Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
This idea was introduced to me in elementary school, with the emphasis mostly on recycling. I knew that it was a great thing to do, so I was happy to sort paper by color and rinse out my plastics. In college I started to really appreciate the benefits of reusing by thrift store shopping, a love of mine that will surely stand the test of time. But reducing? It took me a while to see how this is key to changing my environmental impact.
But American culture is fast-paced, with emphasis on convenience, pleasure, and competition. There are so many products that vie for our attention with flashing packaging or labels lauding the health benefits. And while having an abundance of food options is such a boon, the amount of waste that results from it is painful.
A study from the USDA estimates that between 30 to 40% of the United States’ food supply is thrown away. Some of this is commercial food waste (produce that spoils at stores, uneaten or out of date food at restaurants, and the like) and some is from our own homes. On the link above, it details the initiatives the USDA is acting on to reduce this loss, but this doesn’t even look at the waste generated by the packaging of our food.
I’m starting to get overwhelmed as I tried to list some examples, but I want to keep the focus on what we can do to be part of the change. So here are some ideas that will help, and will only save you money, too.
- Plan your meals in advance and use up your leftovers within a week. By having a specific idea of what you need to buy, you’ll be more likely to enjoy the food you purchase, with a minimum spoiling. As you get in the habit, you can plan some meals for enjoying your leftovers so they don’t go to waste either! My family tends to eat our dinner leftovers for lunch, but every now and then we get behind and have a conveniently quick dinner prep of warming everything up. And it’s like a mini buffet! But pay attention to timing: a lot of prepared foods will start to go bad after a week, so learn about recommended storage lengths your foods, pay attention to visual or scent cues if you’re not sure, and reheat cooked items well!
- Keep a tidy fridge. Life is always busy, and who has time to be cleaning out their fridge? It can be so reassuring to see an icebox packed with all our favorite foods, but I’ve noticed that when my fridge is totally full that more food items start to go bad. Instead, in coordination with a meal plan, make sure you have the food items you need (in the fridge and in cupboards) and only a few extras. As you pack a meal for work or for a day trip (more on that below), take a look through what you have waiting in your fridge first. Unless you have fish, Brussels sprouts, or other similarly pungent foods, save yourself the time by grabbing it and heading out the door!
- Going out for a while? Take some food with you! This can save you so much money! A meal out will likely set you back at least $3-5 dollars, but home-prepared meals will cost you much less (and just a little time and planning!). And convenient snacks like granola bars, while they can stave off hunger until you can get home for a meal, tend to be both pricey (when bought individually and spontaneously) and have a significant waste factor.
- Prepare your own snacks, or buy them in bulk to reduce package waste. All that packaging! Where do those foil-y, plastic-y wrappers from our granola bars/protein bars go? Into the garbage. They feel so thin but add up so quickly in the quantities that we enjoy them. This is an area I definitely am working on improving. I have a new favorite recipe for granola bars that I’m excited to share soon (hopefully tomorrow)! I’ll link a couple of my other favorites for variety too. So try to notice which items you eat regularly that would be replaced by a homemade version with either no or reusable packaging.
- Start to buy food items in bulk, and go with reusable containers. Something that is hard to measure is how much waste comes from the packaging of our food alone. Even many produce items come in plastic baggies or plastic shrink wrap now (looking at you, hothouse cucumbers!). So try looking for stores that have the big bins of food you can serve up yourself! Many stores will happily work with customers to measure their empty containers before they’re filled (just ask when you arrive!). Or use plastic tupperware! Personally, I’m not opposed to plastics if they are safe and can be used over and over again. Plus, the items you buy in bulk will usually be cheaper than their packaged counterparts! Another way to save money while you save the Earth!
- Improve how you store your food. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m a plastic wrap addict. It’s so delightfully convenient! But it does get thrown away, usually after just one use. Start my making sure you have a good set of food storage containers with lids. As long as it’s sturdy and safe (non-BPA!) I think plastic bins are a fine, low-cost option. But keep an eye out for glass options at yard sales and thrift stores if you want to shift to that without making it a big expense. But what about wrapping up items that don’t need their own container? Something that’s taking off is beeswax wrap. It’s similar to plastic wrap in that it can cling to the item and seal it off, but it’s reusable, washable, and renewably-sourced (thank you, bees!). I’ve just started out using a set, and I’ll share more thoughts on it as I get more experience (and hopefully ditch the plastic wrap for good!).
And lucky me, this post is sponsored by my old book club friends! Before moving east, our book club met monthly to discuss a book, eat lots of food, and catch up/vent/laugh about life. And even though I can’t hang out anymore, they so thoughtfully sent me a beautiful and practical set of these wraps. I am so grateful and excited for their support!
I hope you’ll try some of these ideas if they’re new to you, and that you start to love making these little changes! I’m amazed by how awareness coupled with small shifts has helped me make bigger changes and feel more excited about encouraging others to do the same! But in a very non-pushy, non-shaming, trying-to-be-always-positive way!