Kristen Hartke for NPR/
The 40 days of Lent, which began this week, are a time when many Christians around the world decide to voluntarily give up bad habits or luxuries. This year, it might be time we all consider how to give up – or at least reduce – our reliance on disposable products.
A year ago, I decided to create a more environmentally friendly and sustainable kitchen, focusing particularly on reducing my use of disposable products such as plastic sandwich bags, aluminum foil and paper towels.
It’s worth the effort: Americans toss 185 pounds of plastic per person each year while also going through 13 billion pounds of paper towels as a nation. Aluminum foil sounds like a “natural” alternative to a lot of people, but it can actually take a hundred years or more to biodegrade. If composting kitchen scraps or reusing old coffee grounds for a body scrub seems like a step too far, there are a few simple ways to reduce the environmental footprint of your kitchen without sacrificing modern conveniences.
I’m not going to sugarcoat my experience. It takes commitment and a willingness to change long-held habits. In creating my sustainable kitchen, I tried a lot of different alternative products and some plain old common sense; the result, however, has been worth the effort. I’m recycling more and relying less on single-use products. The kicker: I’m saving money too.
Want to reduce reliance on plastics in your kitchen? Here are four steps that I found can stand the test of time:
Invest in alternative storage. I’m not kidding when I say that I used to really love plastic storage bags, from snack-size to gallon-size zip-top bags — so this was, perhaps, the biggest challenge for me. Switching to reusable storage bags was a financial investment up front, but the cost was reasonable considering that I previously spent at least $100 annually on disposable plastic bags and wrap. My favorites: Stashers, heavy-duty reusable silicone zip-top bags that can go from the freezer to the microwave ($10 to $20 each), and Food Huggers, silicone disks that slip over the ends of cut pieces of fruits and vegetables ($12.95 for a set of five), are functional and durable (except for that avocado-shaped Hugger, which I want to love but it never really fits correctly). Fabrics coated in beeswax are handy for wrapping sandwiches or oddly shaped pieces of food and for covering bowls; variety packs from Bee’s Wrap, Abeego, and Etee all run about $18, while Trader Joe’s has a pack for under $10, but you can also make your own. For packing lunches, consider the highly affordable Japanese bento box, designed with food compartments that negate the need for disposable wraps. The proof is in the pudding: I haven’t purchased any disposable plastic bags for a full year.
Recycle. Really recycle. Americans are estimated to recycle just 30 percent of the recyclable materials that they consume each day. Plastic and glass bottles and jars, aluminum cans and newspaper are common items that we’ve gotten used to throwing in the recycling bin, but milk, eggs, Tetra Pak cartons, pizza boxes and plastic deli and pet food containers are also items that may be accepted at local recycling centers; check online periodically in your local jurisdiction for recycling updates. TerraCycle offers a pack-and-ship zero-waste box for a wide variety of non-organic kitchen items, from party supplies to silicone or mixed-material food containers. The company recommends getting together a group of friends, neighbors or co-workers to purchase and contribute to the box. (They cost from $130 to $475 and range in size from 11″ x 11″ x 20″ to 15″ x 15″ x 37″, but the largest box — split among a group or sponsored by an employer — can be the most cost-effective.) Once the filled box is returned to TerraCycle, the company will sort the waste into four categories (fabrics, metals, fibers and plastics) that are then recycled, upcycled or reused —depending on the type of material. The company also works with a wide range of manufacturers to offer free recycling of individual hard-to-recycle items, like Brita water filters and Clif Bar energy bar wrappers.
Keep it clean and eco-friendly at the same time. I’m a clean freak and used to go through an unseemly amount of paper towels on a daily basis, but it’s easy enough to take old T-shirts or towels and cut them up to use to wipe down surfaces. (If you’re cleaning surfaces that have been in contact with raw meat, poultry or fish, throw those towels in the washing machine to get them really clean.) I’m also a fan of bamboo paper towels, which have the look and feel of traditional paper towels, yet are made from a highly renewable source and also break down in landfills in just 45 days. Better yet, they can be reused up to 100 times. I can attest to how sturdy they are because I bought a single roll of bamboo paper towels for $7 a full year ago and still have more than half the roll left, using a single bamboo towel to clean my countertops and stove for a few weeks until it’s worn out (rinse the sheet in hot water, then wring and let air dry). When I consider that I probably spent up to $15 a month on single-use paper towels before, that roll of bamboo paper towels was a huge bargain. As for kitchen sponges, keep an eye out for those made with natural materials, because typical polyurethane sponges cannot be recycled and end up in landfills.
Think before you buy. In our disposable society, it’s easy to purchase items that are convenient but not sustainable — and more environmentally friendly options are generally available once you know what to look for. Juice boxes that include plastic straws, dishwasher tabs individually wrapped in plastic and coffee makers that use K-Cups are all examples of items that can create additional waste. When grocery shopping, ask yourself if you really need to use individual plastic bags in the produce section for those lemons, potatoes or apples. Consider packaging as you peruse the shelves for your favorite purchases, from cookies to pasta to frozen pizza. For instance, the plastic window on that pasta box may make it convenient for you to see what the pasta inside looks like, but the mixed-use container can be a problem for some recycling facilities. When purchasing bulk pantry or other household items online from companies like Amazon or Jet, ask to have them shipped in as few boxes as possible to cut down on the number of boxes you receive, and if you get a single small item sent in a huge box, let the company know that you’d prefer that it pay more attention to how it is packaging items for delivery.
Kristen Hartke is a food writer based in Washington, D.C.