2.1: Household Challenge - Zero Waste Week

The first challenge of the second year of 52 Small Challenges is going to be a household one! It's a week late because I skipped a week over the summer. Somehow that seemed better than cutting the first year off at challenge #51, because "52" is actually in the blog name, and "one year" is not. :)

I'm going to participate in Zero Waste Week. It's officially a UK thing, but it can be done anywhere, including here. This is the first year I've joined in, and the theme this year is "Reuse." 

According to Bea at Zero Waste Home (the ultimate authority on such matters)  there are 5 R's of Zero Waste

  1. Refuse - don't get it in the first place (plastic bags, I'm looking at you!)
  2. Reduce - get fewer things/learn to need fewer things
  3. Reuse - THIS YEAR'S CHALLENGE - give something a second (or third, or fourth) life
  4. Recycle - Yay, recycling dumpsters
  5. Rot - Compost is fun!

While I already reuse lots of things (shopping bags, water bottles, etc.), I know I have room to improve in this area. For example, I read today that a Nathalie at Imperfectly Frugal reuses the plastic bags inside cereal boxes for freezing meat. Whereas I just throw those away or add them to the plastic bag recycling, depending on whether or not I think that will work. 

My goal this week will be to document what I already reuse while trying to find ways to reuse more. If I can't figure out how to reuse something, I'll look for an alternative. 

What I Already Reuse

Our napkins - we have to keep this in a cabinet or it becomes a litter box. Damn cats. 

Our napkins - we have to keep this in a cabinet or it becomes a litter box. Damn cats. 

Cloth instead of kitchen paper products: I gave up some things many consider "normal" years ago - paper napkins and paper towels. I keep some in a box in the basement for when we have parties, but otherwise, we use cloth. We have a box of cloth napkins in the kitchen (helpful tip: black napkins are great, because they don't show stains) that we draw from. I was them with the rest of the household laundry. I recently decluttered the box, because it was too full. And all the napkins came from garage and estate sales. They're easy to find used, because people aren't using them. Maybe too easy to find, sometimes. 

Drawer of towels - yes, I do like them better standing up. 

Drawer of towels - yes, I do like them better standing up. 

And we have a big drawer of towels that we use for everything from drying dishes to cleaning up spills. I even use these to clean up cat puke, which was maybe the most difficult transition to make, but I made it. Cat puke is gross no matter what you clean it up with, as it turns out. I pick it up, shake the towel off over the toilet, and throw it in the laundry. So our kitchen towels aren't anywhere near spotless, although I do have a few favorites I tend to not use for anything that might stain them. And I do keep a box of true rags in the laundry room for greasy or especially gross cleanups. And I want to say that, once or twice, I've cleaned up something so nasty I threw away the towel, but that doesn't happen often. 

Interesting side note - my brother also uses dish towels instead of paper towels, but we didn't learn it from our parents. I'm not sure how we ended up on the same page here... Maybe one of us started it and the other copied???

Reusable tissues!

Reusable tissues!

We still use toilet paper and paper tissues, but this week, I'm going to try not to use so many tissues (I'm not messing with toilet paper, not yet, anyhow). I got out my small stash of handkerchiefs, which I keep on hand for hiking, and put them on my desk. So far, I've saved two tissues - or reused a handkerchief a couple times, depending on how you look at it. Until we started hiking regularly, I wasn't familiar with how many uses one can get out of a single handkerchief, and it's more than you'd think. Also, paper tissues and hiking are more frustrating than useful. 

The current bag-drying method interferes with my drinking. :(

The current bag-drying method interferes with my drinking. :(

Plastic bags: I wash and dry a lot (but not all) of our plastic bags. The main thing that keeps me from being better about this is lack of a good way to dry them. Small bags can be hung upside down over almost anything, including the knives in the knife block, but larger bags need more breathing room. I could buy a bag dryer like this for less than twenty bucks, but when I look at them, it seems like it'd be so easy to make one. But I haven't made one. 

Er, as it turns out... While looking for a link to what I was thinking I could make, which involved dowel rods, a board, wood glue and paint, I ran across this one, which calls for a jar, chopsticks, and something in the jar to hold the chopsticks up. They use pretty glass pebbles, but you could use rice, gravel, whatever. So, yeah, I'm making that.  

Shopping bags: I have a stash of reusable bags, which I use most of the time, but not always. Someone in the house (he knows who he is!) is terrible about taking whatever bags they give him at the grocery store. He once came home with a bottle of vodka in a paper liquor bag inside a double-bagged plastic bag. And that was all he bought! As a result, we have a pretty big stash of plastic bags at all times, it seems. I take them to the store for recycling, and sometimes we reuse them for dog poop pickup - I'm not really sure if reuse (which would land them in a landfill, ultimately) or recycling (where I think their usefulness is limited) is better. It'd be easier if they just didn't come home at all!

Water bottles: If you live in St. Louis, Missouri and you're buying single-use plastic bottles of water, you're wasting money and resources. We have great water. And at work, my company filters and chills that already great water, and I can fill up my reusable stainless steel water bottle over and over, at no cost to myself. At home, I drink tap water. When I travel, I take an empty water bottle and refill it wherever I am. While I know our tap water is especially good here, I drink tap water wherever I go. So far, it's been fine. 

Dryer balls and homemade detergent. 

Dryer balls and homemade detergent. 

Dryer sheets: A lot of our laundry (certainly all my clothing) is line-dried, but when I do put something in the dryer, it goes in with felted wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets. I bought mine on Etsy and they are something like these. I recently started making my own powdered laundry detergent, too, using this recipe, which doesn't involve any ingredients that come packaged in plastic, so I'm happy about that. 

Recycling center with embarrassingly large bag of plastic bags on the right. 

Recycling center with embarrassingly large bag of plastic bags on the right. 

It's not reusing, but of course we recycle - gotta love the single-stream recycling dumpsters in our city! It doesn't get much easier than that. I have two recycling bags that hang on the wall (keeping cat food cans out of the dog's reach) that I've had forever - so long the handles are basically held on with staples. But they work and I can throw them in the washer when they get dirty. It's much easier to carry bags out to the dumpster than a bin, too. 

Compost: And we have compost, which is kinda of reusing, just in a different form. I have a can on the counter (no liner) that fills over the course of the week (and sometimes over the course of an hour, depending on what we're making), and a black bin at the far end of the walkway by the garage. Basically it's in a narrow walkway between our garage and the neighbor's privacy fence, on the back edge of our property, by the alley. We put yard waste in the compost, too, except for weeds. If you compost weeds, you end up distributing the seeds at a later date. Then every spring, Eric shovels out the good, finished compost from the bottom of the bin and mixes it with the dirt from the previous summer's potted plants and we reuse that for the new plants. 

What I Know of that I Waste

Small sample cups: I work in a grocery store where there are samples. I eat and drink some of those samples pretty much every day I'm there. I wish I'd saved every cup for a week as a baseline, but I didn't. This week I'm going to try to use as few as possible and save any I do use. 

Various sheets of paper: I keep a stash of used printer paper and print on the blank side, but I just don't have that much use for scrap note paper, so most of our paper trash (hello, junk mail!) goes straight into recycling. I wonder if I should consider composting more of it? 

Shipping boxes: When we get a package, I usually save the packing material if it's bubble wrap and recycle the box. Every once in a while, I reuse the box, but honestly, I just don't want a bunch of cardboard sitting around. I guess my challenge here would be figuring out ways to order fewer things/buy things locally. 

And I'm sure there are a gazillion more things I waste over the course of a week, but I can't think of what they might be right now. 

Other Things to Think About: 

You can also follow J. Money at Budgets are Sexy because he has started experimenting with a "Zero Waste Lifestyle," an idea popularized (kind of?) by Bea at Zero Waste Home.

You can read more about J. Money's progress in this post, which also includes cute pet pigs and the benefits of early rising. :) Bea has a book out, too: Zero Waste Home. I don't have it - yet - but J. Money seems to be enjoying it. 

Costs and Savings: One subject that comes to mind reading J. Money's posts is that, at least initially, attempting a zero waste lifestyle can cost some money. Things we have bought include: counter compost bucket (our bin was free from a neighbor), dryer balls, cloth napkins and extra dishrags, the jar I'm keeping my laundry detergent in, recycling bags... and it looks like I narrowly escaped buying a drying rack for plastic baggies. :) 

On the other hand, we haven't bought paper towels or napkins in over a decade. Same with dryer sheets. Even with part-time plastic bag washing, we're reusing some of them and avoiding having to repurchase them. So we're saving some money, too. 

Of course, it's not all about the money saved or spent. It's also about learning to be less wasteful, distancing myself from society's constant obsession with germs and bacteria, and being a bit more mindful of keeping the earth in good working order. No doubt it makes little difference if I use a paper towel, but over time, those paper towels add up - not just to a lot of waste, but to more packaging being produce both to package and ship them, transportation costs to get them to the store, then to my house from the store - and it all costs money!

Reuse and Minimalism

Just a quick note on one conflict I find myself facing when I'm thinking about whether I can reuse something - keeping things around "just in case" can easily lead to stashes of things, whether they're jars, cardboard boxes, or plastic bags, that become clutter. I guess the answer to this problem lies in the first two R's: Refuse and Reduce. Which I don't think I'm doing a great job with, at least not right now. 

Whatever the reason one attempts to move toward a zero-waste lifestyle, I think it will be interesting to look at what I do this week that generates waste, what I can reuse, and what I can't. 

Do you try to avoid adding to the trash pile? If you have any tips or ideas, I'd love to hear them!