How to Use Less Plastic and Packaging in Your Kitchen

by Sherri Brooks Vinton


The plastic we use in our kitchen, even if we use it more than once, eventually — and usually fairly quickly — ends up in the trash. Here are some easy swaps you can make. Some of them cost more than a roll of plastic wrap, say, but they will last a long time and eventually prove themselves to be cost savers. 

How to Make Reusable Produce Bags, Bowl Covers and Snack Bags

Just think of all of the products you buy — wraps, containers, serving ware and more — that has the singular appeal of being disposable. You’re buying heaps of stuff just to throw it out. Adopt some of these tips and tricks to reduce non-food waste and save yourself a small fortune in the kitchen.


Whether you’re packing up leftovers after a big meal, putting together some on-the-go eats, or filing away food in the freezer, food storage can be a huge source of waste in the kitchen. Try these strategies instead.

Reuse “Freebies”
My grandmother used to say, “Every loaf of sliced bread comes with a free bag.” She would rinse her bread bags, turn them inside out to dry and use them multiple times instead of buying boxes of plastic bags. Likewise, any container that comes your way — a yogurt pot, take-out dish, tub or tray — is one more you can use and reuse for food storage in the fridge and freezer.

Reuse or Avoid Sealable Bags
If you do use sealable bags, use them more than once. The bag that was used to store leftover salad mix can easily be rinsed, turned inside out to dry and used again. Do it just one time for each bag and you have reduced your landfill contribution by half and received the equivalent of a 50 percent coupon on your box of baggies. Instead of saving odds and ends or toting lunch items in a plastic sealable bag, use a cloth sandwich wrap like these or these.

Reusable Wrappers
There are a growing number of flexible, reusable wrappers meant to be used in place of foil or plastic. These wrappers, such as cloth coated with beeswax, conform to the shape of a bowl to cover it snuggly or can be folded over foods to keep them fresh. The wrappers can be wiped clean, dried and used again and again. Buy or DIY. Also, check out these cloth bowl covers.

Say No to Tupperware
There are tons of metal or glass options for storing leftovers or bulk goods, some of which can double up as a baking pan or serving bowl. So, in addition to cutting out plastic, you’ll be eliminating clutter in your kitchen.

Plate Over Bowl, Bowl Over Plate
The easiest and most cost-effective food storage solution is to use your dishes as covers and cloches. Slip a plate or saucer over a bowl to cover its contents. Soup bowls or even mixing bowls can be set over everything from a plate of leftovers to the better part of a roast that needs protection from the dry air of the fridge. You can use any that you have on hand, but bonus if you have a collection of clear bowls that make identifying fridge treasure even easier.

Can It
Canning jars aren’t just good at taking the heat, they are tough enough to withstand freezing temperatures as well. Ladle in soups, stocks and other liquids. Just be sure to leave an inch or so of headspace above the liquid to allow for expansion as the food freezes. Not sure how much space to leave? Pop your filled jar in the freezer and add your lid after the contents are frozen solid.


Entertaining is stressful for many. Whether entertaining ten tikes for a birthday or laying out a Thanksgiving spread for the whole crowd, doing dishes after the event often seems like a bridge too far. But it doesn’t have to be — enlist friends to pitch in — and having non-disposable entertaining ware on hand can make your event much warmer and polished while saving you cash. Elegant AND thrifty.

Buy in Bulk
Around the holidays, stores often offer large sets of very simple place settings at low prices. Cases of plain, white plates will suit any occasion. You can also find stacks of such dishes along with silverware and more at chefs’ supply warehouses for a song.

Thrift Shop
Mismatched can be beautiful. Hit up your local thrift shops to put together large sets of plates and silverware for pennies. White dishes are easy to find and even a wide range of designs will be unified by this blank canvas. Or mix and match patterns for a shabby chic look.

Hipster Sips
Canning jars bought by the case are an inexpensive alternative to glassware. Their range of sizes — 4 ounce, 8 ounce, 16 ounce — can serve all of your sipping needs for water, wine and after dinners. Bonus, you’ll get that farm-to-table vibe effortlessly.

Cloth Napkins
You don’t need to invest in fancy linen to lay down cloth napkins at your next gathering. Think creatively and use flea market handkerchiefs, squares of your favorite material or a repurposed tablecloth whittled down to size. Use. Wash. Use again.

5 Reusable Plastic Wrap Alternatives

Clean Up

Market aisles are full of single-use items for cleaning up kitchen spaces. Wipe and pitch chemical-soaked towelettes and paper towels in all prints, plies and sizes are supposed to make clean up easier. But you don’t need disposables to get the job done.

Slop Rags
Keep a supply of torn up t-shirts and old rags to wipe up big spills and messes and then pitch them in the wash so they can fight another day.

Color Coordinate
Instead of drying produce with paper towels, designate a particular print or color of towel as “food towels.” In my kitchen, white towels are used exclusively for food and food surfaces (to wipe the water out of a bowl for example). Non-white towels are for cleaning up and hand-drying. Keeping to this system gives us the confidence to know that towels used for dirty jobs don’t get used for food work.

Garbage Pail
A well-managed kitchen waste system can do without plastic bin liners. All rinsed recyclables can go directly into a recycling bin. Compostable scraps go into a compost bin and then into your pile, drum, trench or city collection service. Line your trash can with a few sheets of old newspaper to make cleaning easier. Deposit trash directly into the bin and then transfer to your collection containers every day or so.

Minimize Packaging

Buy in Bulk
When you can, opt for container-free foods. Many groceries now offer a bulk food section where you can stock up on staples such as flours, nuts, dried fruits, beans and legumes. Consider doing part of your shopping in this section of the store.

Pass on Plastic
Often multiple packaging options are available for the same item. Opt for the item sold in the recyclable container, the cardboard box or carton rather than the plastic tub.

Buy Big
Buy the biggest size you can and decant into handy dispensers. Items with a high turnover in your kitchen, such as vegetable or olive oil, breakfast cereal and non-food items, such as dish washing liquid and hand soap, can often be purchased in volume.

No Wrappers
Try to avoid individually wrapped items. Snacks and treats destined for lunch boxes can be bought in full sizes and repackaged at home in reusable, single-serve containers.

No Lunch Kits
A bento box (see below) makes a fine lunch kit. Separate the ingredients in the different compartments (they won’t even touch!) for a DIY-able meal.

Let Produce Breathe
Try to avoid pre-wrapped produce. Fruits and vegetables don’t need to be swathed in plastic or vacuum sealed on a styrofoam tray to stay fresh. Most often they come pre-packaged in their own peel, skin or rind anyway.


Take a Tote
Always bring along your own bags. Many cities are banning single-use plastic bags. In some locations, you have to purchase disposable or paper bags, they aren’t free. Throw a stack of reusable bags in your trunk so they are always available. Or keep a collection of compressible bags that you can stash in your purse or jacket pocket.

Produce Bags
Cloth produce bags are sturdier than the flimsy rolls provided at the grocery, so your ears of corn won’t poke through. They come in a range of sizes or you can make your own by sewing up the neck and arm holes of an old t-shirt. You can also use them for bulk foods.

On the Road

When headed out to the office, to school or to a picnic, it’s easy to leave a trail of disposables along the way. Putting together some “eating on the run” tools can keep you from being so trashy.

Traveling Utensils
No one wants to lug around anything too bulky or clangy. Take the minimalist approach to utensils and pack up a set of metal or bamboo chopsticks. They’re good for most foods. If you can’t eat it with chopsticks, you can usually slurp it out of the bowl. Not into sticks? A knife and spork will have you chomping through your meal in waste-free style. Keep them in a pouch or wrapped in a cloth napkin in your bag or desk or repurpose a traveling toothbrush carrier for the job.

Water Bottle
If you like to have a steady sipping supply at the ready, bring it along. Water bottle refilling stations are becoming increasingly popular. Sip-and-ditch plastic water bottles are not only bad for the environment, their contents are often no purer than what’s coming out of the tap.

Reusable Cup
Don’t like lugging a big water bottle? Perhaps a collapsible camp cup is more your style. It compresses into the size of a powder compact but expands into a full-size drinking cup.

Sandwich Pouch
Origami-like pouches fold over your sammy to keep it fresh and snap shut to keep it sealed. They can be rinsed and reused time and again.

Reusable Containers
A nice container can make the meal. Japanese bento boxes have multiple small sections that allow you to add a variety of tastes and textures for a meal that’s delicious and fun to eat. Indian tiffins stack and lock into place so you can tote along a multi-course meal in one easy-to-handle bundle.

Portable Coffee Cup
If your morning ritual involves a take-out cup of joe, consider bringing along your own insulated thermos or tumbler. It will keep your morning beverage hotter longer, and you will save 365 cups from the trash heap per year.

Don’t Suck
There is a big push to eliminate plastic straws from food service. Some establishments are opting for old-fashioned paper straws. Maybe you can go without a straw for your beverage. Or, if you really like to sip this way, consider bringing along a metal straw of your own. At home, consider keeping a supply of elegant glass straws for cocktail hour or invest in bamboo straws to have on hand.


While specific recycling rules vary from town to town, the EPA provides a starter guide that covers the basics. Contact your local department of sanitation for more information. And keep in mind that recycling isn’t just for everyday disposables. When your blender calls it quits or it comes time for that kitchen upgrade, there are programs that can help haul away your small and large appliances, too.

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