Kitchens are riddled with toxic and disposable items - there is so much potential for reducing waste and toxicity!
Disposable products may appear to be cost effective however, the fact that you need to keep buying them indefinitely has proven to be more costly, and the lack of quality in these disposable products have proven to be costly for our health too.
In this post you will notice a recurring theme: avoid plastics and disposable/single use products. As an alternative, my main go to's are glass, stainless steel, organic cloths, wood, and high quality silicone. Please note that there have not been significant studies on silicone at extreme temperatures (high heat, freezing cold) therefore I cannot recommend it for items like bakeware or ice cube trays, or for use in microwaving, freezing, or in the oven. I do however recommend high quality silicone for moderate temperatures (room temperature, fridge temp). Also note that low quality silicone has fillers, some of which may leach toxins, and which have not been tested thoroughly for toxicity.
If you're wondering what's so bad about plastic, here are a few brief reasons why you should avoid it.
First of all, of the plastics that are biodegradable, it can take anywhere from 20 to 1,000+ years to decompose! When you compare that to more environmentally friendly alternatives such as bamboo or cotton which can take from 1 month to 3 years to decompose, and the fact that some plastics, such as LDPE will never biodegrade, it seems like a no brainer to use natural materials as opposed to plastic. You may have seen that it can take a tin can 50 years to decompose or a glass bottle 1 million years to decompose but the difference between those and plastic is that metals and glass are easily and commonly recycled and reused, making them much more economical.
Another problem with plastic is the toxicity. All plastics have the potential to release toxins, but cheap, low quality plastics in particular are a huge problem. The various compounds created and used to make plastics are vast and there are still insufficient studies on the effects of these materials under a variety of conditions. One of the most well known chemical compounds in plastic is Bisphenol A (BPA) which is used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins and can cause changes in cellular function, reproduction, development and behavior. Unfortunately, products that now advertise as BPA-free are just as toxic because the BPA has been replaced with Bisphenol S (BPS) which causes similar effects to that of BPA.
The last issue I'll touch on is the problem of microplastics. These are extremely tiny plastic pieces and particles (smaller than a sesame seed) that mix with soils and our water sources and are impossible to remove. These plastics get ingested by animals (which the effects of this are unknown) and then people eat these animals thus ingesting these plastic particles themselves.
There are countless studies expressing the dangers of plastics; there's not one that shows it could be beneficial for our health so with that in mind, there's no reason to not try to avoid it.
Investing in quality products can get costly so just remember, you don't have to replace all of your kitchen supplies in one sweep. Also be sure to use up the products you already have and recycle, reuse, or donate whatever you can so as to not contribute to the waste problem. Take baby steps replacing a few things here and there to work toward living a healthier, minimal waste life.
Grocery and Produce Bags
Why no plastic bags?
60,000 plastic bags are consumed in the US every 5 seconds. They not only leach harmful toxins into our soils and water supplies but they're choking hazards for humans and animals, are incredibly difficult to recycle, and take 20 to 1,000 years to decompose (depending on the thickness and makeup of the bag).
What do I use instead?
Opt for canvas or cloth (preferably organic cotton) reusable bags for produce and groceries. These are made from natural, easily biodegradable materials that are much safer and non-toxic.
Why no plastic bottles?
Plastic bottles are rarely recycled, leach toxins, can take 450 to 1,000 years to biodegrade, and some, such as those with PET will never decompose. Whether they are single use or reusable, plastic bottles should be avoided.
What do I use instead?
Even bottles that appear to be all stainless steel or all glass still tend to have plastic seals and gaskets so look carefully.
- Jars - while researching water bottles, to switch out my old bottle, I was disappointed to always find some element of plastic. Then I noticed how around the house I always drink out of mason jars and realized I could just put a lid on it and there's my reusable bottle! I could even get a lid with a hole and a stainless steel straw! Note that most canning jars have a plastic coating on the underside of the lid so opt for those that are entirely stainless and you can get a silicone gasket to create a tight seal.
- Stainless Steel - glass can be heavy so a great alternative is a reusable stainless steel water bottle with a silicone seal.
Food Storage Containers
Why no plastic tupperware?
Ever have your tupperware stained after storing your pasta or other greasy foods? Yeah, well it works both ways. While your foods are leaking into the plastic, the plastic is also leaching chemicals into your food. Even BPA-free plastics aren't completely harmless as the BPA is often replaced with BPS which is equally as toxic.
What should I use?
- Silicone - silicone stretch or suction lids to cover your existing bake and cookware is a great cost effective alternative - just be sure to use high quality silicone as the cheaper products have fillers that may be toxic.
- Stainless steel - There are a variety of stainless steel storage containers that are lightweight, great for travel, work well in extreme temperatures (obviously not in the microwave) and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Please note, even some of the stainless steel storage containers have plastic gaskets and seals so be sure to research.
- Glass - glass jars are great for storing dry foods, soups, dips, fruit, etc. Opt for those with stainless steel tops. Beware of glassware from China as it can contain lead.
Napkins and Paper Towels
Why no disposable napkins/paper towels?
Single use products are just wasteful, are not recyclable, and are completely avoidable. Here are some fun facts about paper waste.
What should I use instead?
Use reusable napkins and paper towels made of natural materials - best if unbleached and organic. Not only do they help keep wasteful, disposable napkins out of landfills, but they'll save trees, save you money and let's be honest, they're just super classy!
Coffee and Tea
Why no coffee filters or tea bags?
Coffee filters cannot be recycled and most are bleached. They are yet another avoidable disposable paper product which contributes to the waste in our landfills, killing of trees, and waste of money.
Coffee makers cycle steaming hot water through plastic compartments which cannot be disassembled to be dried or thoroughly cleaned. The Keurig in particular has been linked to health problems due to lack of cleaning and stagnant water that cannot be emptied which grows bacteria.
Disposable plastic coffee cups for single serving coffee (like K-cups) are not recyclable, end up in landfills, cost an excessive amount of money, and they are unhealthy as the #7 plastic in the cups may leach toxins into the coffee.
Tea bags are not recyclable and are made of either silk, plastic, or paper. Silk (with the exception of Peace Silk) is made from boiling silk worms alive so if using (or ingesting) silk products is against your values you may want to avoid them. Plastic tea bags are made of nylon and PET which have high melting points but not higher than that of boiling water so they leach toxins into your tea. Now paper tea bags might sound like the way to go but they are unfortunately treated with epichlorohydrin, a carcinogen which acts as a pesticide and has been linked to major health risks in animals.
What's the solution?
- For coffee: I recently swapped out my plastic coffee maker for a single serve coffee dripper made entirely of stainless steel. I like the single serve dripper because I can take it on the go like to work or camping and I can make it fresh each time so it doesn't get cold waiting for the second cup. It's actually large enough that I could make a few cups at a time if needed. For larger pots of coffee, there are larger drippers and pour overs made of natural, recyclable, non-toxic materials without the need for wasteful filters. For pour over coffee I would recommend a gooseneck kettle and a hand grinder so you can control the fineness of the grounds.
- For tea: For larger servings I recommend a tea press made of glass and stainless steel. For single servings I recommend a ceramic pot with a stainless steeping cylinder or steeping balls which are also perfect for travel tea. Both methods use loose tea which can be purchased in metal tins or in bulk sections in stores.
Why no nonstick pans?
The nonstick coating on cookware, while convenient, actually leaches toxins into your food and the air you breathe as the coating breaks down with use and high heat.
What should I use?
- Cast iron cookware is extremely versatile and can be used on the cooktop, over an open flame, and in the oven. Perfect for camping, and with good care, will last a lifetime.
- Stainless steel cookware is a great option as well as it can be used on the stovetop or in the oven and will last a lifetime with proper care. One way to prevent food from sticking to the pans is to wait until the pan is hot before adding oil.
- Copper cookware is also a great alternative. It convects heat quickly and distributes it evenly. Opt for heavy duty cookware; while they're heavier and more expensive, they will distribute heat more evenly and will be more durable.
- My last favorite is ceramic cookware. It doesn't contain any metals or toxic coatings that can leach into your food or the air, can be used in the oven or stovetop, and is non-stick. Just be sure to get solid ceramic cookware/bakeware (not coated) and look for non-toxic glazed/coated cookware like this.
Why no plastic spatulas?
The plastic in kitchen utensils can leach chemicals into your food, are hard to clean, and are particularly dangerous if left on hot surfaces as they can melt and release harmful toxins. They are also rarely recycled and take hundreds, if not thousands of years to decompose.
What do I use instead?
Stainless steel utensils are thin, sturdy, durable and easy to clean. Stainless steel utensils are safe to run through the dishwasher but best if washed by hand. Bamboo utensils are very sturdy, don't convect heat, are easy to clean, won't scratch cookware, won't leach chemicals into food, won't melt, and are naturally antibacterial, are biodegradable, and can be regenerated quickly and easily. Keep in mind that wooden utensils should not be submerged in water or run through the dishwasher. Silicone utensils are the last safe option here. Silicone utensils can be made thin, making them suitable for getting under and flipping delicate foods but without the harmful chemicals found in plastic utensils and wont scratch your cookware.
Why no plastic cutting boards?
Plastic cutting boards are often flimsy, can slip and move around as you're cutting which can be dangerous, are easy to score with a knife, and harbor bacteria in the scratches which can be hard to disinfect. Furthermore, Of the plastic cutting boards that can be recycled, few of them are. Stone cutting boards are hard on your knives and are porous so they absorb liquids. It's best to use stone boards for preparing dough or as serving trays.
What should I use?
Bamboo cutting boards tend to be the best option as they are very durable, naturally antibacterial, and are harder to scratch. Hardwood, butcher block cutting boards work similarly to bamboo but opt for harder woods like maple because they're less porous than softer woods and wont get as many scratches. They are both sustainable options because they regenerate and can be recycled easily. Regardless of which type you choose, it it highly recommended to have at least two cutting boards, one designated for meats and the other for raw foods like fruits and veggies. Wooden boards should not be submerged in water or run through the dishwasher.