Updated: Jul 19
I'm switching gears a bit today to discuss how to reduce your environmental impact while working in the kitchen. This will be a series of posts, with part one focusing on cleaning and future posts focusing on specific foods and storage options.
As a biologist, I'm very concerned about my health and the health of the planet. My family spends more time in the kitchen than most (we like to eat), so this is an obvious place to start reducing our ecological footprint.
You're probably already doing the usual things like turning off the lights when you aren't using them and minimizing the amount of time you spend with the fridge open, but there's far more you can do.
Most of the waste my family produces comes from the kitchen, and that appears to be true for most families. According to a 2012 report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American produced 4.38 pounds of waste per day (1.99kg), of which 14.5% was food waste and 30.0% was containers and packaging. That doesn't include recyclable materials like cans and glass, which boosts the percentage of kitchen waste even higher. Of course, those numbers are lower here in Japan, but still significant. In 2020, the Japanese Ministry of Environment estimated that the average person produced 1.98 pounds (901g) of waste per day. There are four hungry people in my house so that puts us at 7.92 pounds (3.6kg) of waste per day. Our cat weighs less than that!
Food Waste and Composting
Let's start with the food waste, which is relatively easy to tackle. Food waste should really be considered two categories: Inedible items (like banana peels and chicken bones), and uneaten foods (such as expired goods, moldy leftovers, and whatever your kids refuse to eat). You can reduce inedible waste simply by consuming the parts that would normally be thrown away. Here are some recipes to try for carrot top pesto, candied orange peels, and food scrap vegetable stock.
Ideally, you'll want to reduce the amount of uneaten food you are producing as well. First of all, you can pretty much ignore expiry dates in most cases, which exist primarily to indicate freshness and taste rather than safety. Apparently an American grocery store owner decided to put this to the test and lived to tell about it.
Composting is the best solution for all food waste. It's cheap, easy, and yields a valuable byproduct for your home or garden. I've seen a lot of fancy electric compost gadgets lately that are meant for in-home or under the sink composting, but they are expensive and unnecessary. Making compost requires only minimal effort and space. Here are the basic steps involved:
Buy or make a compost bin. It just needs to be a container that allows air flow in and out but doesn't allow pests inside. The bottom should be open to allow worms and other small organisms to access your food scraps. The size will depend on the seasonal weather where you live and how much food waste your family produces. Not much decomposition will happen over winter months, but if you have hot summers, food will be broken down almost as fast as you can add it.
Get a small compost bucket for food scraps and keep it in the kitchen. When it gets full, dump it outside in the compost bin. Stainless steel is more durable and recyclable than plastic and easy to hose down outside. Pro tip - put a piece of cardboard or some newspaper in the bottom of the bucket each time and it will make cleaning much easier (this goes in the compost as well).
Turn the compost once in a while and add water if it's getting too dry. Compost really only needs three things to decompose - air, water, and temperature. Use a pitchfork or shovel and try your best to get down to the bottom. You'll probably see all kinds of invertebrates in there working away on your scraps. That's a good thing! If you do this often, it won't smell and it will break down much faster.
If you want to go all out, create a 3-bin compost system to make your work easier and have compost readily available all the time.
For those who happen to live in an apartment or don't have a yard where you can install a compost bin, you can create some very compact vermiculture systems using purchased worms. I did this successfully in a 7th floor apartment and it worked great.
You really don't need much in the way of cleaning products in order to keep your kitchen safe and looking good. Furthermore, you can make a lot of the products you need yourself. You'll reduce packaging and save a considerable amount of money. There's really nothing to lose.
The substance that probably gets used most frequently is dish soap (or dishwasher detergent, if you have a dishwasher), which can range from pretty mild to extremely harsh. If you have to buy soap, I recommend something like Attitude Unscented as a mild liquid dish soap or Nellie's for dishwashers. If you take a look at the ingredients, however, you might realize these products contain very common substances, allowing you to make similar homemade versions that often work just as well and save you some serious coin in the process. Thankfully, you don't need a chemistry degree to do it.
If you've never mixed homemade cleaning products before, don't panic. The basic ingredients are similar no matter the intended purpose so I recommend buying in bulk. Once you make one or two cleaning products successfully, you'll realize that you can make almost all of them yourself. You'll save big over time and reduce your reliance on overpackaged harsh chemicals that pollute our waterways.
Here is a simple recipe for making dishwasher detergent, in both powdered and solid forms.
Making liquid dish soap is a little more complicated, as seen in this recipe, but if you really want to cut down on resources consider making concentrated bar dish soap instead. The advantages of solid soap are that it uses less water and requires no bottle or storage container aside from a simple dish to place it on. It might take you a few tries to get it right, but it's pretty satisfying when you do. Also, if you can nail this recipe, it's a simple matter to adjust the ratios in order to make customized bar soaps for handwashing, shampooing, and conditioning.
A few notes about the chemicals involved here. Many people see names like sodium tetraborate and citric acid and think that these must be dangerous chemicals that you shouldn't be exposing yourself to. The name of a substance tells you precisely nothing about how toxic it is. For example, dihydrogen monoxide sounds pretty intimidating until you realize that it's just water with a fancy chemical name.
Of course, complicated name or not, you should be investigating every ingredient you use to see if it's potentially harmful to either yourself or the environment. Sodium tetraborate (or borax, as it's more commonly known), is used in dozens of DIY cleaning recipes. It's a naturally occurring mineral found in dried lake beds and highly alkaline (the opposite of acidic). That's what makes it useful for cleaning. It's also a mild irritant that you don't want to inhale or rub in your eyes, but that's true for hundreds of products you use in and around the home. For this reason, it's worth restating Paracelsus's famous phrase "the dose makes the poison". In other words, everything has the potential to be toxic or non-toxic depending on how much you are exposed to. Similarly, 'natural' does not equal 'safe'. Citric acid is safe not because it is found naturally in all citrus fruits, but because it has no widely recognized negative effects on the body in small doses.
If you are ever unsure about the safety of a substance and you aren't afraid of a bit of chemistry, consult the MSDS (material safety data sheet) for that substance. These are generally freely available online.
Cloths and Sponges
If you are serious about cutting back on kitchen waste, look no further than your kitchen sponge. Chances are it's made of polyurethane plastic. It's intended lifespan is only a few months, at which point it will end up in the trash, but in the meantime it is shedding micro and nanoplastics onto your dishes, into the water supply, and potentially into you as well.
To solve this problem, wipe dishes and surfaces with a machine-washable cloth made from natural fibers, like this one which is made from plant cellulose and cotton. Avoid microfiber cloths as they are made with nylon and polyester (in other words, plastic). The same goes for dish towels used for drying.
Sometimes tough dishes require the abrasiveness of a sponge. In those cases, a good old-fashioned scouring pad is your best friend. These are made of steel or copper and can remove even the most stubborn messes on pots and pans with ease. They work equally well on glass, stone, metal, or ceramic surfaces, but they have the potential to scratch non-stick cookware. Copper is a softer metal than steel and so is less likely to cause damage, and it has the added benefit of not rusting as even stainless steel can eventually do.
If you are looking for something more appropriate for everyday washing that won't scratch fragile dishes or plastic, a great option is a natural loofah sponge. Note that I'm referring to the kind made from this vegetable, not about those squishy plastic ones used in the shower. My family has tried every sponge alternative from cellulose pads to woven twine and we always come back to the loofah because it works so well. It holds soap effectively, last a long time, dries quickly, is firm enough to remove most food debris, and keeps its shape even with extended use. When it starts to look a little sad, we downgrade it to bathroom cleaning duty, and eventually retire it to the compost bin.
Okay, so you've done everything you can to reduce waste, but there are still some things to be thrown away. Don't feel too bad about it. There's one last thing you can do to reduce your environmental impact. Use a compostable trash bag made with plant starches. Unfortunately, not all biodegradable bags decompose easily. According to one study, several supposedly eco-friendly plastic bags did not break down completely even after almost three years of being subjected to a variety of natural environments. The problem is that in addition to oxygen exposure, many of these products will not break down unless they are exposed to extremely high temperatures. Even so, they probably will break down eventually, and because their ingredients are far less harmful and persistent than those found in petroleum-based plastics, I still think it's a worthwhile choice.
That about does it for part one of the zero-waste kitchen. I hope you found some of the information here useful and are excited to put it into practice. Zero-waste is more of a lifestyle goal than a realistic target to aim for. Here's an excellent quote from the Zero Waste Chef to leave you with.
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