My year of low-impact living, plus 6 easy ways to waste less food
In my last year of college I went zero waste. I wasn’t alone in my zeal. Two friends and I decided to go in on the project together. We were already savvy styrofoam ditchers and experienced electricity savers. We’d bought bamboo cutlery and stocked up on tote bags. How hard could it be?
Hard, especially where food was concerned. As college seniors we were out of the house from dawn until dusk and found it challenging to pack enough food for the entire day. Compost had to be hauled to the farmer’s market between activities and appointments and our freezers were always bursting with bags of scraps and peels. As graduation loomed and we juggled job applications and thesis presentations, we also missed not being able to catch a break with a little takeout.
Why did I bother? Because one third of all food produced globally is wasted. Americans, and grocery stores, throw away about half the produce we buy and food is the number one product in American landfills. Not only could minimizing waste help alleviate world hunger but the food we throw away produces methane, which is 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Roughly 20 percent of methane emissions in this country come from food waste, contributing significantly to global warming.
MY New tattoo: a mason jar
Midway through our project we had changed the name from “zero-waste” to “low-impact" living. And by the end of it, I'd added a tattoo of a mason jar on my ankle as an homage to every jar-packed lunch (and breakfast and dinner and snack) I had shoved in my backpack. A lot of them.
I never did manage to ditch my love for certain items that you just can’t buy unpackaged - I’m looking at you cream cheese, almond milk, and Oreos. But I did stop buying chips, and bread wrapped in plastic. I got into the habit of bringing glass containers to stores. And I started cooking more efficiently.
I'm sharing the practices that have allowed me to continue my commitment to low-impact living without much sacrifice, because one mason jar tattoo is enough.
6 ways to minimize food waste
Shop with reusable containers. Like mason jars! Buying in bulk is a great way to cut down on your plastic consumption and save money on products that won’t spoil. Co-ops, health food stores, and your local Whole Foods are great places to find grains, baking supplies, nuts and snacks, coffee, tea, honey, and oils in bulk, which you can package in your own (reusable) to-go containers while shopping.
Make do with what you have whenever possible. If you have jalapenos left over from earlier in the week and your chili recipe calls for serranos, use the jalapenos. Maybe a recipe calls for thyme but you’ve got some rosemary that's starting to brown? Use the rosemary instead. Don’t be afraid to make substitutions based on what’s in your fridge, especially when it comes to produce, which can easily be turned into soups, stir-fries and pasta sauces. Zero Waste Chef has an awesome recipe index where you can learn to make anything from breadcrumbs with stale bread to vinegar with fruit scraps.
Shop strategically. You’re less likely to load up on items you won’t use if you limit your grocery shopping to once a week and bring along a list. Meal planning is your friend and not nearly as time consuming as it sounds, especially once you realize how much time you save by only going to the store once a week.
Don’t pay close attention to expiration dates. The date you see on a package is a guess at best and one not even required by law. It reflects a company’s desire for you to buy their product at its freshest and most aesthetically appealing.
Rethink ugly or old produce. Something like 20 percent of all fruits and vegetables are sent to dumps because they aren't perfect looking. This is ridiculous. There is nothing wrong with produce that’s bruised or a little overripe and plenty of ways to upcycle it into meals. Revive tired peppers or wilting lettuce by putting them in a bowl of ice water for about an hour, or cooking them up with a little oil and a few minutes in a saute pan. Bake overripe bananas into bread. If you live in San Francisco you can help the cause - and save a lot of money! - by subscribing to Imperfect Produce, a subscription delivery service for “ugly” food.
Add this low-waste approach to your meal prep. Start with a grain or starch, like pasta, rice, or even a hearty vegetable, like sweet potatoes. Sprinkle cooked vegetables on top, add some oil or sauce, and you’ve got a meal.
Low-waste kale pesto recipe
A lot of low-waste cooking is just learning to be creative with what you have. For instance, a couple of nights ago I started dinner prep but rummaging around for what I have. I discovered a half bag of egg noodles and some leftover salmon - not quite enough to feed me and my partner. So I kept looking. Lo and behold, there was a package of tofu, one day after it’s “sell by” date. Move down a shelf and there are the kale chips I made a week ago - soggy, but still flavorful.
I fired up two pans, shredding the salmon into a pan with the kale chips while on the next burner I scrambled tofu with some marinade sauce, added a wilting bell pepper and half an onion I’d saved from Sunday dinner. I also boiled some water for the noodles.
Pulling it all together was the pasta pesto I made in five minutes that uses the entire kale and parsley plant, stems and all. In barely twenty minutes, I had dinner for two - easy, delicious, and low-impact to boot.
Check out the recipe and other great tips here!
Margaret Weinberg, who graduated from New York University in 2016, is a News Fellow for Stone Pier Press. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama.