Smart Shopping to Reduce Trash

By Shia Su
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Photo by Shia Su

Learning how to avoid food packaging is a powerful way to reduce your trash. This applies not only to groceries, but also the coffee you buy on your way to work or the salad you grab on campus between classes.

“We are sorry, but this is against health and safety regulations.”

To minimize waste, we bring our own food containers out to take-out lunch spots or grocery stores, so we don’t have to waste a disposable container. However, if you’ve ever done this before, chances are that somebody has refused your request using the excuse that it supposedly violates health and safety regulations. At first glance, it seems like there is nothing we can do; after all, we can’t change regulations at a cheese counter. Frustrated, we shove our containers back into our shopping bag and never question whether or not this is actually true.

However, in most cases, it is simply not true. Referring to (sometimes nonexistent) health regulations are used by most outlets as an effective way to shut up “difficult customers.” In fact, more often than not, there is no clear regulation when it comes to customers using their own containers or bags, only common practices. One health inspector may allow what another one prohibits.

Food chains, especially, set up very strict store policies because they are afraid of being sued. Bear in mind that most of the time staff turn down customers simply because they are afraid of getting in trouble or feel that it is a pain to accommodate you. Going back when somebody else is manning the counter is often an easy but effective solution!

Where to Shop

Depending on where you live, bulk options may be easy or difficult to find. Just as we all have different needs and have to face different challenges, we also have access to a different infrastructure. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Reducing your annual trash to just a jar might simply be beyond what is possible in your situation—and that is totally fine.

Zero waste is not about perfectionism; it is about making better choices within your means. Just go for the more, or even most, sustainable option available to you as often as possible. Work toward minimizing your waste one baby step at a time.

It takes time to rediscover your area to find places where you can buy items in bulk. Once you do, you will see bulk everywhere! Start with what is relatively easy and, frankly, most essential: loose produce. Even though many grocery stores nowadays prefer to suffocate fruits and veggies in layers of plastic, there are usually loose options available.

The smaller the store, the better the chances they will accept your own container. Big-box grocery chains tend to have strict store policies, and not even the store manager has the authority to decide whether or not to accept your container.

Zero Waste Bulk Stores

Zero waste bulk stores are popping up all over North America and Europe. Every store is different, but the selection usually ranges from dry goods and household items to package-free personal care products and anything else you need for a zero waste lifestyle. If you have a zero waste bulk store in town—lucky you! However, most of us probably do not, so make sure to check out the following options. 

Local Food Co-operatives

Food co-ops are basically cooperatively owned grocery stores. Every co-op is different, but they always have a strong sense of community, they value social responsibility, and they aim to make natural foods more accessible and affordable. Some co-ops are open, i.e., everyone can shop there, but members get a discount. Other co-ops are only open to members.

Coops are community-oriented. So if you decide to join a co-op, you, too, can help shape it! Members discuss and vote on issues. If being able to buy organic and package-free goods is important to you, let others know!

Photo by Katja Marquard

Ethnic (SUPER) Markets

It is always worth checking out your local South American, Indian, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, or any other ethnic grocer. Besides loose produce, they often offer dry goods like legumes, grains, rice, or spices in bulk. Some also have delicatessen counters or house-made baked goods, and they are usually very accommodating as long as you ask in a friendly and open-minded manner. Middle Eastern grocery stores are a good place to look for traditional (palm oil–free) olive oil soap, while you can commonly find unpackaged fresh tofu and bulk rice in Asian supermarkets. 

Local Farms

You can bypass big-box stores and buy directly from local farms, supporting your local economy instead. Depending on the farm, you will be able to get produce, eggs, dairy, and meat. Depending on the season, you can also pick your own berries at U-pick farms! 

Farmers’ Markets

Ah, I love farmers’ markets! They are another great way to support your local economy (by cutting out the middleman). Farmers are usually very happy to take plastic bags or paper trays back to reuse them, since it saves them money. 

Health Food Stores

Some health food stores have bulk sections. However, their policy on customers bringing their own cloth bags and containers may vary. In my experience, the big chains are very inconsistent and seem to change their policy on this constantly. Some stores can take off the weight of your own containers at the till. If they cannot, stick to cloth bags as they are lighter. We rarely ask for permission since the worst that can happen is being told to use their plastic bags next time. 

Photo by Katja Marquard


Bring a clean cloth bag and ask the staff to hand you the bread. You can also put your own container onto the counter and have them place the pastry in the container with tongs. Small bakeries might even sell you flour, baking powder, yeast, or seeds in bulk if you ask nicely! 

Tea shops

Loose-leaf teas are the obvious zero waste choice. Most loose-leaf teas can be re-steeped up to three times, and very high quality tea even up to twenty times! Yes, they are expensive, but in the end you get a lot more (flavorful) bang for your buck. Just bring your own jar and have it filled up at your local tea shop. 

Coffee Roasters

Just like tea shops, coffee roasters will usually be happy to fill up your own containers. Roasting coffee is a craft, and we love to show our appreciation for it. Wouldn’t it be a shame to keep the coffee they handled with so much care in a layer of toxin-leaching plastic? 

The Butcher’s or the Cheese Shop

Small stores are almost always more accommodating than big chains. However, you still might have to compromise when it comes to meat and dairy. Even small stores can be hesitant about allowing you to put the container you brought from home onto their scale. If the store has a deli counter, you might be able to ask them to use one of their plates for the scale and let you transfer everything to your container. But of course, the eco-friendliest option is still to reduce your consumption of animal products. 

Photo by Shia Su

Italian Restaurants

Depending on where you live or what grocery stores you frequent, the pasta you buy probably comes in cardboard boxes with plastic windows at best. To avoid all packaging—or if you just love the superior taste of fresh, homemade pasta—it is worth looking for an Italian restaurant that still makes their own pasta.

Making pasta from scratch yourself is another option. It is more time-consuming but also very rewarding, and you do get a good workout out of it.

Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA)

CSA is a model connecting producers and consumers. Consumers can subscribe to the farm, usually via a membership. They pay a monthly or yearly fee that covers the costs of running the farm, and in turn, they get their share of the harvest. This usually means a weekly or bi-weekly delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables, often hand-picked on the very same day!

This system detaches the farm from unreasonable (world) market prices that often lead to improper working conditions and shortcuts at the expense of the environment. The subscribers, in turn, get to enjoy local produce loaded with flavors and nutrients at a great value.

Many CSA farms offer family-friendly activities throughout the year, and some even offer the option of using your labor as a means to cover your subscription costs, which can be great for families that are struggling with money.

Photo by Katja Marquard


Delis often make items from scratch and have counters where you can buy salads, chutneys, olives, antipasti, or cheese. Bring your own containers, along with a big smile, and they will most likely accommodate your zero waste needs. If you are lucky, they might even sell bulk spices and tea! 

Specialty Stores

Ice cream, chocolate, donut, candy, or cupcake shops are all great places to show up with your own container and a friendly face. Again, avoid big chains and choose to support local family-owned businesses, as they are also a lot more likely to accommodate you. 


Craft beer breweries often offer growler refills. They usually have machines that seal the growler with carbon dioxide to prevent the beer from going flat, so bringing a jar does not work. Trust me, I have waltzed into a brewery with a sixty-four-ounce Mason jar just to leave with my gigantic jar still empty and five extra bucks less in my pocket because they made me buy their growler instead. 

Department Stores

This one might not always seem obvious. But some department stores have deli counters and might sell bulk candy. However, just like big-box grocery chains, department store staff may not be very flexible and could turn you down. 

Chinese Herbal Medicine Stores

If you live in one of the major cities with a Chinatown, you might have seen stores with all sorts of herbs and dry goods in huge jars or bins. Don’t be shy, go in and ask for the herbs you might need to brew your own root beer or your favorite herbal infusion. While you are at it, you might try to stock up on spices, too! 

Oil and Vinegar Specialty Stores

Liquids can be a tough one. Some health food stores provide refills; you might also live near an oil and vinegar specialty store. However, the selection is better described as premium, and the price tag reflects that. Organic options are scarce, too. Personally, we prefer to buy the local organic oil and vinegar options in the biggest glass bottles we can find. 


Knowing which wild herbs, nuts, fruits, and mushrooms are edible isn’t just a great survival skill. Foraging workshops are fun and can cut down on your food costs in the long run. Do make sure that foraging is allowed in that particular forest, and please do not forage in primeval forests. 

Cover courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing


Do It Yourself

DIY is a great option to keep in mind when there is no other option available. Keeping it simple is the key!

Excerpted from Zero Wasteby Shia Su with permission from Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.Photography: Katja Marquard, Shia Su, and Hanno Su.

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