How to create a near-zero waste kitchen

Kya deLongchamps argues that plastic is not so fantastic for single or short-term use as we enter a near-zero waste era

LOOKING around the kitchen with my screenprint bamboo coffee cup in hand (€2.99 from HomeStore & More) I was feeling ridiculously smug. Yes, there’s that arsenal of trigger- spray bottles under my counter, but I do reuse them from a larger concentrate for at least a year. We don’t allow plastic drinks bottles or single-use straws of any kind in the front door. Not bad. My plastic and cotton bags are tenderly stored and reused for shopping. Most, but not all, of the vegetables in the larder are loose in trays. Fabulous.

However, then I cracked open the fridge where my lean green good intentions were clearly AWOL. Total confusion reigns. Irish sliced cheeses (I found three packages) were in containers produced from “mixed material” that couldn’t be recycled. Other products had no instructions or banners on them whatsoever. That’s my responsibility and I lost a few budgeting points for getting processed cheddar slices in the first place.

The banning of single-use plastic by the European Parliament from 2021 is not a ban on all plastics in the grocery shop and food sector. It does sound like that but it’s not. To be fair to the industry, PlasticsEurope, the leading pan-European association representing plastics manufacturers, is fighting for better labelling and the complete elimination of all plastics at landfill.

Still, many of us remain confused. Single-use, means one-moment-of-use — for example, plastic cutlery, straws, plates and cotton buds swiped through the ear. Oxo-degradable plastics that break up into tiny pieces are in the same category as micro-beads — terrible for the environment.

It has been suggested that European member states collect 90% of plastic bottles by 2029 and that by 2030, 30% of the ingredients in plastic bottles are recyclable materials. Polyethylene terephthalate, a thermoplastic polymer present in most bottles, is very difficult to recycle but there’s some talk in scientific circles that bacteria can be developed to “eat” the material. Still, we have a long way to go, and plastic will remain a large part of our over-loaded, disposable life around the house. Don’t virtue-signal on Facebook with a paper straw in your margarita, let’s do more than is required to make our homes a low-plastics environment of near-zero waste.

I love to start every worthy adventure with a bit of calculating, so let’s get those keys furiously tapping. Go online to calculate your yearly plastic intake with the Earth Day team. Just key in your usage in the tables for daily use plastics and occasionally used plastics and consider taking the pledge to do better in the coming 12 months — earthday.org/plastic-calculator. The mantra at Earth Day is echoed by the Irish charity Zero Waste Alliance Ireland (zerowasteireland.com) — reduce, reuse, refuse, remove. Let’s break that handy riff down into a plan to put into operation in your home from today.

First of all, avoid buying single- or near-to-single-use plastics with no indication that the container or packaging can be fully recycled. Loose vegetables and fruit are now widely available and if this drives you out of the multinational supermarket back to an independent retailer — so be it. Look for paper packaging without plastic liners and flip the product over to read the recycling legend. Refills can really cut back on hard plastic containers. Favour the brands that offer them including coffee and detergents.

With the exception of some pioneering stores with muesli and other dry goods in open bulk bins, outside Dublin, you will have to track down the package-free foodstuffs through farmers’ markets and a few progressive healthfood stores. Pax Whole Foods & Eco Goods, Westport, Co Mayo, and the Twig Refill Shop (part of the Olive Branch health food shops) in Clonakilty, Co Cork, are shining vanguards with loose produce, glass storage (mason) jars, cotton shopping bags, earth-friendly cleaning products and more.

Minimal waste

Online, it’s possible to order zero-waste groceries and goods for the household. The food choices are worthily limited to the unprocessed, healthy, often certified organic product (if you were feeding a horse they would call these “straights”).

You can order everything from bamboo toothbrushes to risotto rice in economic multiples with a choice of green packaging from paper to compostable bio-bags or canvas. Online outlets for plastic-free, organic and quality cosmetics, storage products and cleaning goods are easily found and much more prevalent right now. Given sufficient customer pressure, the terrestrial retailers will hopefully hear our cries for more choice in minimal waste goods.

Reusing in terms of stocking the kitchen is a relatively simple. It’s a mindset above all. Obviously, reuse your shopping bags (including the plastic ones you already have). Stop buying cold drinks, ices and coffees in takeaway cups that are not your own multi-use vessel. No excuses. It’s a hip move and some cafes offer a few cent off with your own cup. Bringing your own containers with you while shopping is a little more problematic. For example, fish and meats should be sealed up tightly and conveyed straight to the fridge. Large PBA- free containers, non-porous containers with tight snap lids can do the job, but don’t lose your mind. Some goods are sealed into vacuum packs for freshness for a reason. Try something in steel or glass like Duralex — five containers for €26.50, littlegreenshop.ie.

Refusing to take part in the plastic circus of finite resources shows your power as a consumer. There are signs in countries like the Netherlands of true change with package-free aisles in major supermarkets including Ekoplaza in Amsterdam. You can signal your displeasure at over packaged fresh produce (politely) at the counter, by buying a tray of your favourite apples, and then removing the packaging and ask the store to dispose of it. This will take a bit of neck. Whinge loudly and publicly on the social media site of the store involved — they hate this sort of attention but may well have a plan in place to address that changing attitudes and legalities around sustainable, environmentally friendly packaging.

Zero Waste Alliance Ireland has a vibrant presence on Facebook where you can receive daily inspiration and watch their fascinating waste-digester in action.

“In the first 10 years of this century we have manufactured more plastic than in all of the 20th century. A zero-waste lifestyle is all about making little changes progressively to move towards a zero footprint,” says director Sean Cronin.

Sean argues that the intention is the thing. You will fall down, compromise, even at times completely fail. as I did, but let’s start the journey to as close to a zero-waste home as we can manage. To make it a wrap for sustainability this weekend, Sean advises to take the problem head on.

“Don’t wrap or house things in plastic when there’s a paper/cardboard option. Cardboard, beeswax, cardboard box, linen are all useful alternatives. At a minimum, save plastic wrapping for hygiene purposes or raw meat and only use what is necessary. Stop buying water in plastic bottles. Period! The solution is a reusable water bottle — glass or steel or silicone. Could this be any easier? Get a reusable bottle and put it to work every day. Check out the www.refill.ie campaign for free water refill locations.

“Coffee cups? Try the eCupán from our website. For storage use glass jars, glass food containers, aluminium foil, oilcloth, beeswax and parchment paper, fabric bowl covers, a bowl with a lid and stainless steel food containers.”

  • To go further? Resolutely support the #SickOfPlastic campaign. Form a local group and follow the five-step action plan
  • Go to: zerowasteireland.com/sick-of-plastic
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