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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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Medicine

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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Hygiene

It’s no secret that maintaining cleanliness supports health. Being clean is considered virtuous–cleanliness is the tenth of Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues to live by. Hygienic standards and practices vary across cultures and have changed throughout history. The Romans had their bathhouses and scented oils. Soapmaking became a popular trade in Spain and Italy during the Dark Ages. The toothbrush as we know it today was invented in China in the late 1400s. Before that, chewing the twigs and leaves of plants thought to have antiseptic properties was common practice.

Contagion and germ theories led us to the notion that we have more to worry about than visible filth. In 1854 John Snow discovered that cholera was transmitted through contaminated water. His findings led to the widespread development of sewage systems. In the twentieth century, industries sprang up to deliver products that would serve us on our quest for cleaner countertops and whiter toilet bowls. Advertisements goad us to buy products that support health and that will spare us the judgment of others about armpit odor.

The continually increasing attention to hygiene has meant an increase in pressure on the natural environment. Today we’re starting to see a push away from the use of harsh chemical cleaning agents because of growing evidence of their threat to our health and the planet. “Green” cleaning agent production is becoming big business.

I’m interested in finding ways of maintaining personal and domestic hygiene without making trash and without using any chemicals in/on my body, or on the surfaces in my home. We all have a different standard of cleanliness, so the system I’ve mapped out so far is of course personal. This zone has been slightly more complicated than the food zone, but the approach to tackling the problems is the same. I ask myself what I need. What do I need to sufficiently clean my dishes, my laundry, and my floors? What do I need to feel clean, smell good, and stay healthy?

As I mentioned in the last post, the discovery of the Alternative Food Co-op in Wakefield has helped me enormously in the No Trash Project. They encourage membership but it is not required in order to shop there. Not only is the store stocked with a wonderful bulk food selection, but they also supply many cleaning and body products in bulk dispensing systems. Below is some information about the non-food products that I buy in bulk and their important roles in no trash hygienic practice.

Baking Soda–not just for baking!

Currently, baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, has numerous uses in my home. Because it is weakly alkaline and acts to neutralize acid, baking soda has long been used for many first aid applications. It also has mild antiseptic properties. A simple paste made from baking soda and cold water can be applied to burns, bug bites, bee stings, and poison ivy. It can be diluted in water and used as an antacid.  As a mild, gentle abrasive, it can be used in place of toothpaste or as an exfoliating skin cleanser. A friend of mine recently explained how she mixes it with a bit of conditioner and uses it in place of shampoo.

For the same reasons it works to cleanse the body, baking soda is an effective household cleaner. Its fine, gritty texture works as an abrasive agent and is safe to use on most surfaces. It can be added to the washing machine to help remove stains, neutralize odor, and acts as a fabric softener for laundry.

Castile Soap

I’ve been using liquid castile soap (Dr. Bronner’s)–an olive oil based soap that is a mild but effective cleanser. I use it in place of dish soap, as a body wash, and occasionally as a surface cleaner. It’s available to me in bulk dispensers.  I fill it up in jars at the co-op and once I’m home I pour it into glass oil cruets (like the one pictured above). The soap pours easily from the metal dispenser.

Powdered laundry detergent, bleach powder, moisturizing lotions, shampoo and conditioner are also available in bulk at the co-op.

There is another natural household cleaner that I’m attached to, which I have not been able to find without packaging. White distilled vinegar is effective in killing mold, and bacteria. I find it neutralizes odors well and clears drains when combined with baking soda. I have resorted to buying it in a glass bottle. I’m careful to use vinegar sparingly and dilute it with water to make the supply last longer. Again, the system is not perfect. The vinegar bottle becomes a part of the recyclable waste I make. And I haven’t forgotten that the goods we buy in bulk are delivered to the grocery store and co-op in packaging/containers (more on this soon).

Hygiene accessories are an important part of this discussion. Many cleaning and grooming tools are made of plastic and are meant to be disposable. I’ve tried to focus on choosing tools that are made of more sustainable materials that will stand up to the test of time and use, or products that are compostable.  Microfiber cloths have replaced paper towels, plant-based compostable sponges have replaced plastic and cellulose sponges, and a high quality stainless steel safety razor has replaced the disposable plastic version.

While writing this post, I’ve been thinking about the number of plastic bottles, jugs, aerosol cans, plastic spray nozzles and pumps, sponges, and paper towels that before starting this project, I threw into the trash and recycling on a regular basis. Though I’ve only been working toward no trash for six months, today my old routines seem to be rather unnatural. It’s bizarre to package goods that may be used in one hour, day, week, or month in containers that will be on this earth for hundreds of years after they’re emptied. Stranger still is the fact that we are consistently encouraged and even pressured to take part in this unsustainable system.

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It started in the kitchen…

A lot of time passed between the point at which I decided to create a blog about the No Trash Project and the point that I finally got it started. I’ve been thinking (probably too much) about how to organize it. Of course a blog is a wonderful platform for documentation, and I know that as time goes by, it will become a sort of album and journal. Ideally, I would like the content to be useful to others as well.  I’ve decided to try to outline the ‘big picture’ ideas motivating the project and also describe the details of the daily problem solving involved.

I think it’s important to talk about the reevaluation of both need and habit that has been necessary for me to make any kind of progress.  As cliché as it may sound, we are ‘programmed’ to participate in trash-making routines.  It’s easy to accept that the products we see on television, billboards, and store shelves will enhance the quality of our lives. I was very much in the habit of buying and using things that just seemed necessary to function in a productive way. Now, the question I repeat over and over everyday is, “Do I need this?” Do I really need a different cleaning product for each and every surface in my house? Do I need dryer sheets to keep my laundry fresh and static free? Do I need plastic wrap to keep my food from spoiling? After several months of making these continuous checks, I’ve found ways around the trash to get what I need to be happy and healthy. Eventually I came to the question, “Do I still need my trashcan?”

I want to stress that at the beginning of this project I decided that the venture must always be about feeling good. I wanted to be very careful not to make this process about deprivation, especially because I would be working on it with another person whose wants and needs vary from my own. The system is not perfect. There are many stubborn problems still to solve. A small amount of recyclables still go out to the curb every week. There’s always room for progress and I love watching the project grow.

Okay, now for some specifics. To start down the no trash road, I needed a plan of attack. I had to organize the steps required to establish working systems in my home and the rest of my life. I looked at the different ‘zones’ in which I make trash. In the broadest sense, I categorize my trash production into three zones that exist both in and outside of my home.

Zone 1: Food–before I began this project, the majority of the trash in my can was from food products

Zone 2: Hygiene–both personal and household

Zone 3: Work–for me this zone applies to both the practices of my artist studio, and my university film department job

For the rest of this post I’m going to talk about the food zone, as it’s the area that is working most efficiently today. Here is a breakdown of the food zone subcategories.

Shopping: As I mentioned in my first post, bulk grocery shopping was a catalyst for the project. I buy all my food in bulk and I try to limit my produce and animal product shopping to farmer’s market as much as possible. A local fishing company has agreed to take my container home and return it at the next market day, filled with a fresh caught fish of their choosing. When I do go to the grocery store I shop the perimeter. I purchase all my fruits and vegetables without packaging of course and I have someone at the meat and fish counter put my purchases directly into a container I’ve brought from home.  They place the empty container on the scale to get the tare weight, and then place the meat directly into the container. No paper for the cat to pull out of the trashcan at home.  I fill up peanut butter and almond butter from the grinder machines into my own jar. The tare weight is subtracted at the checkout register. While there are great selections of bulk dry goods at my local markets, discovering a nearby co-op helped me to take the project to the next level. There I can fill tea, spices, oil, vinegar, and many non-food products into my own containers. It’s wonderful. Finally, choosing responsible distributers at the markets and buying organic has become an important part of the overall no trash effort.

Food Storage: Once the food gets home, the dried goods are poured into glass jars of all shapes and sizes, greens are placed into cups of water, and meat is kept in airtight containers in the refrigerator. The humidifier drawer is helpful in keeping vegetables longer. Carrots and radishes will stay crunchy for a surprising amount of time if stored submerged in water in the fridge. With regard to perishables, I’ve found that it’s imperative to only buy what I know I’m going to consume in the next couple of days. This way I can altogether avoid throwing out spoiled food. My refrigerator is not cluttered with forgotten groceries like it used to be. It has become a very efficient space that is constantly being emptied and restocked with colorful foods. I’ve established a collection of storage containers that play a daily part in this cycle. Luckily I live in a place that’s within close proximity to many grocery stores and farmers markets.

Food Scraps: Compost, compost, compost. After years of talking about it, I finally built a compost bin. It sits in the small yard behind my city apartment—my landlady was nice enough to allow it. All the scraps from the kitchen (except for citrus) go into the pile, and the compost fertilizes my plants. The local farmer’s markets also have a compost service.

Make Your Own: There are many products that cannot be purchased in bulk or without some kind of packaging.  Of those, most I’ve found are very easy for me to live without. I’ve learned to make some of the foods I still crave at home, from ingredients purchased without trash—like hummus or kombucha for instance.

Eating Out: Here is another area where it is important to choose responsibly. Supporting businesses that buy locally, serve no processed food, and plate reasonable portion sizes is important to me. A reusable container from home can replace the need for a doggie bag. Also, a container can be brought to a restaurant for takeout service or to the window of a food truck. I make a lot of meals at home to carry with me to work or on a day trip.

So there it is—a scratch at the surface. A bit of the macro and the micro.

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Introduction

For the past six months I’ve been focused on an undertaking that I’ve been calling the No Trash Project. The goal: avoid purchasing anything in packaging and eliminate personal trash production. As this is my first blog entry, I’d like to explain the inspirations for this endeavor. When I think back, I can pinpoint a few key discoveries that led me to the big ‘all or nothing’ push.

First, many years ago I came to the realization that Rhode Island only recycles numbers 1 and 2 plastics and that all the other numbers I had been putting in my recycling bin had ended up in a landfill. I began to notice how many different kinds of plastics are used to package goods and was amazed by the volume of my routinely purchased products that were packaged with numbers 3 through 7 plastics. For the first time I really took notice of how many plastic components surrounding and encasing the goods that I purchased, that were not meant to be recycled at all. I was making far more trash than what I was carrying out in a trash bag every week.

Then came the all-important discovery of bulk grocery shopping. For years I had passed by the bulk sections in my local markets to shop the middle aisles, buying my cereal, grains, nuts, beans, flour, sugar, etc… in plastic bags and cardboard boxes. Once in a while I turned to bulk to get a particular dried fruit that wasn’t on the shelf, or some trail mix that looked appetizing. I’d fill up the available plastic bags or the number 5 containers provided by the bins. Because of the guilt I felt over tossing out the containers, I began washing them at home and bringing them back to the store to refill. This was a real aha moment. Much like my reusable bag, here was a system that (if I remembered to bring my containers to the store) cut out a piece of trash. Soon I began to view the bulk section as a more prominent source for my dry grocery needs. Somewhat surprisingly, I discovered that bulk shopping even had an aesthetic appeal. With my food stored in clear containers on the countertop, rather than behind labels and packaging–tucked away in cabinets, ingredients looked more appetizing and inspired more cooking. Eventually I found myself wishing that more goods–even beyond the kitchen, were available to me in bulk.

A year ago, I attended an Action Speaks radio conference at AS220 about the 1987 roaming Mobro Garbage Barge. Three panelists spoke about the problem of where to put all the garbage we make, and whether or not recycling as we know it today, can even begin to curb the crisis. I remember being particularly struck by the comments of a young woman from the audience who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. She described growing up in a post-communist economy where out of necessity, everyone was “obsessed with recycling”. Glass milk, beer, and juice bottles were returned to the store to be used again. The conference prompted me to think a lot about the monetary cost of convenience.

Finally, in April I saw a news video online about a family of four (plus one dog) from Northern California, who after six months had just a handful of garbage to show for the waste in produced in their home. I was floored when I saw this story. The Johnsons have developed systems by which they consume food, hygiene, clothing, and other goods without carrying home the by-products that become garbage. After a glimpse of the Johnsons’ success, decided that I needed to go further.

Since April, I have been overhauling my lifestyle, implementing new shopping, cooking, and cleaning systems to produce as little trash as possible. Today, I can’t imagine ever turning back.

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