Sustainability at the grocery store does not stop with remembering to bring your cloth bags. It also means shopping in bulk with your own reusable containers, learning to do more with less, and, where possible, stepping outside of the store to visit your local farmers’ market instead. Anne-Marie Bonneau knows that going zero-waste is not an easy task – because she has undergone the transformation herself. In this month’s edition of 18 Questions, Anne-Marie sheds light on her journey of eliminating plastic and waste from her kitchen and beyond, sharing tips and lessons she learned along the way. Visit her blog, The Zero-Waste Chef, and order her cookbook for more inspiration.
- Was there a decisive moment in which you decided to go plastic-free?
In 2011, I read about plastic pollution swirling around in the oceans and was horrified. Around this same time, the Plastiki, a catamaran built by a group of environmentalists using 12,500 discarded plastic bottles and other recycled waste products, was in the news. They sailed it from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, to raise awareness about plastic pollution. It raised my awareness!
I knew plastic was bad, but I put it in my recycling bin and thought it would be made into new things. But that’s rarely the case. And once you’ve seen pictures like the ones of albatrosses feeding plastic to their young, you want to do something about it. So, I told my 16-year-old daughter that we had to get off of plastic. At the time, I had no idea how to do that, but it was my goal.
- How did you start your plastic-free journey?
My daughter and I went to the grocery store and realized that plastic was everywhere. You cannot even buy a cauliflower in a grocery store without plastic over it. I remember telling my daughter that it was impossible and that we’d never be able to do it. But then she started to do some research, and we found Beth Terry’s blog, My Plastic Free Life. That helped us get started because Beth had already proved it possible.
Starting to shop at the farmer’s market made a big difference. We also found out that we can bring our own containers to the bulk store. We always cook, and we are big foodies. But we still found most of the plastic was coming from the kitchen.
Most of us struggle with knowing how to start and make the best with our resources. But once you get a routine down, it becomes easier. It’s also easier today than ten years ago when finding things like sustainable shampoo bars was hard. Back then, my daughter bought me one that was just terrible. I found another one, but it had palm oil in it, so I couldn’t buy it. But now, many shops sell shampoo bars and things like plastic-free dental floss.
- What does it mean to be “zero waste”?
Everyone’s definition will be different, but for me, zero waste means sending nothing to the landfill and as little to the recycling center as possible – after all, we only have a 9% recycling rate. This ultimately means consuming less stuff.
In today’s society, it’s not possible to reach zero waste. While I may not bring plastic into my home, there is going to be waste generated in the supply chain for anything I buy. So don’t get hung up on the “zero.” As long as we aim to reduce our waste, we can’t blame ourselves or feel guilty for this insane system that we live in.
- What are “thneeds” and how do you avoid them?
“Thneeds” is a term from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. The story goes that the Once-ler has found a rare forest and begins to cut down trees to sell extravagant garments that are not necessary. He destroys the forest, and all the fish die or move away. We can also view our unnecessary purchases as “thneeds” and attempt to remove them from our lives.
- What are some of the supplies you really need to be zero-waste?
Tons of glass jars! They don’t need to be fancy, but you will use them to store and ferment food. I do a lot of fermentation, which preserves and prevents food waste and adds a ton of flavor to food. I also freeze food in jars. Another bonus with jars is that you can see the food you have on hand, and if you can see it, you’re less likely to waste it.
Where I live, our library is expanding into a library of things, which is really lovely. We need a sledgehammer right now, and we are hoping that we can borrow that from someone else. Instead of buying all these things we would only use once a year, we can share.
Other things: I love my bamboo toothbrush, and I get all my clothes second-hand. I even got the couch I am sitting on now second hand at Habitat for Humanity.
- What materials do you favor instead of plastic?
I don’t have any non-stick pans but instead, have two cast iron pans. I got them at an estate sale for $2 each. One is even a vintage Griswold, which sells on eBay for around $90!
I would also avoid plastic utensils and unnecessary gadgets. You can use many tools for multiple purposes. Take a knife. Why do you need a particular plastic gadget for slicing an avocado or egg or English muffin when you can just use a knife?
I’ve written about per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are very common in plastic packaging, and it’s a ticking time bomb. It’s a horrible situation. There are thousands of PFAS, and you can find them in soil, water, air, fish, and several household objects like mattresses, food packaging, clothing, and non-stick cooking surfaces. They’re called forever chemicals because they don’t break down, and they accumulate in our bodies; it’s in the blood of almost every single American. Research shows that PFAS may be associated with reproductive, thyroid, immune, and liver issues.
A 2019 study found out that the average person consumes about five grams of plastic per week; that’s the amount of plastic in a credit card! It’s a statistic that is really horrifying to scientists. They don’t know what kind of effect the consumption of plastic has, but I’m guessing not good. The FDA recently stated that they are preparing some rules against the use of PFAS.
- You also engage quite a bit with political action initiatives. How do you think individual choices and societal choices work in tandem with one another to create change?
I highly encourage everyone to join an organization like 350.org to stay updated on current events and opportunities for action. I’ve been to some letter writing events, where we email our representatives. I’ve also helped email banks to urge them to divest their money from toxic projects. Before the pandemic, I went to a protest at Wells Fargo. I hope that by seeing the example of our actions, youth start to ask themselves: what do they have to lose by protesting?
- What was it like residing in an intentional living community?
Sadly, I was displaced by COVID, but I loved the community I lived in for 15 years and highly recommend it to others. It’s not for everybody, but they are all over the world and have different goals. You can find a database of them on ic.org. They can be co-ops or communes or just shared housing.
Mine was an apartment complex part of a church with an Eastern bend emphasizing yoga and meditation. There was a community kitchen where we had vegetarian meals four nights a week. When my kids were little, we were there a lot, and my older daughter and I cooked frequently. There was also a meditation temple open 24/7.
- Have you always been so active in your kitchen? When did you first find your place there?
I didn’t cook until my kids were born. My mom used to say that I would starve before making myself something, and she had to always cook for me. But then I had to feed my kids. When my older daughter was a baby, I started to make my yogurt. I knew that if I heated up milk and added yogurt from a previous batch, I would get new yogurt the next day. I didn’t realize I was fermenting food. Then I started making sourdough because I wanted to eliminate my use of packets and jars of yeast. I even have my grain mill to grind up grains like wheat berries
10. What is it about sourdough that sparks your passion?
I’m obsessed with all things fermented, and it’s delicious! Sourdough is more nutritious than other bread; the grains ferment for a long time, making them more digestible, even for many people with wheat sensitivities. I don’t have a sensitivity, but one of the things I like to do with my discard is to make sourdough pancakes. I never get that feeling that I used to get when I ate regular pancakes, where they sit in your stomach, and you feel heavy.
It’s fascinating that I can get these gorgeous loaves of bread with nothing more than flour, water, and salt. It takes longer to make than other bread, but you’re not doing anything to it. Every once in a while, you have to tend the starter, but mostly it just sits there. When you make the loaves, you must plan ahead with baking times, but it’s really simple once you understand the process. And sourdough also stays fresh longer, meaning less anxiety over food waste!
11. How have your cooking habits rubbed off on your family members?
Both my kids are great cooks. My daughter worked in a non-profit commercial kitchen and would make hundreds of cookies and a dozen pies some days. She wanted to go to pastry school, but now she works in waste management. She’s passionate about her work. My younger daughter makes lots of bread in Montreal, where she’s living now, and eats really well. My mom is also a fantastic baker. She’s 89 and makes the best pastries – pies, and cookies – and gives food out to the homeless people in her city.
12. Is there an aspect of your life that you would still like to make more eco-friendly?
I want to grow more food. This is a huge project for me right now. Being more prepared for potential supply chain disruptions is essential, plus it’s fun to grow your own food. I’m raising a Hugelkultur bed. Someone offered me five free Redwood raised beds that she was no longer using. We covered a bunch of logs and branches with dirt, compost, mulch, and cardboard. As these layers mature, we can plant food in them. As the wood breaks down, it releases water and nutrients to help the plants grow. Bugs and soil critters aerate the soil. So, I’m trying to do zero waste in the garden. Why would we trim our trees or cut down dead trees and put them in the yard waste bin for pick-up when we could instead be putting them back in the soil?
13. Who are your inspirations?
I would recommend reading anything by Michael Pollan. His books changed my life. He recently came out with This is Your Mind on Plants. His book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is all about the US food system, and it played a significant role in the conversation about our food system when it was released in 2006.
The New Climate War by Michael Mann is also fabulous. He talks about how fossil fuel companies deflect climate change conversations to keep us operating with a business-as-usual mindset.
All We Can Save is a great book that came out in 2020. It’s an anthology of writers who are women from different backgrounds: scientists, journalists, and farmers writing their take on the climate crisis.
The Story of Stuff is an excellent organization with a documentary that came out last year called The Story of Plastic. It documents plastic’s entire life cycle, including extracting and refining fossil fuels, which is usually done in frontline communities. Add in shipping and manufacturing, and plastic is already causing significant pollution. Then it’s something that’s used for a few minutes and frequently either discarded or burned and often shipped to Mexico.
14. How should we recycle plastics that we already have on hand, particularly items that are not typically accepted by municipal recycling programs?
Some municipalities accept additional items at their facilities that don’t accept curbside. So check with your city about that. Reuse centers may receive some of these items. SCRAP in San Francisco, for example, has been diverting useful materials from landfills for over 40 years. My daughter’s school in Montreal also has a reuse center.
Rather than throwing out all your plastic, try to use it until it wears out. If you don’t want the potentially harmful chemicals in plastics to come into contact with your food, use them to store inedible items.
Terracycle accepts all kinds of plastic for recycling but at a very high cost. Its zero-waste boxes seem akin to buying indulgences from The Church in the Middle Ages. There is no guarantee that your plastic will be recycled, but your conscience may feel better.
15. Can you speak on the personal benefits of going zero-waste (i.e., health benefits)?
There are so many benefits! I tell people that it is a package deal. Yes, I spend more money on quality food, but I don’t waste any of it, so I save money in the long run. The average American family of four pays $1800 a year for food that goes uneaten. Also, I don’t buy stuff I don’t need. When I do, I look for second-hand first. I often get things I need for free! They magically appear on the side of the road, or someone offers them in my Buy Nothing Group.
When I cut plastic, I cut highly processed food—it’s all in plastic packaging. This immediately improved my diet, and I’m much healthier now than I had been. I also started to ferment all kinds of food. This has made my gut very happy. As the research shows, our gut controls our health, weight, and even mood.
16. What do you recommend for busy parents and workers who may not have time to cook from scratch? How can they still work to reduce their waste?
If you order a lot of takeout, try to find restaurants that will allow you to bring your containers or fill their orders with returnable or rentable containers. While still rare, more third-party startups are popping up to provide restaurants with these containers. They drop off the containers, pick up the dirty ones, clean them, and return them to the business.
When busy people cook, they will save time by cooking large batches of food and eating it multiple times. They can freeze some to eat later if they don’t want to eat the same thing night after night (although soups and stews taste much better on day two…) I don’t cook a new dish from scratch every night. No one has time for that.
Also, this takes time, but if you teach your kids to cook, they will cook for you. The payoff may take a little while, but the returns are large. Knowing this basic life skill will also serve them well.
17. What is your favorite recipe, either on your blog or in your cookbook?
Hmmm, that’s a tough one. Feed-the-Flock Shepherd’s Pie is a favorite savory dish. And anything sourdough. The sticky sourdough buns might be my favorite sourdough recipe, but the pizza is very, very good also. Those are all in my book.
18. Can you share a particularly rewarding moment in your advocacy work?
People telling me they have adopted some of my ideas is very rewarding. And when they tell me about those changes, they always sound so joyful about them.