Zero waste progress

The zero waste journey is made of the accumulation of little acts of resistance against the status quo in everyday life. This series of post is about those little steps I take every month to make my life simpler and more sustainable.

The last couple of months has been busy with PhD graduation, job interviews and starting a new job. Being now working full time might slow down my zero waste progress, although I will keep going. It also means that I will have less time to work on this blog. It has been a great tool to fuel my reflection and my actions about sustainability for the past year and although I might become more quiet, I am not planning to give this space up yet.

Simple wardrobe refactor

Clothes donated to compensate for buying job interview outfit

This month I have finally switched to my spring-summer wardrobe, with a bit of delay due to all the crazy travelling for graduation, job interviews and else. This was much needed, as with time passing, I had taken clothes I needed for specific occasions out of storage without putting them back. I also had to buy some new clothes to look sharp in my job interviews. All in all, my wardrobe was back to crowded and I had to fight with it every morning. I decided I would give away at least two items for every new one that made it to my wardrobe until I no longer have extra clothes. I have been donating quite a bit of clothes in the past few years, so it is getting more difficult to find things to give away. All the clothes I have left are pieces I like and that fit me. So I try to focus on giving the ones that I know I will never wear because I have other similar pieces that I like much more and I managed to give one more full bag of clothes that way. To be continued.

Fountain pen

Zero waste writing - refillable fountain pen

I used to buy those ink pens that you have to throw away once the ink runs out, but now that my stash ran out, I have dug out my high school fountain pen. I still have a few cartridges to go with it, but when they are over, I will switch to a refillable cartridge as this is the most sustainable option. When I get there, I might write in violet for a while as I happened to have a full bottle of it.

Handkerchiefs

Handkerchiefs in the entrance to remember taking one when I leave

I bought a set of second hand handkerchiefs at a flea market last summer. It turned out 10 of them was not completely enough. I would often run out while they waited to be washed. In the meantime, my dad rediscovered the stash his parents got him and gave them to me. Now with 20 of them, the rotation works quite well. The only problem was that I would regularly forget to take a clean one with me, so I have put a few in the entrance basket where I put my keys. It is not 100% fail proof, but helps me to check if I have one with me before I leave.

Doing without … a printer

We left our printer in London, and although we thought about buying one several times, we finally decided we would not need one. We can copy, scan and print for 0.15€ a page in the corner shop. Not having the printer at home and paying per use means we think twice before printing something and we try to look for alternatives. I have been using eTickets more and more, for example. This makes sense economically (we will have to make a lot of copies before paying more than printer + paper + ink) and environmentally (one ‘community printer’ will generate less waste than a lot of individual and cheaply made ones).

Fix it and make it last … umbrella

Fixing an umbralla with rubber bands

I have never been a great fan of umbrellas, maybe because there is always too much wind to use them in my home town, but somehow in San Sebastian it is hard to do without one. I have this umbrella that I miraculously found in a London bus a day of rain I was totally under-equipped for. The canopy was off at the end of one of the ribs, but it did the job that day and many other days. Recently the canopy went off a second rib and I was starting to consider getting a new one. But then I started thinking about how to fix it and I came up with a quick solution: use rubber bands (they had been salvaged from bunches of parsley or something like that) to tie both parts back together. This will not last forever, but the fix took 10 min and saved me the hassle of looking for an umbrella that is small enough to fit in my bag and resistant enough to last me for years. And the day this umbrella finally gives up, I’m planning to use the canopy to make a waterproof reusable shopping bag.

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This July, I will take part in Plastic Free July, an Australian initiative to raise awareness about the plastic pollution our current lifestyle leads to and encourage refusing single use plastic during a month. Since I started my zero waste journey, I have cut single use plastic tremendously, but there is still room for improvement and this challenge is a great way to pin point what they are. Follow me on Facebook to see how I am doing.

It is really easy to join, even if you are a complete beginner with waste reduction. At www.plasticfreejuly.org, you can pledge to join for a day, a week or any part of the month you like and if you don’t feel up to looking at all your plastic usage yet, you can start with the ugly 4: single-use bags, water bottles, straws, and single-use to go cups.

What will you do this July to reduce your single-use plastic consumption?

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No-food-waste recipe: Parsley salad

Skip directly to the recipe

I love getting a weekly fruit and veggie box. It frees so much time by limiting major groceries to every 2-3 weeks and it ensures we eat well. But it means that we have to get a bit creative not to waste food. Recently they gave us quite a bit of parsley, and I was not sure how to use all of it. As a happy coincidence, it is the week Pioneering the simple life chose to share a parsley pesto recipe. I thought this was the perfect way to conserve our parsley, so I set up to do my own version of it (I’m very bad at following recipes 😉 ).

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After spending some time chopping the parsley, garlic cloves and almonds, our blender refused to work. Not a big surprise since I got it second hand and it was quite old, but I had already mixed everything together and I was a bit upset at the idea that I wasted time and ingredients. This is when I thought about saving everything as a salad. After all, this is kind of the idea behind Lebanese tabbouleh. It turned out pretty nice. 


 Parsley salad recipe

Serves two

Ingredients 

  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 10 almonds
  • olive oil
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1 pinch of pepper
  • seasonal and/or fermented vegetables (tomato, carrot, beetroot, sauerkraut …)

Put almonds to soak in water. It is supposed to reactivate the enzymes that went dormant when the seed dried. It makes it easier to absorb all the good nutrients of the almond. In any case, it makes the almond softer. Anything from 20 min to overnight is good. Since I rarely plan meals in advance, I normally just put them to soak when I start cooking and prepare all the rest first.

Chop the garlic, the parsley and the almonds. Add the lemon.

Clean, cut and add the rest of the vegetables. Put salt, pepper and olive oil to taste.

If you are not too starving, let it macerate a bit in the fridge.


The first time I used tomatoes and fermented beetroot. You can tell we are in Spain, because we get tomatoes every week from a company that sells seasonal organic veggies. I wish they would put something else though cause they are not so tasty at the moment.  

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Since last week we got parsley again, I made the salade again, replacing the fermented beetroot by homemade sauerkraut! I am pretty exited about this. I made it to prevent a cabbage to go to waste. It doesn’t look like I expected, but it is super nice. 

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5 steps towards a sustainable Christmas

Christmas is a magical time of the year that helps warm our hearts to get us through winter, but we have turned it in a bit of a mass consumption ritual which is far from environmentally friendly. Before moving on to 2017, I wanted to share the five little steps I’ve taken this year to make gift giving a bit more sustainable.

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1. Sending a Christmas list

Christmas lists don’t have to be reserved for children. Since loved ones are going to spend time and money to get me a gift, I prefer it to be something I need/want, and thus will use and enjoy, than another piece of ‘stuff’ that will pile up in my cupboards without daring to get rid of it. Surprises are so overrated.

After looking around for a gift list application, I finally used google doc, as all the lists I found required to link items to commercial websites or people to sign up. I just wrote a word document, added pictures and in the sharing settings I choose anyone with the link can edit. I then sent the link to my parents for diffusion. People with the link could then look at the file and put their name next to the thing they picked.

It was not perfect as I made the list too long (5 pages), too complicated (I tried to include all the zero waste gift options I could think of) and too late (the time to figure out the best option to do this, people had already started shopping), but it helped me get things that I was planning to get anyway like a good cooking knife or a Spanish grammar book. Plus now I know how to do it better next year. Do, learn, improve.

2. Giving hand made gifts

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Since I piked up sewing this year, I decided to sew a little something to everybody. I had made a few fabric baskets for myself and found it convenient to tidy small items together. I made two types of baskets (this one and something in the line of this one adding lining inside to hide the seams), all this from material I already had: some trousers’ bottoms that got cut before hemming, and fabric left overs that came with my grandma’s sewing machine.

3. Giving edible gifts

I bought Spanish Christmas sweets to fill the baskets. I like the idea of giving food that people would not normally buy, as they will eat it thinking about you and not be cluttered with it for long. And in case the recipient doesn’t like this particular food, it should not be too difficult to find someone who will.

4. Finding something people need/want

My grandma wanted some business cards with her new address as she finds troublesome dictating it over and over, so I offered to take care of it. As a good zero waster, I found a company that offered them on recycled paper made in a factory powered by renewable energy and where the minimum order was 50. With most companies you have to get at least 100.

underwear

Looking around, I couldn’t find a gift that resonated with me for my mum. Instead of buying something because I had too, I asked her if she needed anything and she asked me for underwear travel bags. We looked together in my fabric stash and selected some pyjama underwear whose elastic band had dried out. We spent a morning making three little bags out of them. I love the irony that they are underwear bags made out of underwear and my mum being there and contributing made them more special. Christmas is not so much about the stuff than the memories.

5. Using furoshiki gift wrapping

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In my family, we have always been reusing gift wrapping over and over, but would still get some in the bin every year. Last year my mum started the furoshiki tradition by wrapping her presents in tea towels that were part of the gift. Still digging in the pile of fabric from my grandma, I used pinking shears to make fabric squares to wrap all my presents. It is much faster than with paper: two knots and voila! And they will be reused every Christmas for decades.

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Photo credit: SN, JN and MD. 

Organising to favorise waste reduction

As a complement to my last post about how much (or how little?) waste we generated in the last 6 months, I wanted to show you how  we organised our disposal areas, as it helps us being more aware of our trash.

Our flat has two attendant balconies: one big in the living room and one tiny small in the kitchen. At first I thought it was silly that the balconies were split in two, but it turns out it is perfect to help us with our waste reduction goals. We have put all the bins (compost, recycling, and general waste) out on the tiny small balcony. The only disposal facilities we have inside are the paper and cardboard crate as humidity could be a problem, a glass jar for hairs and nail clips in the bathroom that get regularly emptied in the compost and a compost bowl on the kitchen’s counter top to store food scraps before it gets emptied once or twice a day.

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My mum gave me this bowl she made to store the food scraps before they land in the compost bin.

Having the bins on the balcony is great because it frees a lot of space in the flat. But mostly, the fact that each time we need to get rid of something we have to go all the way out to the balcony forces us to be more aware of the things we throw away and give us time to think whether we could avoid this waste in the future. Making it somewhat annoying to trash things is a good motivation to generate less waste. You will tell me not everybody has the chance to have a special balcony to install their waste centre. It is true, but there are other alternatives like a garage, a remote storage closet… The point is that as a society we have been making it too easy to throw things away (where is this ‘away’ anyway?), like it is a natural thing to do. Do you know many species apart from humans that generate waste that cannot be absorbed by nature?

Waste reduction: 6 months of trash

It has been 6 mouths since we moved to San Sebastian and since we ‘seriously’ started our waste reduction journey. I have seen people fitting their trash in a glass jar 6 months in their zero waste venture, but this requires more dedication than we have time for. Instead we focused on making simple accessible changes:

  • composting,
  • buying fruit, veg and cereals package free as much as possible
  • favouring glass, cardboard and paper packing over plastic
  • avoiding pre-processed food and cooking a bit more
  • avoiding buying new things unless we really need them
  • replacing disposables (kitchen roll, water bottles …) by washable and reusable alternatives

The result? We reduced our waste volume by  more than 12!

The compost

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We are lucky to have city compost in San Sebastian. In the summer, we have been taking a small bag of compost out per week. Now that the weather is a bit colder, we can wait 2-3 weeks until the bag is actually full. I would rather not use a compostable bag, since it uses energy and resources that could be spared, but it wouldn’t work with the city collection system. All this organic matter will be used to make natural fertiliser, sparing the use of chemical alternatives, instead of being burnt or berried.

The recycling

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In six months, we filled a crate of cardboard (a few deliveries, pasta and chocolate packaging mostly) and diverse papers (advertisement stickers don’t seem to be taken seriously). For the rest of the recycling, we have:

  • a few glass bottles (beer, wine and oil),
  • a couple of glass containers that I could not get presentable enough to re-purpose,
  • white vinegar plastic bottles (we use it instead of conditioner in the laundry and for all-purpose cleaning),
  • one month of milk bottles from before we found the zero waste alternative,
  • plastic beer bottles that we brought back home from a festival to make sure they would be recycled,
  • plastic bottles left by guests (no, we don’t kick people out if they bring waste),
  • a few other stuff like the empty hotel soaps I am trying to finish up, a few cans, and rare plastic pots.

This corresponds to about the same volume of recycling we use to get out every two weeks in London.

The garbage bin

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The photo above include all the none compostable, none recyclable trash of the last 6 months. That’s right, we only took it out 4 times and in small carrier bags as well! And we didn’t deprive ourselves to get to this result. For example, we didn’t find an easy zero waste source of cheese so we buy it from the supermarket. Same with the little meat we buy and a few other treats. I would bet that the content of those 4 bags would more than fit in the trash bags we used to get out every two weeks in London.

At first, I wanted to reuse the same carrier bag over and over, like we do for the recycling. I used a relatively resistant bag that could fit 2 months of trash, but there is too much fatty stuff in there so we moved to smaller thinner bags that last only one month.

Full disclosure

Because it’s easy to make things look more perfect than they are, here are a few points that hopefully make you feel that it doesn’t have to be perfect to make the effort worth it.

Full disclosure #1  There is also a few pizza boxes that went directly to the big street bin.

Full disclosure #2  I kept a few things that would go into the recycling for up-cycling craft projects that have high chances to end up in trash next time we move, as they are piling up faster than I actually make crafts.

Full disclosure #3  We recently re-subscribed to a weekly organic seasonal fruits and veg box and this is likely to raise our trash again as there is more packaging than needed and they don’t re-use the boxes like they used to do in London. When I opened the first box I was a bit bummed, but it makes our lives much easier since it reduces the shopping chore a lot and gets us to eat healthier. Once those veggies are in the fridge, we have to cook them! So I have decided to stick with it for now and see if I can convince them to consider waste reduction.

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Every fruit or veg type is in its own plastic bag. Help!

Full disclosure #4  We normally have lunch in the city centre and when it is sunny, we take a sandwich away to eat on the beach. The said sandwich is wrapped in aluminium foil and comes in a plastic bag with paper napkins. We haven’t found a good way to prevent this waste. If it doesn’t get too dirty I keep the plastic bags to use as trash bags, but we generate those faster than we use it. I keep the napkins to use as kitchen paper and throw them in the compost, but the aluminium foil often ends up in the city bins and is thus not counted in the inventory above.

Decluttering by enjoying the pretty things

I tend to be the kind of person that likes to keep the best bit of my meal for the end. So never snatch food out of my plate without permission. The method has its risk, as I might not be that hungry any more when I get to the cherry of my cake, but why keep eating if the best bit is already gone? However, what might be a nice way to enjoy a meal might not be the best strategy for life. If nothing else because ‘the end’ is more difficult to place in time than for a meal.

PrettyThings

When it comes to consumables, I tend to put pretty things in my shelves and only look at them from time to time, but never seem to use them or at least not completely finish them, because I don’t like the idea of it being gone. Once I started to think about this, I noticed I do this for  food, stationary, cosmetics, candles and more. This inevitably leads to accumulation. And while the pretty things lie around unused, I need to buy less pretty, functional versions of those things. Once put like this it sounds a bit silly right? Why not use the best things straight away and get another pretty thing to replace it if needed once it is over?

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So here was my good resolution for the summer holidays: I won’t keep the best for the end any more. Because I needed to pack light, I decided to finally use this cute notepad my mum gave me many birthdays ago. I also got my mum to bring me my ‘collection’ of hotel soaps and cosmetics samples. Of course it was already decided not to add anything new to it, but now it is time to use it all before they need to go to the bin anyway. And my parents were quite happy of the space it freed in their bathroom. This is just a start, but from now on I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for this lousy habit.

How to reduce shopping waste without produce bags

When I first stumbled across zero waste, it looked like I had to start by investing in all those accessories  in order to reduce my waste and that seemed very exciting. I had started to make a mental list: stainless steel water bottle, produce bags, Mason jars… The list goes on. A bit of time passed before I could actually started to change my habits as I was too busy at the time, which let me time to think: ‘do I really want to start a lifestyle that is about buying less by buying a whole bunch of new stuff?’ It seemed a bit like starting a diet by eating a big piece of chocolate brownie.

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So I decided to wait and see what I could do with what I already had. And I already had quite a few reusable shopping bags. It took us a few trips to the supermarket to make it a smooth process, but here is what we do at the moment. We have one bag for veggies and one for fruits. For each product we pick, we first weight it and then put it in the corresponding bag. Then we stick two labels back to back and present them to the cashier at the till. At the organic shop, they weight everything at the till, so it is even easier. I just put the fruit and veggie by groups on the counter. Et voilà, no need to use a new plastique or paper bag each time we want a couple of tomatoes. Depending on the cashier, they find it more or less weird, but none of them has told us off so far.

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They didn’t have loose cherries that day and they taste like candy at this time of the year. I couldn’t resist!

This doesn’t quite work with small items such as cherries or cherry tomatoes or when we want 2 kg of potatoes to make tortilla for our guests, so I try to have an extra shopping bag and a few paper bags that we reuse from the bulk store. In the long run, it would be more convenient to have one bag per product, but rather than ordering a set of produce bags that can be rather expensive and require new resources to make, I prefer to slowly make a few at a time repurposing old fabric. It also leaves me the time to evaluate our needs.

As you can see on the picture above, there are still a few things we buy with packaging and I am planning to work on getting rid of this later on, but considering how significantly we already reduced our waste, I am not necessarily in a rush. Hopefully I convinced you that you can work on reducing your waste with what you have and without feeling guilty about the ‘zero’ in zero waste. One little step at a time…

Zero waste milk routine

Finding a good supply for milk seems to be one of the challenges of many zero wasters. In San Sebastian, we are lucky to have fresh milk vending machines and one of them is just around the corner! It has reusable bottles for sale (both plastic 😦 or glass 🙂 ), but we just re-used glass bottles that we bought orange juice in. The machine lets you chose between 1l or 1/2l of milk. The milk is local and since there is less intermediaries, the agriculteur probably gets a fairer price for his milk. At least that’s what I hope…

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The down side (or is it?) is that since it is fresh, it only conserves for 5 days and after that it becomes sour. But that is not a big worries because there is plenty of nice things to do with sour milk. On top of my list came cottage cheese and pancake. I did not get the time to throw myself in the cheese-making adventure yet, but pancakes are definitely in my range and they raise much better with sour milk.

Sour milk pancake

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For the first try, I used this recipe. Since there was not specific instruction to mix the ingredients, I mixed them in the order of the recipe. After putting the milk in my mixing bowl I wondered if it was not a mistake, but it worked well and the big advantage is that I got an idea of how much sour milk I had and scaled up a bit the rest of the ingredients, especially the flour. The first batch was too salted, so when milk got sour again I tried it with only 1/2 teaspoon of salt, which is way enough. We had them for diner, first savoury with tomato, cucumber, cheese and cream fraiche, then sweet butter and honey. And the best part is that there were some left for breakfast.

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Local yogurt found in a glass jar at the supermarket.

We now decided to only get 0.5l at a time to avoid having to make pancakes too often (I know it is delicious, but not the quickest meal for busy people), but in the (distant?) future I want to try to make my own yogurt and this will  be a terrific way to stop the kitchen from being invaded by a new glass pot every week.

Learn to love hand sewing

One of my resolutions to reduce my environmental impact is to develop my sewing skills (to extend the life of my clothes and make a few things I need to replace disposable options). Thanks to a special delivery, I am now the caretaker of my grandma’s sewing machine, but I am going to need some practice before I get any of my clothes close to the machine. Finding the right settings is much harder without a teacher that knows well the machine, the fabric, and the thread.

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First round of machine sewing practice: two drawstring bags I made out of an old pillowcase. Thanks to the zero waste chef for the idea!

In the mean time, I am learning how to enjoy hand sewing. The life of quite a lot of clothes can already be extended with a needle and some thread. I’ve been fixing holes and sewing buttons before, but one thing I really needed to get into was hemming trousers. Is it just me or are trousers always too long? Ok maybe I have short legs, but 100% of my trousers are too long when I buy then, so either I fold them, which doesn’t look to good, or I let them long and the bottom gets damaged. I used to not be bothered, but if I have to make a few clothes last for years, they might as well fit me properly.

How I hemmed my favourite jeans

There are already a million tutorials on how to hem a jean and I am not even sure this is close to the best way of doing it, but I wanted to show that it is easy to do even without any sewing skills (and I want to remember how I did it).

Material

A few pins, thread, a needle (and a touch of patience).

Preparation

Use the pins to mark the desired length. Make sure it doesn’t get too short when you sit down. Cut the excess, keeping about 2 cm below the mark. Turn the pants inside out and iron the hem in place.

Start

I’m always struggling to make the knot on the thread big enough (it looks so easy when my grandma works her magic). I think that is one of the things that has put me off from doing more sewing: by the time I have a satisfactory knot I am fed up already. But I found a trick! I do one stitch, then a second one in the same spot and pass the needle through the loop of the second stitch. Kind of in the same way you would do to finish the work. For security, I take the end of the thread in the first few stitches, but I am not sure it is necessary.

Then

Version 2

Take a only a few threads from the fabric so that the needle don’t go all the way to the outside and then take the needle through the hem. The easiest way to understand is probably to look at this video (in French :S). I did a knot every 2-3 cm not to have to redo all if part of the thread breaks.

Finish

Make a knot by getting the needle through the loop of the last stitch.

The whole thing took me about 40 min, but in front of a movie or better with a radio pod cast, I find it rather relaxing. And with experience it should take less time.

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I also tried this method with a lighter fabric. Since it was fraying a lot I folded the end of the fabric inside. It also took a bit longer since it was harder to take few enough threads to stay on the inner side of the fabric, but other wise it was pretty much the same. Both pants are much more conformable now.

Version 2

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If sewing is really not your thing, you can always bring your jeans to your local seamstress. I am not sure how much a hem cost, but a few years back I brought my favourite coat for some serious fixing and it was much cheaper than what I would have expected.

New city, new habits

Moving to a new city is the perfect occasion to create new habits. At first, I hoped to use the momentum to be close to ‘trash in a jar’ zero waste straight away, but I had to relax a bit the constraints to keep my sanity. We have been quite busy and finding my mark in a new city with a new language takes a lot of energy. I admire people that start the zero waste adventure and directly replace their landfill bin by a glass jar, but this would’t work for me. There is only so many changes I can take in at a given time.

Shopping

We have all the ingredients to manage zero waste shopping. An organic shop with bulk dry food and detergents, lots of fruits and veggie without plastic in the supermarket or in dedicated stores all over the city, cheese and meat at the counter in the supermarket or in permanent markets.

New city, new habits - Bulk section of our organic shop

We are trying to shop organic as much as our budget allows, but most of the time we end up doing some complementary shopping at the supermarket. Also because the veg and especially fruit stale in the organic shop is not so big. We manage to get the fruit and veg mostly package-free except for a few stickers. We give preference to glass, paper and cardboard packages over the rest. We even found canned tuna in a glass pot. I never saw this before. We get pasta and flour from bulk stores in paper bags that we have been reusing again and again. And we’ve been buying bread in the draw string bag I made.

Doing several stops makes things complicated, so hopefully we can simplify a bit in the future. At the moment, we still have a bit of plastic from meat and cheese, because my current level of Spanish makes me feel shy to go at the counter. I could probably manage to ask, but would probably not understand the answer. Who would have known that finding Spanish classes was going to be in the priority list to be more environmentally friendly.

Waste

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San Sebastian collects organic waste, so I don’t need to worry about doing my own compost (for now?). It is only voluntary and you need to request a special card to open the organic container. I got super excited when our landlady told us that. She probably thinks I’m crazy by now. I haven’t quite understood why it had to be so complicated though. I think  people that do compost get a reduction of their ‘garbage tax’, but it is not completely clear on the website.

I didn’t want to buy garbage bags as I hope I won’t need them anymore soon, so I started using the carrier bags we have left (we used quite a few to pack stuff when we moved). The one we started with when we moved in, end of April, can still fit a few more things (maybe I’m pushing it a bit though). How’s that for progress?

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One month and a half of waste