My Zero-Waste Week: How I Eliminated Food Packaging at Home

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Cambria Bold)

The first step in my week of cutting down on food packaging was to take a hard look at my household of two, which seems to generate a lot more trash than I would like. I realized that even though I was doing a pretty good job of reusing and recycling, reducing the amount of waste I brought into the house in the first place was an area for improvement.

A quick inventory of my discards showed that there were a few primary categories: beverages, dairy, plastic packaging for meat and produce, and takeout. While I also found the occasional metal can or glass condiment jar in the mix, these items tend to stay on the shelf longer and are easier to repurpose when they are eventually emptied.

I knew I’d see the biggest return on my waste reduction efforts by focusing on the things we went through on a more regular basis and that had no viable secondary use, like shrink wrapping and styrofoam trays.

(Image credit: Christine Gallary)

Making Chicken Broth

Packaged chicken broth was an obvious place to start. I use at least a quart (and often much more) each week, splashing generous amounts into weekend braises, pasta sauces, soups, veggie sautés, and more.

Taking my lead from Marco Canora’s recipe for End of the Week Broth in his latest book, BRODO, I threw the assorted chicken necks and carcasses, bones, and meat scraps I’d been stashing in the freezer into a stockpot, augmented by a handful of aromatics and a few packages of chicken bones I’d picked up for under two dollars apiece.

Seven (largely unattended) hours later, I had six quarts of tasty broth, plus two quart-sized containers of meat scraps for my dog. The downside? I also had two styrofoam trays and plastic wrap from the chicken bones I’d purchased, and a lot of pot-scrubbing to do.

But making the broth was easy, inexpensive, and yielded a product superior to what I’d been buying. Being more aggressive about saving bones and seeking out sources for unwrapped bones would reduce my waste even further in the future.

Reducing Beverage Waste: Travel Mugs and Tea Balls

I say this with much love, but the vast majority of our discarded beverage containers lead squarely back to my husband. Between his daily coffee, a post-run juice or sports drink, and a couple of beers with dinner, he is tossing out almost 1,500 (!) beverage containers each year in addition to the countless single-serving foil packs of coffee he burns through every workday. Yikes!

A gentle suggestion that he switch from bottled beer to more efficiently recycled cans or, better still, a refillable growler was met with a definitive no. He did agree to try taking coffee from home in a travel mug and skipping the sports drinks in favor of water or juice from the fridge (still packaged, but one large carton as opposed to multiple small bottles).

As a seltzer and tea drinker, I was doing okay in this area, but I did resolve to make more frequent use of my tea ball, skip individually packaged teas, and fire up the SodaStream more regularly.

Hitting the Bulk Bins

I’ve long been a fan of the bulk aisle for the cost savings and variety they offer, but it’s also ground zero for reducing the food packaging that ends up in your cart. Most stores were perfectly happy to allow me to use containers I’d brought with me from home. A piece of tape on top allowed me to note the bin number for the cashier.

In one store, the automated scale even let me zero the scale to deduct the weight of my packaging, although in others, I had to stop at the customer service desk so they could note the tare weight (what the container weighed empty) in order to deduct it at the checkout. At .07 ounces, the weight of my empty yogurt container doesn’t make a big difference when I was buying $1.79/pound lentils; for $59.99/pound spirulina, though, it was worth making the extra stop.

Taking a Pass on Prepackaged Produce

When it comes to animal protein, there is almost always an inverse relationship between cost and the amount of packaging: prepackaged meat is invariably less expensive than the paper-wrapped meats and seafood from behind the counter. Where you purchase yours will ultimately come down to budget and availability.

The opposite tends to be true in the produce section, where washed and bagged greens, crated citrus, and shrink-wrapped cucumbers often cost more than the same items sans packaging. I realized I’d gotten so used to tossing a plastic clamshell of “spring mix” greens into my cart that I’d forgotten how much I enjoy other greens like endive, radicchio, and watercress.

Tossing together my own salad blends made for much more satisfying salads with less spoilage. Likewise passing up the pre-cubed butternut squash, sliced mushrooms, and bagged carrots saved money and let me inspect what I was buying to be sure it was fresh and unbruised.

With few exceptions, these items didn’t require any packaging at all. Okay, I did need a paper bag for the shiitakes, but the lemons, carrots, potatoes, bibb lettuce, and clementines were perfectly happy rolling around naked in the bottom of my cart. The only packaged item I couldn’t find a way around was berries (which, as imported, out-of-season items, were probably not the greenest things in my cart to begin with).

(Image credit: Izy Hossack)

Trading Up: Glass Milk Jars and Homemade Yogurt

Dairy presented the biggest challenge, and the packaging savings I was able to realize were largely incremental. Since we don’t use much dairy milk, buying a quart in a recyclable glass bottle every other week seemed a reasonable splurge, and the $1 deposit on the bottle itself turned out to be a much cheaper alternative to buying Ball or Mason jars to store stock and homemade nut milks.

Switching from butter in individually wrapped quarters to one-pound blocks eliminated a cardboard carton; grating my own Parmesan rather than buying it pre-shredded kept another plastic tub out of my fridge.

But buying yogurt in quarts rather than individual cups resulted in my throwing out a lot of spoiled yogurt, and going for a gallon of Breyers instead of cute little screw-top jars of my favorite gelato inevitably led to unwanted calories (or freezer-burned leftovers). I’m experimenting with making my own yogurt, but in the meantime I’m making sure any containers I buy have lids that allow them to be reused.

The Bottom Line

If I looked hard enough — and in some cases, was willing to make a separate trip to a specialty shop — I was almost always able to find a packaging-free or less-packaged alternative to the foods I buy regularly. Sometimes that meant making it myself; in other cases it meant bringing my own container to transport bulk or loose items.

Even small changes, like buying lettuce by the head rather than by the bag, had real, measurable results when it came to pulling the cans to the curb at the end of the week.