A year ago, I started reading about Zero-Waste bloggers that can fit their year’s worth of trash in a tiny jar. Clicking through the pages of Zero Waste Home, Trash is for Tossers, Going Zero Waste, and many more, I wished I could be like them. The idea to create such little waste seems liberating! Six months ago, I tried to go cold-turkey on waste, but it was an epic fail. Turns out, living no-waste in our modern world is really hard. So I got disheartened, and continued on my wasteful way.
Then, New Year’s came, and with it, a time for resolutions. What if, similar to a severe smoking addict, I could quit waste gradually? But where to start? The place where I create the most waste is my kitchen, and the worst of waste is the plastic. Around 269,000 tons of plastic have landed in the ocean, as under 14% of plastic packaging ends up being recycled. I refuse to continue to contribute to that Texas sized swirling vortex of plastic waste anymore, so I decided to make a strategic zero plastic waste action plan and carefully execute. I call it my 2017 Plastic Free Kitchen Challenge. Here’s what I learned.
Plastic Bags and Produce
The first step was to get rid of plastic bags while grocery shopping. I usually bring my own bags/totes to carry my groceries in, but I use a bunch of the plastic produce bags. So on Sunday, January 1, 2017, I headed to Whole Foods with a hodgepodge of random gym bags, promo bags, and old pillowcases that I had laying around the house. Since my mix of bags wasn’t transparent, checking out was a little painstaking, but the cashier was very patient, and told me about reusable mesh bags, which I instantly purchased. Almost everything you can find in the grocery store aisles – dried beans, pasta, nuts, grains, etc – can be found in the bulk bins. And – bonus! – they can be less expensive or the same price the items that are pre-packed in plastic. Using reusable shopping bags and mesh bags went a long way toward reducing my individual plastic waste footprint. I mean, if you think about it, we each probably use over 1,000 plastic bags per year, easily (YIKES). This was a really simple, low effort way toward my zero-waste plan.
I never drink milk, but I’m half-Greek, half-Italian, and I inhale Greek yogurt and Parmesan cheese. To my dismay, it was proving to be impossible to find either that wasn’t packaged in plastic. In this moment I feared I would crumble. Then, I went to the local Farmer’s Market, and found Parmesan-like local cheese—they chopped me a piece and wrapped it in paper. And at my corner deli, I found a glass-packaged Greek yogurt by New York State’s Nounos Creamery.
I’m not the biggest carnivore, but I do enjoy a meat based dish about two times a week. I used to buy my meats and seafood in the pre-packaged section of Whole Foods, but this time I opted to get it all from the deli, which wraps the meat in wax paper rather than a plastic tray. My deli is a bit pricier, so to keep costs low, I start by seeing what’s on sale and build a meal around it. Local butchers also often wrap their meats in paper and have the added bonus of knowing where their meat is coming from, and often being more locally/regionally sourced.
Cleaning and Storage
For kitchen cleaning and storage, the switches are surprisingly simple: Instead of Saran Wrap, Bee’s Wrap is a reusable cloth made from beeswax and tree resin. For dishes, a compostable dish brush and DIY dish soap gets the job done. I don’t have a dishwasher, but when I go visit my mom and de-plasticize her kitchen, I’ll be trying out powdered dish detergent from a paper box. For cleaning countertops, I’ve long since used vinegar, which you can buy in glass bottles.
France recently banned disposable plasticware. By 2020, all disposable tableware will need to be made from compostable tableware. Considering Americans use around 100 million plastic utensils daily, we should probably get on board. Though compostable single-use packaging is a step in the right direction, kicking the habit of single use packaging is the goal.
As most convenience food comes in plastic, I cooked almost all my meals this month. Cooking meals like vegetable heavy soups, quinoa veggie salads, and pasta in bulk helped to have food ready to heat up and eat on standby in the fridge. When I needed a snack, I ate fruit or nuts that I got in the bulk bins. And when I didn’t feel like cooking and I needed a meal-on-the-go, I would eat at restaurants like SweetGreen and Dig-inn who use compostable disposables, so I ate there around once a week.
You’d think that with all this fancy cheese and boutique yogurt, my wallet would be feeling a lot lighter. But surprisingly, that’s not the case! As I mentioned, buying items in bulk is often either the same price or less expensive as the prepacked food we’ve all become so accustomed to. Plus, because I am cooking rather than doing take out, that I’m spending around $4 per meal rather than $12.
Snowstorms and Socializing
Confession: A snow storm hit NYC in January, and I binged on TV and take-out. Also, when socializing at friends’ houses or at bars, I ate plastic-packaged foods and drank from plastic straws. Skipping the straw is another easy way to reduce plastic waste that has a significant impact, but servers at bars and restaurants often give it to you automatically, so I will start asking waiters to “hold the straw.”
All in all, reducing the amount of plastic packaging on the home front really wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be! Actually, it makes things simpler. It also made me lighter, and not just spiritually, but also physically: because I’m mainly cooking with fresh produce and avoiding processed foods, I’ve lost three pounds!! (Maybe a plastic-free diet could be the next weight loss fad?)
Going kitchen plastic free got me so amped, now I am ready to tackle the next challenge: A food waste free kitchen – Stay tuned!