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Life Without Plastic

Yesterday I received a package I ordered from Life Without Plastic. I purchased the items above as a birthday gift to myself. Yes, that’s right, I bought a toilet brush for my birthday! It’s not your average brush.

So far I’m really pleased with each of the items. I brought the Klean Kanteen water bottle with me to work today. I have had a few of these, but none with the stainless steel/bamboo cap. I really love this particular newer model because it is completely plastic and paint free (the logo is laser etched into the steel). The cap seals with a food grade silicone ring. If I manage to hang onto this one (I’ve lost a couple others already), it will last a very long time. I purchased the steel container thinking that I would use it to put together a low-trash first aid kit. The steel seems to be a thicker gage than some of the other stainless containers I have and I love the roll clip design. I used it to carry some leftovers to work today. Because this particular one isn’t watertight it wouldn’t be ideal for wet foods. The handkerchiefs are made of organic cotton. I really want to make it a habit to carry one with me at all times as I still sometimes reach for toilet paper to blow my nose. The toilet brush is made from beechwood, wire, and pig bristles. It will be interesting to see how well it works and how long it holds up.

The whole order arrived in a small cardboard box sealed with paper tape. The handkerchiefs and toilet brush were loose inside. A piece of paper was wrapped around the bottle and the stainless steel container came inside a plastic bag within a cardboard Sanctus Mundo company box. I was surprised to see the plastic because there was no mention of it on Life Without Plastic’s website and they often specify when a product contains or comes packed in plastic. But overall I was impressed with the minimal packaging and have so far been very pleased with the quality of the products I’ve purchased from LWP.

 

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Alternative Food Co-op

Yesterday I took another trip down to the Alternative Food Cooperative in Wakefield to restock on oil, soap, and baking soda. This time I brought my camera along and received permission from Rosemary–the co-op’s manager, to take pictures inside the store. Before the recent opening of Fertile Underground, Alternative was the only food co-op in Rhode Island. Shopping there is a very different experience from the conventional grocery store shopping experience I’ve known most of my life. As I’ve mentioned before, because of the variety of goods available in bulk, this resource has allowed me to take my project to a more thorough level. The co-op’s success is the result of a good business model, excellent management, and invested, conscientious employees. I want to share these images of what alternative food and household supply shopping can look like.

The co-op has the largest dry bulk food section of any store I’ve visited in the Rhode Island/Massachusetts area. Here I can find red quinoa, forbidden rice, and even goji berries. Spices, teas, and medicinal herbs in glass jars line the back wall. Oils, honey, and vinegar are kept canisters next to the spices. There is also a refrigerated bulk foods section. A small produce section offers fresh organic fruits and vegetables from local growers. Hot soup, baked goods, coffee and tea are offered at the front of the store. While I was there, a masseuse was giving massages to customers.

spices, teas, and medicinal herbs

spices, teas, and medicinal herbs

Bulk Tofu!

Bulk Tofu!

 

bulk cleaning supplies

bulk cleaning supplies

 

All of the stations in the store are extremely clean and well organized. Any spills around the bulk dispensers are quickly mopped or swept up. Pans and brushes hang on the wall so customers can clean up after themselves too.

The dry bulk foods supply is kept in a walk-in refrigerator located in the kitchen at the back of the store. I’ve always wondered how the foods that I scoop out of the bulk containers are packed and shipped to businesses. Inside the refrigerator, nuts, legumes, grains, and flour are stacked on simple wooden shelves, mostly in paper bags and boxes.

The walk-in

The walk-in

The back deck can be reached by walking through the kitchen. It overlooks the municipal lot where customers can park if there are no spaces on the street. Beyond the lot lie the Saugatucket River and a bike path that runs along it. Rosemary said that riders headed south from the co-op would arrive at the beach in about 15 minutes. In the summer the deck is set up with tables and chairs and the awnings are rolled down to provide shade.

Before shopping I weighed my containers again at the register. Then I filled up my glass jars, bottles, and bulk bags with olive oil, canola oil, quinoa, almonds, baking soda, and castile soap. I should be well stocked for at least another month, but if Alternative Food Co-op was located in Providence, I would do my daily shopping there. Many thanks to the whole co-op gang for chatting with me and for letting me photograph your beautiful shop.

Trash-free shopping basket

Trash-free shopping basket

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Confessions of a floss addict

One personal hygiene product that I decidedly cannot live without is floss. It’s been a part of my daily dental care routine since I finally made it a habit (after my braces came off) in grade school. I credit flossing for my healthy, cavity free mouth. Because floss comes with quite a bit of packaging, when I first began this project I tried to use a rubber gum stimulator in its place, but quickly found that it was not a good substitute–at least not for my mouth. I think my teeth must be very close together because I’m not able to get the tip of the stimulator between them. So, I turned back to floss.

I have searched high and low for simple paper packaged, chemical-free floss and the best product I have found so far is Eco-Dent’s Gentle Floss. When I first spotted it on the shelf at a local co-op (since then I’ve seen it at Whole Foods) I was very excited, but when I got it home and opened the paper box to get the thread end started, I discovered that the floss spool comes wrapped in a small clear stretch plastic bag and that the 100 yards of floss are wound around a hard plastic bobbin. The bag is meant to keep the essential oils used to wax the thread from drying out. While it’s not trash-free, I do feel that this product is much better than the twice packaged floss I bought for years–wrapped once in a #2 plastic box and then again against a paper card with a cellophane or #1 plastic cover glued to the paper.

I try to use the floss sparingly. I keep the pieces that I break off just long enough to wrap a couple times around one finger on each hand with just enough space between to maneuver around my mouth. And though it may sound gross, I reuse each piece a couple of times until the coating comes off, simply rinsing the strand between uses. Lately I’ve wondered about the plausibility of making my own floss. Perhaps I could find a natural fiber thread of the appropriate weight and coat it as needed with minimally packaged oil or wax…

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Pattern play

Experimenting with different patterns for dishwashing cloths. I’m curious to see if one holds soap better than the others.

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Dish cloth

A new tool put to use.

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Scrubs

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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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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