A Zero-Waste Kit That Costs Zero Dollars

jars filled with pantry staples

My daughter Mary Katherine rarely writes posts on the blog she started as a teenager, The Plastic-Free Chef. She did however write one a couple of weeks ago on how, as a busy, cash-strapped student, she finds the zero-waste lifestyle inaccessible.

I’m simply too poor. We need more solutions to deal with waste that don’t require average people to bankrupt themselves. Why should I have to pay extra money out of my meager paycheck to compensate for the fact that corporations manufacture enormously vast quantities of waste? Why aren’t they held accountable for that?

MK went on to offer some tips for people like herself who want to reduce their waste. You can read the full post here.

Yes, some aspects of zero waste cost more (milk in glass bottles versus milk in plastic jugs, for example). But others will save you money—buying in bulk (for many items, not all), eating all the food you buy instead of throwing some out, eating lower on the food chain…

And some aspects don’t have to cost anything at all, such as your zero-waste kit—the “equipment” you’ll need when you head out into the real world, bombarded by well-intentioned people offering you lattes in disposable cups, plastic cutlery for the catered office lunch, plastic to-go containers for your leftovers, bottled water and on and on. It’s a minefield out there!

This kit does require some rudimentary sewing skills. One of the many joys of the zero-waste lifestyle comes from learning to do things for yourself and becoming more self-sufficient and less dependent on corporations to fulfill your every need and desire.

If you walk or ride your bike everywhere, keep your kit packed and ready to go near your front door or in the front hall closet. If you drive, keep it in your car. Or make two kits (they do cost zero dollars…). Keep one in your car and one near the front door for errands you do on foot of by bike. This way, you don’t have to grab your kit from the car when you head out on foot, or grab it from the hall when you head out behind the wheel.

On the Go and Eating Out

1. Water bottle

You don’t have to spend money on a reusable metal water bottle. Yes, they look very nice and work very well. But I’m sticking to free stuff in this post. Reuse a glass bottle you bought that had a drink in it, such as kombucha. “But glass breaks!” you may say. People don’t seem to worry about glass bottles breaking when they buy kombucha, iced tea, sparkling water and all the other beverages packaged in glass. We have a few of these bottles kicking around from the days before I made kombucha. MK considered it a food group.

2. Mug

Carrying around my own mug has prevented so many plastic snafus over the years. (Those paper take-away cups at your favorite café are lined with plastic.) Some cafés will provide ceramic cups but others don’t. You may choose to skip the mug and just use item number 3 to drink out of.

3. Jar

When we eat out, I often can’t finish my meal. Into the jar go the leftovers. I have lunch packed and ready to take with me to the office the next day. By taking a jar with you to restaurants, you avoid a common zero-waste dilemma—to waste the food or waste the disposable container your server really wants to hand you.

Almost everyone has a jar. If you don’t own a suitable jar, ask friends for their discarded jars, search through some recycling bins (I’ve found several very nice ones in there) or ask around at restaurants for empty jars. MK works in restaurants in the summers and brings home the nicest jars! 

repurposed jar
Peanut butter works really well for removing labels

4. Metal cutlery

I can’t imagine you don’t own metal utensils. If not, go buy some at a thrift shop. Get at least two knives, two forks and two spoons. I see piles of these at my thrift shop and have bought quite a few to use in my cooking workshops.

jars of utensils
Some of my second-hand utensils

5. Chopsticks

If you don’t have any, the next time you eat at your favorite restaurant that provides throw-away ones—the restaurant you’ve been avoiding because you hate the idea of those chopsticks going in the trash—just take the pair you use home, wash them and tuck them into your bag.

6. Cloth napkins

If you don’t have any cloth napkins, sew some. If you have no fabric, go buy an old sheet at a thrift shop and use that. If you have no sewing machine, check your library. Several libraries in my area now have banks of sewing machines available to use on the premises.

I own a serger that I love to use (when it doesn’t act up…). It makes the neat rolled hem you see below. For napkins, I just cut out a square of fabric and finish the edge with this stitch. I’m too lazy to make a real hem. But of course that’s an option and it looks beautiful. You’re a better person than I…

cloth napkin with serged edge
Homemade napkins

7. A bag to put everything in

Most people now have reusable shopping bags. If you don’t, you can transform an old t-shirt into a bag. Surely you have an old t-shirt don’t you? I’m starting to worry about you—first you had no jar, then no metal utensils, now not even an old t-shirt!

A few years ago, a fellow blogger, Christina of Little Sprouts Learning, sent me a shopping bag her daughter had made from an old tank top. Below is a closeup of the inside bottom serged together, with a bit trimmed off the sides and serged there to make a bit of flat bottom. Very smart! To make handles in a t-shirt, cut out the arms and finish the edges.

t-shirt bag
Flat bottom of a homemade tank top bag
bag made from a tank top
Tank top bag

8. Optional: a lunch container

I put this one as optional because you may not have a suitable metal or glass container and the metal ones especially can cost quite a bit. I sometimes see metal or glass containers at thrift shops.

A container to eat out of will keep many paper plates and plastic containers out of landfill. I attended a funeral a few months ago and Chandra and I avoided the disposable plates for the delicious catered buffet by pulling out my metal containers. We may have looked like weirdos, but people noticed and asked lots of questions, which spurred much discussion and got people thinking and talking about their waste. Oh and many of them said “What a good idea!”

Shopping

9. More cloth shopping bags

See number 7 above. You’ll want several of these—at least five. I hope you have lots of old t-shirts. I once saw a woman at the grocery store with the most awesome shopping bag ever, which she had made herself. The body of the quite large bag comprised a patchwork of jean parts from a couple of pairs (the seats of the jeans, the fronts, parts of the legs) and she had used waistbands for handles. A sturdy bag like that can hold lots of heavy groceries.

10. Cloth produce bags

These reduce piles of plastic waste. I use mine for buying fruits and vegetables and sometimes for larger items at the bulk bins, such as oats, nuts and dried fruit. I support plastic bag bans but they do not address the massive amounts of plastic going into the bags, such as plastic produce bags. I make mine the same size and shape as standard issue plastic ones. When my bags get dirty, I toss them in the washing machine. You don’t really need a pattern for these, but you’ll find mine here.

cloth produce bags
Some of my homemade cloth produce bags

11. More jars

Jars need not be matchy-matchy—or cost a dime. I pilfered most of the jars in the pic below from recycling bins or restaurants. When you reduce your waste, you increase your jar consumption. Many of us don’t know how to stop collecting jars and need a 12-step program.

I use my glass jars at the bulk bins (and for many other purposes). Get the weight on these before you fill them up. At some stores, customer service will weigh them for you and mark that weight (the tare) on them. Other stores set out scales and you weigh the jars yourself. When checking you out (my, you look good today!) the cashier will deduct the weight of the jar from the total weight of food-filled jar. This way you pay for the weight of the food only.

In the summer, I bring jars to the farmers’ market for berries. That way I bring home whole fruit rather than jam.

jars filled with pantry staples
Repurposed pilfered jars

43 Replies to “A Zero-Waste Kit That Costs Zero Dollars”

  1. “When you reduce your waste, you increase your jar consumption. Many of us don’t know how to stop collecting jars and need a 12-step program.” This line made me laugh out loud! My husband would agree with you. “More jars! More jars!” I shout. Its a sickness, really.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Glad I made you laugh, Mellissa 😀 I found two really good jars in the recycling bin today! I suppose that could be a sign of a problem… No one has arranged an intervention yet though. ~ Anne Marie

  2. […] über A Zero-Waste Kit That Costs Zero Dollars — The Zero-Waste Chef […]

  3. LOTS of good ideas here!!!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Teresa 🙂

  4. Where’s the 12-step program for those of us who hoard glass jars? My family thinks I need to enroll in that class 😉
    Seriously though – great reminder that you can reuse what you have or buy secondhand which is better for the planet.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Karen, I’ve tried to write up all 12 steps for the program myself but honestly, I don’t want to be cured :p ~ Anne Marie

  5. How do you mark the item number from the bulk bin on your cloth bag?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Melissa, Lately I’ve been tying my bags shut with a rubber band and punching the code into my phone next to the item on my shopping list. I usually use only a few bags at the bulk bins, so I am able to keep them straight as to which is which. More than a few and I doubt that would be a very efficient system. I have seen kits that come with a washable crayon and have heard mixed reviews on those but you could try that. You could also use a twist tie to close the bag and write the bin number on that. I met a woman at a zero-waste meetup earlier this month and she showed me a twist tie she has been reusing for five years! It must have been a very sturdy one! ~ Anne Marie

  6. We have been working on reducing our plastic consumption. Our first goal has been to reduce single use items. So that means we still have a lot of reusable plastic. We put together a shopping kit, eating kits, etc. Most have reusable plastic items in them but they weren’t items we necessarily bought for the kits. We’ve been striving to tackle one issue at a time and for the last 2-3 months we’ve only added 2 plastic bags to our household and we’ve been shopping many times (I believe the plastic bags came from someone else’s shopping such as my dad bringing something over vs us actually getting it from the store).
    We’re not perfect but I believe that building one habit at a time will make it a more long lasting habit than trying to change all our habits at once and being overwhelmed.
    I did want to share that we’ve been working on taking our own cups into fast food restaurants for soda. I don’t drink much soda but my son and husband still feel it’s a requirement. Some restaurants will reward you for bringing in your own cup with a discount. We’ve even had some just give us the soda with our order because we are using our own cups. For those who drink soda, it’s worth asking the restaurant about it. I like to take my reusable cup in for water then I don’t even have to bother with asking.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Sara, I think small steps are the best way to start. It’s like a diet. If you starve yourself, you’ll fail and soon be back eating the way you were before. We started slowly too. It sounds like you’ve made great strides. That’s great to know about fast food restaurants letting you use your own cups. Thanks for the info 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  7. A great list of basics that, as you said, can be accessible to most everyone.

    A lot of my 2018 is shaping up to be introducing zero waste principles to low-income folks (AKA the folks disproportionately affected by limited food access and environmental/trash issues). A lot of work is just overcoming that initial barriers of A) I’m super privileged and need to assess my suggestions based on that and B) “why should I care if I’m just struggling to survive?”. But I think a lot of these ideas can be integrated into most anyone’s life. Reusable cups, cutlery, and bags can even save money!

    I TOTALLY understand where your daughter is coming from (I started zero waste in a food desert, with no car, and living just above the SNAP line), but a lot of us are more privilege/have more access than we think and it’s important to exploit those opportunities as much as possible!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Polly, My daughter says the same thing about low-income people affected more by environmental issues. Good for you to introduce them to this. I get the “I’m just struggling to survive” part but it sounds like they will be in good hands 🙂 And kudos also for starting zero waste under challenging circumstances. That’s a testament right there that it’s doable. Good luck with your work this year. ~ Anne Marie

  8. Love the tips. Currently working on my lunch kit. (I’ve had the reusable bags for years.) Never thought to bring chopsticks!! Why not? I have a few good ones I can use. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Liz. Enjoy your lunches 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  9. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    I had to smile at the vision of you rifling through other people’s recycling bins! Just yesterday I looked out my window to see a man going through mine. He was after glass bottles as we have a new scheme where people are paid to return certain types of bottles. Good luck to him I say! (I don’t buy the types of bottles they are after, so he went away empty handed)

    If a metal lunch box is too expensive and glass seems too heavy (depends on how far you have to walk for work) people could consider just buying a plastic lunch box from the op shop. At least this means an existing plastic container can be used and not just completely wasted in land fill.

    Madeleine.x

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Madeleine, I hadn’t had much luck in the recycling bins lately but today found two short, wide-mouth jars of the same size! They had paper labels on them that came off easily after I soaked them in a larger jar (also pilfered) of water. I had no idea I would one day get so excited over jars… Our op shop always has plastic containers. Better they go to someone’s home than landfill. ~ Anne Marie

  10. Cloth napkins are really easy to find at thrift stores – I have an entire drawer of them!

    As I tend to drop things, I do love my metal water bottle. I’ve carried it for close to a decade and while it’s a bit banged up, it’s lasted longer than any of my phone screens. I’d say it’s worth the investment!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I hadn’t thought to look for napkins at the thrift shop. I’ll look the next time I’m there. Thanks Becky. I do see metal water bottles there often also. It’s always a treasure hunt when I go.

      1. My University’s student sustainability group rescues lost water bottles from across campus and puts them in a box to redistribute. Students can take one, wash it up, and enjoy their new free bottle! Great way for poor students to gear up! Even though other places like offices, yoga studios and gyms, churches, etc might not do this, I imagine they have many lost and found boxes which are periodically emptied and could be nudged to give stuff away as freebies.

  11. I love your ideas! I just sewed up some produce/bulk bags out some legs of linen pants and a old skirt of mine. You could go one step further and just bring your own food. When we travel and adventure with our three boys we bring snacks and lunch with us everywhere. Apples, our own dehydrated fruit, hummus, fresh veggies, a thermos of tea (herbs from my garden!) etc. This saves on money and waste and time. We can picnic anywhere!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Catherine, Thanks so much. Linen pant legs make the best bags! They are lightweight and the perfect size. That’s a great point about bringing your own food with you. It makes life a lot easier and traveling more pleasant. ~ Anne Marie

  12. Anne Marie, I plan to make these as gifts! Thank you for your great ideas and observations. I have found that grease pencils (hardened colored wax) work for writing on jars as long as the jars are not wet or very cold. I love putting the HB on my hard boiled eggs with grease pencils when they are still warm.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Tessa. I love that! What a great idea! I have one of those grease pencils and wondered why sometimes it works well and other times it doesn’t work as well. Thanks for the info. ~ Anne Marie

  13. I loved reading your article Anne Marie as I’ve loved your produce pics through 2017 and all the goodness you put out in an endearing, humorous way. Thank you for sharing your passion. I have an 11 year old vegan daughter who is pro-planet and patiently paves the way with her peers. It’s back to the basics we go. Blinders off, away from consumerism and quick fixes. Longevity for the Mama Earth means a happy, healthy life for us too! Keep putting out that goodness AM and MK. Marita and Briana from the desert love you both ❤❤

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Marita and Briana. Thanks for the kind words. It’s so true–happy Earth, happy us! You and you daughter are pioneers 🙂 ~ Anne Marie xxx

  14. This article is so helpful for those who are starting out with the Zero Waste Movement! I was under the same impression as your daughter, that I was too poor for certain aspects (the beautiful home decor on Pinterest certainly makes it seem that way). But now it seems much more doable–I’ve got some kombucha in my fridge rn haha 🙂

    Thanks a bunch!

  15. Such great ideas, I have slowly been working up the nerve to take my own containers and saying no I dont a need straw before they bring the straws because of the weird looks you get from that. Im really good at saying, no “I dont need a bag” at the store though. I’m really shy so these things have been a little more of a struggle for me.

  16. Rebekah Jaunty says: Reply

    I really, really appreciate this post.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Glad you liked it Rebekah 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  17. […] A zero waste kit that costs zero dollars – sometimes the zero waste movement feels a little elitist – this proves it […]

  18. This is great! I need to try the trick with the peanutbutter! <3

  19. Probably a silly question: When using reusable produce bags at the grocery store, do you need to worry about the tare? Or are they light enough that it doesn’t make a difference?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Stefanie, not a silly question at all. Some of the store-bought reusable produce bags have the tare printed on them. My homemade ones don’t but I use very thin, lightweight fabric to make them (usually). If I have a heavier bag, I’ll use it for something that isn’t priced by weight, like oranges that are 3 for $1. You don’t want to buy anything expensive per pound in a heavy bag without the tare or you will pay extra. Like vanilla beans. They cost $150 a pound! Use a bag with a tare for those! ~ Anne Marie

      1. Thanks! I recently asked whether the local grocery store would deduct the tare of cloth bags, and the woman looked at me like I had three heads, haha. I will stick to using them for things like oranges!

      2. The Zero-Waste Chef says:

        Hahaha! Yes, I’ve had many of those looks.

  20. I am so excited for the famrers markets to start! I didn’t even think about taking a jar instead of a bag for my berries- that’s a fantastic idea! Do you leave them in the jar when you get them home, or transfer them to a different storage system?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Caitlyn,
      I hope your market start soon 🙂 As for the jars, I do take them out when I get them home. Fruit gives off ethylene gas, which speeds up the ripening of fruit. So if I kept the berries in the jar, I think it would speed up their demise. When I get them home, I put them in a bowl, or prep them and freeze some of them spread out on a cookie sheet. Then I put them back into the jar and into the freezer.
      Enjoy your farmers’ market!
      ~ Anne Marie

  21. Hey!
    It’s a fabulous post! I started my ZW journey just recently, and I am still taking small steps one by one to make it more and more of a lifestyle for my family.
    I could not agree more, that some of the problem is that glass packaging for unknown(relatively) reason is more expensive than plastic. Say, milk in glass bottles, coconut oil in glass packaging is often twice as expensive as the same quality in plastic. Good old days, at least in my country, was possible to give back for money glass jars and bottles, another good motivation for people. And yet, not only price of packaging is problem. For those of us ZW people who can even afford glass packaged products it’s fine, yet there are so many people who don’t think about waste problems at all, so regardless of finances, they just grab whatever. In case, best case scenario would be that products would come only in glass, so regardless of intentions, outcome would be reduced plastic pollution.
    Now, about jars.. it’s difficult for me to think how would someone not have any, because most of people time after time would buy mayo, jam or pickles, usually comes in a jars… 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you! I’m glad you liked the post. Small steps is the way to go. It’s like a diet, if you start all at once, you set yourself up for failure. I can’t imagine someone doesn’t have a jar. Just this morning, I saw a nice one in the recycling bin where I live but it was too far down for me to grab it 😉 Enjoy your journey! ~ Anne Marie

      1. Yes, yes! Definitely! Small, but steady steps are what’s needed! Terribly proud of myself, but as moved in with my beloved one, took him onto this pathway with me and he starts to do some baby steps towards ZW also! He didn’t even know about it before!

  22. This is a really good post! As a student, who is desperate to reduce their waste footprint, tips such as these are so useful! I will definitely be making my own produce bags! Thank you!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks, Jessica. I’m glad you found the info helpful. The produce bags made a huge difference in reducing our plastic waste. And they look nicer 🙂 Enjoy! ~ Anne Marie

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