Zero Waste Home: The Freedom and Burden of Cooking

Pita bread on its way to the stove top (Photo: Robyn Purchia)

Attempting to create a zero waste home is certainly met with challenges. Every time I give something away or clear out an area, more things my family doesn’t need or regularly use show up in the house. Every day I become more and more aware of how ubiquitous plastics, non-recyclable goods, and single-use items are, even in my progressive, environmental-home of San Francisco. Freedom from this throw-away, wasteful culture doesn’t come easy.

But with a little hard work and a lot of dedication, it’s possible to start breaking away. Last month, I talked about reducing waste while grocery shopping. This month, we can turn those groceries into waste-free meals.

The Reason for Cooking

Our food comes covered in stickers and wrapped in petroleum-based plastic. It’s served on Styrofoam and aluminum trays, preserved in cans and held together with rubber bands. Some of this can be recycled, but a lot of it can’t.

Breaking free from this waste isn’t only good for the environment; it’s also good for health. Last year, a study published in the journal Environmental Research revealed that consuming canned foods can expose our bodies to Bisphenol A or BPA. This harmful industrial chemical has been linked to premature puberty in females; decreased sperm quality; and increases in breast and prostate cancers, infertility, miscarriages, obesity, type 2 diabetes, allergies and neurological problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

BPA isn’t only found in cans. It’s added to plastic to make it durable, and could be in the packaging “protecting” our food.

A Little Bit at a Time

To free myself of packaging, I’ve started making food myself, adding to my stockpile over time. I decided to start with tortillas, pita bread, hummus, yogurt, stocks, broths and beans because they all come wrapped in plastic or sealed in cans, and they’re relatively easy. (I am not culinary genius, trust me.)

My grocery store sells hummus powder in bulk, so I only need to add water, oil and lemon juice. I found a yogurt maker on Craigslist. I can get days worth of chicken for salads and tacos, as well as broth/stock, simply by boiling a whole chicken for a couple hours. Breads are a bit more complicated, but not much and totally worth the yummy result.

I find I only need to make bread once a week, yogurt twice a week and one meal completely from scratch that I can freeze and eat over time. Thankfully, these meals accumulate, so I don’t have to spend too much time every week cooking.

Veggie burger on focaccia bun with pickled onions, tomato and avocado made from scratch. Yummm! (Photo: Robyn Purchia)

Time Is An Issue

But finding time to cook is still the hardest part. I only work part time as a freelance writer, so I have the flexibility to devote an hour or more to meal prep everyday. But it has impacted the amount of time I have to write and research story ideas, as well as spend time with my son. I can only imagine how much harder it would be if I worked full time.

Sharing responsibility with other people in the house could alleviate the burden. Friends have also told me it’s easier if you cook the week’s meals on Sunday. Of course, with time, I may learn how to cook faster.

It would be wonderful if more businesses made eating waste-free more convenient. When I’m sick or really busy, it would be great to order take-out and not feel guilty about the mountains of plastic waste that always come with the meal.

How a beautiful orange pumpkin turns into tasty pumpkin scones (Photo: Robyn Purchia)

Self Esteem Gets a Boost

Staying dedicated to the cause does provide a huge sense of empowerment and pride. A few months ago, I would have shied away from many of the recipes I now embrace and conquer. Starting to learn the little tricks (proofing yeast, keeping baking bread moist) is such a huge confidence booster, and seeing the amount of trash disappear has given my self esteem a huge boost. I CAN break free of plastic waste and eat more than just salads.

Of course, it’s also pretty cool watching my family and friends devour my creations.

  1. Wild Minimalist

    Great article! Question – home-made tortillas are delicious, but can be tricky to make without using cellophane to prevent the masa from sticking to the press. Have you found an alternative? But since you are into tortillas, we just posted a zero waste recipe for Adobo sauce that is great to use while braising chicken (https://www.wildminimalist.com/blogs/news/zero-waste-recipe-adobo-sauce),

    Also, what are you doing with your food waste? Do you compost?

    1. Robyn Purchia

      Great question about the tortillas! I put the masa between two layers of compostable parchment paper (San Francisco has a municipal composting program) and roll it out with a rolling pin. Would love to learn more ideas though.

      Thanks for forwarding the recipe! Seems yummy!

  2. Kathryn Grace

    Thank you for this. Your journey parallels mine. Like you, I don’t know that I could have managed to cook from scratch while holding down a demanding job, but I keep working on 15-30 minute meals and strategies that busy people–my household included–can make on the fly from whole foods not wrapped in plastic.

    We’ve eliminated a lot, but plastic wraps around cheese and frozen fruits and vegetables continue to fill our 2-1/2 gallon kitchen bin every few months. While I’ve made yogurt for decades, and make some soft cheeses periodically, the hard cheeses we love are beyond my scope. Perhaps if we had a couple of cows! To slow, if not eliminate plastic cheese wraps, I’m learning to make vegan dishes. Sadly, we haven’t enjoyed them enough to give up our cheese completely, but they do help us cut back.

    I look forward to learning about more strategies from you.

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