Week 16

Buy Nothing

I have talked about buying, selling, borrowing and donating stuff on Facebook here before. Between Marketplace and local buy/sell/trade groups, there is so much quality clothing, toys, furniture, home decor, you name it, that it seems crazy to buy something new without at least looking there first.

But the group I want to talk about today is my neighborhood Buy Nothing group. With the mantra “Give. Share. Build Community,” the group is almost 1,500 members strong and is part of a national movement. You can search for one in your area at buynothingproject.org.

Find your local group at buynothingproject.org

As long as you live within a given group’s boundaries, you can request to join and start giving and accepting “gifts” right away. People join for a number of reasons, from decluttering to supporting a circular economy, to being in need or helping others who are. I have mostly been on the giving end, though I did borrow an awesome purse for my Halloween costume from this group.

This week alone, I donated 10 shirts to a woman that had fallen on hard times, toiletries to a church that makes kits for the homeless, and bedding for a woman escaping an abusive relationship who had been sleeping on the floor. In the past, I’ve gifted winter gear for people on a reservation in South Dakota, board games, tickets and coupons to Mall of America, wedding decor, baby gates, and have lent out a travel car seat cover. In the cases of people in need, someone else in the group is usually posting and collecting the items on their behalf, so their identities remain anonymous.

Of course, you can donate your stuff to Goodwill or local thrift shops or shelters, but what happens to that stuff after you drop it off? Minnesota author Adam Minter wrote a book about this called “Secondhand,” where he visited Goodwills and followed the stuff from drop off through the whole process. The truth is, two-thirds of the stuff dropped off at Goodwill can’t be sold in stores, or isn’t desirable, like heavy furniture or exercise equipment, and ends up being exported overseas, sent to outlet stores, recycled, or as trash.

If you’re in Minnesota and looking for other places to donate your items, check out donategoodstuff.org. Here you can type in the items you have and get a list of places specifically in need of those things.

For me, donating my stuff directly to people or organizations that I know will make good use of them not only feels good in a charitable way, but is also a form of climate action. The more that our stuff can be circulated to other people who will use it, and stay out of the trash that much longer, the better. The secondhand market is growing and becoming more mainstream, even for people who can afford to buy new but choose not to.

I hope this trend continues to grow in popularity, and know there are many people working toward this goal. Locally, places like the Minneapolis Toy Library, Tool Library, Repair Lair and soon-to-open Rethink Tailoring are bringing new life to old stuff and keeping them out of the garbage for years to come.

So next time you have some stuff to pass on, I hope you’ll check out some of these amazing local resources, or find similar organizations in your area, and keep the circular economy going strong!

Week 15

Secondhand Shopping

85 percent of textile waste in America becomes trash

Due to their synthetic makeup, clothing that is disposed of does not decay

Americans are buying five times as much clothes as we did in the 1980s, due to fast fashion’s constant churn of new, low-quality clothing

One pair of jeans requires up to 2,000 pounds of water to produce

The New York Times and VICE

Producing and shipping new products to stores or, more often these days, directly to your doorstep, requires a lot of resources. A lot of attention lately has been focused on the fast fashion industry, which refers to popular stores like H&M and ZARA who produce cheap, low-quality clothing that keeps consumers coming back to buy more and more.

I used to shop at these stores, too. It’s hard to resist an $8 T-shirt. Even if it doesn’t fit quite right or gets holes in it after a few washes, who cares? It was only $8!

But now, I know better. I can’t tell you the last time I shopped at any of these stores. I have bought a few new items here and there, but with a closet that’s already too full of clothes as it is, the desire to add new items to my wardrobe is all but gone.

Clothes are not the only thing we buy too much of. We are inundated with messages to buy more of this and more of that, to replace perfectly good products with new-and-improved models, and the virtually uncontrollable impulse to buy something just because it’s a “good deal.” If you haven’t watched “Minimalism” on Netflix yet, it will really open your eyes to just how out of control our culture of “stuff” has become.

Of course, we do need to buy stuff every now and again. Especially with kids, who outgrow and break and wear out their clothes, toys, books every time we turn around. For most people, this means hopping on Amazon and getting new stuff shipped to your door in a matter of days or even hours. But the first place I go? Facebook.

I extolled the virtues of Facebook Marketplace in my Green Halloween post. Even better than Marketplace is my neighborhood buy/sell/trade group, which has over 5,000 members who are looking to unload stuff they no longer want, while looking for the kinds of stuff I am ready to pass on. In the past year, I have sold furniture, a stroller, toys, clothes and other items, and have bought high-quality clothing, shoes and games for my family. Today alone, I bought some clothes for my son from one person and sold two toys to someone else!

This type of consumption is known as a circular economy. Instead of buying things new, using them and then disposing of them, it’s the practice of passing things on to others to use, which means fewer new products to manufacture and less waste to dispose of at the end.

There’s a lot more I could say about this topic, but I am going to break it into several posts since it’s been a big focus of mine for a while now. Until then, I’d love to hear how you participate in the circular economy!

Week 14

Joining a Co-op

This week was my birthday, and I got the No. 1 thing on my list: a membership to our local co-op! Mississippi Market has three locations in St. Paul, and is the place to get organic, local and bulk foods. A lifetime membership is only $90, and comes with quarterly coupons, special member pricing on certain items, and partial ownership of the store, which can mean earning dividends if the co-op exceeds its profit margins.

Early morning; I was the second one in 🙂

I had been to the co-op a few times in the past several years, but only bought a couple things on each trip. Co-ops have a reputation for being expensive, and they are definitely different than your average grocery store. For one, all of the produce is organic, so by default it’s going to cost more. The selection is more limited, so if you’re looking for specific brands, they can be harder to find. Shopping in bulk can also be a little intimidating the first time, but luckily I’ve had some practice in this area already.

With my new membership card on my keychain, I set off for my first real co-op shopping trip! I came prepared with my reusable shopping bags, as well as compost bags for produce and containers for the bulk items on my list. Here’s how it went:

Produce: The produce selection was excellent, especially for the middle of winter in Minnesota. Though I was a little disappointed that they have the standard rolls of plastic bags, they did carry a lot more unpackaged produce than where I usually shop (Target and Trader Joe’s, mostly). Since it was organic, it was a little more expensive than the norm, but in most cases only by about 50 cents a pound. I got all of the produce on my list, including bananas, apples, bell peppers, salad and mushrooms in bulk, which I put in one of my reusable containers. The rest fit in my compostable bags or just loose in the cart.

Packaging be damned!

Bulk foods: This is the section where I will shop the most at this store. On this trip, I only got a pound of noodles and some lemon poppyseed spices, but it’s definitely going to be where I get things like oatmeal, rice and coffee when we run out of our current supply. They provide paper bags, or you are welcome to bring your own, and there are instructions on how to weigh and mark your containers so they can be rung up when you check out.

Bulk is the best!

Packaged foods: Though I had some packaged foods on my list (cereal, chips, granola bars, snacks for the kids), I only got a few items. I am not sure why, but popular brands like Cheerios, KIND bars and Amy’s frozen meals are a lot more expensive here than at Target. Milk was also noticeably more, both dairy and soy. I found some granola bars, Annie’s brand snacks, tofu, soy sauce, cheese and a loaf of bread that were decently priced, but I decided this is not the place to buy milk, cereal and frozen pizza, and left those on the list for another store.

Other perks: At checkout, I was asked whether I wanted to donate my credit for bringing my own bags. The co-op chooses a different nonprofit to donate to each month, and this month is a clean energy group that invests in solar and other clean energy. How could I say no to that? I also liked that the receipt told me how much I saved (only 50 cents this time), and how much of my total purchase was from local producers ($21 of my $63 total, so a full third. Awesome!). We also get discounts at other local retailers, including our favorite running store and vegan restaurant!

After one trip, I feel good having the co-op as an option for items like bulk foods, local and organic produce, and quality brands like Annie’s. Though it won’t be our main grocery store, it will definitely be part of the mix, and I’m looking forward to getting more involved in things like classes and other co-op events in the future.

Week 13

Upstream Waste

When people first get started trying to reduce their waste, they usually think about buying less stuff that they’ll eventually have to throw away. But as I’ve started to learn over time, responsible disposal is only part of the equation. Even if you recycle, compost or reuse whatever it is you bought, it doesn’t cancel out the fact that a lot of resources went into producing it in the first place.

For example, paper is a renewable resource, but that doesn’t mean composting your paper towels completely offsets the trees that were cut down and all the other energy that went into producing them. I’ve also read that if you have to choose, buying something that is made from recycled materials is better than buying something that is recyclable.

This week’s challenge was further educating myself on this topic, which is known as upstream waste. Here is a short list of what I learned:

  • Paper products: Climate Fwd. was on the same wavelength again this week with its article on paper towels. Yes they are compostable, but it takes a long time for a newly planted tree to mature and absorb as much carbon dioxide as its more mature relatives. We bought bamboo paper towels a while ago, and my mother-in-law gave me some handmade cloth napkins for my birthday, so using these items more often will definitely help. We have not made the switch from Kleenex or toilet paper, but will look for recycled paper products in these categories moving forward.
  • Plastic: Plastic straws, bags, cups and other single-use plastic gets a lot of media attention when it ends up in the ocean, air, and virtually everywhere in between. It’s gotten so much attention, in fact, that in surveys people (incorrectly) say it has a bigger impact on climate change than fossil fuels. But plastic isn’t entirely evil, and in some cases can be the better choice. For example, a paper bag has to be used multiple times to have the same carbon footprint as a plastic bag used once. And glass is much heavier and therefore takes more fuel to transport than plastic. When buying single-use plastics, I make sure to opt for the recyclable ones (clear 1, 2 and 5 plastics where I live) and avoid the others (6, 7 and black/opaque plastic regardless of number).
  • Almond milk: We switched from cow’s milk to non-dairy milk a few months ago in an effort to reduce our consumption of animal products. Like many people, we landed on almond milk as our preferred alternative. But then this article came out about the massive amounts of water required to process almonds, and that the bees that pollinate them have been dying by the billions. So it’s back to soy milk we go.
  • Food: When we first started composting, I thought that was the answer to all the food that went uneaten in my house. But more recently, I’ve learned that stopping food waste long before it hits the compost bin is the ultimate solution. I joined a local food waste Facebook group where people give away food that they don’t like or have too much of before it goes bad. I also learned about programs in my county that donate food to food shelves or farms as animal feed so it doesn’t go to waste.
  • Clothes: Sure, I can donate, sell or recycle my clothes when I am done wearing them. But it’s better to buy high-quality, synthetic-free clothing in the first place, which is produced more responsibly and will last longer, making any added price worth it. Brands like Alternative Apparel, People Tree, Patagonia and DL 1961 jeans are some to look for. Avoid H&M, Zara and other fast-fashion retailers at all costs!

What other factors play into your purchase decisions other than how you will dispose of them when they’ve reached the end of their life cycle?

Week 12 Recap: Mending

I am giving myself a 75% on successfully completing this one. After committing to the challenge, I realized I lacked even the most basic equipment to make it happen. Yes, I really and truly did not own a needle and thread. How embarrassing!

I finally made it to the fabric store on Sunday, and was honestly a little intimated. I am so out of my comfort zone in this area, and I didn’t even know what I was looking for. But I sucked it up and drove to the cute little independent sewing shop about half a mile from my house, Treadle Yard Goods. I’ve passed it probably a hundred times and have never gone in.

Boy, am I glad that I did! The women working there were super helpful, and were it not for them, I definitely would have bought the wrong stuff. For my socks, they recommended embroidery thread, which is what I used to buy to make friendship bracelets as a kid (those were the days!). For my jeans, she warned me that it may be a lost cause due to the extremely stretchy fabric, but directed me toward the proper iron-on patches and thread to give it a shot.

Patches, thread, needles, a ball and clothes in need of repair

$11 and a signup for their email newsletter later, and I was off. I got home and worked on my socks first, using the tutorial I found. The result was nothing short of amazing. Seriously; it was so rewarding to sew the thread back and forth across the hole, and with one swift tug, voila! The hole was gone. The other sock had an identical hole, and I closed it up like the seasoned pro I had become in the previous five minutes.

Next, my jeans. They are stretching at the seams of both back pockets, making it pretty uncouth to wear them out of the house. I did as the shop keeper instructed and cut thin strips out of the iron-on patches, then ironed them onto the inside of my jeans.

I was instructed to next sew through the pants and the patches together and see what happens. I did not get to that step yet, but tried the jeans on and could tell the patches are not going to stay put on their own. So I will give that a shot when I have a free moment and see if they survive a day of wear. If it doesn’t work, they will become my “house jeans” until they fully bust.

With this challenge under my belt, I am excited to darn some more socks for myself and my family members. And now that I’m on the sewing shop’s email list, maybe I’ll even sign up for a class!

Week 12


Cooking, cleaning, sewing: Those skills we were supposed to learn back in Home Ec class did not stick with me. I begrudgingly cook and clean when I absolutely have to, and I can maybe sew on a button, but that’s about it.

When I first got into zero waste, I would see posts and classes about mending clothes. The idea is that if you can do a few basic sewing projects, you can salvage clothes with small holes or tears that would otherwise become trash.

So this week, I am challenging myself to learn two basic mending skills: darning socks and patching jeans. For the socks, I found this tutorial which seems totally doable!

For the jeans, I bought a pair of Gap jeans at a thrift store this summer and I love them, but didn’t notice they were stretching beyond their means at the back pockets. I don’t have a sewing machine, so my options may be more limited on this one. I am not finding a great tutorial for this online, but I’ll keep digging. I may just need to bring the jeans to the fabric store and ask them what I need.

So that’s it! Sounds simple, but is definitely out of my comfort zone and not something I’ve made time to learn how to do in the past. Wish me luck!

Week 11

Holiday Waste

An addition 1 million tons of trash are thrown out every week between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

Merry Christmas! Our holiday was spread out over a week this year due to family travels, so today we opened our gifts from Santa and immediate family. The kids got everything they wanted and more, and the adults made out pretty good, too!

By 7 a.m., all of the presents were opened, and all of the wrapping and packaging was all over the living room, staring at me. There is a lot of confusion about what can be recycled, composted and what is trash in general, and it’s even more confusing around the holidays. This year, I took extra care to make sure I only bought recyclable wrapping paper (no glitter or foil allowed), and used gift bags, ribbon and tissue paper we already had. But that still left plenty of packaging and other things to sort out, and it isn’t always obvious where they should go.

The aftermath

Lucky for us, our local recycling company has a pretty sweet app where you can type in virtually any item, and it will tell you what to do with it. It’s important to note that recycling is not universal, so what my hauler accepts is probably not the same as what yours does. With that caveat in mind, here is what I learned:

  • Wrapping paper: As long as it is plain paper, it is recyclable. I also learned through my zero waste Facebook group that it should be flattened and not balled up, so that it gets sorted as paper at the recycling facility. You should also remove as much tape as you can before recycling. And of course, save any salvageable pieces to use again next year!
  • Tissue paper: Not recyclable, but compostable. If ripped or super small, compost it. Otherwise, fold it up and put it away for reuse.
  • Packaging: This one is arguably the toughest. Cardboard boxes can go in the recycling, but again you should remove the tape. As for plastic, unless is has a #1 recycling symbol on it, it is garbage. If it’s a box/plastic combo, like many toy packages are, you need to separate the plastic from the cardboard before putting it in your bin.
Separate plastic from cardboard before recycling
  • Cards/envelopes: If plain paper, recycle! If only the front of the card has glitter on it, rip it off and recycle the rest.
  • Christmas trees: Our garbage hauler will take one tree per household for free and recycle it as yard waste. All we have to do is put it out in the alley before trash day.
  • Unwanted gifts: Inevitably, you will get something you already have or really don’t want. Instead of putting it in a closet and forgetting about it, see if you can find someone else who could use it. We have great buy/sell/trade as well as buy nothing groups on Facebook for my neighborhood, and the Donate Good Stuff website allows you to type in the item you want to donate and find places that need it.

We still have a full bag of trash after this morning’s gift opening, but I feel good knowing that what I put in the recycling is actually recyclable, rather than trying to guess. Next year, I will be even more conscious of the packaging the gifts I buy come in, and will also check whether I can find it secondhand before buying something new (which I did for my husband’s main gift).

Happy holidays! I hope this is helpful and will make your holiday season as low waste as possible.

Week 10 Recap: Being the Change

I may not subscribe to the cultish way of life known by millions as The Secret, but there is something to be said about putting your intentions out in the universe and feeling like someone is listening. That idea did, in a way, play into some of the things that happened this week. Others might call it coincidence, but because I’d like to believe that life isn’t entirely a series of random happenstance with no greater purpose, here are some things that I (may or may not have) willed to happen last week.

  1. While I tried to influence a completely zero waste holiday party at work, I was not in charge of picking the caterer, and the one selected came complete with plastic plates and plastic forks individually wrapped in more plastic. A colleague and I teamed up to provide compostable napkins and cups, and brought compost bags that she took home with her for curbside pickup. I made signs so everyone knew what to put where, and for the most part people followed suit. When we got to the end of the week and there were still leftovers, she brought home what wasn’t going to be consumed.

    I don’t know if people appreciated or even cared about the availability of compost at the party, but I hope the fact that it was an option for the first time at least planted the seed for some. Then, today, I went to the office bathroom, and the garbage cans had brand new stickers that said they are for paper towels for compost only. I know this has been in the works for a while, but the fact that they appeared less than a week after our first office compost effort was pretty … interesting?

2. I wrote a letter to the editor of my neighborhood newspaper, and it was published in last week’s issue. It was about avoiding Amazon and unnecessary packaging and minimizing gift-giving in general as a means of reducing your impact on the planet.

The founder of my local zero waste group, who I’ve gotten to know over the past year or so, read it and messaged me, asking if I’d like to be on the group’s steering committee. There’s nothing set in stone yet, but the fact that she saw my letter and asked shows that I am heading in the right direction and becoming viewed more and more as an expert in this arena.

There was a third thing that happened last week that is too premature to share, but hopefully I will be able to share it soon. In the meantime, even though this challenge is done, I will continue to put my climate action out in the open, and wait and see how the universe responds in return.

Week 10

Being the Change

“Be the change you want to see in the world”

Mahatma Ghandi

I know, I know. This is the most overused trope of all time. But stay with me here.

I’ve been at this thing long enough now that friends, family and colleagues are starting to believe that I may be onto something, and now look to me for advice. Earlier this month, my long-awaited article on how families can “go green” was published in Minnesota Parent, a wonderful local magazine I started writing for this year, solidifying my expertise in this subject matter.

So this week, I am challenging myself to challenge others to start seeing things differently. The first place I am doing this is at my office holiday lunch. To be honest, I was feeling pretty bitter about it after my suggestions for eco-conscious caterers were ignored. But I am taking control of what I can and teaming up with a colleague to have at least some compostable items at the party.

I also decided to create a master list of local TerraCycle drop-off locations, which I am crowdsourcing from my local zero waste Facebook group, that can be shared and updated more widely.

What I’m realizing is that so much of this movement centers on education. Even if people know what they should or could do, they don’t always know how or have the resources to do it correctly. That is where people like me can take what we’ve learned and share it with others who are eager to make changes themselves, but don’t know where to start.

With “being the change” top of mind, I’m excited to see what other opportunities present themselves this week to encourage those around me to make changes themselves.

Week 9 Recap: Food Waste

I’ll admit, I did not give this week’s challenge my best effort. It was a combination of work stress, holiday stress, being sick, and having so many things on my never-ending to-do list that some days, it’s hard to even know where to start.

But you know what else is hard? Trying to reduce your carbon footprint, or go zero waste, or whatever you want to call it, takes so much more effort than the life that many of us are accustomed to living. It’s a lot easier to throw everything in the garbage than it is to sort it all out into compost, curbside recycling, store-back recycling and TerraCycle. It’s a lot easier to buy food that comes in packaging, recyclable or otherwise. It’s a lot easier to eat meat than to avoid it. And on and on and on.

But back to the topic at hand, I did pay attention to food waste this week. I did not designate a shelf in the fridge, but I did clean it out and tossed the old stuff, so I at least know what’s in there now. I brought my orange peels home from work to compost. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my husband finished it for me … that counts, right? 🙂

I was also on the same page as last week’s Climate Fwd email, which cited reducing food waste as the third most important thing we can do, right above eating a plant-based diet (which my husband and I are also doing full-time now). Another goal I had was to stop bringing Lean Cuisines to work for lunch, so I did not buy any this weekend, will use up the ones I have in the freezer, then be done with them. There’s always plenty of fresh food in our fridge that I can and should bring instead (plus, I just learned I can’t recycle the boxes they come in despite the packaging saying that you can, boo).

So it wasn’t a perfect week, but I did make some changes I can stick to and build upon over time. And until doing the right thing becomes the easy thing, I’ll continue to do the hard thing. Because there is no other choice.