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It’s no secret that plastic – and waste in general – is wreaking havoc on the earth today.
Every year we have been throwing away more and more – whether it be single-use plastic or food waste – much of which can be completely avoided or at least disposed of more safely.
The miles of plastic waste washing up onto our shores is having hazardous effects on marine birds, turtles and seabirds, with an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the oceans right now. It is thought that even marine organisms up to 10km beneath the surface have ingested plastic fragments.
We cannot wait for governments and big corporations to buck up their ideas and put the proper mandatory regulations in place when it comes to plastic waste. Already in 2019, the UK is still 6% away from reaching its target of increasing recycling to 50% by 2020. Each year we are producing over 31 million tonnes of waste in this country alone – of which 56% is not recycled.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, this simply is not good enough.
For these reasons and more, many people are choosing to live a more ‘zero waste’ (or at least a lower waste) lifestyle. The concept is based on the idea that we can exist comfortably whilst still making minimal impact on the world around us.
Of course living a 100% waste-free lifestyle will never be possible, as we create some waste simply by being alive. However the term ‘zero waste’ gives us all something to aim for.
I decided to write this guide about reducing our waste in the kitchen, as this is one of the main areas in the home where the most waste is created. Though I’ve focused mostly on banishing plastic, I’ve also included a few pointers on reducing other waste too.
Benefits of Being Zero Waste in the Kitchen
So why would you ever care about being zero waste in the kitchen?
Well, aside from the obvious benefits to the environment, there’s actually plenty of personal benefits too, from both a mental and kitchen aesthetic point of view.
- Clearing your kitchen of single-use plastic helps to create a cleaner, less cluttered space, which in turn helps to clear your mind when cooking/prepping/deciding what to eat.
- Non-plastic storage containers, such as glass jars and cloth bags can really make your counter tops, cupboards, fridge and shelves etc. more attractive, which in turn makes you want to cook more.
- Your fridge will feel like it has more space when everything is not wrapped in plastic. Trust me. 😉
- Having healthy foods like fruits, veg, grains, beans and pulses on view (by storing in glass jars, for instance) actually makes you much more likely to eat them instead of reaching for the unhealthy option.
- You will feel better when shopping, and will probably even save a lot of money.
- You’ll have more storage space when you’re not hoarding things like paper towels, cling-film and other disposable items. The re-usable versions of these things take up much less space.
Of course, I’m not saying that every zero waste kitchen has to look like the pretty pantries you’ve seen on Pinterest. Mine certainly doesn’t!
But sometimes having some aesthetic inspiration can be a great motivator. And hopefully, those pictures help to convey the ease, simplicity and beauty that can come from eliminating waste.
Zero Waste Kitchen Tips
You may have many questions, one of which is probably, “Is going zero waste expensive?” You may also be wondering why it’s not fine to just use and then recycle our plastic. I answer all this and more over on my Zero Waste FAQ page.
However, on the question of expense, it’s important to remember that going zero waste doesn’t mean overhauling your lifestyle in one go. It isn’t about spending tons of money, buying pretty products on Amazon that may not actually solve any problems, or throwing away perfectly good, unused items you already own simply because they don’t fulfil the zero waste criteria.
Instead, it’s about doing the most that you can, when you can. We can look at what changes will make the biggest impact first, such as making more meals at home, only buying what we need, buying things second hand or donating our own things that we hardly use. All of these changes don’t need to cost a lot of money (if any) to implement.
Zero waste isn’t about one person doing everything perfectly. Instead, we need 1000 people doing zero waste imperfectly.
That said, this guide does involve a lot of easy zero waste kitchen swaps, mainly for things I have found extremely useful along my own journey and that I want everyone to know about. They may cost a little money to purchase, but I simply bought each item when the old, disposable or single-use version ran out. Because I expect my re-usable items to last longer, I’m hopefully saving precious resources and maybe even some money down the line too.
Before buying any ‘zero waste’ item, I suggest you think about the following questions first:
- “Do I already have an item that will serve the same purpose?”
- “Will I use this item enough to make it worth buying, i.e. not just as a one-off or as part of a trend?”
- “Can this product be purchased sustainably (i.e. made from eco-friendly materials)?”
- “Can this product be purchased second hand?” (A lot of the stuff in this guide can’t, but it’s still worth thinking about.)
- “Can this product be disposed of safely when I’m finished with it (e.g. composting or at the very least recycling)?”
By purchasing mindfully and purposefully, we can avoid simply bringing more unnecessary rubbish into our homes which will inevitably end up in landfill.
How to Reduce Waste in the Kitchen
1. Buying loose fruit & veg
It’s tempting to see plastic-wrapped fruits and vegetables as more sanitary; more ‘preserved’ than their loose alternatives. But over time I’ve learned to see that plastic for what it really is – an unnecessary choking hazard to our planet. Though plastic wrapping may at one point have had good intentions, it’s now getting way out of control, with single vegetables often wrapped in their own individual packaging. I mean, really??!
Over the past few months I’ve made a commitment to only buying loose fruit and veg in an effort to rid my kitchen of unnecessary plastic waste. Though it is possible to find loose produce at your local supermarket, the options can be slim and so I now order my produce from a local fruit & veg supplier. This has made no impact on my usual weekly grocery spend, and the items are all usually of better quality, as they are freshly picked from local farms (in turn reducing your food miles, yay!).
The company uses very little plastic (I emailed them to check) and will make a special effort not to package your items in plastic, if you request it. Though some items, like berries and certain greens, will need to be packaged in plastic for protection, it’s already a huge reduction from when I would buy at the supermarket. If I’m out and about and I want some fruit on the go, I’ll opt for a local fruit stall over a Tesco or Sainsbury’s.
Make the change
Here are a few services that offer a regular fruit & veg delivery:
Abel & Cole* (organic produce; serve nationwide)
Riverford Organic* (organic produce; serve nationwide)
Fine Fruits Direct (organic & non organic; serve all of Cheshire & Wirral)
Northern Harvest (serve all of the North West)
Foodlife (organic produce; serve South Manchester/Stockport/Cheshire)
About Organics (organic produce; serve all of North West)
Growing With Grace (organic produce, serve the North West)
Oddbox (specialise in ‘wonky’ fruit & veg to avoid waste; serve all of London)
This is by no means a comprehensive list, so be sure to do a quick Google search of fruit & veg providers in your area to see what’s available.
Though organic produce is great if you can afford it, remember that’s not the aim here. I’m more fussy these days about getting plastic-free fruit and veg; if it happens to be organic too then that’s just a nice bonus!
2. Buying dried foods in bulk
Along with purchasing loose fruit and veg, it’s awesome if you can buy your dried foods loose too.
Not everyone happens to live near a bulk food store, so I appreciate this may not always be possible. But if there is a bulk food store where you live, I insist that you use it. Not only does it work out cheaper, you also save a lot of unnecessary plastic when buying foods like rice, pasta, dried beans, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, oats and other grains. It’s also incentive to keep hold of glass jars and give them the new purpose of storing your food. Few things are prettier than a cupboard full of jars, full to the brim of yummy, staple whole foods!
Make the change
Although there is a small bulk food section at my local health food store, I don’t always manage to shop there all of the time. This is because it has a lot of its items imported and they are all organic, which really bumps up the price quite a bit. Therefore, buying food items in bulk there can be quite expensive, which is why I don’t always manage it.
Hopefully however, this isn’t the case for all bulk food stores, and you’ll find it a much cheaper way of getting your groceries, if you have one.
If you don’t happen to have a bulk food store near you, you may be able to order them online, if your budget allows. Below are a couple of online services that sell dried foods in bulk without plastic:
3. Eco-friendly produce bags
In the same way plastic carrier bags do harm to the planet, so do those little plastic produce bags we see in the fruit and veg aisles. Convenient for holding your loose fruit and veg yes, but again they end up in landfill.
Last year I invested in a set of reusable cotton produce bags* and I haven’t looked back since. They’re sturdy and strong, and can be easily carried around in your rucksack or handbag for when you need them. Though they do add a bit of extra weight to your fruit and veg (thus adding onto the cost), I find the difference is negligible – we’re talking pennies. Some places will give you a discount for using your own produce bags – and if not, ask! You never know. 😉
Many reusable produce bags, particularly the mesh ones, are also fantastic for storing your fruit and veg in the fridge or on the counter top.
4. Glass, metal or bamboo straws over plastic
Straws are definitely not a necessity by any stretch. (Let’s remember that the very basis of zero waste living is about reducing before reusing.)
However, if you have young children or find straws just more convenient for any reason (let’s face it, they certainly keep you from spilling smoothie down your chin when drinking in public), then I’m sure you know by now that plastic ain’t the way. Instead, choose glass*, stainless steel* or bamboo straws that are sustainably made and can be used again and again. They look pretty, are easy to clean and are suitable for all types of beverages. All of them are very lightweight, so can be carried around in your bag for those moments when you might need a straw on the go, and many sets come with cute little pouches for easy transportation.
5. Reusable vegan food wrap over cling film
Cling film is super handy for sure, but of course it’s made from single-use plastic. I’ve now replaced both cling film and tin foil with this vegan wax reusable food wrap*. Flexible, safe and re-usable, this stuff is really great at keeping food fresh in your fridge.
Use to stretch over the tops of bowls and containers, or even wrap up cookies, cakes and sandwiches. After use, you can simply wash them in some warm soapy water and leave out to dry. They’ll be good to use again right away.
Beware of beeswax wraps
You may have seen and heard a lot about beeswax food wrap being a safe and eco-friendly alternative to cling film. While it is certainly a plastic-free option, unfortunately it is not so good for the environment due to being made from a bee-derived product, which only serves to harm bee populations (and therefore, the environment) in the long haul.
For more information about beeswax and other bee-derived products such as honey, I highly recommend these articles on the subject by Your Daily Vegan and The Minimalist Vegan. Both posts offer a detailed and comprehensive explanation of why honey is not a vegan food, as well as why all beekeeping and bee products are harmful to the environment. I really recommend that you give one or both of them a read and, if you haven’t already, omit any and all bee products from your lifestyle.
6. Silicone reusable food bags
Another way we might use single-use plastic in the kitchen is through resealable food bags. These bags are really useful for storing and freezing leftover food, veggies, stocks, sauces and herbs, but their lack of robustness means they can’t be re-used very often and they also can’t be recycled. Like carrier bags, they are another form of plastic bag that sits in landfill for years on end.
If you like using these bags, consider purchasing silicone reusable bags*. Not only do they provide the same benefits (such as resealable tops and airtight freshness), they can be used again and again, helping to lower your waste and save you money.
Bear in mind that even these silicone food bags cannot be recycled and so will end up in landfill eventually. So if you can store your food another way, that’s great; if a bag is necessary, these ones will still help to reduce plastic waste.
7. Sustainable food storage
I think all of us probably have (or have had) a cupboard that’s been taken over by Tupperware.
At one time, Tupperware boxes were THE ultimate way to store, preserve and transport food. However, what we’ve now realised is that those little plastic boxes…well, they may not actually be the safest and they certainly ain’t the easiest things to get rid of when you’re done with them.
Make the change
Obviously I’m not suggesting that you go and throw out all of your current Tupperwares or other plastic food storage. But it might help to know of some other safer, more sustainable options so that we can all make better choices the next time we come to buy food containers.
Also, while it’s fun to buy new things, remember that you may already have something that fits the bill, such as a re-usable jar or container from a store-bought food item. Always look at what you already have first.
- Glass jars – Glass jars are a neat way to store gravies, sauces, soups or even take lunches with you on the go. Though you can absolutely purchase glass jars designed for the purpose*, look out for empty jars from foods you bought that can be washed out and reused.
- Glass containers – Glass food containers help to keep food fresh, whether in the fridge or on the move, and are also reckoned to be the safest of all materials. Check out this set of Vonchef glass food containers* which are airtight, waterproof, dishwasher-safe and BPA-free.
- Stainless steel containers – Stainless steel comes in a close second to glass regarding food safety. Check out this two-tier tiffin box* for curries and stews, or these gorgeous metal bento boxes by A Slice Of Green.
8. Silicone baking mats
In the way that we tend to use a lot of single-use plastic in the kitchen, so is the case with single-use tin foil and parchment paper. Though both foil and paper aren’t as terrible for the environment, they still each create unnecessary waste that can easily be avoided.
Instead of buying these disposable commodities, try using silicone baking mats* for all of your roasting and baking needs. These mats are non-stick and help to keep roasting trays clean, as well as being perfect for baking cookies and biscuits without needing to line your sheet with oil or paper.
The one caveat with silicone baking mats is that they cannot be recycled or composted, so will eventually end up landfill. I switched to silicone baking mats when I lived in an apartment and couldn’t compost anything, and it was definitely a better option. However, I’ve now reverted to using parchment paper again, which I now simply throw on my compost heap when used (see below).
Only you will know your own specific circumstances and will be able to choose what works best for you.
9. Plastic-free teabags
It may come as a surprise to learn that even many of the teabags we use have plastic in them! Several teabag brands, such as PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, Tetley, Typhoo and Twinings, use polypropylene to seal the bags together, which in turn ends up in our eco-systems and cannot be broken down in the compost heap.
Make the change
In 2018 a petition was started to ask many of the major tea brands to remove plastic from their bags (you can still sign it yourself here).
In the meantime, it’s best to stick to teabags that don’t contain plastic, or better yet, switch to loose leaf teas, which are also a more sustainable option all round.
Some brands that don’t contain plastic in their bags are:
10. Bamboo ‘paper’ towels
Do you currently store kitchen roll or paper towels in your house? Don’t worry, most people do!
I’ve been buying kitchen towels for years and never knew there was a more eco-friendly alternative to this convenient household item. Obviously every time we throw away a paper towel, we are creating more waste, which will only require time and resources to break down (2-4 weeks of time, to be exact). It may sound crazy to think of ditching your beloved paper towels, but trust me, I only wish I’d done it sooner!
Instead, I now use bamboo towels (also known as ‘unpaper’ towels), which are re-usable, washable and biodegradable. They come on a roll just like kitchen towels do, except that when one is dirty, you throw it into the wash instead of the bin. Each towel can be washed up to 65 times and become softer and more absorbent over time.
Make the change
I originally bought the Ecoegg Bamboo Towels to start with; however I would not recommend these as they come wrapped in plastic. Instead, try these Bambaw Reusable ‘Paper’ Towels* which come packaged in paper instead.
Once your towels have been pulled off the roll, either hang them over a cupboard door to dry or toss them into the wash basket if they’re dirty (I use a natural jute basket for storing all my dirty cleaning cloths). When your bamboo towels have been washed, you can store them in a drawer, basket, large jar or some other easy-to-reach place where you can grab them when needed. I keep a smaller jute basket for this purpose, in the cleaning cupboard under my sink.
You can of course make your own ‘unpaper’ towels yourself at home using old cloths, rags or actual towels – which is an even more cost-effective and sustainable option! Simple cut them into squares and store them in the ways I mentioned above.
11. Homemade or sustainably made cleaning products
Cleaning products are one area where naturally a lot of plastic is consumed. A huge part of the zero-waste movement has involved the motive to make one’s own cleaning products. This has several excellent benefits, for example:
- Homemade cleaning products are more natural, easier on the earth and do not contain any toxic chemicals
- They are usually vegan and won’t have been tested on animals
- You can store them in reusable canisters, containers and spray bottles, which helps to save on plastic waste
- They often require less money to make and are therefore much cheaper than store-bought brands.
Make the change
I would love to try creating my own homemade cleaning solutions one day. However, due to time limitations and lack of knowledge on the subject, it is not something I have managed to do just yet.
That being said, I think there are still lots of amazing cleaning brands out there that are doing fabulous things for the planet. Brands like Method, Ecover and Bio D amongst others create vegan, cruelty-free cleaning products that are safe for our health, the environment and come in bottles made from recycled plastic (as well as being recyclable), You can check out some of my favourite eco cleaning products here and here.
Should you wish to have a go at creating your own cleaning products, there are some really great recipes on Pinterest, or in this article by The Flaming Vegan. Make sure you keep them fresh in a way that is efficient and sustainable – these amber glass jars* and spray bottles* look beautiful on any shelf and can be used multiple times.
Another fantastic plastic-free option is these water-soluble cleaning sachets from Iron & Velvet. Simply pop one into your spray bottle, dilute with water and voila! A super easy cleaning solution, without the plastic. All of Iron & Velvet’s solutions are made from vegan-friendly plant-based ingredients and a blend of essential oils.
Another great low-waste solution is to use cleaning products that can be refilled. Many bulk food stores have refill stations for cleaning and household products, as well as bath and body products. Method and Ecover are two brands that offer refill stations around the country, so have a look on Google to see where yours is. You can also find refill solutions for household products online, either directly from the brands themselves or via refill initiatives like Splosh.
12. Non-plastic sponges & eco-friendly brushes
When making your cleaning products more eco-friendly, it’s only natural that your cleaning tools should be too. Things like sponges and brushes are often made from plastic, taking years to break down in landfill. Thankfully though, there are some much safer and more sustainable options.
Make the change
Below are some alternative items to your usual cleaning arsenal:
- Plastic-free sponges – I love these plastic-free sponges (also known as ‘non’-sponges) from Tabitha & Eve. They come in a variety of pretty designs and patterns, and are made from bamboo and cotton, both of which are biodegradable. They can be washed in the washing machine when very dirty, and composted when they’re worn out.
Rowen Stillwater also make some great heavy duty non-sponges made out of recycled materials such as card and jute.
- Plastic-free scourers – There are some great alternatives to dish scourers and brillo pads (which are often made from unrecyclable materials). I have one of these dish scrapers from Loofco which is made from the outside of a coconut husk, as well as their loofah cleaning pad made from natural fibres. EcoCoconut also make great scourers made from FSC-certified rubber trees. All of these are vegan and biodegradable.
- Dish brushes/bottle brushes – Many cleaning brushes, such as scrubbers and bottle brushes, are made with bases of plastic. Swap these out for wooden ones, like those by EcoCoconut, EcoLiving, LoofCo and Bambaw. Peace With The Wild has a great selection.
- E-cloth Deep Clean mop – If you follow my Instagram, you’ll know that I have been LOVING the E-cloth Deep Clean mop*. With a lightweight, simple design, it makes mopping easy and almost dare I say it, enjoyable. The mop head itself is made from E-cloth’s signature microfibre weave, meaning it cleans very efficiently. When it gets dirty, you can simply remove it and chuck it in the washing machine – nothing disposable here! Even though it cleans with just water, I like to pair it with Method’s Squirt & Mop* floor cleaner.
- Brushes & dustpans – Try to purchase brooms, brushes and dustpans made from natural materials, like this outdoor bristle brush with wooden handle* by The Dustpan & Brush Company, or their genius metal dustpan with wooden handbrush*.
13. Biodegradable bin liners
Bin liners are another way in which plastic commonly finds its way into our home. You may be able to find bin liners made from recycled plastic, which is a marginally better option, but ultimately they will still sit in landfill for many years to come.
About a year ago I discovered these biodegradable bin liners* by All Green, which are made from cornstarch fibres instead of plastic. Now, although these are absolutely amazing as they don’t sit in landfill, I admit they aren’t quite as strong as your regular bin bags, meaning you won’t be able to stuff them quite so full as you may be used to. However, I find a bit of mindfulness goes a long way, and if you have to double bag something, then it helps to know you won’t be creating quite as much waste regardless.
However, I’ve since discovered a couple of newer brands – Bblie* and XingDi* – which seem to have positive reviews on Amazon. I haven’t tried them yet, but if you do happen to give them a go, let me know how you get on.
Beware of ‘degradable’ bags
When shopping for this type of bin bag, you will likely come across brands labelling their bags as ‘degradable’. Please do not buy these, as this simply means the bag will disintegrate into smaller pieces of plastic. These microplastic particles will sit in the ground for years on end, just like the bag would in landfill, so this really isn’t a proper solution to the plastic crisis.
Only bags labelled as ‘biodegradable’ and made from natural fibres will break down completely and have minimal impact on the earth.
14. Home composting
This last tip really isn’t so much to do with plastic, but waste in general. It’s surprising how many of us don’t know that the food scraps we’re throwing away may be having a negative effect on the environment, because we’ve been taught that these food pieces will simply break down and degrade naturally, as you would expect.
The problem is, however, that when our food scraps are sent to landfill, they are covered up with all kinds of other rubbish and become compacted, so the oxygen cannot reach the food and the right microorganisms cannot thrive in order to break it down. The food waste therefore ends up giving off a gas known as methane, which is damaging to our environment. I was shocked to hear that such a simple thing as throwing food scraps in the bin could be causing so much harm, but luckily it can be relatively easy to avoid.
Make the change
The most effective and environmentally-friendly way to get rid of food scraps, of course, is to compost them! Now of course, composting isn’t possible for everybody, but I believe if you are in a position to compost, then it’s an incredibly fun and easy thing to do. And you may even be able to benefit from the free compost you make!
I recently started composting a few weeks ago, as now that we live in a house we have the outdoor space and the means to do so. I was sooo excited and have been really enjoying it so far. I ordered the Blackwell green compost converter (check your local council website as they will usually offer a discount) and we have it situated at the side of our house, in a spot where it gets just enough sun but is still a decent distance from the garden and the front door. When prepping food and cooking, I place my food scraps into this cute little compost caddy I found on eBay and then I empty it into the outdoor compost bin each day.
If you live in a house with a garden, your main options will be to create either a compost heap or buy a compost bin. I am not an expert on composting by any means, so won’t try to go into the process here. But there are lots of easy guides on how to get started online.
If you live in an apartment things get a little trickier, but not impossible. First, you could check if there is a food waste collection service in your area, as this would be the easiest way to ensure your food scraps get composted locally. If not, you can check online to see if there is a local farmer’s market, community garden or other drop-off point that will accept your food scraps on a weekly basis. Better yet, you could ask a friend with their own allotment or compost heap if they wouldn’t mind taking yours as well. In the meantime, you can simply store food scraps in a small food caddy or bokashi bin (note: a bokashi bin requires access to an outdoor compost bin to finish it off).
Remember, you cannot put meat, dairy and fish scraps in your compost bin – only raw items such as fruit and vegetable peelings, vegetarian pet manure, newspaper, leaves, grass cuttings, cardboard and wood shavings.
Remember, going ‘zero waste’ or plastic-free is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time and patience to change our lifelong habits and also overcome a plastic-riddled society. There may be times when you make mistakes, feel overwhelmed, or feel like the options are against you. Just remember that you can only do your your best, and if that doesn’t mean doing everything right now due to your own current circumstances, that’s totally okay!
I hope that you guys found at least some of these tips to be helpful. Which ones do you plan on trying? Are there any plastic-free solutions that I didn’t mention? Please let me know in the comments below!
And if you are struggling with one particular area or have any further questions, please drop me a line and I’d be only too happy to help. You can catch me on Instagram or email me – firstname.lastname@example.org.