Back when I first started paying attention to how much trash my family of five generated over a year ago, we were averaging three 13-gallon bags each week (plus recycling). I had certain ideas and goals about how I would tackle trimming that down, but of course, the last year has been nothing if not a constant reminder of the saying “Man plans and HaShem laughs.” After COVID-19 changed our schedules and locations, my husband is working from home five days a week, I am working from home two days a week, and one of my children is doing distance-learning, so he’s home each day. With more people at home for longer hours and many more meals made at home, we should have more trash. But instead, the amount has gone down, and last week we had just one bag of trash to go out to the curb for pickup. Pretty excited about that!
Many zero-waste educators advise people to start their journey to zero-waste with a “trash audit.” That’s just what it sounds like: for one week, you go through your trash and record what’s in it. I’d like to say I thought about doing a trash audit but came up with a better system, but the fact is, I didn’t think about it. Not even for a minute. I mean, I did think about it, but my thought process went like this. “What?!?! Yuck! Gross! No!!!”
Our lives are made up of minutes, hours, and days, and I’m spending exactly none of mine cataloging my trash. I agree that knowing what I throw out is a great way to plan what changes to make in my life to reduce my waste, but there’s an easier way. I pay the most attention to cutting waste generated by the things I do daily and weekly. So while I have lots of ideas written down for fun zero-waste upcycling and craft ideas, I’ve paid the most attention to the mundane tasks that keep a household running. Of course, in a frum household, Shabbos looms largest.
When my kids were little, I made my challah from scratch each week. I was freelancing from home, the kids liked pitching in, and it was way more economical than store-bought challah. When I went back to work, things got more hectic. I still made challah from time to time, but most weeks, I bought challah dough from our local kosher store and baked it in my oven. Each week, plastic bags wound up being recycled at the dropoff bin outside my grocery store. One low-waste hack I picked up at this stage was to cut one loaf of challah into two or three pieces for lechem mishna. The amount of leftover challah each week dropped dramatically. (Of course, if you do have leftover challah, it’s excellent for making bread crumbs and French toast!)
When Oho went into COVID-19 lockdown in March, there was suddenly a lot more time at home, even with Zoom learning and working, so we went back to homemade challah, this time with my daughters helping out with the baking. Not only did that mean cutting out the plastic bread bags, but we also started buying our flour in 25-pound bags, so we were saving money and cutting down on that packaging as well.
Of course, buying in bulk is only a good idea if you’ll use whatever you buy before it goes bad. When I bring home a big bag of flour from Costco, I put it in the freezer for at least one week and preferably two. Flour can sometimes contain insect eggs, and freezing the bag makes sure those eggs never hatch. Once I take the flour out of the freezer, I leave it in my basement, inside a 13-gallon plastic bag. I refill the three-quart container of flour in the kitchen as necessary. And as each week’s challah gets baked, it goes into plastic bags I’ve saved from previous purchases.I have also found that having lots of flour makes it more likely that we’ll bake scratch desserts rather than using boxed mixes from the pantry.
I felt pretty good about this until things normalized over the summer and early fall, with my girls starting school in person and the pace picking up for me at work. I didn’t want to go back to purchasing multiple plastic bags of dough each week, so I searched around for another solution. The answer comes in an orange bag I buy at Wal*Mart that contains 72 balls of dough labeled Rhodes Bake-N-Serv™ Dinner Rolls. The simplest way to make challah is to make a pull-apart loaf by placing the frozen rolls in greased pans, allowing them to rise, and then baking according to the package’s instructions. If you are trying to cut down on your use of disposable pans, this is a great place to start as I find the loaves slide out really cleanly from the glass and metal pans I’ve baked them in.
You can also make loaves of challah with the dough. When I want to do this, I cut a small opening in a bag of rolls and leave it out on the counter in the morning. By the time I’m home from work, I’ve got a nice bag full of dough to work with. (If you don’t remember to cut an opening in the bag, there’s a good chance it will explode all over your counter, so try not to skip that step.) I do find that this dough is not as sturdy as my own challah dough, so I have to be gentle when I braid it and make sure I allow enough time for a second rise.
That’s my current solution. One of the biggest changes in moving to low-waste living is building up my problem-solving mindset. If there’s anything the “Age of COVID” has taught us, it’s that life changes fast, and we do our best to adapt. I don’t love the tastes of the Rhodes, but it works for us now. I might find a better solution in a few months, years, etc., that works better for my future circumstances. We all have to stay nimble!