This post in the Trash Talk series is all about how you can reduce your waste when dealing with food, whether it’s in the preparation and storage, when you’re eating out with friends, or while buying food from the grocery store.
Food waste is a big deal, especially in America. According to a study by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America,” which amounts to roughly 680 billion dollars. The majority of food waste in industrialized countries is due to unrealistic standards in the retail industry and the fact that consumers don’t want to buy damaged or ugly food.
The more that I learned about food waste in America the more upset I became. I found this excerpt in another study by the FAO:
The results of the study suggest that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year. This inevitably also means that huge amounts of the resources used in food production are used in vain, and that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by production of food that gets lost or wasted are also emissions in vain.
Unfortunately, food waste isn’t the worst of our problems. Single-use plastics dominate our kitchens and restaurants, making it impossible to eat without generating trash. All of this coupled with the mindset in the United States that we are entitled to unlimited amounts of water to use however we please have created a huge problem.
When you take into account the global scale of our trash problem it is easy to feel hopeless; how can one person make a difference when every other person on the planet is negating any positive change? I felt that way too when I was introduced to the zero-waste and plastic-free movements; however, I have witnessed firsthand just how impactful one person can be. When you make a conscious decision to reduce the waste you create, you set an example for your friends and family and encourage them to do the same. Over time, that adds up.
In the Kitchen
One of the easiest places to start when it comes to reducing your trash-footprint is the kitchen. Unlike with our clothes or beauty products, the things that we buy for our kitchen tend to be used up fairly quickly and need frequent replacing. There are plenty of products that are built to last, but I can guarantee that if you’re reading this it’s probably time to replace those things anyway, so now is the time to invest in a plastic-free alternative.
The very first zero-waste step that I took in my kitchen was getting rid of my Keurig. I had read an article that interviewed the creator of the Keurig, and he admitted that he never anticipated the machine being used outside of an office setting. The amount of plastic that is generated by K-cups is huge, especially if you’re someone like me who drinks more than one cup of coffee each day. While traditional drip machines are still made of plastic they last a long time, and you can use recycled coffee filters (I personally love the brand If You Care). That being said, if you want to go the extra mile in reducing your plastic usage, consider getting a metal and glass french press or a glass Chemex.
If I’m taking my coffee with me on the go, I use my stainless steel Hydroflask coffee flask. I absolutely love the baby blue color of my Hydroflask and the fact that it keeps my coffee hot or cold all day long. I’ve even started taking it to Lucky Goat with me on days that I work so I can drink coffee there without using a plastic cup.
The next major step towards eliminating the plastic in your kitchen involves investing in sustainable food storage systems. When I was first introduced to zero-waste living I was eager to get started, so I bought a set of glass food storage canisters with clamp lids from Bed Bath and Beyond and a metal basket to hold snacks. It was a small step, but I felt so environmentally conscious every time I went to the bulk section of the grocery store and filled up my glass containers (or filled paper bags when I forgot to bring the canister with me, which was often.) When I moved into a house with a larger kitchen I was able to expand my collection of glass jars; John and I built a shelving unit and stocked it with my clamp lid jars, several baskets, and an endless supply of mason jars.
I highly recommend transitioning to a glass storage system for your dry foods instead of relying on plastic, mainly because it is easier to keep your food organized and away from bugs when you can tightly seal the container. Most grocery stores have a bulk food section (which I’ll talk about later in this post!) so take advantage of them.
My parents bought me a 24 piece set of glass snap-lock food storage containers from Member’s Mark for Christmas. I had been meaning to get rid of my stained plastic tupperwares for a while before then, so I was extremely excited to get the glass containers. Not only are glass containers more aesthetically pleasing and easier to clean, they also are safer to use when heating up leftover food because they don’t contain the same chemicals that plastic containers do.
Matching sets of glass food storage containers can be pretty expensive online, so if you don’t want to make the commitment feel free to continue using your old plastic tupperwares – just try not to heat food up in them. There are also plenty of other food storage systems that are zero-waste and plastic-free if you want to start small.
One of my favorite zero-waste food storage items are bee’s wraps. These plastic-free alternatives to cling wrap are made of bee’s wax, and are a sustainable way to take food on the go with you. I use my bee’s wraps to keep sliced avocados and lemons fresher for longer in my fridge, and I also wrap sandwiches with it when I need to take my lunch to work. Another good alternative to plastic food storage are stasher bags, which are essentially silicon ziplock bags. Klean Kanteen also makes food canisters that are perfect for taking snacks on the go; I got the insulated food canister set which included a 8ox and 16ox canister, and they keep my food hot or cold for 8 hours!
If you’re the kind of person who is constantly taking food with you on the go, then the above products will make a huge difference in your plastic usage. I also recommend looking into plastic-free travel silverware and stainless steel straws; I keep both in my purse and in my backpack so I’m always prepared to enjoy some food or a tasty beverage without generating waste. As far as silverware goes, I love keeping a Sea to Summit spork in my purse and a To-Go Ware bamboo utensil set in my backpack.
As far as general kitchen supplies go, I highly recommend buying If You Care products. If You Care is devoted to creating household products that have the least environmental impact, which means their items are compostable, biodegradable, recycled, and as natural as possible. They carry everything from baking and cooking supplies, like aluminum foil, baking cups, and wax paper, to household cleaning supplies, such as trash bags, dishwasher pods, and sponges. Lucky’s Market and Whole Foods Market carry If You Care products in Tallahassee, but you can also find their items online.
The last step that can be taken in your kitchen to reduce your waste production is implementing a compost collection system. Composting is a wonderful thing because it reduces food waste in landfills, improves air quality, and creates nutrient rich soil; however, composting is a huge commitment and can be difficult to implement if you live in an apartment for a variety of reasons. A lot of people in urban areas don’t feel the need to compost because they won’t end up using the soil that is created, they don’t have the space to compost properly, and they don’t think they can get their roommates on board with saving smelly food scraps in their kitchen. All of those are valid reasons not to compost, but with a little effort you can easily find a solution to all of those issues. This beginners guide to composting article has a lot of helpful information about how to get started with composting, and this article goes over the various types of composting that can be done in an apartment setting.
If you live in Tallahassee and are interested in composting but don’t know what to do with the compost that you create, consider joining a like-minded group of people who compost together! There are plenty of places that compost (like FSU’s sustainable garden if you’re a student), and all it takes is a little digging around to find a group that you can identify with. One organization in particular is at the Frenchtown Farmer’s Market every Saturday, and they provide a weekly pick-up of your compostable matter for $20 a month – check out Compost Community Tallahassee to learn more!
At the Grocery Store
Now that you know how to store your food at home and carry it with you on the go, it’s time we address how to actually get food from the grocery store to your house!
I briefly mentioned this earlier, but the biggest step towards having a zero-waste kitchen is when you make the decision to start shopping in the bulk section of grocery stores. Lucky’s Market and Whole Foods Market have the most abundant bulk sections in Tallahassee, but even Publix has an area where you can get the essentials.
In case you aren’t familiar with the term “bulk section,” I’m referring to the part of the grocery store where you can scoop loose food into bags and the price is determined by how many pounds you buy. I prefer buying dry goods from the bulk section, such as rice, oats, flour, sugar, chia seeds, etc. If you want to bring your own containers to use in the bulk section be sure to get the tar weight of the container, which is how much it weighs when it’s empty, so the cashier can subtract that weight from the total weight after the container is full. It’s a bit of a hassle to remember to bring glass jars every time you go into the grocery store, so if you forget don’t fret! At Whole Foods and Lucky’s I like to take paper bags from the bakery section and use those to carry my bulk purchases, since I can recycle them afterwords. If you have no other option than to use the plastic baggie then try to reuse it each time you purchase from the bulk section, or if you have a pup like I do then use that bag to dispose of your pet’s poop.
Here are some more tips on how to reduce your waste when shopping for groceries:
- Don’t forget your reusable bag! I am a reusable bag aficionado; I always have at least five bags in the backseat of my car, and in the event that I don’t have one with me I opt for carrying my items out of the grocery store without a bag.
- Say no to produce bags! I firmly believe that produce bags are a total hoax. I don’t know which company convinced us that we need to put two avocados into a green plastic sack just so they’re next to each other, but they are damned in my book. I have shopped for the past two years now without using produce bags, and it has not been a hindrance at all. If for some reason you need a bag to hold your produce together inside of another bag than buy a plastic-free alternative! There are countless on Amazon and they are all relatively affordable. (I talk a lot of shit about needing to use produce bags, but on some level I understand. I recently went on a huge brussel sprouts kick and was buying them by the hand full, which was when I realized that a mesh sack might have some merit in society.)
- Shop local! The best way to avoid buying food in plastic packaging is to get it straight from the source! There are plenty of farmers markets in Tallahassee that are excellent sources of fresh meat, cheese, and produce. Shopping locally keeps money within your community, and if you do end up with a plastic container most farmers are extremely pleased when you bring it back so they can reuse it. I have made a lot of connections with people in my community by shopping locally, and I even found the best source of cage-free happy eggs in town.
I understand that it can take some time to fully transition to having a completely zero-waste kitchen (I’m not even there myself!) and that making the above swaps can be expensive. That being said it is better to start small than to do nothing at all.
At the end of the day though there are plenty of simple perspective changes that are free to implement and go a long way towards reducing waste. Here are some simple tips and tricks that I have learned that don’t cost any money and are simply a matter of making small changes to your everyday routine:
- Ditch food waste. Believe me when I say this is far easier said than done, but it isn’t impossible. Meal prepping can help reduce food waste because you devote an entire day to planning what you’ll eat throughout the week and portioning out various meals, but that can be a bit of a time commitment. When you walk into a grocery store try to maintain an intentional mindset and only buy what you need. I’ve learned that if you store carrots in a glass jar filled with water in your fridge it will keep them crunchy and fresh for a long time, and if you thoroughly wash, dry, and cut up your leafy greens immediately after you buy them they won’t wilt as fast.
- Use your dishwasher. When I first moved to Tallahassee I was really into washing my dishes by hand, mainly because I only had one mug and one bowl that I had to use everyday. The habit of hand-washing stuck with me though, and I refused to use the dishwasher when I moved into my new house. That all changed when John pointed out that dishwashers use less water and are more energy efficient than running out the tap.
- Be wary of “recyclables.” Unfortunately, not all recyclable products are treated equally at the processing plant. For example, I was under the impression that the paper almond milk cartons that I bought could be recycled, but recently learned that there is a coating on the material that makes it impossible to recycle. In that scenario it is better for me to buy the plastic container than the paper one, because the plastic can be recycled. Do a little digging into the proper way to recycle the containers that you buy.
- Not big into composting? Make vegetable stock out of produce scraps instead! This video will show you how. It’s incredibly easy and tastes delicious.
Like I mentioned earlier, don’t feel like you have to go zero-waste and plastic-free in your kitchen overnight. It will take time, and that’s okay. I’ve been slowly making the transition over the past two years and I still have a long way to go. Just focus on doing what you can and raising awareness by starting a conversation with your friends and family about the importance of reducing our waste.
When I first learned about how harmful plastic is I felt like I had to immediately get rid of all of the plastic products that I owned, but that would do more harm than good. If you bought something that is made of plastic or stored in plastic, use it and then make a conscious effort to buy a sustainable alternative in the future. Keep in mind that even if you don’t want to use your plastic products someone else might benefit from them; if you donate your tupperwares to Goodwill then there is less demand for more to be created.
As always, recognize your privilege if you are in a position to spend more time, money, and effort to be zero-waste and plastic-free.
That’s all for this post in the Trash Talk series! I hope this has inspired and empowered you to be more environmentally conscious when buying food, and I would love to hear your own tips for reducing food waste and plastic use in the kitchen.
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me.