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Creating a Zero-Waste Kitchen

By Larry Jergins

A recent poll shows two-thirds of Americans have experienced an eco-friendly wake-up call as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That's encouraging when you consider that more than 30% of the food in the U.S. goes to waste.

The pandemic seems to be raising awareness of the preciousness of food and the overuse of paper products. It's also enlightened us about the importance of recycling and the need for sustainable shopping.

Nowhere is this concern more apparent than in the kitchen. As Americans have become more eco-aware, a trend has emerged to create zero-waste kitchens.

An absolutely zero-waste kitchen might be impossible in today's world, but you can take steps that will get you on the way.

Reduce Food Waste

The Food and Drug Administration estimates more than 133 billion pounds of food produced in this country is wasted. Americans put about 20% of all the food they buy in the trash. This happens at a time when about 11% of all households in the U.S. are food insecure and need help to feed their families. Some people waste, while others go hungry. To reduce waste, plan your family's meals, and buy only what you need. Supermarkets are the perfect setting for impulse buying — all those things that seem like a great choice at the moment but end up languishing in the pantry past the expiration date. Figure leftovers into your meal planning so they don't grow mold in the back of the refrigerator and wind up in the garbage.

 Grow a Garden

Depending on where you live, vegetable gardens can begin in late winter and continue until the first hard freeze. Cucumbers are easy and the coolest summer veggie in town! Tomatoes will grow both inside and outdoors. You benefit from having fresh fruits and vegetables and plenty left over to can or freeze. That means buying less at the store. Once you get the hang of gardening, you'll probably be giving veggies to friends and relatives. If you can't have your own plot, see if there's a community garden nearby or visit farmer's markets.

Build a Compost Pile

Most kitchen waste can be composted. A well-built compost pile provides nutrients for your vegetable garden, flowerbeds, or lawn. Composting is nature's way of recycling. It involves some work, but it keeps food out of landfills and garbage disposals.

Carry Your Own Shopping Bags

Most supermarkets offer reusable shopping bags at a cheap price or you can buy them online. Americans send nearly 100 billion plastic bags to landfills each year and the plastic takes decades to decompose. It takes about 12 million barrels of oil to make those bags. Paper bags may decompose more quickly, but their weight and volume take up a lot of landfill space. Reusable bags eliminate a lot of waste.

Buy in Bulk When Possible

Unlike Great Grandma, you can't get most of your kitchen staples from bins at the general store, but you can stock up on some of the things you use most often. Buy in bulk or in jumbo packages when it comes to rice, dry beans, flour, sugar, and spices. Store them in big glass containers. You'll keep a ready supply handy and cut down on the amount of packaging you put in the trash.

Remember China, Glass, and Cloth?

Countless generations survived without plastic tableware, paper plates and cups, and paper towels. All these things wind up in the trash. Use china (using the term in its broadest sense), glasses, and cloth napkins and towels. They're washable, cleanable, and reusable. Old sheets, towels, and tee shirts make excellent cleaning rags.

How far you go toward creating a zero-waste kitchen will depend on your family's needs and circumstances. But even baby steps can help reduce needless waste.

Larry Jergins has worked in his county waste management division for 20 years and recently became certified as a recycling specialist. His favorite project is turning Christmas trees and yard waste into mulch and building compost bins for the community.

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