Food waste in the United States has far-reaching negative ramifications on climate, health, and food safety.
Countering this iota of waste is a burgeoning global zero-waste movement. The United States Environmental Protection Agency assumes zero waste when regulating product design, the quintessential tip of the iceberg.
Products that conserve natural resources, preserve value and minimize environmental impacts create a positive trickle down effect. Zero Waste International Alliance has taken a global approach that seeks to instill responsible disposal practices with an eye toward proper land management and environmental safety.
However, this philosophy is not a modern concept, but rather reminiscent of the original indigenous caretakers of the land. In 1519, Mexico-Tenochtitlán was the largest city in the Americas, home to 200,000 Aztecs, with an incredibly advanced zero waste system.
This was especially true when it came to food. Tenochtitlán recycled nutrients by reintroducing food scraps and human waste as fertilizer that nourished crops, which produced food for the city.
The simple idea of recycling food scraps is a basic principle and a perfect starting point for those looking to introduce zero waste habits. Food scraps (think carrot tops, potato skins, animal bones, pumpkin seeds, fruit peels, cheese rinds, herb stems, and even coffee grounds) are easily transformed into tasty meals and snacks with the proper recipe. Even perishable foods that go bad can be thrown into a compost bin to create rich fertilizer.
Pela compiled a list of ways to reduce cooking waste in the kitchen, which can help reduce food spoilage, minimize packaging waste, improve environmental health, create nutrient-rich meals, and save money.
Carefully draw up a shopping list
Shopping effectively with zero waste in mind means planning a trip to the grocery store, no kidding.
Traditional grocery stores have similar layouts with packaged food aisles in the center and fresh produce, baked goods, and meat on the outer ring. Ground rules include buying exclusively in the outer ring, avoiding pre-packed aisles in the center, and focusing on bulk containers.
Unpackaged Food Source
Shopping with reusable containers (glass or metal containers, silicone bags, bread towels, and reusable grocery bags) is an incredibly effective way to reduce waste.
Choose loose produce, like whole fruits and vegetables, and get grains, nuts, seeds, flour, and legumes from bulk containers. Use bread cloth or reusable bags for baked goods. Avoid packaged meat, poultry, and fish by visiting the butcher with reusable silicone bags or wax-coated wraps.
If you can’t avoid a packaged item, choose one made of paper, glass, or metal, since only 9% of plastic is recycled.
Cook smaller portions to avoid food waste
Preparing hearty meals, when done right, is an effective zero-waste strategy. Of course, this is only true when leftovers are consumed.
Maybe it’s time to go small and avoid waste? This can look like mini meals (think oatmeal, burritos, pinwheels, wraps, and bowls) or recipes designed for one: think tray meals, personal pizzas, and mason jar salads. Rethink main meals as a combination of your mini meals: think breakfast mini frittatas served with quinoa for dinner, or dinner meat patties on mini buns for a burger lunch.
Reuse leftover food in other recipes.
Food scraps can make delicious meals. Instead of throwing away the tips and stems of fruits and vegetables, dried herbs and fruit peels, throw them away and reuse them. Carrot heads make great pesto, dried herbs can be made into herb butter, and citrus peels make healthy treats. These recipes are just the beginning.
Make a list of your favorite snacks and substitute leftovers: vegetable chips from leftover vegetable scraps, cauliflower rice from unused stems, or toasted breadcrumbs from yesterday’s bread.
When all else fails, toss everything into a pot with some stock or broth for Scrappy Soup.
Make broth from inedible leftovers
Not all waste is edible, but it can still be used to create an edible product: stock.
This liquid gold comes from simmering a mixture of animal bones, meat or vegetables with herbs and spices. The broth is the base for savory stews, thick soups, and flavorful grains.
Over the course of your day, week, and month, collect all the skins, tops, and stems from your vegetables; to freeze; and, once you have a good amount, place the batch in a pot of boiling water and bring to a simmer. It’s that easy.
Find zero-waste recipes
Tips and tricks aside, all you need is five minutes and Google to get the juices flowing without waste.
There are recipes that use nearly spoiled food, turning stringy, slightly soggy, unlucky vegetables and grains into delicious soups, brownies, and hearty bowls. There are recipes that incorporate the whole produce, from the tops to the skin to the stem, both in food and in your home—think replanting seeds and using eggshells as pot scrubbers. There are also recipes that use leftovers for staples like nut butters, salad dressings, condiments, and packaged foods.
Avoid packaged meal kits
The meal kit industry is worth around $1.5 billion. To keep up with the changing tide of consumerism, meal kit companies are offering healthy, customizable options delivered to your doorstep, putting them on track to grow another $5 billion over the next decade.
Meal kits are also a huge source of waste. The Association of Plastic Recyclers found that most meal kits used plastic and non-recyclable materials. While meal kits have been found to reduce food waste, the amount of material waste produced does not balance out.
Store food to maximize shelf life
Safe storage and reuse of food depends on the type of food: perishables: raw fruits, raw vegetables, meat, dairy, eggs, and cooked foods; semi-perishables—flour, dried fruits, and grains; o Non-perishable foods: dried beans, canned goods, and spices.
Perishable foods last three to seven days in the refrigerator or up to six months, depending on the food and temperature, in the freezer. Store semi-perishable foods in vacuum-sealed bags or airtight jars for six months to a year.
If handled properly, non-perishable foods are non-perishable. According to the Food Revolution Network, there are six tried-and-true ways to store food to maximize shelf life and minimize food waste: canning, freezing, dehydrating, fermenting, pickling, and cold storage. Pick one, or mix and match.
Preserve your own food
Food preservation, also known as canning, freezing, drying, pasteurizing, or fermenting, is an ancient practice. Preservation is the best method to prevent spoilage when food is not safe for human consumption.
While there are 11 different types of food preservation, the best for beginners is fermentation. All you need is a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, seasonings, salt, water, and the vegetables or fruits. Preservation is great for home gardeners or those who buy perishable foods in bulk, but it’s also an easy and effective zero-waste tactic for anyone.
The Natural Resources Defense Council makes a strong case for composting: it improves soil health, conserves water and mitigates drought, recycles nutrients, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and reduces personal food waste. The general rule is that if it grows, it inevitably decomposes.
The ideal environment should be cultivated with bacteria, fungi and worms; mealybugs or nematodes also work, as well as air and heat.
This story originally appeared in Pela and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.