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Zero Waste in the Kitchen: How to Conduct a Pantry Audit

Have you ever wondered how you ended up with so much trash to drag to the curb? It can be intimidating to think about why we have so much trash and where to begin with reducing our garbage. Luckily, it tends to be pretty easy to find the worst offenders of trash in our homes, and the kitchen is an ideal place to start. With food waste, excessive packaging and cleaning supplies, the trash stream is overflowing in the kitchen for sure. It can also get really stinky!! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Welcome to The Zero Waste Collective’s Pantry Audit, it can change your life!

First thing’s First: learn about your local waste management system

Before we dive into the pantry audit we should know and understand our local waste management system. Perhaps to our frustration, waste management systems aren’t all created equally. Where you live will really determine how and if you sort your waste. You may live in a large and progressive municipality where most items can be recycled; where there’s an amazing compost system; and where very little trash actually goes to the landfill. In contrast, some communities will only have access to a dump (a hole in the ground for trash) or a landfill (a more complex system where earth is used to layer over top of waste) for waste.

Your first job, should you choose to accept it, is to research your waste management system. Find an easy way to learn which items can be recycled, what can be composted, and what goes into the garbage. It’s also important to know what is considered hazardous waste, and to learn if you must drop certain things off in person or if there are special pick ups available.

You should be able to find this information online or on a mobile app. If you can’t find information using these resources, try calling for this information instead. If necessary, you may be able to get a hard copy of your sorting list to put on the fridge. Keeping these details visible will make it easier for everyone in your household to sort waste.

Don’t think you have hazardous waste? Something as simple as an aerosol can be considered hazardous waste in many municipalities, and may need to be handled separately.

Although this post will address how to reduce waste in your kitchen, it’s still important to know how to sort your waste properly. It takes a lot of time and energy for waste management staff to re-sort waste once they receive it. Unfortunately, contaminating the waste stream is more common than we realize. Food items can easily ruin otherwise recyclable items, such as paper.

To avoid making it harder and more expensive for sorting at the facility, we need to properly sort the waste that we do contribute to the system before it gets there. If your municipality doesn't compost, home composting is an option - and that will be covered in a separate post.

For more tips on going zero waste, read the book and head to zero waste 101!

Trash Audit vs. Pantry Audit

It’s really common to kick off your zero waste journey with a trash audit. A trash audit is a task in which you collect all of your trash, recyclable and compostable items for a certain time period (a month, for example) to analyze what types of waste you’re creating at home. The purpose of this activity is to help you determine areas where you can improve on and reduce your trash. This is a very thorough and worthwhile approach, which you may want to undertake. However, you won’t likely capture all of your waste in a short time frame.

A pantry audit, on the other hand, will give you the chance to examine EVERYTHING in your kitchen, regardless of whether or not it’s in the trash (yet)!

Now for the fun stuff, conducting a pantry audit!

Examine all the items in your kitchen, and determine if each item falls under recycling, trash or compost using a notebook or spreadsheet, and discover if there's a less trashy alternative. For example, take boxed cereal. Check off the recycling symbol for the box, and garbage symbol for the bag (if that’s how your municipality sorts these items) and list an alternative available in your community.

An alternative for packaged cereal might be cereal available in the bulk section of your grocery store, or specialty bulk / zero waste shops. Then shop for cereal with your own container or reusable bag to avoid waste altogether!

Complete this exercise for every item in your kitchen, if you feel up for the task! You can lump together similar products, such as spices for example, to keep things moving along.

Tips for finding zero/low waste alternatives:

  • Shop the bulk section

  • Bring your own containers shopping

  • Carry a reusable shopping bag, tote bag, or basket while shopping

  • Use reusable bulk bags / bread bags / produce bags

  • Find bottle returns (for items like milk, yogurt, nut milks, etc.)

  • Shop your local farmer’s markets for fresh, local and package-free foods

  • Support your local bakeries for delicious breads and unpackaged treats

  • Bottle your own (e.g. wine)

  • Can foods (preserving)

  • Buy larger quantities with less packaging

  • Choose more easily recyclable materials if a zero waste option isn’t available (e.g. glass, paper, aluminum)

  • Make foods from scratch in the kitchen that would otherwise come packaged

  • Consider no longer buying certain items at all if zero/low waste alternatives are not available

  • Avoid single-use disposables like cutlery, napkins, and plates and instead entertain with reusable items such as cloth napkins, tea towels, swedish sponge cloths, ceramics, glassware and stainless steel cutlery (sponsored links)

TIP: This is also a good opportunity to tidy up and organize your kitchen. If you plan to start shopping with jars and containers, you can transfer already packaged items into jars, get rid of the trash and recycling, and more easily see what you have in your pantry or fridge. When you can easily see what food you have in the kitchen, you’re more likely to eat it and avoid food waste. So not only is this activity a good chance to reduce your trash, you’ll also feel accomplished at the end with an organized, beautiful and tidy kitchen.


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