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September 9, 2010

less waste kitchen alternatives

In news from the semi-waste free kitchen front, I thought I’d share what we’ve been using instead of disposables. We haven’t developed the perfect set up yet, let me just warn you. But we’re heading in the right direction.

Napkins – stupidly obvious – you just use cloth napkins. This is soooooo easy, I can’t believe I didn’t make the change earlier. We’ve been using them for the most part for a few months, but cutting out the paper altogether is a breeze. I’ve been making my own, because they are just rectangular pieces of fabric and I can sew things like that, and it’s been pretty fun. Though kind of a lot of work, I’m not going to lie. Not the sewing per se, the ironing and pinning and pressing takes up all the time.

Paper towels – also incredibly easy once you make the commitment. I’ve had 3 dozen Unpaper Towels that I bought on etsy a year ago (when Joslyn posted about them) and now we’re actually using them with gusto. I just keep them stacked up on the counter where the paper towels used to be and toss them into the laundry when they’ve been used. A better system would be to have little “clean” and “dirty” baskets somewhere in the kitchen, but I haven’t gotten that far. I don’t think we’ll be going back to paper when the experiment is over.

OH HELLO! Athena Creates now makes little wooden bins made specifically for her towels. I’m feeling an etsy purchase coming on…

Plastic baggies – They are incredibly convenient, but I’m telling you, you can live without them. We’ve been using a bunch of different things but I do love our glass storage containers from Crate & Barrel. We have two sets and use them constantly. Plus I love the french terrine jars from the Container Store (my faves are not online, sadly) for things like baby food and cooked beans and the like. Obviously any glass jars will work, but I like to try to stick with those that are all glass and use a rubber gasket. It turns out the other kind (with the ring and lid) actually have BPA in the liner. Isn’t that shocking??? That’s another post altogether.

Freezer storage – This one is a little trickier. But for the most part, I use the same glass jars. You can actually freeze things in glass, with a lid that seals, as long as you leave enough room to accommodate for expansion. As in, if you freeze stock in a glass jar it will expand and break said jar if there’s not enough air space to start. Learned that one the hard way!

I freeze baby food in little jars, stock in big jars, and actually keep all of my grains, beans, and nuts in the freezer as well. I buy that stuff in bulk and because I’m paranoid about moths, just dump it into large glass canisters and store everything in the freezer.

For buying in bulk, you can use whatever cloth/muslin bags you have lying around and avoid the plastic bags altogether. (if you don’t have any, you could try these, these, these, or these.)

And, for your waste-free-ish kitchen, I cannot stress how great it is to have LOTS of tea towels at your disposal. I’m partial to pretty ones of course, but the workhouse of tea towels is still the simple white and red one from IKEA. They’re $0.49 each. I probably have at least 30.

Now, the problem areas.

Foil. Haven’t found a solution. But you can buy recycled foil at the grocery store and then recycle it again after you use it.

Saran wrap. Sometimes this is kind of useful. Not sure if there’s a good alternative.

Freezer bags. In some cases nothing else will do.

And finally produce bags. Rachel uses muslin bags, but I’ve never felt like cloth produce bags actually keep things nice and crisp.

If someone has a good recommendation for any of these things, please share!


  1. Torrie said on September 9, 2010

    This post is extremely thorough, resourceful, and inspiring.

    As of late, I have been waaay too quick to grab a paper towel when I'm either cleaning a mess or cooking- usually both at the same time:). I have seen and been meaning to purchase the towels at Ikea, but I have not yet seen the unpaper towels- and I love the wooden bins! I will make these simple changes to start.

    Thank you.

  2. Rebecca B said on September 9, 2010

    i don't do nearly as many things as this, but there are a few good waste-reducing products i've found recently. one is these reusable plastic covers (they remind me of shower caps) that i bought at target, to replace saran wrap covering a plate of food for example. also good if you need to transport something like a salad in salad bowl without its own cover. for packing snacks and kiddo lunches on the go, i'm into my new stainless steel lunchbox (lunchbots brand) and going to get some reusable cloth bags to replace baggies. thanks for the other ideas!

  3. you are super pretty said on September 9, 2010

    i am totally paranoid about moths, too! i once had the full on problem. can't even write about it, it was so gross…
    now everything lives in the fridge or freezer except canned goods!
    and i love the ikea towels, too. i get a couple more every time i go. mine get dirty pretty quickly, and since i don't use bleach, the very stained ones become rags after a while.

  4. Rachel said on September 9, 2010

    We accidentally gave up paper towels a couple years ago and haven't felt the need to go back. We're not nearly to the point of being waste free, but every little bit helps.

    We use re-useable containers for leftovers. I use muslin produce bags for our veggies (I haven't had trouble with veggies staying crisp, provided I put them in the crisper drawer). The salad sac is awesome for lettuce and keeps it crisp no matter where you put it in the fridge.

    We use dish towels that transition to wipe up towels that transition to rags eventually.

    I butter (or oil) baking pans with my (freshly washed) fingers. Is that weird? It was one of the things I missed about having paper towels, because I don't want to grease up a dishtowel. Fingers work fine and I can wash them.

    We do still use Ziploc bags but rarely (for some freezer stuff and for cheese) and saran wrap for the occasional transportation issue. We mostly gave up foil by designating one of my baking dishes as the messy one and it gets used in situations where it gets ugly. I have Silpats which eliminate the need for parchment and foil most of the time.

  5. Kelsey said on September 9, 2010

    Thank you! Have been wanting to go waste free in the kitchen…I'll start building my supplies and will make a waste-free kitchen my 2011 resolution!

    My mom uses those plastic "shower caps" instead of Seran wrap. For me it will be hard to give up press-n-seal seran wrap, that stuff is so magical.

  6. laura said on September 9, 2010

    i love these ideas!! unpaper towels – GENIUS. that's our biggest guilty environmentally unfriendly thing we do by far and i have been looking for an alternative – thanks!

    i TOTALLY know what you mean about the cloth produce bags. we have those and bring them to our CSA pickups, but they definitely leave produce a little limp. what we've been doing (i think i read this in martha stewart?) is immediately washing and storing our greens in salad spinners when we get home (we have two – a large one and a small one). it keeps things fresh for a surprisingly long time. sometimes we put basil or whatever herbs we get that week in the small one.

    i've seen reusable sandwich bag type items (like lunchskins) before but i just don't know how well those *really* work. i end up using ziplocs because they work so well at keeping stuff like scallions fresh, i'm not sure any other material would suffice, as environmentally unfriendly as that is :(

  7. ashley maureen said on September 10, 2010

    thank you for such useful information! i have fully transitioned to reusable grocery bags (a little late, i realize), and this week purchased reusable produce bags from whole foods. i use storage containers whenever possible in place of plastic bags. the paper towel thing has really been the biggest struggle in the past. i am so glad to know about the unpaper towels, and will most likely be placing an order. keep us updated on your progress!

  8. Jessica O'Brien said on September 10, 2010

    great post! in addition to being green, most of these equal major cost savings over the lifetime of the products. wish everyone was doing it!

    what are you using your foil for? if for food storage, i just put stuff in the glass containers like you mentioned. if for cooking, like in the oven, i'm not sure what works in its place. i used to use it to cover a skillet when steaming + now i just set a cookie sheet over instead.

    we use glass or pyrex at home, but for daily packed lunches to work or hike / beach snacks, i prefer food-grade stainless steel. it's much lighter! i use a combo of Lunchbots (for pasta, quinoa, sandwiches, etc) + small "Sidekicks" from To Go Ware (for smaller things like hummus or nuts).

    To-Go-Ware Sidekicks:

    at my husband's store, The Green Life, Lunchskins are a popular alternative to plastic baggies. i'm sure they're great for kids since they're light, but i still just use the Lunchbots.

    as for produce bags, i haven't touched a plastic one in over 3 years, and never minded! i use a cloth bag. this one in fact:

    first, you must get a breathable one. my opaque ones (which i use for bulk bin grains) just don't work as well.

    secondly, you must use it wet! i do this for kale + spinach mostly. the best trick is: when you get home, dampen or wet the bag. put the greens inside, then set in crisper drawer. every other day, re-dampen the bag. some people like to additionally use wet paper towels within the bag, but i don't feel it is necessary. stays fresher, longer!

    i've been going green over the course of 3 or more years + still learning! we recently dined out at a place we know always yields leftovers + actually brought our own containers so we could nix the paper or styrofoam. that was an exciting step! (yes, i'm a green nerd)

    thanks for spreading the word!
    hope that helps.

  9. mandiegirl said on September 10, 2010

    I'm really enjoying reading about your journey- thanks for sharing! :)

  10. B Dunlap said on September 10, 2010

    Love this post. We have a thrift store close to our house, and for some reason they always seem to have a ton of pristine linen and cotton sets of napkins, in perfect condition. So I've amassed quite the collection! It has made giving up paper napkins quite the cinch.

  11. Diapers-n-Heels said on September 10, 2010

    I love all these ideas. The one I struggle with is the garbage bags. Anyone else have ideas on that one?

  12. Ms Bear Cub said on September 10, 2010

    I do most of these things, too – no paper towels, tons of tea towels for example.

    But you know what? My golden retriever LOVES to steal any and all tea towels! And cloth napkins! It's SUCH a pain in the ass.

    While most of our cloth napkins and tea towels have been lost to our dog's ripping and tearing, we have been fortunate to find a few in the mud in the yard…

  13. addie anne said on September 10, 2010

    Great post. I've been using these 3B Bags for produce for months and I love them. The food does get a bit limper a bit faster, but I just take that to mean that I need to eat it quickly and then buy more. I eat more greens that way. :)

  14. Jessica O'Brien said on September 10, 2010

    @Diapers-n-Heels – there are biodegradable options! here are my favorite (bio bags):

    they don't stretch as much as traditional bags though, so don't overfill them.

    and in my home, we don't use garbage bags in any room but the kitchen. no garbage bags. no re-purposed plastic bags (since we haven't brought one into our home in 3+ years) sounds gross at first, but nothing in the bathroom ever sticks or drips in the bin. after dumping it out, if it needed a quick wipe-down, we do that, but it rarely does.

  15. Cassi said on September 10, 2010

    I bought these reusable produce bags for myself, my mom, and my MIL, and we all LOVE them. They're mesh, so the cashier can still see the sticker # on the item to scan it.

    My husband and I reuse the same piece of foil over and over (and over), like for covering tea steeping in the mug, etc. Unless it's covered in grease or sticky food, it's not gross to reuse it.

    I started using cloth napkins a year ago, and have never looked back. They're amazing.

    Also, I use waffle-knit microfiber towels (from Target $1 bins) in place of papertowels, and keep one for surface cleaning and the other for glass/mirrors so I can reuse them before washing them when they get truly dirty.

    Hope this helps! It sound like you are doing a fantastic job at your home! Oh, and thanks for the rec on those un-paper towels on etsy. I must get some. :)

  16. Cassi said on September 10, 2010

    Oh yeah, and I wrote about my experience with moths in my place a while back on my blog, and since then have also stored all grain goods in the freezer. Freaky.

  17. Jennifer said on September 10, 2010

    Thank you so much for doing this post.

    In college I took an environmental science class and my professor explained how plastic baggies were complete waste. Can't recycle them and they don't decompose. I felt so guilty throwing one away after that that I have been washing and reusing mine for years until they break.

    And after writing this:

    I am terrified of BPA.

    I would do some research on Germany, because they are not allowed to throw ANYTHING away. I bet there are some European products that would solve our "less waste kitchen" dilemmas.

  18. melanie said on September 10, 2010

    this project is EXTREMELY inspiring! being in college and not really knowing how to run a kitchen efficiently seems like a huge barrier to being low-impact, and i've always sighed about these kinds of projects and said "one day." but being able to read about a real person actually doing it makes it so much more accessible. SO THANK YOU.

    also, can i ask about water usage? i'm from new england and i've always had a well and greywater recycling… but i'm looking at a move to central CA where water is rationed. have you seen a difference in how much water you use, now that you're washing tea towels and glass containers and things? i'm just a little curious… :)

  19. Anonymous said on September 10, 2010

    You know, I find using wax-paper with an elastic band as a much better alternative then plastic wrap to cover left-overs.

  20. lovelymorning said on September 11, 2010

    You guys, such great info! Thanks so much for sharing. I love that we all have things to share!

    @rachel – the only thing I really use foil for is to line a baking sheet for roasting so, hmm, you've inspired me to at least consider giving it up altogether.

    @laura – we're definitely going to get a salad spinner. GREAT idea! You can always use glass containers or tupperware to store things like scallions and other produce parts.

    @Jessica O'Brien – Thanks for all the tips! Wait, is your husband's store the one on Main Street?? Great store. He should totally start carrying cloth diapers! There's seriously no place in LA that carries a good selection of them, which is part of the reason more people don't use them, (I think). If you could see all of your options before purchasing it might not be so scary!

    @B Dunlap – OOOOH. vintage cloth napkins are such an extra cute bonus!

    @Jennifer – I KNOW! Why is europe so much more in tune with this? It's just normal there, not like this crazy heroic lifestyle choice.

    @Melanie – Our water usage has definitely gone up, but that's from the cloth diapers, not from washing unpaper towels. The diapers take 3 cycles per load so that's a big change. But the tea towels and kitchen stuff just go in with our normal laundry. There's always a give and take, you know? Either you fill up landfills or you use more water.

    Keep the recs coming!

  21. Katie said on September 14, 2010

    Great post and comments, too. Thanks!

    With my totally minimal sewing skills, I've made a few utensil kits out of fabric scraps. It's not hard to find loose silverware and pretty, lonely napkins at thrift shops, so you can build a little set, roll it up, and keep in your purse, desk drawer, backpack, etc. I received nothing but complements and intrigue when I used mine in grad school, in fact, many people wondered where I got it, which makes for a nice story. They're also available all over- search for picnic sets or utensil kits.

    I've found that another challenge for less waste is what's in the kitchen. There are so many recipes originally intended for starting-to-go/questionable foods (french toast, stuffing, or croutons for old bread, quick breads and cobblers for old fruit, stock from older veggies), yet we've moved away from that. It can be an epic challenge to not let a darn thing go to waste (especially in the summer with abundant produce), but it makes me a more creative cook.

    And the last thing I wanted to say was, "Cheers!" to all of you working so hard to make less of an impact. It can really feel lonely sometimes when you're getting weird looks for refusing plastic shopping bags, refusing spoons from the froyo place cuz you've got your own, picking through friends' trash for recyclables… the more we do it, the more I hope we become the norm!

    And, for fun:

    Here's another great post on green kitchens:

  22. Jessica O'Brien said on September 14, 2010

    yup, that's our store on Main St in Santa Monica! thank you for your kind words. he's looking into a few brands of cloth diapers to carry + will absolutely be carrying them soon! i don't have kids yet but i agree w/ you. always nice to see + feel in person before purchasing!

  23. Julia said on September 15, 2010

    What do you like to use to wash your dishes with (instead of a throw away sponge) that doesn't smell after a little while?

  24. Anonymous said on September 15, 2010

    This is great & I do most of them, but isn't washing unpaper towels also using a lot of soap and water?

    I reuse my plastic produce bags. I rinse then out each time and take them back to the store with me. Kinda geeky, but it works.

  25. Tanara said on September 15, 2010

    Hi! About the jars… I use glass jars with the ring, but is a rubber one, not plastic. Does it have BPA?
    Thank you,

  26. samara said on September 16, 2010

    This is a great saran wrap and plastic bag alternative

    Lovely post!

  27. Robin Neudorfer said on September 20, 2010

    Wonderful post.
    I am going to study it more carefully, and make changes starting today. TY

  28. Rachel said on March 2, 2011

    I was about to say that in my household we save milk bags and reuse them as freezer bags, but then I remembered that I don’t think the US has milk in bags! In Canada the most common way to buy milk is in sturdy plastic bags that you put in a holder to pour, and when the milk’s out, we cut open the tops of these bags and they make great recycled freezer bags (with a twist tie to seal them)

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