Zero Waste Challenge: How to Go Zero Waste for 7 Days
A beginner's guide to reducing waste in your kitchen
A wrinkled cucumber, soggy salad in a plastic bag, some stale bread, and three open packages of yogurt: That was only a tiny part of my last “Let’s clean the office fridge” haul a few weeks ago. And sadly, this is a well-known problem in fridges all over the globe—from the office to your very own home. Every day, we produce tons of waste, and not only in the kitchen. According to this factsheet by the University of Michigan, an average U.S. citizen generated 4 ½ pounds of trash every day in 2018.
So it’s not really surprising that there’s a countermovement—one that’s been gaining traction. The Zero Waste movement has made its way into mainstream society with a wide range of blogs, books, and cookbooks on the subject that offer both information and inspiration. But the movement can even already celebrate its first successes: From 2021 on, disposable plastic products such as straws and plastic cutlery will be banned throughout Europe. It’s only one of many steps we’re facing, but everything counts—including what you, me, and everyone else can do in our own homes.
Although I’ve already try to reduce waste in my everyday life, I never really went in all or nothing. This is why I devoted 7 days to the topic to see what my personal challenges really are and where there is room for improvement. Read this article to hear how my week went and arm yourself with 10 beginners tips to tackle a Zero Waste week.
What does Zero Waste mean exactly?
The core idea to the Zero Waste movement is to eliminate any and all kinds of trash. No resources should be wasted and as little waste as possible should be produced. The idea doesn’t only apply to plastic packaging, but also to any kind of food waste. The approaches to Zero Waste living can be quite diverse: from a general refusal of consumption of certain things to a more selected purchase of sustainable products, even trying to recycle your belongings instead of always buying something new.
The Zero Waste lifestyle covers all areas, from food to cosmetic products and even electrical appliances. However, for my 7-day experiment, I decided to concentrate on the kitchen, which includes cooking just as much as grocery shopping.
7 day Zero Waste challenge: Here’s how my week went
Day 1: Saturday
My Zero Waste week started with one of the biggest challenges: grocery shopping. But before going to the market, I sat down, planned in advance, and wrote out a shopping list. It might seem like it’s not worth the time or is redundant, but it’s actually a great starting step to wasting less. If you know what to eat during the week, you most likely won’t make any spontaneous and unnecessary bulk purchases. To buy less, more consciously, and already have a plan for how to use it all up—that was the name of my game.
My shopping situation is quite comfortable—I’m spoiled with the options of several supermarkets, organic shops, and even some farmer’s markets nearby. Nevertheless, laziness often wins and that's why I tend to end up in the supermarket right around the corner. The supermarket that’s the closest, also offers the largest variety of products, but, as tempting as it is, when it comes to Zero Waste living—these are the spots that are often the worst option. Still, since it’s also the only choice for some people, and most convenient for me, I still decided to take a look and see how to reduce my waste there.
Today, fruits and vegetables are on my shopping list, and there’s at least one advantage of big supermarkets: In their spacious fruit and vegetable departments, you do find the ones packed in plastic, but you also find some plastic-free options to choose from. In my supermarket, bell peppers, tomatoes, grapes, apples, and herbs can all be grabbed plastic-free. Even though some loose products are a bit more expensive, you then also have the opportunity to buy just as much as you need. If you have several supermarkets in your area, it’s also worth comparing their selections and going grocery shopping in two places to get everything on your shopping list and without extra plastic packaging.
At the checkout line, there’s the next challenge waiting for me: plastic bags. This, however, is one of the easier problems to solve. Instead of going for plastic bags, just come prepared with your own fruit and vegetable nets or reusable linen bags to transport your purchases. Some supermarkets have even banned plastic bag themselves and there are already positive outcomes. In Germany, there was an average of 45 plastic bags consumed per person in 2016. In 2018, it was reduced to 24 plastic bags. Even though this is a good thing, at the same time, the use of thin, single-use plastic bags available for free in the vegetable department, increased. So there’s a bit of bad with the good, it’s okay—just try your best to avoid plastic bags at all!
If you even have a market nearby, I highly recommend shopping for your fruits and vegetables there. The fresh produce is usually never packed in plastic, plus it’s typically both regional and seasonal. Still, just don’t forget your own shopping bags, okay?
What I’ve learned today: You can avoid a lot of plastic by planning your shopping in advance. Buy less, with purpose, compare the selection of different markets in your area, and always go for loose produce. Also, I’ll always have my linen bag with me from now on, just in case.
Day 2: Sunday
When I stored my groceries yesterday, another idea came to my mind: It’s time for a fridge inspection! Right now, there are still some foods in plastic packaging in there, but throwing them away would be exactly the opposite of what I want to achieve this week, right? So instead, I plan to use them up and also will think about ways to reuse the packages. Jars are an excellent way to transport my lunch and condiment bottles can be refilled with homemade sauces.
I always store fruits and vegetables in the lower section of my fridge, but to make sure they last as long as possible, it’s important to know how to store them right. Tomatoes, for example, mold faster if you store them in the fridge. If you read our bi-weekly ‘In Season’ articles, you’ll always find the relevant information. And still, if some of your fruits or vegetables have soft spots or start to wilt, you can still blend them into smoothies and soups that can even be frozen from there for later use.
However, the biggest fridge mystery, for me, is the best-before date. Although the term already indicates that it’s not an expiry date, many people tend to throw everything away that has exceeded the given date on the package. But in fact, the best-before date only indicates when a manufacturer guarantees the highest quality of your food—and we all know the quality of food just doesn’t just go from “perfect” to “inedible” in the course of one day.
Instead, when properly stored, your food will last much longer than what the best-before date says. Even if you already opened a container of yogurt, trust your instincts more than a number. Look at it, smell it, and taste it–that’s the simplest way to find out if you can still eat it. And by the way, there actually is an expiry date on foods that spoil quickly, like ground meat. In these cases, you should consume it before the best-before date passes, as there’s a risk of dangerous germs and bacteria afterwards that you can’t see or smell.
What I’ve learned today: The best-before date is not an expiration date. Proper storage ensures that food stays usable for as long as possible.
Day 3: Monday
I’ve spent the first two days of this challenge in my own kitchen, but now it’s time to go back to work where the next challenge is waiting: the office lunch. When it comes to office lunch (or breakfast or snacks), there are big waste traps. Since a regular office kitchen doesn’t provide more than a microwave, you easily end up at the salad bar of a nearby supermarket or buy some ready-to-eat microwavable lunch–both options which mostly come in plastic packages. Ordering food is also no real alternative as it too comes with an immense amount of (plastic) waste. But even if you decide to cook a fairy simple dish, such as pasta with pesto, you’ll most likely not use up all of the pesto. So what happens? The half-full jar ends in the office fridge where it will most likely will be forgotten and end up in the trash a few days later.
Which brings us to the simplest solution: Meal prep! If you cook your lunch at home, you’ll more than likely serve yourself a healthy, tasty dish. In addition, you can use up all the food you just bought, or even reuse leftovers: Turn your leftover dinner rice into a lunchable fried rice. Need more inspiration?
✖ Here are some tips and recipes for Meal Prep beginners.
✖ We asked our colleagues what they usually eat for lunch.
While I was prepping my meals for the next few days, I noticed the small pile of food scraps next to my cutting board and asked myself two questions: First, since I’m going Zero Waste this week, I can hardly just throw them away without a second thought, right? Secondly, could I even reduce this organic trash?
Let’s start with the latter question. There are some foods where you know the deal–you eat the apple unpeeled, but you peel the onion. Most of this, we learned when we were kids. Growing up we didn’t question this knowledge and still think that we have to peel most of the fresh ingredients because that’s where the dirt is, right? But if you’re buying organic products, your vegetables and fruits are already less polluted. And even conventional products often only need to be thoroughly washed (a vegetable brush helps) to remove most of the possible contaminants that can settle on the outside. After doing a bit of research, I came up with this list that’s now sticking as a post it on my fridge.
Need to be peeled: citrus fruits, melon, onion, garlic, pineapple, mango, banana, papaya
Can be peeled: cucumbers, eggplants, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beetroot, sweet potato, kiwi
Yes, you read correctly: The listed fruits and vegetables do not need to be peeled categorically, but you’re still allowed to do so. Let’s say, you’re cooking mashed potatoes, you might want to get rid of the peel. But is this a reason to throw them away? No way!
Most vegetables scraps can still be used. As for the scraps next to my cutting board, I could compost them at home (this article tells you how to do it), but I’ll save these to make a homemade vegetable stock at the end of the week. Let’s come back to this on Friday to see how many scraps have come together.
What I’ve learned today: Almost every peel is edible. And even if you can’t or don’t want to eat them, there are several ways to use them instead of throwing them away.
Day 4: Tuesday
Even though I’ve been busy with Meal Prep this week, there are still some vegetables left in my fridge. I can add some of them to my dinners, but if there will be leftovers, what then?
I’m pretty sure my grandmother would give me the answer in no time. She’d probably look at me with wondering eyes and ask why I don’t freeze or pickle vegetables all the time. Drying, preserving, pickling, and freezing food are some of the easiest ways to avoid food waste. What was essential for survival in the past, is now seen as an almost nerdy thing to do. Living in a luxury world where there’s an overflow of everything, we just tend to buy things instead of valuing what we have. Check out our How-tos to find some instructions to begin with:
Easy pickled chili peppers
- 01:47 min.
- 46.8K views
How to preserve fresh herbs
- 01:52 min.
- 30.6K views
We also have articles dedicated to freezing and pickling food, plus a collection of recipes for big batch cooking:
✖ 8 Foods You Can Freeze in an Ice Cube Tray
✖ 5 Recipes Ideal for Big-Batch Cooking
✖ An Introduction to Pickling, Plus How to Make Pickles at Home
What I’ve learned today: Grandmas just know best!
Day 5: Wednesday
After I bought all my fresh produce on Saturday, it’s time to go grocery shopping again to buy all kinds of ‘un-fresh’ ingredients. And this is when the plastic madness really starts. From pasta and rice to cereal or baked goods, there’s almost nothing that doesn’t exist in plastic packaging.
Luckily, we have so called ‘unpacked stores’ in Berlin, where you can bring your own containers and fill them with all kinds of dry food. I love this idea, because on the one hand, it obviously reduces waste to a minimum, and on the other hand, it also allows you to buy smaller quantities than in a regular supermarket. There are already many of these packaging-free supermarkets all around the world – here’s a compiled list to search for one that’s near your place. And if you’d rather shop online, there are some online retailers that offer plastic-free shopping. It’s best to ask for it, because even if they don’t do it yet, you just increased the demand.
I think the biggest challenge of going plastic-free is when you’re buying processed food. But here are two ideas to reduce waste: 1) Look for alternative packaging, e.g. made from glass or carton. 2) Do it yourself instead of buying it! Anyone can cook, right? With just a little time and effort, you can cook most processed food at home, even pantry staples. Just take a look at our How-to section and find yourself the first DIY project!
What I’ve learned today: There are possibilities to avoid plastic packaging for every situation.
Day 6: Thursday
My day was quite relaxed and plastic-free until I started to do the dishes after dinner and noticed that there’s a part of my kitchen that I didn’t think about yet. Most of my cleaning supplies and some other kitchen utensils are definitely not following the Zero Waste approach. So I sat down and did some research.
Here are sustainable alternatives for 10 of the most common kitchen utensils:
✖ Instead of plastic straws: use metal straws
✖ Instead of parchment paper: use a silicone baking mat or reusable parchment paper
✖ Instead of plastic wrap: use beeswax wrap
✖ Instead of freezer bags: use silicone bags
✖ Use jars for storage and transport
✖ Use a paperless coffee filter
✖ Instead of teabags: use a tea egg
✖ Instead of plastic bags: use fruit or vegetable nets or bags
✖ Instead of plastic utensils: use utensils made from wood or metal, e.g. a wooden rolling pin, cutting boards, cooking spoons, etc.
✖ Instead of paper towels: use washable cloths made from bamboo
If you’re looking for more plastic-free tools to eat or drink on-the-go, here are some tips from the Kitchen Stories team!
Now, also my cleaning supplies could do a Zero Waste makeover. Instead of throwing away the dish soap that I still keep in my kitchen, I’ll use it up and probably even keep the package to refill it with some natural cleaning ingredients. Thanks to my research, I’ve learned that dish soap can be made with lemons, apple cider vinegar, water, and salt. Instead of using pipe cleaners, next time I’ll solve the problem with baking soda and vinegar which works just as well. And from now on, my oven will be cleaned with a paste made of baking soda, salt, and water. Luckily, there are tons of ‘recipes’ for cleaning utensils that I found online on Zero Waste blogs.
What I’ve learned today: Darn, there’s plastic everywhere!
Day 7: Friday
It’s the last day of my Zero Waste challenge and I’ve already learned so many new useful tips. Do you still remember my vegetable scraps project? Let’s see how much has come together by now.
To reuse these scraps and make a homemade vegetable stock, all I need to do is to transfer them to a pot and cover with water until the scraps start to float. You can add more seasoning to taste, e.g. cloves, herbs, or bay leaves. Let the mixture simmer for approx. 30 minutes, then drain through a sieve and save all the broth in jars to use within the next few days. To keep the broth for a few months, you can also freeze it in ice cube trays.
Making a homemade vegetable broth from scraps is a great idea but it’s not the only thing you can do to reuse what’s often called organic waste. Some herbs and vegetables can regrow on your windowsill, such as scallions, basil, or lettuce.
Following the mantra ‘Leaf to Root’, it’s important to see every fruit or vegetable as a whole ingredient and not only use some parts of it. Most of what we throw away can actually be eaten. The leaves of radishes, carrot greens, and stems of fresh herbs can be mixed into pestos, smoothies, or salad dressings (the stems of broccoli, Swiss chard, and kalecan be eaten, too!) Dry celery leaves, then ground them into a powder, mix with salt, and enjoy homemade celery salt! Use the pits of apricots and peaches to infuse desserts, turn melon peels into jam, and dry citrus peels instead of buying them. Your bread turned stale? Then finely grate it into breadcrumbs! The list goes on and on and on.
What I’ve learned today: There are endless possibilities to use what we think of as kitchen waste. Process your food as a whole and cook creatively!
Even though I’ve already known about Zero Waste before, I still learned so much more about it and got inspired in all kinds of fields! I learned about some horrible statistics but at least I got the feeling that there are a lot of people out there trying to tackle the problem! Yes, it's hard to change your lifestyle overnight, but there are a few small steps that everyone can make—and together, those will make a big difference.
Here are even more helpful articles on the topic:
Published on August 18, 2019