One of the most significant sources of waste in the house is the kitchen. Almost all food packaging is single-use, and even when you manage to avoid produce bags at the store, even the produce itself has stickers on them.
The kitchen can also be a source of incredible frustration since you're at the mercy of retailers on how zero waste you can be. The best advice anyone can give as you are transitioning to a zero-waste kitchen is to focus on "better" rather than perfect.
Even one small change can make a big difference over time, so if all you do is switch out your paper towels, you'll be doing the planet a service. Here are a few swaps you can look into to find your perfect zero waste kitchen products.
Paper Towels and Napkins
In 2020, 110 million American households reported using 5–7 rolls of paper towels in a 30 day period. Considering that paper products require a ton of resources to manufacture—not to mention they're typically wrapped in plastic—that's a ton of waste that could easily be reduced.
They're so expensive and not even that effective, which is why consumers go through so many!
Swap: Paper towels and napkins can be replaced with many different zero waste kitchen towels. You could use rags made from old t-shirts you have in your home. There are also tons of zero waste alternatives like sponge cloths (my favorite) and unpaper towels.
Who wants to use a funky, smelly old sponge anyways? Your average sponge is made from plastic which ends up in a landfill, not to mention the pieces that go down the drain and into our water.
Swap: There are quite a few biodegradable zero waste kitchen sponges out there. They're typically plant-based and last just as long as your average plastic sponge. Try looking for loofah sponges or reusable cotton.
You could also go with a dish brush made with bamboo and plant-based fiber bristles. The brush and handle are entirely compostable and will last you months.
Why is it so hard to get away from plastic wrap? I've even run into individual fruits plastic-wrapped in the grocery store. It's not recyclable and goes straight into the garbage.
Swap: Thankfully, replacing plastic wrap completely is doable. You could use cloth bowl covers, beeswax wraps, a storage container, or even cover your plate with another plate.
So many food storage containers being sold today are plastic. If you're currently using plastic freezer bags, sandwich bags, or any other disposable, this could be an excellent area to consider looking at. And you probably already have many of the items I'm about to recommend.
Swap: Do you have mason jars in your home? If so, you may already be set. You can store a ton of food products in mason jars, and they're even freezable. But if you want to invest, consider silicon bags and stainless-steel containers.
I don't think I need to spend much time telling anyone what a terrible choice plastic water bottles are. U.S. landfills are filled with over 2 million tons of plastic water bottles alone. Yikes.
Swap: Any reusable water bottle will do the trick, although it's ideally not made from plastic. There are excellent options from brands like Klean Kanteen and The Soggy Puffin. If you're on a budget, you can find options at a thrift store.
Like water bottles, straws are another item we always hear about in the media. Plastic straws (or any single-use disposable) are terrible choices for the environment. What's worse is that it's a choice that's largely taken away from us as restaurants hand them out without a second thought.
Swap: Of all the zero waste kitchen swaps, straws are the easiest. You can purchase straws made from bamboo, but the most common alternative is the stainless steel straw. But honestly, the best alternative here is no alternative. You don't need a straw. But if you can't give them up, any of the above options will work.
Thankfully, many retailers are catching on and aren't offering plastic bags anymore. However, on a larger scale, they wont be going anywhere anytime soon. Plastic shopping and produce bags are incredibly difficult to recycle. And according to waste management, only 1 percent of bags are actually recycled.
Swap: You can replace your plastic bags with reusable bags made of natural fibers like cotton, hemp, or linen. Cloth bags are reusable and washable, and they add virtually no weight to your produce. There are options for produce, bags, and more general use bags out there.
Coffee and Tea
Depending on how you enjoy your coffee, this could be a tough transition. Coffee filters end up in landfills and are resource-intensive to manufacture, and we all know why pods are a no-no. And when it comes to tea, your standard teabag contains plastic. In fact, tea bags may be filling your cup with microplastics.
Swap: You can swap your coffee filter for a reusable cloth filter or metal basket. If you can't give up that Keurig, consider ditching the single-use pods for refillable ones.
Consider brewing loose leaf tea with a tea ball. Or, my personal favorite is the French Press for both coffee and tea.
Single Use Disposables
There are so many single-use disposables out there that it can be challenging to eliminate them all. If you're on the go, try to remember to bring a reusable cutlery set with you. You should also try to stay away from paper plates and similar items.
Swap: There are excellent cutlery sets out there, like this bamboo cutlery set, which you can bring with you when you're out.
Dish soap is a serious victim of greenwashing. I won't name any names, yawn, but we've all used it. It's time to break up, though. There are so many excellent alternatives to dish soap packaged in plastic that fit every budget.
Swap: I'm partial to a dishwashing block. They take some getting used to, but I find that they last forever and clean just as well, if not better than traditional dish soap. But if you're partial to dish liquid, visit your local refillery for a refill.
My mom is someone who has a different cleaning product for each part of the kitchen. The truth is, you don't need a separate cleaner for your countertops and your stovetop.
Swap: Use a simple zero waste all-purpose cleaner for all of your cleaning needs. Or you could DIY a cleaner using household ingredients. I actually use my dish block to clean my stove—you've got to try it. Replacing your cleaning supplies with zero waste kitchen swaps is a huge game changer.
While we're trying to reduce our waste, it's impossible to do so entirely. Most of us won't be fitting a year's worth of garbage into a mason jar, but we can look for alternatives to your everyday black garbage bag.
Swap: Many company's exist selling compostable or biodegradable trash bags. Some are better than others, so it may take some experimenting (and some research into their manufacturing processes), but the results are well worth it.
Some dishwasher tabs on the market are packaged in plastic, which is entirely unacceptable when there are so many alternatives.
Swap: If you're lucky enough to be near a refillery, you can buy dishwasher tabs that are package-free or wrapped in cellulose. If not, Dropps dishwasher pods are a good alternative.
7 More General Zero Waste Kitchen Tips
There are also some general lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your waste. They may not all apply to you, but they are a significant no-frills ways to zero waste your kitchen if they do. Hopefully, some of these zero waste kitchen tips apply to you.
- Shop the Bulk Section
How you shop can also have a significant impact on how much waste your kitchen generates. Nearly every food item out there has some packaging, and much of it is unrecyclable. Buying in bulk can cut down on the amount of waste generated by allowing you to bring a reusable container from home to reduce the waste.
Many stores have a bulk bin section with noodles, beans, lentils, and many other products readily available. By bringing reusable bags to the grocery store with you, you can cut out all of that packaging from the source.
Empty glass jars can be used to fill with honey, oil, and other bulk taps if available. You don't necessarily need to buy these things either. Bags can be made from old t-shirts if you're handy with a needle, and your old spaghetti jars work just as well as mason jars for storing things.
- Buy Fewer Ingredients
This can be a challenging change to make, but it's well worth it. We're sold so many products in our grocery stores that we could do without. Company's use flashy packaging to convince us we need those items, but in reality, we often don't.
Before purchasing spices, consider whether you really need as much as you're buying. If it's for a single recipe, you likely don't need an entire pack of cayenne pepper.
Some ingredients are multi-purpose, like baking soda, which you can use to DIY a ton of different cleaning products.
- Repair and Buy Secondhand
Although your everyday items have the most significant impact on your waste, utensils and big-ticket items like appliances also end up in a landfill. You can help reduce your waste in this area by buying second-hand whenever possible and repairing what you do have, so it lasts longer.
Although pop-up "repair workshops" are becoming more commonplace, they are still relatively rare in our current throw-away culture. If you can't find one, don't sweat it. A second-hand appliance is the next best thing if the item can't be repaired.
- Say No to Another Kitchen Gadget
It's hard existing at the intersection of zero waste and technology. I love gadgets, and I would be lying if I said I didn't like owning the newest thing. But realistically, do I need four different types of blenders and slow cookers? Probably not.
It's up to you to decide which gadgets you need and which you can do without. I don't mind cooking rice on the stove, so I don't have a rice cooker. I also make toast in a countertop convection oven, meaning I don't have a toaster.
- Eat Less Processed Food
Processed food is so convenient, especially when you've just had a long day and don't have the energy to cook a full meal. And hey, I know it's tough to cut it out completely. But even if you eat less of it, you'll be doing the world and your body a favor.
By reducing your processed food intake, you're cutting down on waste in several ways. Processed food is often packed in plastic that's not recyclable. It also requires energy to manufacture. Plus, it's usually terrible for the body.
It can be tough to master the whole composting thing, but once you get the hang of it, it'll become second nature. You should still be mindful of the food we purchase—ask yourself if you'll really eat it before it goes bad. But knowing that composting helps the environment eases some of the pressure.
Michael Pollan explains that compost actually sucks carbon out of the air. Plus, just a half-inch layer of compost can increase crop yields six years after its application.
- Recycle If All Else Fails
Recycling really shouldn't be relied on as a means of managing waste. Despite what corporations want you to believe, most plastic ends up in a landfill. And what is reused is downcycled. While it's often repurposed into toothbrushes or plastic bags, it can't be infinitely reused. Eventually, it ends up in the landfill.
Not Sure Where to Start? Do a Trash Audit.
The kitchen is a unique space in everyone's life, and one person's biggest point of waste may not be the same as another's. While we can give you general ideas on where to cut waste, you need to look at what you waste.
The simplest way to do this is to continue as normal in your kitchen and then inspect your trash before you take it out. What exactly is going in there? If you find your primary source of waste is food, then focusing on food first will do the most good. If your problem is paper towels or plastic wrap from junk food, tackling those first will see the most significant difference.
A trash audit is a useful thing you can do at any point in your journey. It lets you know what direction to take and helps guide you on how to improve. Even a single change can make a difference.