Zero waste kitchen: check out these easy 11 habits to lower your impact on the planet.
Few things will confront you more directly with the amount of waste you and your family produce than opening your kitchen trashcan and staring into the giant mound of banana peels, oatmeal, bits of pasta, wrappers and coffee grounds that you’ve somehow managed to accumulate in less than three days. The scary part is that you’ll find that same mound of trash replicated in nearly every other home around the world. It is precise because of this that most of what ends up in landfills is food.
In fact, in the United States, 20% of the waste in municipal dumps is comprised of food and nearly 40% of the products that we grow winds up as garbage. This is unacceptable and it needs to change if we want a better future for ourselves and our planet.
Since so much of the waste in our homes come out of the kitchen and so many of the worst offenders for pollution in your home can be found there, your kitchen is one of the best places to start your journey into a less wasteful life. The phrase “zero waste kitchen” sounds like a complicated feat best left to overzealous hippies but we promise that it is not difficult at all and that it will quickly become one of the biggest money savers in your life.
A zero waste kitchen simply means that you’re making sure that what you bring into it is already set up to not come out as waste because you are buying your foods and products consciously and mindfully, making sure to get the most out every item in your kitchen and using materials with low environmental impact that are meant to last or be easily recycled.
Most of us already have some degree of waste-controlling measures in place because we’ve realized that, for example, having a cloth that we can wash and reuse for our countertops is cheaper than constantly buying paper towels or that take-out containers make for excellent food storage.
Still, there are many areas where we could all be doing better and that does not even cross our mind for consideration because we’re so used to things being a certain way and have been living inside the bubble that our wasteful, linear economy has created around us. Because of that, we’ve compiled this list of plastic free and waste-free alternatives to many of the products that you have around your kitchen plus a couple of good habits that will contribute to the goal of having a zero waste kitchen and a less wasteful life.
Scroll down so that you can learn about our picks for eco friendly kitchen routines and wares below:
1. Switch to reusable produce bags:
Whenever we’re discussing things such as plastic bag bans or the problems surrounding single use plastics, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the classic t-shirt bags we get when we do a grocery run and we tend to often forget an even worse offender: produce bags. These bags are made out of thin, flimsy plastic that is difficult to recycle - let alone reuse- and shoppers regularly use way more than a couple of them on every visit to their grocery store.
Just think of you and all the people circling around you in the fresh produce section taking one little bag for their broccoli, another for the cilantro, two more for two different kinds of tomatoes and another one for a couple of onions. You then bring these bags home and throw them out once you wash your fruits and vegetables or maybe keep them for the time that those food items will live in your fridge before throwing putting them with the rest of your trash.
After reading this some of you may start thinking it’s best to just skip the produce bags since it’s all going to go into another bag at checkout anyway but there’s one big question you need to ask yourselves: do you really want your food directly on the cash register’s conveyor belt? Supermarkets are not as clean as we would like to think they are and their conveyor belts and weight scales are one of their worst offenders.
Trust us, you want a barrier in between your food and that germ wonderland and your best option for that while still maintaining a plastic free kitchen is by using reusable produce bags.
Reusable produce bags come are made from a variety of natural and artificial materials such as cotton, linen or polyester and in different sizes and weaves: bags made from a more tightly woven material that will hold items such as beans, rice and flour and mesh bags with larger holes are good for larger fruits and vegetables. You wash them in between uses or when they become visibly soiled and can compost them once they reach the end of their useful life. Ours come in an array of sizes and styles, are made from certified organic cotton and have tags displaying their tare weight that will make your transition to a plastic free kitchen simple and easy.
2. Use a wooden brush and a loofah for dishes and cleaning around the house:
Most of us will carefully choose that one dish soap that is twice as expensive as the rest because it claims to have better ingredients and to be nicer for us and for the environment and then proceed to spurt it on a plastic fiber sponge that will live on for hundreds of years in a landfill once it runs its course and we toss in the garbage. The same thing happens with other cleaning tools we use in the kitchen such as scrub brushes and dish brushes: they are completely made out of plastic with both plastic handles and plastic fibers, have very short lifespans and are meant to be disposable.
There are plenty of alternatives for the plastic free kitchen to all of these tools that are made from bamboo wood and other natural fibers, many of them requiring no additional processing beyond drying such as is the case with loofah sponges. Loofahs are made by drying a type of gourd that closely resembles a cucumber and then removing their skin to reveal the dried fibers inside. These fibers are stiff and very sturdy and can be used as scrubbing sponges for dishes and surfaces around the home and for exfoliating skin. Since they’re just dried fruit fibers, loofahs are 100% natural, biodegradable, compostable and generate no waste. Ours have the additional benefit of being package-free and therefore plastic free.
For jobs that may be too much to tackle with a loofah and elbow grease, we recommend wooden brushes as an alternative to traditional plastic brushes. EcoRoots offers options made out of sustainable woods and with bristles made from vegetable sources.
Our dish scrubber, with it’s wooden handle and sisal fibers is a 100% vegan, compostable and waste-free product. If you prefer a brush with a handle, our wooden dish brush features a design that allows for replacing the head once it’s worn. Since it’s also 100% vegan and made from organic materials, the head can be composted once it reaches the end of its useful life.
3. Consider a plastic-free dish soap bar:
So you got a loofah sponge and a wooden dish brush to go with that nice, eco-friendly dish soap and you loved it and used it all to the last drop and now you’re left with an empty plastic bottle wondering why they couldn’t also figure out a way to make better packaging for this supposedly better soap.
Well, there is no law anywhere that states that dish soap must be liquid and contained in an easy-to-squeeze bottle. The same way that there is solid bar soap for you, there’s is also solid bar soap for your dishes and it’s just as effective and much more planet-friendly than the liquid variety.
Just as that expensive brand, our dish soap bar is biodegradable, free of parabens and has not been tested on animals. What sets is apart is that, instead of a plastic bottle, ours comes wrapped in compostable, zero waste and plastic free packaging and we used all vegan ingredients for it and added no unnecessary fragrances. Since a little bit will go a long way, it will last you for quite some time: one person can stretch this bar for nearly 6 months!
4. Learn some DIY cleaning recipes:
Speaking eco-friendly cleaning products: boy, are they expensive. It seems that every company in the home cleaning section of your store is now trying to sell you a more expensive - and oftentimes much less effective - “green” version of their cleaning products with their selection of flowers and/or leaves around the brand name in order to send you those “green” vibes loud and clear.
Save yourself the money and the extra plastic bottle and instead spend a little bit of time concocting any of the cheaper and more effective DIY alternatives to these expensive cleaners that you may or may have not learned from your grandmother or which you can find readily available online.
And, while you may be familiar with the classic vinegar and lemon juice mix that people commonly use to clean kitchens and degrease stoves, there are hundreds of other recipes available online for every part and surface of your home: glass, toilets, showers, dishes and even furniture polish using easy-to-find ingredients such as baking soda, vinegar and essential oils.
5. Reach for reusable cloths to reduce paper waste:
Those tv ads sure make it look easy to rip one paper towel sheet from the roll every time we encounter the smallest mess or spill in order to put a stop to it as quick as possible. This is convenient and - we’ll admit it - very satisfying but it is also extremely wasteful. The most eco friendly way to replace paper towels and contribute to the goal of having a zero waste kitchen is by turning textiles from other areas of your house, such as old shirts or old bedsheets, into rags.
However, that’s not always feasible and you may find yourself short on rags to clean your kitchen or around your house. Fight the temptation to reach for a paper towel by keeping reusable towels around. Our reusable dish cloths are made from a super absorbent fabric that will stand up to the largest spills and wettest messes a million times better than any of those cheap, thin paper towels.
6. Use beeswax wrappers, reusable jars and stainless steel containers for keeping leftover food and bulk shopping:
Bulk shopping - the o.g. grocery shopping style that your great grandparents used where you go fill your own bags and containers with food and household products at a shop where they are sold by weight - is now back in style. Depending on what you’re buying and where you’re buying it, bulk shopping may or may not be cheaper than purchasing a commercially-packaged product but we can guarantee that it will always be greener as it eliminates demand for packaging and doesn’t generate any additional waste from it.
The key for making bulk shopping work is good storage: these items won’t come in their own boxes, bags or containers and so you need to make sure that the ones you have will do a good job at keeping them fresh. Before rushing to replace all those old Tupperware containers you inherited from your mom, don’t forget that a big part of having a zero waste kitchen is purchasing new items only when you really need them. You should use what you already own until it has reached the end of its useful life and reuse commercial food packaging such as glass jars and plastic containers for as long as possible before recycling them.
Most commercial food packaging that you can reuse will work well for short-term storage but we do recommend that you invest in a good set of containers with airtight seals to ensure that food items such as pasta, rice, beans and flour survive long-term storage.
The best plastic free options for this are classic airtight glass jars and stainless steel containers. We’ve been singing the praises of glass containers for years - they’re durable, non-absorbent and recyclable - and in the meantime have overlooked the virtues of the less cosmetically pleasing stainless steel.
Stainless steel is one of the best materials out there for food storage and kitchen equipment thanks to its resistance to corrosion and oxidation, its non-absorbent and anti-bacterial properties and its long lifetime. It will also never crack or break, which makes it a more durable option than glass that is especially useful to store food items that may be sensitive to light and for on-the-go eating.
For smaller food items such as that half onion that’s hanging out in your fridge since you used part of it last night to make some guacamole, beeswax wrappers are an excellent option for the plastic free kitchen. These sheets are made out of cotton covered in a thick layer of beeswax that makes them pliable and helps them stick to themselves to create a seal that keep air and debris out. They’re especially useful for covering bowls and plates, keeping cheese and wrapping food to go. They will last for around one year with regular use and proper care and are fully biodegradable as they are made from 100% organic materials.
7. Reduce your food waste:
Reducing food waste is one of the most important parts of having a zero waste kitchen and if you’re not taking measures to plan your meals and properly store your food items then you are wasting money and - more than anything - valuable resources.
The first line of defense against food waste is knowing your eating habits, cooking abilities and the equipment you have available. If you don’t like cooking complicated meals that take a lot of time to prepare and you don’t have lots of kitchen equipment, then avoid purchasing food items that require labor-intensive processes or complicated gadgets.
Once you’ve established what you can do and also what you are willing to do, then comes the planning part. Planning your meals for the period you will be doing grocery shopping for, making a list of the items you will need in order to prepare them and actually sticking to that list once you’re at the supermarket is key to avoiding buying excess food that you will have no way or time to consume or realizing that you forgot two of the most important ingredients for your squash soup by the time you already started making it.
Finally: learn to store your food items properly. Learning basic methods of food storage and having the correct equipment to do so will not only help your food last longer, but it will also keep it tasting just as delicious as when you purchased it and ensure that you are obtaining all of its nutritional value.
8. Learn how to properly recycle packaging:
The crazy variety of materials manufacturers have come up with to wrap their products in has made recycling a lot more complicated than the basics of separating paper, glass and plastic we were taught in elementary school.
Questions such as: where does the container for the rotisserie chicken you got last weekend go? can you mix your plastic bags with your other plastics since they are all technically made from the same material? and, is this organic tortilla chip bag really recyclable? have gotten quite complicated to answer lately.
Educating ourselves on how to recycle the different types of materials that we’re likely to encounter in our kitchens will go a long way in eliminating our consumption of items that are simply not recyclable and reducing the amount otherwise recyclable items that wind up in landfills because people don’t know how to properly dispose of them. Whenever you’re in doubt about a specific material, do a quick search on instructions on what to do with it and remember that the best way to reduce our waste problem and having more eco-friendly kitchens is by eliminating single-use items from our lives.
9. Compost your food scraps:
Organic waste comprises a whopping 70% of all of our household waste. It’s also one of the safest and most effective fertilizers available to us. That means that we’re sending a lot of stuff to landfills that could be serving much better and important purposes elsewhere. While many of us think that organic waste is ok to send to a landfill because it will eventually decompose, the issue is a lot more complicated than that. Organic waste decomposes differently in a landfill because it’s in an oxygen-deprived environment.
This low oxygen decomposing process - known as anaerobic decomposition - is responsible for generating methane, which is one of the most potent greenhouse gases that exist. In contrast, when compost, we create the perfect conditions for organic waste to decompose the way it was meant to do so to become hummus: a nutrient-rich mixture of decomposed organic materials that is essential for plant growth.
Since so much of the waste coming from our kitchens is food, composting is one of the easiest and most effective ways to contribute to a zero waste kitchen. Composting can seem difficult if you don’t have a backyard or immediate use for the resulting product such as using it as fertilizer for your plants or your garden, however, this doesn’t mean that it’s a complicated thing to do and that what you produce from it won’t be of good use to others.
There are plenty of indoor compost bins for apartments and homes that look quite similar to regular trashcans to help you with properly storing and airing your organic waste and many places such as farmer’s markets, community gardens, and farms collect compost from patrons to use as fertilizer for their plants. If you’re worried about smells: don’t be. The reason that your trashcan smells of rotting food when you open the lid is that in it you are mixing organic waste with non-organic products and are keeping them in an oxygen-deprived environment. Composts, if anything, have a smell that’s closer to the smell of earth because you are, in fact, making earth in them.
10. Plant your own herbs:
Having your own herbs at home is a no-brainer: cut herbs are usually overpriced at supermarkets and many of them just don’t last for long, even if you store them very well. In addition, they tend to lose their flavor quickly and will easily develop an unappetizing wilted or bruised appearance in your fridge.
Potted herbs save money - the cost for a potted plant can sometimes be nearly the same or just a little bit more than the cost for the same amount cut herbs - grocery store trips, plastic that would’ve otherwise been used in a produce bag to store them and resources spent in transporting those products to supermarkets. Asides from providing you with nice, flavorful toppings to finish your food, potted herbs double as decoration. We’re not making any promises that your place will look Instagram-worthy with a couple of small plants but it will definitely make a difference for you and will be a good start towards an eco friendly kitchen.
11. Keep it simple & minimal:
Take a look around your cabinets and drawers and you’re likely to find their spaces filled with a staggering amount of unused or single-use items. When was the last time you really used that clunky juicer? Have you really used that expensive stand-up mixer only twice? Does the thought of having to clean your food processor make you never ever want to use it? The excess of food-related content available on the internet has convinced many of us that we do indeed need lots of fancy things in our kitchens but the fact of the matter is that, unless you are an avid home cook, the average person can get away with having a minimal amount of basic equipment in their kitchen.
When we purchase single-use gadgets such as apple slicers or things that we never use such as that slow cooker that you got for Christmas and have never even unboxed, we create demand for companies to extract more resources in order to create more of these products.
Keeping things simple and minimal will ensure that you get the most out of your investment in them, reduce your use of non-renewable resources and go a long way in ensuring you have an eco-friendly kitchen.
There are plenty of sources online - including interviews with famous chefs - detailing the items that are essential for a well-equipped kitchen and they’re lists usually comprised of just a couple of high-quality basics combined with simple techniques and good ingredients will yield spectacular results.
Having a zero waste kitchen is easy when we’re being mindful of what we bring into it, how we store those items and how we dispose of their leftovers.
There are more alternative products than ever to the plastic wares that we’ve grown accustomed to but don’t forget that the best way to reduce the amount of waste that we generate is by cultivating mindful habits: reducing our consumption of materials that cannot be recycled or reused, finding ingenious ways to give new life to the items that are already around us and taking good care of our food and kitchen equipment to avoid frequent replacement and excess waste.
A zero waste kitchen may not be an easy job at first but we assure you that the rewards that you stand to gain from doing so and the contributions you’ll be making to keeping our planet clean are completely worth the effort.