One of the big changes one can make going zero waste is reusing containers. Glass and metal will hold up over time and stay in the recycling stream longer. Plastic can in many cases be recycled as well, but only a few times.
Health concerns may affect the type of material you choose. Also consider how you are going to use your containers.
-If you are going to reheat your food in the container do not choose metal. Remember the workplace microwave. Do you have a workplace toaster oven?
-If you are going to commute/travel you may want a lighter option.
-If there is a strong possibility the food won’t stay level, make sure you get no-spill containers.
-Do you have soup or smoothies a lot? A thermos type container may work better for you.
We have almost every size mason jar available. These are easy to transport and easy to wash. They’re also easy to buy locally. Bea Johnson from Zero Waste Home loves French canning jars which may be more leak proof over the long term, but they’re not usually available at the local grocery. We can get an immersion blender in the wide mouths to make smoothies, there are coffee and smoothie lids (in metal and plastic), and all the size and lid choices available now pretty much meet any need. You do have to be careful if you take more than one in the same bag as they can crack or break if they clink too hard together. You can use towels or washcloths to pad them in a bag but I find pot holders actually work the best, you can either slip one between the jars or put the jar in a pot holder. If you’re transitioning to a mason jar for coffee just be aware that 32 oz jars will not fit in the car cup holder. You’ll need to use a standard or wide mouth pint/16 oz, or a wide mouth 24 oz to fit in the car cupholder.
We also have a ton of Pyrex and Anchor containers. Squares and rectangles will fit in the fridge and bags better, but more size options and easier purchasing choices are available in circles. Most of these containers come with a plastic lid that will harden and crack/flake after years of use (think 8 plus years). You can purchase replacement plastic lids, or we prefer the glass and silicone lids now available (the white and red lids in the picture above). The silicone/glass lids are more leak proof and air-proof than the plastic lids. I haven’t used these myself, but my fitness coach and nutritionist swear by Glasslock both for easy stacking and fitting in the fridge, and their leak-proof-ness. That’s a glass bottom with a plastic hinged lid with silicone. Ask your friends and neighbors what they use, and maybe find one piece to try and go from there.
These are pet food lids. The ones that have multiple ridges fit all kinds of cans. We use these on dog food and canned pumpkin. They are much more effective that laying the cut lid on top, using a plate, using aluminum foil, etc. They’re recyclable when you feel they’ve lived their useful life.
Zero Waste can sometimes be associated with/go hand in hand with not buying new, such as not buying new containers. Do not feel green guilt. You need to do what works for you, your lifestyle and your health. If you can change your habits so you don’t need a new-to-you item, that’s great, but if you do need or want something, think about how you can get the best use out of the item(s). Don’t forget to post to your neighborhood groups, Craigslist, Buy Nothing groups, etc. to see if someone has what you want, or if it’s short term, maybe a trial run, borrow it. Then search shop second hand if you can, and then buy new.
Really reflect on some of the items you think you may want to try. I thought the beeswax paper for avocados was going to be amazing. It worked the first time for me but was annoying to clean properly and store. That’s not everyone’s experience, I know people who love them, but I’m not a wrap person anyway. I’ll eat it, share it, or put lemon juice on it and put it in a Pyrex container. So it’s not a purchase I need to make. Luckily this experiment was gift. Another thing I’ve been asked about are reusable stretchable silicone lids. First of all, I try to buy containers that have lids and that come from companies that sell replacement parts. That being said, if you want to reuse bowls you have that never had lids or the lids were lost/broken and irreplaceable (Crockpot lids anyone?) this could be an option. Keep in mind plates and cooking trays work great and are reusing items you already have. Some zero wasters get super ingenious in how they stack their fridge using plates and bowls to make towers and keep the items above and below sealed. I’ve had good results with thrift store glass pie pans on top of my glass mixing bowls if I need that size/shape stored. I personally have not had the best experience with flexible silicone products. They hold onto fat and start to stain making me question their integrity, and the final health determination is still out on how safe silicone is for us.
Please be aware of green washing towards the zero waste aspirant. You don’t need to buy a bunch of new “green,” “eco,” “environmentally friendly” items to go zero waste. That is the opposite of the point of zero waste since that will involve new items, raw materials, packaging, transportation costs, etc. If you do see something you want that will replace a single use item, go for it! Also, don’t think you need to make a kit, or make a kit exactly like an article says, or acquire the top 10 things a zero waste person has, etc. Kits are great, I have one, but I reused scrap fabric to make a silverware pouch and filled it with random office/thrift silverware and gifted chopsticks. It has the same cloth napkins in it I’ve had since I bought them 14 years ago. The to-go glass container is one of the set I use every week and goes in my multi-purpose travel/large purse bag I was gifted per my request 12 years ago and that I’ve mended over the years. I only use straws at home and only for smoothies (mine is metal) so I don’t need a straw in my kit. If you don’t use straws at all you don’t need a reusable straw to begin with. If you don’t use chopsticks you don’t need chopsticks. If you don’t eat out or frequently have to-go you don’t need those containers. If you don’t buy fresh produce you don’t need reusable/upcycled produce bags. See the pattern and thinking here?
If you grab a sandwich from the same place everyday for lunch, ask if they’ll put it in your own container. They can butcher paper/napkin/glove it into your container. Some places will let you bring your own container in to reuse at a salad/hot bar. You’ll just need to weigh and label the weight on your container first. Wheatsville Co-op lets you bring in your own container, weigh it and label the weight, and you can use it at their bakery, to-go counter, salad bar, hot bar, and olive/deli bars. I like a sandwich Wheatsville makes but they put it out in the to-go food in cellophane (not recyclable or compostable). The to-go counter will make the same sandwhich for me and put it in a compostable paper tray or in my own container, I just need to ask and wait 5 minutes. I can do that! So a lot of times zero waste is rethinking what you’re eating, maybe the amount you buy/cook if you end up composting a lot, and how food can be stored or transported in a different way.