“Where do I start?” Easy zero waste changes in the kitchen

When I started my Simple Year and blogging three times a week, my mother asked how long I thought I could keep up that post schedule. I told her that I’d probably switch to twice a week once I got into this a bit more — how can anyone find that much stuff to write about all the time? — but I’ve found it hasn’t been a problem. There is ALWAYS something to discuss. And sometimes that means I have to pick and choose what to share.


While it’s helpful to have a nice bulk section, that’s not the only way to go zero waste in the kitchen.

As I was writing Friday’s post, I realized that I had missed an opportunity to talk about some of the simple changes I’ve made to make my kitchen a more zero waste-friendly zone. This is by no means a complete list — so share what you do in the comments is what I’m saying — and it’s also not a mandate — your own success does not hinge on doing what I do. My hope is simply to give those who don’t know where to start some concrete ideas: Pick one, maybe pick two, give it a try and see what happens. Then tell me how it went. (I love stories.)

Hide the paper towels

According to THIS post by The Paperless Project, the U.S. goes through 13 billion pounds of paper towels every year. (I can’t actually fathom what that number even means, it’s so large.) One of the first things we did was hide the paper towels. When Eric makes his lunch, he used to use three paper towels to line the counter — now he uses a kitchen towel. Kitchen towels can also be used to clean up messes on the counter and floor, to place under cooling racks for crumb collection, as napkins at dinner, and to dry hands.

“What if you have to pick up something gross?” Grab a sheet of newspaper. It’s already in the waste stream (you do subscribe to your local paper, right? 😉 ), it’s compostable (uh, depending what gross thing you’re picking up, I guess), and based on how quickly they stack up in my own household, there’s a never-ending supply.

Cloth napkins make great sandwich wraps.

Cloth napkins make great sandwich wraps.

A drawer of cloth napkins

I really lucked out on this one, because my mother-in-law gifted me with a dozen or so really awesome 1970s-esque linen napkins that are in excellent condition. (They were her mother’s, and I have a feeling they were kept in a drawer for “company.”) These are kept in a separate drawer from my regular kitchen towels because they’re smaller and, quite frankly, in better shape.

And we use them differently — they get tossed into lunch sacks and even wrap sandwiches or other food items. They’ve made a great alternative to plastic sandwich bags (which we no longer use and do not miss). They’re also awesome when we have company and have replaced the paper towels we used to offer. Plus then we look so fancy!

Where to look: I had vague plans of scouring secondhand stores for such napkins, but mine found me. I still think that would be a great place to start, although maybe ask around first to see if anyone is trying to unload a set you could have. (The thought is just using what’s already in the waste stream is preferable to buying new.) If that doesn’t pan out, craft fairs always have booths of handmade items like this.

“Using cloth napkins is gross.” I honestly don’t see how using cloth is any more disgusting than paper.

“Great, more laundry.” While laundry has gone up in this regard, I can’t say it’s made a huge difference in the overall load going into my machine. I’ve never not had room to squeeze in one more cloth napkin.

Designated lunch containers

I’ve already talked about our lunch container situation a few times, so I’m not going to wax poetic again, but I include it in the list because doing this has eliminated our use of sandwich baggies. Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times (SOURCE — actually this is an interesting read if you want to be depressed), so lunch containers are a step in the right direction. Right now we’re using a lot of containers I’ve either had forever or we’ve inherited — yep, plastic — but I have some stainless steel containers, too (just a few. No need to go crazy).


Cupboard o’ jars

Even if you don’t have bulk bins in your area or are into canning, glass jars are great for storage — and make seeing what’s in the fridge and panty much easier. (Plus it just looks nicer.) I use mine for everything from food storage to random organization to gift containers. I have inherited a LOT of jars, which has been fantastic, but I’ve noticed that secondhand stores always have a wide selection — unwrapped too! — and some products are sold in glass, which can be reused instead of recycled. And it’s easy to get into the habit of using them.

Um, except maybe leave them out of a lunch box. Or be careful if you do.

Bonus: You can recycle the rings and disks from Ball jars. (I like to reuse mine.)

Foaming soap dispenser


It’s been a few years since I switched to foaming soap dispensers in the kitchen and bathrooms, and that was an easy change that, for me, is zero waste because I can get castile in bulk. But even if you can’t, this is a great way to stretch out liquid soap only sold in plastic. Basically: Fill the dispenser most of the way with water and then add the liquid soap — you need very little. My dispensers were purchased with product in them, so they have a little line on the bottle; I fill it with water almost to that line, then fill the rest of the way to the line with soap. Eventually you get the feel for what it takes and won’t need a guide.

I like to get unscented Dr. Bronner’s, A) Because I hate smells and 2) Because this way I can use it to wash my hands or my coffee cup. (Smells in my coffee cup that are anything not coffee gross me out. I’ve got some issues.) It comes in handy having a foaming alternative when there’s only a dish or two that needs to be cleaned.

Alternative: A bar of soap. I’ve read comments on other sites where people believe that bars of soap can get germy. Um, it’s soap. Anyway, you can rub the bar on a wet towel for dishes, too.


Dish of “scrubbies” by the sink

You know those little scrubbies you can get at craft fairs? I have a couple of those. But what I like even better are these little knitted squares I found at a church bazaar, made out of yarn scraps that are the prefect size for cleaning my sink or washing dishes. I have several, and they’re so handy that I’m hoping to score more at this year’s bazaar for gifts.

Disclosure: I’m a germaphobe. Sponges gross me out. It’s also a pain to have to replace them all the time, and that plastic they’re wrapped in adds up. With these little scrubbies, I can use them and toss them in the laundry and always have a fresh one for next time.

Anyway, I keep mine in a little dish by the sink (the dish is from my darling Aunt Jan). Super handy.

Figure 2: Reusable produce bags.

Mine are made from old curtains.

Supply of cloth produce bags — or maybe a basket

Even though not all stores have bulk bins, most do have loose fruit and vegetables in the produce section. Instead of using the proffered plastic bag, I like to use cloth bags made specifically for this purpose.

Anyway, no one ever says anything about my bags except that it’s a good idea or they’re adorable. The checkers all know me — there’s a benefit to going to the same store all the time — and all generally give me a standard tare on each even though I don’t have one written on any of them. I also think that putting produce in a reusable bag is less intimidating than taking in a jar (that you need to tare and then face the stares) to the bulk aisle. It’s a good starting point.

Recently, though, I saw a post by a woman who decided to just bring a basket with her to the grocery store and load up all her produce that way. She had been looking for produce bags and then realized she already had a solution. Brilliant! And a good reminder that sometimes we make things harder than they really need to be. The only issue she ran into was being asked if she needed to purchase the basket, which only required a simple answer on her part. I also liked that she used something she already had instead of buying something new.

Truthfully it's not usually this clean.

Truthfully it’s not usually this clean.

Crock in the sink

I’ve kept a crock in my sink for the past few years to collect any kitchen item that can be composted, and have the family mostly trained to use it (well, really trained now that the garbage can is in the laundry room and it takes an effort to walk it there). I’m on my second — the first shattered when I dropped it outside. The one I use now is chipped, making it a good candidate, and also inherited from my favorite mother-in-law when Eric and I first got married. (I always really liked that thing, so it’s fun to have it continuing to serve even in its less than perfect state.)

Early in the project, I attempted an alternative to composting, which was just to swirl everything around in my food processor and then slop that mess directly into the garden. I found that too time consuming to keep up. However, you can make veggie broth out of most scraps, which is another option to composting or, ahem, tossing scraps over the ravine like I do. (Well, we use what we have.) You can find my post on that whole ordeal HERE.

Why is this zero waste? Because the average household tosses 474 pounds of food waste every year (SOURCE — which also has some composting tips). And landfills are packed too tightly for organic materials to biodegrade, as they need air to break down (SOURCE).

A prep day

I spend most Sundays washing, cutting and generally prepping the items I purchased during my weekly shopping trip. When I don’t, chaos reigns. This family likes things fast — and to grab and go. Since the majority of the food I buy isn’t packaged, that means there’s some work to do to get it ready for consumption. Cue that cupboard of jars.

Why is this zero waste? It’s kind of a pain, but it makes up for itself later, when we’re packing lunches or scrounging up a snack or trying to figure out a dinner plan. When things are ready, they get eaten — which means less food waste and temptation to eat out.


A couple of great homemade cleaners

I used to have a ton of cleaning products in various areas of the house , each for specific areas and/or uses. And that was a lot of plastic packaging. These days, I use three ingredients to make all the cleaning products I need: Baking soda, castile and vinegar. Well, four if you count water. I keep a jar of “soft scrub” and a bottle of “all-purpose cleaner” under the kitchen sink, add a little extra baking soda if I need some super scouring action, and disinfect with vinegar (do not mix castile and vinegar!).

More uses for vinegar HERE.

More uses for baking soda HERE.

Why is this zero waste? Less is more. I can get baking soda in bulk, but even if I couldn’t, it comes in cardboard — much preferred to plastic. I can’t find big jugs of vinegar in glass, but getting the largest plastic container produces less thrash / recycling than getting a bunch of smaller ones. Ditto for those who can’t find castile in bulk — just get the largest package you can.

Whew, you guys — this post is twice as long as I generally like to write (which is on purpose — everyone has a life to lead), but I didn’t want to break up the list over two parts. Thanks for sticking it out!

Next up: Sixth month check up part III — laundry room and bathrooms.

15 Responses to “Where do I start?” Easy zero waste changes in the kitchen

  1. Though my husband and I don’t use a huge amount of paper towels, we’ve still been buying them. We recently ran out and much to my surprise, my husband said not to buy any right now, to see how long we can go without them. Since I hardly used them anyway, I’m pretty sure I can break his habit if I keep newspaper available for wiping grease out of pans. We already use clothes for a lot of things, so we’ll see.

    • I wasn’t so sure how long we could go, but it’s been six months. It seemed like once they were off the counter, we didn’t need them anymore. Good luck!

      • When we ran out of paper towels in the spring, neither of us bothered to buy anymore. We put the holder away 3 months ago. Only 1-2 times has someone lamented the lack of paper towel and they then grabbed a cloth to do the job.

  2. Wow, I`ve never seen scrubbies, but it’s a great idea, I should make me some. I still have a sponge, but put it into the dishwasher every time it runs, so I can use it quite some time at least.

    I also think it’s important to just start, not being perfect. For example I still use paper towels. I have a cat with a very sensitive stomach, and every now and then he throws up all his half- digested food. A newspaper just isn’t absorbent enough to pick it up, and to pick up all the gross stuff with a cloth is just too gross for me. But hey, at least I have my paper towels only for this purpose and normally use cleaning rags for everything else, so that’s a good enough start for me.

  3. Just saw, there are youtube tutorials about how to crochet a dish scrubbie – one really finds everything on the internet. Sure will try this, as I do have some wool leftovers

    • Welcome to the wonderful world of scrubbies! You’ll never look back!

      I can’t say I blame you for using paper towels to clean up after your poor kitty. I would, too. We do what we can and we let go of what we can’t. 🙂

      And yes! Just start! Being mindful is half of the battle.

  4. I run a “gross load” of laundry every week. I use rags to pick up gross things, and usually throw the grossness outside or in the trash. I also use that load of laundry to wash the mop head, rags used to clean the bathroom (gross!), the towel used to wash the dog (not every week) and anything else I use that’s gross. I try to wash jeans or a bleach load next (on those rare occasions when I do bleach) to eliminate any yuck, or I do that load last (and expect any germs to die before my next load — it’s very dry here most days). Looking over this, I may think too much about laundry!

    • yeah, I do “gross laundry” also. And if I need rags that can be thrown away, I cut up old underwear that I would throw away anyway to use for that. But I don’t have enough old underwear for how often my cat throws up … and getting all the stuff out of the rags before washing them – I just can’t get myself to do that.
      Well mostly I pity my cat for having such a sensitive stomach, never before had a cat that had to got to the vet so often

  5. When I am sorting the washing to put away if I find old underwear or socks that are too ragged to be put away and need to go in the rubbish I hang on to them and use them for the filthy jobs that come up and then I put them in the bin. Any other items of clothing that are too worn to be donated but would make good rags I cut up and keep in a basket. I am also considering giving up paper towels. Haven’t bought any plastic bags for sandwiches or snacks for months so that’s a good thing!

    • Just realized that I only do this with underwear, because that’s what I saw my mother do … but just threw out a bunch of old socks that I could have used also … I really wonder sometimes how it is so hard to do things outside of what one is used to …

  6. “make seeing what’s in the fridge and panty much easier.” 😉

    I still use sponges because I find they dry faster than dishcloths/scrubbies/…therefore germs don’t grow as easily in them… But I make sure to only buy sponges that go in the washing machine at 60°C…

    I’m currently in Korea and I was amazed when I got here that people around me didn’t have a clue what a tea/dish towel was… Apparently you’re supposed to dry your dishes with kitchen roll. So the first time I had a visitor from Europe, the thing I asked him to bring was a linen tea towel! Also, Koreans are packaging freaks, everything comes with multiple useless layers of plastic/cardboard, for instance eggs are often wrapped individually in orange plastic netting. On the plus side, they do recycle a lot, but still… Here would be a good place to start a waste awareness campaign.

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