Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Trailing Trash: How to eliminate waste in the kitchen

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Dear trashies,

Mr H and I are on an ongoing mission to reduce our trash output down to tiny.  We haven't really set a standard yet as we're still in the learning phase, but it's amazing how much we've been able to whittle down our garbage each week. If you're seeking to find motivation to reduce your trash output aside from paying a monthly trash bill or picking up the scraps when the neighbor dog tears open your trash bins, just remember that there is no away for trash!  I asked myself this question when we embarked on this mission: If all the trash we ever threw away had to remain on our property, how would we evaluate things we threw out?  This drove my motivation.

We live in a duplex with one surfer-yogi neighbor and his son living above, and behind our property is another similar duplex (they are wonderful old houses built in the 1930s!), owned by the same landlord.  Up top lives a painter and his dog Mikey, and below is Auntie Charlie and her husband.  Between the four homes, we usually fill two large trash cans and a recycle can each week.  I imagine Mr H and I probably provide the bulk of the garbage, so I wonder if we can diligently work to reduce that number to one can per week?  Update: By the time I finished collecting the data for this post, we had reduced our output down to one trash can per week, and every other week two recycle bins.  

We are nowhere close to the Zero Waste Home (they reduced their trash output to one Mason jar of garbage per year), but we're learning from them!  Her rule of Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (and only in that order), is a great mantra to live by when it comes to garbage, and while I will be focusing here on reducing kitchen trash (the main offender for garbage in most homes, probably next to blackwater), many of these concepts can apply to other areas of the home.

You don't say!?
I'm going to include a list of tools that have become staples in our home (they will be affiliate links from Amazon - meaning I might make a small percentage of profit on some items that some people buy by clicking through my blog links!), since I spent so long hunting down and discovering these items - who knew some of them even existed?!  I'd like to save you some of the trouble and jerry-rigging I went through in my own kitchen!

There are essentially three categories of trash that we have right now, and depending on your style of home you may have more: recyclable items, compostable items, and pure garbage items.  If you have a wood-burning stove, you may also use some paper products for kindling.

There is a lot of overlap in the following concepts, as they are all intertwined with each other - and, amazingly, they also all help you to live nutritiously and frugally, too!

Reducing Kitchen Trash

1. Buy food in bulk:  This is the obvious, and is so often brought up in trash-cutting discussions - however, it requires a little explanation.  Often you can buy bulk cases of items at Costco or Sam's Club, that don't really reduce your trash output very much.  A case of 40 individually-wrapped granola bars, for instance, may produce only one box instead of four, but it still leaves you with 40 wrappers and, more often than not, the four small boxes are boxed inside the large bulk packaging, anyway - leaving you with more trash than you would have had if you bought all four small boxes separately at the grocery store!  Think critically when buying in bulk - a fifty-pound paper and string sack of oatmeal definitely produces less trash than fifty one-pound plastic containers of oatmeal, and the fifty-pound sack the bulk oatmeal came in can probably be composted to boot.

2. Buy one-ingredient foods:  I know, how does this help?  Our next topic will help address how this will aid your trash efforts, but let me expound on this for starters.  As I hinted at in the previous section, and as you were hoping I wouldn't point out - yes, pre-made and processed foods always come with more packaging and trash than whole, fresh and unadulterated ingredients (we aren't even taking into account here the extra energy and waste used to produce the processed foods!).  Wheat berries, whole barley, coconut oil, dried beans, and many raw or low-heat pasteurized milks are all examples of items that can be purchased in bulk with minimal damage to your trash bin.  The paper sacks the grains came in can be composted, the coconut oil generally comes in glass jars or large buckets that can be reused, the plastic bag the beans came in is trash but since you bought fifteen pounds at once you have one bag and twisty-tie and not fifteen, and the glass bottles milk comes in can be returned for reuse, often with a deposit exchange. We use our own half-gallon canning jars for milk, so there is no waste there.

3. Make it at home: When you have a pantry stocked with one-ingredient foods, you can easily prepare everything you need at home.  Tortillas, bread, breakfast cereals, cheese, lasagna, yogurt, smoothie mixes and more are all items that come in plastic packaging that you can make at home from your bulk purchases.  Condiments, especially, can be high on the scale of trash-can offenders, as their cute little plastic bottles can rattle into the compacter with alarming frequency!  I made a fresh batch of mayonnaise the other day using lemon juice (not fresh-squeezed, but it came in a large glass bottle - a bottle which I still use today for my husband to take drinks to work in), salt (which came in a huge sack), eggs (farm fresh in a container I use every time I get eggs), and coconut oil (which came in a large glass jar that is still half-full).  The trash output for this batch of mayonnaise was zero, but if I had been buying mayonnaise then I would have another plastic tub to throw away - and most probably, it would have been given to me in a plastic bag at the grocery store, producing even more waste!  Use a SodaStream to carbonate beverages at home to save on plastic bottles and metal cans!  Home-canned foods can be jarred in glass containers over a hundred years old that can be reused until they shatter, and capped with plastic reusable Tattler lids.  My idea list below will provide some other useful tools.

Crocks of fermenting sauerkraut - twenty gallons total

4. Own a large freezer, and create a large pantry space: In our second home, we kept our shelves of jars in our bedroom.  Not too fancy, I suppose, but space is space and we aren't attached to the idea that a room must be used only for the purpose it was originally intended!  Getting creative with pantry space means a variety of things for many families: shelving in the guest bedroom, a crawlspace or under-stair storage converted.  Boxes under the dining room table, boxes lining the walls during winter, or any of a variety of places we can dream up in our individual spaces to store jars, bags and containers of bulk foods.  Owning a large freezer is helpful because you can purchase fresh meat at the time of butchering, pick fruit in season, or grind fresh flours and store them in the freezer.

5. Buy close to home, as fresh as possible: fresh food requires very little packaging.  The cardboard box for vegetables that we pick up from our local CSA is reused every week, often for years if it can be made to last.  We pick up our milk in half-gallon Ball jars from our local dairy farmers, and return the jars with our names on them to be refilled each week, leaving us with zero waste from the milk.  Eggs are the same story: cartons are returned to be refilled, and used until they disintegrate.  Meat purchased directly after butchering is always wrapped in plastic or paper or both, but all of these foods share one thing in common: they don't need to travel to the store in plastic-wrapped pallets, be unloaded from logo-marked cardboard bulk boxes, or sold and handed to us in plastic or paper grocery bags.  It's one thing to use reusable shopping bags - it's a whole 'nother ball'o wax to never need one in the first place!

6. Examine your disposable products, and see which can be replaced with reusable products: I use, as my inspiration for many of my kitchen tools and methods, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers.  Why?  Because they lived in an era before convenient plastic (albeit they lived in the time of lead paint and asbestos insulation!).  I browse antique stores and peruse old photos of kitchens, contemplating the difference and variety in tools and packaging before the disposable days were upon us.

7. Buy antique tools: Many antique tools are unrecognizable to us today because they performed a function that is now extinct in our kitchens.  Marrow scrapers, lard presses, even hand juicers are items which have lost their functionality in a modern kitchen where products come prepared in advance and where disposables replace adorables.  Hoosier cabinets with their compartments for flour are no longer found in most homes - why would we put flour in the compartment when it comes in a handy disposable package?  Those old Uneeda Biscuit tins and Smith Creamery bottles are valued because they came from a time before disposable plastic biscuit packaging and milk bottles. I use antique stores to stock my kitchen and often find tools that are extremely useful for me, for which no modern counterpart is being recreated.  Old tools often work the best, too - Squeezos from the olden days are made from all-American metal components and last longer than their modern plastic grandchildren.  An ivory and silver marrow scraper that I have from the 1800s is in perfect working condition, and an antiquated all-metal jar opener is still going strong for me, while I've already cycled through handfuls of short-lived OXO kitchen gadgets in the mere four years I've been married.  I also like using tools with a history, a story, and - you guessed it: buying an antique tool with a short string and price tag tag attached brings home less packaging than buying a brand new item from the store.  They generally last longer, meaning I won't need to buy ten of the same tool over time.  Buying antique also reduces the total volume of products consumed over the span of many lifetimes - reducing trash even further, in the long run!

8. To re-emphasize almost every point from above, to really help reduce your kitchen trash - get out of the grocery stores as much as possible!  This is a long process of slowly reengineering your kitchen's function and the way you eat, but it is very possible and all you need to do today is start with one tiny thing - buying eggs from a neighbor, or signing up at a local CSA.

9. You are not a bad person for throwing things away: Please do not believe this lie, and if anybody makes you feel like you are a bad person for using disposables, throwing away a Kleenex, or not composting, ignore them.  This isn't about morality, and it isn't about value as a person.  It's just a whole bunch of useful ways to help you reduce trash if that's what you want to do!   We aren't all in a place where we can do these things right now - but the key is to recognize when you are ready, and when you are able to start with a little change at a time, and being open to that change when it comes!

10. Resources and my favorite things: Some of these are Amazon affiliate links, and all of these will take you to external websites (off my blog).  I hope you enjoy these tools as much as I do, and I hope this list is helpful!  I wish I had seen a list like this years ago - it would have saved much grief and garbage, too!  Visit my Amazon aStore to peruse more products that I love using in my kitchen, and highly recommend to the urban homesteader.

Organic Coffee Sock  |  Reusable cloth tea bags or spice bags, reusable cloth coffee filters.  Also available from through Amazon from Regency

Market Spice  |  Bulk tea, coffee and spices - and if you do a little hunting, you can probably find a store like this in your neighborhood.  Buying tea in loose-leaf bulk is not only cheaper, but reduces the waste of the tea bag and string, the plastic pouch that usually contains each individual tea bag, the box the tea bags go in, the plastic that generally wraps the box, and the plastic grocery bag you get every time you buy it!  According to Celestial Seasonings, when they eliminated just the strings and tags on their tea bags, they saved 3.5 million pounds of waste from entering landfills every year!  I'm not a math person, but I'm pretty sure all the boxes and additional packaging would add up to even more than that, too!

Bodum Chambord Coffee Press, Krups Electric Spice and Coffee Grinder  |  Make coffee without a filter, and use the coffee grinder to grind whole beans to your specifications.  Buy loose coffee and spices in bulk in reusable containers, or with minimal packaging, and prepare it fresh at home.

Muslin, thin cloth napkins, Natural Cheese Cloth  or Nut Milk Bag  |  Use instead of conventional cheap cheesecloth, which generally only lasts for one or two uses, for making nut milks, fruit jellies, cheeses, broths, gelatin and other items that need to be strained.

Stainless Steel Straws and Cleaning Brush  |  We keep these metal straws and a cleaning brush at hand for sipping drinks - eliminating the need to use plastic straws.  Even though you can rewash and use disposable plastic straws for a while, they always crack after a few uses.  Ecojarz.com has longer straws, if you use the tall reusable Starbucks cups or have a deep thermos.

reCAP Regular and Wide-mouth Mason Jar Pour Caps  |  Use your Mason jars for holding condiments and syrups, taking beverages on the go, or storing those bulk dried goods conveniently.

EcoJarz Stainless Steel Drink Top and Original Cuppow Wide Drinking Lid  |  Use the EcoJarz with your metal straws, and use the Cuppow as a thermos lid or sipping lid (or with a straw!) to convert those handy Mason jars into tea mugs, smoothie canisters and lemonade glasses!

Ball Plastic Storage Caps and Pewter Lids  |  Instead of using the two-piece lid, make dry goods, leftovers, pickles eggs and mayonnaise easy to access with these screw on lids.  The plastic lids are convenient for writing on with Sharpies - it just wipes away - and you can put labels on either of them.

Let's Talk Chalk labels and felt pens  |  I use these for converting containers to my own purposes, and for labeling jars and their lids for reuse.

Waffle Cone Maker  |  That's right, stop buying those dried up cones in foam packaging and make your own!

Tattler Reusable Canning Lids  |  These reusable canning lids are more expensive than the throw-away kind, but like any other sturdy kitchen tool, they will pay themselves off in a year's time.  Read my review here.

Cuisinart Frozen Yogurt-Ice Cream & Sorbet Makerand Insulated Ice-Cream Tub  |  Making ice cream at home not only gives you control over the ingredients, but reduces a lot of plastic-lined cardboard trash in the process.

Gamma Seal Lid and Bucket Lid Wrench  |  Those 5-gallon buckets are mighty convenient for bulk food, but they can be ornery to get open.  Use the bucket hook to open those press-on lids, and use the  gamma seal lid for contents you access a lot, like rice or beans.

Kitchen Seed Sprouter and Sprouting Strainer Lid  |  Sprout your alfalfa and almonds at home, and save on those plastic clamshells of sprouts at the grocery store.

Bottle Capper and Beer Bottle Caps  |  Make your own fermented drinks (sodas, beers, kombuchas) and bottle them with reusable bottles - the caps will be your only piece of trash

Sodastream  |  Use the home water-carbonating system to make soda water without all the waste of plastic bottles!

iSi Creative Cream Whipper  |  Make instant and convenient whipped cream at home and don't buy the cans - or even better, use your multifunctional Vitamix instead!

Mini Funnels  |  For reusing glass extract bottles and putting your own concoctions into antique bottles or even new bottles, and refilling them easily.  Also useful for bottling home sodas and putting drinks in narrow-necked bottles!

Misto Stainless Steel Olive Oil Sprayer  |  This reusable sprayer can be filled over and over again at home, saving you not only the cost of buying aerosol bottles of spray, but also the waste of the empty cans.

Of course, a Vitamix can replace many tools and prepared foods in your own kitchen!  Click here to read my 66 favorite ways to use the Vitamix.

Many of these tools, including various sizes of Mason canning jars, will become especially useful if you start shopping at grocery stores that let you bring your own containers for items such as honey, nut butters, maple syrup, even soap and loose-leaf teas or spices.  Whole Foods and many local health stores will have options for this - be sure to ask an employee if you should weigh your container first.

Cloth diapers, reusable toilet paper (the shock! I know!), cloth wipes, Diva cups, refurbished clothes and a long list of other items could start our conversation for ways to save waste in other parts of the home.

What are some other great tools we can use to reduce waste in our kitchen?  What are other excellent tips, tricks and techniques for saving time, waste and resources?  I know many of my readers are experts in this arena, and I hope you will weigh in with comments and suggestions!

Mrs H

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