Zero Waste Vacuum Cleaning

By Liesl Clark

Using a vacuum cleaner in a (trying to get close to) zero waste home can be challenging, if you don’t have a bagless vacuum. Here’s what I’ve discovered over the years about reducing vacuum cleaning waste from my household:

Skip the Vacuum Cleaner Altogether? Now wait! Don’t stop reading because you think I’ve gone too far here. I can attest to the fact that in places where vacuum cleaners don’t exist, brooms can definitely do the trick! You just need a really great stiff broom for picking up the dirt. And, there’s no method better than taking your carpet outside and shaking it or beating it with a broom. If you have wall-to-wall carpet, I guess you’re out of luck, but a good stiff broom can do wonders.

I’ve had a few house cleaners help me in my day, and I’m always amazed to see how many of them choose to use the vacuum cleaner without first sweeping up the wooden floor. Broom and dustpan are the fastest route to frugal and zero waste floor-cleaning. I even have a cool collection of brooms I’ve gathered from all over the planet. In my travels to homes far from the conveniences of electricity and vacuums, I’ve witnessed the cleaning of rugs and carpets the old-fashioned-and-often-much-cleaner-way. Soft brooms sweep the often dirt floors, and stiff brooms are used to sweep the carpets. I’m amazed at how efficient they are so we use a broom on our carpets much of the time.

My Favorite Broom, Natural & Sustainable, Great for Wood Floors, Photo © Liesl Clark

Outside, we have a game of trying to shake a carpet with a partner on the other end and see who gets shaken-off first.

Empty the Bag! We used to have a vacuum we loved, but it came with bags that fill up and must be thrown out….or do they? After accumulating a few full bags, tossing ’em, and buying more (they’re expensive!) I discovered it was almost as easy to empty them into our brush pile outside and reuse them! We’d reuse our bags at least 30 times. Emptying the vacuum cleaner bags is an opportunity my children fight over. It’s fun. Really. Especially when we find a long-lost (and favorite) plastic baby goat in there. Those little baubles that get sucked up by the vacuum are given a second life.

See How Fun It Is? Photo © Liesl Clark

Now, a very ecologically-sound friend of mine says, “No, No! don’t empty those vacuum-cleaner bags because the dust and dirt in your home is toxic from the detritus that comes from your asbestos-bearing furniture or PVC and BPA-laden rugs.” I do respect her point, but I have to argue that our own dirt off our shoes is likely from the garden, our furniture is almost all made of natural materials, our home is recycled old timbers, and our carpets are antique natural-fiber carpets from Tibet and Egypt that we’ve bought from people we know, colored with vegetable dyes. I think we’re pretty safe. But this is not to say that everyone is safe to dump out their vacuumed dust into the environment. But aren’t our landfills part of our environment?

My Full Vacuum Cleaner Bag, Photo © Liesl Clark

I often empty our vacuum cleaner dust into our compost bin, except we find myriad little plastic bits from art projects that I try to take out by hand and throw back into the art bin (truly.) If you think your home and furniture (including mattresses) are mostly plastic-free, the dump-out-your-vacuum-bag-contents method of frugal vacuuming might be for you.

Dusting the Compost & Pulling the Plastic Out Later, Photo © Liesl Clark

Otherwise, there are bagless vacuums on the market these days. We’ve just acquired one, so our days of bag saving are over and we just dump our floor dust right into the compost. These days, it’s mostly dog and cat hair. I’d love to hear what you do with the dust and dirt from your home?

Fun with vacuum cleaner bags, Photo © Liesl Clark

Please note: If you have allergies or a particular sensitivity to dust, wearing a handkerchief or just mask around your mouth and nose is advised. Another friend empties her vacuum particulates into a plastic bag first, and then dumps it into her compost, to prevent the dust particles from escaping into the air. Shaking  out your vacuum cleaner bag is fun, especially when you know you’re defying the marketing department of your vacuum cleaner company. And, hey, you might find your lost wedding ring or favorite bauble for the effort.


Fun Emptying Vacuum Cleaner Bags, Photo © Liesl Clark

DIY Mason Jar Soap Dispenser

I’ve eyed the useful mason jar soap dispensers made by creative people and thought I’d try to make one myself. Was it difficult? Not at all. This DIY project takes a few minutes to pull off.

All you need is a mason jar with a wide mouth lid, a push pump from a discarded soap or hand cream dispenser (I had to cut mine down so it would fit in my pint jar,) a pair of pliers, and a Sharpie.

Mason Jar + Lid, Pliers, Sharpie, and Pump. Photo © Liesl Clark

Find the center of your flat mason jar lid and punch a hole in it with a can opener (oh right, that’s one more tool you’ll want.)

Making Your Center Hole. Photo © Liesl Clark

I was able to make a hole quite easily with my pliers. Draw a circle around the hole that’s in the center of your lid, is in my first picture, and start to pull the hole apart, making it wider and wider.

Starting to Make Your Center Hole Wider. © Liesl Clark

You simply keep pulling the pieces of metal wider and wider around the edges of your circle until they’re just wide enough for your pump to fit through.

It Will Start To Look Like a Flower. Photo © Liesl Clark

When you have sufficient room for your pump, slip it through but try to keep the fit quite tight.

Thread The Pump Through the Hole. Photo © Liesl Clark

I pressed the edges of the metal lid down tight against the lid to prevent any future cuts when I need to add soap to my dispenser. You can use a silicone sealant to lock the pump down to its center hole and smooth out your sharp edges.

Sealed Soap Dispenser. Photo © Liesl Clark

This whole project took 5 minutes once I had gathered my supplies.

DIY Soap Dispenser, Ready For Use. Photo © Liesl Clark

When we went away on vacation our cat knocked over a pretty glass dispenser I gave my husband for Christmas. My husband is the dishwasher after dinner and I wanted him to feel like he had a cool “tool” to use at the sink.

Our cool new kitchen 'tool:" Our DIY soap dispenser. Photo © Liesl Clark

We mostly use baking soda for our dishes, but this liquid soap gives great suds if you like ’em and makes a mild hand soap, too. Our current liquid soap is an extremely watered-down (like 6:1 water to soap) biokleen dish soap.

DIY Dish Soap Dispenser. Photo © Liesl Clark

Valentines: The Original Folk Art Scrap Hack

Handmade Paper Valentines, An Original Folk Art. Photo © Liesl Clark

I remember having to make valentines cards in elementary school for each of my classmates. The handmade cards tended to come from whatever scrap paper, lace, and paper doilies we had around our home. Each valentine was different, a scrapper’s attempt at making beauty from what was available.

Scraps of Paper. All You Need to Make an Original Valentine. Photo © Liesl Clark

And then things changed, and there was a new ethic afoot: Skip the handmade valentine and buy a mass-produced version for your friends, complete with a stash of sweets. All you had to do was fill in your name, the recipient’s name, and add a packet of hearts. It certainly was a time-saver, but these so-called valentines felt like a cop-out and an opportunity for some not-so-creative folks to make money off of us. I’m still a big fan of the hand-crafted valentine. You might say the valentine is an original form of folk art, and some still practice it today.

Our kids, over the past few years, have been assigned, at school, to make valentines for their classmates from materials found in their home. Alas! We could bring back the tradition. Here are a few examples I’ve pulled from our photos over the years:

1) The Traditional Scrap Paper Valentine:  We first gathered our scrap paper and cut out traditional hearts on card stock we had rescued from the landfill. We also save pretty scrap paper from magazines and junkmail so we have plenty of colors and textures to choose from for projects like this.

Cutting, folding, and gluing paper is all it takes to make a valentine. Photo © Liesl Clark

2) A Scrap Fabric Valentine:  Then we found some pretty scrap fabric and cut out hearts to glue to the reclaimed card stock. Those felt a little more 3D and folksy.

Add a fabric scrap to your valentine for a more 3D effect. Photo © Liesl Clark

3) Bookmark Valentines:  Cut long strips of paper about 2 inches wide by 6 inches long.

Paper strips from handmade paper. Photo © Liesl Clark

Punch a hole (we punched a star, really) into one end of each strip.

Punching a hole in the end of your strip. Photo © Liesl Clark

Tie a little ribbon or scrap fabric through the star, and you’ll have bookmarks ready to decorate as useful valentines.

Bookmark Valentines are Useful. Photo © Liesl Clark

4) Valentine Heart Wands: In our pantry, we found some pie tins and colorful plastic straws we had found on the beach, saved, and washed. These would become our raw ingredients for heart wands we made for several of the students:

Heart wands are easy. All you need are pie tins, straws, and a glue gun. Photo © Liesl Clark

Cut a heart out of your pie tin and glue it to the end of a straw. They work with pretty sticks, too. And if you want to embellish your silvery pie tin heart, you can glue a smaller heart to your tin heart.

Hearts of Paper and Hearts of Tin. Photo © Liesl Clark

The Tin Man would be proud.

Heart Wands From Pie Tins and Straws. Photo © Liesl Clark

We've been making these for years. Photo © Liesl Clark

5) Wire and Yarn Hearts:  We often craft wire hearts from scavenged wire and then wrap them in yarn. The children love hanging them around the garden. The little heart below was made by my daughter when the deer ate her bleeding hearts. She was so saddened by the loss of her hearts, she placed a fence around them and crafted this wire heart on the outside for the deer to eat, still leaving them something to enjoy. The sweetness of a 6-year-old is undying.

A wire and yarn heart to help protect the bleeding hearts from the deer. Photo © Liesl Clark

6) Classic Hand-Stitched Valentine: My daughter love to sew by hand. These hand-stitched valentines took her a month to make, but she poured her love and talent into each one. She left a little pocket in each to be filled with organic jelly beans, her favorite treat we buy in bulk at our local store. These are pretty easy to make so long as you have felt. We asked for felt on our local Buy Nothing group, and neighbors had plenty to share! She cut out hearts in varying sizes with my pinking shears and then layered them and sewed them together, leaving a pocket at the top.


7) Produce Sticker Heart:  This one might be a bit of a stretch, but for those health-conscious sweethearts in your life, why not craft a produce sticker heart valentine? It was a cathartic exercise, for me, because those plastic stickers to announce that we’ve bought organic produce bother me greatly. No tutorial necessary, right?

Produce Stickers are Pink and Perfect for this Healthy-Heart Valentine. Photo © Liesl Clark


Send in a picture of your own homemade valentines. We’d love to share them with all our sweethearts.

Swiss Chard Is Two Veggies In One

Don’t throw those swiss chard stalks out! We’ve discovered a delicious thing or 3 to do with them.

Swiss Chard Stalks are Pretty and Delicious. Photo © Liesl Clark

I’m ashamed to say our swiss chard has been languishing in the garden because our family just hadn’t taken to these easy-to-grow greens, until now…

Swiss Chard From the Winter Garden Being Washed in the Farm Sink. Photo © Liesl Clark

First, separate your chard leaves from the stalks and cut your stalks into 4″ long pieces. Save them in  a bowl. Aren’t they pretty?

Chard Stalks in a Bowl Awaiting Further Instructions. Photo © Liesl Clark

Spicy Swiss Chard Chips:

We all know what kale chips are. Well, try making chips with your swiss chard, too. They’re a delicious and nutritious substitute for potato chips. By adding a little garlic powder, salt, and some chili powder, you won’t be able to eat just one.

Turn your oven to 275 degrees. Place your chard pieces on a baking sheet or glass baking pan. Add a tablespoon of olive oil per baking pan and toss the chard leaves with equal amounts of sea salt and garlic powder and chili powder. That’s it! Add your spice to taste and be sure to not make it too salty.

Bake for 20 minutes and then turn the leaves over and bake another 10 minutes if needed. Your bake time depends on your baking dish.

Spicy Swiss Chard Chips Disappear Quickly. Photo © Liesl Clark


Chard Stalk Pickles:

Now take your stalks and if you have a bottle of Claussen pickle juice waiting for something delicious to throw in, just stuff a few of your raw stalks in the bottle and within a few hours you’ll have delicious chard stalk pickles. My kids love them.

Raw Claussen Swiss Chard Stalk Pickles. Photo © Liesl Clark

I found another recipe for delicious pickled swish chard stalks at Cookistry. But if you want to read my entertaining version with home-grown photography, here we go:

Blanch your stalks in boiling salted water for about 3-4 minutes. You want them to stay crunchy so be sure to not overcook them. Drain the stalks and try a few at this stage. Aren’t they delicious? We loved the slightly salted cooked stalks so much we saved a few and had them as a side dish with dinner.

Find a mason jar or 2 and put your stalks in them.

Then, bring the following ingredients to a boil and make sure everything is completely dissolved:

2 cups water
3/4 cup white vinegar
1  1/2 teaspoons salt
2  1/2 teaspoons sugar

Pour your water into your mason jars with chard stalks in them and screw the tops on. Put them in the refrigerator when they’ve cooled and you can enjoy these pickles for a few weeks.

Pickled Chard Stalks. Photo © Liesl Clark

Do you have a favorite chard stalk recipe? I was so excited to find a way to save them from the compost bin or chicken yard I’d love to learn of other chard stalk rescue recipes.

Force Winter Twigs For Indoor Spring Color


Yesterday, while the birds were gossiping with spring chatter on one of our first days above 50 degrees in weeks, I noticed some pruned wisteria sticks were still in our perennial garden, left over from when my husband had pruned the flowering wisteria last fall. It’s been an extremely wet winter, and I was surprised to find that the wisteria sticks had buds on them. The moisture of the winter rains sustained the cuttings, so they were still alive!

Inspired by Cathy’s “In a Vase on Monday” series, where she puts whatever might be green, even in the dead of winter, into a vase and writes about it, I looked at those wisteria sticks and thought perhaps I could force them for early blooms. And then this post, at Frogend Dweller’s Blog, rocked my Monday, with the reminder that we can collect many different flowering twigs, place them in a vase filled with water, and watch them open over the course of late winter and early spring. I promptly walked around our property and found that there were plenty of twigs barely hanging onto some of our flowering shrubs and trees, having been blown down by winter winds. I grabbed my sharpest pruning shears and gathered what I could:


The varying colors of the stems are stunning in the mid-winter light. From left to right my budding twig offerings are as follows:


Asian Plum

A Rose of Some Sort (Oh gosh! I just don’t know what kind it is!)


Alder (yes?)

And…um…well….er…I just don’t know what the last one is on the right. Another variety of alder?

Ok, so I don’t know all of my trees and shrubs, but 50% isn’t bad. And then Willa caught wind of the spring fever and wanted to pretend she was one of the sticks, too.


I love how the plum branches have a little moss on them. Did I mention how wet our winters are here?


The twigs were arranged in the nearest watering pot and placed in one of our favorite windows, under the grape pergola with the twists of vine shadows playing with the mid-day light that floods our dining area.


The children and I can’t wait to see what blooms we’ll get from our forced twigs. Be sure to get outside, in the upcoming days, to clip a few flowering twigs of your own to bring some spring leaves and blossoms indoors while you wait out the chills of winter to come.


Special thanks to Frogend Dwellers Blog and Rambling in the Garden for your inspiration. You’ve taken the bite out of winter. I’ve been enjoying your writings immensely.

Oh, and if anyone can help me identify the 3 varietals of twigs I missed, please comment below!

DIY Cat Scratching Post

Give your kitty what she wants and make a real-tree natural cat scratching post! My theory is that your average carpet-remnant cat scratch tree only encourages your furball to scratch up your carpet or upholstery. If you give your cat what she wants, an actual tree branch to sharpen her nails on, she’ll leave your furniture alone. That’s what our cat does…mostly.

A Real Tree Cat Scratch Tree!

So, we went out to our brush pile and found the perfect curving fat tree limb with two Y branches growing from it so our kitty could have a few spots to climb to. I found a piece of particle board to screw the sawed-off limb onto. It was as simple as that. This scratching post has lasted 4 years and our cat still uses it happily.

We often attach bits of string with fun things for our kitty to bat at, to make it a fun playspace for her.

She loves her real tree cat scratch tree.

But here’s the best thing about this cat gym: When we’re done with it, we can break it down and burn it in our fireplace. No issues about waste here.

Do you have a DIY cat scratching post you can share here?

Clothes The Loop With The North Face

I’m excited to make a huge discovery, for those of us who ache when we throw into the landfill big chunks of plastic that could likely be repurposed into something else. The North Face stores will take not only your old clothes, shoes, and outdoor gear like backpacks and tents, but they’ll also take your old ski boots! Please read this article by my husband that tells you all about this great initiative.

By Pete Athans

Living on an island means we don’t have access to a lot of services and conveniences. We like that.

My 7-year-old daughter on a ferry boat ride to our Puget Sound island. Photo © Liesl Clark

A 35-minute ferry ride delivers us into what feels like the bowels of Seattle, ejecting ferry-riders beneath a highway underpass, a continuous stream of cars, buses and trucks humming above. Just around the corner from the hum of the waterfront is one of The North Face’s first stores to open in the U.S.

Delivered by ferry to the Seattle waterfront. Photo © Liesl Clark

I’ve worked for the company for nearly 30 years, and I still love walking into this special Seattle space. Behind the modern store facade, you still have a sense of the original post and beam construction, probably used for shipping or as a warehouse years ago. Today, I’m even more proud to step into the store with my family, carrying our used clothing, textiles, and gear that we aren’t able to sustainably throw away on our small island. In fact, most people have a tough time finding places to discard used clothing and specialized outdoor gear in this country. But every store in the US that The North Face operates now has a “Clothes The Loop” box where you can drop off your used and worn-up clothes, gear, and shoes. You’ll get a discount on your next purchase at The North Face store as a reward for your efforts.

Here’s how you can find a store near you that is participating in this program. Click on their Find A Store link. Then, at the bottom of the map, click on the boxes that say “The North Face Stores” and “The North Face Outlets.” Those are the stores owned and operated by The North Face that have this program.

Denim has value. Don't throw it away! It can be used as insulation. Photo © Liesl Clark

The North Face has initiated this much-needed clothing, gear, and shoe recycling program, they call “Clothes the Loop,” in a partnership with I:CO an international textile and shoe recycler that breaks materials down into 400 categories for carpet padding, stuffing for new toys, and fibers for new clothing. I:CO currently processes about 500 tons of used items every day in 74 countries. They have collection points all over Europe and in the USA.

Drop your old apparel, any brand, into a "Clothes the Loop" bin at The North Face store.

Here’s a list of the kinds of items you can take to your nearest store and put in their box:

Old Clothing


Hiking Boots


Bed Spreads


Table Cloths

Fabric Scraps

Ski Boots



Climbing Harnesses


Stuffed Animals

We’ve taken samplings of just about everything on the list above to their store. It’s reduced our family’s solid waste significantly each year. According to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year, and this figure is rapidly growing. Add your outdoor gear to that figure and surely it’s over 100 pounds. We’re very excited to hear that they’ll take ski boots. Before this, there were no options in the Seattle area and most cities for ski boot recycling.


Our family has a lot of boots, for every kind of snow sport. We’re probably not unlike many families. © Liesl Clark

Before you take your items in to The North Face, if any of them are usable, please try to give them away to someone who might be able to use them, through a project like your local Buy Nothing group. When my family travels to the Himalaya, we always bring a few extra duffels of clothing and shoes. We work with communities in Upper Mustang who are in dire need of good shoes.

Since children grow so fast, it isn’t hard to pass on our own children’s lightly worn fleece, outerwear, hiking boots, hats and gloves to kids in remote mountain communities. It’s the least we can do in a high mountain environment where people only have access to poorly made Chinese apparel.

A child in Samdzong getting medical care from our expedition doctor. Photo © Liesl Clark

My children on their way to Upper Mustang, Nepal. Photo © Liesl Clark

My children on their way to Upper Mustang, Nepal. Photo © Liesl Clark

If we’re more mindful of our textile and outdoor gear waste, we can each make a difference. We know the textile industry adds tremendous environmental stress on our planet, but by giving away our usable our clothing and gear and then recycling what’s un-wearable, we can reduce the demand for virgin materials in new clothing and conserve the energy that goes into making fibers for fabrics.

Recycling your worn out textiles and shoes at The North Face is fun. Photo © Liesl Clark

For us islanders, this new drop box at The North Face will be a welcome destination for fabrics and apparel we’ve been stockpiling in our homes in hopes that a recycler would appear in our midst. Your jeans that have holes in the knees and gloves that are nearly shredded from outdoor use are welcome at the Clothes the Loop bin.

My favorite TNF gloves, now safely in the bin. Photo © Liesl Clark

Hope to see you there, recycling your hole-y socks and dented hats.

IMG_3361 Photo © Liesl Clark