Talking Trash


Once a month, over the past year, a picture of a glass jar containing miscellaneous discarded items has shown up on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. This is Heather Benek’s trash jar. I was intrigued by this idea, so I decided to ask about it. “It’s a pretty common thing in the zero-waste community,” Benek told me. “It’s just a way of having self-accountability.”

Benek grew up in an environmentally-aware family who produced much of their own food and bought in bulk, but two years ago she decided to go a step further and embrace the zero-waste movement. “I started intentionally reducing waste two years ago, but the trash jar started in January,” Benek said.

Over the last year she has collected roughly a quart of garbage in her jar every month. Considering that the average American produces 4.4 pounds of solid waste per day, this is an impressive achievement. Most months she produces about a quart of garbage, but some months the jar has been fuller than others. Benek relocated to Pittsburgh a few months ago and almost filled a gallon jar at that point. When travelling she tends to eat more protein bars and use tea bags, both of which contain non-recyclable packaging. “When I’m home I eat package-free snacks and use loose-leaf tea.”

Zero-waste living is a challenge, but it is one that Benek has managed to turn into a game. She has developed strict shopping rules. “I’m becoming very mindful and considering the impact of the item and what its end of life will be,” Benek said. “I think about who is going to outlive this experience, this item or me?”

The top of the list is to forego packaging as much as possible. This means buying in bulk using her own, refillable containers, although bulk items still come in packaging initially. The plastic foot-print is just shared among more consumers. Benek looks for cardboard, paper, or recyclable packaging, or preferably none at all. One example is a body bar that can be used from head to toe. She buys many things, especially clothing, second-hand in thrift and consignment shops, and eschews online purchases because of over-packaging.

Package-free stores are beginning to open in some larger cities, but Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to have one yet. “There are some places that carry bulk goods and supplies with instructions on end of life care,” Benek said. “They also carry more durable, “old-fashioned” things like stainless steel vegetable peelers and safety razors.”

The one problem Benek runs into is with books. It’s so easy and convenient to buy books online with a click of a mouse, but they come covered in plastic or layers of cardboard. “I make myself wait to see if I can find the book locally or used,” Benek said. “If I hold out on items, I often find I don’t care if I have them anymore.”

The utensils and packaging that come with take-out food are another huge waste producer in America. Benek gets around this by carrying a glass, pint Mason jar, a set of reusable bamboo utensils and her own napkin at all times. She uses her own fork, knife and spoon instead of disposable plastic ones, and takes left-overs home in the glass jar. She has found a few restaurants that will package to-go items in her jar, but some balk at the practice citing health department regulations.

“It’s all about mindfulness,” Benek said. “What is the reaction to my actions?” Benek is a health and wellness coach and sees clients in Pittsburgh and Erie for healing and energy work. She can be contacted through her website,



Another Greenhouse

I have started another greenhouse. I think this is my fifth or sixth one. Some have been more successful than others, but I have learned something from every project. Most of them have been made out of found or recycled materials, too.

My first greenhouse was made out of something called Starplate connectors. You can use them with boards to make a dome-style shelter. This worked pretty well for a while, although the long, slim green houses seem to have more usable space. We bought them from the Stromberg’s Chicks and Game Birds Unlimited and they still sell them.

The next version of a greenhouse was a frame made from aspen saplings and straw bales covered with plastic. This was also pretty successful and I used it for three years before we took off the plastic and let it compost itself. The patch of blackberries that grew up where that greenhouse was produces berries that are an inch long or bigger.


Then I began to experiment with hoop houses with varying amounts of success. None of them seemed to stand up to snow load very well. I thought I had it licked a couple of years ago when I used cattle panels with plastic over them, but two feet of wet snow one night flattened it to the ground.

Cattle panel hoop house

Cattle panel hoop house

After that I began making small hoop houses to protect plantings of greens, carrots and beets for the winter. These worked very well for that purpose, but I didn’t have anywhere to store my plants when it was too cold to put them in the garden yet. I hope I have finally solved the problem.


Today I began to put together a hoop house using PVC pipe that began life as color guard flag poles from the high school marching band. I have to wait until my next pay day to buy the connectors I will need, but I think this one will be strong enough, or at least I hope it will! It will have interior bracing along the hoops on both sides, so that should do the trick.


The Comfy Chair

I am finally finished with the cover for the Comfy Chair! This was one of those projects that are easy, but extremely time-consuming; however, I am definitely pleased with the results.

Everybody loves the Comfy Chair

Everybody loves the Comfy Chair

The Comfy Chair is a piece of furniture that was given to us by Mini’s sister when she didn’t have room for it any more. It is, indeed, extremely comfortable, and everyone likes to sit there. Over the years, it became worn and dingy, and it was not only comfy, but downright ugly.

A couple of months ago, my mom gave me a white canvas chair cover that didn’t fit any of her chairs. It did work on the Comfy Chair, but there was no way white was going to survive in my house. I decided to dye it brown.

Whit is a no no at my house.

White is a no no at my house.

I used Dylon Woodland Brown fabric dye, and I put the chair cover in my big dye pot. After rinsing and drying, I took the chair cover to the studio.

It 's great to have a really big dye pot!

It ‘s great to have a really big dye pot!

I began stamping leaf designs on it using DecoArt SoSoft fabric paints. It was easy and fun, but it’s a big chair cover and these are small leaf stamps, plus you have to let the paint dry before you can safely move the piece without smudging it. It took two months to finish.

Ready to go.

Ready to go.

Stamping, stamping, stamping.

Stamping, stamping, stamping.

It took about two months to complete.

It took about two months to complete.

But it is all done now! Just in time for the Comfy Chair to be taken out of the living room to make room for the Christmas tree.

It's done!

It’s done!

And the cats still love it.

And the cats still love it.