How Cutting down on Kitchen Waste helps the Planet and Me.
Reducing, Reusing, Recycling Food Packaging.
Realizing the immensity of my domestic kitchen waste problem was an incentive to slow down and live a simpler life. What I didn’t know at the time was that improving my kitchen waste issues would actually help me slow down. Retailers and product manufacturers have been telling us for decades that their products make our lives easier. We work longer hours and have less time to prepare meals. Retailers have built an industry that feeds this vulnerability and our need to feel nurtured and rewarded for the hard work we do. Convenience foods are marketed as healthy, easy to use and simple to discard. I notice that the busier my life gets the more corners I cut to try to save time, and the more waste I produce. I buy food pre or part prepared in foil trays with plastic wrappers or in plastic bags. In fact more and more of these products are becoming enticingly available in our supermarkets because we all feel time poor and wrung out. When I am tired and busy I find such products hard to resist.
Creating a low-waste kitchen has made me question which lifestyle really is more convenient. Low-waste shopping involves less advertising, decisions, noise and distraction. I am able to buy exactly what I need. I unpack groceries faster and don’t put the bins out as often which equates to fewer dawn kerbside dashes in pajamas, bins trailing resentfully behind. And now that I think about it - its not just about saving time, convenience, chasing the dream of “a slow life” or being more environmentally responsible although I value such things. It’s about building a fulfilling life. A modern fast convenient life may gift us with more time but it can also rob us of opportunities for connection, mindfully enjoying the simple tasks of life, the gratitude and enjoyment that comes from creating something from scratch using the wonderful foods this precious planet provides.
The first kitchen waste problem I wanted to solve was how to reduce the disposable packaging I brought into my home each week with my shopping. Its a little embarrassing to admit now but the packaging that accompanied my groceries would fill my kitchen bin to the brim. So I decided to change the way I shop. I think shopping deserves a blog of its own so I will cover it in a future blog. But in terms of cutting down on single-use plastics and other forms of packaging, suffice to say local community fresh food markets and bulk bin stores are the way to go because most of the food is naked. Cooking simple meals from basic ingredients rather than packaged sauces and pre-prepared ingredients helped cut down significantly on my weekly food bill. And as I will share in another upcoming blog the meals I now cook from basic fresh ingredients are simple, quick and easy to prepare.
Gradually I set up an unobtrusive recycling system in the kitchen. This sock collects soft plastics. When the plastic sock is full my husband drops it off at a Woolies supermarket recycle bin on his way to work. Apparently chip packets - you know the ones with a foil interior - can also be recycled with soft plastics. The local community newspaper gets stored for use as a window cleaner then composted. I cut my weekly planner in half once the week has ended and reuse the blank back as a shopping list. We have a general rubbish bin and a recycle bin for tins, hard plastic that can’t be crumpled, paper and metal cans. Plastic bottles are cleaned and plastic caps screwed on to recycle them. We also have a small compost bucket in the kitchen, 2 garden compost bins and a worm farm in an old bathtub. It’s a great feeling to unload worm castings and compost onto the garden returning Mother Earth’s goodness back to her (cue Lion King music) - the circle of life and all that.
I have experimented with using newspapers to line my kitchen rubbish bin. I was quite happy with the result but my husband was not and this is a problem as he empties the bin. He clandestinely smuggles supermarket biodegradable bin bags into the house. However I have heard these vary in their ability to biodegrade when they end their life in landfill. One downside of cutting down kitchen waste is that our kitchen rubbish bin doesn’t fill up very quickly anymore and the effectively biodegradable bags like Biome stores sell degrade in it before the bin is full. Of course one solution is to buy a smaller bin but the space mine occupies is unusually narrow and I’m yet to find a smaller bin that fits. And my current bin is - you guessed it - plastic.
Zip lock bags still occasionally infiltrate the house. I keep them for shopping, washing them out and pinning them on the stainless steel threads of my verandah to dry, then store them in my shopping basket. I tear up egg cartons and add them to my worm farm. Worms like them. The ring pulls on drink cans can be threaded over a hanger to double up hanging space because another hanger can be threaded through the ring. This is a good way to store top and pant sets together. Glass bottles of all sizes often get used to store pantry foods from the bulk bin store and I keep some worm fertilizer in a recycled glass bottle to feed my indoor plants. Veggie stick snacks store well in the fridge in a recycled glass jar filled with water. Food tins make great storage for pens and pencils but I am working towards eliminating tins. This saves space, a lot of money and cuts down shopping time significantly. Lentils, chickpeas, beans of all varieties can be bought dry from bulk bin stores, soaked overnight, boiled and frozen in can quantities in Stasher or recycled zip lock bags. Australia churns through 3 billion metal cans a year. These cans are mostly aluminium or steel, whose raw materials are extracted from destructive surface mining. Refining and smelting processes demand large amounts of energy and involve high fuel consumption to transport materials long distances to the next stage in production.
Plastic cling film is another waste product that creeps its way into the home. I have tried clear silicone wraps instead that are meant to replace glad wrap but have found them more likely to stick to themselves than any container I want to cover. Instead I use recycled alfoil which health food shops or Biome sell. I fold them up after use and re-use them again and again. At end of life I scrunch them up into a large, fist-sized ball before putting them into the recycling bin, otherwise they may not be captured by the recycling machinery. For some dishes I use an appropriately sized clear glass oven proof casserole lid of the appropriate size. These can be sourced in second-hand shops.
Did you know that you can now make a decent amount of money for very little effort by recycling glass bottles, aluminium cans and tetra packs? The Queensland state government recently introduced a container refund scheme to reward residents, schools and businesses for responsibly recycling their waste and stimulate the creation of more recycling businesses. I turned investigative journalist this week to find out what effect these measures have had in my local area and discovered this scheme is working. In fact, there are now 250 refund sites across my state. If you are in Australia use this link to find out what’s happening near you (https://www.containersforchange.com.au/)
One impressive business that has just opened in my area is at 266 Duffield Road, Clontarf opposite the Redcliffe Waste Management Facility (our local council dump). It is part of a new franchise called Express Recycling (https://expressrecycling.com.au) which is expanding rapidly with facilities planned for Bribie, Noosa, Nerang, and Currumbin all of which will be open 7 days a week. I headed down to it to have a look and was impressed. A lovely manager patiently showed me around explaining how the system works. Could not be more user friendly.
You drive right up to a recycling bay. Place your items on what looks very similar to a small airport luggage conveyor belt. Glass bottles go on one side while cans, plastic and cardboard containers are placed on the other. Press a green start button to get the belt moving. Press the red stop button when finished. A digital display shows how much money you are making as rubbish is loaded on and at the end you receive a little docket with a bar code on it. This is inserted into an ATM - like machine and monies earned sent straight to your bank account or delivered immediately in cash - your choice.
School tuck-shops, child-care centres, pre-schools, hospitals etc and other businesses that use a lot of glass bottles, cans, plastic and cardboard containers would be mad not to get involved. Kids will love it. The Clontarf facility was bustling. After only 5 minutes one fellow I was watching had already made $50 and he was only halfway through unloading his containers! Local recycling stations like this are popping up all over the place. There are many on the Redcliffe Peninsula. An Envirobank sits in the car park of my local Kippa-Ring shopping centre. It is like a large, do-it- yourself, rubbish ATM (https://envirobank.com.au/).
Unfortunately wine, spirit and milk bottles cannot be recycled in this way because the government has not yet set up an arrangement with liquor manufacturers and the dairy industry. But it has to come. The government provides incentives to companies that produce the packaging to collect the rubbish from these recycling businesses and send it to a local smelter to be re-purposed. Nothing, I was told, is sent overseas to be dumped or ends up in local landfill.
If the subject of waste-free living excites you and you would like to learn more I can recommend the book “A Family Guide to Waste-free Living” by Lauren and Oberon Carter.
Lots of advice, budget-friendly recipes and projects to start reducing waste in your life. More ideas that make it simple and sustainable to eliminate waste in the home, at work, at school and out in the world. Beautifully illustrated I found this book practical, informative, well-researched and inspiring. Check it out here (https://www.amazon.com.au/Family-Guide-Waste-free-Living)
What ways have you found to reduce, reuse or recycle your domestic food packaging? I’d love to know. You can share your ideas in the comments section below. Next week I will be blogging about creative ways to re-use food scraps and leftovers.