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Photograph: Will Gosner

How to start your sustainability journey in Chicago this Earth Day

Events, shops and local volunteer organizations to help you live cleaner and greener in Chicago.

Written by
Lindsay Eanet

April is here, which means lots of us are thinking about our environmental impact ahead of Earth Day.

Fighting climate change goes way beyond any individual action, but there are still some small yet significant ways you can live more sustainably here in Chicago—all while building community, saving money and sleeping a little more soundly knowing that the items from your spring cleaning purge will stay out of a landfill. And, hey, the more people who make changes, the bigger the impact, right? Here are some events, organizations and shops in Chicago to help you make an impact this Earth Day.   

Reduce: Check out Chicago’s zero-waste shops

As children growing up in suburban Des Plaines, Bethany Barbouti and Jackie MacCartie have fond memories of exploring nature in the nearby forest preserves. 

As adults, they’ve turned their passion for nature into Eco and the Flamingo, Chicago’s “first zero-waste general store,” with locations in Lincoln Square and Evanston. At Eco and the Flamingo, customers can bring in their own jars or bottles to refill on dish soap, laundry soap, shampoo and conditioner, and dry goods like coffee, tea, baking staples, rice and pasta. You’ll also find fun home goods like candles, towels and even recycled-paper pencils.

The owners of Eco and the Flamingo encourage people looking to start their sustainability journeys to “start where they’re at.” MacCartie says they encourage people to inventory the stuff they have, and start, for example, when they run out of dish soap by rinsing out the bottle and bringing it in.

Another popular swap Barbouti and MacCartie recommend from their store is the Wettex Swedish dishcloth, which they sell for $2.50 each and can absorb up to 15 times their weight in water, making for a cost-effective and waste-reducing replacement for paper towels.

Looking for another zero-waste store option? Last year, while Broadway was shut down during the pandemic, Broadway actors Jessica Naimy and Ben Mayne opened a zero-waste pop-up shop called The Unwaste Shop in West Town. The two actors later returned to Broadway, but Chicagoan Todd Barancik is still running the store as an online-only operation where people can purchase eco-friendly versions of bath and body products, kitchen tools and more. As an online store, Barancik says they work to ensure boxes are recyclable or compostable, and items are packed in as small of a box as possible.

As the parents of two young children, Barancik and his wife began questioning some of the procedures in their home and began with small swaps, such as reusable mesh produce bags and plastic-free dental floss. He advises starting small and acknowledges that these changes can seem intimidating at first. 

“I think people get overwhelmed, thinking you have to do everything perfectly,” Barancik says. “It’s better to do a little than do nothing.”

Barbouti agrees that it’s important to empower people to make gradual changes and work with them to keep from getting overwhelmed. “You don't have to make these changes overnight,” Barbouti says. “It can be one thing at a time. There's also a lot of variety—we take a lot of recommendations from customers of things that have worked for them.”

Making swaps easy for people is also an important step—for example, Eco and the Flamingo offers compostable bags and a section of donated jars for people who come in and forgot their refill containers. Barancik and The Unwaste Shop make swaps convenient through their “zero-waste kits,” bundling a number of plastic-free supplies for one activity, such as grocery and produce bags, dishwashing supplies and even a picnic se.

“It's your own growth, it's your own rituals and experience, and a part of you slowing down and connecting to what you actually need,” MacCartie says. “You may be buying a two-pound bag of rice at the grocery store but only need a cup of rice with your meal prep.”

For folks that want guidance on recycling those more difficult items, MacCartie and Barbouti recommend Reduce Waste Chicago, an organization that's hosting a Swap and Recycle Pop-up with the University of Illinois-Chicago on April 21. At the event, UIC students, employees and community members can swap books and clothing in good condition, and guests will be able to recycle some items that are not accepted by the city’s Blue Cart program (think electrical cords, takeout containers and disposable face masks).

If you're looking for even more advice on how to cut down, MacCartie also recommends Chicago Environmentalists, a sustainability-focused online community with an interactive map of where to recycle tricky items, and an easy-to-follow online directory of sustainable shops and restaurants, community-supported agriculture, composting/recycling resources and more. 

Reuse: Look for orgs that help you buy used/secondhand goods

Working on a spring clean-out or home renovation project? Consider using reclaimed building materials, or donating yours for reuse. The Rebuilding Exchange and Evanston-based Rebuilding Warehouse reclaim everything from bricks and lumber to lighting and cabinetry, which you can keep out of a landfill and give another life in your home.  In suburban Maywood, you’ll find the expansive salvage warehouse at Reuse Depot, where you can donate or explore appliances, doors, plumbing and more. 

Are you a crafter with a half-finished project or a teacher in need of lower-cost art supplies for your classroom? The WasteShed, with locations in Humboldt Park and Evanston, is a creative reuse center that collects reusable art and school materials that would otherwise be thrown away and makes them available to artists, teachers and anyone else who might need them at low cost. While sustainability is the goal, The WasteShed also seeks to foster creativity by inspiring artists with unconventional materials. You can even volunteer to earn store credit, or order a fun mystery box of random stuff to get inspired.

Got miscellaneous items that are in great condition but you’re not sure where they can go? The Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange is a non-profit that redistributes donated surplus materials to students, nonprofit organizations and community groups. Items on their “most wanted” donation list, which can be found on their website, include office supplies, containers like (clean!) coffee cans and buckets, and wooden planks. 

Another easy way to reduce waste and ensure goods stay out of landfills for longer is to shop secondhand (or donate clothes and other goods, so long as they’re things people will actually want and in good condition). Lincoln Square’s Family Tree Resale offers clothes, toys and home goods, recycles what they cannot use and has given more than $170,000 in vouchers so neighbors in need can shop there for free with anonymity and dignity. North Center’s Kangaroo Kids is an “upscale children’s consignment shop” where parents can find kids’ clothing and toys in excellent condition at reasonable prices. And in addition to a host of high-quality merchandise, Logan Square’s Monarch Thrift Shop partners with One Heart One Soul to provide job training and career pathways for youth experiencing homelessness.

Want some pizza and beer with your donating reusable items? Head to Reuse-a-Palooza at The Plant Chicago on Sunday, April 24. At this community gathering, partners will help safely dispose of hard-to-recycle items like batteries and surgical masks, repair clothing and household items and educate each other on waste-reduction strategies. Afterwards, enjoy delicious pizza and beer in the Whiner Beer Co. taproom on-site or savory vegan bitess from the Ste. Martaen food truck.

Repair: Get schooled on how to fix common household items

Many of us were raised on the ethos of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” but in recent years, there’s been more focus on a fourth “R”: Repair. Learning how to fix household items keeps them out of landfills longer, reducing waste, saving you money and empowering people with a new skill. 

“Repair is exciting and important for your own self-confidence and empowerment, and feeling like you have choices about your life and the things you own,” says Tessa Vierk, founder of the Chicago Tool Library, an organization that allows subscribers to borrow hundreds of household tools for a yearly a pay-what-you-can fee. “Repair events can create an entry point for people to experiment. It's so easy to order new things with Amazon, and shopping is so ingrained in our culture. Having events like this gets people thinking about repair and thinking about sustainable alternatives to purchasing new things.”

The Chicago Tool Library began hosting Repair Fairs in 2019 with the Chicago Public Library to encourage and empower Chicagoans to tinker, experiment and try something new. Their next Repair Faira free community event where attendees can connect with volunteers to fix beloved bikes, clothes, appliances and other household items—takes place on April 23 from 1–4pm at the Back of the Yards Library, 2111 W 47th St. 

If you can’t make the Repair Fair this month, check out other repair organizations and events like Community Glue Workshop, which hosts community-driven repair clinics, and the Chicago Repair Café, which meets the second Saturday of every month from 10am to noon at Sulzer Library in Lincoln Square.

And, of course, you can always join the Chicago Tool Library to borrow from more than 2,500 tools housed at their space at 1048 W. 37th St. in Bridgeport. If you want to connect even more to the Tool Library, you can sign up to volunteer or gift a membership to a community member, too. 

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