Convert to a Plastic-Free Pantry System in Three Steps

Take a peek into the beautiful zero waste pantries shown on social media and you might be pulled into this lifestyle as quickly as I was. Of course, anyone can empty their food products into a jar to get the same visual effect, but the zerowaste lifestyle goes much deeper than that.

Here are some reasons why everyone should convert to a zerowaste pantry system.

1. Because we are drowning in waste and the majority of our food packaging waste is unnecessary.

According to the EPA, the average American disposes of 4.4 pounds of waste per day.

An excerpt from Food Technology Magazine (2007) reads "...Food packaging is a noteworthy contributor to municipal solid waste because food is the only product class typically consumed three times per day by virtually every person. Accordingly, food packaging accounts for almost two-thirds of total packaging waste by volume (Hunt et al., 1990). Moreover, food packaging is approximately 50% (by weight) of total packaging sales."

Fortunately, we don't need to produce unnecessary waste in order to feed ourselves and our families. In fact, in most areas, systems are already set up in place to do this. We just need to identify and access these opportunities to purchase without packaging. (More on that later.

2. A zero waste pantry system is efficient.

With a streamlined and simplified space, you won't find yourself digging around the cabinets, wondering what you have and don't have. There won't be miscellaneous products lurking in the far reaches of your cupboards going to waste. Your items will be in plain sight and easily accessed.

3. Shopping without packaging can be a money saver.

You aren't paying for the packaging, and you will be able to buy just the amount that you need.

4. Freedom from being advertised to in your own home.

It has been estimated that, depending on lifestyle, a person is exposed to hundreds, and even thousands, of some form of advertisement every day. I don't know about you, but my home is a sanctuary - a place of rest - and advertisers aren't welcome. This extends to magazines and commercials as well. I used to be a sucker for clever packaging and pretty labels. Now, I know that by skipping the packaging I am avoiding unnecessary use of natural resources, and that is so much more rewarding.

5. Package-free is better for your health.

You will probably find that your diet becomes geared more towards whole foods. Additionally, you can avoid packaging that may leech questionable ingredients into your food like B.P.A.

So how would one go about converting to a zerowaste pantry system?

Follow these three steps and you will be well on your way.

Step 1) Container Collection

To begin, stock your kitchen with ample, glass, storage containers. Glass product jars that once held pickles, tomato sauce, and jam can be cleaned and reused to hold pantry items. I may be considered a minimalist in other areas of my home, but when it comes to glass storage containers, I keep plenty on hand in order to avoid unnecessary waste.

When I began my zerowaste journey, I sourced and collected as many jars and containers as I could:

  • From our own recycle bin

  • From family, neighbors, and friends

  • From thrift stores and ads on Craigslist

  • New containers were purchased when I needed something specific (example: spice jars and several sets of canning jars).

As you collect and clean your new food containers, fill them with the items that make sense. I chose large containers for the items we use most often: beans, rice, lentils, popcorn, and rolled oats.

It's ok to take all of your packaged food and transfer it into your new jars. Just recycle the packaging appropriately. Clean plastic bags with stretch (#4) can typically be returned to those store collection bins for plastic bags. Rigid #5 plastics (think plastic spice jars, rigid lids, and plastic scoops) can be recycled through the Preserve Company. Check your local Whole Foods to see if they have a drop bin for Preserve's Gimme 5 Program.

It may seem like “cheating” to start out this way, but I feel that it’s really important to give yourself this encouraging start. It’s a clear indication that you are moving in a new direction and I think you should enjoying seeing the result of this decision come to life right away! Begin the transformation now, and follow through with your zero waste shopping plan as your items run out.

Spice Containers

I cook with spices daily and prefer to have uniform jars that fit into a drawer for easy viewing, and also for streamlined filling at the grocery store.

Since I needed them to be of similar size and style, I purchased two sizes online here.

First, a set of 4oz jars for spices that I use a little of: lavender flowers, white pepper, nutmeg, cayenne pepper. (Product #G051, with lid #L046)

Second, a set of slightly larger 9oz size jars for spices I use more of: cinnamon, cumin, dry mustard, peppercorns, paprika, bay leaves, and garlic powder. (Product #G278CL, with lid #L047)

There are a few options for the lids. I chose a metal lid because:

1. I drop things (and needed something that wouldn't crack and break).

2. Metal is recyclable.

I emptied all of my spices into the jars and labeled them. Of course, you can do this in many creative and beautiful ways, but a sharpie marker works just as well (it comes off with light scrubbing, soap, and water). As part of my labeling I included the tare, or empty container weight, on each jar (made easier by the uniform sizes). The product item number at the grocery store can be marked right onto the glass with a sharpie marker or wax pencil.

This is the beautiful thing: you can bring these spice jars into the store when they get empty and just fill them right up!*

*(Assuming that your store is "tare" friendly. Not ALL are yet. If they are not friendly to taking off the tare weight, use small paper bags to collect your spices from the bins. I have the best luck shopping for spices, and really all bulk pantry items, at our local food co-op, where they are friendly to personal containers as well as versed in the practice of taring.)

Step 2) Organize your zero waste shopping kit

Large Shopping bags and/or baskets

The best option is always to use what you already have: shopping totes, baskets, a duffel bag, even a cardboard box will work (my husband does this all the time!). If you are in the market for new bags, it is best to purchase products made from natural materials (cotton or hemp), like these. That way, they will biodegrade at the end of their useful life. Many of the inexpensive, reusable shopping bags that are sold in grocery stores are made from plastics. Buying new plastic products is not the best option.

Drawstring bags for dry goods, large and small

Although there are many options on the market, it can also be fun and rewarding to make your own. Back when I began adopting a zerowaste lifestyle, I made my first set of fabric bags with a bed sheet that was no longer needed. Years later, many of them are still in regular use! Since I happened to have a nice scrap piece of linen fabric at home, I thought I'd take you through the simple process of sewing your own bags. You can find this simple tutorial here.

Glass containers for wet pantry items

You will also want to consider containers for wet pantry items like: oils, maple syrup, red wine vinegar, nut butters, vanilla extract, etc. You may also want to find a container for coffee, so the oils don't stain your fabric bags.

Quart sized, wide-mouth, mason jars are typically the same weight at 1 pound, which make them a breeze for taring and filling. Any other container can easily be weighed at the counter or checkout isle. Just mark the tare (or empty container weight) on your container, and add the product item number once it is filled.

Step 3) Source package-free options in your area

This step might be the most fun - because it involves becoming a zerowaste tourist in your own area. You'll get to know your grocery stores, farmers markets, and your community in a new way. My family had a blast exploring ethnic markets, seasonal farmers markets, and our neighborhood grocery stores with new eyes - zerowaste eyes.

You'll be taking note of all your city has to offer for unpackaged food products. You know the bulk bins with the scoops that can be found at most grocery stores? This is exactly what you want to be looking for – food without any packaging at all.

It might be a good idea to take notes at each store as to what they are offering (and what you would typically purchase). I often snap photos of package-free products when I visit a new store.

The main bulk department at PCC in Edmonds, Washington.

An assortment of dry pantry items at PCC in Edmonds, Washington

I have found that the most diverse options for bulk bin shopping are typically at local co-ops and health food stores. Although, I’ve been surprised with bulk bin offerings at Sprouts, Fred Meyer, and Winco.

coconut oil, honey, almond and peanut butter at PCC in Edmonds, Washington

Liquid Bulk Dispenser at PCC Market in Edmonds, WA

Bulk coffee display at PCC in Edmonds, Washington

Bulk spice section at PCC in Edmonds, Washington

Package free baked goods at PCC in Edmonds, Washington.

After completing these three steps... You will be well on your way to embarking on your zero waste journey. Pat your self on the back!

Remember, the best option is always to work with what you have. I have included Amazon items in this post as options if you are unable to find items already in your home, secondhand, or locally. I do receive a small fraction of the sale, and I certainly appreciate your support.

Becoming more waste-conscious doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to produce waste (and that you have failed if you do). To me, it is a different mindset that steers you toward sustainability when you consider your options.

Let’s all live less out of habit, and more out of intent.

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