I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions, but I do like to set random self-improvement (or community-improvement) goals regularly. Whether it’s volunteering for an important cause, teaching myself to do hula hoop or handstands, or committing to Buy Nothing New for a year (… or much longer since I’m completely obsessed with thrifting), I enjoy challenging myself and the feeling of satisfaction and pride when I learn a new skill or make a positive impact in my family/community/life.
I discovered the Zero Waste Movement a few years ago and have made some good progress towards reducing our family’s trash and even our recycling. With new year’s resolutions in full swing, I thought I would share a few waste-reducing tips. As a full-time cubicle-working mother, commuting almost 2 hours per day on the bus, family of four, volunteering in my “spare time” (ha!), and blogging in my “other spare time,” I’m making a difference whenever and wherever I can. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing a less wasteful product, but sometimes these eco-conscious decisions can take a little extra time and effort (e.g. making homemade instead of buying pre-packaged items). Either way, all we can do is do our best and try to pass these less wasteful life skills on to future generations so that it becomes the easy, obvious and automatic choice.
Because there are *so* many ways to reduce our consumption of plastics and packaged goods in general, I’ve broken this post into a series of three separate parts:
Part 1 – In the Kitchen (today’s post, below)
Part 2 – Toiletries and Household Products
Part 3 – Kids and Babies (post to come…)
Before I get deep into it, I also want to say that our family is by no means ZERO waste yet (we buy seaweed and canned sardines and sometimes we order Indian take-out or pizza)! We recycle A LOT (see above pic), but I feel we can do better. We still have plastic in our home — however, I wash and re-use previously purchased plastic containers, zip-lock and grocery bags, keeping them out of landfills for as long as they can be useful. As a family, we are conscious of our choices and working towards less waste every day. Basically, we’re doing our best.
Here is Part 1:
1. Buy bulk/loose items
Waste can pile up quickly in the average home – and when you increase the scale up to city or even country-wide levels, it can be pretty mind-blowing . When you buy in bulk, you can not only reduce packaging waste, but you can also likely avoid food waste as you can buy only the amount you need. In Canada, we are so lucky to have shops like Bulk Barn** — as well as numerous other bulk/health food shops. Most of these shops will let you bring your own jars or reusable containers — AMAAAAAZING! Upon arrival, have your containers weighed, and then at checkout, the weight of the container can be removed from the total. Even if you don’t always have empty containers on hand, chances are the minimal plastic/paper bags supplied by the bulk shop (also completely reusable by the way!) are significantly less wasteful than the packaging options found in a commercial supermarket (e.g. heavy duty plastics, sometimes multiple layers, special seals, styrofoam, boxes, dyes, foils, etc, etc. — who needs it?!). **Note: Not all Bulk Barn locations have transitioned to this new system yet (seems most in Ottawa allow you to bring containers, but some are still in the process of transitioning).
I did a little experiment recently. I visited a grocery store and bought two virtually identical sets of groceries: Cart #1 loose, unpackaged, whole foods, and Cart #2 packaged and/or prepared. It wasn’t a full grocery list, but I ended up with two very visually distinct baskets (I got quite a few confused looks, too…). Anyway, as you can see from the images — pre and post-consumption, there is a pretty incredible difference in the amount of plastic and styrofoam waste. A few things to note about my experiment:
- The clementines got devoured before I could take the ‘before’ (food) photo… and unfortunately I don’t have photoshop or know how to do anything clever to compensate for the empty box, so you’ll just have to use your imagination..
- Some of the packaged items are things I would typically make myself (i.e. gnocchi and almond milk — though, I’ve occasionally bought them, too!), so for those items, I bought the equivalent raw ingredients (i.e. potatoes and almonds). Therefore, some additional time and work-load considerations are associated with Cart #1.
- Some of this waste can be re-used (e.g. elastics and twist ties, the thin plastic bag used to transport the raw almonds will be kept for food storage, in place of plastic wrap; the paper bag will likely go into the fireplace and the clementine box has already been upcycled into a … doll bed?! Apparently my kids are as opposed to trash as I am!).
- Some of this waste can be recycled – but that is not the point, really, as recycling still creates additional waste and much of it will still end up in landfill.
- Grand total for each set of groceries was… drumroll… $51 for the un-packaged (Cart #1) and $46 for the packaged (Cart #2) items. While it might be surprising to see that the highly packaged goods cost slightly less, my thought is that much of the packaging is intended to extend shelf life (translating into a lower price point). Regardless, that’s $5 I’d gladly pay to avoid unnecessary trash.
There are *so* many benefits to making your own food (and other items) at home, from scratch. Aside from the obvious health benefits, family bonding time, knowledge and appreciation for what actually goes into your food, the amount of waste reduction can be mind-blowingly simple. For example, let’s consider soup stock or broth. It can come in a variety of forms at the store — cans, tetra packs, jars, dry boullion cubes — each with its own packaging (and likely some dodgy preservatives). Whereas, if you were to retain veggie scraps from your other cooking — the stuff you were likely going to toss or compost anyway — and combine with water, salt and herbs (check out my Compost Broth post), you would not only have a healthy, homemade broth, but you would avoid the trash. Bonus: you would also see first-hand how much salt goes into pre-made broth varieties in order to retain shelf life and appeal to our salt-craving taste buds. By making food at home, you also gain complete quality control over the ingredients used — whether organic, local, extra garlic, inferno spice-level, vegan, gluten-free – whatever! Same goes for making your own juices, almond milk, popsicles, root’n’fruit roll-ups… you get the point. It could also save you some serious money! One thing it likely won’t do is save you time (something we all seem to be short on these days)… BUT I truly believe all those benefits listed above far outweigh the extra time commitment. Plus, you’ll learn new skills and hopefully even teach your fam about food preparation and the lost art of patience…3. Buy local
Check out local farmers’ markets in your area. Buying direct from local farmers will not only give you the freshest food choices, but also likely avoid excessive (or any) packaging — plus, it just feels good to support your community! Triple win. And if the time factor comes into play for you/your family and you just can’t get to the fresh market or even grocery shopping causes you stress, check out your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) listings. Just Google “CSA + your city” and find a farm that suits you. I am *so* thrilled to have found Funny Duck Farms – a CSA farm that uses organic biodynamic practices, but also re-uses ALL their packaging (from their totes and egg cartons, to jars and boxes!). I LOVE THEM. And with my long daily bus commute, ordering fresh local items online (that can be picked up or home delivered) has been truly life-changing. Some CSA’s are more produce-focused while others may include eggs and other animal products or even pre-made items like pesto, quiche, teas, etc. See what’s out there and don’t forget to factor in that valuable time-saving and feel-good aspect when you’re pricing them out 😉
4. Wild and Homegrown Foods
Growing food at home (or sourcing it from your backyard) is basically just an extension of tip #3 (Buy local). How much more local can you get than your own backyard or garden? Whether you’re in a small city condo or have acres of luscious yard space, there are so many incredible garden-starting tips online — indoor herbs, balcony gardens, upcycled wooden planter boxes and teepees, or you can even rent yourself a plot at a local community garden (there are more and more popping up!). As for wild foods (think dandelion, clover, fiddle heads, stinging nettles, etc.), try taking a wild food class or foraging workshop. There are some great ones in the Ottawa area: the Wild Garden, Ferme et Foret, to name a few. These foods come with no packaging, no fertilizers or pesticides and are growing right at home in their natural habitat. So cool and so nutritious. Gardening and foraging are therapeutic and rewarding in so many ways, allowing us to connect with nature through dirt, bugs and plants! And if you try it and it’s just not your thing, stick to tip #3 😉
5. Reusable Jars & Containers
I literally just got a box of old kraut and pickle jars from my mom this Christmas. [Not a box full of old kraut, but the jars which previously contained sauerkraut…] Anyway, I am a bit of a jar collector. Not a Hoarders-level collector, but do like to have lots of jars on hand as I use them for many things, like:
- freezing applesauce, curries, sauces and broth,
- gifting homemade soups, jams or brittle (you can even tie around a fancy ribbon or make some homemade labels),
- storing bulk-bought dry ingredients like nuts, beans and seeds, or prepared items like Root’n’Fruit roll-ups, sauerkraut, pickles and other ferments,
- transporting snacks and lunches to work/school (e.g. smoothies, chia pudding, nuts, salad dressing, etc.)
You get the point. SO useful. As I mentioned in tip #3, our CSA actually uses Mason jars to store things like their pastured organic bone broth, and collects and re-uses the jars at each week. Awesome!
6. Reusable bags
This is an obvious one, and maybe should’ve been top of my list, but here’s my rant nonetheless… Cloth bags became really trendy a number of years ago (and still are). Sturdy, reusable and sometimes with cute little foxes, penguins, funny memes or corporate logos… they really are great. One problem is just that people often forget to bring them to the store — whether forgotten at home or in their car. I always keep some handy in my car, but also have a few lighter ones that fit in my purse so I will never arrive bag-less at the checkout counter.
I am a total bag lady. And jar lady, apparently. I always keep a handful or squashed up bags in my purse. As much as we avoid plastic, there is no sense in tossing or even recycling a bag until it is no longer usable. I mean, look how tightly you can pack these 5 bags into a ball!!!! NO excuses not to have some of these things on hand..7. Seek out companies that take back and re-use their packaging
There are a few admirable companies that will take back jars and reimburse you or refill jars/containers upon return their return. Pinehedge Farms offers kerif, yogurt and other pastured organic dairy products, available at many Ottawa area health food stores, where you can also return clean jars for cash-back. Before we found our kick-a$s CSA, I only bought Pinehedge Farms dairy products – not only were they local (Ontario) and organic, but they were zero waste! With our CSA being entirely zero waste, it’s given me even more motivation to seek out waste-free products. As a family, we tend to use mostly honey and maple syrup as our sweeteners of choice. I started buying in the largest quantities I could find (sometimes that meant a 10 litre jug of maple syrup… try fitting that in your fridge!). Anyway, starting this spring, we are trying out a bee hive rental service, allowing us to collect our own honey (there are a billion and six other reasons why we’ve chosen to do this, but that’s another topic). We’ve also signed up to receive local maple syrup from Wakefield’s Ferme et Foret, who supply their syrup in returnable and/or refillable glass bottles!!! More producers should offer returns/refunds for reuse.
8. If you drink soda, get a Soda Stream
I’m not a pop drinker — unless of course it’s some tonic to go with my gin… My husband does enjoy his bubbly drinks, so the Soda Stream was a no brainer for us. Not only has it allowed us to make homemade carbonated beverages from our tap/well water, with various flavours and significantly less sugar, but it’s also virtually eliminated any soda can/bottle waste! The device is simple, requiring no batteries/power and the carbon cartridges can be exchanged at various vendors to be recycled. You can use any plain, still water and within seconds you have a perfectly fizzy carbonated beverage, with the option of adding flavours like fresh lemon, berries or syrups. You can create your own flavoured syrups or there are a few Ottawa-area vendors offering mixes (yes, even a tonic mix!) — check out Split Tree Cocktails and Jack’s Soda. For families who do consume a lot of carbonated beverages, this product would be even more impactful on reducing waste (not to mention a significantly healthier option).9. Compost
I couldn’t do a Zero Waste Kitchen post without mentioning composting. Another eco-friendly way to reduce your garbage load, composting is particularly satisfying when you have a garden and are aiming to grow your own veggies in healthy, nutrient-rich soil. I posted about food waste last year, so won’t get into that topic again here. Check out my post about reducing food waste and making veggie broth from your food scraps.
Okay, that’s my sharing for the day.