Q&A with Celia Ristow at Zero Waste Chicago


Zero Waste Chicago’s Origins

What’s your New Year’s Resolution? If it was to reduce plastic (Forbes reports that we use 1 million plastic bottles per minute, and 91% of those bottles end up in a landfill) or find a way to be more eco-friendly, you’re going to love today’s post.

Zero Waste might sound like a serious challenge, but Celia Ristow, co-founder of Zero Waste Chicago and author of Litterless is quick to clarify that the movement is more concerned with reducing waste than reaching zero waste perfection (although it is possible!)

Ristow, along with co-founders Moira Kelley and Bailey Warren, started Zero Waste Chicago in 2017 after noticing that, while abundant abroad and in cities like San Fran or Portland, resources for zero waste enthusiasts in Chicago were surprisingly few and far between.

Kelley, Warren, and Ristow met through attending zero waste meet-ups in Chicago, where they quickly realized that everyone they spoke to had a wealth of knowledge on approaching zero waste in their own lives, but there was no local hub for collecting and disseminating this information.

Moira, Bailey, and Celia at the January Zero Waste Chicago community meet-up at Meliora Cleaning Products

The mission of Zero Waste Chicago became two-fold: to provide education and resources to Chicagoans; and to figure out how to distill environmental action from abstract initiatives like petitions, to small, personal changes that anyone could implement in their everyday lives. Since their inception just a year ago, the organization has tabled at The Plant, given workshops at Patagonia and the American Marketing Association, and most recently hosted their biggest monthly meet-up to date with fifty attendees (look for info on their February meet-up at the end of this post.)

We chatted with Ristow via phone to hear a little more about ZWC got started, and her top tips for going zero waste at work.

On getting involved in zero waste and low impact living:

“I grew up in a family of conservationists that always talked about environmental stewardship,” Ristow says. She always had a strong connection to the environment but “struggled to connect it to everyday life.”

“I heard about zero waste in 2011 and saw a video about a family living that way. I thought, ‘is it possible? And if it’s possible, do we all have a responsibility to do it?” After graduating from college, Ristow began to set up her own systems and routines, and intentionally made them “as zero waste as possible.”

“I realized we were sharing a lot of information at zero waste meet-ups,” she says. “We all composted differently and were sharing our different tips. And if you didn’t come to the meet-ups, you couldn’t find that information anywhere and we wanted to codify everything. There’s a lot of zero waste movements happening on the ground in California and New York and it felt more important to take it off the internet and bring it to the Chicago community.”

“Zero Waste Chicago is really about low waste. We’re not obsessed with reaching zero and are intentional about emphasizing that it will look different for everyone. E.g. Making one bag of trash each week, instead of four bags.”

Moira is chatting about some zero waste, reusable alternatives

Myth-busting Urban Compost

“One of the things that I like most is doing myth-busting around composting,” Ristow says. “People think if they don’t have yard space they can’t compost. But there are a lot of resources in a city like Chicago. It can be a such a simple change, and you can divert so much waste. But I don’t think we think about composting in cities.”

Zero Waste Tips for the Office

“One of the easiest things is trying to bring your own things when you can,” Ristow says. “If your office has plastic cups by the water cooler, can you bring your own? If they have a Keurig can you bring a French Press? Do they have paper napkins? Maybe you can bring cloth napkins.” Check out Ristows personal zero waste essentials here.

“For many jobs, people don’t really have a choice when it comes to paper. But maybe you can try an app to take notes like Evernote or One Note. Or if there are two printers in the office, maybe one can be scrap paper. Or even just setting up a scrap paper collection. There are ways to take control yourself.”

Ristow talks about the importance of anticipating situations where there will be disposables involved, and to prepare yourself in advance so you don’t wind up feeling deprived. “Automating your zero waste routines, buying or borrowing an extra set of everything to leave at your desk is a great way of doing this. That way if your coworkers ask you for a coffee run you have your extra thermos so you’re not stuck saying no.”

On Sustainability in Chicago

“Chicago definitely has its challenges,” Ristow says. “We don’t really have a municipal culture around sustainability. If you think of Seattle or Portland—they have municipal composting. Here we are so far from that. But, because the city as a whole isn’t stepping up in that respect, there are individual opportunities. For example, compost pick-up for small businesses to service the sector of Chicago that wants it. It’s been really cool to watch interest in zero waste grow, as the movement gathers steam.”


Zero Waste Trends to Look Out For

Ristow is excited about the products that are becoming more popular to reduce waste in our everyday, on-the-go lives (and I would hazard this is where a lot of our disposable use comes from). “There are whole new classes of older products being modernized, like the bamboo toothbrush; and newer products that have started with the goal of being zero waste, from menstrual products to reusable coffee cups. It’s really cool.”

Attend the next ZWC Event!

Attend Zero Waste Chicago’s February meet-up!
What: Repair Clinic (bring items to fix)
When: Sunday, February 25th, 4-7pm
Where: 1130 W. Thorndale
Chicago, IL
Celia, Bailey, and Moira are tabling at Plant Chicago’s monthly market to share Zero Waste tips
All images credited to Zero Waste Chicago
  • Kate

    lovely interview, and some great tips!