A Zero Waste Project: Tips for sustainable storage

A fresh piece of bread is wrapped in a cloth pillowcase to keep it fresh longer. To tackle food waste on a larger scale, personal reduction of food waste is one step closer to that goal. Photo courtesy of Alex Houdeshell.

I waste a lot of produce. When I go to the grocery store, I try to buy vegetables I know I’m going to be cooking with, but a lot of the time one meal won’t use a whole bag of spinach, or I’ll get peppers with the vague notion of maybe making stir-fry. Fast forward a week and there’s a soft, wrinkly bell pepper sitting next to a bag of slimy spinach wasting away in the back of my fridge. 

Part of the solution to this problem is to just plan meals better and keep track of what I have in my fridge and my cupboard, but better food storage can also mitigate the amount that ends up in my compost. 

Why make this swap? 

Food waste is becoming a widely acknowledged problem — 40% of our food in the U.S. and one third of food globally is never eaten, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. While plenty of this food is wasted in restaurants, grocery stores and factories, this doesn’t discount the impact of food wasted in households. 

As the NRDC explains it, “An enormous amount of resources and energy go into growing, processing, transporting and eventually disposing of all that wasted food.” 

The NRDC tackles food waste on a larger scale, but in terms of a personal zero waste journey, reducing food waste is one step closer. 

What I did 

Spinich is stored with a napkin to soak up excess moisture. To tackle food waste on a larger scale, personal reduction of food waste is one step closer to that goal. Photo courtesy of Alex Houdeshell.

I’ve been seeing a lot of charts on Pinterest (where I get all my brilliant zero waste ideas) about ways to store food more efficiently, so some of the most basic changes I made came from here.  

I love carrots, because they’re one of the only snacks that make me feel healthy and I actually enjoy eating, but mine always turn white and gross. Turns out, if you store carrots floating in water, you can avoid this whitening, which really just indicates the carrots have dried out. Even after they turn white, by putting them in ice water, you can revive them.  

I buy most of my bread sliced and in a plastic bag for 88 cents at Walmart, but when I buy fresh French bread, or when my mom makes me a loaf of homemade bread, I normally try to wrap it as best as I can in the paper packaging or a plastic bag and hope it doesn’t dry out. If you’re buying fresh bread (which is much more zero waste than my Great Value fix), it lasts longest stored in a cloth or pillowcase, in a wooden box. I don’t have a bread box, but I did at least repurpose an old pillowcase. 

Herbs and green onions are like flowers — stand them up in a glass of water, and they’ll stay fresh a lot longer.  

Potatoes and onions should both be stored in a dark, dry environment, which I was already doing, but interestingly they shouldn’t be on the same shelf, because they actually release chemicals to ripen one another quicker. 

I also learned through my research that those drawers at the bottom of your refrigerator are “crisper drawers” which are actually supposed to keep different fruits and vegetables at certain humidities to keep them lasting longer. My wrinkly peppers, for example, should be stored in a mesh bag in a low-humidity drawer.  

Avocados should be left out on the counter until they’re ripe, but once they start to turn soft, putting them in the fridge will keep them at peak ripeness a little longer.  

As for that spinach I keep throwing out — store spinach in an airtight container with paper towels to absorb any moisture. Since I swapped out my paper towels a couple weeks back, I did this with a cloth napkin, and hopefully it will have the same result. 

I started my research on Pinterest, but ultimately switched over to a really nifty website called savethefood.com, where you can go through and click on different produce items to see not only the best way to store it, but also the best way to freeze it and what to do once it has started to go bad. 

What this means for you 

Obviously, based on what you’re eating and cooking, you might be using totally different produce from me, so I definitely recommend going to savethefood.com to figure out the best way to store your kitchen items. Some of these storage methods do require a little more work: You may have to take the food out of its original packaging, or for bread, you might want to sew your pillowcase into a form-fitting bread bag, but at the end of the day, food stored equals food saved from the trash. 

Coming up next: Reusable cotton swabs 

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