How to Feed Your Family While Saving the Planet: Four Easy Steps Toward a Zero Waste Kitchen

image credit: The Spruce Eats

What is zero waste?

Whoa—what’s wrong with recycling?

You know that cute “recycling symbol” on the bottom of plastic thingies? It’s bullshit.

image credit: Acme plastics (yes, that’s a real company)

To put it in a less memorable way: those symbols have nothing to do with recycling. They “were never meant to determine recyclability,” says Diane Bickett, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District. “People have been confused about that since 1988 when they started appearing on the bottom of the packaging.” It’s almost like the plastics industry has purposely misled the public for an entire generation.

This is just one of many reasons that less than ten percent of plastic is successfully recycled—and even that small amount is usually “downcycled,” meaning it’s turned into lower-quality plastic that can’t be recycled again. Ultimately, we won’t be able to recycle our way out of this mess; we’ve got to reduce the amount of stuff we put into the waste stream.

How can we do that? If you’re anything like me, most of your trash and recycling comes out of your kitchen, so let’s start there. Here are four easy ways to work toward a zero-waste kitchen.

1. Reusable produce bags.

Wired: reusable grocery sacks

Inspired: reusable produce bags.

image credit: Lotus Sustainables

Say goodbye to those filmy plastic bags on the giant roll at the grocery store. You never liked them anyway (if only because you always try to open the wrong end first). Buy some produce bags and store them inside your reusable grocery bags. When the produce bags get dirty, just toss them in the wash. This is the kind I use, but there are plenty of good options on the market. In conclusion, death to single-use plastics.

2. Reusable boxes for the butcher

Instead, bring your own container. They’ll tare it on their scale, so you’ll only pay for the weight of the meat.

Snapware is solid and feels really secure, so you don’t have to worry about your pork tenderloin getting out and slithering around your produce like the trash compactor monster in Star Wars, but there are a lot of good options out there. I’m not getting paid for any of these links, so get whatever you want, or better yet, repurpose something you already have.

image credit: kitchen overlord | Um, it’s called a dianoga?

3. Refillable oil bottles

If you don’t have an option like that in your area, consider getting your oil in tins. It’s usually a better value (because it’s a bigger container) and metal tends to be more recyclable than plastic. Just make sure to give it a good rinse before you chuck it in the recycling bin. Food waste can foul a batch of recycling and cause it to be thrown away.

image credit: Bloomize on Pinterest | Aren’t these prettier than plastic bottles?

4. Compost, son.

Wrong. Food scraps that end up in a landfill decompose anaerobically, putting off methane—a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. This is a big problem in America, where food waste comprises roughly 22% of all landfill volume, making it the single largest category of municipal solid waste.

Composting might be the biggest game-changer in your kitchen. Not only will it radically reduce the amount of waste you’re sending to landfills (and the methane it’s creating), it will produce humus, a super-rich material that is great for plants and the earth.

If you’ve got a single DIY bone in your body, you can compost at home. So I’m told anyway. I lack those bones, so I use a service. Earth Mama swings by every couple of weeks to pick up my buckets. If you live outside of Indy, just google “compost service near me” to see your options.

One last word about zero waste. It’s a catchy phrase, but it’s unachievable. There’s no way to eliminate all your waste, not in America. The aim of this article is not to make you feel guilty about ever throwing anything away. Instead, let’s focus on progress. One small step at a time, feeling good about doing better. And if you want to have a bigger impact, share this article or your own experience with your friends. Individual action on climate change is most impactful when it has an effect on other people, who might in turn influence other people, and so on. Little stone, big ripple.

Writer, teacher, editor. #ClimateCurious