Real Food Tips: 10 Ways to Be Less Wasteful

It has been gradual, but over the last couple years we’ve been making small changes toward reducing waste – inspired by the Zero Waste Family and the fact that after an entire year they only produced one mason jar full of trash (if you can believe that!). I am the first to admit that we will likely never even come close to such an accomplishment, but I immediately recognized that we could do much better than a big trash bag full of garbage every few days.

We’ve all heard that we should Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, but my favorite “R” is actually one I just learned about recently and that is to REFUSE. Say “no, thank you” to the free pen at the trade show or hotel, stop entering those raffle contests, and don’t buy any more cheap plastic toys that you know your child will forget about in 2.4 seconds! Already being a type-A “purger” at heart, this motto has really hit home with me. I strive to have all our rooms and closets clean and neatly organized, but guess what – I would have to spend a lot less time doing that cleaning and organizing if we had less unnecessary stuff! So I am doing my best to stop those garbage bags full of unnecessary trash and Goodwill offerings before they even happen.

So in light of this new motto (and Earth Day today!) here are 10 ways we’re working to “reduce” our footprint that others can easily adopt:

    1. cloth napkins

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      Cloth Napkins.
      Ditching paper napkins was something I considered for a long time before I actually did it. Then once we made the switch (and I realized how easy it was!), I couldn’t believe I had waited so long. The first step for me was to clear out a drawer in the kitchen to store our new cloth napkins (they take up a lot more room than a little stack of paper ones). So I finally dedicated a day to getting rid of more unnecessary stuff, ordered some attractive napkins that didn’t appear to hold too many wrinkles (because I knew ironing them was an unrealistic expectation), and came up with a new routine. We decided we didn’t need a “fresh” napkin every single meal so in-between uses we just hang our colorful new napkins on the back of our chairs. I also created a new spot in the laundry room for the dirty ones that I just add to a load of laundry as needed. And let me tell you what – this new routine is easy peasy and not only do we save money on not buying paper napkins, but we also enjoy the more “upscale” feel of using real napkins at the table!
    2. Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.06.11 PMReusable Grocery Bags.
      This is nothing new, but what’s new for me is that I finally have a good grocery bag “system” (so I don’t constantly have bags scattered across the back of my car and in some cases throughout the house), and I also finally got the hang of this new routine so I remember to actually bring my bags into the store with me. My grocery bag system is big/strong enough to hold a week’s worth of groceries – so I never run out of room. It took some getting used to, but I finally have this one down!
    3. Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.07.45 PMMesh Produce Bags.
      I was finally doing so well with the reusable grocery bags I decided to take things a step further and get some reusable produce bags as well. But I admit I’ve forgotten to bring/use them the last couple times I’ve gone grocery shopping. I do have the best of intentions though and am determined to make this part of my new routine as well!

    4. Less Bottled Water.
      If I were to say NO more plastic bottles of water I would just be lying to myself. Let’s face it sometimes you just need disposable (for example it was a requirement that I send a disposable marked bottle with my kids for field day). Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.09.10 PMAlso sometimes I am already super late and flying out the door and don’t feel like I can spare the extra minute to fill up my own water – and maybe I went running that morning so I am super parched. That may sound ridiculous, but that is just reality on a rare occasion. I will say though that we have reduced our disposable bottled water purchases a great deal, which is not only less wasteful but also a great way to save a little money as well. And that’s in part because of how much I LOVE my reusable thermos cup. I seriously bring this thing almost everywhere I go including trips when I bring it empty through airport security so I can fill it up on the other side. The best part about this cup is that it’s insulated and will literally keep ice for almost 24 hours, which – for someone like me who loves super cold water – is quite the incentive to choose this over the plastic bottled stuff that will be lukewarm in an hour! My thermos also does not “sweat” or leak so really a great all around investment if you are looking to make the switch.
    5. Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.12.27 PMBuying in Bulk + Glass Jars.
      Let’s face it – the more processed food you buy the more packaging ends up in the trash. If you buy in bulk it’s typically cheaper and you can store everything in your own reusable glass jars, which I also think looks kind of pretty in the  pantry. :) I am not going to lie though when my neighbor recently came over she looked in my pantry and said, “Where is all your food?” I laughed because she was looking at it! I guess it’s quite a different look than all the typical packages.
    6. Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 2.14.54 PMCloth Dish Rags.
      I have a feeling I am little late getting on this bandwagon, but up until recently we were cleaning our counters with paper towels. I have some slight germaphobe tendencies therefore I usually feel like our sponge (that I regularly wash in the dishwasher) is probably dirtier than it is clean. But once again, for me it’s all about coming up with a new system, and I’ve finally settled on one I am comfortable with and can keep up with here. I bought enough reusable microfiber dish rags to have a fresh one each day. I just plop them in the little basket of dirty reusable napkins I mentioned earlier, and all is well in the world. :)
    7. TP RollsRecycle More.
      We’ve always recycled, but were admittedly never very “hard core” about it. After a free little tour of our local recycling center last summer – along with some education on what can and can’t be recycled – we finally kicked things into high gear. Down to the cardboard toilet paper rolls all the way in the upstairs bathroom we are much more diligent about not just trashing everything in sight.
    8. compostCompost.
      Composting – or as some call it “rot” – is another one of those ideas we considered, and watched other people do, for a long time before trying it ourselves. And getting a compost bin for Christmas last year was exactly the push we needed to get started. I was surprised at how quickly we caught on to what to save (carrot peels, coffee grinds, egg shells, etc.) without accidentally putting those things down the drain, but what we still haven’t quite caught on to yet is how to actually turn that waste into nice pile of beautiful compost instead of…umm, muck. We think we need more “brown” stuff, but we haven’t quite nailed down the right combination just yet so to be honest our composting is currently on hold until we figure this thing out. Advice in the comments is welcome!
    9. catalogsStop Junk Mail.
      Another area where we’ve really been wanting to “reduce” is all those catalogs that oftentimes go straight into the recycle bin (which is certainly better than the trash, but still not as good as not getting them at all)! So we recently set up a free account with Catalog Choice and have already opted out of about 20 or so catalogs. They say it may take up to 90 days to take effect…does anyone else use this service or recommend another?
    10. ticketsRefuse.
      As I mentioned above…my new favorite way to be less wasteful is to refuse anything that may become waste in the first place! One great way to do this is to “gift” experiences rather than more stuff. Consider going on a small trip together or giving tickets to a special ball game or a fun concert for birthdays. I also love the idea of asking party guests to donate to a charity (Bright Blessings would be a great one) instead of giving presents to the host – although I have not been able to convince my children to try this out yet. I am still holding out hope that one day they will agree it is a great idea!

In addition to the suggestions above we also try to send an almost waste-free lunch to school everyday as well. Please share your own tips on being less wasteful in the comments below!

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  1. Two little ideas in the area of recycle. 1) toilet tissue rolls – stuff them w/your dryer lint & use them as fire starters. I do an added step of wrapping them w/a single layer of newspaper as well. 2) recycle paper egg cartons, dryer lint & candle stubs. Melt wax (carefully!), pour into paper egg cartons, tap dryer lint down into melted wax. Let cool. Break apart. Voila! EXCELLENT fire starters, even w/wet wood. We call them “fire eggs”. Regarding your compost…I greatly encourage you to master that. It creates black “gold” for growing things. Much healthier for the environment than sending out in the garbage.

  2. Instead of buying cloth napkins, i had my mom sew an old tablecloth into squares as a birthday gift. That was almost 4 years ago and those napkins are still going strong.

  3. Your link to the cloth napkins is blocked on all my devices. Can you please advise the company for these cloth napkins?

  4. I like the idea of taking your own containers for bulk items. How does this work tough? I mean pricing of the food item only and not the weight of the container.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. You take your containers to be weighed before adding your items to them. You only pay for what is inside. :)

  5. We stopped using paper towels along with paper napkins years ago. We have a bin of rags under the sink and wipe up messes with them. They go into our regular wash with the clothes. Of course, the “pet messes” require a special rinse outside. However, those are thankfully rare!

  6. Each time you take your container of food waste out, grab some paper or cardboard as well – old newspapers, thin boxes, scrap paper, egg cartons, any junk mail that made it through, paper wrapping. Rip it up or shred it if you have a shredder and layer in top of the food/organic/green waste. This will add ‘brown’ stuff and help it break down properly. Plus it is a nice way to ‘recycle’ paper waste :)

  7. I save a long list of items for a preschool. The teacher I save these for shares with the other teachers of 3 and 4 year olds. I save toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, cardboard egg cartons (they make great caterpillars)), plastic coffee and sugar containers, oatmeal boxes. It’s amazing how much oatmeal we eat.

    1. I bought the reusable grocery bags years ago after seeing you recommend them and I LOVE them! I want to buy another set, but can’t find it anywhere. The link takes me to a different product. Do you know where I can find something similar if they stopped making them?

      1. Hi Rachel,
        Looks like they don’t sell them on Amazon anymore, but you can get them directly from their website still. – Nicole

  8. We purchased a double composting bin from Costco and absolutely LOVE it! You can be filling one bin while the other one “cooks”. It’s fantastic! :)

  9. I know there are uses for the toilet paper rolls but Scott naturals has “tube free” toilet paper! It’s weird at first but I like not having them fill up the trash can or some other container to reuse them later.

  10. I save any brown paper bags I come across and use them to soak up excess fat and cooking oil from pans before washing. Not-too-soiled paper napkins or towels are also good. This has the added benefit of preventing all that cooking grease from going down the drain.

  11. My mom is the ultimate in frugality and does all of these things. Her compost method is the easiest! Simply take your bucket of scraps out to the garden or flower bed, dig a hole, bury compost in it. Next time, pick a different spot and repeat! I’ve tried a pile, which worked to create great dirt, but required a block of time to transfer to my garden and was just too time consuming. New house this year and going back to mom’s way!

  12. A quick fix on compost: add your leaf litter and grass clippings, and be sure to aerate the bin (ie mix it up daily or at least as often as possible). You’ll have lovely dark stuff to add to your garden beds in no time.

  13. For composting: I shred a lot of paper (bills, old insurance info, etc) and I add this to my compost bin instead of the recycle bin. I’m not concerned about inks since I spread the compost on my lawn. I also will throw in paper towels/paper napkins that don’t have animal fat/grease/cleaning chemicals on them. I rip them up to speed up the process. And lastly, since I live in New England, we get a lot of leaves in the fall. I fill my compost bins with this and if I have any remaining, I sometimes save a couple trash barrels full of leaves, covered, and use this throughout the summer. As long as you can pile some brown material on top of green in the heat of the summer, it keeps it from getting yucky. And use a pitchfork to aerate and cover up the new green additions. I’m thinking of getting a spinning compost bin to save me some effort on that last step and it’s supposed to make compost quicker too.

  14. When composting it is hard to get enough ‘brown’ materials when you live in the city or suburbs. A system of beneficial bacteria has been developed called bokashi. It comes in spray on or granules you add to a closed composting container. This means it doesn’t matter what your brown/green materials ratio is, and you can even compost meat and fish scraps! It doesn’t smell or get yucky, then you add to your garden.

  15. We use Colibri snack bags instead of ziplock bags for everything from apple slices or Cheerios to small toys or baby wipes. We also use their xl wet bags for swimming gear. The bags are nylon or PUL lined and have zippers for easy opening. They wash easily when turned inside out. Only available in Canada but you may have something similar in the USA.

  16. I easily reuse plastic produce bags by stuffing them into a empty paper towel tube in the kitchen and when it’s full, keeping it with the reusable grocery bags stored in my car. The produce bags stay neat and clean and are easy to dispense in the store. Then back inside the tube when I unload the produce at home.

  17. Do they end up looking really dirty after all the stains? How do you get rid of the stains on the cloth napkins? I’m wanting to purchase cloth napkins but haven’t made the leap because of worrying about stains!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Christa. You just launder them like you would anything else. Napkins with patterns show less wear than those that are solid. My good friend buys a bunch of inexpensive white napkins and tie dies them for her kids to use. Once they show way too much wear, at least in my home, they become dish towels and cleaning cloths. ;)

    2. Christa, I’ve used paper napkins for years. I just wash them with the regular laundry & I’ve found stains usually come right out. Any food stains that remain after washing, I just don’t worry about. Life’s too short. I don’t bother folding them either. I just pile them all in a drawer & we each get ourselves a clean napkin from the drawer at breakfast & use them same one all day, unless it gets really messed up, of course. If we’ve having something really messy that might stain badly, like barbecue, we use paper towels instead, just for that one meal.

  18. Gillian Michell`

    Napkins: Get everyone a distinctive napkin ring and you won’t have to leave the napkins looking like laundry on the back of the chairs.

    Sponges: Microwave them for two minutes after use apparently gets rid of the germs.

  19. My most recent way to reduce waste was to make a bunch of single use hand towels to replace our paper towel usage. I love paper towels because of how they have reduced the spread of germs in our houseful of nine children. However, I also have realized just HOW MANY we use each day since we are home all day (homeschoolers) and wash hands frequently. I bought a bunch of square kitchen wash clothes, cut them into quarters (so approx. 6″x6″)and hemmed the two cut sides. I have to admit even that was a big undertaking. It is surprising how long just hemming those two sides can take, though it would probably be even more cost efficient to cut up a bigger towel and hem all four sides. Anyway, we just stack the squares on a plate in the bathroom (no folding needed) and drop the used towel in a basket which is emptied into the wash each day. So far, it has worked remarkably well! :)

  20. Composting has been the biggest change for me. My local Council Authority (I’m in Sydney, Australia) runs free composting courses a few times a year, so an expert took us right through every little detail of successful composting. I’m sure lots of other civic authorities would offer something similar. Even if I never returned the soil made in my compost back in to my garden, just the massive reduction to the amount of waste leaving my home and going to land-fill was amazing.

    My new favourite thing is to make my own yoghurt. I was buying a kilo of plain, natural yoghurt, in a plastic tub, for around $5 to $6.50 each week.Once the yoghurt was eaten, I was throwing the tub away – probably $3 worth of waste.
    Making my own yoghurt in recycled glass jars is enjoyable, easy, less wasteful and tastes so lovely.

  21. On the jar topic:
    I like to save jars from sauce, pesto, olive oil or any other decent sized things and wash them reuse them for new stuff.
    As for seeing the toilet paper rolls, I saw word on a big brand eliminating the roll inside and just using paper rolled up. Trying to eliminate the extra waste they use. Can get back on brand later.
    Thanks for all the tips:)

  22. Good to know I do all of the above. Some more than others. I too often forget the produce bags, but for some things like lettuce, cucs, peppers, broccoli, I usually just lay them in my cart b/c I know I will be washing them when I get home or before I use them anyway. Thank you for sharing!

  23. I don’t really understand how glass jars reduce waste. Even if you buy things in bulk, don’t you have to put it in disposable plastic bags at the store (so you end up using packaging anyway)? Or do folks use some sort of reuseable bags at the store? I’d love to hear how folks deal with this! Thanks! :)

    1. I bring glass jars to the store, tare/weigh them in the deli section, write the tare on the top of the jar, then fill them at the bulk bins and add the PLU next to the tare number. At the checkout, the clerk weighs the jar and item, subtracts the tare and uses the PLU to check it out. For beans I put them into a mesh/produce bag as the weight of the bag is negligible. Hope that helps :)

      1. wow I wish our stores did something like that! They refuse to :( though I do reuse the large bulk bags as trash bags and if they are paper bags (even the super thick ones) i recycle them.

    2. I use cloth drawstring bags for bulk shopping to eliminate the plastic bag issue (works for flour, sugar, grains, nuts…). I use them for produce, baked goods and veg too. I have the mesh ones also, but they are so huge (we are a family of 3) that they were too big. The cloth ones are various sizes. I also do the glass jar for peanut butter, (a cashier with no line will also weigh it for you).

      I love the Zero Waste (Home) Family! I read her book and it really goes hand in hand with 100drf philosophy – (you can’t buy hyper-processed food in a bulk bin).

  24. I was having trouble making myself go out to the compost bin every time I cooked, so I now have an “intermediate” bin that I keep in my fridge – an old plastic coffee can. The fridge keeps things from rotting and getting stinky, and I take it out to the compost bin once or twice a week. Works great!

  25. I switched to buying bottled milk rather than milk in plastic or cardboard. I simply return the bottles to the grocery store for my deposit. It’s kind of funny buying a bottle of milk with a Christmas Tree on it in July, but it shows that they are really reused. As a bonus, the milk tastes better.

  26. I wouldn’t put meat or bones into garden compost because you could attract unwelcome visitors but newspaper can be added as brown waste, and leaves and grass clippings are great too. Don’t use weeds gone to seed if you don’t want those weeds in your garden later.

  27. We have baskets that go up the stairs at night and then emptied and fill with stuff that needs to go down the stairs in the morning like recycling. The baskets are small and sit on the stairs each day.

    I definitely believe in the refuse category!!

  28. This has made a huge difference in my world to encourage composting. Our city basically made it mandatory about 2 years ago. They gave each household an indoor bucket, and reduced our garbage pickup. We now have a locked compost bin outside & once a week it goes to the roadside for pickup. Is it my favorite chore? No. But do I feel good about it? Yes. And, it has greatly reduced our garbage, since we are a real food kind of family. (as a side note, many homes in our city are dual-family homes with suites in the lower floor, so 3 garbage bins in 2 weeks can be tricky).

    “The Abbotsford curbside compost program includes the following features:

    All food waste can be combined with your yard waste;
    Recyclables and compostables (food and yard waste) are collected weekly (unlimited number of containers allowed); and
    Garbage is collected bi-weekly (three containers allowed every two weeks).
    The following items can be combined in your compostable waste container:

    Yard waste, including grass and branches;
    All food scraps, including meat and bones;
    Paper towel, tissue and food-contaminated paper; and
    Food-contaminated pizza boxes.

  29. We keep a small recycling bin “all the way upstairs” for the toilet paper rolls, empty kleenex boxes & mostly paper waste the kids produce at their desks. When my daughter empties the garbage, she takes the upstairs recycling bin to the garage & separates the paper from the cardboard, etc.

  30. I haven’t read all the comments, so I don’t know if this was mentioned or not… But, I also save all paper towel and toilet paper rolls. When the tote under my bed (small house, very little storage space) is full, I take them to our local humane society. They use them to make treat toys for the dogs in the shelter. I like the idea of something being reused in this manner, rather than just recycled.

    I know that our humane society also loves to receive newspaper for lining the bottoms of cages.

    Getting lots of great ideas from your website as we are moving from a processed food family to a real food family! Thank you so much.