Zero Waste: The Loot Bottle

Zero Waste: The Loot Bottle

Or, confessions of a parent who hates children’s birthday parties. I am the oldest in a large family and I was burnt out from running children’s birthday parties before I left my teens. Time somehow seems to run backwards when I’m in the midst of one, and I find myself wishing it were all over.

A seemingly immutable tradition is the handing out of loot bags to the guests at the end of the party. One parent I know calls them instant landfill, and another refers to the stuff inside them as shitty bits. Still, Little wanted a birthday party with all the trimmings. Fine. I’ll have the party. But I will not be handing out shitty bits at the end of it.

Inspiration struck, helped by an assignment the teenager had for his outdoor education course. The challenge was to pack a one litre widemouth water bottle for everything you needed to stay overnight in the woods after a 65 kilometre bike ride out into the country. It really made him think about what was most essential, and about how to get as much nutrition into as small a space as possible.

Voila! The Loot Bottle was born. Children do not need shitty bits, but mine at least are in the perpetual state of needing a water bottle. No matter how many we have, there’s always a search before we head out on an excursion. I would provide water bottles filled with zero or almost zero waste treats for the kids.

I ordered a dozen bottles from Mountain Equipment Co-op. The total came to more than $50.00 so, yay, free shipping. Once they arrived I had a better sense of what would fit into them. I went to the drugstore and bought chunky sidewalk chalk, and discovered an excellent sale on Easter-themed Life Saver books for $1.00 each. Six rolls of Life Savers for a dollar!

This wasn’t completely zero waste. The candy boxes were wrapped in plastic and I had to undo those to separate out the tubes of candy. Unlike many of the candies familiar to me in my childhood, the wrapping of those tubes remains the same: a layer of wax paper, a layer of foil, and then the tube of paper holding it all together. IMG_0181.jpgThree chunky sticks of chalk fit in each bottle and I decided to put them in little plastic bags so that chalk powder wouldn’t end up over everything. I should perhaps have wrapped them in paper.

Next time I have to gird myself to throw another birthday party, I will return to my loot bottle concept. The options for fun stuff to put inside them are endless and I may even achieve a version with no waste at all. I could do bike-themed ones with lights and ankle straps.

The children loved the loot bottles. One little girl said to me, “Hey, I can take this with me when I’m on my bike!” Exactly. Then she went off with the other little girls and they sucked their Life Savers so that they could attach them to their noses and look like they had nose rings. That party maybe wasn’t so bad after all.

Zero Waste: Toilet Paper

Zero Waste: Toilet Paper

Of course these two things are a contradiction in terms. Toilet paper is perhaps the ultimate in waste: a single-use item that gets flushed down the toilet. Talk about mindless usage. Recently I’ve been rather fixating on how to improve our consumption of toilet paper. Costco stopped selling Cascades recycled toilet paper and so I decided to stop buying vast quantities of TP from there. Instead I bought PC Green from the Emporium of Bread Swindling. This assuaged my conscience about using virgin wood pulp (hello, songbird habitat!) to wipe our bums.

In an ideal world, one would use not have to dispose of a manufactured product every time one relieved oneself. I have been informed by a reliable source that any suggestion of reusable wiping technology would immediately void my marriage vows. I’m rather attached to my marriage vows, so I’ll avoid that solution. We have to buy something for this purpose, and I thought PC Green might do the trick. But not quite.

20180209_133506The spouse is the designated toilet paper fairy in the house. We have one nice main bathroom and one horrible basement bathroom that is strictly used as a last resort. He is responsible for keeping the TP stocked in the bathrooms. Our stash lives in the basement pantry and he keeps an eye on supply in the loos and refills as necessary. When we redid our bathroom, he built in a little shelf for it so that if the roll ran out, you could actually reach it from a seated position, as it were. If the nook is full, we can have 4 rolls in the bathroom at the same time. It turns out that the change from acquiring 48 rolls at a time to 12 rolls at a time undermines the toilet paper fairy’s sense of security. All of a sudden I was fielding a lot of questions about whether I was planning to buy toilet paper that week. Are you mad, spouse? We still have five rolls.

The problem is that PC Green does not come in massive packages, so if I want to buy 48 rolls at a time (no problem with the cargo bike, or if I take some children as donkeys with me on a pedestrian shopping trip) I end up buying a lot of plastic packaging instead. Thinking about the plastic made me consider whether I could find a solution that involved no plastic at all.

Now, if everyone would just use moss or leaves in a composting toilet, then I could have everything, but we’re not there yet as a household. The teenager is already accusing me of conspiring to get rid of our running water. No chance. I’m very fond of the bathtub and the washing machine.

I believe I have found a solution that fulfils all the criteria:

1. No using songbird habitat for “personal care”.
2. No limping by on stingy little packages of twelve rolls each.
3. No reusable, washable cloths.
4. No plastic packaging.

Sadly the solution involves the retailing behemoth that purveys many goods online, but I can’t have everything and that’s not on my list of criteria. It’s rather alarming to blow almost $100 on TP at once, but it’s not going to go off, is it?

Lo! A box containing 80 rolls of toilet paper, wrapped in paper, delivered to my house. The toilet paper fairy can have the security of abundance and I can stop thinking about sourcing toilet paper every ten minutes. There is one slight drawback: the texture of this paper is slightly “Memories of the Public Library”. Sigh.

Sourdough Bread

Sourdough Bread

We have a new favourite loaf around here. It’s homemade sourdough, made from a starter. I am even more committed to baking my own bread after the recent price-fixing scandal here in Canada, which originated with what has been called the Emporium of Bread-Swindling. It’s also another way to ensure zero waste: bake bread, wrap it in a tea towel, done.

I use the recipe in my trusty favourite, Nancy Baggett’s Kneadlessly Simple. She gives instructions for a “cheater” starter; a small amount of yeast is added to the flour and water mixture, rather than relying on the ambient wild yeasts floating around. I have no objection to this sort of cheating, so I mixed up my starter on January 31. A day later it looked like this as the fermentation had already begun. 20180201_164633.jpgYou can see the bubbles forming as the yeast consumes the sugars and starches and releases carbon dioxide. The children were rather fascinated that yeast poo is what makes bread rise.  This whole project turned into a bit of a science experiment. The process lasts several days, at a few minutes a day.  It’s too much for me to think about when I’m teaching  undergraduates, but it suits me well when I am properly in the slow lane.

As instructed by Nancy, I fed the starter daily for the next ten days and then baked my first loaves. I’ve made two batches so far. My test subjects report that the taste is tangy and delicious, the crust crisp and delightful. The loaves certainly smell divine. I need to practice slashing the top; at the moment my loaves are a bit lopsided. Every time I feed the starter and put it back in a warm place on the counter next to the stove, or bake with it, I remember my first time reading By The Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mrs Boast comes to visit and gets a little baking lesson.

“But how do you make the sour dough?” Mrs. Boast asked. “You start it,” said Ma, “by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours.” “Then when you use it, always leave a little,” said Laura. “And put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water.” Laura put in the warm water, “and cover it,” she put a clean cloth and the plate on the jar, “and just set it in a warm place,” she set it in its place on the shelf by the stove. “And it’s always ready to use whenever you want it.” 



Get some distilled water from the supermarket, or put some tap water in an uncovered jar and leave it over night so that the chlorine can evaporate. People with wells don’t need to do this. Then cover it until you need it.

In a glass jar or bowl, put

1/2 cup white flour
1/8 tsp instant or bread-machine yeast

Mix in about 1/3 cup of your water, until the slurry is about the same consistency as gravy or pancake batter.

Cover with a clean cloth and set aside until the next day.

On days 2-5, and days 7-10, add 1/3 cup of flour, and enough water to keep the same consistency as at the beginning. As needed, top up your jar of water so that you have enough low-chlorine stuff to keep going.

On day 6, discard about one third of the glop before adding the usual amount of flour and water.

After about ten days, your starter should smell pleasantly sour and have visible bubbles on the top and visible through the sides of the jar.

About 4 hours before you want to mix up your dough, discard 1/3 of the starter and add 1 cup of flour and 1/2 to 2/3 cup water. Cover and let sit for at least four hours until it’s very bubbly.

The bread itself (for two boules)

7 cups white all-purpose flour
1 heaped tbsp salt
1/2 tsp instant or bread-machine yeast
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/3 cups sourdough starter
3 cups cold water

Mix dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix liquid ingredients in a large measuring cup or glass bowl.

Combine the two until you have a stiff dough, At this point I divide the dough into 2 smaller bowls for rising, since my largest bowl is not big enough to proof this much dough. I do long for one of these….mason-cash-about-us

Cover the bowls and let sit overnight. I usually mix up the dough in the afternoon before the kids come home from school, and then bake before supper the next day. Last night Little made borscht, a perfect companion to homemade bread. 20180221_180134.jpg

Oil two Dutch ovens liberally. Take a stiff spatula and fold the dough in from the outside of the bowl towards the middle, turning the bowl as you go. The dough will deflate a bit and you will have a neat circular mound in the middle of the bowl. Add 1/2 cup of flour to the dough, and pat it in, turning the dough over as you do so. If the dough is still sticky and slumps a bit when you let go of it, pat in more flour. When the dough is quite stiff, make the dough into a smooth ball, tucking the rough bits underneath. Put it in the Dutch oven, and brush more oil on the top. Using a serrated knife or kitchen scissors (my rather ragged efforts are with the scissors), cut 3 slashes in the top and then 3 more perpendicular slashes, so that it looks like a tic-tac-toe game.

Put the lids on the pots and allow the dough to rise for up to 2 hours. It tends to rise rather slowly, so don’t rush it.

Preheat the oven to 450°C. Spray the loaves with water and put the pots in the oven. Turn down the temperature to 425°C and set your timer to 45 minutes. If the edges are browned, remove the lids and let bake for another five minutes to brown the tops. If the edges are still a bit pale, keep the lids on for another five minutes, and then brown the tops for an additional five. Executive summary: total baking time 50-55 minutes.

Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove bread from pan. The crust tends to brown quite deeply because of the oil, but this does not mean that you have burnt your loaves. 20180220_171321.jpg

So now you have two loaves of bread, and leftover starter. Stir  1/3 cup of flour and about 1/4 cup water into the starter, cover with a clean cloth and refrigerate until the next time you want to bake, preferablywithin a week. If left for too long, starters can become too sour and may have to be discarded. I will be baking sourdough again next week. So there, Emporium of Bread-Swindling.


Zero Waste: Gift Bags

Zero Waste: Gift Bags

Early in January, just after we took down the Christmas tree, I got out my stash of Christmas fabric and made gift bags. We have been using fabric gift bags for the presents under our tree for several years, ever since I bought some from a friend who had a business making bags. She even made little felt initials for the children to attach to the bags.20180131_103134.jpg

We never quite had enough and last Christmas I counted the number of presents that had had to be wrapped in the traditional way using paper. I decided to try for a zero waste Christmas 2018 and resolved to make us more bags, even though the cat is quite fond of the tissue paper. IMG_0141.jpg

I guess you could say I’ve had a mental block about making these bags, since some of the fabric is left over from a set of napkins I made for my mother in 1993. The mistake I was making all these years was to try to make them before Christmas. I always feel like an idiot doing Christmas crafts in October (besides, I’m making Hallowe’en costumes then), and by the time I get to November I’m marking essays and starting the Christmas cake. December is right out. If it’s not a gift, I’m not sewing it.

But January was the perfect time. The kids were back at school and the winter sunshine was streaming in the window. Time to invest in a waste-free Christmas 2018.

Another approach is to wrap all the presents in festive tea towels, if you don’t want the work of sewing bags. Use one like this, tie it up with ribbon, and there you go. 20180115_150405.jpgThe serious advantage of the bags, however,  is that wrapping becomes almost no effort on one of those evenings in the week before Christmas.

I made five bags out of  random bits of fabric. I used them as a bit of a practice session for French seams, but I didn’t get too perfectionist. They are only gift bags, after all.

French seams are a good way to bind your seams if you don’t have a serger, which I don’t. I don’t like fraying fabric on internal seams. I made PJs for the kids for the first time this Christmas, and used French seams on those too. But I always need more practice.

To make a French seam, put your fabric wrong sides together. Stitch as closely as you can to the edge of the fabric, perhaps 5-7 mm, or 1/4 inch. (Frustrated note here: most patterns sold in Canada give yardage and other measurements in Imperial, but fabric in Canada is sold by the metre. I’m always converting. It’s good for the brain, I suppose). Once you’ve finished your seam, trim the edge so you have as little fabric as possible. Iron the wrong side of the fabric to flatten the seam, then fold the fabric right sides together and iron the seam that way.


Sew a new seam with a sufficient seam allowance that all of the fabric from the first seam is enclosed. Now both the outside and the inside of your little bag look nice.


I put a ribbon drawstring at the top of my bags. I ironed a little fold into the top of the bag and stitched it down, then folded it over again to make a slot wide enough for my ribbon to be threaded through. In some of the bags I made the top of the bag first and then did the side and bottom seams, and in some I did it the other way around. It was easier for me to do the top first.

And a little tip, if you have a selvedge you don’t need to worry about finishing the seam first. I didn’t care about grain for these little bags, so on this bag the selvedge ended up at the top. 20180115_145745.jpg And on this bag, the selvedge was at the side and I didn’t have to make this bit into a French seam.20180115_150152.jpg

Then, once my knots were tied and my threads were snipped, I got out my little ribbon stash and threaded the ribbon through the top of the bags. The best part of this was using a bodkin. It’s like a large needle except the eye goes all the way from top to bottom. 20180131_105810.jpg I bought one years ago, and it’s very handy when drawstrings bury themselves deep into clothing. I do love a specialized vocabulary, and textiles have a lot to offer: bodkin, selvedge, grain…



I didn’t get ambitious and make a channel for the ribbon so I would get a charming frill at the top. I just made plain old drawstring bags. Maybe next time I’ll use the bag-making session as as a tutorial, not on French seams, but on fancy bag closures.

And there will be a next time. I’m planning on making non-Christmas themed bags for birthday presents too. I am motivated by considerations of zero waste, but I am also motivated by the horrible gift-wrapping corner in my basement. I tidy it and tidy it, and it always reverts to chaos. I realize blogs often show an idealized version of life, but this is reality. It’s definitely worth a few hours of sewing to get rid of this lot.






Last autumn, I declared an end to buying Kleenex, tissues, what have you. I decided to switch the household over to hankies for two reasons: waste, and the horrible bits of Kleenex that end up in the wash after someone has left it in a pocket, and then you have to put the whole load through the dryer instead of hanging it up. I also like hankies. I like the softness of much-washed cotton against my nose when I have a horrible cold (much softer than paper). I like how they remind me of my dad, and both my grandfathers, hanky-carriers all. I only ever met one man in my generation, more than twenty years ago, who used a hanky. If we all used hankies, the boreal forest and all the little warblers who use it as their nursery would be safer.

A lot of effort in this world goes into manufacturing things that will be used once and then get thrown out. The facial tissue is one of those things. Greenpeace has estimated that North Americans use 22 kg of tissue paper products (facial tissue, paper towel, toilet paper, paper napkins) a year. They issue a green guide to tissue, also available as an app. This is helpful when trying to find recycled paper products in shops. But, in my opinion, no waste is better than less waste, and so I am trying to eliminate the purchase of this sort of product as much as I can. We do have paper towel in the house, but Itry to ignore it and use rags instead. Our everyday napkins are cloth ones, and once I find red linen napkins for Christmas use I won’t be buying festive paper napkins any more either. The spouse lives in constant fear that the very next “improvement” I bring to our lives will be washable toilet paper. I washed dirty cloth diapers for years and I have no desire to embark on that again, so I think he’s safe. Hankies seemed like an easy change to make.


I sat down at the computer and ordered three and a half dozen hankies from the UK, somewhat like these. Somehow, British hankies seemed more genuine than the American ones, and the British reviews gave me useful info on how the handkerchiefs would iron up. I had increased our hanky supply a few years ago, but in an incredibly labour-intensive way. I cut up the skirt of an old cotton nightgown, cut out several hankies, hemmed them and monogrammed them. This was a good project for winter evenings, but I didn’t want to make 42 handkerchiefs thus.

20170110_114938Now we have  a box of hankies in the bathroom, and everyone can help themselves whenever they want. One of the nice things about a box of Kleenex is the feeling of abundance, that there are masses of tissues there when you need them. Including the hankies that we owned before, we have about 60 hankies in the house. Our collection includes some really cute children’s hankies sent by relatives in the Netherlands.

20170110_112525The size of the collection means that the hanky box is easy to keep filled and no one needs to stint. The box would be even easier to fill if I did not divert the hankies into the ironing pile on the way. I love an ironed hanky, and I really enjoy ironing, so it’s no hardship. I learned how to iron from my mum and dad, and practiced first on hankies and tea towels. I still iron these items, and I find the task calming. I am teaching the children how to iron in the same way. Life in the slow lane means that tasks like this are possible. I really appreciate the chance to take the time.

And what happened to that lone hanky-user that I encountered all those years ago? Reader, I married him.