Americans waste nearly 40 million tons — 80 billion pounds — of food every single year! That's more than any other nation in the world.
Clearly, we have a lot of work to do and it begins with a zero waste kitchen.
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Why do we create so much waste in the kitchen?
The kitchen is normally the most popular room to start your zero waste journey, probably because it's the most wasteful. It's estimated we throw out one pound of food per person every day, that's about 103 million tonnes — 206 billion pounds — and it's costing the average family about $1500 per year.
When I first began my zero waste journey in the kitchen it was difficult because so much of my garbage came from food packaging, so I had to rethink how I was shopping and preparing food. I also learned the importance of composting my food scraps, a simple step we can all take in reducing waste.
So what is a no waste kitchen exactly?
To understand what a no-waste kitchen is, we are going to use the principle of the 5 R’s (Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot) and a little help from Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home. These principles can serve as a guide on your journey to creating a no-waste kitchen when you have any doubts or need to make any accommodations or swaps based on your needs.
Starting with refuse, when it comes to the kitchen, we are talking about resisting food packaging and disposable plastic bags. These can be swapped by shopping with reusables (jars, reusable produce bags, and reusable totes) combined with shopping in the bulk and produce sections of your local grocer and/or the farmers market.
Here, the objective is to reduce kitchen accessories to what we actually need and to define pantry staples to avoid food waste. By paring down to the essentials you will be reducing consumption and waste.
Applying reuse in the kitchen is twofold. It involves shopping for groceries with reusables and rethinking your leftovers to avoid food waste (more on the latter later).
You can also reuse old jars and other reusables in the home; giving glass jars and plastic reusables a second life before they are responsibly discarded.
While recycling is not the most reliable option for reducing our waste in the kitchen or anywhere really, when unavoidable, be sure to do it properly. Follow your municipal recycling programs’ guidelines to a tee in order to increase the chances that your recyclables will actually be recycled and not sent to a landfill despite your efforts.
Because such a large amount of food scraps are generated in the kitchen, it is a large source of waste. Biodegradable or not, they are no help for our strained trash collection systems. So here we are called to compost our food scraps which will go a long way in bringing us closer to our zero waste kitchen goals and to reducing our environmental footprint.
Keep these principles in mind as you move through your journey, and use them as a guide to help you figure out what actually works best for you and where you can make any accommodations you might require.
Generally, the point of a no-waste kitchen is to reduce waste generation all around while responsibly meeting our needs using these principles. You can also think about it as optimizing for reusability and waste reduction, as well as efficiency.
Since the zero waste lifestyle is about reducing our environmental footprint all around, it is also important to consider optimizing for resource consumption in things like water and energy use too which we will explore in further detail in our tips to a zero waste kitchen.
Whatever you decide to do it is important that you be able to keep it up in the long term and it's perfectly okay not to be perfect here, but to do your best.
Step 1: Conduct a garbage audit
The first thing I want you to do is to conduct a garbage audit, in 85 tips to sustainable living I break down exactly how to do this. It's number 55 on the list. Once you have a better handle on where your waste is coming from you can implement these zero waste tips easily! It's all about forming new habits and don't forget it's not about being perfect.
Once you get a handle on shopping for items with less waste, it will get easier. Your goal is to find trash-free items you can substitute for ones that create waste. For example, instead of buying eggs in a styrofoam container, buy them in cardboard.
One of the best things that came out of this exercise was it got me out of my grocery rut. I was always buying the same foods every week, having to find alternatives in either the bulk section or trying a new store got me to try new foods and spices I had always been curious about.
A lot of trash-producing packaged foods can be made at home like hummus, nut milk, guacamole, bread, cookies, etc. It can really open you up to so many fun recipes.
Get used to shopping in bulk, most grocery stores have options, some are more limited than others, but it is growing in popularity. Bulk shopping not only reduces waste, but it also saves you money, you can buy just what you need.
Common items to shop for in the bulk section: Spices, candy, granola, nuts, seeds, dried beans, popcorn, cornstarch, and baking soda, just to name a few. Bulk foods are also fresher, they don't sit on the shelf too long and the bins get replenished more often. Not the case with food sitting in a box or jar on a shelf. Especially for spices.
Shopping for foods that come in less packaging helps to eat healthier as well. Most packaged foods are filled with fillers, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors, all things that are best to avoid.
Zero waste living can be so hard, so I will say it again, change takes time, Rome was not built in a day. Have patience with yourself and do what you can.
Step 2: Zero Waste Kitchen Essentials
You will want to have as many of these as possible. A trash-free life is not possible without them.
These are typically made from fabric like cotton or canvas or nylon and come in a variety of sizes. I have too many to count, they are all durable and of different sizes. I have a stash at the front door and in the car. Keep one in your glove box too. I use mine no matter what I am shopping for, clothes, take-out, you name it.
When making your shopping list, write bags at the top of the list. I do this all the time!
These are bags that you can see through, they sometimes have a drawstring and are made from mesh fabric with a tiny weave. These are great for shopping for produce and bigger bulk items like pasta or peanuts. I love mesh bags because the cashier can see what you are buying and you can keep the produce in the bag when you are washing it at home. They are machine washable too.
Repurposed Glass Jars:
I never met a glass jar I didn't love. Sometimes I will spend more on an item because it has a cute jar, knowing I am going to keep and reuse the jar. Glass jars are perfect for your bulk items. I also love that you can see how much you have left. If you have plastic containers in your home, use them, don't toss them. They make great food storage for dry goods like beans, pasta, baking soda, etc. You can also reuse them to organize office supplies, make plant pots, and more.
Is going zero waste expensive?
Going zero waste can be expensive but it can also be extremely frugal. Depending on where you live, what is available near you, what you need to get yourself started, and what you need to maintain this lifestyle; you may find yourself having to go farther away from your home to shop or having to invest in new cookware, reusable containers, and other zero-waste essentials.
On the other hand, buying in bulk and at farmers' markets is very cost-effective. Not to mention that by adopting a zero-waste lifestyle you are inherently going to consume less of everything in general too. So in the long term, it will definitely pay off.
Whatever the case may be, it is important not to dismiss this lifestyle by overgeneralizing, where we have the opportunity to focus on what we can do and what we can afford to do within our individual contexts and needs.
There are still plenty of things we can do to start, for example. Consider bringing a zero-waste lunch to work. You will save money on disposable baggies and on buying food out (which notoriously adds up); all while reducing your environmental footprint.
So if you cannot make all the necessary investments upfront, take the time to figure out what is within your means. With that, remember that you don’t have to make these changes overnight. You can start with easier, less expensive investments and work your way to bigger ones over time. It all comes down to what you can make work for you and doing your personal best.
Now that I have covered the basics, here are my zero waste tips to take it to the next level:
🗹 Stay away from single-use coffee pods
While coffee pods may be convenient and require less coffee per brew, they are a huge source of waste. Even when they are recyclable, they often wind up in landfills. And according to Club Coffee, Canadians discard an estimated 2.8 million single-use coffee pods every day.
A simple way to go zero waste when it comes to your morning brew is to ditch the capsules and reach for a French press or a Mocha pot. They require no filter and the grounds can easily be composted or added to the base of plants for some extra nutrients (just the grounds, the liquid will kill plants!).
You can also keep your drip coffee maker and use compostable filters instead of conventional ones.
🗹 Carry a reusable coffee mug
Reusable coffee mugs are the best friend you never knew you needed. They can come in super handy for other beverages like a quick drink of water too and while you might feel a bit awkward at first you may find that you love having it handy every time you go to your favorite local coffee joint or at work. Some even keep your drink at temperature for far longer than might imagine. Just make sure to remember to wash it when you get home so it's ready when you need it next. If you are shopping for one, stainless steel or glass is the way to go.
🗹 Compost at home
Composting at home can seem daunting at first but it's a great way to sustainably process waste right in your own home, particularly kitchen waste. If you’ve never composted before you may be astounded by how much food waste you actually generate just from peeling and prepping veggies alone. Using your own compost pile in the backyard or an indoor, urban kitchen compost system you can turn all those scraps and other food waste into plant food.
You can also use your compost to turn other waste generated in your home into food for your garden too. Things like paper, cardboard, fingernails, and hair can be composted as well; diverting them from the waste stream and reducing your carbon footprint.
If you cannot compost at home consider switching to biodegradable or compostable trash bags which are much better alternatives to their plastic counterparts even when they will wind up at the landfill too.
We have a growing list of resources for you here on The Eco Hub, to helo you compost like a champ including:
🗹 Store food in reusable containers or beeswax wraps
If you are looking for a replacement for plastic snack bags try reaching for reusable containers or beeswax wraps instead. Reusable containers come in all shapes and sizes; just remember to opt for plastic-free storage containers wherever possible.
Beeswax wraps on the hand can take the place of both plastic snack bags and plastic wrap in many cases. You can clean them in just 5 simple steps, and reuse them many times over. Once used they can be composted and there are tons of online tutorials on making your own right at home.
🗹 Eat your leftovers
Canadians generate about 140 kilograms of food waste per year on average – at a cost of more than $1,100 per year. Making sure to eat leftovers adds up when trying to reduce our food waste with delicious meals and even saves us money.
Bea Johnson offers a great tip to help with this as part of her weekly dinner plan which includes a veggie "fridge clean-up" soup or salad day where unused veggies (or whatever is left in your fridge) are turned into soup or salad and served with bread.
Let your imagination run wild or simply google it if you don’t think soup or salad is the way to go and can’t think of anything yourself. You’d be surprised what other people have thought of and found excellent solutions for. Bea’s fridge-cleanup day is on Thursdays, the day before her grocery shopping every Friday.
🗹 Use your freezer to extend the life of your food
Berries, beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, greens, mushrooms, mangoes, onions, potatoes, butter, cheese, milk, and meats can all be safely stored in the freezer to extend their shelf life and reduce food waste. If you are not sure how to go about it there are lots of handy guides online to help you through the process,
🗹 Pack a zero-waste lunch
It can be particularly difficult to find zero waste solutions out in the world when you leave the zero waste proof comfort of your home. Packing a zero-waste lunch is also a great way of starting your zero-waste kitchen journey.
By opting for a zero-waste lunch you can avoid all of the disposables of eating out like plastic packaging, plastic forks, napkins, or any other litter associated with eating out; saving money in the process. Just reach for some reusable plastic-free food storage containers, reusable cutlery, a cloth napkin, a reusable tote or lunch bag, and your favorite homemade lunchtime recipe.
Sandwiches, salads, hummus and veggies, pasta salad, fruits, and nuts all make great zero waste lunch options on the go. You can also find lots of great ideas on how to make yourself the ideal zero-waste lunch online or using these clever mason jar meals courtesy of Zero Waste Family.
🗹 Don't use single-use cutlery and straws
Right along with a zero-waste lunch, avoiding single-use cutlery and straws is also one of the easiest low-cost zero-waste kitchen swaps. There are lots of alternatives on the market now like portable sets with both straws and cutlery made out of wood, all in a handy case to take with you on the go.
You could even bring your cutlery from home if you feel so inclined. Just remember to rinse them out right after you use them and to wash them when you get home. For other easy ways to reduce waste check out these 12 easy zero waste swaps.
🗹 Avoid paper napkins or paper towels
Like much of the disposable in modern life, the environmental impact of paper napkins and paper towels adds up quickly. According to Business Insider, each person in America uses 2,200 two-ply napkins every year. That’s a lot of napkins, a lot of trees, and a lot of trash. All of these napkins could instead be replaced with cloth napkins.
So wherever possible, try avoiding paper napkins and paper towels by simply reaching for cloth napkins instead. Cloth napkins are machine washable and can be taken on the go just like reusable cutlery and straws and reused as many times as we do not misplace them.
🗹 Avoid saran wrap
While very useful, saran wrap is 100% non-recyclable. Try using a tea towel or beeswax wraps instead.
🗹 Save veggies scraps to make stock
A clever way to make amazing stock out of things you might've thrown away. Anything from onion tops and peels, carrots tops and peels, celery leaves and ends, garlic tops and peels, herb stems, mushroom stems, and potato skins can go into your stock in addition to some key herbs and spices so be sure to look up a recipe or check out this guide by Katja Heino at Savory Lotus. And be sure to swap the plastic freezer bags for a reusable air-tight container made of glass, stainless steel, or silicone.
While some recipes do not mention this, consider avoiding cruciferous vegetables like Brussel sprouts or broccoli as they may result in bitter stocks.
🗹 Visit a farmer's market
The farmer's market might be the most low-stress place to shop for zero waste. You can have your local farmer pour your produce right into your reusable tote or cloth/mesh bag without anyone batting an eye. You will also be getting some of the freshest produce available while supporting your local economy. Win, Win, Win.
🗹 Shop at a local butcher or baker
Shopping at your local butcher or baker can help reduce waste by allowing you to buy just what you need rather than pre-packaged items. Your local butcher or baker is also most likely to give you a lot less resistance when it comes to bringing your own containers and it may even be easier to pay for your items without the sticker we usually need for the cash register in larger shops. You will also be reducing your food miles, supporting your local economy, and nurturing a sense of community.
At the butcher
You bring your own containers, and place one on the scale for the tare, after which your items will be added into the jar and weighed for pricing. Remember to ask if you can be checked out without the sticker.
At the bakery
You can either bring a clean pillowcase for your baguettes as Bea Johnson does, your clean reusable cloth bags, or any other suitable reusable containers for loaves and other baked goods.
🗹 Use loose-leaf tea, did you know tea bags are made from plastic
Like lots of the things we’ve grown to love, tea bags can often contain plastic. Not so great when you consider that you end up steeping said tea bags in hot water along with your favorite tea blend.
Instead, opt for tea from the bulk section of your local grocer. Just like what you would do with your meats, bring some jars with you, have them weighed, and then head over to the selection of teas to select what you’d like to bring home. You have the option of using tea infusers (preferably made of stainless steel or any other sustainable material) or a teapot with a built-in infuser.
🗹 Avoid Aluminum foil
The ingestion of food contaminated with aluminum is associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, bone disorder, human breast cancer, and more. (Food Science & Nutrition, 2019)
To avoid using aluminum foil, consider using Eco-Friendly Cookware instead. A layer of baking soda and then lemon juice left to soak will remove ANYTHING that may be left sticking to your eco-friendly bakeware. If it's still sticking just reapply (if necessary) and leave to soak longer.
If you tend to use aluminum foil to cover leftovers, consider using beeswax wrap or cloth covers to seal containers and store away food instead.
🗹 Stay away from those yellow sponges, they are made from plastic
Since most municipal water treatment plants cannot filter out microplastics during the filtration process, the microplastics released by conventional yellow sponges wind up in our waterways. For more eco friendly cleaning, simply reach for plastic free cleaning options like biodegradable sponges or loofahs. They will not harm our waterways when in use and can even be composted once they are tarnished.
🗹 Use up all the food in the fridge before buying more
Similar to eating your leftovers, general food waste is a big problem all over the planet. Globally, an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of food is lost or wasted every year, and while that might seem daunting, just paying attention to our food waste stands to make a difference because it all starts with our individual actions. (UNEP, n.d.) So be mindful, and keep this in mind even if you feel you do not waste very much food.
🗹 Shop for bulk liquid Castile soap to make your own cleaners
We have been told that we need a wide array of different cleaners to clean our households, complete with their very own plastic bottles to be recycled or discarded every time we reach for a new one.
Turns out Castille soap can do quite a lot in the home. A great body soap, and gentle laundry detergent option, you can also use it in your all-purpose cleaner or to mop the floors. Find it in the bulk section and remember to bring your own container. You can even reuse an old detergent bottle.
🗹 Purchase dishwasher detergent in bulk
Like Castille soap, many bulk sections also offer eco-friendly biodegradable laundry detergents that save you money and reduce your environmental footprint.
🗹 Cook with less energy
Zero Waste is also about reducing resource consumption and there are lots of ways to reduce energy consumption in the kitchen. You can make sure to soak things like beans, chickpeas, wheat berries, and steel-cut oats ahead of time in order to shorten their cooking time.
For more nifty tricks like this, check out this great list of zero waste kitchen tips to use less energy in your kitchen.
🗹 Try grow your own food
There are few things more satisfying than growing your own food and eating it so consider giving it a try. Even if it’s just a bunch of lovely herbs. We all have to start somewhere and it will all come with much less of the packaging, food miles, and fossil fuels involved in the production, refrigeration, and/or distribution required in commercial operations.
🗹 Return egg cartons or berry cartons to farmers' markets
A simple way of reducing your waste, bring your old egg cartons or berry cartons back to the farmer's market where they are likely to be happily taken back. When it comes to berry cartons you can simply pour your berries into a reusable mesh bag and hand the basket right back.
A final word on creating a zero waste kitchen
We hope these tricks have enticed you to make the switch to a zero waste kitchen or at least help you find ways to get started with your zero waste aspirations.
If you decide to embark on your zero waste journey, make sure to check out all the resources I have written about over the years including where to find zero waste supplies in Canada, zero waste online stores, some great zero waste makeup brands, and even some regional guides like this Zero Waste Shopping Guide to Quebec.
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