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Sustainability Can Start in the Kitchen

I made an effort to cut down on waste in my kitchen for a full year. If you’re thinking of doing the same, here are some of my recommendations for starting out.

Published Feb. 24, 2020.

Afton Cyrus

In January of 2019, my sister Hannah and I challenged each other to find ways to reduce waste (especially single-use plastic) in the new year. The new composting system we’re now using at America’s Test Kitchen had just come online (yay!), and it really opened my eyes to how much waste I was generating at work and in my home kitchen. A year later, I’ve been looking around to see what’s stuck with my routine, and am pleasantly surprised! If you’re thinking of doing the same, here are some of my recommendations for starting out.

1. Use Reusable Storage Bags and Plastic Wrap Replacements

Plastic zipper-lock bags and plastic wrap are mainstay workhorses in my kitchen, but it’s so wasteful to throw them away after a single use. I still use them sometimes when I’m working with raw meat, fish, or poultry, but I’ve been trying out alternatives for when plastic isn’t necessary. These are my favorite reusable storage products that I’ve stuck with:

The only downside is that I’m apparently very bad about washing everything out—these bags and wraps accumulate in a pile next to the sink until I periodically reckon with them. A handy wooden tree from FloWorks (pictured below) really helps with drying them out, though, and folds flat in a drawer when I’m not using it.

2. Rethink Your Cleaning Supplies

For washing dishes, my boyfriend and I switched from using sponges to using cloth dish rags, since they can be run through the washer and used infinitely. They worked tolerably well; they didn't suds up as well as a sponge, but we felt better about using them. But then a colleague recommended we try Swedish cellulose dishcloths instead. We ordered some adorable llama-print ones (see photo below) and are liking them way better than the dish rags. They seemed a little strange at first (they're stiff like cardboard when they're dry), but once they're wet, they hold onto soap beautifully and are soft and sturdy at the same time. Like cloth dish rags, they can be washed in the washing machine to clean, and they also come in some amazing patterns.

Wooden tree for drying reusable bagsReusable cloths with llamas on them
A wooden tree helps dry out reusable bags and Swedish cellulose dishcloths are cute and sustainable.

For other cleaning needs, we stash a big pile of cheap dish towels (IKEA for 79 cents apiece!) under the sink and use them to clean up spills and wipe surfaces instead of using paper towels. 

Ditto for using cloth napkins instead of paper ones at meals. I was stoked to find that a local market close to where we live (the lovely Pemberton Farms in Cambridge) offers bulk cleaning supplies by Common Good. You can bring your own reusable containers or buy them there and pump dish detergent, laundry detergent, and countertop spray into them, and pay by the ounce. This definitely cuts down on all the plastic waste we were generating with the pump-top bottles and jugs we were buying.

3. Buy in Bulk and Use Your Own Containers

Bulk foods

I am infinitely jealous of my sister’s idyllic Maine coastal town, which has an amazing co-op with tons of stuff available in bulk bins. Though bulk options seem to be more limited around Boston, I’ve been trying to buy things like grains and beans in bulk when I can and bring my own containers to the store to reduce packaging waste. It can be a pain to tote my jars or containers with me for a shopping trip, but it’s worth it in the end. 

4. Pack Your Own Produce Bags

I thought I had my shopping routine covered by forswearing plastic shopping bags in favor of using my (millions of) reusable tote bags, but I realized I was filling them with those flimsy single-use plastic produce bags at the grocery store, which kind of defeats the purpose. So I ordered a bunch of reusable cotton and mesh produce bags to use instead, and I really like them—when I remember to bring them with me to the store. I probably have about a 50% success rate with that, but I’m getting better about working it into my routine. (Sidenote: For when you do inevitably forget to bring your reusable cotton or mesh product bags with you, save the plastic ones you already have and use those instead; if you use them again, voila, they are no longer single-use!)

5. Make Your Own Seltzer

I am a huge Polar Seltzer fan, and I was buying the seasonal flavors (which have a bit of a cult following in Boston) by the case in plastic bottles, which is obviously not great for sustainability. We bought a SodaStream to carbonate our own seltzer at home instead, and it does a pretty good job. I’ve played with infusing our seltzer with some flavors (cucumbers or lime slices added to the bottle after carbonating is nice!), but when I have a hankering for those sweet, sweet seasonal flavors (I’m looking at you, Blood Orange Sangria), I buy them in cans instead, which are more easily recyclable these days.

6. Compost!

We’re lucky enough to have a small yard where we’ve built a little vegetable garden, so last summer we built a compost bin to turn our kitchen food scraps into compost. Though we haven’t really generated any usable compost yet (we need to fine-tune our setup), it felt great not to throw all of those scraps into the landfill. Our next-door neighbors even asked to start adding their scraps, too, which was awesome. 

We’re still on the hunt for the right countertop compost container to use to collect our scraps before transporting them outside (our current one gets moldy and gross quickly), and don’t currently have a solution for composting in the winter, but it’s been a good start. I love the idea of turning food waste back into food in the garden!

It’s been a great exercise to attend more carefully to our routine over the past year, and to find some fun and creative solutions to cut down waste in our household. Here’s hoping that these small changes will add up over time, and here’s to a more sustainable 2020!

To read more tips from our experts, check out these web articles:

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