7 Tips for a Zero-Waste Kitchen

Updated 01/05/18

my refrigerator

I love my (nearly) zero-waste kitchen routine. I eat a delicious, healthy diet and have simplified my shopping habits. But it did take me a couple of years to (nearly) perfect this routine and I may never achieve complete zero-waste. (Remember calculus class? You merely approach zero.)

When I shop at the bulk store, for example, I still indirectly generate a small amount of waste. The food arrives at the store in paper or (gulp) plastic packaging after all. Also, I refuse to give up butter and the paper does go in the trash. So, until I buy a farm and produce all my food myself, I will create some waste somewhere. Then again, if I live on a farm outside the city, I’ll have to drive everywhere and burn more fossil fuels…So, I suppose as a precursor to these tips, I should add—above all—don’t strive for perfection. That and cook everything yourself. “Cook everything yourself” is my number one rule of life.

1. Shop with reusable containers and bags

Before I go shopping, I figure out what I need and accordingly organize my:

  • Glass jars for bulk items like flour, seeds, nuts, spices, tea, honey, coconut oil and so on
  • Metal containers, such as Lunchbots or tiffins for meat and fish (Life Without Plastic sells all sorts of them)
  • Cloth shopping bags and homemade cloth produce bags for produce and bulk foods like pasta or cat food

Different stores deal with containers in different ways. Some set scales out in the bulk section for you to weigh the empty containers and mark the tares on them. You don’t want to pay for the weight of a heavy glass jar when you buy bulk tea at $39 a pound (I know). At other stores, customer service will weigh the jars for you. At yet other stores, your request will completely baffle the staff.

Gathering my jar-, container- and bag-filled bags adds a few minutes to my routine but it also saves time in the long run. I have nothing to throw out after we eat everything, which saves me a trip to the curb. Plus, food in glass just looks nice.

jars cropped 2

2. Hit the bulk aisle

I live close to three stores with decent bulk sections, which makes zero-waste shopping easy. I’ve heard from a few people in the UK that bulk bins aren’t very common there. If you can’t buy from bulk bins, and need lots of, say, flour, buying large amounts of it reduces your packaging to product ratio. Maybe you can share with a neighbor who digs the zero-waste idea.

3. Buy fewer ingredients

I buy lots of baking soda. I use it for baking, washing pots and pans, cleaning, washing my hair and making deodorant. I make several dairy staples from milk plus one other ingredient. If you run out of something, you may find a fix in your kitchen cupboards. For example, you can make baking powder out of cream of tartar (4 parts) and baking soda (1 part). Before I cultured buttermilk, I often “made” it with milk and fresh lemon juice (1 scant cup milk plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice). If you want to go zero-waste, buy less stuff.

4. Think twice before you buy another gadget

My kids think I’m strange because, for one, I refuse to own a microwave. I don’t have room for a bunch of appliances in my kitchen. And I probably don’t need what I don’t already have. Besides, there’s always Google. My daughter MK last year bought a cherry pitter that looked like it would break in about 2 minutes. While she returned it to the store, I found instructions online for a DIY cherry pitter that works like magic!

3 Cherry pitter

5. Ditch the disposables

My mom wonders how I run a kitchen without paper towels or plastic wrap. Having had two kids, I have enough too-small cotton t-shirts to make rags that will last me the rest of my life. As for plastic wrap, plates on bowls work. I also have a few Abeego Wraps, beeswax coated cloths that cling to dishes. (In the fridge pic at the very top, you’ll see one on the middle shelf, to the right). I sewed napkins on my serger about six or seven years ago and we still use them. I take a mug with me every time I go work at my favorite cafe, Philz.

6. Recycle as a last resort

When plastics are recycled, they are actually downcycled—meaning even when reincarnated as toothbrushes, shopping bags or more plastic bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill eventually, unlike glass or metal, which can be recycled over and over without any degradation in quality.

You may have heard of America Recycles Day, a day designated to encourage us to put plastic water bottles into the recycling bin. Who dreamed it up? Industry. You can check out the sponsors here. One, the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, keeps attempting to convince me in my Twitter feed that BPA is wonderful (it’s not). So Big Soda makes a big mess and encourages us to clean it up, which doesn’t actually work. Better to cut off the trash at its source and refuse all this plastic junk.

7. Compost differs from waste

For me, zero waste means zero trash and zero recycling (because you buy so little in packaging). I exempt compost from the category of waste. That doesn’t mean I buy more food than I can eat or throw edible food on the compost heap. In fact, even my vegetable scraps don’t make it to the heap until after I’ve made broth out of them. Occasionally I find the odd furry lemon or a puddle of what-had-been-parsley in the back of the fridge. The good news is that compost can save the world! It sucks carbon out of the air and not only that, a half-inch layer of this black gold can still increase yields six years after its application, as Michael Pollan explains in this wonderful video. The video lasts about half an hour, but is well worth the time.compost

181 Replies to “7 Tips for a Zero-Waste Kitchen”

  1. You remind me h0w much better I can d0! Great piece.

    1. Thanks for that Annie and for sharing on Facebook 🙂 It’s always a work in progress. I need to work on my water consumption next.

  2. First of all–and once again!–I look at your kitchen and see stuff I use, too! Like, I’ve got that same brand of eggs sitting in my fridge–small world (of Whole Foods shoppers?) 😉 Thanks for all these practical tips!!! I’ve never heard of Abeego but I’m going to check them out. We haven’t used plastic wrap since I read Mark Schapiro’s “Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products” and threw out a whole bunch of plastics. And I hear you on the whole compost thing. (As you know!) I think a little nod to Ben F. is in order here: “Waste Not…Want Not”. But you knew that, right? 🙂 !

    1. Yes that carton is from Whole Foods. The farmer’s market didn’t have any eggs and these are truly free-range apparently. Beginning next week, I’ll get my eggs from a farm that my community now owns! Delivered directly to the community kitchen where I’ll pick them up! And I know those chickens are happy and treated well. Abeego Wraps work really well. It’s a Canadian company and I think it’s trying to expand to the US market. I have some beeswax to make my own but it sounds messy, so that has fallen near the bottom of my to-do list. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ve added it to my wish list. We’re such guinea pigs with all of the chemicals we’re exposed to. Speaking of Ben F, I want to read the Walter Isaacson biography of him. Supposed to be good.

      1. And don’t feel bad about the store-bought eggs–we’ve got five ducks in the backyard and I *still* have to buy at Whole Foods! 🙂

      2. Lol. I DO feel bad! But I think those hens are treated well and that’s what I worry about most. Oh but the egg lady at the market will take the empty carton when I’m finished with these, so zero-waste 🙂

      3. Thanks for this inspirational post. Although our egg farmer at the farmers market will take the cartons from us, he says he’s just going to throw them out due to health codes that require him to do so. Kinda makes sense- the cardboard only seems sanitary when its fresh and full of non-compromised eggs. I wouldn’t want to inherit a carton where an egg had broken and seeped into the cardboard . So now our cartons go into the recycling bin.

      4. Thanks for the comment 🙂 So one of the vendors at my farmer’s market won’t take back the cartons and she said the same thing as your farmer—health codes. Another farmer does take them back. I know she reuses these because each time she hands me a carton of eggs, it’s in a random branded carton with her company sticker slapped onto the top. I don’t know if she’s breaking any rules or not. I hope not. I was surprised that she takes them.

  3. Oh good, you answered a question I’ve been meaning to ask you – is compost waste?! Would you consider feeding kitchen scraps to domestic animals (goats, sheep) the same way?

    1. Oh, I think it’s fabulous to feed goats compost. My daughter worked at a goat dairy in high school and she said the goats loved to eat vegetable and fruit peels. That helps create a closed system. I don’t consider compost waste unless you buy too much food and let it rot before you eat it and so you compost it. I think the five or six or seven Rs are refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, rot and rethink.

      1. I dream of feeding my own goats my veggie scraps one day, but until then the neighbor’s goats enjoy the yummies! Good point about the food not being wasted unless we’ve bought too much and it rots. I like your list of Rs! 🙂

      2. Lucky goats and neighbor 🙂 I can’t take credit for the Rs. I have read them or something like them in other blogs. But I agree, it’s a good list to go by, with an emphasis on refusing/reducing.

  4. Hey Annemarie – a great post, thanks for that! Nice having many good tips assembled in one place. Cheers – Tobi

    1. Thanks so much Tobi. I’m glad you found it useful 🙂

  5. Ah, the beauty of food in unlabelled glass jars… I’m trying to reduce kitchen waste, unfortunately I haven’t actually managed to find a bulk bin here. It is easy to stop using plastic wrap, but I have to say I am curious about the Abeego. Great post!

    1. Thank you! I agree, food looks so appetizing in glass. I basically covet jars. With the big splash that unpackaged store in Berlin made on social media recently, I predict we’ll see more stores like it, hopefully one where you live 🙂 I have three Abeego Wraps in different sizes and they work well. The beeswax on the cloth clings to containers or to the wrap itself. You can make them also. One day I’ll try… Thanks for checking out my post!

  6. Thank you for sharing. In the past year, we’ve been able to considerably reduce the amount of waste we produce but we are nowhere near to where we want to be, which is zero waste. These tips are very helpful and inspirational!

    1. I’m glad you find them useful. I feel zero-waste is a work in progress, kind of like the laundry—you soon have more to do. I’ve got the kitchen down, but I can always improve. For one, I need to reduce my water consumption. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  7. I have to ask about the note that is visible, but not legible, at the back of your top refrigerator shelf….

    1. Heehee. You’re very observant. My daughter put that in there two or three years ago. It says “Don’t put tomatoes in the fridge!” 🙂

  8. Love these practical and doable tips! Thanks!

    1. Thank you. I like practical and doable 🙂

  9. Thanks for this. Something I’ve been edging toward myself, however your fridge looks far less cluttered than mine! Thanks for sharing.

    1. A couple of people had asked me what the inside of my fridge looked like so I thought I would post a pic. Thank you for checking it out 🙂

  10. Some fantastic tips, your freezer is you best friend also to cut down on waste.

    1. Thank you. Yes, the freezer sure comes in handy. I keep vegetable scraps and bones in there until I have accumulated enough for veggie or chicken broth. In the summer I had lots of cherries from the spring and in the fall I had jars and jars of roasted tomatoes. I just used up the last jar of those yesterday. Thanks for pointing that out.

  11. Reblogged this on Mommy Emu and commented:
    Looking for ways to zero the waste in your kitchen? Zero waste chief has some fantastic ideas.

    1. Thank you so much for the reblog! I really appreciate it.

  12. Great post !
    I love your photographs of jars and your clever cherry pitter.

    1. Thank you so much 🙂 That cherry pitter convinced me that I can make most of the things I need/want.

      1. and it is a work of art !

  13. You are so inspirational. I dont know if I’ll ever reach your level, but your posts keep me thinking and striving.

  14. Reblogged this on Hamptons Brine and commented:
    Great read!

    1. Thank you for the reblog!

  15. […] had begun this blog entry before reading this post by Zero Waste Chef, which provides 7 wonderful tips for how to eliminate waste in your kitchen. […]

  16. Hi! Happy New Year! It’s encouraging to know that it took you a wee while to get where you are with zero waste. We are probably 80% there.

    1. Happy new year to you too! It definitely took a while to get my routine down and I’m not perfect. I think all the fermenting really took me to the next level. Sounds like you’re doing a great job. Isn’t it great how we minimalist types have found each other online? I wouldn’t have known where to start otherwise.

      1. Yes agree! I plan to book into one of your webinars soon – just have to make sure I get the time right. I’m wanting to do the fermented vegetables in March.

      2. Oh great! It would be VERY early the next day for you, I think (right?). I look forward to meeting you in a video chat!

  17. Great work Annemarie – an achievement in creative problem solving. I agree we don’t need to go zero waste, just minimise as much as possible – If everyone reduced their waste by 90% what a difference that would make!

    1. Thank you, Veronique. Ninety percent would be wonderful and I think that’s easier to achieve than most people realize. Most of our trash had come from food packaging, so cutting out the processed stuff makes a huge difference.

  18. Your kitchen looks pretty much like mine, although I have far less ferments in the fridge! I don’t have a microwave either, don’t trust them ; ) My main kitchen waste these days is jar lids…we buy milk in returnable bottles but get stuck with the lids…

    1. Offline, people have scoffed at my disdain for microwaves and TVs but online I feel like a normal person 🙂 I don’t like the whole microwave lifestyle—fast, convenient but of questionable quality. The only “food” you cook it it is packaged, processed junk. I have a similar problem with milk. One of the vendors wants the glass bottles back with the lids on but I think that’s just to protect the opening of the bottle from chipping. I hope they reuse the lids but I doubt they do. I need a cow or goat…

      1. I know exactly what you mean! I have friends who live a similar lifestyle to me, and sometimes I forget that I am in the minority. I forget that people watch TV and buy too much stuff and use disposable everything all of the time! Then I’ll go somewhere new and see it and my heart sinks…

        I wish I had enough space or chickens! A first floor balcony made of concrete isn’t going to cut it! I went to a chicken-keeping workshop last week though – might as well start learning for when the times comes : )

      2. I know. It comes as a shock to go back out into “normal” society. I went with my daughter to a potluck at one of her after-school activities and I couldn’t believe the food I saw there—all processed, sugary crap swathed in plastic packaging, and this was in an affluent area, hardly a food desert where people have no choice.

        I want chickens too. Good idea to learn all you can now. Can you have them in your new place later in the year?

      3. Not sure. Official council rules say no, but I know plenty of people in the suburb who have them. Thing is, the grounds are communal for the 7 properties and there is only one patch of lawn, so I’d need to get the other people to agree. And only 2 out of 7 have been sold! Fingers crossed…

      4. I hope you can get the other 5 to agree. Maybe you can tell them you’ll make them an omelette once a year :p

      5. The only thing that might hold them back is that the only available space is very close to the other two buildings (not mine). I don’t really know about smells and pests and things…guess I’ll have to get some advice…

      6. Well, good luck. I hope it works out.

      7. I’ve commented before about microwaves…I’m not convinced they are necessary but it’s also not necessarily true that they’re only useful for processed junk. Mine saves my family’s nutrition: I make my own prepared meals which are quick to reheat in there (and don’t dry out); vegetables steam beautifully with far less water or power than doing it on the stove; the one at work lets me have a hot lunch easily (straight from the freezer to my bag then a zap when I’m ready to eat); I can bake apples in just a few minutes (again, saving power); I can defrost or partially defrost when I’ve failed to be organized…I know I can do that in a bowl of hot water but the microwave makes far quicker work of, say, a jar of stock — and again, uses no water. Melts butter or chocolate like a charm, infuses oil in 30 seconds without an extra pot I have to wash (there’s that water again…). Plus it’s the perfect cat-proof spot for stashing defrosting meat or proofing bread.

        In my kitchen anyway the microwave earns its shelf space. I live in a big city on a small river in a semi-arid climate, and I pay about as much for wind power as I’m willing to. If using technology thoughtfully to save water and power and time is a “microwave lifestyle” bring it on!

  19. Thanks for the tips! I’m trying to turn my entire house zero waste and with such great words of encouragement from my own mother (‘Its too hard to get rid of waste.’) I’ll need a person with tips like you!

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you find them helpful. I’ve run into some skeptics but when they see the results and what’s possible, they often become intrigued and make changes. That’s not to say that everyone I know has adopted all of these tips, but some of my friends and coworkers now buy milk in returnable bottles, make sauerkraut, pack school lunches in reusable containers or use cloth produce bags at the store. A woman I work with threw a zero-to-landfill birthday party for her five year old! She said it took just a bit of extra planning. So, you may win your mother over 🙂

  20. I suppose storing some dried/non fridge food in clean empty yogurt plastic containers, is a no-no?