How to Create a Plastic-free Pantry for 2021 & Beyond

There are many reasons to start a plastic-free pantry and kitchen. The main reason is to stop the unsustainable practice of throwing away plastics and other waste that chokes the earth and uses non-renewable resources and carbon-emitting methods to produce. 

The good news is that it’s not too late for us all to back away from this plastic road to nowhere and in this guide, I’m going to show you just how easy it is.

But first…

A brief history of plastic 

A plastic-free pantry is not a new thing: our parents and grandparents used to reuse containers to store food items, especially glass containers.

But the age of “use once and throw away” took hold as more and more plastic products and packaging was produced, all in the name of convenience. 

When we throw away plastic packaging, it’s out of sight, out of mind, but not out of this world. Our landfills are under strain, and our oceans are becoming polluted by plastics and microplastics that are not biodegradable. It takes about 10 minutes to drink something out of a plastic bottle, but it takes up to 450 years for that same bottle to decompose.

Plastic Facts:

  • In the 1950s global plastic production was around 2 million tons. In 2015, the world produced 381 million tons.
  • Humanity has produced 7.8 billion tonnes of plastic. That’s over one ton of plastic for every man, woman, and child alive in the world today.
  • In 2010, the worldwide production of plastic was about 270 million tonnes, but the global plastic waste was 275 million tons due to people throwing away plastic waste from previous years.
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Our World in Data

Why I decided to create a plastic-free pantry in my home

Even though all this stuff might seem to be too big to take on by yourself, after all, you’re just one person. But the sum of our individual decisions add up, and the positive effects of the small changes we make add up to become a global force for good.

For me, the lightbulb moment came after I had a small family and friends gathering at my place. After I cleaned up the next day, sorting the recyclables from non-recyclable packaging, I was disheartened at the amount of harmful waste that my gathering produced. And I multiplied that by all the households in my street, my town, my city. 

That’s when I decided that enough was enough and to make the change and turn my kitchen into a plastic-free pantry.

Zero waste and plastic-free pantry FAQ’s

What is zero waste?

Zero waste is a practice or a system that you put in place in your household so that it produces little or as little as possible landfill-bound waste and preferably none at all. This can be accomplished by following a few simple routines that I’ll be telling you about.

Do we need plastics?

I can't deny that plastic does a great job of preserving food and increasing its shelf life, protecting against pests, microbes, and humidity. The trick is that these plastics should ideally be minimal, recyclable, safe and produced responsibly. Where possible, try to find plastic-free alternatives. Glass beats plastic. Beeswax beats plastic wrap. Reusable beats single use. Etc.

What can I use instead of plastic?

There are a few alternatives to plastic, depending on the purpose. For shopping bags, recycled paper bags, or compostable bags are ideal. For storage of items in your pantry, glass jars, stainless steel containers, wood or bamboo are good sustainable alternatives.

There are so many choices for zero waste food storage containers and wrappers and as more people become conscious of living a more sustainable lifestyle, so do a wider variety of products become available. To help you on your journey I wrote a guide on my favorite zero waste food storage options.

Creating your zero waste pantry

Look for local package-free options

Researching the local zero waste options is probably the most fun part of the sustainable journey. After googling the farmer’s market and grocery store options in my area that are zero-waste and package-free friendly, it was a real treat to visit. Everyone I met was more than happy to help - at the time - a newbie on a sustainability journey.

When I was out and about on my zero-waste scouting mission, I found out how the process for each store works, what storage work best, and what food is available at each place. Don’t be shy to take notes or pictures to remind yourself of what’s available, and to get a better mental picture of how you’ll need to prep the space you’ll need for your zero-waste pantry at home.

Create storage space at home

The first thing I did was find containers that would last for years, even decades. For this, I found glass jars to be my best friend. Initially, I didn’t have enough of the right kind of jars because I usually send all of my glass jars to be recycled. 

Simply asking friends and family for their unwanted glass jars and containers did the trick. They were more than happy for me to take their unwanted jars off their hands, especially for a good cause. (This is something that they now regret, as they have since decided to create their own zero-waste pantries. Whoops!)

Of course, I didn’t want a tacky old product label lingering on my beautiful glass containers. Soaking them in hot water for a while was enough to remove even the stickiest of labels. For the particularly stubborn pieces of the labels or stodgy dried glue, a tiny splash of cooking oil and a firm scrub worked like a charm. If you’re still not getting any luck, try rubbing the stodgy glue with some baking soda. This should melt the glue right off the glass.

I collected lots of glass mason jars and containers of all different shapes and volumes. I like to use a variety of ball jars. I keep items that I use a lot, like flour, sugar, and rice in ½ gallon (64 oz) jars. For nuts, certain less used legumes, etc, I use 32 oz. jar. For items that I keep in the smallest quantity, like pine nuts and xantham gum, I use 8 oz jars.

TOP TIP - You won’t appreciate the value of a good funnel until you really need one. A funnel will save you so much time and (as I discovered) the inconvenience and waste of having to clean up the spillage from inaccurate pouring. A trusty funnel is an important part of your zero waste pantry.

Create your shopping kit

Now that I had the containers at home sorted and arranged in their cupboards, it was time to create my shopping kit. The best option for this was baskets, bags, and boxes that I already had around my home. If you know me, you’ll know that I try to craft things I need (even going so far as inventing things that I wish existed - that’s how I came to create the HankyBook) out of items that I have lying around the house. 

This is a fun process for me, but if you’re more inclined to buy containers, make sure it’s made out of sustainable materials that won’t end up clogging a landfill for centuries to come.

Try to avoid taking too many glass containers with you when you’re shopping. Glass is great for storage, but it can be impractical for shopping, not to mention that too many glass jars clinking together could crack in transit.

I use shopping totes and drawstring bags for dry goods, and for wet pantry items, I have a few favorite square glass bottles and containers that can stack snugly together and won’t clash with other jars in case of unexpected bumps in the road to and from the shops.

TOP TIP - Marking the empty container weight on the containers that you’ll be using for your shopping will save you time when you’re weighing your purchases at checkout.

Keeping your zero waste pantry goods fresh

There are many advantages to storing your food in a zero-waste pantry. Glass has a clear edge over plastics when it comes to keeping food fresh. Glass doesn’t absorb the smells and stains of the food that they contain. 

The food you store in them won’t be infused with chemicals that leak from the synthetic compounds from the plastics and dyes of the packaging (like B.P.A). You can immediately put hot food into a glass container and freeze it, something that you can’t do with plastic.

But just because you’ve got your whole foods sealed up nice and tight, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t check for freshness. If something has been in your pantry for a while, or if you’re not sure how long it’s been stored in the bulk shops, putting the jar into the freezer for 24 hours will eliminate the possibility of pantry moth and weevil infestation. 

The cold temperature kills the eggs of these pests. Even though the presence of these little bugs is an uncommon occurrence, this simple trick will eliminate even the slimmest possibility of infestation.

When you buy your fresh produce, ask the vendor when the stock came in to check how fresh it is.

Final Thoughts

I love the look of my plastic-free pantry. I know aesthetics shouldn’t matter but I’ve got to be honest - it’s just such a treat to open my cupboards and see a neat, cute arrangement of a variety of beautiful spice jars, coffee jars, mason jars brimming full of nuts and seeds, pasta and all sorts of food products and pantry staples.

It all looks so clean and wholesome compared to the clutter of advertising on plastic. 

At first, it seemed like a daunting exercise, but as I worked through the steps of putting together my zero-waste pantry, it became fun, empowering and satisfying.

As with anything, the hardest part is taking the first step, and the hardest part of taking the first step is knowing how to start. I really hope that I’ve encouraged you to look at your pantry with an eye on sustainability.

Once you’ve made up your mind to reduce the waste that you produce, you’ll find that it’s not so difficult to wean your household off the wasteful and harmful plastic. Before you know it, you’ll be looking at other ways that you can make your pantry and household part of the solution towards building an eco-friendly, sustainable solution to protect the future of the planet.

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