17 Simple Tips to Clean Your Kitchen, Plastic-Free

When we first went plastic-free, cleaning presented a big challenge. How would we wash our dishes without plastic bottles filled with dish soap (not to mention filled with microbeads)? Sponges, made of plastic, come wrapped in yet more plastic. And how would we dispose of wet, stinky garbage? We found pretty simple solutions for all of these dilemmas—and for many others.

Choose your equipment

cleaning gear
Clockwise from top left: rags, cellulose sponges, natural bristle bottle brushes and a homemade dishcloth

1. Kitchen sponges

When plastic sponges begin to fall apart, little bits of them go down the drain. I use cellulose sponges that I buy loose at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco. When they break down, I compost them.

2. Homemade dishcloths

I knit these out of natural fibers a couple of years ago so their vivid colors have faded but they still work well. Of course, you can just buy dishcloths but I do enjoy making stuff. Knit dishcloths make a great project for children or adults learning to knit. The texture of the checkerboard pattern scrubs more effectively than a smooth stockinette pattern. If enough people want the pattern for this, I can write a future post on it. 

3. Loofah sponges

My daughter bought loofah scrubbers similar to these a couple of years ago and they worked like magic at scrubbing dishes. I would love to grow my own loofah but I have such a shady yard and loofah requires full sun. Find instructions on growing your own here.

4. Natural bristle brushes

If you have reduced plastic in your kitchen already, then you may have developed a glass jar addiction similar to mine. Because I have no dishwasher, I use natural bristle bottle brushes to clean my bottles and narrow-neck jars.

large bottle brush

5. Rags

My mother—who, at 83, grew up without paper towels—wonders how I live without them. Let me preface the following rant with the admission that my research into paper towel manufacture comes from the saw mill and paper mill passages of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? However, I think I can safely claim that just some of the steps in the life-cycle of a paper towel include:

  • Chop down trees
  • Transport logs to the saw mill
  • Harvest scrap lumber from logs cut into rough boards
  • Transport scrap lumber to the paper mill
  • Run scrap lumber through the chipper
  • Add a bunch of water and chemicals to the wood chips to make wood pulp
  • Run the pulp across a bunch of screens to form paper towels
  • Bundle the long sheets into rolls of paper towels
  • Shrink wrap the rolls of paper towels in plastic
  • Transport the paper towels to the warehouse
  • Transport the paper towels to the store
  • Drive to the store to buy paper towels
  • Unwrap the plastic and throw it out or into the recycling bin because you’re in denial that that kind of flimsy plastic can actually be recycled
  • Use the paper towel once
  • Toss the soiled paper towel into the garbage
  • Argue with your partner or kids about who should take out the garbage
  • Lug your garbage to the curb because you lost
  • Repeat until the last tree falls

Rather than wipe up messes with paper towels, I use my lifetime supply of cotton rags I cut out of my kids’ old t-shirts. Yes some nasty manufacturing processes went into the production of said t-shirts but I will use these rags for years.

6. Dish gloves

I have given up on using dish gloves because I find they always spring leaks too soon. And I’m actually rather proud of my somewhat rough hands—I have worked hard to get them. If you want to protect your hands, we have tried this brand of plastic-free, 100 percent latex gloves. The website says they are home compostable.

Life Without Plastic carries many of these plastic-free cleaning tools and others I haven’t listed above.

Opt for more natural cleaners

7. Vinegar or vodka diluted with water

My daughter likes to combine one part vodka to one part water to clean counters, tables and appliances. I also use diluted homemade scrap vinegar to clean. Use a one-to-one ratio for that also, depending on what you need to clean.

scrap vinegar brewing
Scrap vinegar made of apple peels and cores, brewing away

8. Baking soda

I use baking soda to wash pots and pans and to scour my sink. It cuts through grease much better than dish soap and rinses off more easily. You can also use it in combination with vinegar to create an effective paste cleaner.

baking soda pot

sink before after
Before on the left, after on the right

9. Homemade dish soap

My kids dislike my homemade dish soap. Accustomed to the super soapy dyed and scented commercial stuff—I didn’t go plastic-free until they were 10 and 16—they claim my homemade stuff doesn’t suds up. As evidence that my homemade soap does indeed create some lather, I submit the photo below. You can find the recipe for homemade dish soap here.

homemade soap

10. Bulk dish soap

Sometimes, however, you must make compromises. Yes, when you buy dish soap in bulk, you do contribute to the plastic problem as the giant bulk container you drew your dish soap from will eventually hit landfill. But by buying bulk dish soap rather than all those small plastic bottles of the stuff, you do reduce your plastic footprint overall.

11. Dishblocks

These things are awesome. They can be expensive but I find the very large ones last for six months or longer (depending on how many dishes you do), especially if you use a well-draining soap dish. These work well with loofahs, which you can compost once spent.

Loofah and dish block on a homemade rubber-band hammock/soap dish

12. Homemade dishwasher detergent

I don’t have a dishwasher, so I cannot vouch for the efficacy of these recipes but they look good. This one contains controversial borax. This one does not.

13. Lemon and salt for copper pots

Copper shines beautifully, cooks wonderfully but tarnishes quickly. To clean my copper pot, I sprinkle the outside with salt and then rub it with half a lemon. It removes tarnish almost instantaneously. Rinse the copper very well after cleaning to avoid corrosion.

copper pot

Look for alternatives before buying consumer products packaged in–or made of—plastic

14. Window cleaner

Use a rag to clean your windows with vinegar and water and dry with crumpled newspaper. Works better than Windex and you won’t inhale nasty chemicals while you clean.

15. Garbage disposal freshener

You can shell out your hard-earned cash for plastic-wrapped garbage disposal cleaning pods filled with God-knows-what or you can simply toss a couple of lemon quarters in the garbage disposal and run it.

16. Air freshener

Like many soft plastics, most commercial air fresheners contain phthalates, “hazardous chemicals known to cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems.” The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 86 percent of the common commercial air fresheners it tested contain phthalates. I find that a slow cooker filled with water and a few tablespoons of baking soda works well to freshen the air. A few drops of essential oil in a spray bottle filled with water also does the trick. You can burn incense too. Or open a window…

17. Garbage bags

Certain people I live with demand a trash can in the bathroom. I can control my family only so much (okay, very little), as I mention in the post “7 Tactics to Counter Zero-Waste Sabotage in Your Home.” But rather than lining the bathroom trash can with a plastic bag, I line it with the tissue paper wrapping from our toilet paper rolls. Newspaper also works. If you compost, you can pretty easily keep your kitchen garbage dry and thus eliminate the need for a plastic trash bag. 


Bonus tip: Don’t be so picky about cleanliness

I’m not advocating for filth here. However, our war on bacteria has contributed to the mass extinction that our gut microbiota now face. “So what?” you may say, “Germs must die.” Well, it turns out that your gut plays a huge roll in your health, your weight, even your mood. You can find out why in The Good Gut. (Read my review of the book here.)

Many household cleaners like bleach kill not only bad bacteria but good bacteria as well. As a result, our guts come into contact with fewer good microbes. The authors of The Good Gut, pioneers into research on the microbiome, advise us to clean our homes with less toxic ingredients, such as vinegar, castile soap and lemon juice.

Accolades for my cookbook, The Zero-Waste Chef: Plant-Forward Recipes and Tips for a Sustainable Kitchen and Planet:

You can check out the book here.

US Cover

43 Replies to “17 Simple Tips to Clean Your Kitchen, Plastic-Free”

  1. I have a friend who has lived “dry” for many years here in Alaska. Without running water, he uses paper towels like they’re an infinite resource. Until I met him, I thought very little about how my easy access to laundry facilities enables my low-waste cleaning habits. Now it’s become serious food for thought as I consider future plans that may include living without running water.

    1. Wow, no running water is hardcore. That would be tough. Are you planning for drought or for living without running water, off the grid somewhere? We’re still in a severe drought here in California and I conserve water but luckily we do have running water (for now anyway…).

      1. A lot of villages and even some parts of Fairbanks don’t have running water. Plumbing is more trouble than it’s worth in subzero temperatures. This year I’m lucky enough to live in a building with water, but that may not be the case in the future.

      2. That makes sense. Even when I lived in Toronto, our pipes froze occasionally. I’m glad you have running water for the time.

  2. Aren’t home made dishcloths and natural brushes just lovely? Everyone who has visited and seen my dishcloths has asked me to knit them one. Thank you for your dishwashing liquid recipe, I’ll look forward to trying it. I make a scouring cream with bi carb and castille soap – it works amazingly well for bathtubs, baked on grease on the stove etc..


    1. Hi Madeleine, I agree natural fibers just look and feel good. Synthetics cannot compare. Your dishcloth recipients are very lucky 🙂 I don’t know what I would do without bicarb!

  3. Reblogged this on Fundstücke aus dem Internet and commented:
    Viele tolle Ideen für den zero-waste-Haushalt ohne Plastik!

    1. Thank you for another reblog 🙂

      1. I love your postings, very great!

  4. Yet another inspiring and informative post. Going to try to find cellulose sponges. I also find myself in possession of plastic netting (from bulk fruit and veg) and that is great for scrubbing too (an up cycling purpose for waste plastic) Thanks AnneMarie!

    1. Thank you Annie 🙂 I hope you can find the sponges. They work well. I just have to be careful when I was my freshly sharpened knives with them–I lose chunks 😉 That’s a great use for your netting. I bet your scrubbies last a long time too.

  5. Great tips! I just want to mention that if you are combining baking soda and vinegar to make a scrubbing paste, you need to do that right before you scrub–you can’t make it in advance and store it because the chemical reaction lasts a very short time. It’s the same with baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, which is what I use to clean really messy pots–but I admit, I buy the peroxide in plastic quart bottles, and I don’t know if it’s possible to make your own.

    I love that your knowledge of paper manufacturing comes from Richard Scarry. 🙂 I just read that section to my daughter last night.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out about the baking soda and vinegar. In a perfect world, I would have a little video clip demonstrating the stuff fizzing up. I haven’t looked into making hydrogen peroxide. Sounds like I might need bunsen burners, goggles and beakers 😉 I LOVE that Richard Scarry book. I read it to both my kids over and over and over. I bet your daughter enjoyed it last night 🙂

  6. Glad you linked to the Good Gut review because I had missed that post while traveling last year. Can’t wait to check it out.

    1. It’s a great book Christine. I tell everyone I know to read it 🙂 Enjoy!

  7. I really want to make my own laundry and dishwashing liquid but I haven’t been able to get the washing soda. I could make it but the hours in the oven make me pause.

    1. Hi Alisa. I had been making my laundry detergent but now I buy the dry stuff in bulk. Washing soda was hard to find. I can buy that in bulk now too. I am with you about making it in the oven. You would have to make a vat of it to make it worth your while. I actually am planning on writing a post on when to buy things and when to make them.

      1. ZWC, have you written this blog you mention above? I think that and the 5 essential shopping items would make a great beginner’s ZW guide…(Currently working my way towards offering a ZW class through community ed)

      2. Hi Catherine, I wrote a post about what food to make not buy but not one about household stuff. I will add that to my list. Thanks for the idea. I’m actually working on a guide right now, so your comment came at the right moment 🙂 That’s awesome you’re teaching a class. People really need this information! We’ve forgotten how to do the most basic things. I hope your class is a huge success 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

    2. Walmart sells washing soda in a cardboard box in the laundry aisle.

  8. A very interesting article, much food for thought too.

    1. Thanks so much for checking it out 🙂

  9. Excellent tips! I’m excited to try the soap recipe. And I actually happen to be a novice knitter and would love some dishcloth or dish towel pattern recommendations, if you wouldn’t mind. I’ve made a few already but haven’t found anything great yet.

    1. Thanks, Ari. The dishcloths are perfect for a novice (or an expert!). My sister (the latter) has been making dish cloths for years to use up small amounts of yarn after projects. Here’s a pattern very similar to what I made: http://roxeesknittingfun.blogspot.com/2011/03/seed-block-pattern.html

      I haven’t knit any towels (but would like to). These patterns look nice: http://www.purlsoho.com/create/2009/10/03/pages-soft-cotton-knit-dishtowels/ and http://www.purlsoho.com/create/2013/06/16/whits-knits-slip-stitch-dishtowels/

      1. Thank you!

  10. Thanks for you blog. Knitted dich clothes sounds like a great way to get read of my nasty sponges . I’ve made a few scarf and always have a bit of warn left that I don’t know how to use. I’ll give it a try.

    1. Thanks for checking out my blog 🙂 Dishcloths are a great way to use up odd bits and you can mix and match whatever yarn you have. Happy knitting!

  11. I moved to natural cleaners (whole house) years ago and have never looked back. Its fantastic that you are promoting this alternative. Love your blogg.

    1. Thanks for reading my blog, Jane. I wouldn’t want to go back either. I cleaned my bathroom this morning with vinegar and baking soda and it works so well. Plus I don’t have to worry about inhaling nasty chemical fumes 🙂

  12. The idea of growing loofahs sounds amazing, though I don’t have enough sunlight (or warm months) to do it, I think.

    I’ve just started composting, in part to cut down on plastic bag use (even using ones from stores that I’d pick up at the thrift store, as I bring reusable bags) and surprisingly I’ve found that I don’t have to put a lid on my composting at all. It’s just not stinky, even after two weeks (I drop mine off when it fills up at a store that composts, as my city only provides composting services to low-density housing). Perhaps the smell’ll come w warmer/more humid months, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I know it’s pretty tangential to today’s post, but I’m curious what other people’s experiences with this have been!

    1. My compost doesn’t usually smell either Julia. I inspected my finished pile the other day and it smelled fantastic. I’m amazed I transformed egg shells, vegetable scraps and peels and whatnot into this dark, black, rich dirt that I can’t stop smelling! My pile has smelled very occasionally and I think that’s because I didn’t have enough brown matter in there. I don’t have a lid on mine either. I just literally throw my scraps on the ground. I thought if I waited until I bought or built a bin, I would never compost, so I just made a pile. I now have two–one cooking and one cooked. We have compost bins where I live but we aren’t allowed to put in things like avocado peels and pits or corn cobs. These do take longer to break down, but they do break down. When I go through my finished pile, if I find them in there still not decomposed, I just move them to the cooking pile. I could talk about compost all day… 🙂

      1. That’s awesome to hear! I’m excited and wanting to share my composting adventures (such as they are–I’m not making dirt, just keeping my compostables out of the trash for a better purpose) but I’m trying to be careful not to oversell it because I’d imagine that if someone starts composting and then finds the bin next to their sink too stinky despite my claims, they might be reluctant to try again.

  13. Thanks for this, I have found metal scrubbed that haven’t any soap and are thicker than steelwool. I just cut off a piece to use at a time and they last months. Use with dish soap to clean pans, pots and to remove labels from bottles after I have lathered them up with cooking oil. When done they go into compost. I use sink strainers so any little bits of metal don’t go down the drain.

  14. […] too nasty. I knitted a few dishcloth with leftover yarn (Link to pattern which I got from the Zero Waste Chef). I have been using the first one for over a year, and it is great to clean the surfaces in the […]

  15. A great website! Thank you! Could you tell me how I can revive the bristles on my wooden dish brush, please?

  16. Hi, I’m looking for oven mitts without plastic(polyester). I was curious to know what you use?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Aya,
      My daughter bought me some at Sur la Table for my birthday that are made of linen and cotton: https://www.surlatable.com/product/PRO-3322021/Jacques+Pepin+Collection+Watercolor+Chickens+Linen+Oven+Mitt
      ~ Anne Marie

  17. […] read more original article zerowastechef.com […]

  18. Micah Cabral says: Reply

    Fun fact: you can also eat loofah! In my country we harvest the loofah when it’s young (we call it patola when it’s still edible) and add it to soup (there’s this one I love called misua/ miswa) and it’s really tender, which mifgm be jard to imagine if you grow up know loofah only as a tough produce used for scrubbing.

  19. […] could keep your kitchen plastic free by making all sorts of Do It Yourself concoctions, but let’s be honest, nobody’s got time for that! Dish soap is the main culprit, or […]

    1. Any suggestions on how you store/wash dirty rags? I love the idea of using more rags instead of paper towels to clean up messes, but unsure about the idea of washing them (full of grease/food stains) with my regular clothes. But would take a long time to collect enough to do a load of laundry by itself. What’s your process in washing them? Also, do you just store the wet dirty rags in a bin until laundry day?

  20. Mati Senerchia says: Reply

    I no longer use sponges or dishcloths because I’ve discovered that tough brushes do it all, clean up perfectly, don’t smell, and last forever. I had been experimenting with zw alternatives when I realized that our one consistently useful, preferred dish cleaning tool was a ten year old, $1 handled brush from IKEA. I don’t like that it, and its free siblings, are plastic, but I realized that the manufacture, transport, marketing etc. of the succession of compostable alternatives used during the years this one brush functioned perfectly represent unsequestered emissions that probably dwarf the impact of this brush. Buying new, I would get natural fiber brushes, but so far, new brushes just show up when I need them, so I’ll use them.

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