction go smoothly. Generally I try to avoid approaching the counter when there’s a long line of people. Instead I’ll shop for the rest of my groceries and return when the counter is quiet, especially if someone I’ve never met is working there. That way, there is time and space for my special request. I explain my goal before ordering. I start by saying that I’m trying to avoid making any trash. I ask if it’s possible to weigh the container first to get the tare, and then put the food directly into the container while it’s on the scale. I’ve found it helpful to explain that it’s not just that I don’t want to take any packaging with me, but that I don’t want any paper (besides the price sticker) used to process my order. Most of the time people are very friendly and accommodating, and sometimes they even encourage the no trash effort.

After I got my fish, I went to pick out a starch for my meal and decided I had a hankering for potatoes. I found the bins of loose potatoes and noticed that they were all conventionally grown. The organic potatoes were located on other side of the bins, all packaged and stacked in plastic bags. Foiled! It’s not the first time that packaging has affected my dinner plans since I’ve made buying organic a priority. For reasons I don’t understand, I often see organic produce options in packaging at the grocery store. Buying a whole bag of apples, avocados, bell peppers, mushrooms, or onions, now seems like a strange way to shop for food. I enjoy choosing individual fruits and vegetables–turning them over in my hands, scanning for nicks and bruises, feeling the weight of the food, and even smelling some produce to check for ripeness. I like to select a handful of items that are ready to eat now or in the next couple of days. Stocking up on large amounts of food that can spoil doesn’t make much sense anymore. The bags of potatoes in front of me last night became more incentive to lean on farmers markets and co-ops whenever possible as a source for fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile I remain flexible and open minded about the other trash-free, organic ingredients that are available to me. And I will continue to vote with my dollar.

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Yerba Maté

This morning I harvested the leaves of my yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) plant. Actually the truth is I shocked the little shrub by bringing it indoors for the winter and it let go of all its leaves. So I collected the fallen and the falling, and put them into a glass jar to dry. Once they’re dehydrated I will grind them up to make tea. I think the plant will bounce back and start pushing out new leaves soon.

It’s difficult to express how much I enjoy growing my own food. I don’t have any ground to plant in, so my garden is potted. In the summer I grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs. In the winter I bring everything indoors. Some plants go dormant in the basement (my fig trees for instance), others tough it out on the windowsills in my apartment. Having the green inside my home helps me through the grey winters in Providence.

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The perfect thing

A big part of the No Trash Project has been learning to plan ahead. I’ve had to train myself to always carry a reusable bag with me, even if I’m not headed directly to the store. If I know I need to shop for food, I will pack smaller produce bags and at least one reusable container. As I’ve mentioned before, I am now in the habit of carrying lunch and dinner with me to work and on the road. When I first began this project I was carrying around plastic tupperware. I soon found that the plastic stained easily, held food odors, and it was difficult to remove meat counter price stickers from the worn, scratched lids. I transitioned over to glass Frigoverre storage containers for a while. While they were far easier to clean (oils don’t stick to glass the way they stick to plastic) they were heavier and more cumbersome than my already donated plastic containers. After breaking one glass container on the pavement, and another on a concrete floor at work, it was clear that I needed to find another solution. I had seen a stainless steel lunchbox at Whole Foods, but it was shrink wrapped in two layers of plastic.

My friend told me about a company called Life Without Plastic. Their website has become an important resource for me. Whenever possible I try to find what I need locally to avoid using shipping materials and fuel, but sometimes I strike out. I have turned to this company for products unavailable nearby or without unnecessary packaging, which have become an important part of my routine. Life Without Plastic makes an effort to pack their shipments in reused, recycled, and recyclable materials.

The stainless steel containers above are a few of my favorite things. They are lightweight, even more durable than plastic, and they have a tighter seal (a silicone ring for watertight storage) than either the plastic or the glass containers. I give one to The Local Catch to hold my weekly fish order. The steel never stinks the way the plastic used to. I bring my dinner to work in one almost everyday. I’m never worried that the contents will spill into my bag as I bike or walk from home.

This past weekend I drove down to New York City with some friends. We packed some quinoa, farmers market brussels sprouts, squash, apples, granola, and almond butter in the stainless steel containers. We filled our large swing top glass bottles with water and packed some bowls, forks, knives, and cloth napkins. It was a delicious trash-free picnic that sustained us through a night at the ballet. The leftovers went into the refrigerator at our generous host’s house. The food was still delicious for breakfast the next morning!

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Metal Mountain

The other day, while I was headed out of town I drove by the Sims Metal Management site on Eddy Street. Lit by the setting sun, the towering pile of metal scraps was quite a sight to behold. Apparently Sims is the world’s largest scrap metals and electronics recycling company. They just moved into the nine-acre Providence waterfront property in October, replacing Promet Marine Services Corporation. The export terminal includes a 600 ft pier with rail services and two deep-water berths. I am curious about the process. It seems that some sorting and compressing is being done here in Providence, but I wonder if they are also melting and molding metals on-site. Where is the recycled metal sent once it has been processed? I’m looking into getting a tour…

Tomorrow is America Recycles Day. I heard that my local Whole Foods Markets are teaming up with Green Penguin for an electronics waste recycling drive. I contacted Green Penguin for more information and they directed me to a poster on their Facebook page, which lists all the accepted e-waste materials. I will be dropping off some non-functioning electronics that I have been storing while I looked for a way to properly dispose of them. The e-waste blight is a rapidly growing problem.

I’ve been thinking about the ways in which my electronic devices impact my health and the environment as I continue my effort to “go paperless.” I try to limit the use of my cell phone and I’m determined to take excellent care of my laptop so that it will serve me for many years to come. I’ve learned to keep all my chargers, cables, and headphones out of the reach of my cat, as she loves to chew on them. I no longer own a TV or any decks. I watch movies and shows on my computer. When I want to see something projected large, I go to work or to the cinema. Pairing down my electronic devices to the few that are essential to my current lifestyle has made caring for those few items more manageable. 

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Since I began this project my kitchen has slowly become a more efficient workspace. Food moves from the grocery tote to the plate through a well-organized system. At this point, I’m not producing any spoiled food. Everything edible in the kitchen is consumed and the only things going into the compost are peels, shells, skins and tough stems. I went through all the tools in the kitchen and donated every item that was not essential. It’s amazing how the drawers, cabinets, and shelves of a room will fill up over time. I found that I had many multiples of the same tool (three cheese graters for example) and many pots, pans, dishes, and utensils that were never used but for some reason traveled with me through multiple home moves.  Eliminating the clutter has been great. Prepping, cooking, and cleaning routines are simpler. Unloading the bulk of the kitchen items I had been storing for so long has allowed me to focus on finding the right tool for each job. I find a lot of enjoyment in scavenging high quality items made from sustainable materials and I’m slowly weeding out the poorly made, the dysfunctional, and the plastic. Incorporating objects that meet my personal standards of form and functionality has made daily practices more satisfying. Filled with wood, steel, and glass, the dish drying rack has become very photogenic.

Last week I checked another item off the No Trash Project wish list–an immersion blender. My tabletop blender quit several months ago while I was making hummus (it went out with a loud groan and some smoke), so I had been looking for the immersion variety for a while. I hemmed and hawed over what brand to buy and how much to spend. I regularly checked craigslist to see if anyone nearby was selling one used. No such luck. So, I finally took the plunge and bought one new. I decided to go with a high-end product that could stand up to heavy use. In addition to all the foods I’ll be mincing and blending, I’ll also be using it to make recycled paper at home, so I needed to find one with lot of power. I’ve now used mine to make soup and I love it. Because I don’t have to transfer batches to and from a tabletop blender, fewer dishes are dirtied, and less water is used to clean up. I look forward to making a wider range of dishes than I was able to produce in the days of the hand mashing, blender hiatus. Both of the trash-free, puréed soups pictured above were made without set measurements, but I’ve written up a basic recipe for each.

Butternut Squash Soup

1 large butternut squash peeled, seeded, and chopped into 1-inch pieces

4 cups homemade vegetable broth

My most recent batch was made with water, carrots, celery, onion, fennel seeds, and cracked red pepper (combined, boiled, and strained)

1 medium yellow onion finely chopped

1 clove of garlic minced

2 Tbs. canola of oil

1 Tbs. curry powder

1 tsp freshly ground cinnamon


Heat canola oil in a large pot.

Sauté the onion until translucent (about 5-7 minutes).

Add squash and garlic and cook for two more minutes.

Add broth. Bring to a simmer and cover.

Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for until the squash is tender (about 20 minutes).

Blend soup.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil, cracked black pepper, and fresh thyme (or sage) leaves. Salt if desired.

Cauliflower Apple Soup

1 large head of cauliflower chopped into 1-inch pieces

1 to 2 tart apples chopped (6 cups)

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 medium yellow onion finely chopped

1 clove of garlic minced

1 tablespoon curry powder

4 cups homemade vegetable broth

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 teaspoon honey


Heat canola oil in a large pot.

Sauté the onion until translucent (about 5-7 minutes).

Stir in the apple, curry, garlic and cook for 2 more minutes.

Add the cauliflower and broth. Bring to a simmer and cover.

Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for until the cauliflower is tender (about 20 minutes).

Blend soup.

Stir in the honey and vinegar.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and cracked pepper. Salt if desired.

Because these recipes are so basic, they are both very adaptable. I used spices are stocked on my shelves (I love curry) but there are many substitutes. Trash-free cooking often calls for creativity. I’m learning to be resourceful while shopping and flexible while putting together a meal.

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7 billion


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Many people have asked me how I deal with medicine in the No Trash Project, and as cold and flu season descends on New England, the issue becomes more pertinent. The truth is that there are no ‘quick tip’ solutions to filling medicinal needs without making trash. Over-the-counter drugs come packaged in number two plastic bottles or in plastic and aluminum foil blister packs inside paper boxes. Though I’ve looked, I have not been able to find a single glass bottle on a drugstore shelf. Orange tinted prescription bottles are made from number five plastic and you can’t refill your refills in bottles that have been used (however, many pharmacies will take your bottles back to be recycled-not reused). Of course there are strict health codes at work here. Recently, while visiting a friend in the hospital, I was struck by how much trash is made in the effort toward maintaining a sterile environment and toward making caregiving more efficient.

I want to be careful in the discussion of this particular topic because I realize people require many different kinds treatment to fight ailments and diseases of varying severity. I understand that there are instances in which producing trash cannot be avoided to meet individual healthcare needs. I feel that the best way to address this issue is to present my own personal experience regarding health and wellness in the context of the project. I don’t want to suggest that mine is a system that should be adopted by others, but rather share some of the questions and discoveries I’ve come across.

A reoccurring theme of these posts is my goal of simplifying my lifestyle to become more efficient. As with all other aspects of this project, the search for trash-free medicine has led me to reevaluate my needs. By now we’re all familiar with the idea that fortifying our bodies with a healthy diet and regular exercise is a fundamental form of preventative medicine. Growing up, I was relatively active and my parents raised my siblings and me on well-balanced meals. In the summer we ate vegetables from our garden. As an adult I have continued to focus on taking care of myself. But since I was very young, I have used prescribed and over-the-counter medication for both the prevention and treatment of illness. I could not name all the different antibiotics I’ve taken in my life if I tried. And there was a time when I would not hesitate to take a pain reliever to ease even mild discomfort. I feel now that those tendencies were largely based in habit. The idea of straying from systems that work reasonably well can be unsettling especially when it comes to healthcare.

The project has led me to become more interested in ‘alternative’ medicine. I’m drawn to naturopathy, which is centered on the belief that the body has an innate ability to heal itself. The idea of using diet, exercise, lifestyle change, and natural therapies/remedies to enhance the body’s ability to ward off disease makes a lot of sense to me on an intuitive level. I’ve been trying to incorporate more natural healthcare practices into my life. 

The no trash effort naturally supports eating a healthy diet of whole foods (I imagine it would be challenging to get junk food and processed food without some kind of packaging). I’m very sensitive to the way that the foods I ingest make me feel. I eat a mostly plant-based diet supplemented with some seafood and poultry. I have been experimenting with all the whole grains in the bulk section. My meals are colorful and delicious and I am never left wanting. I run almost every day. I sometimes notice the mental health benefits of running even more than the physical. It’s the best way I’ve found to manage my own stress.

I haven’t filled a prescription in nearly seven months. I stopped using oral contraceptives as a means of regulating my cycle, and have begun to look at herbal remedies to relieve cramps, treat colds, ease headaches, settle an upset stomach, etc… Chamomile tea for instance, can be used not only as a mild sedative, but also to relieve stomach and intestinal cramps, menstrual cramps, and headaches. I purchase it loose in bulk at the co-op. I’d like to learn the medicinal uses of all the fragrant herbs and teas stocked on the shelves. It wasn’t until starting the No Trash Project that I took notice of another wonderful resource in Providence called Farmacy Herbs. They come to the local farmers markets but they also have a store location here in town that I’ve been meaning to visit.

My medicine cabinet still contains ibuprofen, acetaminophen, some over–the–counter cold and flu medicine, and an inhaler-all of which were acquired before starting down the no trash path. I’m hanging onto it for ‘just in case’ reasons, especially because I tend to get sick more in the fall and winter than in the spring and summer. It’s a schedule that seems to be directly related to working at a university. I have not sworn off western medicine, and I don’t intend to put myself through any unnecessary suffering in an effort to avoid using over–the–counter and prescription drugs. But I am interested in learning about many different healing practices and I hope to be able to lean on those that are more environmentally healthy when I am faced with illness.

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