10 simple zero waste kitchen swaps

Zero waste kitchen swaps: so necessary.

Because is it just me or is the kitchen the biggest waste-generator of all, no matter how low waste you get? From food waste to packaging to water waste, the kitchen is a minefield of potential excess. Particularly for someone like me who spends a lot of time cooking.

My husband and I eat out maybe twice a month so our kitchen is constantly in-use. (Want to know more about how we cook on a super-tight budget? That post is coming soon!) When we started practicing zero waste, the kitchen was one of the first places I wanted to tackle, despite it feeling beyond overwhelming.

After months of feeling frustrated about what was going on in my kitchen, I finally settled in and completed a trash audit to figure out exactly what kind of trash I was producing. Once I did that, it was much easier to identify my issues and find zero waste kitchen swaps for the products I used the most.

Here are ten easy zero waste kitchen swaps you can make with minimal pain and big payoff!

Paper towels

I’ve never been a paper towel person, so I never had to transition away from them. However, it seems like a lot of people feel the pain. On average, it’s estimated one person uses 45 pounds of paper towels per year (source). That’s so much waste in both resources and money!

What you could be using: rags, ideally sourced from t-shirts which recently bit the dust. You stop using paper towels and save a shirt from heading to the landfill. If you’re really fancy, you can invest in some neutral-colored tea towels. (Some people also like to be fancier and get these things called un-paper towels but they’re totally not necessary.) I like to keep a small container under the sink so I can just toss the rags in when they’re too dirty. Then it’s easy to just toss them in the washer!

Excess food

About 31% of all the food created in the USA is wasted at the retail or consumer level, which doesn’t even address the ‘imperfect’ foods that don’t even make it to retail in the first place. To put that in perspective, that’s about 60 million tons of food heading to the landfill each year; or $160 billion. Remember – food going to the landfill doesn’t have the chance to decompose, so it’s just sitting there without a chance to return to the earth!

What you could be using: Watch Wasted and be depressed/inspired. Next, be prepared to refuse excess food you don’t need and rot anything extra in your shiny new compost bin! Learn more about composting in this post.

‘Sneaky’ plastic packaging

You buy an item with the best of intentions, thinking it’s in cardboard that you’ll be able to compost it. You get home, open it up, and find everything else surrounded by a plastic bag. Sadly, this double-wrapped option is all too common with most items meant to have a long shelf life.

What you could be using: hopefully you can source it in bulk to be sure you don’t get any sneaky packaging. If not,either keep buying the product from different brands until you find a plastic-free option or find a way to DIY that product with less waste.

10 simple zero waste kitchen swaps

Plastic wrap

So convenient, so easy, so wasteful. Avoiding plastic wrap can be difficult if you’re used to it, but not impossible.

What you could be using: wax wrap that mold into shape when you warm it up. BeesWrap is a big company with some amazing products. Alternatively, just go for some sealable stainless steel containers for easy stacking. If you don’t have any of that, go old school: stick your food in a bowl and cover it with a plate.

Plastic produce/grocery bags

This is a no-brainer but something people still struggle with since we’ve so long been conditioned to just accept them as fact. Take a look around any store and you’ll see tons of mindless consumption, particularly since many places in the USA actually have laws banning banning plastic bags in stores. (Yes, really. Indiana is one of them.)

What you could be using: make sure you always have a cloth bag with you, hanging next to the door, or tossed in your car. Never let the excuse of being unprepared make you fail! Good items to have are cloth produce bags, larger tote bags, and even a bento bag to carry spur-of-the-moment snacks and sandwiches.

Get the exact tools you need to reduce your kitchen waste by at least half with the Zone 1 mini-course!

Sponges and cleaners

Plastic sponges and chemical cleaners are cheap and convenient, but not great for the environment. Those plastic sponges head straight to the landfill – FYI, “a year’s worth of discarded sponges from one household could take up landfill space for upwards of 52,000 years” (source) – and those chemicals you don’t want to ingest head straight into our water sources.

What you could be using: rags or a bamboo scrubber instead of sponges. There are also some great 100% biodegradable sponges on the market which I’ve used and can recommend. Bulk castile soap or simple vinegar is a great alternative to chemical laden dish soaps or counter cleaners.


I love a good snack, but man can they be wasteful, particularly when marketed toward children or as “healthy alternatives”. Name a delicious snack and they’re all heavily packaged.

What you could be using: find a store with bulk options and find your favorite new, unpackaged snack. Most bulk spots have candy, nuts, crackers, and all sorts of items that don’t require tons of plastic packaging! If bulk isn’t available, consider going with unpackaged produce and adding homemade nut butters or nutella-like spreads.

Milk containers

Americans go through a lot of milk and those bulky plastic gallon containers take up space and remain incredibly wasteful.

What you could be using: many places now have at least one glass option in a store near them. Alternatively, consider giving up milk (or drastically reducing your consumption). You can also make nut or oat milks (buy in bulk) whose impact is drastically less than the dairy industry.

Bread bags

Once of the things I struggled with most at the start as it’s very hard to find inexpensive bread unpackaged. If you don’t enjoy baking bread (or like specific sandwich-type breads), this can seem like an almost insurmountable feat.

What you could be using: find a local bread producer and start a relationship with them. Purchase in paper or your own containers – many people swear by using a wax wrap and cloth combo. If you do end up buying bread in a plastic bag, use it as a trash bag. (If you’re composting, your trash shouldn’t be very messy and you’ll be able to reuse it many times.)

Excited to take your zero waste kitchen habits even deeper? Join me in Zone 1: A Low-Waste Kitchen, a 4-module course that will guide you on dramatically reducing your kitchen trash!

About the author

Polly Barks

Our planet's on fire. I empower people to be more sustainable so that we don’t all die.