A complete beginner’s guide to zero waste in the kitchen (without having to purchase hundreds of dollars worth of eco-friendly products).
Here, we’ll cover:
- The basics of zero waste.
- Why zero waste is important.
- Zero waste learning resources.
- 10 ways to get started.
- Compost 101: Frequently Asked Questions.
Grab a cup of hot tea and let’s get down to business.
What is zero waste?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), zero waste can be defined as:
“The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.”
Simply put, living zero waste means reducing the waste produced in all levels of a product’s life cycle.
This includes initial production, shipping methods, and where the product and it’s packaging wind up at end-of-life (when the product is all gone and you no longer have use for it.)
Here’s a quick example of zero waste packaging production. These are packing peanuts that dissolve in water. YES. No styrofoam here! A box from Meow Meow Tweet used these innovative dissolving peanuts for packaging.
Why go zero waste?
It’s good for everyone! Take a look at this bright, informative graphic from the Toronto Environmental Alliance.
If that’s not enough to convince you, read the full article here.
Now it may be surprising, but food waste is actually detrimental to the environment.
Roughly one quarter of man-made greenhouse gas emissions are created by food waste, and if food waste was a country, it would be ranked third after the USA and China in terms of greenhouse gas production. When thrown into landfill, food waste produces a large amount of methane. As food rots and degrades, it emits these harmful gases which are 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere. If we look back at those 2015 figures, the environmental benefit of preventing this sort of waste would be like taking 1 in 4 cars off the road.Food Waste, Why It’s Bad. Via Greener Kirkcaldy
So yes: being more conscious of reducing waste in the kitchen does positively impact the environment. That’s great news, right? How we eat, cook and process food in our homes matters.
That’s why a commitment to zero waste in the kitchen matters. Let’s get to work!
First, commit to learning.
Depending on your current lifestyle, zero waste in the kitchen can be a huge change.
Taking one step at a time, making one small change at a time, can make the daunting task seem much easier. It’s a process and that’s okay. The idea of zero waste is that its an ideal you are working towards — not one that you have to achieve.
As you become more aware of producing waste, you’ll also become more aware of the ways in which you can make adjustments to reduce your waste. And, with the help of some great zero waste pioneers, you can have a guide to your new lifestyle.
My top three website guides on zero waste in the kitchen are:
Zero Waste Chef who provides innovative recipes and ideas for living zero waste.
A Zero Waste Life run by a rocket scientist who posts ways to integrate zero waste into everyday life.
Trash is for Tossers provides useful insight into living zero waste. This is the blog of Lauren Singer, founder of Package Free, so you may see some product placement as part of the postings. I still find it an extremely valuable, educational resource for learning more about living waste free.
If you are on Instagram, I’d also recommend giving Waste Free Marie a follow, an advocate for climate and racial justice.
A note on zero waste shopping:
I’m a big fan of Amazon, don’t get me wrong. But as zero waste, sustainable living emerges as a growing market, so do vendors. It can be difficult to navigate the greenwashing on Amazon, as not all information is readily available when making a purchase. For this reason, I recommend shopping companies like Package Free, Blueland (for cleaning products), Cleancult (cleaning products) or The Earthling Co. Sustainably conscious companies like Meow Meow Tweet offer vegan skincare in recyclable packaging and the option to buy in bulk to reduce waste.
Part of living a zero waste in the kitchen lifestyle is buying better quality products, made in sustainable ways, from sustainable sources less frequently. Which means you don’t HAVE to invest hundreds of dollars into eco-friendly products to get started on your Zero Waste journey. In fact, you can get started today!
10 ways to a Zero Waste in the kitchen
In my own journey toward zero waste, I’ve learned some basic swaps that can make a big impact. This list is a compilation of the things I’ve learned, zero waste practices I implement in my kitchen, and general inspiration to get started on your own zero waste journey.
1. Save glass jars
Opt for glass containers when you’re shopping.
Mason jars, jam jars, glass salad dressing bottles, empty olive jars, you name it. If it’s glass, save it!
Glass jars of all shapes and sizes make for great storage vessels in the kitchen. Additionally, you can paint or decorate them to become a candle display, pen container for your at-home office or makeup brush holder on your vanity. The possibilities are limitless here.
2. Make your own broth
One way to use your unwanted vegetable scraps is to make your own broth! This is a zero waste two-for-one: you give new life to vegetable scraps that would otherwise wind up in the trash and you eliminate the need to purchase pre-made broth at the store.
Start saving scraps in a designated bag or container in the freezer. When it’s full, it’s time to make broth! Herb stems, onion roots, cleaned peels are all great candidates for homemade broth.
Watch the tutorial from my IGTV for a step-by-step guide to making your own vegetable broth.
When you’re done, you can compost the cooked vegetable scraps and voila! You have successfully completed a cycle of zero waste. Keep in mind, if you add meat bones to your broth, you won’t want to compost the scraps. More on this later.
3. Use the whole vegetable
Carrot tops, celery greens, chard stalks — you can eat them all! With a bit of creativity and some inevitable trial and error you can learn to use the whole vegetable, from root to tip, reducing your waste and expanding your palate.
At a quick glance:
- Carrot tops make a great addition to coleslaw or a green salad.
- Celery greens do well quickly blanched and added to a pesto or stir-fry.
- Stalks of leafy greens like chard and kale can be diced and sautéed as a tasty side dish.
- Broccoli and cauliflower stalks make great soups or soup bases.
- Radish greens give pesto a flavorful bite.
- Potato peels cleaned, salted and baked turn into irresistible chips!
- Citrus peels can be mixed into a batch of simple syrup for a sour spin on a classic sweetner.
Check out this article from Huffington Post with a myriad of recipes on using the whole vegetable.
View my farmer’s market haul video below, guiding you through using the whole vegetable!
4. Shop local
For Central Coast residents, this one should be a given! Buying local, farm fresh fruits and vegetables (even meat) does wonders for reducing the waste created by packaging and transport.
Buying local supports small farmers and provides you with fresh ingredients.
Farmer’s markets are not as regular as they once were, so I encourage you to check locally to see how COVID has affected your local farmer’s markets.
If you are a resident of San Luis Obispo South County, you can buy from just about any farm stand, including picking up fruits and vegetables as you see them.
It’s different for everyone:
Depending on where you live, buying local fresh-from-the-farm goods may or may not be feasible.
I advocate strongly for buying local in San Luis Obispo County, because farms and farmers are plentiful, as are farm stands. It’s accessible and most of the time, fiscally on par with buying produce from a supermarket.
If you are not in an area with a high concentration of farms, this may be a challenge. I encourage you to do local research to see what is available, even if its just a chance of a couple of products that you can access locally.
If there’s REALLY no local produce available, try shopping at small business, independently owned or co-op stores for food items instead.
Living zero waste must be customized to your lifestyle. Otherwise, its not sustainable — and sustainability is the goal!
Shop within your budget:
I’m going to add a caveat here, though it may seem contradictory. Shopping local is great for supporting small farmers and businesses and therefore your local economy.
I understand that only buying local products isn’t in everyone’s budget. On a tight budget, there can be an astronomical difference between the $14 locally farmed 4 oz of honey and the $4.99 8 oz bottle mass-produced.
As earlier stated, zero waste is a goal, and the more moves you make toward zero waste the better. But that shouldn’t mean you have to overdraft your bank account to do so.
(This is also why following real people who are striving towards zero waste is helpful…they provide the perspective of someone with a budget, who knows the value of a dollar.)
5. Buy in bulk
If available, buy products you use frequently in bulk. Not only will it save you money, but you’ll reduce waste by reducing smaller size packaging.
Try shopping the bulk section of your grocery store for items like flour, coffee, sugar, nuts even granola and candy.
To get extra eco-friendly, bring along your own clean containers with the marked tare weight (how much the jar/container weighs by itself) to reduce the use of those pesky plastic bags. Read more about this shopping method here.
6. Opt for loose produce
When shopping, opt for loose produce that isn’t encased in plastic. This is common with apples, oranges, bananas, even bell peppers. However, they are also typically sold next to plastic free counterparts.
Bring your own produce bags and you’re well on your way to shopping zero waste in the kitchen!
7. Buy dry goods and learn how to cook them
This goes hand-in-hand with buying in bulk.
Purchasing canned goods in aluminum or tin certified to be recycled is a good option.
However, if your looking for something that creates even less waste (and allows you to get more bang for your buck), buying dry goods in bulk is the way to go.
Items like beans, lentils, farro, quinoa, couscous and a variety of other grains can all be purchased dry and cooked at home. This is particularly simple if you own an Instant Pot. For an easy step-by-step guide on how to cook beans in an Instant Pot, read this post.
It may seem more convenient to buy the small-sized, precooked package of grains that takes only 10 minutes to cook.
In reality, most grains are straightforward to cook on the stovetop. If you know how to cook rice, you can make farro, quinoa, couscous and the like. I’ve even provided some links below to get you started.
Learn how to cook…
- Farro – How to Cook Farro by Gimme Some Oven
- Quinoa – How to Cook Fluffy, Tasty Quinoa by The Kitchn
- Couscous – Perfect Couscous by Once Upon a Chef
- Lentils – How to Cook Perfectly Tender Lentils on the Stove by The Kitchn
- Beans – How to Cook Dried Beans by Edible Ink (that’s me!)
8. Use what you have
When it comes to meal planning, shop your pantry, fridge and freezer first! This will help to cut back on food waste in your own home.
Setting up a system of First In, First Out (FIFO) can be extremely helpful in knowing what needs to be used at a glance. FIFO is what retail grocery supply and food service use to efficiently rotate their stock, so nothing will be left to grow moldy shoved in the back of the fridge.
Here’s a short list of ideas to use FIFO in your kitchen:
- Designate spaces for foods that need to be eaten — This could be a drawer or designated container or shelf in your fridge.
- Label everything — Labelling items with dates makes keeping track of what’s old and what’s new a breeze.
- Write it down — Keeping a white board, handwritten list or spreadsheet of what you have on hand makes meal planning faster and more manageable.
See what needs to be used first, and focus on creating meals around those items. If you are stuck for ideas, type a few ingredients into Google followed by “recipe”. You may be surprised what you find!
Here’s an example search. I have copious amounts of kale and green beans in my refrigerator right now. I typed “kale green bean recipe” into Google and immediately got a number of tasty results!
Being flexible with substitutions in recipes can also be beneficial in using what you have. Try using whatever alliums you have when you see “white onion” in a recipe, or any leafy greens when you see “spinach”. This helps reduce what you throw away in your kitchen, and helps flex your cooking skills to boot!
For example, use these substitutions in my Vegan Creamed Spinach recipe. I’ve used kale, chard and beet greens in this recipe and it came out just as delicious as using only spinach.
9. Stock your own freezer
This is especially effective if you live by yourself or as a couple.
The pre-made food in the freezer aisle at any grocery market is tempting, and a section I would frequent regularly.
My habits changed as my shopping habits changed. No longer could I slip in and out of Trader Joe’s for a quick haul of pre-made food that made meals a breeze when I didn’t feel like cooking.
Good news! There’s a solution!
I started making food in larger batches, some to eat then and some to package and freeze for later.
This method works great for grains, beans and sauces. Or, if you buy meat in bulk, it can make handling a four pound log of ground beef much more manageable. As you can see, my past attempts were unsuccessful.
The next time I encountered a four pound log of beef I cooked a variety of items, packaged and froze them for later use. Here’s an example list to give you ideas to get started.
4 lbs of ground beef can become…
- 1 pound of taco meat — Saute meat in skillet with diced onions, peppers and taco seasoning until brown. Here’s a recipe to get started.
- 2 pounds of beef bolognese — Make a simple bolognese in the crockpot. Saute the beef on the stove first til brown, and rid of excess grease. Add to crockpot with some tomato paste, canned diced tomatoes, fresh herbs, seasonings, salt and pepper. Simmer on high for three hours.
- 4 quarter pound burger patties — Add your ground meat to a bowl with some breadcrumbs, one egg and seasonings. Form into patties and pan fry. Or, try this recipe.
- 4 servings of beef and broccoli — One pound of beef and one large head of broccoli makes a great base for beef and broccoli. Add onion, peppers, soy sauce, brown sugar and sriracha for an easy tasty dinner.
And boom! Just like that, you’ve stocked your freezer, prepped dinner for the night and successfully used ALL of the meat you defrosted, without fear it will go bad before you’ve eaten (or cooked) it.
You can use the freezer stocking method for a variety of things like:
- Mirepoix — peel and dice carrots, onions and celery for a quick soup or sauce base.
- Onions and peppers — slice and freeze. They’ll be ready to make as a quick side to fajitas or addition to a sausage and potato skillet!
- Leafy greens — If your leafy greens will go bad before you get to use them, wash, chop and freeze them instead! Toss some in a frittata, stir fry or soup.
- All the fruit — dice and freeze your fruit. This makes smoothies a breeze.
10. Invest in plastic free storage solutions
Yes, I said you don’t have to invest any money to start on your zero waste journey, and now I’m recommending you invest! It’s true, you don’t NEED to buy these plastic-free storage solutions, but depending on your own kitchen situation, they may be worth it for you. Here are some ideas to storing food and leftovers that are not plastic wrap and plastic baggies.
- Reusable silicone bags
- Stainless steel containers
- Glass jars and containers
- Bees wrap
- Silicone bowl covers
- Reusable produce bags
- Silicone baking mats
Depending on your local supermarket, you may or may not be allowed to bring in your own reusable bags right now. I’ve noticed many stores bagging groceries at no extra cost in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Instead of accepting the free bags, however, try this. Ask the cashier to simply put your items back in your cart, without a bag. Take the cart to your car and bag your own groceries using reusable bags. It’s an extra step, but it’s one I take. It also gives me the opportunity to disinfect any item that may have had a lot of hands on it recently, before putting it in my car for transport.
If you’re not into buying reusable, there are many options for making your own. Check out zero waste in the kitchen Chef’s tutorial on how to sew your own produce bags. If all else fails, stick to reusing the bags and containers you already have!
Compost 101: Frequently Asked Questions
The only reason I didn’t include compost on my list is this: it may or may not be feasible for you to start composting today.
Community compost resources vary from city to city, and in some areas, it’s best to do your compost on your own.
Here’s a quick look into what compost is and how you can start composting.
But first, why compost?
Food scraps and yard waste together currently make up more than 28 percent of what we throw away, and should be composted instead. Making compost keeps these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Compost saves scraps from landfills, and actually adds rich nutrients back into soil for your garden.
As you can see below, my compost set-up is simple. It may not be the prettiest, but it’s effective! A wooden palette saved from the dumpster made a great platform to give ventilation to the bottom of the compost.
What is compost?
Compost is, “organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow.” (Source: EPA)
Compost consists of your scrap produce and other green materials left to decompose to a state where it becomes a fertile addition to the garden.
All it takes is some food scraps (“green” matter) and dry leaves/cardboard/paper scraps (“brown” matter) to get started composting.
I started composting about six months ago, and have learned a few things along the way.
For more in-depth reading about compost check out these sources:
- Composting At Home by the EPA
- The Art and Science of Composting by Leslie Cooperband at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Composting in the Home Garden by University of Illinois
- The Science Behind Composting by Live Science
- How Composting Works by How Stuff Works
How do I start composting?
There are many ways you can go to compost. There is some advanced machinery available (like this rotating one).
Or, you can use a storage bin with some holes drilled out of it for ventilation.
Additionally, you can go with the most organic method, which is to create piles in your backyard and let nature take its course. Zero Waste Chef has a lot of good information about this method, as its something she uses at her home.
I keep this stainless steel container in the kitchen to collect food scraps throughout the day. I take it out to my compost at night, which is located next to our cars in the apartment where we live (not out on the patio for all the neighbors to enjoy).
This makes saving scraps for compost easy. The benefit of the stainless steel is that it’s easy to rinse out, doesn’t hold any smells like plastic would and the lid seals tight so no funky smells escape if I forget to take it out for a few nights.
As for what goes in your compost, here’s some basic info from the EPA:
More ideas for compost friendly materials:
- Browns – Deconstructed cardboard without ink printing; Compostable napkins or parchment paper, cut into smaller pieces; A handful of dirt
- Greens – Loose leaf tea, or the insides of a used tea bag; Cooked vegetables used to make broth
- Water – Truth: I haven’t had to add water to my compost. Since I add the vegetables from the broth, they contain a lot of water. Two for one!
Quick Composting No No’s: What not to add to your compost
For a more extensive list on what should and should NOT go in your compost, check out this article at The Spruce.
Isn’t compost stinky?
The number one question you’ll get when you tell someone you compost:
Doesn’t it stink?
Short answer: No.
If the compost has the correct balance of green and brown materials, the compost will give off an earthly odor, much like dirt. The smell will not be “stinky” or rotten or moldy, as this article from Naples Compost confirms.
Full disclosure: As you learn what the correct balance is, you may encounter some funky smells along the way.
Since it consists of decomposing matter, it attracts flies and the like (which is good, you want them there, they help with the decomposition process), so I wouldn’t recommend keeping your compost pile right next to your home. Set it up in an area farthest away from your door.
If you stick to the do’s and do not’s of composting, it should smell like fresh dirt. A wonderful aroma!
How long does it take?
Let’s ask the internet.
Compost’s maturity can be influenced by:
- Temperature – When compost is busy doing it’s thing it will heat up. Warmer days, therefore, can be more helpful in compost’s natural process. The process may take longer to complete in cooler months or generally colder climates.
- Moisture – Compost is hindered by too much moisture as much as it is by not enough moisture. It’s consistency should be of a damp sponge, no more, no less.
- How often it’s turned – You can help your compost along by manually turning it (meaning, mixing it all up) several times a week.
- Size of waste added – Clearly, smaller pieces of food scraps will break down faster than larger ones. A pineapple crown will take much longer to decompose, for example, than potato peels.
Two is better than one:
If you have the commitment, and the room, you can have two composts in rotation.
To illustrate, let’s name the compost piles.
Compost Pile One, aka “Radish” and Compost Pile Two, aka “Okra”.
Radish will be your first compost pile. Add scraps to Radish until it’s full, or your ready to move on and let it do its compost thang. Radish is now in a state where you need to stop adding fresh scraps, it will be turned and tended to until its garden-ready compost dirt.
Now, you move on to Okra. Add scraps to Okra while actively tending to Radish, turning every so often and monitoring its process.
Ideally, once Radish is ready to be added to the garden, Okra will be full.
Empty Radish into the garden, clearing out all the dirt-like compost.
You can now stop adding to Okra and let it do its dance of decomposition.
Start the process again with Radish.
In this way, you’ll always have a compost to add to and a compost thats on it’s way to becoming nutrient-rich dirt.
In Conclusion: You can do it!
Whew! You made it!
I hope this article has brought you knowledge and encouragement for your zero waste journey. (And maybe a laugh or two, if I’m lucky.)
As awareness for the benefits of zero waste grows, so do the resources and the supportive community.
It’s a journey, and we’re all in it together.
How are you going to start your zero-waste lifestyle?
Til next time!