If you do nothing else to reduce your waste or if you want to start on the zero-waste, plastic-free path and don’t know where to start, consider cutting store-bought bottled beverages. The gazillion plastic bottles these drinks leave behind create an environmental mess that Big Soda expects us—the consumer—to clean up for them. In addition, because liquids weigh so much, shipping bottled drinks requires a huge amount of fossil fuels. And the plastic itself is made from oil.
All these resources go into getting exactly what to market? Usually water or sugar-water. Maybe some food dye. A pinch of aspartame. A dash of caramel color (a possible carcinogen). And we’re afraid of what’s in tap water? With less expensive—and tastier—alternatives, why spend our hard-earned cash on this stuff?
1. Tap water
Americans buy half a billion bottles of water every week. Making tap water your drink of choice greatly simplifies your life. You buy nothing. You dispose of nothing. You no longer support corporations like Nestlé, which has been pumping California dry. During a drought.
If you like the convenience of bottled water, I promise you will not find the switch to carrying a reusable water bottle painful. Soon, you won’t leave home without your water bottle, just as you wouldn’t leave without your keys. Klean Kanteen sent me the insulated bottle pictured below (no strings attached—I received no compensation for this post). They also included the bamboo and steel top I asked for (yay, no plastic!). I’ll drink my tea and water out of this every day.
Around the bottom of this Klean Kanteen, notice the halo it has earned for keeping plastic out of landfill😉
2. Filtered tap water
Here in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency frequently and regularly tests tap water. The bottled water industry, regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as food, merely requires beverage companies to do their own testing. Feel reassured?
So maybe I have convinced you to drink tap water but you would prefer to filter it. In the community kitchen where I live, I can get filtered water so I usually drink that but not always. If you want a plastic-free alternative to Brita filters, you might like these naked hunks of charcoal which remove chlorine, lead, mercury, cadmium and copper (bad minerals) and impart calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphates (good minerals). They have no plastic casing; you simply plunk the charcoal in a water pitcher or water bottle. I haven’t tried one but they sound great.
If you insist on buying bottled water despite my attempts to persuade you not to, please watch “The Story of Bottled Water” video below, from The Story of Stuff. That should do the trick.
A cup of tea soothes so many ills—a broken heart, a bad cold, and yes, even waste if brewed with care.
The tea: I buy bulk loose-leaf tea in glass jars I bring to the grocery store. Just make sure you mark the tares (the weights) of the jars before the cashier rings you up. You don’t want to pay for the weight of the jar when buying $40 per pound tea.
The teapot: I have a small teapot with a metal sieve inside, into which I drop a spoonful of loose-leaf tea. I have been using this regularly for about 10 years. Let’s say I have one cup of tea a day. My little teapot has reduced my waste by about 365 x 10 = 3,650 tea bags and their wrappings.
The water: I fill my teapot with tap water or filtered tap water (you may notice a theme here).
Tea, glorious tea!
4. Iced tea
To make iced tea, you can either brew tea as usual and then plunk ice into it to cool it down or you can simply brew it cold in the first place. Cold brew does require more time to but it uses less energy. You do have to put it in the refrigerator (which consumes energy) but you probably own a running fridge anyway… This Bon Appétit primer explains how to easily make cold brew iced tea.
5. Hot chocolate
Simply because you’ve gone zero-waste and plastic-free doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself chocolate. I can buy bulk chocolate chips in many shapes, sizes and varieties (bittersweet, semi-sweet, white, etc.) and also bulk cocoa. I use bulk cocoa, sugar, water and a pinch of salt to make homemade chocolate syrup, which you can then add to milk and heat up for quick hot chocolate.
This fermented sweetened tea, currently undergoing a renaissance like so many other fermented foods, is very popular, very expensive and very easy to make. If you can brew tea, you can brew kombucha (here’s how you do it). The only trick to brewing kombucha is finding a good SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) to ferment your tea. Look on Craigslist for someone trying to unload theirs. They will be so happy to give you some. SCOBYs reproduce prolifically and will overrun your kitchen if you don’t occasionally get rid of some. I hereby update the cliché “breeds like rabbits” to “breeds like SCOBYs.” It could catch on…
Ginger kombucha (left) and peach kombucha with crushed red pepper flakes (right)
7. Water kefir
I haven’t made water kefir but my older daughter buys outrageously expensive coconut water kefir occasionally and loves it. I have several starters going already and can’t take care of any more. They are like pets. If I don’t feed them, they will die. If you need grains to get started, again, look on Craigslist for someone trying to unload their grains.
8. Ginger beer
Want something fizzy and delicious? Make ginger beer, my absolutely favorite fermented drink (don’t tell Etheldreda, my kombucha SCOBY). You need three ingredients to make fantastic ginger beer: organic ginger, sugar and water. The ginger must be organic. The naturally occurring bacteria and yeasts present on ginger will die during the irradiation process that non-organic ginger sometimes undergoes. These bacteria and yeasts ferment your ginger beer.
My ex has been addicted to soda for over two decades. I sometimes give him ginger beer to take home when he picks up our daughter Charlotte. He now says soda tastes awful. This officially makes my ginger beer a miracle cure for soda addition. Call the Vatican.
My boyfriend’s delicious cold brew ginger beer
9. Beet kvass
Looking for something a little savory? Beet kvass, like everything in this list, is easy to make, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. My neighbor told me she pays around $7 for a small bottle of this at Whole Foods! When I cook beets in my pressure cooker (it takes all of five minutes—I am in love with my pressure cooker), I peel them first and then use the peels to make a small amount of beet kvass. YOU DON’T EVEN NEED TO USE THE ENTIRE BEET! This is about as frugal as it gets.
Looking for something a little alcoholic? If you let your ginger beer ferment for a while, it will become alcoholic. I recently made cold brew ginger beer. It didn’t taste nearly gingery enough for me but it certainly contained some alcohol, so it wasn’t a complete failure, depending on one’s perspective. I’ll continue to tweak the cold brew process for that. You can also make mead, a delicious alcoholic drink made from only raw honey and water. Or you can ferment tomatoes for a delicious Bloody Mary.
Mead ready to imbibe (left); mead on day 1 of brewing (right)