Turning a regular kitchen into a Zero Waste one is not as hard as you might think. It requires reorganization and a little research, but once a system is in place and the household is trained to use it, Zero Waste is a breeze.
Let’s understand our simplifying goals before spinning them into action. The kitchen is a communal room, often referred to as the heart of the home. This is where we cook, eat, drink, collaborate, converse, and sometimes even read or do homework. With such high levels of activity, the kitchen is a key source of waste and clutter in our homes
Look no farther than your kitchen cupboards, where accumulation is often overwhelming. Sandwich and ziplock bags, paper towels, disposable cups, and frozen dinners underscore a common cause for this surplus of stuff: we are searching for ways to save time.
In setting up a Zero Waste kitchen, efficiency is a crucial ingredient. It can bring peace and ease into meal preparation; it can bring joy to a task that we might otherwise consider a chore. In the kitchen, Zero Waste will not only prove to save precious time and free us from wasteful and unhealthy habits; it will save energy and money as well. But here is the catch: in order to reap the benefits, you need to make your kitchen a clutter-free zone.
Depending on your current setup, decluttering may seem like a daunting task, but the editing process will make room for time to create more and clean less.
A Zero Waste kitchen makes cooking easier; it allows a place for everything (with extra breathing room around it); it addresses health concerns associated with known toxins, and it maximizes your investment on groceries. Our Zero Waste goal, as you can tell, addresses more than just solid waste.
What about the zester, the specialty cake pans, the cookie cutters, the dozen place mats, the fancy wine stoppers, the wine basket, the wine cooler, the champagne bucket, the second or third set of china, the wineglass stem charms, the shot glasses, and the tablecloth weights?
There is a good chance that most of the items mentioned here can be forgotten, simply donated, and replaced by something else (the cheese grater works just fine as a zester, for example). The fewer accessories you have, the less time it will take to prepare your food: one graded measuring cup is easier to ferret out from a drawer than multiple individual ones, and the less you will need to clean.
Living with less does not deprive your life; it improves it.
Let’s begin the decluttering process.
According to the Pareto principle, roughly 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. It’d be generous to say that 20 percent of household items get used 80 percent of the time. The remaining 80 percent of household items are not really that useful.
In theory, simplifying a kitchen would be as straightforward as evaluating the 20 percent that we
do use and letting go of the rest. But it’s not always that easy. Our reasoning plays tricks on us and makes us hold on to things for a multitude of reasons. What if I wanted to host a Moroccan party? I need that tagine!
A less aggressive way is to set aside a day (maybe two, depending on the speed of your decision making) to take everything out of your cupboards (including food) and put back only those items that survive the following questions:
• Is it in working condition? Is it expired? Keeping something that you had good intentions of repairing does not save it from the landfill, it only postpones its imminent demise. Repair it now, sell/donate it for parts, or discard it once and for all (compost expired food).
• Do I use it regularly? Have I used this item this past month? If you’re not sure, stick a date on it and stash it away. If you do not reach for it within a month, donate it. But don’t cheat yourself: using the fondue pot tonight just to prove me wrong does not count. Donate your fondue set and other kitchen items collecting dust.
• Is it a duplicate? Only one set of hands can reach into the oven at once. Pick your favorite pair of oven mitts. When dealing with duplicates, you might find it helpful to set a maximum number or devise space limitations for stuff, and combine foods.
• Does it put my family’s health in danger? For example, Teflon (nonstick), aluminum, and plastics have proved to be health hazards. These should be discarded. This question proves particularly helpful in weeding out toxic items among duplicates (e.g., stirring spoons: recycle the plastic ones, keep the wooden or stainless ones). Eliminating these from your everyday use will put your mind at ease and keep your family happy and healthy.
• Do I keep it out of guilt? If you are afraid of letting go a hostess gift, remember that your guests do not mean to burden you or instill guilt; they just want to offer a polite gesture. It’s okay to let go of something that you never intended to purchase and don’t really want. And when guests ask about the whereabouts of their gift, it is totally acceptable to express gratitude and then to let them know that you are simplifying your life. Be the king or queen of your castle.
• Do I keep it because “everyone has one”? Is it too specialized? Does it truly save time, as promised? We store and maybe even use many kitchen gadgets simply because of persuasive marketing. Evaluate the true need for egg slicers, grapefruit knives, a salad spinner, or a rolling pin. Could another item achieve the same task? A kitchen towel can act as a salad
spinner, a bottle as a rolling pin. Often your fingers will do.
• Is it worth my precious time cleaning? Everything in your kitchen is to be considered, even the small items, even those hung on the walls or stored above your cabinets. Think of the decorative items that you have collected over the years: they serve no purpose yet they create visual clutter and require dusting. Are they worth it? The food processor is another high maintenance item. By the time you have pulled it out of your cupboard and fiddled with and cleaned its bulky parts, you could easily have hand chopped twice as many onions. Is it worth keeping?
• Could I use this space for something else? If you view kitchen storage as real estate, then your junk drawer, for example, takes up some valuable space for just containing junk! If it is really “junk” that you are storing, then why keep it? If it is not, then the contents should go where they really belong, and the free space used to create breathing room between worthy
• Is it reusable? If not, can someone else make use of it? We’ll look at reusability in just a bit. Don’t be afraid of letting go: focus on the benefits that you will gain from living with less. Don’t fear regretting things. Dreading the what-if is a normal part of
this process. There will inevitably be one item that you’ll regret giving away. But trust that this one item is a small sacrifice, a trivial price to pay in order to gain control of your kitchen. Nothing should be overlooked. Get into the details of what you have. And if you end up keeping items “just to fill empty space” (yes, it happens!), then remove free-standing storage or shelves or consider moving to a smaller house with a smaller kitchen! Because to reach full efficiency, “fit” should marry “need.” Anything beyond that union will ultimately be a waste of space, real estate, storage, maintenance, or heating.
Of course, paring down is a very subjective process, dependent on the size of your household and your cooking abilities and habits. But for illustrative purposes, I will list the kitchen items (I will cover the pantry later) we have chosen to keep in order to live a comfortable (rather than a wastefully lavish) life:
• Dishes: Twelve dinner plates, twelve small plates, twelve cups, and twelve bowls. We bought quality ware from a local ceramic studio. I have twelve because we can sit ten people at our table and I need a couple of extras for serving.
• Glassware: A shelf full of wineglasses, a shelf full of tumblers (about twenty-four each). These two shelves cover our party needs and eliminate resorting to disposables. We also use these glasses to serve cold soups and appetizers and to hold a variety of things, from loose salt to toothbrushes.
• Flatware: Setting for twelve
• Cooking: Three sizes of pans, three sizes of pots, one stockpot, three lids, a teakettle (all stainless)
• Preparing and serving: Three bowls and one platter
• Baking: Two pie dishes, one large casserole dish, one loaf pan, two baking sheets
• Utensils: Stainless ladle, spoon, spatula, tongs, and whisk, and one wooden spatula
• Cutting: One paring knife, one chef knife, one serrated knife, one pair of scissors, and one
• Accessories: Stainless colander, sieve, grater, steamer, funnel, one set of measuring spoons, a measuring cup, a scale, a bottle opener, a pepper grinder, two pot holders, two trivets
• Small appliances: An all-in-one blender and a toaster
Throwaways can easily be replaced with reusable versions. We all yearn to save time, at any cost (including the environment), so we buy into time-saving tricks that marketing campaigns promise. But who is disposability really benefiting in the end?
Take a pack of disposable cups, for example: How does (1) ripping open its packaging, (2) carrying packaging and cups out to the curb with your recycling (or trash), (3) bringing that container back from the curb, (4) going to the store for more,
and (5) transporting them from the store, on multiple occasions, save time compared to (1) grabbing reusable cups from the cupboard, (2) throwing them in the dishwasher, and (3) putting them away? It seems that we have been duped into thinking that multiple shopping and recycling trips required by disposability save more time than reusing a durable product.
I replaced paper towels with microfiber cloths, and we never run out. I have eliminated the need for trash liners with
composting. I have swapped plastic sandwich bags for kitchen towels, which I already had on hand. I have learned that I can easily live without wax paper or aluminum foil, and I appreciate the savings from no longer buying disposable plates, cups, or paper napkins. So many shopping trips have been eliminated!
If you stop buying single-use products for your kitchen, you will quickly realize that living without them is quite possible. Try it for a while. You’ll find that some disposables can simply be eliminated; others, however, will require an up-front investment, one that will pay for itself in only a few months! Consume to save the environment? Yes, if your purchase replaces
something that you would otherwise use only once.
If you sold some items when you decluttered earlier, you now have money to invest in reusability. But please consider the recyclability of the materials you choose. Select metal, glass, or paper-based products, and avoid plastics. Again, everyone’s needs are different, but for illustrative purposes, here is a list of the disposables that I have replaced with reusables:
• Paper towels: A pile of rags for wiping the counters and a pile of kitchen towels (made from an old sheet) for wiping hands. We use a knife to squeegee a wet piece of meat or fish.
• Water bottles: A stainless bottle for each member of our family. Bottled water is not only wasteful, it’s also not as regulated as tap water, so you don’t really know what you’re drinking.
• Cling wrap/sandwich and freezer bags: A collection of canning jars. I have about a hundred in different sizes because I use them for canning, storing, freezing, and transporting food, and I store about ten empty ones in a cupboard for leftovers. I prefer French canning jars, because the parts are integral and therefore easy to handle and wash (my favorite brand also uses an all-natural rubber gasket).
• Paper napkins: A pile of cloth napkins. I have about thirty, to accommodate our home’s guest capacity. I chose medium size for versatility (they work for both cocktails and dinners) and patterned to hide the hard-to-clean grease stains. Each family member uses a monogrammed ring to identify and reuse his napkin between washes.
• Tea bags: A tea strainer. I chose a medium-size ball strainer based on the opening and capacity of our insulated stainless bottles.
• Coffee filters: A coffee press. Reusable coffee filters are also available for those using coffee machines.
• Toothpicks: Turkey lacers. About thirty, based on the maximum amount of guests that we can host at our house. You could also purchase reusable stainless-steel or titanium cocktail picks.
Reusability is not only about eliminating disposables, it’s also about buying durable quality when replacements are needed. Buy secondhand professional gear, such as used chef’s tools, when possible; alternatively, visit your local restaurant-supply store to locate products designed to withstand heavy use.
The first step to a Zero Waste kitchen is adopting a composting system that works for your needs. Considering that a quarter of kitchen waste is compostable, you’ll quickly notice a difference in your solid waste once you set up a system. Whatever
type you implement, the most important part of composting is collecting compostable material. I have found that rotting is easiest when the receptacle (i.e., the container that collects compostable materials in your
Large enough: A large container will reduce the number of trips to your composter, and pretty much any container will do. You can even turn your current kitchen trash bin into a compost receptacle. We empty ours once a week; meat and fish scraps are frozen until pickup day.
Organic material smells bad only when mixed with non-biodegradable items, as they are in a landfill, because the latter prohibit the former from decomposing properly.
Since the preliminary stages of decomposition do not smell, you do not need to purchase a bin with a carbon filter—which needs to be replaced periodically. Your money can be better spent elsewhere.
Aesthetically pleasing: Many shy away from composting because they can’t stand the idea of having a “dirty” container on their countertop. I don’t blame them! But who said thecontainer had to be displayed on your counter? We would never think of putting our soiled trash cans on our counters. Under counter is best. Out of sight but not out of mind.
Within easy reach: We keep ours in a slide-out container under the sink, which offers easy access when chopping veggies, for example. Simply rinse and cut the ends into the bin. Keeping your receptacle under the sink also makes it easy to empty your sink strainer as it collects wet and messy scraps and discard table scraps prior to loading the dishwasher.
Find out exactly what your community recycles (including what materials are considered hard to recycle) and allot containers accordingly. Hard-to recycle materials are those items that are not included in your curbside pickup and need to be taken (or sent) to special locations.
Now that you are using your old trash can to collect compostable materials, you can use your old compost receptacle (usually the size of a small bucket) to collect landfill waste. No need for trash liners since the wet items that usually make them necessary are compostable. The contents of this bin represent a call for action, starting with changing your grocery shopping habits.