Resisting the pervasive infiltration of plastic into our lives isn’t an endeavor for the faint-hearted. This material is ubiquitous, and its convenience lures us like a captivating siren’s song. However, resist we must! Plastic pollution has evolved into a grave environmental crisis, as the production of disposable plastic goods has exceeded our capacity to manage them. National Geographic highlights this exponential surge, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to a staggering 448 million tons by 2015, with projections suggesting it will double by 2050.
Annually, around 8 million tons of plastic inundate our oceans, while packaging now dominates as the largest plastic waste source, accounting for nearly half of the global plastic waste. This is a predicament that we should address, not solely for plastic but for all single-use items.
But how? Enter the Zero Waste Movement.
“My approach to minimizing my family’s annual waste to a jar since 2008 is to Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (in that order),” asserts Bea Johnson, credited with introducing the term “zero waste” from the realm of municipal waste management into the domestic sphere. While many have long rejected wastefulness, Johnson’s blog and her 2013 book, “Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste,” solidified the concept as a bona fide movement, and just in the nick of time.
The concept is fairly self-explanatory: achieve zero waste or, at the very least, minimal waste (with waste encompassing anything destined for landfills). Having grown up in an ecologically-conscious household and worked in sustainability for nearly two decades, I have accumulated numerous tried-and-true zero waste strategies.
With this in mind, let’s embark on a virtual tour of my kitchen.
Breaking Up with Paper Towels
In 2017, Americans spent approximately $5.7 billion on household paper towels, making the United States the biggest consumer of paper towels globally. In contrast, other countries favor brooms, mops, and rags. My solution? Swedish dishcloths and tea towels.
Composed of plant cellulose, Swedish dishcloths exhibit remarkable durability and can absorb up to 20 times their weight in liquid, rendering them ideal for cleaning and spill cleanup. Furthermore, they do an excellent job on windows without leaving streaks. You can launder them approximately 50 times or more, and they can be composted after use. One cloth can perform the work of 17 rolls of paper towels, and given that paper constitutes a quarter of our landfills, the arithmetic here is straightforward.
For soaking up spills and drying items, organic cotton tea towels or flour sack towels are laudable choices. We employ flour sack towels as napkins and, once they appear worn, reassign them to kitchen duty. Afterward, they become part of our rag collection for more demanding tasks and, when their time comes, they find a new purpose in the compost bin.
Storing Food Without Plastic
To circumvent the usage of Ziploc bags, plastic wrap, Tupperware, and various plastic food storage solutions, consider these alternatives that avoid single-use plastics and appeal to those concerned about the potential health consequences of storing food in plastic.
Several companies produce wax-coated cloths that are surprisingly functional. I opt for those fashioned from certified organic cotton coated with sustainably sourced beeswax and organic jojoba oil. These wraps can be used for storing food, covering containers, and wrapping sandwiches and snacks for lunchboxes. Their functionality is akin to a fusion of saran wrap and aluminum foil—possessing the cling of saran but behaving more like foil. They endure for about a year and are compostable after use.
Repurpose old jars or invest in a set of canning jars. I have a fondness for Weck jars due to their cylindrical shape that conveniently fits in cupboards, the fridge, and the freezer. I utilize them to store leftovers, freeze food, and as receptacles for items purchased in bulk or large packages.
Glass food storage containers, suitable for refrigerating leftovers or even freezing food, prove to be a worthwhile investment. Numerous brands can transition from freezer to oven directly, eliminating the need for plastic.
Reusable Zipper Bags
Several types of food-grade, reusable storage bags are available, usually crafted from food-grade PEVA or platinum silicone. High-quality options declare themselves free of harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol A and S (BPA, BPS), lead, phthalates, and more. PEVA, a non-chlorinated vinyl, has emerged as a common alternative to PVC. Silicone, a plastic-like material derived from silica rather than carbon, is another option.
One manufacturer, Stasher, ensures that their silicone meets all U.S. and Canadian food safety standards, as well as the stringent European Union food safety standard. While I have reservations about storing food in any kind of plastic due to potential health concerns, these products have garnered immense popularity and have prevented countless Ziploc bags from ending up in landfills. I recommend them as a gateway product for gradually transitioning away from single-use zipper bags.
Here’s a simple yet effective tip: If you have enough space in your fridge, consider storing leftovers in the pot or baking dish in which the food was cooked. Note that some pans, like cast iron, may not be suitable for this purpose, so check with the pan manufacturer.
Bowl & Plate
I favor the classic approach of using a plate to cover a bowl of leftovers.
Dishwashing Without Waste and Plastic
In our quest to eliminate plastic bottles of liquid detergent, let’s not forget about dishwashing tools. Sponges and brushes constructed from plastic can release microfibers into wastewater, which ultimately reach the ocean, while the remainder accrues in landfills.
Dish Soap Blocks
Savon de Marseille, a traditional French soap derived from native olive oils and alkaline ash sourced from Mediterranean marine plants, serves as a versatile solution. It is gentle on the hands, can be grated for use as laundry soap, and performs exceptionally well as a dishwashing soap. While I acquired mine in France, local alternatives offer equal effectiveness, such as the dish soap block produced by No Tox Life.
Pure Liquid Castile in a Jar
Pure Castile soap, another traditional olive oil soap originating from Spain’s Castile region, is represented prominently in the United States by Dr. Bronner’s. It stands out for its efficacy and versatility, serving multiple roles, such as body, dish, laundry, and floor cleaning. Although it comes in a plastic bottle, you can purchase it in bulk and transfer it to a jar to have on hand for both hand and dishwashing. Additionally, you can acquire canning jar tops with diverse functionalities.
Loofah Sponge / Scrubber
Amidst the assortment of sponges made from sea creatures, chemically treated cellulose, and plastic, an animal-friendly, all-natural, and plastic-free option exists: the loofah. These sponges, produced from the long, slender gourds of the cucumber family, expand when wet, featuring one side for washing and wiping and another for scrubbing.