What is zero waste ?

Definitions vary, but in general, zero waste doesn’t really mean “zero.” It goes beyond what we send to landfill, including recycling, energy, water, and food waste. Typically, zero waste is an industrial term for a consumer movement encouraging manufacturers to eliminate single use items and non-biodegradable materials. The aim is to push towards a circular economy and increase demand for package-free products or reclaimable packaging. People blog and post about it to heighten awareness about unsustainable consumption and affect change.

– Ariana, Paris To Go.

Zero waste Vs Low waste :

I don’t presume that I am solving the global food waste problem in my kitchen. But I want to educate myself on why its happening and subscribe to some of the solutions suggested. Not sending organic matter to the landfill is an ambitious under taking. Avoiding anything that comes in plastic takes effort. Switching to locally grown food for the sake of reducing ones carbon emissions takes sacrifices. How ever impossible zero waste may seem, we can try to reduce the VOLUME of trash you make. We can cherry pick what we absolutely need in our home that comes wrapped in plastic. We can make do without some products. We can change our eating habits. We can simplify how we eat. Like always, my take : Make a lot. Buy some. Forego some. 

Zero Waste grocery shopping tote

1. Easiest things first : Grocery shopping kit

A few sacs and a tote. Easiest switch to make. Plain cloth, old shoe bags, worn out pillow cases, knotted t-shirts, …. do the job. If none of those options are viable, this cloth bag kit is nice to have on hand. I think I would look cute carrying this wicker basket to the farmers market but the totes I have on hand are good enough.


2. Less meat

In terms of environmental impact, if I were to make a guess : eating a plant based diet makes the most impact. This has nothing to do with our spending capacity and the ability to afford bulk food stores. Meat is expensive when compared to vegetables/lentils/beans. Less meat is something we can all attempt.

I tried cutting it out completely but couldn’t. I was vegan for 2 years and was miserable by the end of it. I cook meat once a week. I gave up eating lamb, goat and beef. We cook pork when we go camping. At home, it’s usually chicken biryani or chicken curry. There is a fish recipe of mine that has reached legendary status among friends and family. I only make it when I have guests.

This is as less as I can go for now. With time, I think I can phase it out completely. If lab grown meat appears soon enough, I will keep my once a week habit. The truth of the matter is : vegans hold the ethical and moral high ground. There is nothing I can say to justify my eating meat.

A confession : I wish every one else cuts down their meat consumption so that I may continue to eat it once a week. With the current rate at which the humans consume meat, my eating once a week is also too much. I know that.

3. Buy groceries in small amounts. Practice portion control. 

I rather have us run out of groceries before the end of the week than buy the excess that rots. Our pantry comes to the rescue and sustains us till our Saturday farmers market run.

I am old enough to know the portion sizing that works for me. Eat less is a controversial thing to say. There is a thin line between energy and lethargy. I try to stay under that line.

Our grocery list usually looks like this :

2 greens, cilantro, ginger, garlic, turmeric, 2 root vegetables, 2 non-leafy vegetables.

We get fresh fruit in summer. In the winter, we rely on frozen blueberries bought in large 4 lb bags.

4. Have a few cheat meals down

I have 4 one pot recipes that I can whip up in < 20 minutes with minimal effort. They are not the most nutritious but they are not unhealthy either. Prevents me from stocking up on packaged/junk food for ‘just in case’/’too tired to cook’/’too famished to wait’ scenarios.

5. Simplify food. 

I simplified my closet and developed a signature style. Blue dresses. Navy blue shirts with black pants. Every day all year long. I did the same to food.

I like food but I don’t want to prioritize it above other things in life that I want to do. We have a meal plan.

My formulae for supper : one lentil stew + one vegetable curry with rice.

My formulae for breakfast : Green smoothie bowl.

My choices for snack : Nuts. A cup of dark chocolate. Tea with barley. A small portion of supper. 

The routine is optimized for time, cost and nutrition. Its hard to do zero waste if you are struggling to feed yourself. Learning how to cook is a life skill.

I started cooking in my early 20s and struggled a lot during the initial years. I was latching on to a few recipes and ingredients to keep my head above the water. I then devised a plan to learn it the academic way. Started with taking a knife skills lesson. Then read a few ‘science behind cooking‘ books. Would pick one recipe and cook it 30 times with slight variations like one does a chemistry experiment. The interaction between salt-fat-acid-heat with the vegetable should be understood. At the end of it, one graduates from following a recipe to understanding the technique. Cooking becomes effortless. I now get what ever is in season/cheap/local from the farmers market and cook it intuitively. Cooking is just like science and engineering. Learn the underlaying theorems first and apply them to various applications.

We go out to eat when we socialize. Its alright. To me, one of the best things about America is the diversity. I want to try out lots of cuisines and kinds of dishes. They inspire me to experiment at home. They give me a taste of lands far away while saying put in one place. They help me expand my spice directory and fill up my pantry.

Zero Waste compost

6. Compost

This took out the majority of the volume of my trash at home. Returns the nutrients to the soil to sustain agriculture. Win, win.

To start a compost is an easy thing. All you need is a bin and some twigs/dried leaves. But to keep it going and to have it decompose aerobically is 8th grade science that anyone can learn.

I really recommend finding a place to drop off your food scraps if you are lucky enough to live in an agricultural state / community. If you know a farmer, ask him if he wants it. For a little while, I was freezing mine in a plastic bag, taking it to Whole Foods and dropping it in their compost bin. I now have my own bin in my backyard.

Not every food scrap belongs in the compost. The professional composting facilities measure the ph, temperature and moisture levels to modify their additions to the bin. They have the supplemental ingredients on hand to balance out carbon to nitrogen ratio. Since I can’t do that, I direct some scraps to the landfill and its fine.

[ The government should help us out with this one. I cant do it on my own. I don’t know what to do with my compost when its ready. Do I go around asking the sellers in my farmers market if they want it ? Is it legal to dig a hole in some remote area and bury it ? Should I list it on Craig’s list ? I don’t know ! It feels all wrong to waste these nutrients when the farmers complain about the decline in the quality of the top soil. I would pick throwing my finished compost on a remote lot of land, to sending it to a landfill to anaerobically decompose. Letting the rich soil go to waste feels very wrong. ]

Zero Waste dish cleaning scrubs

7. Cleaning 

Bar soap : currently using an olive oil soap. Its wonderful. My hands feel nourished after I am done cleaning. A true Luxury ! Works as a hand soap by the kitchen sink.

Coconut scrub : Is gentle on the seasoned cast iron. Gets the job done. Has enough traction to scrub the grits. Compostable at the end of its life. Comes not packaged in plastic.

Copper scrub : gets the rust out if I ever need to. Scrubs the hard to clean pots. Lasts years.

Zero Waste dish rags

8. Cleaning rags

I come from India where majority of humans use rags for cleaning and kitchen towels. This is not a downgrade for me. It’s only natural that I have navy blue rags because most of my clothes are in this color.

Zero Waste chefs knife

9. The ONE knife

Most home cooks don’t need a knife block with 10 different knives. I have one chef’s knife, one pairing and one serrated one. I get them sharpened once a year at my farmer’s market for 5$ each. Knife skills can be learnt. I dislike buying specialized premium items to be used like layman. So, took a few lessons with a chef. Chopping is no longer a chore but a skill to be polished every time we cook. Its meditative. Its fun. I can keep the plastic appliances that exist to chop, out of my house.

Zero Waste wooden cutting boards

10. Cutting boards

I can’t imagine using my precious knives on a plastic cutting board. It dulls them faster. ( Marble and glass cutting boards are terrible for the knives. ) I got my plank of wood from a lumber yard in Tucson 6 years ago for 30$. The cheese boards are thrifted. I season my boards with mineral oil, bee’s wax, olive oil – what ever I have on hand.

Zero Waste cast iron skillet

11. Cast iron cookware

No to sending non stick cookware to the landfills at the end of their life. Cast iron lasts a lifetime and is cheap. You can find them in second hand shops and flea markets. Rust is easy to remove if it does happen. Seasoning a skillet/dutch oven is easy. These days, you can find enameled cast iron for those terrified of rust or seasoning technique. They are heavy but it builds arm strength. I believe that I can do more push ups because of the pots I own. Its a win win.

( Using wooden ladles keeps the seasoning intact.  )

Zero Waste glass steel containers

12. Glass/steel containers

To pack lunch. To store in the fridge. To pack food when traveling.

13. Single use plastic vs plastic that lasts a decade

One time use plastic is definitely the devil. I try to avoid them like I am allergic to it.

I own a plastic broom. My blender has plastic parts.

I don’t plan to throw out the plastic I already own to replace it with glass/bamboo till it wears out on me. I don’t need to do the zero waste aesthetic. I need to not waste stuff.

I live with a partner who doesn’t care about any of this. I have tried my best to keep plastic appliances at the bay. An instapot did sneak in. I moved in with my husband last year. I came with an army of cast iron vessels and he moved in with his one pot. It’s a slow cooker, pressure cooker and rice cooker with a timer – which was a boon in our tiny kitchen. If there should be that one appliance, let it be an instapot and/or a high speed blender.

Zero Waste travel tote

14. On the go kit

Tote bag. Thermos that holds water/tea/coffee but can also carry snack/leftovers if needed.  I have this tote by our front door / in the car / under the desk.

When eating out, order less. I bring my leftovers back home in my thermos and its fine. I make it a point to tell them to not give me a plastic straw, but it usually arrives if I ask for water. If they are serving food in a styrofoam plate in the restaurant, I leave and find another place to eat. Some more awareness in the media might fix this problem.

I carry a handkerchief in my purse at all times. It helps with resisting using paper towels.

15. Farmers market

When I lived in Arizona, the farmers markets were more expensive than whole foods and had much less variety. We were in severe drought and it’s a desert – I understand. California is an agricultural state and we have access to fresh food without spending a fortune. It’s local and might help with cutting down packaging waste / food waste associated with the supply chains of grocery chains. Produce wrapped in individual plastic wrapping is my pet peeve. This is my way of avoiding it.

There is a Wednesday flea market in San Jose where the farmers bring overly ripe fruit that would be thrown out soon if not sold. I get some to use for my smoothies. I meet folks who like baking and canning in these places. At the end of summer, you can find 20lb of tomatoes for pennies. I celebrate a tomato week in our kitchen when we can get hold of some. California has been helping.

[ If there are no farmers markets in my city, I would go back to a conventional grocery store. I would work on lessening the volume of plastic I bring in and recycle it properly. ]


16. Bulk Bin shopping

We get a few things like oil from Costco in large sizes. We get granola, salt, spices, dried coconut … from the bulk bins in Sprouts. There are a few things that make me pay a visit to Whole Foods. I dread that visit. It’s like walking around with a hole in your wallet. There is the Rainbow grocery in San Francisco where you can find everything in bulk. I dislike how zero waste becomes a matter of being able to shop at these places. ( I know deep down that I can make a budget for it if I stop buying clothes. I am trying. The irony is : I gave up eating out to afford sweatshop free clothes. If I buy lot less clothes, I can go zero waste to the dot. Living the simplest frugal life is the only way I can be eco-friendly. )

Even without the bulk bins, a lot can be done to reduce the volume of waste being produced. We get a few things like oil/ACV/Alcohol in glass containers. Its a work in progress.

Zero Waste bulk smoothie bowl

17. Make some. Forego some. Buy some.

These, I couldn’t phase out. That cat, I cant keep away from my flat lays. They are my chosen ones.

This amazing green powder that has 30 amazing ingredients that I would never find in bulk and acts like a protein powder in my smoothies.

Ghee that my mother makes from the produce from my family farm. Yes, I am spoilt. I still get fed by my mom. I get it double sealed in plastic.

18. Not chasing the zero.

We make a small amount of trash per month in the kitchen.

I can’t cook every damn thing. I have my total exhaustion days.

Friends and family come home. Food is a part of it.

I get some food from India double sealed in plastic.

I sometimes need a sugar high before a deadline and Oreos help.

I don’t sweat it. I am doing what I can. I wont let that stupid trash in a mason jar trophy make me feel like I lost the race.

19. Zero Waste by another name

Two of my neighbors are elderly retired couples. They live frugally. They don’t go out to restaurants or order stuff online that show up home in packages. They visit the grocery store and home cook all their meals. They eat simple suppers. There is nothing coming into the house for it to go out. They have been wearing the same outfits for ages. They don’t even put their trash cans by the curb every week because they don’t fill it. When they do fill it, its the size of mine after all these switches. No incoming == no outgoing.

20. Miles to go before I sleep

If we eat less Indian food, I would cut down a lot more of the dependancies. Once my mother’s cookbook is done, I will phase it out. I want to eat what ever is local. I want to eat like a global citizen.

Be less dependent on mom for ghee and other pickled food. I want to stop bringing food from India.

Find some snacks to have on hand, for when people visit. Giving them bananas/apples hasn’t exactly been winning me any favors with the kids nor the adults. Recently, a friend showed up at home with his own groceries claiming that I don’t serve snacks that he likes to eat. Ouch ! Very ouch ! It’s only adding to them mocking the zero waste movement and writing it off as a huge sacrifice.

My husband has an Indian belly that needs yoghurt everyday. I have to convince him to make his own. I cant help out because it gives me a gag reflex. I cant stand most dairy products.

Find a re-usuable coffee filter instead of the paper ones.

Buy ugly produce at the farmers market. That is the kind most likely to not get sold and goes waste.

Individual level decisions are fine. I want to support the ones who are reducing waste in their supply chains. Those are the big fish.

We volunteer at Second Harvest food bank. I want to put in more hours.

Waste is generated by land, air and water. There is a larger picture here than what I have listed in this post.

21. Reasons not to do it

It can be more expensive unless you forego lots of kinds of food. Budgets are important. I don’t mean to be self righteous to a fault and to my own demise. We are programmed to buy the cheapest option. I put the cut off at 20% more than the base. I am willing to pay a little more but I have my limits.

Not everything can be found in bulk. We eat rice instead of pasta/ramen/soba/… because I can find rice in bulk. I don’t want to drive around Bay Area hunting for groceries.

If there are no bulk stores, what can one do ? You got to eat ! Donating to the cause instead is one way of supporting the movement.

Time : if we all had plenty of time, we would make everything from scratch. But we don’t. We have exhausting days and lot going on. Food is sustenance. I would pick eating packaged food over slaving in the kitchen when I don’t have the energy to.

Its harder than the conventional way.

The society is not structured into a cyclic economy. One has to swim upstream against the current tide.

Everyone tells me its not worth my time either. I get mocked incessantly.

My husband thinks individual contribution hardly makes a difference. But he is on board 90% of the time. I suspect he does it for me.

Few of my business owner friends tell me that even the bulk stores get their products in plastic bags that they empty into the dispensers. No one should pay the extra just to not bring plastic into the house when its made its way to the grocery store.

The silicon valley big shots tell me that tech will solve this problem in the future. We will one day suck the plastic out of the oceans and invent a solvent that biodegrades plastic miraculously. We needn’t waste our time with the low impact solutions now. Work on growing the economy. Wait till the better solutions arrive. ( I don’t like the beat your wife but donate a lot of money to the women’s shelter later, sort of arguments. )

AI is here and home cooking will become extinct due to automation. We have to buy it from a vending machine after a robot cooked it from a grocery store like setting. There is no escaping packaging.

I don’t have children. I don’t have a stake in the future. If I die on schedule, I may escape the consequences. Let the next generation deal with it and inherit the problems.

22. Zero waste is a nascent movement.

Its not perfect. If you slip into ‘what-about-ism’, one could find the justifications to not give it a try. As long as we make it an important constraint in our problem statement, I am sure we will figure out a good solution. I want those high impact solutions too. I want it to be convenient and easy. I want those restructured supply chains. I want regulations and legislation. Since its not happening any time soon, this is what we can do to keep the momentum going that will lead to the big changes. This is what I can do for now. This is what I have to show for year one of making an effort.

The purpose of this exercise is not to characterize ourselves, the humans, into waste creators and zero-wasters. The journey is the destination. The best advice I was given was ‘find a way to make zero waste work for you.’ Make one switch per month and you eventually get there. Four years ago, I never once considered plastic pollution when making my everyday decisions. Today, its made its way into my blog. It’s a result of the awareness of the problem. Nobody will come and solve our problems. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Its made me very optimistic for all the good solutions to come.

Zero waste is exciting. You do one thing and it sets off a chain reaction. You slowly start climbing up a check list. One by one, the list gets ticked. You want to climb up the ladder. You want to do more. Just by association, you inspire folks around you. Some mock you. Some join the club and you encourage each other. It’s a wonderful movement ! I am doing all this because I was inspired by Ariana. It went from ‘that is impossible‘ to ‘woah, it can be done‘ to ‘I can do it too‘.

I hope you guys give it a try and have a lot of success. Lets starve those landfills and eat well. Cheers !