Your Zero Waste Kitchen Guide
Zero waste seems to be a contemporary phenomenon, but it was already evident in our grandparents’ approach to life. We are only just starting to realise as a society, that our collective food and packaging waste (private and commercial) are some of the greatest contributors to the reality of landfills and landscape pollutants. The scale of trash is often out of sight, but globally we throw away sixty tons of household waste every second, filling the world’s largest container ship every two hours (theworldcounts.com).
What better place to start reducing our impact than in the kitchen? The area of highest consumption, and therefore waste, in every home.
Primarily, a plant-based lifestyle has a huge impact:
- to make the most of finite global resources and available land,
- in reducing animal agriculture emissions, waste and suffering (for animals and humans),
- to help nature use biomass of plants to capture the carbon dioxide that we seem so intent on producing.
Our consumption is arguably the biggest impact that we can have for a greener and cleaner future for our planet. Larger retailers have the ability to track more sustainable options and their demand, whilst small-scale companies can establish low consumption alternatives from the ground up.
However, zero-waste is realistically not an option for the average consumer, which enables us to be creative in the ways in which we move to a more sustainable lifestyle.
Many retailers are starting to see the benefit and increasing demand of zero-waste options for many of the products that don’t need to come in single-use plastic containers. Zero-waste consumption is slowly starting to become a reality, but this option isn’t always accessible. By making smart and informed purchasing decisions, we can realize a true modern kitchen.
1. Choose reusable containers
After you’ve checked your cupboards, fridge and freezer at home for containers and foods, make your way to your local purveyor of produce. When browsing the shelves at the shop (and if package-free options aren’t available) consider:
‘can I use this container again?’,
if not, ‘is it easily up/recycled?’, and most importantly
‘from which sources does the product and its packaging derive?’.
‘Can I use this container again?’,
if not, ‘Is it easily up/recycled?’,
As my housemates well know, my favourite kitchen utensil is the glass jar, of which we have an endless supply. To easily open and reuse lids, slip a rounded knife into the gap under the lid and push to release the pressure seal or smack it on the bottom.
By aiming at purchasing jarred items that come in many useful shapes and sizes, you will be able to meet all your trendy drink receptacle needs, whilst being able to:
- Accessibly store all manner of zero-waste/bulk purchased dry ingredients and spices in your kitchen shelves.
- Appropriately portion preprepared meals in your fridge and freezer, ready for when you can’t be bothered to cook or want a low-cost and nutritionally-abundant packed lunch (screw that lid on tight!).
- Experiment with the ancient medicinal practice of fermentation – it’s easier that it seems, is delicious and your body will thank you.
- Excite your tastebuds with alcohol, water and oil infusions, providing endless options for flavour combinations and preparation times. Try a lavender lime vodka, cucumber blueberry water and rosemary olive oil.
Be mindful that as jars come in many shapes and sizes, so (frustratingly) do their lids, so I would recommend once they’re dry, to store them together. Additionally, a kitchen hack! Try glueing lids to the bottom of shelves, for neat space-saving spice storage.
2.Avoiding plastic packaging
Moving on, we meet nature’s nemesis: the plastic bag. It is sometimes hard to avoid plastic, but it can be useful for the contemporary utilitatarian.
Some supermarkets sell reduced produce, or you may find your favourite bread, in a plastic bag – clean, dry and use the 20th century’s greatest invention (joke) again and again when purchasing loose fruit and veg or all manner of zero-waste ingredients available in many stores or open-air markets. Keep them inside your reusable tote bag as they will come in handy more than you think, especially when food-saving and dumpster diving.
Try to circumvent all the plastic bags you can with reusable net produce bags!
You may find that you have to purchase particular items in order to reduce waste (and cost) in subsequent food-related shops. Valuable weapons in the zero-waster arsenal include:
- Freezer packs! Coming in many shapes, sizes and forms, freezer blocks/bags are a dream on a hot sunny picnic day in the park when your throat craves some cold berries and prosecco. You can even slip them up your shirt for some bodily refreshment.
- Loose leaf tea mesh balls allow you to cut down on teabag disposal (especially fancy teabags that come in plastic mesh ?!), get creative by combining different teas and conjure up some deliciously healthy herbal infusions.
- Swing-top bottles add a lovely rustic feel to any kitchen, especially when filled with all manner of fermented and infused goodies, waiting to be enjoyed when the time is right! Be careful when fermenting that the pressure doesn’t build up too much though, because bacteria and broken glass will get everywhere they shouldn’t be.
Finally, Tupperware containers are a frugal cook’s best friend; avoid buying new plastic ones though because you’ll won’t be helping the future zero-wasteman. Look into nice stainless steel tiffin containers or find some nice quality vintage containers that have stood that test of time! Do some digging online to find some incredible reusable silicone, steel, cotton and glass kitchen instruments that would make a beautiful gift (to yourself). Reusable silicone baking paper sheets have recently gotten me excited. Hopefully we’ll also start seeing some more plastic-free dishwashing soap blocks in the future.
Life Material: Food
Now, after you’ve acquired all of your delicious fresh yums from your local and sustainable produce purveyor, how do you ensure that they survive until you’re ready to eat them?
As well as storing them in the orientation that they grow (they like it that way), here’s how to store your fruits and veggies to avoid food waste:
- Garlic and onions (well ventilated).
- Tomatoes they will stay flavourful (wash just before eating).
- Plums, peaches, pears and mangoes (ripen best in a paper bag and then refrigerate when nice and bitable).
- Pineapple (upside down so sweetness spreads for a day or two and then put in fridge).
- Melons (until ripe, then fridge or cut up and freeze, yum!)
Refrigerator – most things really
- Apples (ooo they’re lovely cold and crisp). Keep them away from other produce (apart from potatoes) as they release ethylene gas which makes things softer and sweeter.
- Asparagus (wrapped in a damp cloth / bottom first in a cup of water to maintain that crunchy freshness).
- Carrots (good forever).
- Grapes, cherries and berries (in bags that retain moisture but that also let gasses escape please).
- Leafy greens (wash and dry really well before storing in water like a flower bouquet). Refresh by soaking in cold water.
- Rhubarb (wrap as best as possible or freeze it).
- Freeze most foods to preserve them at their nutritious and delicious best. Chop them prior, so the sizes are perfect and use in soups, smoothies or simply anything, just throw them in!
- Bananas that are going on the softer and browner side, peel and then chuck them in a Tupperware to smoothie or bake at a later date.
- Freeze any fruit for a colourful smoothie, a delcious cooler for your white wine or something lovely to munch on during a hot day in the sun.
- Fresh herbs that are starting to turn bad, chop up, throw them in olive oil, and freeze for when you need them!
- You’re going to have a bad time if you freeze artichokes, aubergine, chicory, lettuce, potatoes (unless mashed), radishes or sprouts.
The point at which you discard ‘turning’ produce is subjective and changes from person to person. You need to feel safe when you eat, and some bodies seem able to consume anything. I personally don’t throw away food unless there is any scary looking green or white mould. Sometimes, it’s even possible to cut off these bad bacterias – a good rule of thumb to abide by is if the fruit or vegetable is hard (the mould cannot penetrate further) then you can cut off these nasty parts; if it is soft (e.g. berries) then throw it away (because there may be hidden nasties within). Keep your compost container closer to where you’re cooking than the landfill bin.
When produce has gone gone a bit too soft and dark, freeze/use straight away for smoothies, soups, spreads, baking or anything that doesn’t require a tougher texture.
Tip for soup:
Don’t overcomplicate things, know what flavour profile you’re aiming for and then absolutely smash it. Sad apples can be used to make delicious and nutritious apple cider vinegar. Onions and garlic are totally fine to eat sprouted, same goes for potatoes as long as the spud itself isn’t too soft and wrinkly and be sure to throw away those sprouts as that’s where the toxins live. Also don’t eat potato skin if they’re green!
Get creative with food waste.
Parts that are considered waste can often be used to make a yummy addition to your low impact lifestyle:
- When prepping broccoli, peel the tough stalk skin to reveal and tender white inside to chop up and cook to your desire, extra food! It’s also a lovely raw snack when you’re cooking.
- Collect any food scrap that you wouldn’t eat including onion/garlic shells, roots and leaves of leek/spring onions or skin, leaves, odds and ends of any fruit/vegetable. Then freeze to collect a good amount, and simmer in a pot of water for an hour to get a flavourful and healthy stock for many dishes!
- If you peel carrots/potatoes, wash, and use carrot skin to make vegan salmon and potatoes skin to make crisps – the skin is where most nutrition and fiber resides, especially in potatoes. Another idea for potato and carrot skin (along with other edible scraps) is to cook and blend with nutritional yeast flakes, splash of apple cider vinegar, salt and then emulsify with oil to make a healthy vegan cheese sauce!
- Zest citrus skins for fancy additions to dishes, baked goods and drinks (preferably the alcoholic kind).
- Utilize freshly pressed coffee grounds to prepare a revitalising face scrub, or mix in with soil for a fertilizer that your plants will enjoy.
- If you’re looking to give a boost to your plants, leave food scraps out to dry on a windowsill and crumble into soil for another free and easy fertilizer.
Habits form the basis of human actions; so by adopting conscious habits and adjusting wasteful ones, living sustainably will become automatic behaviour for generations to come. It begins with where we buy our food and the choices that we make. Take reusable grocery bags to your local supermarket that has a fresh, unpackaged, and affordable groceries section – a lot comes plastic free and is seasonally imported from the same or surrounding countries!
It is also possible to find huge bags of dried beans and grains here, a low-waste plant-based dream. Also keep a look out for progressive alternative supermarkets as not only do they offer loose, seasonal and organic produce, but within their line of ethical offerings, you can find local, vegan, health and cosmetic products, as well as loose dried products such as pasta, grains and legumes.
What is also becoming a beautiful reality is the ability to collaborate with your neighbours to enable community supported agriculture (CSA, or SoLaWi in Germany). Find your local organisation which buys from regional farmers who provide portion boxes of seasonal food delivered to a nearby collection point – this is one way in which city dwellers can have an incredibly positive localised impact on food production and consumption.
Created and developed habits at home also prove fruitful. When you have an herb (aceous) plant, it’s very easy to make clones from trimmings to have an endless supply of beautiful fresh flavour and garnish.
Before you go on a shopping adventure, check in the deepest darkest corners of your cupboards, fridge and freezer – you’ll be suprised by what you find, you’ll spark ideas for potential dishes and you’ll save time, money and food waste.
When you’re at the shop, be conscious of packaging, but also season and region as they all determine whether a product is sustainable or not.
Shop more frequently for smaller amounts to use produce up before it starts to turn to the dark side; if you are worried something will go bad, chop it up and freeze that! Remember that sell by dates are just a recommendation and that you should use your superhuman senses of sight, smell and taste to determine whether something is appropriate to eat or not.
All in All
In conclusion, it’s beautiful to see that living a zero-waste lifestyle is becoming easier and easier. The globalised world has brought about an inconceiveable amount of unnecessary habits into our lives, drowning our mother earth and forcing us to become complicit actors.
One of the few things that we can thank a globally connected world for is the global fight for change and the distribution of alternative knowledge.
Through handy reuse of easily found items, to ingenious product innovations, ways of consuming positively and new ways of seeing ‘waste’ and how to incorporate it into our quest for stable-state living, we are really starting to fight back against the monster of throw away consumption. Now it’s just a question of how far you want to go – don’t use plastic bags for compost and recycling, just clean the bin once you’re done.
An honourable mention in the reduction of food waste goes to The Real Junk Food Project, a multinational movement to use food that would otherwise be thrown away.
Also, thanks to the huge steps being made by many companies to help us cut unreusable, non-compostable waste out of our lives such as Original Unverpakt in Berlin.
A zero-waste kitchen isn’t yet the norm for the average household due to many reasons such as ease of use and accessibility of wasteful behaviours; low impact and low waste is a realistic target for us to aim for as we take steps to a stable-state economy of consumption. Society is forced to change its ways as a result of pressing environmental decline and collapse; we become the pioneers of sustainablility through food as we do what we can to lead a conscious and delicious life.