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Waste Not: Reducing Waste In The Kitchen

Photos by Gavin Green

It feels difficult to reduce your waste when you go to the shops and everything seems to be individually wrapped in plastic. Recycling was once an important part of the waste hierarchy, helping keep resources from landfill, but Australia is experiencing a recycling crisis as countries that once took our recycling waste are now refusing it. With China enforcing tight restrictions around the types of recyclable waste they will accept, and India and Indonesia following in their footsteps, a lot of our recycling is being sent to landfill despite our best efforts.

Most plastics are down-cycled, meaning they can only be turned into one more item before eventually going to landfill. Moving away from plastic altogether is the preferred option. Buying less, and using more of what you have might seem like old-fashioned notions, but in this modern world they may be exactly what we need on our journey to reducing plastic and creating less waste. You may not be ready to have all your rubbish for one year fit into a small jar, but there are lots of simple and easy solutions to start reducing waste in your life.

Do A Waste Audit

Doing a waste audit is a great way to work out exactly what is making up the bulk of your waste. This involves physically going through your bin and dividing the waste into four parts: food waste that can be composted, recyclables, soft plastics and landfill.

As you’ll already be aware, organic waste can easily be taken out of your regular bin. It can either be fed to chooks, composted or added to a green bin that is taken away and composted by council.

Choose Package-Free Food

If you only shop at supermarkets, it’s very hard to get away from plastic packaging. To find alternatives usually means going to smaller shops and local businesses, which might take a bit more time but means you support local businesses and get to know your community better.

Buy In Bulk

A bulk store or bulk co-op is a great way to buy your staples and bypass packaging. They sell a range of unpackaged dry and wet goods from cereal, grains, flour, shampoo and washing powder. Food and cleaning products are transported from the producer or distributor directly to the store in large bags or drums, and you buy as much as you need. Most people bring their own cloth bags, glass jars, containers and bottles. Make sure all containers you bring along are clean.

Ethnic food stores, health food shops, greengrocers, food markets and local farmers’ markets often have options available to buy in bulk. Another option is a vegetable and fruit subscription box. A weekly cardboard box of fresh and often local produce can be sent to your house or be available for pick-up from a central location.

Clockwise from top: Buying from a bulk store and using glass jars and bottles helps to reduce waste in your pantry. Have shopping bags handy by the front door. Take your own glass jars and containers to the shops. Photos by Gavin Green

Bring Your Own Containers

Some of the biggest offenders for plastic packaging are bread, meat, cheeses and fish. They usually come pre-packaged at the supermarket and even if you go to your local supplier, they wrap it in plastic for you to take home.

By supporting your local butcher, baker, deli or dairy you are usually supporting a small business that in turn supports local producers. This gives you the opportunity to ask questions about where your food has come from, how it was grown and make your own choices about the packaging it comes in. Often these places have their produce on display unpackaged and only package it once you order.

It might seem weird at first to bring your own containers in and ask for them to be used instead but there is a growing trend of people and businesses that advocate for taking your own containers to the deli, butcher, fishmonger, bakery and also for takeaway. The website trashlesstakeaway.com.au can help you find businesses that support customers bringing their own containers. Here are some tips to get started:

Pick a suitable container—think sturdy plastic containers like Tupperware, stainless steel tiffin tins, or cloth bags for bakery items. Clean and dry them thoroughly. Time your visits for when the store is less busy to give you and the server a chance to have a quick chat. There’s no need to go into the details on the plight of plastic pollution on your first visit; it can be polarising for many people and they might not have enough time to digest it all (after all, they are at work).

Remember that your server is likely new to this too and some patience may be required. They may never have had to use the ‘tare’ method on their scales, let alone fill a customer’s container brought from home. You might have to repeat your request during the first handful of visits, but eventually they will see you walk in, take the container and complete the transaction with perfect ease. Once you’ve had a few months of getting to know one another, then you could start to chat about why you’re using less plastic.

If you are ever refused the use of your container, don’t get disheartened. Sometimes there is confusion with the server as to whether they are breaching health and safety codes, and they will automatically say no to be safe. In Australia there are no health and safety laws to deny a customer the use of their own container, but a business is allowed to say no if they wish. BYOcontainers.org is a website set up to provide education and confidence for businesses and customers alike. If you enjoy the occasional takeaway meal but you don’t like the plastic the food comes in, then you can phone ahead and ask if you’re able to supply your own containers. When you visit the restaurant to place your order, hand over your containers and the restaurant will fill them with your food order. Stainless steel tiffin tins work well, as do glass containers.

Be A Savvy Shopper

Even if you only have access to a normal supermarket or shopping centre, there are still things that you can do to reduce packaging:

  • Always look for the unpackaged alternative. The deli section of the supermarket is a good place to start. It is possible to bring your own containers there and ask the assistant to use those.
  • Bring your own reusable cloth bags for fruit and veg and for the check out.
  • Look at glass, tin and cardboard containers that can be reused or recycled.
  • Opt to buy the largest container available, meaning there will be less packaging.
  • Look at supporting locally made products that won’t have travelled so far to get to you, therefore using less fossil fuels. Perhaps you can chat with the business to allow refills.
  • Check on local zero-waste Facebook groups for suggestions on which brands have no sneaky plastics hiding inside the packaging.
  • Some people recommend that you ask the seller to remove the packaging before you purchase the item, which does send a strong message, but check that they will be able to reuse the packaging, otherwise you might be able to dispose of it more responsibly at home.
  • This is also a good time to question whether you really need that item. Could it be made from scratch or could you find a substitute?

Make Your Own Food

If you fancy learning some new culinary skills along with gaining a sense of self-reliance that comes from doing things yourself, try making some basic foods from scratch. Making mayonnaise, pasta sauce, dips, crackers or biscuits are fun and achievable. They make great gifts and you can avoid more packaging.

Start by choosing two foods that you would like to regularly make yourself, then once they become part of your routine, add a few more. Yoghurt is surprisingly easy, with only two ingredients needed, milk and yoghurt. If you decide to grow your own herbs instead of buying the packaged versions, you will not only save money, but also the plastic packets they often come in.

Making a newspaper bin liner. Photo by Gavin Green. Illustration by Grace West

Learn How To Store Your Food

As more of your food starts to come from bulk stores or your own garden, it’s time to look at storing food differently. Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, our food can be kept fresh without plastic packaging. Glass jars and cloth bags have many uses.

Most fruit and vegetables can be kept out of the fridge if you plan to consume them within three days of purchase. The tip is to keep them out of direct sunlight. Cut fruit and vegetables store well in glass jars, containers or bowls covered with beeswax wraps. No plastic wrap necessary. Cloth bags can hold vegetables that you store in the crisper.

Bread will last better in an airtight bread tin or stainless- steel container, or cloth or paper bag away from heat and light. Plastic makes your bread sweat, leading to mould. Cheese is best stored in cloth or cheese paper and inside a container, preferably in the lower section of the fridge. Wrapping cheese in plastic will not only reduce flavour but also stop it from breathing properly.

Glass, stainless steel and old plastic containers are all suitable for freezing food in. Many people would baulk at freezing food in glass, however there is very little chance of it cracking if you follow a few simple rules:

  • Cool your food before freezing and leave a two finger gap at the top to allow for expansion
  • Leave the lid off when freezing a liquid, until partially frozen, then attach lid
  • Defrost slowly either in the fridge in summer or on the bench in winter

Swap To Newspaper Bin Liners

I hear so often how people use plastic bags from the shops as bin liners. By switching to newspaper as a bin liner, there is less chance of polluting the environment and the wildlife that call it home. If you read news on-screen, ask local cafes or newsagents for newspapers they no longer use. This one simple change will make a big difference.

Speak Up

We can improve packaging by engaging companies and our local, state and federal governments. Speak up if you’d like to see a refill revolution. Write letters or emails, and comment on their social media pages. After all, we can’t be the only ones who have to change our habits to create less waste.

Erin Rhoads, also known as The Rogue Ginger, is the author of Waste Not: Make a Big Difference by Throwing Away Less (Hardie Grant 2018) and Waste Not Everyday (Hardie Grant 2019).

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