Since the days when our ancestors were spit-roasting food over an open fire, humans have looked for ways to make cooking and eating easier and less messy. There’s a reason most of us eschew standing over a campfire each night in favor of our temperature-controlled ovens and gas ranges.
However, innovation often comes with a lot of waste. Have you ever looked around your kitchen and realized how many single-use products you rely on? According to a 2017 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, over 32,000,000 tons of waste ended up in U.S. landfills in containers and packaging alone. That doesn’t include products that are themselves disposable, like paper towels.
All those disposable products aren’t just bad for the environment. They’re not so great for your bottom line either — and some may be hazardous to your health.
Fortunately, there are dozens of reusable, environmentally friendly, and — best of all — inexpensive kitchen products that can help you stop repeatedly buying and throwing away those single-use products. Even if you’re not quite ready to pursue a zero-waste lifestyle, you can replace these disposable kitchen products in favor of their reusable alternatives.
Reusable Kitchen Alternatives
1. Cloth Dish Towels for Paper Towels
There’s no doubt about it: Paper towels are handy. From cleaning up spills to drying our hands to swiping across the counter after dinner prep, they’re a staple in most kitchens. But according to an EPA analysis of data gathered between 1960 and 2017, paper products make up the largest percentage of municipal solid waste at a whopping 25.9%. Furthermore, according to Business Insider, they usually aren’t recyclable since they’re already fairly low-quality paper.
And at around a dollar or more per roll, depending on the brand you use, if you go through two rolls per week, that’s $52 or more per year you’re tossing in the trash annually.
While there are paper towel options that are greener — and usually more expensive — such as chlorine-free, 100% recycled paper towels, the Mother Nature Network still recommends using cloth. Regular cotton is better than paper since it won’t end up in a landfill as quickly. But recycled, hemp, linen, or organic cotton are the preferred choices.
Reusable dish towels are also a more budget-friendly option. A pack of 12 kitchen towels costs a little over a dollar each, but they can last for years with proper care. Better yet, if you know how to sew — a frugal life skill everyone can learn — and have some spare fabric, the cost of making a few dish towels is almost nothing.
2. Cloth Napkins for Paper Napkins
Similar to paper towels, paper napkins are ubiquitous in the modern American kitchen. Unfortunately, as with paper towels, they’re a product you only use for a few minutes each day, then throw away — sending them straight to the landfill. And just like paper towels, they’re low-quality paper you can’t always recycle.
And while they only cost around a couple of cents per napkin, if each family member in a family of four uses just two per day, that’s still over $70 per year.
Switching to cloth napkins can both save you money and reduce waste. The price of cloth napkins varies depending on the material you choose and whether you want plain or designer napkins. If you’re on a tight budget, you can get plain, no-frills dinner napkins for less than $1 apiece, and because they’re washable, you only have to buy or make them every few years.
3. Reusable Grocery Bags for Plastic Bags
Even if your city or town isn’t one of the hundreds across the country that have implemented a plastic bag ban, you can switch to reusable grocery bags instead of relying on plastic bags from the store.
According to Business Insider, plastic bags can’t be recycled with your regular recycling because the bags present a hazard at the sorting plant. There are special facilities that can handle the task. However, you have to take your bags to a designated recycling location, which is often the grocery store if yours has the program. If you’re going to do that, why not buy your own bags anyway?
Plastic is made using petroleum, which is a nonrenewable fossil fuel. Plus, plastic doesn’t biodegrade, according to Live Science — it just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces, which then make their way into our water and food. In 2014, researchers at Ghent University calculated that we eat up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic via the fish we consume every year.
It’s not yet clear how much of that plastic stays in our bodies and what the effects are on our health. However, according to information compiled by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, many plastics are made of compounds that contain endocrine disruptors, which may result in human health concerns like lowered fertility, an increase in endometriosis risk, and even cancer. Furthermore, according to a prediction based on a 2016 Ellen MacArthur Foundation study, if we don’t take action to halt it now, by 2050, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish.
If these terrifying statistics aren’t enough to convince you to switch to reusable bags, consider this: According to garbage management company Waste Management, Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year at an annual cost to retailers of around $4 billion. Even if they’re not charging directly for plastic bags, which some retailers do, stores pass that cost on to consumers in the form of higher prices. If everyone reduced their plastic bag use, it would save us money at the supermarket too.
Many stores even offer a small discount for bringing your own bags. For example, Target gives you $0.05 off for every bag you bring, and Whole Foods lets you keep your $0.10 bag refund or donate it to a local charity. If you shop once per week at Whole Foods and average 10 bags per trip, that’s $52 per year. That’s like getting a free month of Internet service.
4. Reusable Mesh Bags for Plastic Produce Bags
If you really want to step up your no-plastic-bag game, you can also ditch plastic produce bags for reusable bags. Produce bags made out of mesh, linen, or cotton are popping up all over the place, including at Etsy, Crate & Barrel, and Bed Bath & Beyond. You can also make your own out of dish towels or other fabric you have around the house. Get the tutorial on Zero-Waste Chef.
If your grocery store has switched to the increasingly popular compostable produce bags, that’s definitely better than plastic. However, they’re still a single-use product someone must produce, package, ship, and stock repeatedly, and the store still passes that cost on to you. By switching to a reusable bag, you’re minimizing the resources required and driving down its cost and negative impact per use. Anything you can do to reduce the grocery store’s cost of doing business can lower the prices you see.
Also, those compostable bags only do any good if they make their way into your home compost bin or to a composting service instead of a trash can. Like most organic matter, if they’re thrown in the trash, they end up in a landfill. Landfills store garbage between impermeable layers of plastic and clay, so those bags (and everything else) just sit there for years. According to Live Science, while garbage does break down, it does so slowly, releasing dangerous and flammable methane gas due to the lack of oxygen in the environment.
5. Reusable Storage Bags for Plastic Zip-Close Bags
Think about how many plastic zip-close bags you use every week, from school and work lunches to leftovers. According to marine and wildlife activist organization Evelve, the average American uses 500 zip-close bags per year. Most of them end up in the trash — and eventually, in the ocean. Moreover, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Current Biology, even plastic bags using alternatives to bisphenol-A, or BPA, may have the same negative impact on reproduction their predecessors did, though this study focused on mice, not humans.
Fortunately, there’s another option. Reusable storage bags come in a variety of materials. Quinline makes a line of leak-proof resealable PEVA storage bags perfect for lunches and meal prep. For those who use bags for sous vide or in the microwave, Stasher’s silicone bags can take the heat. You can even use them in the oven and put them in the dishwasher for easy cleaning.
6. A Water Filter or Pitcher Instead of Plastic Water Bottles
There’s almost nothing better on a hot day than an ice-cold glass of water. For millions of Americans, that means grabbing a single-use plastic bottle out of the refrigerator, drinking the water in it, and then throwing that bottle in the trash. According to EcoWatch, in 2016, Americans bought an estimated 50 billion bottles of water and only recycled about 23% of that haul.
Moreover, according to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, because of the kind of plastic they contain, disposable water bottles can only be downcycled — made into a lower-quality product — once before they reach the end of their useful life. Then they go into a landfill, where they continue to break up into tinier plastic particles, most of which eventually end up in our rivers and oceans.
Also, plastic water bottles impact your budget. A 2018 report on 2017 bottled water consumption by the International Bottled Water Association notes that industry group Beverage Marketing predicts the average person’s annual bottled water consumption could climb higher than 50 gallons in the coming years. In that year alone, 69.5% of the bottled water consumption was via single-serve bottles.
According to a 2018 report from Food and Water Watch, the average per-gallon cost of bottled water was $9.47. If you’re drinking 50 gallons per year, that means you’re spending almost $500 annually on bottled water. Think that seems like a lot of water? If you only drink one 16.9-ounce bottle per day, that’s just over 48 gallons per year.
Instead of buying pallet after pallet of bottled water, switch to a water pitcher with a filter in it, like the ones made by Brita and Pur. You can easily store one in your refrigerator so you always have cold filtered water on hand. A single Brita filter or Pur filter can provide you with 40 gallons of filtered water for about the cost of a venti latte. Or you can buy a faucet-mounted filter for around the same price as a pitcher filter. Several brands also make self-filtering water bottles for hydration on the go.
You could also forego the filter and just drink water straight from your tap. The 2018 Food and Water Watch report found that 64% of bottled water comes from municipal tap water sources. Beverage companies are just putting municipal water in plastic water bottles and selling it for a considerable markup.
But it gets worse. The federal government requires tap water to be disinfected, filtered, and tested for pathogens like giardia. Bottled water doesn’t face these same regulations.
Budget-wise, according to Circle of Blue’s 2019 annual water rates report, the average total water bill for a family of four that uses 50 gallons of water monthly — which includes all water, not just drinking water — is only $35 per month. When you consider just how inexpensive tap water is, the water swap is a no brainer.
7. Reusable Beeswax or Waxed Canvas for Plastic Cling Wrap & Aluminum Foil
Plastic wrap is a lightweight film of plastic, usually made from chemicals like polyvinyl chloride or low-density polyethylene. There isn’t conclusive evidence on what some of these chemicals do when they get into our food or bodies. Of the over 80,000 chemicals used in the United States, the EPA only requires testing on about 200 of them, according to the National Center for Health Research. It’s possible they’re safe. But many people feel more comfortable knowing the health effects of what they use to store their food.
Another common food storage material, aluminum foil is very resource-intensive to manufacture. According to Slate, producing 1 ton of aluminum generates 12 tons of carbon dioxide. You can buy recycled foil, and foil can be recycled indefinitely, but only if you diligently clean off all the food waste before you toss it in the recycling bin. Otherwise, it makes its way to the landfill and sits without decomposing for thousands of years.
Luckily, there are multiple good options for sustainable food storage. One popular option is beeswax-coated cloth. Sold under brand names like Abeego and Bees Wrap, this kitchen staple is simply cotton cloth coated in tree resin, jojoba, and beeswax — which, as a bonus, is naturally slightly antibacterial.
Beeswax wrap is slightly stiff but still flexible, and the wax layer softens a bit when you warm it with your hands, meaning you can mold it to fit over the rim of a bowl or top of a glass. You can wrap a rubber band around the rim of the bowl if you really need a tight seal. Otherwise, it stays in place pretty well on its own.
You can also use beeswax wrap repeatedly, just washing it with soap and water when needed, and then compost it when it’s finally worn out, usually after a year or two. There are even tutorials for making your own beeswax wrap. If you’re crafty or interested in a fun DIY gift for friends and family, you can get the full instructions on Apartment Therapy.
If you need a truly airtight seal and beeswax food wrap isn’t going to cut it, you can still find Earth-friendly alternatives for storing leftovers and reducing food waste. Glass pasta jars, jam jars, and pickle jars are all fantastic options for storing sauces, meat, and other bits and bobs in your refrigerator, and reusing them keeps them from heading to a landfill, where the 2017 EPA report says 4,740,000 tons of glass ended up. Instead of wrapping leftover cut herbs in plastic to keep them fresh, stick them upright in a glass jar with a bit of water in the bottom, and they can last for weeks with regular water changes. Putting any pungent-smelling leftovers in a glass jar with a screw-top lid keeps your fridge smelling fresh too.
Glass, which is endlessly recyclable according to the Glass Packing Institute, also won’t absorb colors or odors, unlike plastic. And it doesn’t leach chemicals into your food. You can also safely heat, cool, and freeze glass without any ill effects — though you should never attempt to freeze hot glass or quickly heat frozen glass. Always start from room temperature, or the glass could shatter. You should also leave at least an inch or so of room at the top of glass jars before you freeze them. Liquid expands as it freezes and can also shatter the glass.
If you’re worried about it being breakable, search for tempered glass made by brands like Pyrex and Anchor. These are heat-treated in the manufacturing process and thus stronger than regular glass, which is why they’re popular for food storage and preparation. The only downside is that they often come with plastic lids.
In terms of covering food during cooking, you can replace foil with aftermarket lids or just get creative. You can cover most casseroles or lasagna-style pans with an overturned baking sheet. Just make sure you lightly coat it with oil if there’s cheese involved.
8. French Press or Drip Coffee for K-Cups
Most of us begin our mornings with a steaming cup of delicious coffee. And according to a 2018 Reuters survey, the vast majority of coffee drinkers — almost 80% — save money by making it at home instead of hitting a cafe. Different brewing methods have different impacts on the environment and our budgets. Recently, there have been a slew of single-serve coffee makers designed to make coffee easier to brew. However, they come with some pretty big environmental footprints.
The biggest offender is the beverage pod, which is a one-use, heavily packaged single serving of coffee or another beverage. In a 2019 interview with USA Today, Greenpeace USA campaign director John Hocevar said that in the first 10 years after their introduction in 2004, Keurig sold enough K-Cups that, placed end-to-end, they’d circle the globe 10 times.
Though many manufacturers have released recyclable pods, many of them require you to jump through hoops like ordering recycling kits from the company. So many of them still end up in landfills across the globe. Some models do take reusable pods, which is better than disposable ones. However, because of their electronic components, the machines can’t be traditionally recycled either. Since many manufacturers don’t sell replacement parts, if your machine breaks, you can only recycle it at specialized recycling centers — if there’s one in your area.
Instead, switch to a different way to brew coffee. There are several low- and no-waste methods to make a great cup of joe. And most coffee connoisseurs find they make a better-tasting brew anyway. A French press is easy to use and creates no waste beyond the coffee grounds left behind, which are compostable. You can also switch to making pour-over-style coffee with a reusable cone and paper coffee filter, which is also compostable.
Finally, if you’re looking for a really fast, easy way to make just one cup of coffee — and you’re not overly concerned with the quality or taste — keep a jar of instant coffee on hand for caffeine emergencies.
All these options are also less expensive than using a bulky machine and single-use pods for your daily caffeine fix. The Spruce Eats estimates pods can cost between $0.30 and $0.70 per cup. Instant coffee from a respected national brand like Folgers costs less than a penny per cup, and ground coffee from the same national brand costs only a few pennies per cup.
Once you start to cut disposable items out of your kitchen and cooking routine, you’ll probably see more places you can make the switch. Perhaps you can look for reusable alternatives to disposable beauty products. You can also learn to use green energy tax credits for home improvement. Maybe it will inspire you to go plastic-free entirely or learn green travel tips.
Whether you’re trying to save money, the environment, or both, switching to reusable kitchen alternatives can help. In many cases, it’s also better for your health to think green.
What are some of the green alternatives you’ve found for standard kitchen disposables? What are other ways you can make your cooking and eating more Earth-friendly?