15 ways to reduce household waste (that you probably don’t know)

19 Nov, 2020

Did you know you throw out 540kg of household waste every year. Just you; one person. That’s more than 10kg a week, and about 70 million tonnes for all of Australia. And only 37% of it’s recycled.

I didn’t. But when I found out, I decided to do something about it.

Naturally a quick Google search wasn’t that helpful. All I got were overly-simplistic, brain-dead articles telling me to plan my meals, freeze leftovers, and avoid impulse buying. But no really helpful, practical tips on how I could actually manage it.

So I decided to dig a little deeper. The 15 tips below are what I turned up. It’s possible you know some of these tips already. Perhaps all. But there’s a chance you’ll find some of it helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or suggestions.

1. Use best-before dates as a guide, not a commandment

Now that all our food labels are so detailed, we’ve come to rely on those labels a lot more than we did in the past.

This is generally a good thing (e.g. when looking at nutrition and where it’s made), but it does mean we’re relying less on our own judgement.

‘Best-before’ dates are a perfect example of this. Yeah, they’re handy, but they’re definitely not a replacement for our senses and common sense.

For most foods, I use this rule of thumb: if it smells ok and looks ok, there’s no need for me to throw it out on its best-before date. I even use this for ham and other cured meats. If they look ok, they don’t smell and they’re not slippery, they’re probably fine.

The only thing I wouldn’t risk is fresh meat (of any sort). Your local butcher will tell you that most meat will only last a couple of days in the fridge. Don’t push your luck!

Don’t assume food is fresh simply because you just bought it either. Especially if you bought it off the shelf, rather than from a small specialty shop. Years ago, I worked at the Woolies deli at Erina Fair on the NSW Central Coast. When their chicken started getting old and slimy, they’d get us to wash it and put it back on display! And one of our weekly jobs was to collect all the cheeses out of the fridge section (the ones in cling-wrap with stick-on price labels), rewrap and re-date them! My friends in the meat unit used to advise us not to buy the pepper steak too, because they used the oldest meat for that. They said the pepper hides the fact that it’s near to turning. I kid you not.

This was 30 years ago; I’m sure things are different now. But I’m still always very careful. You don’t forget those lessons quickly.

2. Store food properly

Store these items at room temperature, not in the fridge:

  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Potatoes
  • Cucumbers

And don’t store the following items near bananas, avocados, tomatoes, peaches or pears (because they’ll ripen too quickly):

  • Apples
  • Leafy salad greens
  • Berries
  • Capsicums
  • Bananas (keep new bananas away from old, unless you want them to ripen fast)
  • Potatoes (keep new potatoes away from old)

Oh, and if you’re storing leftovers:

Remember that leftovers can only be reheated once. So if you’re freezing a casserole or bolognese, use portion-sized containers; don’t freeze it all in one huge slab. You’ll never be able to cut it into portion sizes once it’s frozen, so you’ll end up having to re-heat the whole thing, and most of it will go to waste.

3. Manage your meals and pantry with an app

Imagine you’re running a restaurant, where your profitability relies as much on minimising waste as maximising revenue. You’d want to have a firm grasp of what you’re cooking and when, what ingredients you already have, and what you need to buy.

If you really want to minimise your household waste, you should be doing something similar.

There’s a hardcore way of doing this, and a simpler, but not quite as effective way.

The hardcore way

That means managing your:

  • Recipes
  • Meal plan
  • Shopping list
  • Pantry contents

The best app I’ve seen for managing all 4 is KitchenPal.

Here’s the basic workflow:

  1. You tell the app what’s already in your pantry, fridge and freezer
  2. You add a bunch of recipes
  3. You choose which ones you’re going to cook each day this week
  4. The app figures out what ingredients you need to buy and adds them to your shopping list

It takes a bit of discipline to bring it all together, obviously, because everything hinges on the app knowing what ingredients you already have. So if you really want to make the most of the app, you need to be pretty committed to tracking this.

The app makes it very easy to say what ingredients you already have. You just scan their barcodes. And anything that doesn’t have a barcode, you can easily enter manually. It also allows you to move everything from your shopping list to your pantry, once you’ve bought it.

I found the hardest part is updating the app when you’re running low on something, or you’ve run out. Technically, it’s easy. You just go to the pantry screen, find the item and tap + or – to say how many of it you have. And when you say you have none left, the app automatically adds the item to your shopping list.

But you still have to actually do that. And if you’re anything like me, when you’re rushing around the kitchen, with chicken on your hands, trying not to set the place on fire, the last thing you want to do is tell an app you’ve just run out of grape seed oil.

The simpler, but not quite as effective way

If the hardcore way of doing things sounds way too hardcore for you, don’t panic. There’s a simpler way:

  1. You add a bunch of recipes
  2. You choose which ones you’re going to cook each day this week
  3. The app asks you if you want to add all the ingredients to your shopping list
  4. You untick the ingredients you already have

In truth, that’s how we do things in our house. And my favourite app for doing it this way is Whisk.

This simplified way of doing things still helps you reduce your household waste because:

  • You’re still sticking to a meal plan, which means the ingredients you buy actually get used; they don’t end up sitting there, spoiling, when you decide to cook something else.
  • You buy only what you actually need, so there’s no waste.
  • You’re far less likely to impulse-buy.

4. Batch cook

Often when you cook what you think is just enough for one meal, you end up with an annoyingly small amount of leftovers. Too much to eat (unless you pig out), but too little to keep. Batch cooking solves that problem.

Instead of cooking enough for one meal, cook for many. Think 5, 10, 20 meals. Then you’ll be able to divide the food up properly, so there are no leftovers. And you can portion control.

5. Label stuff you’ve frozen

How many times have you frozen meat or leftovers, and not been able to figure out what it is a month later? By properly labelling your frozen foods and leftovers, you’ll never have that problem again.

Now I know what you’re saying, the labels come off, and even when they don’t, you have to put on a new one when you put something new in the same container! Not if you use these reusable, erasable food labels. (These are the ones we use in our house, and I can personally vouch for them.) They’re fridge, freezer and dishwasher safe, so you can use them time after time. Just rub out the last label, write a new one, and Bob’s your uncle!

Alternatively, you could use these ones. They work a little differently: the writing washes off when you wash the container and you have to buy the marker separately. (As I haven’t used these labels, I don’t know how good they are.)

6. Master reheating

About half of all food poisonings happen at home. So make sure you:

  • Eat any leftovers in the fridge within two days.
  • Remember that leftovers can only be reheated once.
  • When reheating, ensure the food gets to at least 70ºC and remains there for 2 minutes. I don’t use a thermometer, though. I just make sure it’s piping hot – especially if it’s chicken.
  • Don’t bother trying to reheat pasta. Just cook a fresh batch.

7. Cook with what you have

Got only 500g of chicken, a can of kidney beans and 3 stalks of celery in the house? Never fear, SuperCook is here! Simply enter the ingredients you have, and SuperCook will tell you all the yummy things you can cook with them, along with the recipe for each.

Alternatively, check out this handy collection of recipes for common leftovers and last-the-in-the-house ingredients.

TIP: Use a recipe manager app to make cooking with whatever’s in the fridge easy and tasty. You can save the recipes you like the most, and categorise them by the type of ingredients they use. E.g. If you use the Whisk recipe manager app I mentioned earlier, you can save your favourite banana bread recipe in the ‘Bananas’ recipe collection and the ‘Eggs’ recipe collection. Likewise, you could save your favourite mayo recipe under ‘Eggs’, ‘Lemon’ and ‘Mustard’, and your favourite omelette recipe under ‘Eggs’, ‘Cheese’, ‘Cream cheese’ and ‘Ham’. Then if you ever have eggs you need to use up, you can just browse through your ‘Eggs’ collection of recipes and you’re bound to find something you feel like.

8. Buy your groceries at small, local stores

As a rule, small grocery stores (like your local butcher and green grocer) don’t use anywhere near as much packaging as the big supermarket chains.

So you won’t be throwing out a bunch of foam trays, pointless cling wrap, and single-item plastic bags every week. Instead, you can take your own fabric bags, and load everything in, individually.

9. Make your own stock

Think of all the dishes you cook that use stock. Now ask yourself why you’re paying someone else to make that stock, when you could be whipping it up for yourself.

It really is easy. All you need is:

  • A good supply of vegetable and herb scraps (e.g. tops, peels and stalks); and
  • If you want beef or chicken stock, chicken / beef bones (e.g. from a roast dinner or a BBQ chook).

There are lots of recipes out there, but basically all you have to do is:

  1. Saute the scraps in oil or butter, with a bit of salt and pepper (maybe some herbs, garlic and onion if you have them handy)
  2. Add some water and simmer for a few hours until it’s reduced a bit
  3. Strain out the solid bits and keep the liquid

TIP: Don’t try to make a new batch of stock after every meal. Instead, keep a big zip-lock bag in the freezer for your ingredients. Add to it after each meal, until you have enough for a good, big batch of stock.

10. Add fruit skins, and wilted fruit & herbs to your smoothies

Squishy fruit may not feel the best, but it’s usually full of flavour. Vegetable and herb skins, stems and ends are too, plus they’re jam-packed full of nutrients.

So instead of throwing them out, blend them up with your choice of liquid (see below) into a smoothie.

You need a good blender though. One that liquifies everything properly. You can’t just use a normal food processor or milkshake maker. We use a Nutribullet, and have no complaints. (There are also some good recipes on the Nutribullet site.)

TIP: The following liquids can work well, depending on the type of smoothie you’re making. (e.g. I wouldn’t use milk for a vegetable smoothie!):

  • Dairy milk
  • Almond milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Rice milk
  • Oat milk
  • Cashew milk
  • Coconut water

11. Compost (even in the city)

If you have any sort of garden – even if it’s only small – composting could be an option for you.

Don’t worry, it’s not about keeping a big, stinking pile of waste in the back corner of your yard like your dad did. (Or was that just my dad?!) These days, there’s no need for anything smelly or unsightly.

You’ll find heaps of different composting options if you Google it, but the two best ones I’ve seen are:

  • The Green Cone – Throw all your food scraps in the top, and the Green Cone breaks it down to liquid, which then drains off underground.
  • The Green Johanna – Throw any sort of organic waste in the top, and the Green Johanna breaks it down to compost, which you can then spread on your garden and lawn.

You can also get small units for your kitchen (often called Bokashi bins), but they all produce compost, so you need a garden.

12. Ask at your local shops

Your local green grocer and butcher aren’t just shopkeepers. They’re specialists, and you’d be surprised how much they know.

So if you want some helpful tips on using leftover fruit and vegetables, ask your local green grocer. And if you want real use-by information about your meat, ask your butcher. If they’re anything like my local guys, they’ll be only too happy to share their expertise!

TIP: Your butcher will probably sharpen your knives for you too, if you make it worth their while. I used to pay Brian (my local) around $30 to sharpen mine, and they always came back razor sharp.

13. Eat ugly too

It doesn’t matter if your apple has a few brown spots or your carrot looks a bit NSFW.

14. Track what you throw out

Sometimes the best motivation for reducing your waste is quantifying it.

Stick a piece of paper on the fridge for a week, and each time you throw something out, write it down.

Half your lasagne? The mince you forgot was in the fridge? 1.5L of out of date milk? Add it all to the list. The plastic packaging from your Jarslberg? An apple core? Carrot skins? Add it.

Once you have a week’s worth of data, cross out anything that absolutely couldn’t have been avoided. By this, I mean, could it have gone to a farm to be used as animal food? Could you have bought 5 small red chillies without a foam tray and cling-wrap packaging? Could you have smelled the milk to see if it was still drinkable?

You’d be surprised how many items on your list don’t get crossed off.

Now all you need to do is figure out what to do with it.

15. Donate food to local food banks and farms

If you happen to have in-date food that you know won’t get eaten, consider donating to a food rescue charity.

Or if it’s more scraps and out-of-date food you’re concerned about, perhaps contact a few local farmers to see if they’ll take it to use as feed for the livestock (e.g. their pigs).

Please comment with any suggestions

If you have any suggestions we could add to our list, please comment below. We’d love to hear from you!

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