November 20, 2010

A List of Methods for a Non-disposable, Low Waste Life. Part 1: The Kitchen

So, sometimes when I'm reading other people's blogs, I come across a sustainable or environmental choice they've made that has a significant impact on consumption but which I've never thought of. This is how I felt when I came across cloth menstrual pads. I was like "That is brilliant!"... and so obvious when you think about it. It had just never occurred to me that I could replace disposable plastic pads with cloth.

beans we make from scratch, buy in bulk, and store in glass
Now that we've made so many changes to our life it seems like we have run out of all the easy and big impact stuff we can do. We're down to the things that, if we did them, only make a tiny difference (making our own tortilla chips) or the things that make a big difference but are not financially possible (geothermal priming for heating and cooling), or infrastructural things that don't exist in our area (there is no public transportation at all that goes between here and my husband's place of employment). So I'm always on the look our for that next big obvious thing that I just missed. In that vein I thought it might be useful for me to publish a list of the (sometimes radical) environmental actions we take in case there's something here you've never thought of but which might make a large difference in your life. 

I've broken the list into separate posts. Part one is the kitchen, followed by the bathroom, the bedroom, and then a list of miscellanea. In each post I'll include the entire list in simple form, for reference, but go into more detail below.

The Non-Disposable, Low Waste Life List of Methods
(This is the entire list in simple form. Look for parts 2, 3, and 4... coming soon.)

- make our food from scratch
- buy loose tea, bulk items, and no single serving sizes
- reusable, compostable, recyclable packaging
- no paper, no plastic flatware, little non-reusable food storage
- no non-stick or plastic cookware, dishes, etc.
- we don't buy water
- reusable grocery sacks
- compost and chickens

- no make up or deodorant
- cloth menstrual pads
- recycled and recyclable razors and toothbrushes
- cloth pee wipes
- cloth shower curtain
- solid shampoo
- homemade soap
- vinegar rinse
- buy hemp

- salvaged furniture
- no VOC paint
- lighting choices
- avoid synthetic clothing
- durable clothes and shoes
- mattresses and linens 

- bike
- combining trips in the car
- cloth ribbon, upcycled packaging
- paper and cardboard as garden mulch
- sew and mend
- grow food
- wash in cold, dry on the line
- limit air conditioner and heater use


  • Making our food from scratch. 
The things we buy in cans or jars are ingredients (like coconut milk or olive oil) not for the most part ready to eat food (like canned soup or frozen dinners). We cook dry beans and grains. I make our bread, crackers, flour tortillas, masa, chicken and beef broth, granola, pie crust, sauerkraut, fermented pickles (which sometimes fail), jam, pickled jalapenos, anything like that. I did make yogurt and butter (although not as much as we use), but we lost our raw milk source. Especially in light of the recent revelations about BPA in the liners of tin cans, we are trying to grow enough or buy enough tomatoes, chilies, and pumpkin to can our own. At the moment I buy tomatoes, chilies, sometimes fruits, peanut butter, pumpkin puree, and fish in cans or jars. And we only start with whole foods when we cook. We don't do egg substitute or low fat dairy or cake mix. Whole foods are cheaper than processed foods. They're also better for you and better for the environment. And some of the things I make all the time we occasionally buy. The frontier here is growing and/or canning anything we normally buy that grows in our area.

*Here are some things we do not eat: hydrogenated oils, canola oil, non-organic corn, refined sugar (we use rapadura, honey, and maple syrup), flavoring whether artificial or natural, soy unless it's fermented and raw (like some miso and soy sauce), grain fed meat or fats (we buy grass fed meat and animal fats from Yonder Way Farm which is local for us), non-organic milk or yogurt (we're still working out the cheese situation), food coloring, and preservatives. 

  • We buy loose tea and bulk items. We don't buy single serving sizes.
We avoid tea bags and we try to buy loose tea in compostable or reusable packaging. No personal sized yogurts, mini boxes of raisins, and the like. We buy bulk items when possible and I'm planning to sew some bags to scoop my bulk stuff into so we can eliminate plastic bags.

  • Reusable, compostable, or recyclable packaging. In that order.
So, a container we can reuse is what we go for. A container we can compost is good. Depending on the nature of the container, we may not always make the same material choice. For example, if something comes in a mason jar it's perfect because we can easily reuse that. But, if it comes in a narrow neck bottle (like olive oil) we're much much less likely to use it. Glass is not recyclable locally so if the choices are a not very re-useful (to us) style of glass packaging or a recyclable but not reusable metal package, we go with metal. We eschew plastic. There are appropriate places for plastic in our lives (surgical tubing perhaps? the body of my laptop?) and silly places for plastic (food storage, diapers, dishes). We always look for food that does not come in plastic but if plastic is the only choice we buy brands that are recyclable #1 or #2 which is what is collected locally. Of course now we know that metal food cans actually have plastic lining which contains BPA. Going to the grocery store is complicated.

  • No paper products. No disposable flatware. Little non-reusable food storage.
We don't use paper towels, paper napkins, or paper plates. Not for draining bacon and not for cleaning super mucky stuff. There are none in the house. We use cloth towels, cloth rags, and cloth napkins. If we bring our lunch somewhere we use silverware or occasionally, if I'm feeling festive, chopsticks. We carry our lunches in reusable bags packed with reusable containers (a combination of glass with plastic lids, metal, and glass jars). When I find myself in great need of a disposable sandwich bag, which happens less and less as I get used to thinking about putting things in solid containers and not bags, I use waxed paper bags which I compost. I occasionally use aluminum foil (but I want to move to reusable covers). I also want to start using reusable snack bags, sandwich wraps, metal tiffins and all metal boxes. Laquerware is gorgeous but not in the budget. The frontier here is getting a container large enough so I don't feel compelled to use gallon zip-lock bags for fridge or freezer storage. Somethings are just too large or too numerous to fit in a mason jar.

  • No Non-Stick or Plastic Cookware, Dishes, Glasses, or Cook's Tools
Not only is the idea of plastic or non-stick gross, but eventually it gets scratched and starts sticking, it gets brittle, or it melts and then it's trash. We use stainless steel, cast iron, ceramic, glass, tin plate, aluminum (sometimes), wood, and enamel. There are a few non-stick or plastic relics that are destined for replacement including my waffle maker (which is sad, because it makes waffles in fun shapes) and my plastic ice cube trays. Some things don't come without some small plastic parts and that's just the way it is if we want to continue to use those items (like the ceramic bladed peeler... plastic handle or the stand mixer... plastic knobs). As a rule, we don't buy anything where plastic comes into contact with the food especially if it gets hot (so the Bodum press style tea pot with the plastic strainer was out but the Bodum coffee press stays because the press part is all metal). We use metal brew baskets for our tea instead of compostable tea sacs or plastic brew baskets and we switched to an all metal tea kettle. And there are other random durable, non plastic choices in the kitchen: wooden rolling pin, I'm going to start buying wooden instead of plastic brooms, a metal dust pan when our plastic one wears out and so forth. And of course there are things we haven't yet found a good replacement for: the scrub brush for the cast iron, the non-cellulose part of the sponge, the silicone spatulas with which we scrape the cookie dough out of the bowl...

  • We Don't Buy Water
We filter it and then use stainless steel water bottles, ceramic cups, and glass straws to go. We also don't buy beverages while out and about very much anymore. Not only does it limit waste but we've discovered that homemade is better. (Don't get me started on how lame iced tea is when I drink it out compared with what I brew at home)
  •  Reusable Grocery Sacks
We have an assortment of reusable sacks. Some of them are freebies we were given by the grocery stores, some were purchased and some are old cloth bags I've had for years. The freebies are starting to wear out so I'll be making some new cloth ones and in the future, probably refuse any freebie recycled plastic bags because for me, they just don't last. There are many online patterns for sewing your own bags.  

  • Compost and Chickens
Our chickens and compost pile take care of anything we need to get rid of that rots. This includes small bits of paper, bones, meat, and leftovers which were leftover too long.


Plastic is a big, hard to tackle problem in the kitchen. For more ideas on avoiding plastic, check out Fake Plastic Fish's "Plastic-Free Guide" (Holy cow! She is hard core!). And here is a plastic-free guide to storing produce from the Berkeley Farmer's Market.

For help learning to make your own sauerkraut, yogurt and other fermented foods, my number one recommendation is Sandor Ellix Katz's book Wild Fermentation. And if you ever have a chance to participate in one of his workshops, you will not be disappointed. He's a great teacher. I also like Sally Fallon's book Nourishing Traditions. Not only will you find instructions for fermentation (particularly lacto-fermentation) but she also has traditional recipes for all kinds of whole foods. Helen Nearing wrote a book about eating (very) simple whole foods which is as much philosophy as it is cookbook. Simple Food For the Good Life is definitely worth a read, especially if you're interested in radical simplicity.

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods   Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats   Simple Food for the Good Life: Random Acts of Cooking and Pithy Quotations

Keep in mind: all these changes happened over time, not over night. If you are trying to make lots of changes in your life don't be discouraged! Just take it one step at a time. Also, we've made the decision to be a one income household in order to have time and energy to do things the slow, sustainable way. I realize that is not everyone's cup of tea.  For more on living deliberately and limiting income to limit consumption here are some books I recommend: The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living, Better Off : Flipping the Switch on Technology (P.S.), Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture

The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living   Better Off : Flipping the Switch on Technology (P.S.)   Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture 

What sustainable actions are you taking in your kitchen?

I've contributed this post to Simple Lives Thursday at "A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa".


  1. Great List! A suggestion for your cast iron: I use sea salt and a dish cloth or lemon. Sprinkle to salt into the pan to absorb the grease. Then use the cloth with the friction from the salt to scrub the pan. You can also use a half a lemon instead of the cloth. Great when you need juice for fish and don't want to waste the rest of the lemon.

  2. Thanks for the suggestion! I will give that a try. So, the acid from the lemon doesn't take off some of the season from the pan?

  3. Annie, This is a great post!! Like you, I have made a lot of changes in terms of what we buy, how we eat and many other things. There are still so many other things to do. You have a great list in this post and gets me thinking in a few other directions. I still have so many thing to change, and just like you mentioned, it will not happen over night. Sometimes I feel I haven't done much, but when I look back over the past 2 years, I have made many good changes and will keep at it. Sincerely, Emily

  4. Keep up the good work Emily! I'm glad it "got you thinking in a few other directions". That is exactly what I was hoping to do.

  5. An excellent assortment of suggestions!

    Emily, you will inspire and in doing so you make a big difference in how our Planet that we call "Home" will provide for future generations!

    So not underestimate the power of the post!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. a little off topic but about cast iron - I can't seem to figure out what to do with it after I cook on it (other than fried eggs, they don't leave a mess). If you cooked steak or bacon and had bits stuck on, how would you clean it off? I know soap is a big no, and your supposed to avoid water..

  7. Not off topic at all!

    Personally, I don't avoid water in my cast iron. If I've got stuff stuck on it then I soak it a little and see if that helps. I have a stiff bristled brush I use to scrub off stuck bits. As "thegirlwithacurl" suggested above, salt can be used as an abrasive. Some times the stuck on bits are just charred stuff and not really a problem. If it's not charred food and I can't get it off any other way I will resort to steel wool, used very lightly, which I use until the stuff is just barely taken off... no further or you start to scrape off seasoning.

    Normally stuff sticking to a cast iron skillet is a sign that it's not well seasoned. When my pans are well seasoned there is no sticking at all (it's almost miraculous how well they work). But, I periodically break the seasoning (because I let it soak too long, or I accidentally get some soap in it, etc) and have to build it back up. When that happens I make sure that the next few things I cook in the pan are super greasy. So I'll slowly cook fatty bacon to render out the lard or I'll fry some fish.

    You can also re-season the pan by heating it with oil in the oven. I'm not sure what the exact procedure is but I'm sure you can find it online and the Lodge cast iron company probably has it on their site.

  8. Deglaze stuck on bits....get pan hot, add liquid, when liquid is hot scrape with a metal spoon or spatula and this seems to work!

  9. We have gotten away from almost all disposable items in the kitchen. The thing that I have the hardest time with is ziploc bags. I make a lot of things in bulk (stock, sauces,etc) and I freeze a lot of fruit and I use ziploc for all of this. I've tried using mason jars, but I've had too many break when doing this and I just don't have the room in my freezer, plastic bags take up less room. Any suggestions?

  10. I agree, ziplock bags are super hard to get away from. Unfortunately I don't have any good suggestions. I use mason jars and I occasionally have them break but I bought so many of them at garage sales years ago that I don't feel the pain too much when it happens. I freeze in wide mouth jars if at all possible and don't screw the lid on tight until the contents are solid. I do freeze in narrow mouth jars but I don't fill them past the point it narrows. Also I have a full upright freezer so space is not as big an issue as it would be if I had just a freezer on my fridge. The jars fit very well in the door so that is almost entirely taken up with quart jars of broth. I freeze a lot of casseroles in wide mouth pints for us to take for lunch and those I can stack two tall on a shelf. I also got some giant glass square containers for Christmas and they are the real replacement for ziplocks because they stack well, and since they're square, waste less space. I'll be getting more of those, particularly as we enter fruit season here. Good luck!

  11. I was inspired by this post! We are making steps toward living sustainably, but we still have a ways to go! The kitchen is our best area so far - I love those square glass containers too!
    I am really looking forward to your next posts (especially the bathroom one, just saying...).
    I found you through Simple Lives Thursdays, by the way, and I'm eagerly following your blog now!

  12. Thanks Danielle! You can find the other parts to this series under the "list of methods" tab at the top of my blog.