Updated: Jun 18
Guest blog post written by Anne-Marie Bonneau, author of the Zero Waste Chef
A few years ago, my low-waste lifestyle made the front page of the Mercury News —a major newspaper in the US—above the fold! While I love the press coverage and spreading the word about a sustainable lifestyle, I have to ask, how is my lifestyle front-page news? I eat lots of vegetables, ride my bike everywhere and refrain from buying things I don’t need—newsworthy acts today in a society consumed by consuming.
Just some of these quiet acts of rebellion:
1. Cleaning up with rags
My mother—who at 89 years old, grew up without paper towels—wonders how I live without them. I found the transition simple enough. I have a lifetime supply of rags I cut from my children’s old t-shirts and unpaper towels that I made out of a worn flannel sheet (you can also buy these towels you don’t sew). I use rags in the kitchen to clean up small messes and either unpaper towels or dish towels for big spills. I hang these damp rags or towels up somewhere to dry (like on my clothes drying rack) so they don’t develop mold in the laundry pile.
In the hopes that someone other than me will clean our bathroom, I keep a jar of rags conveniently in the bathroom cupboard for anyone to use. And I often do see evidence of cleaning—a sparkling sink or tub and a wet rag hanging to dry over the shower curtain rod. (We use baking soda and homemade vinegar for cleaning.)
Our society’s aversion to ickiness creates an awful lot of waste. We want disposable everything for dealing with messes and act as though we’re cleaning up nuclear waste when cleaning up barf. Wiping projectile vomit off the walls at 2am is gross whether you use a paper towel or a rag. You may as well go for gross and sustainable. Use a rag. Wash your hands when you’re done. (You’d do that anyway, right?)
2. Preserving food
People have fermented food for thousands of years. This ancient process—now undergoing a revival, to the joy of our guts—preserves food, increases the food’s nutrition, uses little to no energy, saves money and, just as important—tastes delicious.
We can’t eat blueberries in the dead of winter and winter squash in the summer, insisting on having what we want when we want it and expecting that out-of-season food to a) taste good or b) do no harm to the planet in its long transit to a warehouse and then supermarket.
Preserving food through fermentation, on the other hand, puts us in touch with nature’s cycles. I look forward to the return of tomatoes at the farmer’s market this July, when I will ferment both ketchup and salsa. The flavor is worth the wait. (You’ll find both those recipes in my cookbook by the way.)
3. Choosing to reuse
Until the dawn of throwaway culture—a tiny yet disastrous blip in human history—we had no choice but to reuse items like plates and cups and forks and knives. Today, nothing prevents us from tossing single-use plastic items at will and in fact, the market encourages it. After all, a manufacturer can sell only so much when its items actually last. Make those items throwaway and shoddy, turn us all into dependent addicts and reap huge profits. As a result, plastic has infiltrated our oceans, our air, our water, our food and, yes, even our poop.
Avoiding some of this single-use plastic trash often requires just a bit of imagination and slight planning ahead. Put together a zero-waste kit on the cheap, for example, by packing a shopping bag with a mason jar or two, utensils and chopsticks from your cutlery drawer, a napkin and a few reusable cloth produce bags—in case you find yourself in a bakery that will put cookies directly into the bags, or you stumble upon a fruit stand or, who knows! You can’t plan everything! This little kit of reusables will keep piles of single-use trash out of landfill.
4. Fixing stuff (or paying someone to fix stuff)
I repair items such as clothing and if I don’t know how to repair them—or if I don’t have time to repair them—I farm those jobs out to someone else who can and help stimulate my local economy. I have had my current pair of Birkenstocks repaired at the local cobbler three times—new soles twice, new cork once—and will repair them again when they need it. Overall, I’ve saved enough money to buy a new pair if I needed them but I don’t. Tailors can work wonders if you lack sewing skills or time—or both. Speaking of which, I need to take my sewing machine in for a repair…
5. Finding a use for every last bit of food
I have always thought of myself as thrifty, but compared to my grandmothers, in the past I have wasted lots of perfectly good food. As I continue down this path toward ever-increasing self-reliance and sustainability, I keep finding ways to go deeper. Today I find uses for what many people would consider, at best, compost.
Here is a handful of examples:
Turnip, radish or other vegetable tops for colorful homemade fresh pasta
Various vegetable scraps for broth
Potato peels for a delicious fried snack
Apple peels and cores for scrap vinegar
Citrus peels for candy
Lemon peels for limoncello (which I then use to make limoncello biscotti)
Limoncello Mixed-Nut Biscotti made with a bit of the limoncello, lemon zest, nut pulp left over from making nut milk (if you have it) and whatever nuts you have on hand
Find more recipes in my cookbook—The Zero-Waste Chef: Plant-Forward Recipes for a Sustainable Kitchen and Planet—now out! And follow me on Instagram at @zerowastechef