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I got a little stressed out this week when we ran out of cooking oil.  I was excited at first because I thought that it would be the perfect chance to try and make my own vegetable oil.  Yes, I can recycle the containers that vegetable oil comes in, however, the plastic caps usually have to go in the trash. The goal of this year is to be trash-free so my first instinct when I run out of something that comes in a disposable container is to either find the same thing in bulk or make my own to replace it.  Thus far, I have not found vegetable oil in bulk.  And although recipes for making sunflower oil in particular exist on the web, there were enough comments about how difficult it is to make and how perishable home-made oil is that I decided to let that dream go.  If I want to grill vegetables, make salad dressing or bake I will have to create trash.  Of course, butter is another option, but I have yet to find butter not sold in those waxy boxes that can’t be recycled or composted.

Although I knew being trash-free this year would have its challenges, I also need to keep things in perspective regarding the time and effort I can dedicate to it (the fact that I do have a full time job and am in graduate school part-time).  I need to do what I can to make being trash-free as easy as possible. Nothing is good about being trash-free and stressed-out.

I actually got a couple belated birthday gifts this week that has helped make my trash- free experiment a little easier.  Grocery shopping for produce is now easier (especially for the check-out people) now that I have my new ChicoBag produce bags.

Chicobag produce bags

The ChicoBag produce bag holder

Inside the apple

Three produce bags come inside the apple (one is rolled up in the photo)

Although I have no problem throwing produce “naked,” free of a plastic bag, into my grocery cart, these little bags do make things a bit cleaner and more efficient. Another option, which I hope to try if I have some free time, is making my own produce and bulk food bags.  A woman and her family have made headlines recently with their Zero-Waste Home.  They are pretty inspirational.  I checked out their blog and found a great suggestion of making produce and bulk food bags out of old pillow cases and laundry bags.

This week I also received my very first cheese wheel along with an understanding of the excess packaging that is included when one requests a cheese wheel be sent to Hawaii.  My sister sent me one as a gift.  I looked all over my town for a cheese wheel that wasn’t also wrapped in plastic (which sort of defeats the point) and couldn’t find one.  The wheel she sent me came from Vermont.  The cheese is delicious, although all the packaging it came in taught me that for now, sliced cheese at the deli may be my best bet for trash-free cheese.  Another option, which was offered as a suggestion through a comment to this blog, may be to ask a store like Whole Foods if I could order a wheel directly through their store.  I have yet to try this, but will look into it the next time I am at Whole Foods.

Cheese wheel

Cheese wheel and lots of packaging

Finally, my compost trash can seems to be growing things which means I need to change something.  When I first saw the little sprout coming out of the bin I thought it was pretty cute.  However, after doing a little research I found out that a successful compost bin is hot enough to prevent seeds from sprouting.

compost bin

Although cute, this little sprout is telling me that my pile isn't hot enough

I need to add more nitrogen like grass clipping, or some kind of manure, to heat up my bin.   By chance this week I looked into picking up coffee grounds from Starbucks because I had heard somewhere that coffee grounds are good for compost and Starbucks has a policy of saving their grounds for anyone who wants them. Little did I know that coffee grounds are GREAT for compost and actually do a tremendous job of heating up the pile.  No need to spend time searching for more grass clippings or buying manure from the store – the simple answer lies just down the road from me.

coffee grinds

Coffee grounds from Starbucks

Coffee grounds are apparently fabulous fertilizer as well.  I put some around my plants today to see how it works.  If anyone has experience using coffee grounds in their compost and gardens I would love to hear about it!

Compost worms also love coffee grounds which is great news, because I have officially found composting worms in my trash can composter.   They must have jumped in from the holes in the bottom.  I was squeezing some of the material in the bin to check for moisture and saw a little composting worm tucked away when I opened my hand.  A few worms actually fell out when I rolled the bin, which tells me that I must have a decent population.  I can’t wait to see how many more worms join the party with the new addition of coffee grounds.

Hurray for worms in my trash can composter!

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A couple weeks ago my boyfriend mentioned that we were running low on our store bought dish soap we purchased last year.  This is the exact type of opportunity I wait for to seek out trash-free alternatives to our past traditional packaging-laden purchases.  I searched online for home-made recipes for liquid dish soap and the answer seemed to always come down to Castille liquid soap or soap flakes.  In fact, some sites claimed that you could make liquid soap from any bar soap.

Down to Earth does sell Dr. Bronner’s liquid Castille soap, but I was curious to see how easy it would be to make liquid soap from bar soap.  So, I bought a bar of Castille soap instead (which comes in paper packaging that can be put in my compost bin) and we grated half of it and soaked it in water overnight.  We put the resulting slimy mixture into the former dish soap container and put it on trial.   After two-weeks, however, the trash-free liquid soap wasn’t cutting it, particularly because it wasn’t cutting through grease.

Liquid soap into container

Why did this home-made liquid soap not work?

Determined not to be forced to buy another plastic bottle of dish soap from the store, I searched for recipes again.  This time I found out that  for grease-cutting soap, you need to add vinegar or lemon juice.  Also, the soap shavings should be heated on a stove with water.  Rather than making a large batch of soap that might ultimately fail, I did a mini experiment first to see how well this new recipe of melted shavings and lemon juice actually worked.  I compared its ability to cut through a dabble of olive oil with some hand soap we still have.

Testing soap

Does the home-made soap (left) cut the grease?

As seen in the photo above, the new soap mix works!  The hand soap mixture (on the right) seems more effective, but probably because it is more concentrated than the home-made mixture.  This will definitely be an ongoing soapy process of trial and error, but this is the grease cutting dish soap recipe I found from http://www.ehow.com that I used if you would like to give it a try.  If you use or hear of a more effective recipe, please send it along!

ingredients for home-made liquid soap

Ingredients for home-made liquid soap

Soap Flakes Method

  • Place 1/4 cup of soap flakes or soap shavings and 2 cups of water into a sturdy sauce pan. Place the pan on medium heat.
  • Stir the soap constantly with a wooden spoon until it melts into the water. Avoid allowing the soap and water mixture to come to a boil.
  • Add 1 tsp. of lemon juice or white vinegar to the soap once it has cooled. Pour the solution into a soap bottle.

Another challenge that arose last weekend was my annual birthday camp-out at the beach.  Of course, I insisted that we do it trash-free and for the most part, it wasn’t really that difficult. Bulk food is easy to come by, cloth napkins and utensils are easy to pack, and we were car camping, so weight wasn’t a limiting factor.  The challenge?  Keeping the cooler cool.  I reached out for ideas from friends before we left.  How can we camp for three nights without having to go out and buy a bag of ice for the cooler?  Of course, there was the option of not bringing perishables and drinking warm beer after day 1.5.  Rather than going that extreme, we decided to another option that someone suggested (thanks Krista!) – dry ice.

I filled two empty milk gallon containers with water and put them in the freezer the night before.  One frozen container went in the food cooler with 2 lbs of dry ice, and the other frozen container went in the “ice cooler” with 8 lbs of dry ice.

food cooler

Food cooler with milk gallon ice block

cooler with dry ice

Ice cooler with replacement ice and dry ice (under newspaper)

Ironically, the dry ice came in plastic bags – the main thing I was trying to avoid by going through this whole process.  Unlike the plastic bag used to hold ice, however, the dry ice bags were small, rectangular and re-useable so I put them with my camping gear.

The ice cooler worked great at first!  We had a new, frozen block of ice to use when the other milk container started to melt the second day.  Unfortunately, all the dry ice didn’t last past the second night, so the ice cooler was somewhat ineffective in refreezing the melting gallon ice container. The ice in the milk gallon containers also took up a lot of space in the food cooler.  And the dry ice was considerably more expensive than buying a bag of ice.  So, the ice cooler idea wasn’t a complete success.  We will try again next time and have already thought about how to make a custom cooler that is more effective.  If you have any ideas of how to keep a cooler cool for a few days, I would love to hear about them!

Cheese update:
We wanted to bring cheese for the camp out, so I went to my local Safeway deli to see if they would  let me use my own container to purchase some of their sliced cheese. The checker was hesitant at first, but he gave in after I told him that I bought meat from Whole Foods using my own container.  Cheese success #1!

Cheese

Bringin' home the cheese in my own container