What is the minimal set of items that can maximize your preparedness for a zero-waste day?
It feels so good when I make a purchase or order food and have the perfect zero waste solution at my fingertips.
“Do you need a bag for that?” Oh no thank you, I have one right here!
“Can I get you a to-go box?” No thanks! I’ve got a tupperware in my backpack!
“Want to grab coffee?” Sure! Let me bring the travel mug I always keep at my desk!
“I forgot my fork!” No worries, I’ll go get the extra set I keep in my car!
But there are also times when being prepared isn’t easy, and I’m forced to be flexible with a zero-waste solution. In fact, there are many days when I want to travel light or when I’m not near a place where I can conveniently store clunkier items like takeout containers and travel mugs. Instead, I need items that are lightweight and versatile. Enter: my minimal zero waste essentials.
If I want to strike a balance between being prepared for a variety of zero-waste possibilities and not lugging around a giant tote bag of zero-waste supplies, I pack just three items:
- Water Bottle
- Cloth Bag
These three items form my minimal set of zero-waste items that get the job done in a wide range of potentially wasteful scenarios. These items can do most of the zero-waste legwork in a pinch, and they fit in my hand or in a small purse. While not necessarily the most convenient or elegant, the zero-waste solutions these items offer can get me through a day of avoiding trash. Here’s how it works for me:
It’s helpful for me to remember that a water bottle can hold more than just H2O. You can use a water bottle to hold lots of different beverages, from hot coffee to iced tea. My favorite type of water bottle is metal with a wide mouth. A bottle with a wide mouth makes for easier cleaning of non-water contents. It is also useful if your water bottle has a handle that makes it easier to carry with you everywhere. Alternatively, you could use a travel mug or thermos as a water bottle. Fill up your bottle/mug/thermos with water at the start of the day, then use it to store hot drinks or food as needed. You can rinse the bottle throughout the day and then clean it thoroughly when you get home.
Many restaurants or coffee shops are willing to serve a drink in your water bottle. I recently got bubble tea in a water bottle (which did involve a printed sticker with my order on it, but at least saved a cup, lid and straw). Water bottles can also hold things other than beverages. When I don’t have a full gamut of zero-waste tools, I can use my water bottle to hold food of any sort. No matter how strange it looks, eating soup from a clean water bottle tastes just as good as eating it from a paper bowl. (Actually, I would argue that the sense of accomplishment that comes from making a zero-waste choice makes it taste even better.)
A clean cloth bag, like the ones often sold to hold produce or bread, is a very versatile item. A cloth bag can double as a napkin. In many cases, a cloth bag can replace a takeout container for storing food. (Unless you are eating soup… in which case, the argument for having a good-quality water bottle is even stronger.) Cloth bags are lightweight and can be folded tightly, so they fit easily in most pockets or purses.
Sometimes, you may need to put something sticky or oily in your cloth bag. Go right ahead and do it! You can always clean your bag at the end of the day, knowing you used it for a good cause. Plus, just like eating soup out of a water bottle, eating french fries or baked goods out of a reusable bag tastes especially good.
While you could carry an entire utensil set around with you, for my minimal zero-waste days I try to narrow it down to a single tool. A single utensil weighs very little and doesn’t take up much space in a bag or a pocket. A plastic or wooden utensil weighs even less. Of course, a spork is the Swiss Army knife of utensils. With just one item, you can eat a salad and spoon soup. My current utensils of choice are chopsticks, which I can throw into my bag as easily as I would a pencil.
I was recently given a double-sided bamboo spoon/fork as a gift. The gift giver clearly knows me very well, since this is exactly the type of thing I would be likely to use all the time. However, it’s very difficult to clean, so I never wanted to use it. This brings up an important point: the best zero-waste tools are the ones that you will actually use. No matter how they are marketed or how pretty they look, a tool needs to work for you. You may need to make a few messes before you determine what zero-waste items are essential for the life you lead.