10 Ecofrugal Zero-waste kitchen swaps

It is one of the rooms where we consume the most. Paper towels, processed food packaging, plastic bags, single-use plates and cutlery, cling film, aluminum foil, tin cans, plastic bottles and more. There seems no end to how much single-use manufacturers and advertisers have managed to cram into our often small kitchens. But we can fight back, and save money at the same time!

So here are 10 suggestions for ecofrugal, zero-waste kitchen swaps to get you started. I’d be curious to hear your own suggestions, wins and discoveries!

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1. Unpaper towels

We’ve written about them before, or at least how you can make them yourself from old bedsheets or other used fabrics like old t-shirts. This is the most frugal route, but does take some time and requires some aptitude with a needle and thread.

Alternatively, you can shell out money to let other people upcycle old fabrics into unpaper towels for you. They work just as well, and the endless washability of fabric rags means we never run out of towels to clean up spills again. After making myself a large stack, I would really not be without them now! I’m even starting to think I might need to make some more, as the husband has discovered their many and excellent uses for cleaning up around the house too.

2. Changing your dishwashing routine

Sponges and dishwasher brushes made from plastic are very difficult to recycle, and often just ends up in the landfill. The detergents we use often contain antibacterial or other chemicals that are harmful to the environment. Here we have a lot of potential for change!

Changing to a solid dishwashing soap block means plastic is not necessary for transportation and distribution of our soap. If liquid soap is more your wheelhouse, there are a good range of recipes for how to turn solid soap into liquid soap for ease of use.

For cleaning and scrubbing, there are more and more alternatives on the market, such as natural luffa (fruit from a member of the cucumber family) and handmade jute scrubbies. The common denominator for all of them being that when they’ve served their purpose they can be safely composted.

3. Composting

Speaking of compost, it wouldn’t be a kitchen waste-reduction post without a mention of composting itself! In our house, we are lucky enough to have room for a traditional compost bin outside, and we also use a bokashi composting system for any tasty food scraps which might attract vermin since we live in a residential area.

Other alternatives include vermicomposting, or communal composting bins if there is a local community garden that offers that in your area. Several farmers markets also accept food scraps for compost, so ask and see what is available around where you live!

4. Learning to cook

I don’t know where I would be today or how I would even tackle this beast as an adult if I hadn’t had the great privilege of learning to cook and learning to like spending time in the kitchen as a child. Knowing how to cook whole food and from scratch can save you a flabbergasting amount of money and reduce packaging at the same time.

With just one bag of flour and some other basics like salt, sugar, baking soda, oil/butter and yeast, I can make bread, pizza, cakes, cookies and more. It also reduces the bulk and confusion of my pantry, because I can stick to stocking the basics, eliminating the need to stock 50 different things for just a handful of dishes.

For where to get started, I really like zero-waste chef for her excellent recipes. For a more in-depth look at the basics, I really loved Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat both available as a book, audiobook, and Netflix series.

Learning to cook, not just from scratch but also seasonally and locally, is a life-long process in my opinion. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t there yet. Start with just one dish and go from there. We are so obsessed with variety these days, but I’ve found that there is an amazing level of freedom in learning to cook a few dishes well. In medieval times, a very common dish in Europe was pottage. You’d think eating the same thing almost every day got boring, but because ingredients were sourced locally and seasonally, the dish changes depending on what is available, meaning a spring pottage was very different from an autumn one!

5. Food storage

I know stainless steel boxes are all the rage along with the very photogenic aesthetic of lunches packed in mason jars. But these can be pricey to acquire for the budding waste-reductionist. If you already have plastic containers, go ahead and use those. If you have old jars leftover from foods you’ve eaten, they also make great containers. I do love our glass lunch boxes (with plastic lid, nobody’s perfect), mostly because I can pop them straight in the oven, but I didn’t start there. The most important is just to have containers with which you can store food leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch (or dinner) or freezing it for later if you do not wish to eat the same thing three days in a row, but still want the convenience of just having dinner all ready and made for when you come home after a days work.

All the convenience of processed food with none of the extra packaging and questionable ingredients? Sign me up!

6. Organizing your fridge

In line with learning to cook and using what you have, a lot of us stumble simply because our fridges become disorganized behemoths of food where we only remember/see what is in front. We buy another tub of sour cream because we weren’t sure we had it at home, and then it turns out we already had two half-empty ones.

It’s obvious to anyone that wasting food is not just bad for the environment, it’s also a terrible deal for our wallets! I paid good money for that food, so you can be sure I’m going to do my best to eat it before it goes bad.

A simple, yet surprisingly efficient trick for reducing fridge waste is to implement a “use me first” box or shelf in the fridge. In goes the half pepper we didn’t use for dinner or the opened can of corn or that tub of sour cream that’s about to go off. When you don’t know what to cook for dinner, have a look in the “use me first” box, and see if you can’t whip something up using at least some of the ingredients therein. There are even apps like Yummly and Supercook which are made specifically to help you with this.

7. Keeping a shopping list

I considering adding this as a sub-point to the organizing your fridge point, but keeping a shopping list is important enough that it deserves its own spot. How else will you remember that you already have half a zucchini and those two half-full tubs of sour cream?

What I don’t recommend is sitting down once per week and trying to write the entire shopping list in one session. Even the most intrepid food planner is bound to forget something. So instead, we keep a list and a pen in a designated spot solely for shopping-list shenangians.

Realize you’re running low on cheese? Add it to the list. Bread, flour, jam, carrots? Add them as you go. This makes it much easier to shop once per week (or less) because you aren’t trying to keep a running tally going in your head. The only thing this system requires is a certain level of flexibility granted by keeping spares on hand. We always have a spare block of dishwashing soap in the cupboard. When that gets put to use a new one is instantly added to the shopping list. The same goes for heavily used basics like flour, oil, salt, rice, canned tomatoes etc. (your house may have different basics, obviously). If we use it a lot, we add a buffer so that we never need to go to the shop for just one single item. It’s amazing how liberating that is. It also means we always have food in the house, and can always make something for dinner, even if it’s something we aren’t super stoked about.

Have a hard time remembering what to stock up on? Etsy is full of helpful pre-filled out shopping lists where you just cross out the items you need.

8. Get rid of cling film and aluminium foil

I… I don’t even remember the last time we had either in our house. It has just become so normal to live our life without it.

We’ve already covered using containers to store food leftovers in, so that’s a good start. Other tips (thanks Zerowaste Chef) are putting a large plate over a bowl of dough as it rises if you don’t have a fitting lid, using beeswax wraps, reusable silicone bags and finding ovenproof dishes with fitting lids to use instead of food oven-baked wrapped in aluminium foil. I have an old porcelain dish with a glass lid from the 60’s and I love it, chipped and all. I use it for anything from fish and veg to cakes and pies. Highly recommend.

It might take a couple of tries to find the reusable options that work for you and your life situation, so don’t give up, there are many different options out there.

9. Reusable bags

You knew it was coming, didn’t you? Yup, I do want to talk about reusable bags, both small bags for individual types of produce and larger shopping bags for carrying your loot home with you. We have DIY articles for both making shopping bags from old shirts, sewing produce bags and crocheting produce bags, so there’s something for everyone!

And as usual, if you’re short on time or just don’t want to DIY, there are so many small creators we can support out there more than willing to make them for you.

10. Tea towels

I add this last one more as a curiosity than anything else. In my research for this article, I came across a few articles that talked about replacing sponges and paper towels for cotton washcloths and tea towels.

Do people not use fabric washcloths and dish/tea towels any more? I know I live in a bubble of self-selecting and largely eco-conscious friends, but I have never been in a house (granted, Norway might be different from other countries?) where these two were not found in great abundance. Usually at least one whole drawer dedicated solely to fabric cleaning supplies of the washcloth and tea towel ilk.

When we moved from London and back to Norway, I had the great fortune of receiving an old china set from my grandmother that she had inherited from her father. For some lovely but unfathomable reason, she had decided to wrap the porcelain carefully in tea towels rather than newspaper.

I do love the cute little coffee cups and hopelessly dainty plates, but I must admit, it is the large stack of towels I use the most. I always have 1-2 tea towels (smooth weave) for drying dishes an 1 small, regular towel (fluffy) for drying my hands in the kitchen. It is so easy and so efficient.

So that’s it! My 10 tips for a slightly more ecofrugal kitchen routine. Would love to hear your own tips and ideas below!

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2 thoughts on “10 Ecofrugal Zero-waste kitchen swaps

  1. I have questions! I’m trying to live more eco-friendly (frugal is more optional) and the kitchen (and cleaning in general) has definitely given me some challenges.
    #1 how do you store partially used produce? As in, I cut my Avocado in half and want to store the other half. I use ziploc bags, and haven’t found a replacement that doesn’t just lead to the avocado going bad and having food waste 🙁
    #2 do you use unpaper towels for all cleaning? I have a bunch of small towels / rags that I try to use, but they seem to get dirty so quickly! I would have to have so many to clean the entire bathroom. What am I doing wrong? Are unpaper towels that much better than washrags/dish towels/small towels?
    Ziploc bags and paper towels are definitely my biggest form of waste (at least where I am I can compost food-soiled paper towels) and I haven’t been able to cut down on it much because the alternatives I try never work out.

    1. Hi Jess! Thank you for your questions, I hope I can provide some inspiration for you. 🙂
      #1 I plop my partially used produce (if they are small, like avocado, onion and peppers) in one of my many storage boxes. Generally though, I try to plan for several dishes in a row that uses the same ingredients if I am using only a part of it, so if I use half an onion one day I try to cook something with the other half in the next 1-2 days. Same when I buy a bag of carrots – that means that week is full of carrot soup, carrot in the lunch box, oven-baked carrots, etc. For large things like watermelon, I have actually found that they do better if I just leave them in the fridge as is and eat them fairly fast. I would rather have some dry edges I can cut off than a soggy, rotting watermelon as I’ve often experienced will happen when it is wrapped in clingfilm. “Leftover Thursdays” also helps us, and can mean anything from setting the table with a buffet of the dinner leftovers so far, so cooking up a soup or a stew of the vegetables that are starting to look sad.
      #2 We do have a lot of unpaper towels (a whole bedsheet worth and more as I am finally starting to cut up some of my most worn-out clothes)! But I don’t use more than one or two to clean the bathroom. I always go from cleanest to dirtiest when I clean, so for instance I might start out with the mirror, continue on to the sink, the shower, and lastly the toilet before it is “spent” and goes straight in the laundry hamper. Floors are done separately, but I follow the same principle in the kitchen as well. My “benchtop” rag might get downgraded to a floor rag if I spill something on the floor, and then I pick up a clean one for a new benchtop rag as the old one goes in the wash at the end of the day. For the same reason I differentiate between the towel I dry my hands on while I cook (gets dirty fast, must be replaced often), and the towel I dry clean dishes with (gets wet, but not really all that dirty, can be replaced less often as long as it is hung in a place where it dries fast).
      It miiiiight spill through here that I have worked in several industrial-sized kitchens over the years and have some ingrained habits that I don’t really think about that much in my day-to-day life, so don’t despair if you can’t change everything at once. Best of luck! 🙂

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