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  • Susan Russell

Green Products for Our Zero Waste Adventure

“It’s not easy being green.”

-Kermit the Frog

My favorite Muppet got it right. If one is inclined to be an environmentally conscious consumer today, there’s a lot to navigate. Not the least of which are the increasingly large volume of so-called “green” products that are more like shades of gray.

Six years ago our family took an online “Zero Waste Pledge” with the goal of trying to reduce our household’s disposable waste footprint. The first step of this odyssey began by getting all of our trash cans out of the house. Talk about a shock to one’s system. “Now what do I do with this???”

Our first two years we managed to limit our landfill-bound trash to just one bag for an entire year. But hey, we’re lightweights. Other enviable zero waste heavyweights have managed to stuff their year’s worth of disposable trash into one little mason jar. During the pandemic we maxed out at 5 bags for the year as it became harder to source bulk food that wasn’t packaged in non-recyclable plastic. Usually, the volume of our trash rises and falls in portion to the amount of holidays we’re hosting. So far for 2023 we’re on target for 1-2 bags. (3 cheers for out-of-town Thanksgiving at the relatives!)

Is this lifestyle radical, new, or so-called “woke”? Not at all. It’s the same value system my Great Depression-era parents lived by, so I actually have a memory of life before the “toss-it-out” culture our society has become. And I could wax poetic about the money we save.

Most of our zero waste strategy centers on composting food waste and buying “naked” (not wrapped in plastic) veggies, fruit, bulk grains, nuts, flours, honey, peanut butter, etc., from Tops, the East Aurora Co-op, the EA Farmers’ Market, and the Flea and Farmers’ Market on Big Tree Rd. We use reusable bags and baskets for all. Twice a year we head to Buffalo’s Little Salmon Zero Waste Store with our refillable jars/jugs and load up on bulk laundry, dish soap, lotions, etc from their Refillery Station- or we experiment with making our own when time and ambition allow.

Mostly we try to live by priorities which emphasize the vitalRs: Refuse (Do we really need this?); Reduce (Do we really need this much of it?); Reuse (can we donate or get the object of our desire second hand?); Rot (backyard compost bin); Refill- (obvious); Repair (We’ve learned so many new skills!); and Recycle- the least desirable option because our recycling system is badly flawed.

Throughout this process of trash and consumption analytics, we’ve come to believe that it’s a mistake to think we can just buy or consume our way to environmental nirvana.

However, for those times when purchasing a product furthers our goals we’ve found a few to be helpful. We believe products should be: soundly built; plastic free- especially the single-use, throwaway ones; made with recycled content as much as is feasible; and their end life should be something that can easily rot in my compost pile or truly be recycled. We also look for products that come with little to no packaging and try to source them locally.

My “inner debate-self" struggles with naming specific brands, but I do so because there’s a lot of fakery out there. ACES, as a volunteer environmental advocacy group, does not usually endorse specific products either. However, taking into consideration how much “green-washing” is out there, here are some recommendations that have helped us on our Zero Waste journey. Neither myself nor ACES receive any financial incentive from any companies named below.

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to take your own zero waste challenge! If so, check out the book and blog, “Zero Waste Home” by Bea Johnson. Her family’s journey inspired our own. You’ll find it’s not so hard being green after all!

Swedish Dish Cloths are the best cloth for anything you use disposable paper towels for— and they absorb more liquid. One cloth can replace up to 17 rolls of disposable paper towels. Made of 70% sustainably-sourced cellulose and 30% cotton, they’re reusable, biodegradable and fully compostable in our backyard bin. Plus, they come in fun patterns for every season. They can be bleached, boiled or microwaved to sanitize. You can buy these gems locally at Second Nature, the East Aurora Co-op, Ratcha Lynn, Vidlers, and the Blue Eyed Baker.

Reusable Silicone Stand-up & Sandwich Bags by “Stashers” are preventing over a billion single-use plastic bags from entering our oceans and landfills. You can store just under a quart of your favorite foods, sandwiches, leftovers, fruits, cheese, dips, etc. They contain no BPA, BPS, lead, latex, or phthalates and are dishwasher, microwave, sous-vide, and oven safe up to 425 Fº. The sandwich bag style works perfectly for freezing fruit & produce we buy seasonally from WNY farmers. Locally, we’ve seen them at Beulah’s Country Store in East Aurora and at the Little Salmon Zero Waste Store in Buffalo.

Reusable Mesh Produce Bags - Add these to your reusable grocery shopping bag, and you’ll never use plastic film produce bags again. We like the “Earthwise” brand because they have a see-through mesh that makes it easy to scan barcodes. They’re lightweight so they won’t add to your cost per pound, yet still strong for transporting the heaviest fruits and veggies. Each bag (one package includes 9) can eliminate up to 1000 plastic bags over its lifetime.

Beeswax Bowl Covers - A perfect replacement for plastic film! Beeswax bowl covers come in various sizes & prints. Look for the elastic-rimmed ones that look like shower caps- we’ve found they work best for coverage & sealing. They’re available in abundance on Esty. Manufacturers claim they’ll last for one year, but ours are 12 years old and still going strong. Bowl covers are very inexpensive (you’re spending a lot more on plastic film) and they compost at their life’s end. A local farmer at the EA Farmers Market, sells homemade beeswax sheets as does the Blue Eyed Baker. I have a crafty friend who buys them and sews elastic into them to create the cap effect.

Shampoo Soap Bars - HiBar makes natural, salon quality hair & skin care products with minimalist, plastic-free packaging. Their shampoo & conditioner bars are designed for every hair type. Just as the title implies, the products are used as you would a bar of soap for lathering up. They’re found locally at the East Aurora Co-op and Little Salmon’s Zero Waste store in Buffalo.

Refillable Make up - Even beauty be waste-free, cruelty-free and refillable. Plus, refills are often much cheaper, so choosing a sustainable option will save you money in the long run. Guerlain, Fenty Beauty, and Dior, all offer refill tubes for their lipstick. Hourglass & Glossier, sell refills for their eyeshadows that easily pop in and out of their original containers. Kjaer Weis is probably the most refill-friendly brand with 100% recyclable and compostable packaging for their refillable concealer, mascara, blush, brow gel, eye shadow, eye pencils, bronzer, highlighter, and lipstick. The Little Salmon Zero Waste Store in Buffalo has some of these brands.

Laundry Strips & Sheets - These pre-measured strips or sheets are a popular alternative to lugging home and disposing big, heavy, plastic laundry bottles. Tru-Earth is one brand available at Tops and the EA Co-op. Other brands, Earth Breeze and Nantucket Footprint, feature sheets instead of strips. Both are packaged in small cardboard boxes. One pre-measured strip or sheet per load of wash is added to front, top loader, or HE machines. They dissolve in hot and cold water. We’ve used these in addition to buying or making our own bulk detergent. Some users recommend pre-treating stains for heavily soiled laundry. Branded as vegan and cruelty free, both brands are free of bleach, phthalates, phosphates and parabens.

Bento Boxes - For lunchboxes or BYOC restaurant leftovers/takeout, we like the plastic-free and leak-proof “ECO-Lunchbox Splash Box”. It features a silicone, water-tight lid ideal for packing into a lunch bag, backpack or briefcase. The stainless steel lunch box bottoms are made to stack nest with two snack pods that sit side-by-side on top of the lunchbox or tuck inside. (There are similar kid’s lunchboxes out there with cute colors and graphics, but they’re not free of estrogen-mimicking toxins commonly found in plastic, such as BPA, BPS, and phthalates.) The steel and silicone combination is lighter than glass and nonbreakable/dishwasher safe. This product is not available in any local stores so you have to order online, but the packaging is minimal.

Coffee Makers - You may not have thought about the impact those little plastic and metal single-use coffee pods have on Mother Earth, but according to an article in The Atlantic, enough K-Cups were sold in 2014 that if placed end-to-end, they’d wrap around Earth more than 10 times. Alternatives to those and disposable paper filters are Keurig systems with metal refillable filter cups, so the only waste is coffee grinds- and you can compost those! Secura’s French Press stainless steel or glass coffee maker has a 3 layer stainless steel filter that traps even the smallest grounds. If you’re the “programmable type” try Cuisinart’s 14-Cup Programmable Coffee Maker which has a reusable filter for coffee grounds and a charcoal water filter. It’s automatic shut-off function saves energy and you can choose to brew just one to four cups for additional energy and water savings.

Dental Floss - Even the tiniest products make a difference! Floss is generally made of nylon with a wax coating and it can take decades to break down. To add insult to injury, floss is dispensed in non-recyclable hard plastic that will stick around in the landfill for up to 500 years. Our favorite replacement is found at the Little Salmon Zero Waste Store in Buffalo. It’s made of 100% fully compostable silk or charcoal bamboo fiber and is coated with candelilla wax and mint essential oil. It comes in a refillable stainless steel dispenser.

Water Bottles- Ok, so this may not be a “new” idea, but you still can’t beat a reusable water bottle for eliminating single use plastic water bottles from our waste stream. However, not all water bottles are created equal, and it’s never a good idea to drink or eat from plastic even if it’s “reusable”. The BPA plastic replacement, BPS, has been found to be persistently toxic and disruptive to our bodies endocrine system and the environment. We like the all-stainless steel varieties such as Kleen Kanteen bottles, tumblers & thermoses. They even feature bamboo and stainless steel cap options. 95% of their products are made from certified, 90% post-consumer recycled steel. Be sure to use yours at Hamlin Park’s refillable water station!

Reusable DryCleaning Bags - Each year the government estimates that over three hundred million pounds of single-use, plastic dry cleaning bags wind up in America's landfills. It’s also estimated that dry cleaners who switch to reusable bags can save around $10,000 dollars over 4 years. Reusable garment bags such as ones sold locally at Benzinger’s, double as a duffle for carrying dirty clothes to the cleaners and a hanging bag for the trip home. Online, the Green Garmento is another two-in one-option.

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