A Tour of my Zero Waste Kitchen

How to say goodbye to paper towels, ziploc bags, and the other plastic and single-use items that you didn’t think you could live without.

collage of zero waste kitchen items

 Melissa Breyer

Rejecting the unbridled thrust of plastic into our lives is not for the faint of heart – the material is everywhere and its convenience is a siren song hard to resist. But resist we must. Plastic pollution has become a dire environmental issue, as the manufacturing of disposable plastic products has outpaced our ability to deal with them. “Production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015,” notes National Geographic of plastic. “Production is expected to double by 2050.”

Each year some 8 million tons of plastic finds its way to the oceans. Meanwhile, the largest market for plastics is now packaging, which accounts for almost half of the plastic waste created globally. This is something we should be able to fix; and not just for plastic, but all single-use items.

But how? 

Meet the Zero Waste Movement

“Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (and only in that order) is my method to reducing my family’s annual trash to a jar since 2008,” says Bea Johnson, who is credited with bringing the term “zero waste” from the municipal waste management industry to the domestic realm. While many people have long rejected excessive waste, Johnson’s blog and subsequent 2013 book, "Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying your Life by Reducing your Waste" cemented the concept as a movement. And not a moment too soon.

The idea is pretty self-explanatory: Make zero waste – or as little as possible. (And in this context, waste is considered anything that has to go to the landfill.) But even just reducing one's waste is a great place to start. I was raised in an eco-progressive household and I’ve been working in the sustainability realm for almost two decades so I've had a good head start; at this point I have plenty of tried-and-true zero waste tips and tricks.

And so with that in mind, let's take a virtual stroll through my kitchen.

Breaking up with Paper Towels

In 2017, Americans spent around $5.7 billion on paper towels for use at home, according to data from market-research firm Euromonitor International. Remarkably, the U.S. spends nearly as much on paper towels as every other country in the world combined – elsewhere, people use brooms, mops, and rags. My answer? Swedish dishcloths and tea towels.

Tea towels and swedish dish cloths
Organic cotton tea towels, left, and Swedish dishcloths, right.  Melissa Breyer

Swedish Dishcloths 

Made of plant cellulose, Swedish dishcloths are durable and capable of absorbing up to 20 times their weight in liquid, making them great for cleaning and mopping up spills. (They are also great for windows because they do not leave streaks.) They can be washed around 50 times or more, and can be composted afterward. One cloth can do the work of 17 rolls of paper towels. Paper makes up one quarter of our landfills; the math is simple here. See my whole love letter here: Why Swedish Dishcloths are so Amazing.

Tea Towels

For mopping up spills and drying things, cotton tea towel or a flour sack towel are commendable. We use flour sack towels for napkins, and once they start to get grungy-looking they get moved over to kitchen duty. After that, they go to the rag basket for use in more industrial applications. When they are ready to go to pasture, they go into the compost bin.

Storing Food Without Plastic

Here’s how to avoid Ziploc bags, saran wrap, Tupperware, and assorted plastic food storage situations. These methods do not rely on single-use plastics, and provide alternatives for anyone concerned about the potential health effects of storing food in plastic.

Beeswax Wraps

A number of companies are now making wax-coated cloths that are surprisingly functional. I use ones that are certified organic cotton coated with sustainably sourced beeswax and organic jojoba oil. They can be used to wrap food for storage, cover containers, and wrap sandwiches and snacks for lunchboxes. They perform kind of like saran-wrap-meets-aluminium-foil – they have the cling factor of saran but act more like foil. They last for about a year and can be composted afterward.

Food storage jars and beeswax wraps
Using glass canning jars and beeswax wraps for plastic-free food storage.  Melissa Breyer

Jars

Save old jars and/or invest in a set of canning jars. I love Weck jars because they offer a cylindrical shape that packs nicely in cupboards, the fridge, and the freezer. I use them to store leftovers, freeze food, and as a receptacle for items purchased in large packages or from bulk bins.

Glass Containers

Glass food storage containers can be used to store leftovers in the fridge are great for freezing food too; many brands can go straight from the freezer to the oven.

Reusable Zipper Bags

resusable zipper bag
 Melissa Breyer

There are a few types of food-grade reusable storage bags on the market, generally made from either food-grade PEVA or platinum silicone. The higher quality ones claim to be free of harmful chemicals like Bisphenol A and S (BPA, BPS) lead, phthalates, et cetera. PEVA is polyethylene vinyl acetate, a non-chlorinated vinyl and has become the common substitute for PVC. Silicone is a plastic-like material that is based on silica rather than carbon.

One maker, Stasher, notes that their silicone has passed all U.S. and Canadian food safety standards in addition to the most strict guidelines of all, the European Union food safety standard. These were a gift to me and I use them for wrapped items and mostly non-food items – I am still a little spooked to store food in any kind of plastic because of potential health impacts. But these products are very popular and have prevented zillions of ziploc bags from ending up in the landfill. I would recommend these as a gateway product for weaning yourself off of single-use zipper bags.

Cooking Pot

From the obvious department: If you’ve got the room in the fridge, you can store leftovers in the pot or baking dish the item was cooked in. (Note, check with the pan manufacturer; some pans, like cast iron, shouldn’t be used for this purpose.)

Bowl & Plate

My favorite is the old bowl with a plate on top. 

Dishwashing Without Waste and Plastic

Here we want to avoid the plastic bottles of liquid detergent, but we can’t forget about dishwashing tools too. Sponges and brushes made from plastic can shed microfibers into the wastewater stream (and end up in the ocean) – and the rest ends up in the landfill.

dish soap in a jar and block
 Melissa Breyer

Dish Soap Blocks

Savon de Marseille is a classic French soap made from native olive oils and the alkaline ash from marine plants of the Mediterranean. It’s great for the hands, can be grated for use as laundry soap, and makes for a fabulous dishwashing soap. I got this one in France, but there are other kinds of dish soap blocks that are made more locally and are just as great, like the one made by No Tox Life.

Pure Liquid Castile in a Jar

Pure castile soap is another traditional olive oil soap, this one hailing from the Castile region of Spain. In the U.S., Dr. Bronner’s is the most popular representative of the genre. It’s a bit of a miracle for its efficacy and versatility, all of which you can read more about here: What is castile soap? While it does come in a plastic bottle, you can buy it by the gallon and decant it into a jar to keep by the sink, where it does double duty as hand soap and dish soap. (Also note that you can get canning jars tops with various functions.)

Loofah Sponge / Scrubber

Loofar sponge
 Melissa Breyer

Some sponges are made from sea creatures, some are made from chemically treated cellulose, and some are made from plastic. But if you prefer animal-friendly, all-natural, and plastic-free, there is a fourth and best option: The loofah. In some kind of head-scratching botanical magic trick, these sponges come from long, thin gourds of the cucumber family. These ones come flat and expand when wet; one side is soft for washing and wiping and the other side is harder for scrubbing.

Bristle Dish Brush

Bristle dish brush and pot brush
 Melissa Breyer

Unlike a plastic dish brush, a wood and bristle one will not live into eternity in the landfill once it has retired from cleaning your dishes. Usually made from beechwood and a natural fiber bristle, they last for a long time and best yet, you can get replaceable heads for them.

Pot Brush

The one shown above is made from coir fibers, which come from the outer husk of the coconut. The bristles are really strong and durable, but gentle enough to be used on pots, pans, and sinks – and are biodegradable. 

Swedish Dishcloths

Swedish dishcloths get a gold star as a paper towel substitute, but if you like to wash with a small cloth, these work great for dishwashing too.

Tossing Disposable Party Ware

You do not have to succumb to plastic plates, disposable cups, and paper napkins for parties. 

vintage bread plates
 Melissa Breyer

Secondhand bread plates and more

Here’s an excerpt from an earlier story on zero waste kitchen hacks: “Seventeen years ago I picked up a pile of 20 pretty mix-matched six-inch bread plates (some of which are shown above) for a shower I was hosting. They came from a thrift shop and cost nearly nothing. I have never bought paper party plates again. They have served birthday cake for a combined 31 years of kids' birthday parties, they have taken the place of snack napkins at numerous cocktail parties, they have held an uncountable number of snacks, and they have even been used for ... get this, bread.” In that story, I apply the same logic to party glasses and paper napkins.

Watching out for Plastic Bottles

Once I learned that plastic bottles are absolute death traps for hermit crabs, I pledged to never buy one again. I have done well on my promise, here are some of my workarounds.

Rethink Cleaning Products; Make your Own

Most cleaning products come in plastic bottles and it’s so wasteful. Thankfully there are a few simple ways to bust out of this paradigm. You can buy one gallon of castile soap, as mentioned above, and use it for most cleaning, for everything from the body to the dishes to the laundry to the floor. It’s still a bottle, but it’s one big bottle instead of many smaller ones.

You can also make your own DIY cleaners using ingredients you may already have on hand. My favorite is a soft scrub comprised of baking soda, castile soap, and coarse salt. It is an absolute workhorse and I use it for all my tough kitchen messes, from my stained enamel sink to crud-caked pots and pans.

Drink Filtered Tap Water from Glass Bottles

glas bottle stoppers
Glass wine stoppers allow you to turn any wine bottle into a water bottle.  Melissa Breyer

Tap water is king, if you’re privileged enough to live in a place where it is safe to drink, that is. Tap water that is unhealthy or tastes like an outhouse is no fun to drink; plastic bottles are a disaster, and glass bottles of mineral water are heavy, pricey, and require recycling. Not good.

Even though NYC is famous for its tasty drinking water, mine always leaned toward pond-meets-public-pool – and when I checked the water utility that serves us at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Tap Water Database, I saw why. So. Many. Pollutants. We swiftly got the water filter recommended for the pollutants in my area, and it was basically life-changing. Now we fill old wine bottles with our delicious filtered water and use glass wine stoppers to top them, and keep them in the refrigerator. I cannot recommend this method enough! (You can buy these wine stoppers, but some winemakers actually use them for their bottles. We got ours from bottles of riesling made by Heart and Hands in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

Shopping for Food Thoughtfully

Not bringing plastic and packaging home in the first place is key – but how does one do that when groceries are predominantly wrapped in packaging? I often do a thought experiment wherein I imagine a supermarket and all of its food. I remove the food from its packaging and put both food and packaging in separate piles – in my mind, the packaging pile is way more voluminous than the food pile. Do the same with a farmers market and the opposite is true. So …

Farmers Markets

Farmers markets are not known for excessive packaging; bring your own reusable bags and you are good to go.

Refillable Items

In my neck of the woods there are a lot of businesses where you can buy a container of something and when it's empty, bring it back for refills. I do this with both coffee and tea (shown below) – some places even offer items like laundry powder and dish soap that can be purchased this way.

Jars and tea tins
 Melissa Breyer

Cloth Produce Bags

These guys are great. You can use them for produce and for bulk bin items (should we have bulk bins after the coronavirus). Once you get out food home, you can put pantry items in jars and produce in the fridge.

Shopping Jars

Since I don’t own a car, I walk my groceries home and bringing my own jars to and from the market would be prohibitive, but Katherine Martinko’s account of doing so is enviable. She explains that she shops “with a collection of 1-liter glass canning jars in a big basket. When I approach the deli, meat, or fish counters, I hold out my glass jar and politely ask the employee to put it in the jar. I’ve encountered a few confused looks, but the key is confidence. I don’t ask permission, but rather act as if I’ve been doing this for years.”

Shopping boxes

Katherine also shops with boxes instead of bags. This is a great idea for those who shop by car or bike.

Assessing Packaging in General

There are so many reasons we may select a certain product over another. Traditionally it’s been a matter of familiarity (or novelty), quality, cost, brand and marketing, healthfulness, et cetera. But I consider packaging as one of the main deciding factors, comparable to ingredients. Individually wrapped, single-serve items are a non-starter, despite their lunchbox convenience. Beautiful lettuces look pristine in their clamshell boxes, but all that plastic is a dealbreaker. Once you start shopping with a zero waste mindset, you really start to see how much waste there is! And then it becomes hard to turn back...