After a year of takeout containers and shrink-wrapped freezer meals, I’m on a mission to create a zero waste kitchen. Daunting? Yes. But surprisingly fun as well.
The kitchen is the biggest source of waste in most households. It certainly was for us. Between spoiled produce, non-recyclable packaging, and disposable cleaning wipes, we were filling up our 50L garbage can at least once a week.
Progress has been gradual, but that’s what zero waste living is all about. Every small change adds up to a powerful impact.
With just a few zero waste kitchen swaps, you can greatly reduce the amount of trash you produce when cooking, eating, and cleaning. It can be as small as a product substitution here and there, or picking up a few low impact habits.
I like to think of these zero waste kitchen tips as mini-challenges. Tackle them slowly, celebrate the small wins, and you’ll be well on your way to a waste free kitchen.
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How to Shop for a Zero Waste Kitchen
Plan your meals strategically
Before you head to the grocery store, have a meal plan for the week ready to go.
A zero waste meal plan aims to use up all of the perishable ingredients. If a salad recipe calls for two stalks of celery, pair it with other recipes–like vegetable soup–that will use up the rest of the head (or eat the leftovers as a snack).
By planning what you’re going to eat and sticking to a grocery list, you’re less likely to buy extra food and snacks you won’t eat. That makes it much easier to keep a waste free kitchen.
Buy in bulk wherever possible
One of my favorite zero waste kitchen tips is to buy whatever you can in bulk. Large volume containers create less packaging waste vs. smaller sizes. It may not seem like much, but it adds up over time, especially if you’re used to buying the single-portion sizes of snack foods.
Obviously don’t go overboard and buy so much that you can’t finish the container before it spoils. But if you love almonds, oats, and other semi-perishable items enough to buy them in large quantities, go for it.
Buying in bulk is not only more sustainable, but also usually cheaper in the long run. And if you’re able to BYOC (bring your own containers), you can cut out the packaging waste altogether.
Bring your own bags and containers
You know those long rolls of thin plastic bags the grocery store keeps in the produce section? You don’t need them!
If you plan on buying fresh fruit or vegetables, bring along reusable mesh bags or containers to store your produce safely and waste free. Personally, I only use my reusable bags for small or fragile items–things like bananas and cucumbers go straight into the cart.
Bringing your own containers to the store isn’t just for bulk shopping. Many supermarkets will let you use your own food storage for deli counter items like meat and cheese.
Another easy plastic swap is to bring your own reusable shopping bags so you don’t wind up going home with plastic or paper bags full of groceries.
Buy meats directly from the butcher
Meat is one of the most over-packaged items in supermarkets. It’s often wrapped in plastic and resting on a styrofoam or plastic container. It’s all terrible for the environment.
Instead, head straight to the butcher and buy it from the source. It will taste fresher and come in significantly less packaging.
Pro tip: get whole meats wherever possible rather than pre-portioned cuts. This keeps food waste to a minimum, especially if you can use ALL the parts, such as bones for broth or rendered fat for cooking.
Buy whole vegetables & fruit
It’s super tempting to buy pre-cut produce. I was certainly guilty of this when I was teaching and going to grad school at the same time.
However, the ridiculous amount of single-use packaging is terrible for a zero waste kitchen. Not to mention it only saves a few minutes of prep time and can expose you to a bigger risk of foodborne illnesses.
Buying whole fruits and vegetables is better for the planet and your wallet. Once I learned how easy it was to dice up a fresh pineapple, I regretted the days of spending $5 on a cup of pre-cut fruit!
Shop in season and eat local
Buying whole fruits and veggies is a great way to work towards a waste free kitchen. But there’s even more you can do to make your produce shopping habits even more eco friendly: buy local and buy in season.
The more imported and out of season fruit and veg you eat, the bigger your carbon footprint. Aside from the massive amount of fuel used to ship the produce around the globe, pesticides and other toxic chemicals are required to keep it fresh or growing year round.
A great way to fix the problem is to shop at your nearest farmer’s market or farm co-op whenever possible. Not only is it all local, but in my experience, most of it is also organic.
If you aren’t lucky enough to live near a farmer’s market/co-op, you can still stick to buying in-season produce at the supermarket.
Eating with the seasons lets you enjoy produce at its peak flavor. I’ll never go back to sad, tasteless winter strawberries again.
Zero Waste Kitchen Storage Tips and Swaps
(Re)use glass jars for pantry staples
One of my favorite zero waste kitchen storage tricks is reusing glass jars. I use empty spice containers to hold my own seasoning blends, keep homemade sauces in glass bottles, and store berries inside jam jars.
That being said, I also bought a few larger glass jars for pantry goods like rice and pasta. Since I like to buy in bulk, it’s easy to bring in the whole container and top up for another few months.
Small jars are also great for keeping spices and herbs fresh, or for pickling and making homemade preserves.
Use your freezer
Making ample use of your freezer is an underrated low waste kitchen tip.
Not sure when you’ll get around to using that leftover bone broth? Go ahead and freeze it in a mason jar for a few months.
Have extra herbs from a recipe? Chop them up and freeze them in an ice cube tray.
Keeping extra servings of food in the freezer is also a great way to avoid takeout when you’re too busy or tired to cook. I’m a big fan of doubling soup and casserole recipes and freezing the second batch for a later date.
Ditch the plastic wrap and bags
One of the best zero waste kitchen swaps I’ve made was buying these beeswax wraps. No more wrapping things up in layers of foil or plastic wrap and hoping it stays fresh. These reusable eco friendly wraps do the job better, and last longer.
Made from a cloth coated in beeswax, the wraps simply meld around the item they’re covering and keep it fresh for up to a few days (depending on what it is). Plus they come in different colors and designs.
I’ve also replaced my Ziploc bags with sealing silicone bags. They can be washed, dried, and reused again and again.
Learn the proper way to keep foods fresh
There are few things more irritating than discovering your ingredients have gone bad right before you need them. If this happens to you frequently, you’re not alone. In 2018, Americans threw away 81.4 billion pounds of food waste.
Knowing how to store your perishable items will make a huge difference in how much food (and money) waste you create every year. The same goes for shelf-stable ingredients like oils, pastas, and spices as well.
Here are a few quick tips to keep your food fresh:
- Keep herbs upright in the fridge, with the stems submerged in a small glass of water
- Store berries in glass jars
- Put dairy products towards the back of the fridge, never in the door
- Store cheese in airtight containers to extend the life after opening
- Keep oils and spices away from light and heat to preserve their flavor
Save me for later!
Cooking in a Zero Waste Kitchen
Find recipes you love and keep them handy
I cannot overstate how much this zero waste kitchen tip has helped me.
As food lovers, my husband and I frequently ordered takeout and delivery so that we could eat new and fun things. But the amount of single-use plastic waste that habit created was undeniably unsustainable.
Thanks to amazing food blogs like Cookie & Kate, we cook new and fun foods at home way more often. I try out a new dish about once a week, and I keep my favorites organized in a digital “recipe book” on Trello.
Having a collection of recipes you love makes it so much easier to plan meals and turn down the temptation of takeaway (or pre-packaged foods).
Buy durable and sustainable cookware
If you can afford to invest in durable and sustainable kitchen products, then do it.
Good quality cookware lasts longer, which means you buy less of it, so less materials need to be recycled and/or wind up in landfills.
A top quality cast iron pan or Dutch oven might seem like a major splurge, but they can last a lifetime with proper care. In fact, my Le Creuset has a lifetime warranty, and I use it to cook the majority of our meals.
Use reusable bakeware
Because baking is usually done in large batches, a lot of bakeware is single-use. Those who regularly make cookies will be all too aware of all the parchment paper they can get through. And don’t get me started on those waxy muffin liners.
By switching to reusable bakeware–usually made of food-grade silicone rubber–you’ll immediately cut down on your kitchen waste. These items are made to be durable and can even be used in both the freezer and the oven without breaking or affecting the baked goods.
I’m a fan of these colorful and non-stick silicone cupcake liners.
Grow your own herbs
Do you want a self-replenishing source of edible deliciousness? Then growing your own herbs is the answer!
Pre-portioned herbs usually come in plastic packaging. By creating a mini herb garden in your kitchen (or in an outdoor pot), you can eliminate this waste and prevent any effect the manufacturing process might have had on the environment.
Plus, freshly cut herbs taste stronger! It’s an easy, natural, and tasty way to get closer to zero kitchen waste.
If you’re up for a challenge (or have a better green thumb than me), you can try growing some of your own fruit and vegetables, too.
Prep your meals in advance
Having a meal plan is a great way to cut down on waste, but sometimes even the best laid plans can fail without some advanced prep.
Trust me, we’ve all been there: after a long day at work, you’re just too tired to whip up the delicious meal you had planned, so instead you order in or run to the shop and grab something from the prepared foods section…
If you find yourself doing this more often than not, prepping your meals in advance will change your life. I saved so many foods from going bad when I started setting aside a half day to pre-make a few upcoming meals for the week.
And if a full meal prepping session isn’t for you, I recommend cooking larger amounts of food so that you’ll have a day or two of leftovers. Many recipe sites have built-in calculators where you can increase the number of servings by 25% or 50%.
Skip the unnecessary gadgets
There are so many gadgets these days to help with every little thing in the kitchen and it can be easy to buy into some of the fads (I’ll admit, I briefly considered buying both an avocado slicer and a tofu press).
But unless you have mobility or dexterity issues, most of them are just unnecessary. So to achieve a (mostly) plastic free kitchen, it’s best to rely on staples like a great chef’s knife and your own two hands to get the job done.
Buy refurbished or used appliances when possible
Keeping manufactured items out of landfills is an important part of low impact living. We live in a time where people would rather toss out old appliances and buy new ones rather than pay $100 for a repair that would give them an extra five years of life.
Choosing pre-used or refurbished appliances not only keeps waste out of landfills, but also saves you quite a bit of cash.
I’ve picked up some amazing second hand items from garage sales, and even eBay, including a high end blender and an old coffee machine. When it comes to things like ovens, however, I’m more inclined to shop for professionally refurbished options that have been safety certified.
Use wooden or bamboo cooking utensils
An instant upgrade for your waste free kitchen is changing from plastic to wooden cooking utensils. Wood is a natural, organic substance, so once the utensils reach the end of their use, they can biodegrade completely and rejoin the cycle of nature.
Bamboo is incredibly sustainable and a common material for eco friendly utensils. In addition to being organic, bamboo utensils are naturally resistant to odor and bacteria.
Zero Waste Eating Tips
Consume Less Meat
Consuming less meat is one of the biggest ways to reduce your carbon footprint. I mentioned before that a lot of meat comes wrapped in layers of plastic. But meat farming itself is also a huge contributor to carbon emissions.
The good news is that plant based diets and products have come a long way over the last decade or so, and there are some amazing meat alternatives. Brands like Beyond even taste pretty darn close to the real thing!
It’s never been easier to enjoy delicious vegetarian and vegan versions of your all-time favorite meat-based meals.
Switch to plant-based milk
Like meat, the dairy industry is notoriously horrible for the environment thanks to their ridiculously high greenhouse gas emissions, land and water usage. So it’s no surprise that plant-based milk alternatives are growing in popularity.
Some of the plant based milks available are genuinely tasty (a big difference from the soy milk I tried as a kid). I’m partial to oat milk, especially in my morning coffee. And thanks to their typically greener packaging, they fit right into a low waste kitchen.
Reach for zero waste snacks
When readers ask for zero waste kitchen tips for beginners, I recommend starting with their snacks. A lot of what we think of as classic snacks (chips, popcorn, breakfast bars) come in plastic packaging–and, let’s face it, aren’t all that healthy either.
That’s why I’m a huge fan of zero waste snacks. They’re low maintenance, easy to prep ahead of time and normally pretty healthy.
Some of my favorites include clementines, bulk buy pistachios, and roasted chickpeas.
Compost or reuse leftover scraps
Did you know that organic matter doesn’t decompose naturally in landfills? The lack of air makes food scraps and other organic things break down differently–and much more slowly–causing a build-up of greenhouse gases.
Some food scraps can be given a second purpose before going in the compost bin. For example, coffee grounds and lemon peels can be used for DIY body care products. Other leftovers like carrot tops can be used to make soup stock or smoothies.
Make your coffee zero waste
My morning coffee routine used to start with a K-cup machine. So when I got into zero waste living, I knew I had to figure out a more sustainable option.
I switched to a zero waste coffee routine of using a traditional filter drip machine and a conical burr to grind my beans, and I’ve never looked back. We also keep a glass jar of instant coffee around for those hectic mornings.
Check out my post on the best plastic free coffee makers for more recommendations.
Brew ethical zero waste tea
I was shocked to find out that many tea bags have plastic in them. No one wants to be drinking plastic, and I drink a lot of tea!
Suffice it to say I switched over to a zero waste tea routine immediately. Now I rely on biodegradable tea bags in compostable packaging, such as Teapigs. Once everything is finished brewing, I can toss the whole bag into my compost bin.
If you prefer loose leaf tea, you’re even closer to a zero waste kitchen than me! Just make sure you’re buying ethically sourced tea leaves and not using single-use cups.
Ditch the paper napkins for cloth
My husband is a certified messy eater, and he could go through a pack of (flimsy) paper napkins in no time. It was not only a massive waste of paper, but also plastic due to the packaging.
Cloth napkins are not only a more eco friendly option, but they’re just better at cleaning up messes. Since they can be washed and reused over and over, cloth napkins are also significantly cheaper than paper ones.
We keep a small bin in our kitchen for soiled napkins. Once the bin is full, I toss them in the washer with my towels and hang them out to dry (your cleaning method may be different depending on the fabric).
Stop using disposables
Entertaining friends and family is a joy. But one of the downsides of having guests over is the clean up. With seven young nephews, I know how tempting it is to go out and buy some single-use paper plates and plastic cups!
Aside from being bad for the environment, disposable tableware actually encourages people to create even more waste. Losing track of your paper plate is no big deal when you can just grab a new one. But if you’re responsible for a real plate, you’re far more likely to hold onto it and reuse it throughout the event.
If you enjoy frequent picnics, invest in some enamel plates or use old ones you don’t mind getting a bit more chipped.
How to Clean a Waste Free Kitchen
Use eco friendly cleaning products
Cleaning products are a major contributor to kitchen waste. All those single-use plastic bottles of soap and surface cleaner really add up!
Thankfully, it’s gotten easier to find plant-based cleaning alternatives and brands whose manufacturing methods are environmentally friendly.
Even the packaging is getting a makeover: some cleaning products use refillable glassware, while many now use 100% recyclable or biodegradable packaging. So bear that in mind when shopping for supplies.
There are plenty of options for zero waste dish soap and other eco-friendly cleaning products, but you may need to order them online depending on where you live.
Swap your sponges for natural scrubbers
Whether you’re scrubbing dishes, or your oven, it’s time to ditch the sponge. Traditional sponges are full of plastic microfibers that wind up flowing into our drinking water sources. Gross.
One of my first zero waste swaps was this set of bamboo scrubbers with compostable tapioca fiber bristles. A few years later, they’re still going strong, which is way longer than a sponge ever lasted me!
Check out my post on the best zero waste dish sponges & alternatives for more suggestions.
Use cleaning rags instead of paper towels
For surfaces that need a softer touch, swap out paper towels with cleaning rags.
The easiest way to do this is to repurpose old clothes, towels, or even linens. Once one of these has reached the end of its life, rip it up into smaller pieces and voila! You have a brand new cleaning rag.
They can even be attached to the end of a sturdy stick to be converted into a homemade mop or dusting wand.
Use a water-saving washing technique
A lot of people think they’re saving water by hand washing their dishes rather than using a dishwasher. But if you turn the sink on and let it run the entire time, you might be using almost double the amount of water!
Most modern dishwashers are actually pretty eco-friendly and can be used guilt free as long as you wait until it’s full before running a cycle. But if you can’t use a dishwasher, you can still save water by only turning on the faucet when you’re ready to rinse your dishes.
I hope you’ve found a few zero waste kitchen tips to try out soon! Check out these posts for other sustainable ideas: