Tips for zero(ish) waste living

When Celia Ristow started publicly blogging, writing, and talking about the zero-waste movement, she felt a lot of pressure to do things perfectly — to fit her annual trash into a tiny jar, to overhaul every waste-generating part of her life.

"As a public figure in zero waste, I felt like I needed to do it perfectly," said Ristow, who runs the blog Litterless and founded the nonprofit Zero Waste Chicago. "What I found when I was trying to do it perfectly was that it was exhausting." 


Today, Ristow takes a different approach to zero waste living — one that recognizes the urgency of curbing pollution and waste, but also extends grace to herself and to those eager to make big changes. Zero waste, she said, isn't about eliminating one's garbage altogether. It's about being conscious of what you're purchasing and throwing away, and making an effort to reduce where you can. 


"It's not all or nothing," she said. "Stressing out about doing it perfectly and fitting your trash in the jar — I don’t think it’s ultimately the way to make this shift for life."

This month marks Plastic Free July, a global movement to refuse single-use plastics and reduce plastic pollution. We spoke to Ristow a few weeks ago about her zero waste lifestyle (she uses the term "zero waste" as a default, because it's widely accepted, but prefers thinking about "zero-ish" or "low" waste) to gain some inspiration and useful tips about reducing waste. 

Ristow was in college when she first learned about the concept of zero waste living. In many ways, she notes, choosing zero waste relies on leveraging one's purchasing power. When she left the dorms and set out on her adult life, she resolved that as she set up some of her daily routines — cleaning her house, and cooking her own meals — she'd make them zero waste.


She'd grown up with a backyard compost bin, and upon moving to Chicago, she did some Googling and signed up for a city service. It was as easy as sending an email, she said, and soon she wasn't adding food scraps to her garbage anymore. She purchased a few reusable produce bags and swapped out plastic bags at the grocery store. For those resolving to reduce waste in their daily lives, Ristow says, the kitchen is an easy place to start: "So much of what we consume is in our kitchen," she said, "with a weekly if not daily influx of goods." 

Other routines can be harder to retrofit for a zero waste lifestyle. Take beauty routines. "They're so personal, and we invest so much time in making them work for us," said Ristow. "Suddenly it's not just about natural ingredients and efficacy, but also about packaging."


Today, she tries to be gentle with herself, and honest with her readers, about where she succeeds and where she fails. "When I get a chance to start the conversation, the thing I talk about is, 'zero' for me is more of a stand in, it’s not really the actual goal," said Ristow. "I want people to know that they're welcome at any level."


So, perhaps that means starting with carrying a tote bag to the grocery store. A month later, start carrying a water bottle. "That's participating, and that's worthy of celebrating," said Ristow. 


New to zero-ish waste living? Ristow has some suggestions. Start with the low-hanging fruit. We're tickled she counts Bee's Wrap in that camp. "It's very easy to do something like commit to using Bee's Wrap," she said. "I didn't have to be convinced."

Other easy swaps? Use bar soap instead of liquid soap that comes in a plastic container. Get creative with reusable containers. (Ristow wraps her bread in Bee's Wrap, then stores it in her dutch oven when it's not in use.) 


Ristow's been cheered to see the zero waste movement grow and take root in the culture in the last four years. Suddenly she's seeing companies market to this community, and a greater diversity of people express interest. In Chicago, she holds monthly meet-ups — free spaces where people can have coffee or sit in the park and share zero-waste tips. She's also started hosting workshops introducing people to zero-waste living tips or composting. 


"I think at its heart, zero waste is about giving people the tools to harness every decision they make to reflect the world they want to live in," she said. "If we're going to solve climate change, if we're going to reverse our plastic pollution problem, we need to get everyone in here, and not everyone is going to participate at the same level."


Her goal? Make it clear that all are welcome. That all choices matter. And that every little bit helps.

Related Articles
Letter from sarah: business can’t afford to be silent on climate change

For a long time, conventional wisdom had it that companies shouldn’t tackle hot-button political issues. That’s advice borne out of fear: the fear that, in exchange for voicing our opinions, we risk angering customers or losing sales. 

As the founder and CEO of Bee’s Wrap, I’m motivated these days by a greater fear: that, should our elected officials fail to act on the crisis of climate change, the damage we cause to our planet will be irreversible, negatively impacting our families, our communities, and our ecosystems forever.

As a Certified B Corp, Bee’s Wrap is committed to using business as a force for good. We make sustainable products that reduce single-use plastics, use environmentally friendly and safe ingredients, and are constantly looking for additional ways to reduce our carbon footprint. I am proud to run my company in a state that values these things too, but I know that together, we can do more. This year, Bee’s Wrap added its voice to the collective commitment of the Vermont business community to do better for our environment.

On Thursday, Jan. 23, Bee’s Wrap joined dozens of other Vermont businesses to advocate at the Statehouse for climate action policies in 2020. We participated in training, lobbying, and a press conference, as well as individual and group meetings with corresponding representatives.

While the Green Mountain State has a history of innovative environmental policies, the current climate challenges require audacious solutions. This legislative term, our lawmakers have the opportunity to pass more ambitious and much-needed policy. 

I feel it is important that our elected officials hear from the Vermont business community, as we are important stakeholders in Vermont’s economy and have an impact on the environment we all share. Our team joined others from companies like Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry’s, Danforth Pewter, and Brattleboro Savings and Loan, along with environmental nonprofits VPIRG and 350VT, to speak directly to our elected officials and we urged them to take immediate action. Bee’s Wrap’s focus is on reducing the usage and availability of single-use plastics, increasing the accessibility of renewable energy, and prioritizing the reduction of climate pollution, and we support the comprehensive 2020 climate policy agenda outlined by VPIRG. 

Vermont’s small size and long history of participatory democracy provides an opportunity for Vermont business (and individual Vermonters) to have direct, substantial, face-to-face conversations with their own state representatives and legislative leaders. Bee’s Wrap participated in this event to advocate for our business values and shared priorities for bold climate action. We did this alongside our corporate peers, demonstrating together that the need for action is vital and urgent. I am proud to have led Bee’s Wrap in the participation of this direct demonstration of our core values and am excited to continue advocating for the necessary change that our state and world need.

Why biodegradability matters

Plastic is forever. Bee’s Wrap isn’t. And that’s by design.

Bee’s Wrap is naturally biodegradable and compostable. We started making Bee’s Wrap after growing deeply concerned about the persistent effect of plastics on our planet. Plastic never leaves us. It lingers in landfills for centuries. It enters our soil, our waterways, and our oceans, breaking down into tiny but ever-present pieces.

We set out to make an alternative, and we knew from the beginning that whatever we made needed to be biodegradable. That’s because we believe in considering the entire life of the products we make and consume, from their creation and manufacturing to their eventual end. Where does a product come from? How is it made? And crucially, what happens when we no longer need or use this item?

This is where biodegradability comes in: A product that is biodegradable can be easily returned to the earth. It’s a technology as old as time, and everything made in nature returns to nature with time. There’s no complicated recycling process, and no need to send your Bee’s Wrap off to a special facility. Made from four simple ingredients, Bee’s Wrap comes from the earth, and is designed to return to the earth. 

Importantly, what you do with naturally biodegradable materials matters. Modern landfills are lined and packed tightly, creating an oxygen-poor environment where even food can take decades to decompose. One study conducted by the University of Arizona uncovered 25-year-old hotdogs, corncobs, and grapes, as well as 50-year-old newspapers that were still readable. Food waste that decomposes in landfills also generates methane gas, which has 34 times the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide, according to Project Drawdown, a coalition of researchers working on climate change solutions. 

This is why composting is so important; food waste, yard waste, and other organic material holds valuable nutrients that can be returned to the soil after decomposition. The same is true for Bee’s Wrap. When your wrap has reached the end of its useful life — typically after about a year of regular use and proper care in your kitchen — you can use your wraps as a natural fire starter, or you can add them directly to your backyard compost pile. With a little time and the right environmental conditions, your Bee’s Wrap will break down into nutritious compost that you can use in your backyard garden. 

We’ve designed Bee’s Wrap to be hardworking, a trusty companion in your kitchen and on the go as you seek out plastic-free alternatives that are good for you and the planet. As your Bee’s Wrap begins to wear out, we hope you’ll look on those signs of wear and use as a welcome reminder of the natural cycles that surround us.

The joy of inconvenience

Choosing inconvenience can be an act of quiet revolution. 

For too long, we’ve been told that convenience will cure what ails us. How convenient, to find our meals prepackaged in the freezer section of our grocery store, our bread baked and sliced and stowed in plastic bags. It’s convenient to pop a load of laundry in the dryer and to have our work at our fingertips, forever accessible on the devices we carry in our pockets. We click a button and, conveniently, that which we need — or think we need — arrives on our doorstep: underwear, paper towels, a birthday gift, a box of cereal.

We don’t talk often enough about how convenience can harm us. For the convenience of a smartphone, we trade the quiet of disconnecting. For the convenience of fast and pre-packaged food, we swallow a meal that may leave us sluggish or unsatisfied. Pre-packaged meals and one-click shopping leave us with a mountain of waste bound for the recycling can or the landfill. We’ve been promised efficiency and speed, and the freedom of time. Sometimes we receive that. Sometimes we don’t. 

The truth is, there’s joy in inconvenience. In the smell of bread baked at home, the magic of a few ingredients kneaded together and turned into sustenance. There’s joy in taking laundry out to the line, in standing in the sunlight and hanging clothes to dry. There’s joy and pride in knitting a sweater, or mending a pair of jeans. 

woman wrapping homemade bread in bee's wrap sustainable food storage

We’re not arguing for a return to the past, or for a rose-colored view of the very real work that it takes to clothe and feed and nourish ourselves in a way that’s kind to our bodies and our planet. There’s a time and a place for convenience, and there’s also luxury, and privilege, in the ability to savor inconvenience. 

Is it, occasionally, inconvenient to make a meal from scratch? To bundle a sandwich in Bee’s Wrap, or to spend a few minutes at the sink, washing dishes and reusable containers and Bee’s Wrap by hand? Yes.

Sometimes, we choose the joy of inconvenience, the quiet resistance of finding a different way of moving in the world — a path that’s lighter for the planet and more fulfilling for the individual. We choose to slow down. We choose thoughtfulness. We choose reuse. And we find, in those habits, new satisfaction.