The room in the house that probably creates the most waste is definitely the kitchen. From food to containers there are a lot of ways you can reduce kitchen trash and be more environmentally friendly!
Use Less Packaging
It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Americans bought and consumed food that was not individually packaged, hermetically and safety sealed, shrink wrapped in plastic, vacuum packed, pre-washed, pre-cooked, sliced and diced, and doused with artificial colorings, flavorings and additives to preserve freshness!
Food was just animal, vegetable or mineral. It had dirt on it. It was bloody. It came from the earth, and you actually knew where it came from, or even had a hand in growing or raising it.
Woe to the marketers. Dirty and bloody are hard sells to many of us. Even my kids, who I’ve tried to brainwash as much as possible, have no idea where food really comes from. Ask them, as a friend recently did:
Q: Where does milk come from?
A: The store, silly!
Oops. Survey says: a cow, or a goat, or soy beans, hemp or rice (depending on your milk of choice). But no — aside from the one preschool field trip to a farm, they’ve never been near a real cow. The only milking they ever witnessed involved me and a breast-pump, and suffice to say that wasn’t pretty. So how can you argue with a couple of kids who drink a gallon of cow milk between them each week that comes regularly from the grocery store in a plastic jug, marketed with the Organic Valley label, a “best by” date and its nutritional analysis spelled out on a label? What does that have to do with a mooing, grass-eating bovine?
So therein lies the problem. How do you buy food that contains less packaging? It’s a tough one.
Walk down the aisles of a regular American grocery store and you’ll find a mind-bending array of packaged food and drinks:
- Beverages come in a plethora of packaging choices: plastic jugs, plastic bottles, glass bottles, multi-layer tetra/aseptic packs, aluminum cans, cardboard gable boxes — in sizes ranging from the gallon to the individual serving
- Metal cans of precooked and precut veggies, beans and fruit, usually lined with BPA
- Plastic bags, films, and wrappers for chips, crackers, granola bars, cereals — often tucked inside a cardboard box for shelving ease
- Cardboard or polystyrene foam egg cartons
- Frozen foods encased in plastic bags or films packed inside wet-strength freezer boxes (that can’t be recycled)
- Plastic cups/tubs with lids for puddings, yogurts, margarine, dips, deli items, salsas, sauces, etc.
- Pre-cut and weighed meat on polystyrene trays, wrapped in plastic film
- Prewashed produce in plastic bags or rigid plastic containers (some made from corn or PLA)
- Precooked whole chickens or racks of ribs in rigid plastic containers
So what’s a conscious food consumer to do? Return to caveman days and slay our own woolly mammoths? Is there any way to feed your family but avoid the excessive food packaging that’s become the norm?
Here’s are some ideas to REDUCE food packaging:
- Buy in bulk with minimal processing. A bag of beans from a bulk bin in a reuseable bag cuts down greatly from a steel can of cooked beans with a paper label
- Cut out the middle man and shop close to the farm. Buy from farms, farmer’s markets or wholesalers such as Azure Standard. At farms and markets, bring your own reuseable bags, egg cartons, etc. when possible.
- Select products based on packaging you can recycle (if your area has glass recycling but not plastic, opt for the pickles or jelly or peanut butter in glass)
- Make your own. I recently started making my own granola, which costs a lot less and tastes really yummy. There’s no limit to what you can make on your own: jam, peanut butter, bread and baked goods, frozen veggies, frozen waffles, dried fruits, cheese, yogurt, butter, etc. All it takes is the time to learn how and practice. It’ll have way less packaging — whatever you decide to make on your own.
- If you buy juice — buy frozen concentrate and mix it with your own tap water (lots less transportation cost associated with shipping, and less packaging to throw or recycle)
- Shop the outskirts of the store to avoid all the shelf-stable packaged junk. Foods with high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats are some of the worst food-like products foisted on consumers. How about a little Pepsi with that Barbie cereal? Anyone, anyone?
- Avoid individual serving sizes. Unless you are on a feeding tube, there is no excuse for a Go-gurt. And can anyone explain to me why there is a need for an individually wrapped prune? As parents, the marketers get us hooked on this concept from the minute our babies start eating solid foods. There are single-serving baby food jars and yogurt containers. Convenient, yes. Easily recyclable, no. As far as baby food goes, you’re better off with something like frozen cubes of food like Happy Baby, or making your own.
- Let’s talk about convenience. No wait. Let’s stop thinking about convenience when shopping. If something is being marketed as convenient, it’s probably not good for you or the environment. I really doubt that the mom who packs a Lunchable and a juice box for her kid really has a less stressful day than mine. I usually make a sandwich, fruit, yogurt and water bottle for my kids. It doesn’t take that much time to pack or wash the durable containers. I will not kid you. There are not many ways to RECYCLE or REUSE a Lunchable plastic tray.
- Food is for eating, not for packaging. Debate rages on whether corn-based plastics are the next big green thing. I think they’re not. Food should be grown to be eaten. You can bet your bottom-dollar that the corn grown to become ethanol or PLA is not organic. Did anyone see King Corn? The other thing is that if you do have plastic recycling in your region, it is for petroleum-based plastics. PLA is a major contaminant in standard plastics recycling. Do not be fooled by the “corn-based” or “compostable” or “biodegradeable” label.
- For meats and fish, if you have the butcher do the cutting at the counter, it’ll be fresher, and packaging is minimized (butcher paper vs. foam tray and plastic wrap).
- Use tap water, and drink mostly water. Except for milk and/or pure juice for the kids and beer and/or wine for the grown-ups. If you do give your kids milk or juice, limit how much they get. We’ve greatly reduced our consumption by limiting them to one small cup per meal (all refills are of water). They haven’t died yet, and still seem to be growing adequately.
- When you dine out, bring your own durable take-home containers
So once again, the key in the kitchen food packaging domain is to REDUCE.
REUSE glass and plastic free food storage containers with lids for bulk packaging or pantry storage. For example, when we buy a big container of shredded Parmesan cheese at Costco, we clean and save the container and use it in our pantry for granola, or bulk nuts, or flour, etc. Glass jars and lids can be reused many times for freezer jams.
REUSE yogurt cups, foam meat trays, rigid plastic salad containers. Preschools and non-profits will use these items again and again for toy storage, sorting and art projects.
RECYCLE (as your local recycling markets allow): glass; non food-soiled paper, labels, boxes; plastic and glass bottles; aluminum and metal cans/lids.
COMPOST food-soiled paper products.
There you have it. Lots of small steps that can be undertaken by any family to REDUCE the amount of food packaging we are bringing into our homes. Do you have any REDUCE, REUSE or RECYCLE tips to share regarding food packaging?
When my family went down to one garbage can a month it was primarily due to four actions: 1) getting the youngest child out of disposable diapers; 2) recycling all of our plastics; 3) using cloth napkins and towels instead of paper; and 4) setting up a food scrap composting system. Keeping food out of the garbage is one of the most important things we can do to clean up the environment. Why? Because when organic matter, like food and yard debris, is sealed inside a landfill it doesn’t receive any oxygen, and it releases methane. Methane is a gas that is far more toxic than carbon dioxide (though not as prevalent). It’s also the stuff that cows release when they fart, so you can only imagine how noxious it is.
There are three main ways to keep food scraps out of the landfill:
- Only buying what you will use
- Using every bit that you buy
Food Scrap Composting
Let’s start with composting (or RECYCLING food scraps), because Renee and I made this short video to show you how we do it! (And though it may sound like it, I’m not really a robot.) It took me a long time to figure out which composting system to use because I didn’t want it to be hard or stinky. I just wanted to keep the food out of the landfill. Renee’s family, on the other hand, buries their food waste in the ground, as you’ll see. It works just fine for them (and they have amazing soil in their garden, too). Check it out:
I use a composter called the Earth Machine, which Portland’s regional government sells for $35. Similar units are available at Costco, Home Depot and Planet Natural. You dump in your fruit and veggie scraps and coffee grounds, add an equal amount of brown yard debris (like dead leaves or grass, or newspaper or shredded up food-soiled pizza boxes), give it a stir, maybe add a little water, and that’s it. I’ve never taken any compost out of my bin, yet it’s never filled up because the organic matter keeps breaking down. Love it!
There are lots of other ways to compost:
Worm bins: Worms need a bit of love and attention to thrive, but if you do it correctly you can keep a worm bin inside your home, with no mess or stink. Here’s a step-by-step tutorial for making your own worm bin.
Tumblers: A bit more expensive, but supposedly works really fast because the tumbling motion mixes everything up really good. Here’s an example from Gardener’s Supply.
Cones: These you bury half-way in the ground and add food and yard debris. This Green Cone Composting System claims you can also include meat scraps and dairy. I would be afraid that the local rat population would set up camp in my backyard, but maybe it really works. (Anyone?)
Indoor Composter: The Nature Mill indoor composter lives in your house, but it doesn’t have worms! You can add up to 120 pounds of food scraps (including meat and dairy). It mixes, heats, and aerates — doing all the work of a backyard composter in record time. Within two weeks, you have beautiful compost. It uses two chambers so you can add to the mix at any time. It uses a small amount of electricity, and it’s spendy (about $300).
You’ll also need a kitchen container to hold your food scraps until it’s time to dump them in your composter. I got my stainless steel container with carbon filters from Sur la Table. It’s also available at Amazon. Gardener’s Supply also sells several varieties. We used a big plastic Rubbermaid container for a long time that worked really well, but it was just hard for the kids to get the lid on and off.
Care to share your composting stories? Which method works for you? Did you try one that didn’t work?
Only Buying the Food that You Need
Get ready for this: according to a recent New York Times article, Americans throw away 27 percent of the food they buy. Can you believe that? I can. I’ve thrown away tons and tons of food: rotten produce, rancid meat, expired dairy — food that went bad because I bought too much and didn’t take the steps to prepare or preserve it (I recently heard celebrity mom Julia Roberts bemoaning this same topic, and somehow I felt less bad…). Food in this country has been really, really cheap for a long time and my jaunts through the supermarket were always pretty thoughtless — just toss in whatever looked good. I’ve worked really hard this past year to think about the food I buy and make a plan for using it (still a work in progress, however).
So REDUCING the amount of food we buy is another way to keep it out of the waste stream.
Eating or Preserving ALL of the Food You Buy
One of the challenges of subscribing to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program through a local farm is using up all of the produce I get each week. Last summer I composted a ton of it. This summer we’re doing much better. (And surprisingly the kids are eating more of it because they see where it’s coming from. They feel a sense of ownership of the farm. Our farm, they call it.) This summer I’m preserving more of the produce by freezing small batches, plus we’re just making a concerted effort to eat these delicious, local, organic veggies.
We’re also trying really hard to eat all of our leftovers. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes eating leftovers is about as appealing as eating compost. Compost! It’s what’s for dinner! But lately we’re getting more creative with them — leftover potato salad will get tossed with a green salad; leftover meat will get incorporated into a quesadilla, that sort of thing. I’m also packing lots of leftovers for my husband’s lunches. (He’ll eat just about anything. But not compost.) If I buy a whole chicken, I’ll toss the carcass in a pot of water with some onions, carrots, celery and spices and turn it into chicken stock, which can be frozen in a plastic freezer bag. (Boiling the carcass will also keep your garbage from getting really stinky.) I guess you could call this REUSING food, which sounds kinda weird, but let’s just go for it.
What about that stinky meat in the garbage?
If you’re reducing your garbage service down to once a month, meat scraps in the garbage can get pretty stinky. I don’t have any way to compost meat scraps (does anyone do this?) so we toss it. If I have a big chunk of expired meat (which I’m trying not to have anymore) then I’ll usually keep it in the freezer until garbage night so it doesn’t stink up the can throughout the month. You can do this with all of your meat scraps if you have space in your freezer — just keep them in a plastic bag. Last week when I dragged can to the curb for our monthly pick-up, it just about gagged me. There was something pretty stinky in there, and it was probably some kind of meat. There have been some reader suggestions about saving bones for neighbors’ dogs. Another thing is to think about where you store your garbage can before it goes to the curb. At Renee’s house, the garbage can is in the garage, and because the garage doesn’t get nearly as hot as it would outside, the garbage can doesn’t cook and stink up the trash during the month that it sits. With a tightly fitting garbage can lid, and garage storage — Renee’s garbage does not get too stinky.
These are steps that just about anyone can take and will make a HUGE impact on the amount of garbage you generate each month. Any other ideas? How about any food preservation tips? (And can anyone help me get over my fear of canning? I think some canned tomatoes once exploded during my childhood, and I’ve been afraid of it ever since.) Post questions if you’re in need of answers!
Avoiding Kitchen Disposables
According to the Master Recycler gurus who taught us everything we know about recycling, there are three major kinds of products:
- Consumables: food and fuel
- Durables: clothing, furniture, tools
- Disposables: paper plates, plastic utensils, batteries, paper towels and napkins, cleaning wipes, etc.
Before we delve too deep into disposables, let’s have a little history lesson. Some of the first disposable goods marketed were hospital supply items: syringes, gloves, etc. They were promoted as being more sanitary than their durable counterparts. As you can imagine, their usage became widespread in the medical industry, then marketers took that disposable concept and moved it from the hospital to the home. The new spin? Convenience. Ultimately, many of these disposables trumped their durable counterparts, and more often than not, now are the norm in the average American home. Now, I can see where you might want to use disposables for open heart surgery. That’s sounds like a real mess. But perhaps not for spilled milk. Yet, some folks shudder to think of life without paper towels and napkins. “Won’t you be swimming in load after load of laundry?” No, not really. But you may be in a bind when the kindergarten teacher asks you to bring in a paper towel tube for an art project… “Hmmmm. Will two toilet paper rolls taped together work instead??”
Here are some of the disposables typically used in a kitchen:
- Paper towels
- Paper napkins
- Paper plates
- Plastic utensils
- Plastic water bottles, juice boxes, straws, etc.
I’m going to get into food packaging later this week, so I’ll focus on paper towels and paper napkins today. There was a time I bought these items in bulk at Costco. You know the drill: small children = lots of nasty messes. Making the switch to using cloth napkins in our kitchen was actually quite easy.
Next came ridding ourselves of dependence on paper towels. Try Heather’s dish towel system where you assign categories for use: the good, the grimy and the greasy:
- Good: Use ONLY to dry hands and clean dishes.
- Grimy: These towels have been around the block. They are stained. No amount of white vinegar is going to make them look new. Use them for cleaning up spilled messes on the floor. They are your workhorses.
- Greasy: Somewhere in-between are the designated tea towels used for blotting bacon or greasing a baking sheet. These are probably not frequently used, but it’s good to have one or two on hand. You may need to pre-soak greasy towels in white vinegar prior to throwing them in the wash to get them clean again.
There’s no question that you will increase your supply of dish towels and cloth napkins, and rummage sales are a great option for buying REUSED cloth towels and napkins. Napkins are also super easy to make (even without sewing), and due to the frequency of my napkin creation I’ve developed a super-hero persona: NAPKIN LADY (you should see my cape). But the good news in using durable products instead of paper towels, napkins, paper plates and plastic utensils is that you…
REDUCE dependence on convenient disposable paper products. As we all know, REDUCE is the most important step in the REDUCE / REUSE / RECYCLE hierarchy. Yes, you will do a bit more laundry when you switch to all cloth napkins and towels, but if you are washing full loads then you shouldn’t notice a difference. The good news? These are the perfect size and shape for your little “helpers” to fold for you, when they do come out of the dryer. My kids are great folders of these items when we are doing laundry, but easily get stumped by something complex like a shirt!
REUSE? OK, I’m not going to kid you. There are not 101 great ways to reuse kitchen disposables. That’s why we don’t use them any more. You can wash and reuse plastic forks, spoons and knives. We usually use them until they break, and try not to acquire them as much as possible. We’ve mastered packing the zero-waste lunch box for the kids and my husband — so we use durables even away from home (and the kids are great at always bring things home to be washed and reused). We also wash and reuse zip bags until they are destroyed. Once our big box of zip bags is finished, I doubt I will buy any more.
RECYCLE. See “REUSE” above. In some super-green cities, like Portland, you can recycle just about every plastic made. But that is no excuse. Just because you can recycle water bottles made for one-time use doesn’t mean you should buy and recycle them. In the category of kitchen disposables, be it paper, plastics, zip bags, etc., the way to make a real impact is to REDUCE.
Some people call it precycling. Every time you buy something, ask yourself: Do I really need this thing? Is there some thing I already have that can do the same job? Is there a durable version that may cost more up front, but less in the long run (since it will last longer and not need to be thrown away until it is worn out or broken)? How long have I been standing here asking myself these questions? Did I just say that out loud? Great, here comes security. Again.
COMPOST. With food soiled paper products, there’s one more option — an interim step between RECYCLE and TRASH, called compost, which we’ll go into more tomorrow. But let me just say that if you do use paper products in the kitchen, such as an occasional paper towel or napkin, or you have a pizza delivered in a pizza box, those food-soiled paper items can be composted instead of trashed. I just learned this about a year ago, when I was taught about Seattle’s curbside compost pick-up service.
TRASH… Well, hopefully nothing right? If you switch to cloth towels and napkins, your trash should be free of lots of paper waste.
I have to say that eliminating our use of paper towels and napkins made a huge difference in my family’s ability to downsize to one garbage can per month. And once they are gone, you will never miss them!