Do a quick scan throughout your kitchen and there’s a 99.9 percent chance you’ll spot some sort of disposable product. Between Ziploc bags, cleaning wipes, parchment paper, and K-Cups, disposables are easy, convenient, and ridiculously cheap—it’s no wonder they’re so ingrained in our everyday lives. But while they make cooking and cleaning a breeze, they’re also highly problematic for the planet.
Let’s start with single-use plastic—the worst offender of all. “It’s just what it sounds like: Something made from plastic that’s designed and intended to be used just once, often for just seconds or minutes,” says Eve Fox, the digital director at Beyond Plastics, a nationwide project with the mission of ending plastic pollution. While your mind may instantly go to products like plastic straws and cutlery, in reality, it sneaks its way into every nook and cranny of your kitchen. “The plastics industry continually looks for ways to create new products where none are needed in order to deal with a glut of cheap plastics,” Fox says. “No one ‘needs’ a potato wrapped in plastic.”
- Eve Fox, Eve Fox is the digital director of Beyond Plastics, a nationwide project based in Vermont that partners environmental policy makers with grassroots organizers.
Plastic isn’t the only disposable to be aware of. There’s also products like paper towels and Swiffer pads. All of which have one thing in common: Once they serve their purpose, their next destination is the trash. “Single-use plastics and other disposables are a big problem in our kitchens and our homes because these items are not recyclable and come with a large greenhouse gas footprint,” Fox says. Those that reach a landfill can sit for hundreds of years, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere and contributing to climate change. They also end up in incinerators, where they create air pollution, or littered in our environment.
As single-use plastic products slowly break down over the course of hundreds of years, they’re split into smaller and smaller pieces. “These smaller pieces, called microplastics, eventually enter our soil and our water supply,” Fox says. “Or they end up being burned in an incinerator or littered somewhere in our environment where they pollute our waterways, woods, streams, and parks and endanger wildlife.”
The good news? Avoiding disposable products in your kitchen is becoming easier than ever thanks to environmentally sustainable alternatives; reusable and refillable packaging is on the rise, with one report projecting that the global market will hit $42 billion this year, an increase from $35.1 billion in 2017. Making some small changes in your own routine can add up to a big impact on the planet over time, starting with these seven cooking and cleaning swaps.
7 environmentally sustainable kitchen swaps
1. Swap paper towels and sponges for Swedish dishcloths
Between their massive water footprint (20,000 gallons for a single paper towel) and contribution to deforestation, swapping paper towels for a more planet-friendly option can greatly benefit the environment. Especially considering Americans spend billions of dollars on paper towels every year, and the majority are thrown in the trash.
If you’ve yet to hop on the Swedish dishcloth bandwagon, you’re in for a treat. They’re biodegradable and long-lasting, with a single dishcloth replacing 17 rolls of paper towels. “They're very absorbent, completely washable, and come in a range of cute, fun patterns,” Fox says. When it’s dirty, toss it in your dishwasher or washing machine and it will look brand-new again.
2. Swap plastic dish brushes for a bamboo brush
Once your plastic dish brush runs out of scrubbing power, it's tossed in the trash. Opt for a greener option to keep things squeaky clean—like a biodegradable bamboo dish brush with natural, non-plastic bristles. Even better if you invest in an environmentally sustainable option with a reusable handle, like this pick from Sqwishful that only needs the head replaced.
3. Swap plastic bags for reusable silicone bags
Ziplocs tend to be a hard kitchen item to give up: It’s so easy to toss your lunches or leftovers into those convenient bags. But silicone versions are just as easy to use—minus all the waste. Stasher bags are made of platinum silicone, which doesn't degrade over time. Because you can use a single baggie thousands of times, you're keeping the equivalent amount of plastic options out of landfills and oceans.
4. Swap plastic cleaning products for refillable or waterless options
When you’re at the store, there’s aisle upon aisle of plastic cleaning bottles. Even some of the best natural brands are packaged in plastic. Fox says she recommends opting for options from companies that focus on reducing packaging and plastic. Meliora Cleaning Products and Blueland have cleaning tablets that can be added to a reusable spray bottle—let it dissolve, give it a shake, and use as normal. Then there’s Cleancult, which sells recyclable, paper-based refills of dish soap and, beyond that, can be poured into refillable bottles, keeping plastic out of the picture.
You might even have a store nearby that allows you to refill your cleaning supplies in person. Look for a natural grocer or zero-waste store in your area, where you can stock up on all your essentials. Better yet, the options you'll find tend to be made with planet-based, environmentally sustainable ingredients, checking off all your boxes.
5. Swap plastic wrap for beeswax wraps or reusable covers
Plastic wrap has been around since... well, basically forever. Now, nearly 74 years since it became a kitchen staple, two sustainable swaps are becoming mainstays: beeswax wraps and reusable fabric bowl covers. “I know many people are very wedded to their plastic wrap, but it's time to let it go,” Fox says.
With these environmentally sustainable alternatives, it won't feel like a sacrifice. Beeswax wrap is made from organic cotton and beeswax, and it’s easy to use. You simply run it under warm water to make the wax pliable, then secure it around your bowl or plate. It can be washed and reused for up to a year then composted at the end of its life. (When looking for beeswax wraps, just ensure the beeswax is sourced from sustainably managed hives.) If you'd rather opt for reusable fabric covers, many feature fuss-free adjustable cords that allow you to cover your leftovers in record time. They're also machine-washable. Treat them well and they could last a lifetime.
6. Swap Swiffer pads for reusable towels
Ready to get a little creative? Products like Swiffer pads make it really easy to clean up your kitchen, but they get so dirty that it's recommended to replace pads after every use. Instead of stocking up on disposable pads, get a reusable pad. Either make your own using an old towel or t-shirt, or purchase a reusable option. Either way, once dirty, you can run it through your washing machine and use it over and over again.
7. Swap parchment paper and aluminum foil for reusable baking sheets
Parchment paper is essential for everything from roasting veggies to making your favorite batch of gluten-free cookies... or is it? In 2020 alone, nearly two million Americans used 10 or more containers of parchment paper each. Because most parchment paper gets its non-stick quality from a silicone coating, it's not recyclable. Instead of going the single-use route and contributing to landfill waste, opt for a reusable baking sheet that’s non-stick, easy to clean, and built to last.
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