6 Easy Steps To A Zero Waste Kitchen
Keeping a clean and organized kitchen is essential in our home. Max and I both love to cook and spend a lot of time in the kitchen, so we try to make it an inviting space. Going zero waste in your kitchen is not only good for the environment, it's good for the soul. I love looking around our kitchen and seeing plastic-free, minimal countertops. It gives me peace of mind opening my cupboards to neatly arranged glass jars with bulk grains, baking ingredients and spices. And while going zero waste can seem daunting, the transition is more about simple switches that make your life easier, not harder. So let’s start in the kitchen, shall we?
1. Drink from the Sink
You know what my favorite drink is? Tap water. In Oakland, we enjoy some of the best water quality in the state—90% of our supply comes from Sierra Nevada snowmelt (picturesque, no?). At home, I drink straight tap water (no Brita or other filtering device) from a large mason jar and I never leave leave the house without filling up a reusable water bottle.
The bottled water industry would have you believe that their product is “safer and better tasting than tap,” but did you know that bottled water is less regulated than tap water? And don’t get me started on the plastic—bad for the environment, bad for your health. In the U.S., municipal water utilities have to meet rigorous federal and state water quality standards and publish annual water quality reports. Of course, there are exceptions if you live in place that doesn’t have access to safe drinking water. I recommend doing some research and checking out your municipality’s annual drinking water quality report.
2. Swap Paper for Cloth
I remember our last roll of paper towels. We had already started our transition towards a zero waste lifestyle, and were using up the few remaining vestiges of our former disposable lifestyle. We made that roll last a loooooong time, and now that it’s gone, I don’t miss it one bit.
We now use reusable cloth and microfiber rags to get the job done—from wiping down counters to mopping up spills to cleaning the oven and windows. We keep a dedicated drawer in our kitchen with about 30 cloths total and a special laundry basket for storing grimy rags until we have time to wash them (about every 2 weeks). You can make your own cloths by cutting up old towels.
3. Reusable Bags
A growing number of people bring reusable grocery bags to their supermarket, and it’s awesome (Portlandia did a hilarious bit on this). Take it one step further by eliminating your use of plastic produce bags. Cotton produce bags are now a thing and a super easy swap for plastic. We have a wire basket in the kitchen to store all of our reusable produce bags and take about 5-10 bags with us to the grocery store or weekly farmers’ market.
When I get home, I either transfer the produce directly into the fridge crisper (apples, potatoes, avocados, etc) or a glass container (mushrooms, berries) or I keep the produce in the bag itself (lettuce, kale, chard) and spritz the whole bag with a little water before placing it in the crisper (this keeps greens hydrated and fresh). What would you rather have your fruit and veg stored in—plastic or organic cotton? At the end of the week, I wash all of the bags and place them back in the wire basket.
4. Buy in Bulk
Speaking of reusable produce bags, you can also swap plastic bags for cotton muslin bags to buy all of your nuts, grains, flours and snacks in bulk. Bring your bags, fill them up and note the PLU (price look up) on your phone or write it on your bag with a washable marker like Bea Johnson does and check out.
Once you’re home, transfer your bulk items into glass jars. Not only are you reducing plastic waste, but admire how pretty your cabinets look with neatly stacked glass jars displaying your bulk goods instead of a bunch of lumpy bags (it also makes it so much easier to find what you need). You can also bring jars to the market if you want to fill them up directly. I like to bring jars for wet items like olive oil, maple syrup, soap, nut butters and olives. Just remember to tare (weigh) the jars before you fill them (read our post on how to tare jars here).
5. Clean like Grandma (or Grandpa)
Marketers would have you believe that you need a “special” cleaning product for every appliance, surface and room in your home. Not true. You would be amazed at the cleaning power of plain ol’ white vinegar and water—it worked just fine for our grandparents' generation.
We use an all purpose cleaner of 1 part vinegar to 4 parts water (with a few drops of essential oil of choice) in a glass spray bottle. This all purpose solution is used on counters, the stove, windows, cabinets and even our floor. For cleaning dishes, we use pure Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap in a reusable glass soap dispenser. It gets our dishes clean and we can use it to wash our hands as well. Simplicity my friends.
We use a wood dish brush with a replaceable and compostable head to wash dishes and pans and a compostable wood bottle brush to wash glasses and bottles. These tools are designed to last—no more nasty plastic sponges. We store them upright in a ceramic pot next to our sink when they’re not in use. They look nice, too.
6. Keep Minimal
Take inventory of all of your appliances, gadgets, dishes, tools and other do-dads in your kitchen. How many of them do you use on a weekly basis (be honest). Try to minimize your use of “things” and instead cultivate multi-use tools that you use on a regular basis. Donate the items you don’t use.
If you do need to buy a new kitchen tool, try buying it second-hand first. Vintage kitchen tools tend to be higher quality and are generally constructed to last. Cultivate tools made of stainless steel, wood or glass and minimize plastic objects.
We buy old cotton diapers (inexpensive from our Tiny Tots Diaper Service) to use as cleaning cloths, been using them for years. I hang used ones individually over the side of an old plastic laundry hamper, so it mostly dries and doesn’t mildew, until I have enough whites to wash together.
I also use white cotton cloth instead of toilet paper for pee (there was so much wasted tp for just a little drying!) Originally I cut up an old organic mattress pad for these cloths, but lately I have been buying reusable organic cotton baby wipes from a diaper company. It is worth it to me after years of using scraps! I have a separate little hamper in the bathroom to save for wash day. I also use those cloths for blowing my nose, or a quick extra wash under the arms or whatever needs attention. I save so much paper that way!
About “drinking from the sink” – I do not believe it is good to be ingesting chloramine and fluoride, so I got a good under-sink water filter from Pure Effects which removes most of these chemicals from the drinking water. I didn’t even like the taste of our tap water (which the City says is perfectly fine – at least for what they test in it, which is not everything that ends up in tap water!)
So I found I was getting dehydrated, or going back to buying bottled (tested) Spring Water. Truly most bottled water is just tap water – don’t know how people buy it without checking! So do your health a favor and get a good water filter.
I do occasionally use paper towels for grease, as it is challenging to remove grease in the washing machine, but that’s very few sheets of paper overall. And I compost them after. The City picks up our compost bin, and I put all raw food scraps into a heap in my garden (not so good for paper towels or meat/dairy scraps, so the City gets those for their hotter compost piles!)
All we use for household cleaning is white vinegar and hot water, on the same white diaper cloths. If I want to sterilize the kitchen counter (rarely), I have spray bottles, one for vinegar, one for hydrogen peroxide. If you spray the same area together, it is more effective than bleach in killing germs. Then the chemicals combine and turn to water. You cannot keep both in the same spray bottle, or they will deactivate each other though.
The French clean with salt and lemon juice – even poultry cutting boards. But I make the butcher do that work, and just wash thoroughly anything raw meat touches, with my biodegradable unscented dishwashing soap.
So many cool ways to be sustainable!
What about covering things in the microwave so they don’t splatter? I usually put a paper towel over the dish and then use it as a napkin unless it gets really soiled during the cooking process. Not sure if pieces of old towels would work as well or not. And I agree about the problem with mildew. If you leave anything damp in a laundry bin and put stuff on top, you can get a mildew problem. Also, for those with cats (and maybe dogs), don’t leave damp, smelly towels where they can access them or you may find them peeing on them.
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Please do not recommend using microfiber cloths in place of paper towels. That is not freeing yourself of plastic! Also, microfibers can be found in our water and our bodies!
We switched from paper towels to cotton towels in the kitchen which has been a huge success in all areas but one. I struggle to find a good alternative to use when I’m cooking and need to drain something greasy. Any suggestions?
Love your blogs! Yes second-hand stuffs are good, it has a good quality. I also do the reusable bags when going to grocery store. Thinking of ‘Wild Minimalist Cotton Tote’ I’d like to have one of it maybe soon.
Nicky I was going to mention that too. Microfibre cloths pose their own set of problems. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/20/microfibers-plastic-pollution-oceans-patagonia-synthetic-clothes-microbeads
It’s so hard to know what to do. I try to avoid using kitchen paper, and do have the microfibres, but somehow I always go back to using paper at times, for hygiene’s sake. I have also started keeping old clothes that are natural fibres.
You suggest using microfibre rags instead of paper but at least paper is compostable. The micro plastic from microfibre stays around forever. Not sure which is the better option. Probably better to use rags that are natural fibres like cotton or linen – old t-shirts, towels and tea towels?
Hi Sarah, By “special” I just mean separate from my clothes. I just use a sturdy plastic basket.
Hi Lily! I’m making the switch from paper towels to cloth and I’m looking for a good solution for holding the wet and yucky ones until I wash them all. My first try resulted in mildew after 5 days but you mention that you’re able to wait two weeks… any advice or recommendations? Is your “special laundry basket” really special or just separate from your clothes?
Thanks for your advice already!
Hi Hannah, I have a mish mash collection of jars — the round jars with the white rubber gasket are from Ikea and the rectangular jars with the white rubber are made by Bormioli Rocco. Lily
Hi! I love your blog and store, it has inspired me to take on so many new habits to reduce waste. I’m wondering, where did you get the clamping jars pictured in this post that have the WHITE rubber sealing rings? The ones I see everywhere, even in your online store, have the orange/red rubber rings. For purely aesthetic reasons, since mostly everything in my kitchen is glass, stainless steel, or white, I would really really love the ones with the white rings. Thank you!
Enjoying reading your blog! Thanks for all the tips. FWIW, I have heard that Simpler’s Botanicals (essential oils, etc) are available in bulk at the Sebastopol and Santa Rosa Community Mkts, and [maybe] Good Earth Natural Foods.
Haven’t checked the rumor out yet, but keep an eye out if you go to either.
Except for the buying in bulk, with only two of us we eat mostly fresh and shop every few days, we do the things you mention naturally. Our post this week was a tongue in check about a soon to be homeowner who who fondly called Inspector Gadget….he will learn!-Laure
Great tips, we do a lot of things as you do and I hate for example the paper towels in the bathrooms, they do not do the same jpb as cloth ones and ate only disposable. Hope a lot of people will join this lifestyle. You are doing a good job! And I cross my fingers for you to persuade more and more people.