Below is a list of practices that we follow in our kitchen to ensure our waste production and resource consumption are both minimal. I promise these practices are all completely feasible, with very minimal cost and effort. In short, these are not just nice ideas; they are rules that work very well in everyday life.
>> NO paper towels : Use cloth rags instead and wash them with your regular laundry. I promise, contrary to what some nay-sayers believe, this does not add a significant amount to your laundry load. I use flour sack towels, cut into paper towel-sized pieces, for most jobs that we have been trained to use paper towels for. Larger sized more absorbent kitchen towels can be used for spills and the like, rather than using up an entire roll of paper towels.
>> NO paper napkins : Use cloth napkins instead. Designate one per person and leave it beside his or her place at the table; it should last for several days before needing to be washed. See note about laundry above.
>> NO plastic straws. I'm not even sure when these became a thing. But we can certainly do without them! Plastic straws are surprisingly harmful, especially to wildlife, when they persist in the environment. There are reusable stainless steel straws out there for the hardcore fan of straw-sipping. But for most of us... just do without them.
>> NO paper or plastic plates, cups, or utensils!!! Watching people use paper plates and plastic forks kills me every time; they require resources to produce and transport, then are used for ten minutes and thrown away... I really don't get it. It's not that difficult: use real plates, real glasses, and real flatware!! The modern age has seen the advent of wonderfully efficient dishwashers; what more could you possibly want??
You might have a few pro-paper plate arguments in mind... Luckily, I have prepared some solutions for troubleshooting and navigating the murky waters of returning to real plates and flatware :
Problem: You're expecting more guests than you have plates, cups, and flatware for.
Solution: Ask to borrow plates from a relative or friend. Believe it or not, it used to be common practice to lend and borrow dishes, as well as bring your own bowl when invited for dinner. Or, stock up on inexpensive but good quality extras when you get the chance (if you entertain large groups often and have the space to store extras). If you regularly host your extended family of 15, but only have dishes for 12 so you opt for disposables every time instead... just buy three more plates! White plates from a thrift store are a favorite practical, affordable solution.
Problem: You're having an outdoor picnic / barbeque / other gathering.
Solution: There is no rule that says you can't use real plates outside. They are not more likely to get broken outside than they are inside, and they will always wash. So use real plates. If you MUST, buy sturdy plastic or lightweight metal plates that are easily transported and 100% washable and reusable.
Problem: You're going camping.
Solution: Invest in metal or durable plastic plates, cups, bowls, etc. just for camping that will serve your family for a lifetime of wilderness trips. There are few things more appalling to me than seeing how much unnecessary garbage people can produce while spending a weekend in nature; it's disgusting.
>> And for goodness sakes, NO plastic tablecloths either! Use real tablecloths and wash them; if you or the kiddos are doing a messy project, lay down newspapers on a bare table to keep it clean.
>> No plastic sandwich baggies or freezer bags. "What? Impossible," you say. Very possible, in fact. I have literally never, not once, purchased sandwich bags or freezer bags. But the truth is, there are a few plastic freezer bags lurking around our kitchen; they just seem to materialize. People will give you things in plastic bags (leftovers, for example) if you're not prepared with your own reusable container. But luckily, freezer bags are more durable than they appear, and can be washed and reused several times before meeting their untimely end. So if they do find their way into your kitchen, make the best of it.
In lieu of plastic sandwich baggies, use reusable food storage containers (preferably glass, though it's heavy, or stainless steel) or reusable sandwich bags. There are several designs on the market (check Amazon) and though they initially cost more than a box of disposable baggies, they will last indefinitely if well cared for.
Rather than plastic freezer bags, freeze food in reusable food storage containers (I really like glass, since it doesn't stain or hold smells, and you can take it from the freezer to the refrigerator to the oven easily). Food can also be frozen in glass jars (don't fill them too full). And they don't have to be fancy canning jars either; wash out your glass peanut butter or jelly or pickle jars and save them for reuse. Reusable food storage containers will become your eco-friendly kitchen's new best friend!
>> Transport hot beverages in travel mugs or thermoses. Refuse to buy beverages in single-use cups. Bring your own mug. Hot soup carried in a thermos is ideal for a winter picnic.
>> Pack your lunch in reusable lunch boxes or bags. This will reduce a huge amount of waste, especially if you are in the habit of eating out for lunch, as fast food and other on-the-go food generates a massive amount of garbage. Bonus: homemade lunches are better for your health and your wallet. It's a win-win-win, all around!
>> Reduce food waste and compost your kitchen scraps. Vegetable peels, apple cores, egg shells, moldy bread, spent tea leaves, cardboard toilet paper tubes, dog fur and hair clippings from home hair cuts (another story for another time)... all can be composted, magically transformed from "garbage" to nutrient rich gardeners' gold!
In apartments, this is a bit more tricky. I've read quite a bit about compact worm bin systems for apartment living, but in the name of honesty, I've never tried it. I keep a compost bucket under the kitchen sink and take it to my parents' house to empty once or twice a week. (For future reference, the backyard at my parents' house is my garden laboratory, where I have a set of compost bins, no-dig vegetable beds, very wild wildflowers, seed starting and other propagation supplies, a few suffering blueberry bushes and a peach tree. It is how I manage to live in an apartment and still garden a bit!)
Following these practices and simply refusing to buy single-use products for your kitchen will go a long, long way in reducing waste and consumption of resources. It's just a matter of breaking old habits - bad, destructive habits - and forming new ones; it may take a little time to phase single-use disposables out of your kitchen, but I assure you that it can be done!