With the prevalence of plastic in our daily lives, it’s easy to forget that its mass production really only began six decades ago. Yet we’ve created 8.3 billion metric tons of it so far, with the majority—6.3 billion metric tons—now sitting in landfills, where it will remain for the next 400 years before it degrades.
And we keep producing ever more of it. By 2050, there will be as much as 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in landfills. The oceans, too, have borne the brunt of our lifestyles of convenience. Scientists predict that by 2050, our seas will contain, by weight, more plastic waste than fish.
A 2018 study published in the journal Science Advances found that half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than a year. If you’ve been recycling, certainly keep doing so, but know that the United States’ recycling rate has been at only 9% since 2012.
Where you are going to make the most impact is actually reducing the amount of trash you generate, starting in the most-trafficked part of your house. With a little planning, patience and effort, you can move closer to a zero-waste kitchen. Here’s how to start.
Plan ahead. In a study published in the journal PLOS One in 2018, Americans waste about a pound of food per person a day, or 25% of what they purchase. About 4.2 trillion gallons of water are used to produce all that uneaten food. Plan your meals before you hit the grocery store to avoid buying fruit and produce that will go to waste. Also, choose the passed-over ugly fruits and vegetables; they are just as edible.
Cook for your health. The rule of thumb is, meals that come packaged, either in cardboard or plastic, are loaded with preservatives and aren’t good for your health. Cook your own meals and avoid the unnecessary processing—and packaging. Pressed for time? Batch cook and freeze.
Give up the Tupperware. Plastic food containers warp and discolor over time, or, even worse, can leach harmful chemicals onto your food. And most inevitably end up in a landfill. Invest in glass containers—they can go from the fridge to the microwave to the dishwasher, and are great for meal prepping. Unless you break them, they’ll last forever.
Give up single-use items. Plastic straws get all the press, but there are so many single-use items you can easily give up. Use cut-up rags in lieu of paper towels (or better yet, sew your own towels using flannel or terry cloth). Invest in stainless steel bottles for the whole family to avoid using disposable ones. There are a variety of durable, washable cloth bags you can purchase instead of Ziploc bags. And you don’t need cling wrap or aluminum foil; make your own food wrap using cloth and beeswax instead. They’re washable and last for at least a year.
Consider your cleaning products. As with food, homemade cleaning products do better in glass. Invest in refillable bottles and make your own hand soap and various cleaning items. Baking soda and white vinegar are natural cleaners with infinite uses. And those plastic-wrapped sponges you toss in the trash without thinking? Replace them with plastic-free alternatives like bamboo scrubbers and loofahs, which are biodegradable.
Shop in bulk. Most of the plastic comes from packaging. Shop the bulk aisle of your grocery story for beans, grains, dried fruit, spices and more. Invest in washable mesh bags for produce and small muslin bags for bulk items. (With pandemic precautions in place, check to make sure your grocery store allows you to bring your own bags.) And hit up your local brewery. Most offer growlers you can bring for refills.
Make mason jars your best friend. Cheap, versatile and durable, they come in various sizes, and the number of things you can make and store in them are limitless: sauerkraut, pickled vegetables, salted eggs, hot sauce, kimchi, salad dressing, jams and jellies, yogurt, cream cheese, your own cereal mix, even ice cream. … The amount of packaging you won’t be discarding will astonish you.
Don’t waste your good trash. You’ll generate some trash no matter what. Use vegetable trimmings, meat scraps and bones to make homemade stocks, and keep a small compost bin in your kitchen for the rest. Compostable items include coffee grounds, tea bags, flower stems, fruit and vegetable peels, eggshells and cooked food without dairy or meat.
Do not compost meat, fish, dairy, oils or butter. Call your local community garden to see if they’ll accept compost donations. You can also sign up for Viva La Compost (vivalacompost.com), which provides residential subscribers with a 5-gallon bucket and lid and will pick up your compostables and drop off a new bucket biweekly for a $30 monthly fee.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.