5 Steps Toward Going 'Zero Waste' in the Kitchen

Mason jars holding kernels
CC BY 2.0.

Ross Catrow

I’ve written a few times about my ongoing quest for a zero-waste household. While I don’t have much hope of reaching Bea Johnson’s level, whose family produces only one quart of waste annually, I have certainly learned a lot by paying close attention to how much garbage and recycling my household generates on a daily and weekly basis.

One happy discovery I’ve made is that the zero waste movement is much more popular and widespread than I thought. Recently I spoke with Shawn Williamson, who lives with his family just outside of Toronto and runs an environmental sustainability consultation firm called the Baleen Group. He hasn’t taken a bag of garbage out to the curb since August 2011!

While Johnson’s tips from her book, “Zero Waste Home,” vary from easy to somewhat extreme (i.e. pulling silk thread from cloth to substitute for dental floss, planning drives in the car with priority given to right-hand turns), Williamson describes his zero-waste lifestyle as much more practical. He believes it’s most important to focus on the big things that do a lot to divert waste from landfills, i.e. composting, rather than getting caught up in small details like dental floss.

If you’re looking to go zero waste, or at least ‘minimal waste’, the kitchen is a great place to start. Here is a list of the most useful tips I’ve encountered, gathered from my conversation with Williamson, Johnson’s book, and personal experience.

1. Shop with reusable containers

Prevent waste from entering your home, and then you won’t have to deal with it. Refusing packaging also makes a public statement and educates people about zero waste. I shop with glass Mason jars, which are easy to fill, store, and clean.

Take along reusable produce bags for small items that can’t be kept loose. I purchased some organic cotton mesh bags with a drawstring that can be easily laundered. Available online at Life without Plastic (the site has lots of other very cool things for going zero waste).

2. Buy groceries in bulk

This can be interpreted in two ways, both of which are important. “Bulk,” according to Johnson, means bought in reusable containers, since that’s what many alternative bulk stores do. For Williamson, it means literally buying large quantities of food in order to minimize the amount of overall packaging. He shops a few times a year for dry goods from the suppliers of bulk stores, picking up 50lb bags of rice and almond flour. It’s much cheaper that way, saves gas on trips to the store, and you rarely run out.

3. Set up a good backyard compost system

Composting is the best way to deal with organic household waste, since the waste doesn’t need to get shipped anywhere and gets converted to rich soil. In Williamson’s household, the composter diverts 74.7 percent of their waste. He uses a 2-part system, with an earthworm-filled box composter that receives the initial load of food scraps and a tumbler that finishes it off. Within a month of warm weather, he has a fresh load of soil – and that’s in Ontario, with its relatively short gardening season. Meat scraps go in the green box, which is the municipal composting program.

4. Make certain things from scratch to avoid packaging

Some might scoff at the idea of making the following foods from scratch on a regular basis, but I can tell you from experience that once it becomes part of a routine and you become comfortable with the recipes, it can be very quick, and even save time by not having to run out to the grocery store.

Yogurt: Make it in glass jars. It takes a few minutes to mix, then can be left for hours.

Bread: Most bread recipes require about 10 minutes of upfront work, then minimal attention sporadically throughout the day. Some, like no-knead slow-rise bread, can be left completely alone all day long.

Canned fruits and vegetables: These take a lot of work, but it all happens in the summer and fall, as produce reaches its peak. If you can afford to spend a few days canning, you’ll thank yourself months later – not only for saving money, but also for the fabulous fresh taste.

Cereal: Make large batches of granola and store in jars, instead of buying boxes of cereal with cardboard boxes and non-recyclable plastic bags.

5. Ditch the disposables

There’s no need to keep paper towels, paper napkins, garbage liners, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and disposable plates or cups in the kitchen. Though it may seem strange at first, you will always find reusable alternatives when the need arises. I find it’s better just to get rid of those ‘tempting’ items and make do without. It makes for a lot less stuff in the trash can.