Posts Tagged ‘zero waste girl’

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For Earth Day,  A Story Of Renovation

There’s Never A “Best” Time To Start

I started trying to reduce my waste at the absolute worst time. After college, a few friends and I decided to move into my grandparents’ former home, which was still filled with their possessions and in disrepair. With no jobs lined up and plenty of free time on our hands, we traded our first year’s rent in exchange for fixing up the place.

Although it took some time before we could move in, today we are happily settled (though we are still renovating). Our kitchen is tiled, the walls are painted, and most of the light fixtures are in working order. The house feels like home. It took a lot to get there.

First: To The Dumpster

Most of the first few weeks consisted of throwing things out. Proper disposal was key: we took old pesticides, oil based paints, and appliances to the local landfill, which has a hazardous waste disposal program. When we first started going through the house, it quickly became clear: we had no idea what we were going to do. If there were ever a lesson in how much we leave behind in our lifetimes, this was it. My grandparents weren’t excessive consumers, but they both grew up in poor rural families and apparently saved everything they ever owned. So much for reducing waste – we had to figure out how to dispose of old oil paint, ratty, stained carpet, and a plethora of rusty nails.

Fix The Foundation: Flooring

Throughout the renovation process, flooring was one of the trickiest matters. Our budget was “as small as possible,” but we had to do something. We learned the hard way – with mold and rot – that the base level of plywood does not make a good bathroom floor.

Old carpet, unfortunately, went in the trashcan, and I resolved never to install carpet in a future home. In hindsight, I learned that carpet can sometimes be recycled. However, if you have hardwood floors (like we did) beneath the carpet, it doesn’t make sense to put it in in the first place. If you’re going to install, smaller pieces are more eco-friendly, and remnants are available for a discount at many stores.

After the carpet was removed from the living room, upstairs, and kitchen (yes, kitchen), we needed to put something on the floor. I researched many options, including vinyl tile (the cheapest), but ended up settling on ceramic tile for the kitchen. Because I was putting something new in my home, I didn’t want the off gassing from vinyl (which is highly toxic). Vinyl is also toxic throughout its life cycle Linoleum was an eco-friendly option, but we couldn’t find a color we liked. Since the area we wanted to tile was so small, we decided it wouldn’t affect the budget too much and was the most viable option.

Next, we started fixing what we had. We restored the hardwood floors on the main level, though we just cleaned the ones upstairs. We visited a building materials thrift store, the Community Forklift, and bought paint for the peeling front steps and the upstairs bathroom. The furniture in the house was in great condition, but we put felt pads on the chairs and tables to protect the floors.

Personalizing Your Home.

Finally, we started to create a home we wanted to live in. The living room couch was fine, but we added a washable slipcover to adapt it to the colors we wanted. I started landscaping, tearing out weeds that had become small trees, and planting native and drought-tolerant species in the beds already in the yard. This year, I added cedar raised beds, chosen for their durability, and filled them with compost.

Throughout the renovation process, we threw out as little as possible and reused what we could. My grandfather had a host of building supplies in the basement, and the nails we used to hang pictures all came from his stash. When we were mostly finished renovating and needed some dishes, we went to the thrift store. I kept the bookshelf from the master bedroom and all of the old light fixtures. We refused to throw out anything useable and kept most of the old linens, though we took the extras to the thrift store.

An Act Of Remembrance.

For me, the renovation was as much an act of remembrance as it was restoration. I didn’t hold onto items that were no longer useful purely for remembrance, but every morning I use my grandparents’ old, stained teakettle to boil water. Some of the tools in the basement helped me start my first solo vegetable garden, and the small yellow lamp on my desk once belonged to my grandfather and now helps me write.

Reducing Consumption. 

Renovating the house only reinforced my commitment to reducing my consumption. I gained some incredible insight into my grandparents’ lives and learned bits and pieces of their stories I never heard when they were alive, and I’m living in the midst of their legacies every day. I wonder, too, who first owned the giant soup pot we found at the thrift store. Who did some of my cookbooks once belong to? And when and why did my grandmother buy those knee-high black leather boots with the three inch heels?

Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero Waste Girl

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Does your furry friend have an outsized carbon pawprint?

Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero Waste Girl

Each morning, as the cats wind around my legs and meow for their breakfast, I wonder exactly how much damage their canned cat food is doing to the earth. I make every effort to keep my own life sustainable, my carbon footprint low, but I adopted two carnivores.

Dogs can be vegetarian, but cats can’t. They need taurine in their diets, an amino acid that only comes from animals. Forget species: most pet food is problematic anyways. In fact, according to Robert and Brenda Vale, authors of Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living, a medium-size dog is worse for the environment than an SUV. The worst part of the impact comes from diet. Cats, in comparison, are kind of like a Smart Car. They’re not guzzling gas, but they’re still emitting CO2.

So how can we make our pets more sustainable?

Let’s start with food.

No matter how I budget, there’s only so much of my salary I can afford to spend on sustainably sourced pet food. Plus, my cats like the cheap stuff. Friskies generates more meows than Dave’s, so we’ve settled on Iams, an in-between brand I can still pick up at the local grocery store. None are particularly great options. Purina touts its sustainable practices, but it’s owned by Nestle. I feed the cats a fixed quantity of wet food along with an open supply of higher quality and more eco-friendly dry food.

Vets generally agree that wet food is healthier for pets. If your budget stretches a little farther than mine, you might consider buying dehydrated food, which has a lower carbon footprint when shipped. It’s rehydrated by adding water at home. And if you’re really into getting high quality and eco-friendly food for your pet, you can make your own.  Unfortunately, it’s time consuming and expensive.

My favorite place to find a balanced blend of sustainable and healthy food is the Big Bad Woof, a local pet store chain with locations in Maryland and DC. The employees are always helpful, and there’s a good selection of brands at a variety of price points. The store carries supplies for all common household pets, including birds and small rodents.


If you’ve ever cared for a kitten, you know a balled up piece of newspaper can be just as engrossing as a fancy, ten dollar toy. Cats love boxes. Anything lying around the house. My kitten chases bouncy balls and a laser pointer, and anything tied to a swinging string.

Your cat might chatter at the birds and squirrels outside, but keep them indoors. Not only will the pet avoid being hit by cars, getting into fights with other cats, and a variety of nasty diseases, you’ll keep the predatory instincts in check. Cats are reportedly responsible for billions of small mammal and bird deaths each year.

Dogs, similarly, can be entertained without spending much money. Plenty of parks allow canine companions, and there are several hiking trails in the area that do as well. There are also quite a few companies making more sustainable versions of dog toys, in case you want to pick up something more durable for your pet to chew.

Some smaller pets, like hamsters, enjoy playing in old paper towel or toilet paper tubes.


The stinky part, and the least exciting part of owning a pet. For cleaning up after a dog, some stores and online outlets sell biodegradable doggy bags. In theory, the whole thing degrades in the landfill. Since most landfills are too tightly packed to allow for much biodegradation, I’m a fan of using plastic newspaper bags, tortilla packaging, or anything else that might end up in the trash.

Cat waste is a more serious problem. About 2 million pounds of litter head to landfills each year. Clay litter (the most popular kind) is strip mined, but it lasts longer and contains smells better than many other options. One alternative is pine pellets, but many cats don’t appreciate the change in texture. Some people toilet train their cats, but my supposedly fastidiously clean animals prefer to use the toilet to drink. The lid stays closed now.

Any animal could, in theory, have its waste composted – but not for any compost you’ll put on edible plants. Plus, there’s the smell to contend with. Small animals that live in wood shavings, like hamsters, produce less waste and therefore less smell. If you’re comfortable composting, go for it! (But keep it very, very separate from anything going near your food).

Can we really shrink the pawprint?

In the end, pets don’t create as much of an environmental challenge as humans. It makes more sense to address our own shortcomings first. However, if you really want to make your pet’s life more sustainable, start with food. Go to your local pet store and talk to some experts. When it comes to toys, reuse, reuse, reuse. And, well, waste is difficult. Composting is probably the best option, but it comes with many challenges.

Finally, this wouldn’t be a piece about responsible pet ownership without a disclaimer at the end. Spay and neuter your animals. Puppies, kittens, and other baby pets are cute, but there are already too many animals without homes.

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Extraction Has A Human Face

Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero Waste Girl

At Power Shift 2013, thousands of young people gathered to talk and learn about justice in the environmental movement. Held Oct. 18-21, the latest edition of the biannual conference focused on the the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality with fossil fuel extraction and climate change. And as the problems with racism and environmental justice issues continue to be prevalent in Washington, D.C., this conference couldn’t have come sooner.

As an environmental reporter focusing on justice and as a past Power Shift organizer, I was eager to attend the conference’s newest iteration. It’s no secret the environmental movement is deeply divided. Environmental justice (EJ) advocates have long said mainstream environmental activists focus on politics and policy at the expense of people. Mainstream environmentalists argue some sacrifice is necessary for progress. But sacrifice for whom?

“We don’t think of the people who are sacrificed to make our lives easier,” said Yudith Nieto, one of the conference’s keynote speakers. “I am one of them.”

With panels such as “A Cage or a Classroom?: The School-to-Prison Pipeline Affecting EJ Communities,” and “Economic Justice and Empowerment: Challenging Classism in Our Communities,” attendees were introduced to the impacts felt by frontline communities by people from those communities. “People, not policies,” is an uncomfortable reality, but one that needs to be faced.

Nieto lives in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston, Texas, one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the U.S. The community is surrounded by the Valero, Lyondell Basell, and Texas Petro-Chemicals oil refineries, and residents suffer from elevated incidence of cancer and asthma, among other disease. Now, the community is preparing for an onslaught of tar sands from the Southern half of the Keystone XL.

In addition to Nieto, activists traveled from frontline communities in states ranging from Louisiana to California, and Indiana to Utah. The keynote speakers included Kimberly Wasserman of Little Village, Chicago, Josh Fox, director of Gasland, and twelve-year-old Ta’Kaiya, singer-songwriter of the Sliammon Nation who performed to thunderous applause.

Power Shift 2013 wasn’t without its controversies, including a counter protest and pamphlet handed out criticizing organizers for using empty words. “I wasn’t sure if this was the right space for my voice, my community,” Wasserman told the crowd at her keynote, explaining she her tough decision. She decided to attend Power Shift, she said, because, “…the reality of our movement calls for tough conversations.”

If the conference had a theme this year, it was a simple one: Extraction has a human face.

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The dinners I remember best are the ones I threw together with odds and ends of ingredients.

There was the lentil barley salad made with twelve almonds and one and a half bruised peaches, the pizza whose toppings included roasted cauliflower and eggplant, and the “Great Depression” dinner where some college friends managed to turn a handful of peas, a sweet potato, soy sauce, chickpeas, and leftover lentils (sensing a theme?) into Shepherd’s Pie.

During the summer growing season, my fridge and countertops are usually overflowing with vegetables, some of which I’ve never before seen. Google is my friend, but more often than not I rely on a handful of basic recipes to pull together a new version of a meal.



Besides its standard use as pasta sauce, pesto makes a great topping sauce for pizza, a garnish for soups, and a sandwich ingredient (try it with sliced August tomatoes). You can make it with almost any green, leafy vegetable. Try using beet greens for a surprisingly pink sauce, or mustard greens for one that’s tangy and spicy. The traditional pesto is made with basil and pine nuts, but I like variety. My nut of choice – the almond – tends to be slightly sweeter, but walnuts also make a great substitute. Puree together four cups of greens, one or two cloves of minced garlic, a half cup of olive oil, and a quarter cup of nuts. Adjust and add salt and parmesan cheese to taste.

Freeze any extra pesto in an ice cube tray for meal-sized leftovers


Vegan, vegetarian, or meat-lover, it’s surprisingly easy to elevate this simple dish into one worthy of a dinner party. Caramelize your leftover onions, slice up those tomatoes, and toss on some shredded raw kale. Throw caution to the wind and mix together fresh mozzarella, arugula, and sliced cherry tomatoes. Play around with the types of cheese and the sauce.


An egg (or, if vegan, ground flaxseed), a couple tablespoons of flour, and shredded veggies make an easy and delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Mix the ingredients with your hands, separate into golfball sized chunks, then flatten and fry on a skillet. Try shredded sweet potato and chipotle flour or zucchini and Old Bay seasoning, then add to sandwiches or eat alone.

Veggie Pie

My Mom makes spinach pie for special occasions, and when I went away to college I learned to make it with my own twist. I’ve used collards, kale, and beet greens in addition to – and instead of – spinach. To make the pie, I start with Tamar Adler’s olive oil tart dough.* Next, I mix together handfuls of cooked greens, about a sixth as much cheese, and (if there’s one laying around), an egg. As always, salt to taste.

Another twist: try mixing together pureed roasted veggies instead of greens. My favorite version includes roasted butternut squash, caramelized onions, and asiago cheese.


The best salads make full, hearty meals. Starting with a base of raw greens (spinach, kale, mesclun), try mixing together a grain (bulgur, barley, quinoa, brown rice), a protein (lentils! chickpeas, crumbled feta), something sweet (raisins, chopped apples, strawberries), and something salty (roasted almonds or sunflower seeds, croutons, crumbled pretzels). Experiment with texture: try chopped kohlrabi and blueberries, or roasted beets and goat cheese. Try cooked greens instead of raw, or omit them entirely and throw in a roasted vegetable instead. Anything bitter (turnips, I’m looking at you) will be sweeter when roasted and even tastier when drizzled in vinegar or oil. Serve with a slice of toast rubbed with raw garlic and herbs. Need to kick it up a notch? Drizzle olive oil and balsamic vinegar over your bowl.

*An Everlasting Meal is my favorite cookbook of all time, and that’s saying something. About a quarter of the books I own revolve around food.

Written by Caroline Selle, the Zero-Waste Girl