How to go zero waste in the kitchen with zero effort

Going zero waste in the kitchen is nothing new – we've been doing it for thousands of years but simply forgot the recipe. Let us show you how easy it is to get back into it.

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Before the culture of convenience and modern-day Western living, waste in the kitchen was a rare sight. Every morsel of nutrition was extracted from the little produce available, and every part of the vegetable, fruit or animal was used.

Fortunately, we can relearn these habits, and apply the environmental maxim of "reduce, reuse and recycle" to our kitchens today, just as well as any other part of our lives.

Plus there is a certain magic to zero-waste cooking that makes it fun and exciting at the same time.

This guide will outline some simple steps to going zero waste in the kitchen, and help you make zero-waste practices part of your everyday routine. You'll also see how going zero waste can not only help save the planet, but likely save your budget at the same time.

Looking for more ways to go green and live a sustainable lifestyle? Visit our environmentally friendly hub Finder Green for more great guides like this one.


Every good meal starts with your pantry and the way in which your ingredients are sourced.

Purchase zero-waste foods

Fruit Market

Simple, but easily forgotten.

Most veggies come with natural packaging and don't need an extra layer of plastic to protect them. However, in the past decade, we've seen a steep rise in the number of vegetables being packaged or wrapped in single-use packaging.

So, the simple solution here is to ensure you don't purchase foods that are being sold in plastic wrapping. Also consider foregoing the plastic bags on offer at the supermarket to wrap loose veggies in, as national health standards recommend you wash your fruit and veg regardless.

And, if you're purchasing something a little more challenging like mushrooms or brussel sprouts, which will run amok without the authority of a bag to keep them contained, simply bring your own.

Whether it's plastic bags from previous purchases, the canvas bags you plan to take it all home in, reusable takeaway containers or even your kids' lunchboxes, anything will do. In fact, there are a growing number of grocers that only permit – or simply encourage – customers to bring their own containers.

Every time you eliminate the consumption of a new single-use item, the impact is bigger than you think. And it's not just about where these pieces of plastic will end up after you're done with them. Every piece of packaging has its own unique supply chain, which leaves a substantial environmental and CO2 footprint.

There are the materials used in manufacturing, which have to be mined or farmed, usually from far away places and using destructive techniques. Then there's the energy, the labour and the pollution from manufacturing. And, of course, that container needs to travel to meet the food that winds up in it, and commercial shipping is one of the least-regulated industries that contributes massive amounts of atmospheric pollutants.

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Can you grow it?

Let's assume you live in an apartment of no more than 50 square metres. Real estate is scarce. You've learnt how to turn storage solutions into single works of art made up of piled-up furniture, boxes, heirlooms and hoarded favourites. There's not an inch of space left unused.

Well, the good news is that in most Australian climates, things like herbs, tomatoes and leafy greens don't really care where you live. If you can fit them into your Jackson-Pollock-painting of interior design, then they will live a happy life regardless. Plus you can recycle all sorts of containers to grow them in.

Growing your own herbs and veggies isn't just a rewarding hobby, but you'll also be reducing waste by the bucketful (CO2, fuel, labour, packaging, etc) and you'll be saving money by not having to buy these veggies at the store. And we all know that growing them yourself means they'll taste even better – even the "ugly" ones.

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Buy in bulk

We're blowing your mind with our out-of-the-box thinking aren't we? Yes, this isn't a perfect solution, nor is it exactly zero waste, but it's a frugal and an age-old trick.

Things with long shelf-lives such as olive oil, vinegar, rice, grains and wine, as well as other household essentials like cleaning products, personal care items and soaps can often be purchased in a single bulk-sized vessel.

Often this will come out cheaper than the per-unit price and it will eliminate a lot of waste in the process. Plus, decanting olive oil from a large container into a unique looking bottle makes you look way cooler in front of anyone you happen to invite to dinner.

Not only do you reduce container waste, but the ratio of net weight vs gross weight increases, which reduces supply chain waste. It's not exactly a short trip getting that olive oil from Spain to Australia.

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Stop shopping altogether

Okay, that was actually a joke, but you could consider joining a local food co-op. These usually consist of a small group of individuals or families in a neighbouring area (although commercial-sized co-ops are increasing in popularity as well) that take turns purchasing groceries for the group.

The benefit of this is, first and foremost, to reduce your grocery bills, but there is also the added benefit of less CO2 output.

These sorts of groups tend to shop at wholesale markets like Sydney Markets (Flemington) in NSW or Melbourne Markets (Epping) in Victoria, which tend to offer far cheaper produce and meat than standard supermarkets.

The flow-on benefit is that only one group does the driving per week, instead of each individual household. And thanks to the neighbourhood focus of these groups, the task of delivery doesn't blow out the fuel budget either, again keeping the CO2 output low.

To find your local co-op, give both Google and Facebook a search, or use some of the links above, which include helpful resources for getting started.

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Use every part of the fruit or vegetable

Every culture, cuisine and gastronomical trend has its own way of using fruits and veggies in a way that reduces kitchen waste. There are far too many to list here, but to get you started, here are few everyday solutions that take zero effort that you can slip into your existing routine.

For all the muesli lovers out there, especially those who eat a lot of fruit, hold onto the cores, rinds and other unwanted (yet edible) parts of the fruit. These can then be roughly chopped up and thrown into a freezer bag. Once you've collected enough, you can then dry them out in the oven and, hey presto, you've got some dried fruit to add to your morning muesli, just like you would find in an off-the-shelf product. This also works well if you have children who are fussy eaters and like to have their fruit cut up and prepared in a certain way.

Couple cooking at the kitchen

For veggies that still have the stem or roots attached, try replanting them in the garden, or even in a glass of water on the windowsill. If gardening isn't your thing, those same tops and tails are great for making stock, feeding to the chickens or, in the case of fruits, forming the base of a flavoured syrup.

Whether it be lemons, limes, oranges or grapefruits, citrus juice is delicious and great for salad dressings. But there's no need to let the fibrous pulp go to waste. This pulp is just as delicious included in the salad as it was before the juice was removed. Plus, if you're trying to reduce your sugar intake, the fibre found in most fruit pulp includes additional nutrients that help reduce the uptake of sugars from the juice. So it's a win-win!

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Fatty offcuts = flavour

Ever wonder why your grandmother's cooking can't be matched? It's probably because of the fat. In fact, every chef will tell you that the secret to the perfect dish is butter and lots of it.

As low-carb, moderate-fat diets increase in popularity and gain scientific support, cooking with natural fats is coming back into fashion in the home kitchen.

You can use fatty offcuts that would normally be thrown into the bin or given as a treat to the dog to form the base of some of your favourite dishes. Whether it's a sauce, soup, roux, jus or gravy, offcuts should be a staple in every kitchen. Plus, they are one of the most energy-dense food sources, pound for pound.

And, as mentioned, there's an infinite amount of knowledge and an infinite amount of ways that you can use every part of your daily ingredients. However, if you're totally stumped, leave a comment below, and we will do our best to come up with a solution so clever and delicious that it might even win you a slot on My Kitchen Rules.

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Do your recycling properly, you peanut

Boy pushing a trash bin

An increasing amount of Australian waste that's intended for recycling centres in Indonesia and other places is being rejected, sent back or simply burnt (and I hope I don't need to explain why burning garbage is really bad for the atmosphere).

While in some cases, the reason for rejection can be due to economic factors that are out of your control (like the profitability of existing recycling schemes), in many cases, it's simply due to lazybones like you and I sorting our recycling into the wrong bins, putting garbage into the recycling or not preparing the recycling properly.

If you're going to buy your chickpeas in a can for $8 instead of dry and loose in a BYO container for $3, then the least you can do is clean and recycle the can properly.

However, you'll be forgiven for not getting it right every time. Recycling in Australia isn't so straightforward.

There is no single method for recycling in Australia, as it varies at not just a state level, but at a local council level. Unfortunately, this leaves a lot of well intentioned people confused. The best thing you can do is contact your local council and find out what the guidelines for recycling are in your area.

The effort is worth it, though. For example, according to the Australian Aluminium Council:

Aluminium is 100% recyclable and experiences no loss of properties or quality during the recycling process. Recycling aluminium also uses only 5% of the energy used to create new aluminium and emits only 5% of the greenhouse gases. It is for these reasons that approximately 75% of the aluminium ever produced is still in use today.

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Start a green waste bin (even if you don't have a compost)

Even if you don't have a compost going, you can still recycle all the plant-based waste from your kitchen. It's as simple as collecting it and placing it into the green (garden waste) bin that your local council provides.

You don't even need to buy a special bin for it – a simple tupperware container with a tight lid works great. And thanks to the tight seal, you shouldn't have problems with fruit flies, insects or the smell (until you open it!).

Alternatively, there are people who would love to receive your decomposing organic matter and will even come and collect it from you. Wowzers!

Community networks like ShareWaste – who was recently profiled in our Going Green series – help Australians households reduce food waste by collecting and repurposing the organic waste of any individuals, families or businesses who don't have their own compost systems. This allows producers to turn would-be waste products into fresh soil or compost, instead of letting it go to landfill, which is the case for an estimated 2.5 tonnes of food waste, per household, per year.

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Cleaning up

Save all your water

As Australia experiences another prolonged period of drought, it's more important than ever that we manage our water sources responsibly. As such, think of these next tips as being applicable anywhere in the household, and embrace these habits even if they feel strange at first.

While waiting for tap water to heat up or cool down – especially during the extremes of the Australian seasons – make sure to collect the unused water. This is especially important if you have a water system that takes a while to change temperatures. Whether it be in a bottle for drinking, a watering can for the garden, or simply a bucket for household chores (works great in top-loader washing machines), simply put, do whatever you can to prevent perfectly good drinking water being lost down the drain.

Woman in red cleaning up

At first it may feel like a chore, but then it becomes more like a game where you don't want to waste a drop. Plus, if you have little ones around the house, it's great for teaching them to be more water conscious and it keeps them busy at the same time.

You can take this practice one step further and also collect greywater. Greywater is the relatively clean waste water from things like rinsing dishes, washing hands, bathing and even washing clothes in your washing machine (depending on the stage of the cycle). Depending on your set-up, you can collect this greywater in a number of ways and then use it in the garden, to flush the toilet, or to wash the car. Just make sure you're not using it for drinking, bathing or anything that makes contact with a person or animal.

Before using greywater, check with your local water authority like Sydney Water to ensure you use it safely.

While this may be one of the least glamorous items on the list, careful water management is an essential part of Australian living.

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Do you really need to dishwash that?

Do we really need electricity and fossil fuels to clean our dishes? Especially when the average dishwasher uses 1800 watts of power and roughly 13 litres of water.

If what you've been eating with can be wiped clean with a simple brush or scrub, then perhaps doing the dishes in the sink with a small amount of water may be more sustainable, less wasteful and even cheaper and less time consuming. Take it from my housemate – brush the crumbs off and it's as good as clean!

However, for larger loads that would otherwise require lots of hot water, using a machine may be more efficient, as modern dishwashers are typically more efficient at heating water than standard household water heaters. There is no perfect guide to when you should and shouldn't use the dishwasher, but at the very least, consider your household and assess what might be best for you and the planet.

And for those for those of you that can't do without or simply want a more environmentally friendly option, we've put together a list of the best dishwashers for water and energy consumption, as well as a comprehensive list of all your options to compare no matter what your requirements are.

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Making it all work

Hands in teamwork
We're not trying to preach a philosophy here, but we realise that it's coming close.

Going zero waste isn't so much about following a list of actions, but more about a shift in your thoughts and habits. It's just as much about assessing your consumer habits as it is about your individual purchases.

Do you need the cheaper smaller bottle, or would the more expensive larger bottle suit your needs just as well over time? Or maybe it's a perishable that you don't use much, so smaller is better?

Can you get your meat unpackaged (and maybe cheaper?) from the butcher using your own container? If you don't have a compost, can you start to collect food waste anyway and put it into your green bin instead?

All these things require a change in behaviour, which isn't easy. But rather than committing to one particular action, commit to broader and more considered decisions.

But you're here reading this because you believe the change is worth it, so take your time and consider your options while transitioning to a more green, ethical and eco-friendly lifestyle. It won't happen overnight, but if you start planning your future tonight, then the tomorrow you want will come sooner than you think.

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Other honourable mentions

  • Start a compost (we assume you've heard of this one).
  • Start a chicken coop.
  • Coffee grounds are a useful soil medium for plants when mixed with "regular" soil (or on their own, depending on the pH requirements of the plant).
  • Switch to an energy provider that only provides energy from 100% renewable sources (GreenPower).
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