How to Create a Zero-Waste Kitchen

Use these simple tips for a leaner, greener kitchen.

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Photo By Deborah Whitlaw Llewellyn

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Stroll into The Kitchen, a community bistro located in the heart of Boulder, Colorado, and you’re in for a culinary treat—rustic food that’s in-season, locally grown and prepared over an open fire. But what’s also noteworthy is that all waste is either recycled or composted, no small feat for a popular eatery. “We moved to zero waste seven years ago and we strive to improve every day,” says Kimbal Musk, chef-owner of The Kitchen (thekitchencafe.com). “Our oils are recycled as biodiesel, and composted foods go to our local farms,” he says. “We also were the first wind-powered restaurant in Colorado, which we see as another form of zero waste.”

Anyone interested in reducing waste and saving money can learn from The Kitchen and others dedicated to making their operations zero-waste, meaning they send nothing to the landfill. Here’s how a few small, easy changes can minimize your footprint while potentially saving you some cash.

Rethink Waste 

Planning well is the first step toward a waste-free kitchen. Consider all of the waste your kitchen produces—trash, food waste, water waste—and how you can process it on-site. “Zero-waste is not only a physical kitchen, but a mindset,” says Adela Szpira-Stopka, a green-designated broker with @properties, a Chicago real estate company. “Given that most home waste originates in the kitchen, a green home should definitely include a zero-waste kitchen.”

Musk says it’s not difficult to become conscious of, then reduce, kitchen waste. “With simple new habits you can end up with a very small amount of true landfill garbage, which may mean reduced costs on your garbage bill,” he says. “Home kitchens should use a three-unit system: one container for compost, one for recycling and one smaller unit for nonrecyclable items such as plastic wrap.”

Coffee grounds, onion peels, carrot tops, egg shells and other non-meat food waste can go into a countertop crock, then on to a compost pile in your yard. Or use vermicompost bins, in which worms turn food waste into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. For a list of compostables, and instructions and tips on making compost, read the article "Compost at Home: Tips for Composting and Vermicomposting."

Trash Talk 

Today most trash is recyclable, so hopefully your recycle bins will be much fuller than your nonrecyclable bin. As you move forward, examine the items that end up in the nonrecyclable bin. You will probably notice a few specific things that always reappear—most likely food and product packaging. Can you eliminate these items or replace them with alternatives? Perhaps you could rid yourself of plastic wrap by purchasing several reusable glass storage containers with lids.

Buying in bulk can also reduce waste: Choose the largest container of household essentials such as dish soap, and maximize your use of bulk bins. Recycling the cardboard box your spaghetti came in is great, but you could eliminate it altogether by buying pasta out of your grocer’s bin and carrying it home in a reusable organic cotton bag. Blue Lotus makes organic cotton grain and produce bags that double as storage bags that help keep produce fresh.

If you often find your plastic laundry detergent bottle in the landfill-bound bin, consider completely eliminating that waste by making your own. Find recipes for washing powder, stain spray and brightener. 

Eliminating disposables is another easy way toreduce kitchen waste. Make the choice to rid your home of paper towels and napkins, plastic bags and wraps, and disposable utensils. Many companies offer reusable, lightweight, travel-ready utensils made from bamboo or recycled materials. Choose glass or metal food-storage containers with lids (reused glass jars work great). Turn old sheets or clothes into rags, or buy biodegradable, reusable cleaning cloths, sponges and scouring pads.

Water Log 

Water is used heavily in the kitchen. Though it may not be possible to completely eliminate water waste, you can do a lot to conserve water in the kitchen. Start with efficient appliances, including low-flow faucets (or faucet aerators) and high-efficiency dishwashers. Modern dishwashers eliminate water waste because they don’t require you to rinse dishes before putting them in the machine. Composting saves the water you would otherwise use to wash food down the disposal. You could also come up with clever ways to reuse kitchen water such as hanging a dish-drying rack above windowsill plants.

You might consider a graywater system, which is great for reusing household water as landscape irrigation; unfortunately, because the kitchen is often the site of heavy-duty cleaning products and unsafe bacteria from foods such as raw meat, most experts recommend using water from bathroom sinks, tubs, showers and clothes washing machines, rather than from kitchen sinks and dishwashers.

Waste Reduction Tips 

Several steps can reduce the amount of trash, energy and water waste you create.

End food waste. Enliven leftover food with herbs and spices, or turn it into a new dish. “Never throw out tasty food scraps that could be used for soups or stews,” Musk says. “My favorite is roast chicken leftovers, which make the best chicken noodle soup you’ve ever tasted.” Prevent waste by learning more about food spoilage rates at stilltasty.com. For tips on shopping wisely to reduce food waste and helping food last longer, visit naturalhomeandgarden.com/make-food-last.

• Stop leaks. To spot a slow-dripping leaky kitchen faucet, check your water meter before and after a two-hour period when no water is being used. If it changed, you’ve got a leak! Find other water-reduction tips. 

• Enhance fridge efficiency. To reduce your refrigerator’s electricity demands, create an organizational diagram and post it on the door. This saves time rummaging around with the door open and makes it easy to see what you’re out of before a trip to the store. If you can see just fine without it, unscrew the light bulb. And make sure your fridge door fits tightly—a good way to test this is to put a dollar inside the door. If you can pull it out without opening the door, you need to replace your seals. A full fridge changes temperature less easily than an empty one; increase your fridge’s interior mass by placing reusable frozen cold packs inside.

• Choose hand-operated. Consider hand-operated kitchen tools that don’t need electricity (or counter space), such as stainless steel hand graters, whisks, glass citrus juicers and manual egg beaters.

• Donate excess. Drop off unused cookware, dishware, glassware and appliances to secondhand stores or homeless shelters: Salvation Army, Homeless Shelter Directory. Recycle your old, second fridge or freezer. Some electricity suppliers offer rebates to customers who recycle their old clunkers and cut their utility bills. Check to see if your local utility offers such a program.

• Stock recycled. Buy kitchen items that already recycled landfill waste before they got to you. Ten Thousand Villages sells fair-trade, handcrafted home items made by artisan communities around the world. Look for recycled paper tableware, floor mats made from flip flops, baskets made from snack bags, bottle openers made out of bicycle chains and much more.

Letitia L. Star is a healthy-living writer and photographer who has written more than 1,000 articles, including many on green living, healthy eating and organic gardening. 

New Trend: Municipal Composting 

If you don’t have composting space, look for municipal compost programs by searching online for “composting program” and your city name. Some municipal programs offer kitchen pails, green bins and free pick-up. Helpful websites:

• Chicago: Chicago Recycling Coalition 

• Denver: Compost Collection Pilot Program 

• New York 

• San Francisco: Recology