Table Scraps

Table Scraps: Kitchen Waste Is Often Water Waste

Worried about kitchen waste? Water is part of that.
Worried about kitchen waste? Water is part of that. Catt Liu/Unsplash
Welcome to Table Scraps, an intermittent series on the growing problem of food waste and what some eateries, officials, farms, institutes, and everyday people are doing right. This isn’t a guilt trip, just a way to unpack initiatives attempting to reduce kitchen waste and food loss, as more than 40 percent of all food is wasted in the U.S. We’re exploring backyard composting to city programs, restaurant tips to technology, and anything related to this global issue. Heat up those leftovers and settle in.

The only part I don’t like about recent hand washing graphics I’ve seen around is the last step: Use a paper towel to turn off the water. Is the water running the whole time you’re drying? And during the whole 20-second wash? How much water is just gushing away here?

I am in no way condoning a change in this procedure at this time. Go nuts. But maybe we can make up for lost water in other ways, in other rooms of the house. Like the kitchen. And since wasting water happens often in this area, I consider it kitchen waste (and therefore a perfect fit for this series).

Where Water Concerns Probably Began for 30-Somethings

I was an impressionable Floridian kid — the target demographic for any environmental youth campaigns launched in the 1990s.

Nickelodeon started its earth-friendly campaigns under “The Big Help” around 1994. It was all about planting trees, recycling, and turning off lights and faucets. Then there was Z.Z. Ziff on Salute Your Shorts, who took two-minute showers or something — and I am not the only one who was influenced by Camp Anawanna activism.

After moving to Texas, I remember going to an Arby’s, where some Hanna-Barbera characters were on the kid’s meals. Or, sorry, on the Arby’s Adventure Meals. I faintly remember seeing a paneled tutorial on turning off the water while brushing your teeth, not just letting it run, or so Yogi Bear was demonstrating to Boo Boo.

Yes, my concern over wasted water began long before I eventually settled in the desert, where water problems are much greater.

click to enlarge You know, because water's a little tight out in the desert. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
You know, because water's a little tight out in the desert.
Elizabeth Whitman

Why This Is Extra Important Now

Water issues are somewhat scary right here, right now. In early 2020, our food critic wrote a piece for The Counter that questions if Phoenix could survive a water crisis. Essentially, and this is my favorite line of the story, “The states that rely on the Colorado [River] for their water supply thought it could provide more than it actually could.”

And quarantine may not be helping. We’re doing more dishes than ever.

According to the Forbes article "How to Stay Green While Living In Quarantine," the average American — yo — uses 140 to 170 gallons of water a day. “Using less water helps to alleviate pressure on our sewage and drainage systems and helps prolong the lifespan of rivers and lakes that are crucial to their surrounding ecosystems,” it reads. “If the water disappears down the plug hole, then its next stop is a treatment center, even if it’s clean.”

(Note to self: Use “plug hole” more often in copy.)

Also in January, New Times covered five key issues to watch this year in Arizona water. The piece by the great Elizabeth Whitman touched on groundwater, new sources of water, and Colorado River drama.

Whitman ends the story with a note on conservation. Though Arizona probably won’t initiate extreme water rationing any time soon, we should still conserve water. And some methods are more sustainable than others.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said, "The conservation that we should all be doing is that sort of gradual adoption of efficiency that permanently frees up water supplies for another use." That means water-efficient yard stuff and appliances — i.e. your dishwasher.

There's a way to do it. And a way to overdo it. - NATHAN DUMLAO/UNSPLASH
There's a way to do it. And a way to overdo it.
Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

The Dishwasher

Are you the type of psycho who washes a dish then puts it in the dishwasher to be cleaned? Yeah — pre-rinsing is not that necessary. Scrap the food into your compost bucket (if applicable) and load.

If you must rinse, this recent tip from Bon Appetit’s Basically (their best vertical, in my opinion) is comforting.

“If you’re planning on leaving your dirties in the machine for a while, you can run the rinse-only cycle to stifle gross odors,” writes Ali Francis. “It’s more water-efficient than rinsing by hand, and will prevent dish-appointment (that feeling when you open the machine only to find crusted on bolognese and filmy water spots everywhere)."

Next, watch your spacing.

I'll never run the dishwasher unless it's full. Efficient, mindful. But once, while about to run the thing, my old roommate Mel called out, “Are you sure it’s not overloaded enough?” Which was fair, because there's a way to overdo it. Cramming too much in can severely reduce the level at which your dishes are being clean. You could be blocking the jets or spinny thing, meaning you may have to run again — utter defeat.

But what if you’re your own dishwasher — as in, you don't own one? There are other ways to tone down water waste while doing it the old-fashioned way, too.

click to enlarge Think about the way you do dishes. Maybe get this book. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Think about the way you do dishes. Maybe get this book.
Lauren Cusimano

Dishwashing: There’s a Better Way

The people at Food52 are calling Peter Miller the Marie Kondo of dishwashing.  And our friends back at Bon Appetit love him, too. They're right to: Miller’s book, How to Wash the Dishes, is exceptional.

This slim volume is a casual read but also motivational, urging readers to get serious work done at the kitchen sink.  motivating them to get some serious work done at the kitchen sink. The contents are broken up into eight sections, covering everything from decision-making to drying to even some recipes.

“Do not waste water or soap," Miller writes. "Water is life. It is precious, and if you are lucky enough to have it come easily out of your faucet, treat it with gratitude and respect.”

When doing dishes, Miller advises, you’ll need a series of bowls. Let utensils soak in a bowl over here, and have a small, shallow bowl inside the sink full of warm, soapy water. Keep going back to that, dipping your sponge or dish rag. Delicate, breakable glassware gets washed first, pots and pans last. Throughout the process, your soap bowl is being filled slowly with water. Last, use that soapy water to clean up the counters and sink with a sponge — instead of using fresh, running water.

“Review your water footprint,” Miller writes. “Every time you wash dishes is an opportunity to practice mindfulness and to reduce waste.”

click to enlarge Make the kitchen your water conserving station. - HARRY GROUT/UNSPLASH
Make the kitchen your water conserving station.
Harry Grout/Unsplash

More Water-Saving Tips

The aforementioned Forbes article mentions three smart tips for conserving water.

Try washing fruits and vegetables in a container of water instead of under a running tap. Defrost those chicken thighs in the fridge instead of using the hot-water-in-the-sink method. And if you’re running through Sleepytime tea these days, only boil the amount of water needed in a kettle.

I have my favorites, like pouring left-out glasses of water into the steam iron and dumping any leftover cooking water into the nearest house plant. More exist, and I encourage you swan dive into the internet for them. There’s a whole culture behind pasta water alone.
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano