9 Items I Banned from My Kitchen and How I Replaced Them

In 2011, my daughter MK and I decided we would try to live without plastic. Because I’ve been at this for a while, I take for granted many of the early changes we made back then to wean ourselves off of the stuff. But with all the welcome press lately on the plastic pollution crisis (thank you David Attenborough), the hoards of new recruits ready to cut their plastic footprint need simple steps to get started. So I’ve come up with a list of things I’ve banned from my kitchen and have easily replaced.

I tried to put these nine items into what-I-despise-most order but I found that kind of ranking simply too difficult. Bottled water or coffee pods? That’s a tough call, especially since Nestlé peddles both.

However, I’m leaning toward coffee pods. Not only do they create obscene amounts of waste—Keurig alone sold nearly 10 billion packs of pods in 2014—they also represent the Wall·E-fication of our society. Have we become so helpless that we can no longer measure out the coffee grounds and boil the water? Will we soon need every foodstuff pre-measured and pre-packaged for the specially designed machines that prepare it for us? Personally, I enjoy the ritual of brewing coffee in the morning—or tea. But you can now buy tea pods as well, surely a sign of the end-times (can we no longer brew tea?).

Convenience has helped create our current garbage crisis. Beginning in the 50s and 60s, consumer products companies marketed their wares—disposable dishes, disposable cutlery, disposable plastic wrap and eventually disposable everything—as time-saving lifesavers. As these companies and their products seduced and hooked us, we began to abandon basic life skills and grew more dependent on so-called disposable materials. It’s a bit of a Chaff-22.

Yes, some coffee pods can be recycled. Nespresso appears to make its pods out of aluminum. Others pods consist of plastic and aluminum. Theoretically, just about everything can be recycled. That doesn’t mean it will be recycled. And besides, recycling is a last resort. Above all else, refuse trash at its source.

Disposal Comparison: Nespresso Pods Versus My French Press

Nespresso PodsMy French Press
(Some) customers drop off pods at a local store, using a plastic bag provided by NespressoDump coffee grounds on plants outside
Bags of spent pods hauled to a far-flung warehouse on fossil-fuel guzzling trucksRinse glass beaker with water
Workers separate pods from the plastic bags they arrive in, plastic gets recycled (downcycled in reality because plastic degrades with every incarnation and ends up in landfill after a few lives)
A giant machine beats open the aluminum capsules, separating the grounds from the metal
The scrap aluminum is hauled to a scrap metal facility
Aluminum is bound into 20-ton bales and shipped to yet another facility to be made into new products
Coffee grounds composted in gigantic outdoor piles and maintained and turned by large tractors and other fossil-fuel guzzling machines

When I took my teenager to the Stanford Mall this past weekend, I noticed a Nespresso café under construction. AN ENTIRE STORE! I had never heard of these. I lead a sheltered life and sometimes go into shock in the “real world” of unbridled consumerism—a completely artificial world and rant for another day.

The list

1. Plastic wrap

Well before I went plastic-free and then zero-waste, I rarely bought plastic wrap. Garbage aside, do you want your food to touch this stuff?

Unfortunately, most [plastic wraps] are now made with low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC). (The exceptions are wraps used in catering and professional kitchens.) LDPE and PVDC don’t adhere as well as plastic wraps made with PVC, but more worrying is the fact that LDPE may contain diethylhexyl adipate (DEHA), another potential endocrine disruptor that has been linked to breast cancer in women and low sperm counts in men. — Dr. Weil

Alternatives: Place a plate over a bowl of food to cover it. Buy or make some beeswax wraps. Store food and leftovers glass jars. Glass food storage offers the additional benefit of a clear view of the food you have on hand.

jars
Some of my upcycled jars

2. Plastic baggies

Again, do you want plastic coming into contact with your food? Yes, plastic baggies make packing lunches convenient but you can find many alternatives. And these baggies aren’t inexpensive. On Amazon, with its rock-bottom prices, 90 Ziploc sandwich bags cost around $9. Ten cents a bag may not sound like much but if you pack lunches for a couple of kids and use a couple of baggies per kid, you’ll go through these in a couple of months. Isn’t Jeff Bezos wealthy enough?!

Alternatives: I usually take my lunches to work in glass jars. For small children, I don’t suggest packing lunches this way. Use metal lunch containers such as LunchBots instead. Wrap up sandwiches in large beeswax wraps.

Metal lunch containers work well for leftovers at restaurants also

3. Bottled 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 pumps California dry even during a drought.

The plastic-free store in Amsterdam that has made such a splash in the media since it opened last month offers, in addition to plastic-free packaged food, plastic-free water dispensed from a water purifier that filters out “micro-plastics and other contaminants ranging from lead to pesticides and gender-bending hormones.” Those gender bending hormones are found in BPA, a chemical used to make many plastic water bottles. It turns out that making every single thing on the planet out of plastic wasn’t such a great idea.

Alternative: Tap water. If you choose to filter your water, opt for naked charcoal. Mine came from Miyabi. Life Without Plastic also sells charcoal water filters.

naked charcoal water filter
Water filtered with naked charcoal

4. Other bottled beverages

In addition to all the plastic waste that bottled drinks generate, most of them are unhealthy, filled with sugar and like bottled water, have travelled many miles to reach the store.

Alternatives: You have so many to choose from! You could make iced tea, lemonade or, if you want to get adventurous, kombucha, ginger beer or natural soda.

Kombucha, ginger beer and natural soda

5. Coffee pods

See opening rant.

Alternatives: Coffee bought in bulk and brewed in a French press or coffee maker.

French press
I bought this ground coffee at Peet’s in jar

6. Tea bags

Tea bags just about send me over the edge. Food manufacturers can charge only so much for a commodity like a tea bag. So they have “improved” paper tea bags by creating silky ones in order to justify charging a premium for them. Many of these are made of silky synthetics—in other words, plastic, not silk. Even paper tea bags contain “polypropylene, a sealant used across the [tea] industry to ensure bags hold their shape.” You want tea leaves infusing your piping hot water, not the chemicals found in plastic.

Alternatives: Loose leaf tea and a tea infuser or a tea pot with an infuser insert.

Some of my looseleaf teas

7. Paper towels

My mother—who at 85 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

Alternatives: I have a 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. If you are crafty, you can sew super cute reusable cloth towels that snap together like a roll of paper towels.

natural cleaners
Rags and bonus items: non-toxic baking soda and homemade vinegar for cleaning

8. Paper napkins

I imagine people buy more paper towels than paper napkins—or use paper towels as napkins—but these too have easy replacements, unlike bathroom tissue. Don’t worry, I didn’t include it on the list. A woman who wished to remain anonymous recently told Buzzfeed about her experience with “the family cloth” and apparently horrified the Internet.

Alternative: Cloth napkins. These make eating more gracious and civilized. They will also save you money over time, as will all of the suggestions on this list.

cloth napkin with serged edge
Homemade napkins

9. Processed food

Of everything on the list, processed food will require the most effort to replace. The Western diet—which the majority of us eat—consists of highly processed foods, almost always packaged in shiny plastic. It’s convenient but not healthy for us or the planet.

Alternative: Cook real food. Yes, home-cooked meals take time to prepare but they taste better than processed food, will improve your health and save you money. You’ll usually find unpackaged fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market. Use your jars and cloth bags for whole grains at the bulk bins. Buy real bread in a cloth bag at a bakery. Opt for milk in returnable glass bottles and take your containers to the meat, fish and cheese counters (if you partake).

Real food made with love tastes best

41 Replies to “9 Items I Banned from My Kitchen and How I Replaced Them”

  1. Nice! I like the paper towel saga – it’s sometimes hard to see how wasteful we are until someone spells it out 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you! And there are more steps than that!

  2. Great inspiring post as usual; I do most of that stuff, as do my friends, so it’s sometimes hard to remember that the vast majority of Westerners (particularly Americans) DON’T : /

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you so much! You and your friends are all a good example 🙂

  3. Great post and some really simple, actionable suggestions!

    I really need to get around to making more reusable cloths and napkins for cleaning around the house. No excuses!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you Kristine. Happy sewing/making 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you! I like your screen name :p

  4. The nespresso/k-cup thing is ridiculous and it’s in EVERY OFFICE! I’ve had luck switching to reusable pods and bringing in local coffee. Go figure, people like the real thing better 🙂

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Apparently we have one in my office but my colleagues have hidden it from me 😀 Good for you! You’re a good influence Polly. ~ Anne Marie

  5. Shirley Hess says: Reply

    Good article! I love storing dry foods like grains and nuts in glass jars; adds so much more room in my cupboards and pantry. Freeze foods in them and store leftovers also. I like to mix my own green protein drinks and make up a several days at a time, using 1/2 pint size jars. Not too long ago I found glass spice jars — hard to believe how terrific my spice storage looks! Soon will be buying glass pump jars to make my own spray solutions in. You are an inspiration; keep up the great work!! (You can see how much you’ve affected on reader!) Thanks!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Shirley,
      Your kitchen and pantry sound beautiful! I love the look of jars filled with food. They double as décor 😉 Enjoy making your spray solutions. That sounds like a fun project. ~ Anne Marie

  6. Well explained, I’ve never used pods partly due to being anti nestle and also because I’m lactose intolerant and was always worried what was in them. Haven’t bought anything made by nestle in over 20 years due to their promotion of baby milk.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Nestlé is horrifying and the baby milk thing was just criminal. I’ve never forgotten that either. Another reason to just kick the processed food–you don’t support such greedy companies!

  7. Elena Christian says: Reply

    I love my french press, my cloth napkins, my glass jars and my stainless steel straws. Boo Nestle- and lets not forget the time Dasani (Pepsi) pumped out an aquifer in India and then charged people living on about $3 a day for their bottled water!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Elena,
      I didn’t know that about Pepsi but am not at all surprised. Disgusting. I’m glad you’re enjoying all your gear 🙂
      Anne Marie

  8. When people criticize the coffee pods – they never mention the reusable pods. My dad bought me a Keurig years ago. We have never bought coffee pods (or any other pods). We have been given expired pods from stores (which we look at as recycling somewhat because they were going to be thrown out) but that’s been years. My dad got a reusable pod when he bought my machine. I do have a french press but the Keurig is so much less work. We are single cup drinkers. No one drinks the same thing at the same time so the Keurig saves us time, energy (because it brews one cup at a time instead of a whole pot or bringing the whole tea kettle to a boil), and waste. We use the Keurig for a lot of single serving drinks and even instant soups (yes, I know store bought soups are horrible for packaging but in my defense – they were free and we have a teenager).

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Sara. Thanks for pointing out the reusable pods. I wish every machine came with one! No need to defend yourself about the soup or anything else on here, despite my ranty tone 😉 ~ Anne Marie

      1. We’ve started with the plastic free challenge last summer and I slip so many times. It’s frustrating. We were so proud when we’d finally stopped bringing in plastic grocery bags and the bag we keep them in emptied – only to find another bag of plastic bags we didn’t know we had. It’s not going to be perfect for sometime but I feel every step we take is one that reduces the plastic we consume.

  9. I would love to eliminate plastic wrap, but I’m skeptical that the beeswax wrap would work for wrapping pie dough or cookie dough. What do you think? I think I’ve found alternatives for most other reasons I would use plastic wrap, but I haven’t found a way around that one yet. Thanks!

    1. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

      Mollie, could you keep your doughs in large glass jars? Cafes are often happy to give a way large jars that have held things like olives.

      I make some types of dough that need to be left to rise/form gluten. I just use large cotton tea towels (dish towels) that I have wet and wrung out – works beautifully. You do need to re-wet them if they are to be left a long time, but that is not a huge effort!

      Madeleine

    2. Hi Mollie,
      I use waxed paper for things like pie crust dough Cookie dough would work well here, too, because of all the fat/butter against the wax in the paper. I do this because I somehow inherited a lifetime supply of restaurant-style waxed paper sheets. Fortunately they are compostable.

      I have tried using beeswax cloth on my cheese, and well, the cheese dries out. I think a glass jar would work better for cheese. Honestly, I don’t find many uses for my beeswax wrap, maybe if i ate more sandwiches to go I would use them more.

      I often use a bowl with a plate on it if it’s a yeast dough I’m letting rise in the fridge, but sometimes the dough lifts the plate off the bowl and then the dough itself dries out where it’s exposed. Madeleine’s wet towel suggestion in the next comment is what I’ll try next. However, that doesn’t help with the freezer. So far I have been re-using the plastic bags that come my way for my big batches of blobs of pizza dough.

    3. We use our wax wrap for bread doughs and it works beautifully. We love our wax wrap (we made it ourselves so it’s even more fun to use).

  10. Swapping from bags to leaf tea was the best decision I’ve ever made! I can make my tea as strong as i like. I’ve been using linen napkins forever but definitely need to do something about the paper towels. With a 4yr old who goes through a ridiculous amount of clothes that should be any easy fix! Just didn’t think of it. You forgot to mention
    All the packaging (boxes and bags) that the pods come in

  11. Madeleine Lawrence says: Reply

    Anne Marie,

    you have almost made me cry, ‘ten million packs of pods in 2014’, and you have almost made my head explode with ‘half a billion bottles of water every week’. What’s wrong with people??? Not the first time I have heard these numbers, but I go into renewed shock every time!

    I am sincerely mystified by people’s ongoing choice to buy these products at a time when the damage they do is now common knowledge. Clearly people have been seduced by the god of convenience and are too blind to see the multitude of ways they are paying for it, from illness to debt to obesity.

    How can we make a life of home-cooked meals and natural living more seductive? Your food photos certainly do it for me. Maybe we need to beam you into every home on the planet to show people a lovelier way to live.

    Off to brew a soothing pot of tea now….

    Madeleine.x

  12. Loving this article thank you so much, been tied down to paper towels and I really only use them to cover my food in the microwave when heating up something so it doesn’t get messy and that’s about it. I can save on that much. My question is with the plastic wraps like Saran Wrap also wondering if tin foil is okay? I use the tin foil to freeze my banana’s, I use Saran Wrap for some minor cooking related purposes which you mentioned using a plate to cover which is good but ugh! How to freeze the banana’s as eco as possible?! The tea bags own us because we use Tazo and it’s kinda hard for us to come across tea in bulk, I do have tea filter bags for the minor bulk I find if that’s still safe?

  13. Kate Goodman says: Reply

    Thanks. I’m chipping away at the list. I’ve shifted to loose tea and bought bees wax wraps.

  14. “Can we no longer brew tea?” My goodness. Something so simple already and we need companies to prep these for us to add a few seconds of convenience to our lives; it’s like speeding to get there thirty seconds faster than the next guy. What also drives me crazy is pre-scrambled eggs, and ready-mix garbage nonsense like mashed potatoes – no thanks!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Pre-scrambled eggs?! :O That’s absurd. And likely expensive. Good analogy about speeding. Save 30 seconds but then crash your car!

  15. Wonderful post!!! I totally share your opinion on coffee pods. The whole idea is just sad, stupid and pointless. BTW, what do you think about the current massive trend of pre-measured meal cooking kits? You know, those subscription services were you get an insulated box with all the ingredients to cook a meal. There are loads of ads on my favourite podcasts at the moment and it makes me cringe every time I hear them. But, maybe, there not that bad as I think….

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks Anna! The meal kits are as bad as you think! They make me crazy! So. Much. Trash. Everything, even salt, is pre-measured and packaged. They are like edible LEGO kits for adults to give them the illusion that they are actually cooking. And Blue Apron likes to tout how the kits prevent food waste (i.e., greenwashing). So much shipping too. I think they symbolize well our addiction to convenience. ~ Anne Marie

  16. Great post! Your lunch container of preference is metal – what do you suggest for adults who like a hot lunch? Those lunchbots are not microwaveable (and a microwave is the only thing we’re allowed to use in an office to heat food) . And I avoid using anything from China for anything food-related due to their lax standards.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you, Laurie. I eat soup or dal for lunch often at the office and we have a microwave only. I use glass jars to pack my lunch and then put the food in a bowl to heat up in the microwave.
      ~ Anne Marie

  17. Great list and it’s comforting to be able to tick off the ones I’ve already got rid of. Thanks for the list and your really awesome website!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you for the kind words. Enjoy checking off your list. It’s like spring cleaning 🙂

  18. we do all of our best, but we have no running water so its hard not to use paper towel, and buy bottled water as the water from the well is maybe unsafe, but we plan to test it soon as it taste very good. for all the rest we dont use any plastic packaging and especially no coffee pods, only we use a moka

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Marco,
      If I didn’t have safe water to drink, I’d buy bottled water too! You don’t have a choice. I’ve never used a moka but I bet they make really good coffee 🙂
      ~ Anne Marie

  19. Love it all! Especially love the Richard Scary reference – my 4 year old loves reading that exact book.
    Cheers,
    Laura

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks, Laura. I love that book! My kids are practically grown now (the youngest is in high school) and I gave many of their books away (gulp) but I kept that one along with some other favorites. I loved reading it them. There is so much going on in it. ~ Anne Marie

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