Zero-Waste Grocery Shopping

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Zero-Waste Grocery Shopping

Practice sustainable supermarket strategies that help reduce your plastic and packaging waste, whether perusing the aisles or paying at the register.

By Melani Schweder
January/February 2019

If you’re planning New Year’s resolutions, consider one that can cut down on household clutter, reduce grocery bills, and shrink your carbon footprint: going zero-waste while grocery shopping. Though different from the more traditional fitness and food goals, this environmentally friendly practice has gathered more support lately, and the New Year is an effective starting point for a continuing lifestyle of sustainability.

Photo by Queren King-Orozco

Plastic on Our Planet

The last few years have witnessed an explosion in consumer passion for environmental issues. More people are taking steps to reduce their waste and are calling on companies large and small to do the same. We, as consumers, have the power to change the way business is done, specifically when it comes to plastics and other disposable packaging. And the food industry is a great place to start!

Plastic packaging, such as the kind you see on the shelves of your local grocery store, makes up approximately 40 percent of all plastic produced. And all of those plastic bags? Here in the United States, we use 100 billion plastic bags per year, only 1 percent of which are properly recycled. To make those bags, we go through 12 million barrels of oil.

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Plastic isn’t evil in itself; the biggest problem is that the production chain is linear, and the end result is the equivalent of one garbage truck’s worth of plastic being dumped into our oceans every single minute. Unless something changes, and fast, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by the year 2050.

But don’t despair — things are changing! Individuals are realizing that they can choose better food products with less waste, while also saving money and reducing their exposure to potentially harmful plastic chemicals. Businesses are realizing that they can make their dollars stretch further by minimizing packaging, providing bulk options, and offering incentives for those who bring their own bags or cups. You can join the low-waste living revolution this year by making a few easy changes to the way you buy your food.

Strategies for Sustainable Shopping

Any effective New Year’s resolution starts with a plan. Organize your next sustainable grocery trip so that you’re prepared before you begin roaming the aisles. Here are some tips to get you started:

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Bring your own bags. This is often the easiest place to start. Instead of using the plastic bags at the store, bring your own reusable cloth, canvas, or nylon shopping bags. Don’t forget about all of those pesky produce bags, either. There are many wonderful, reusable alternatives, including drawstring fabric bulk food bags and mesh produce bags.

Refuse the receipt. While many of us reach for our receipts without a second thought, how many of us actually look at them or need them after we’re done shopping? Get in the habit of saying, “No receipt, thank you,” when checking out. Not only will you cut out this unnecessary trash, but you’ll also reduce your exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), which is found in much of the thermal paper used in the printing of receipts.

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Choose for the long-term. There are some items that you likely won’t be able to find in bulk or without packaging, such as pasta sauce, salad dressing, or other condiments. In these cases, look for packaging that you’ll reuse, such as sturdy glass jars with screw-on lids, or containers that can easily be recycled in your area.

A word on lids: Depending on your municipality, you may or may not be able to recycle the lids that come with your jars or bottles. If you’re not able to do so within your city, other independent companies may be able to recycle them for you.

Remember the little things. Huge plastic berry containers are one thing, but what about little items such as twist-ties, rubber bands, and produce stickers? You find these on everything from celery bunches to loose apples, and most of us don’t know what to do with them. Twist-ties and rubber bands can’t be recycled, and PLU stickers are made from plastic (and also cause serious issues in composting facilities), so what are the best zero-waste options here?

Photo by Queren King-Orozco

Certain stores, such as local coops and farmers markets, may sell produce without these trappings, so opt for this whenever possible. Otherwise, you can give the PLU stickers to the kids for art projects, or create your own sticker-based household organizing system. Twist ties and rubber bands are wonderfully useful household items, and can be upcycled for purposes such as cable management; organizing tools, hardware, ribbon, or craft supplies; as holiday ornament hangers; or for cleaning small items such as razors and pencil sharpeners.

Be prepared to say “no.” Although food suppliers are making strides, there will likely be items that you can’t find sans packaging, such as dressings or sauces. In these cases, be prepared to refuse an item based upon its packaging. Have a Plan B in mind, and scope out different grocery stores for ones that carry specific items. If you can speak with an employee directly, don’t be afraid to say something like: “I try to stay away from plastic packaging, but I really want to buy this.” Often, people are open to working with you, especially if it means getting your business!

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Groceries On-the-Go

More people are opting for grocery services. While these do have the advantage of saving time and potentially fuel, they can make it more difficult to stick to your low-waste living goals. Recognize these obstacles in advance so you can make the right plan for your lifestyle.

Curbside: Nearly all curbside grocery pickup and delivery order forms provide a section for you to add special instructions. Here, you can request that your produce items be kept loose, as opposed to put in plastic produce bags, and also that your order be placed into paper grocery bags. This system certainly isn’t perfect yet, but because it’s so new, now’s the time to make your voice heard.

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Meal delivery services: There’s no shortage of options nowadays for those looking for meal prep delivery services. One advantage to this grocery option is that it significantly cuts down on food waste — however, it typically makes up for that in packaging and trash. Nearly everything in a meal kit delivery is individually wrapped in plastic; plastic bags, plastic Tupperware containers, and plastic wrap take center stage.

Currently, there doesn’t appear to be any large, nationwide meal kit delivery service that’s committed to going zero-waste, but several bigger companies are making strides. Green Chef emphasizes reusable and recyclable packaging. Purple Carrot offers a guide on their website on how to reuse, recycle, and compost your kit items. Sun Basket provides packaging that is 100 percent recyclable and/or compostable.

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Whether you decide to simply bring your own bags to the grocery store, or attempt full-on zero-waste shopping, remember that your actions matter. Every step toward less waste is a positive one for your health and the health of the planet — and it’s a fantastic resolution for this new year!

Buying in Bulk

Placing apples in a mesh bag is one thing, but what about figuring out how to collect food items in the bulk sections without the plastic bags available in the store? It might seem daunting at first, but you’ll quickly get the hang of bringing your own containers to the grocery store and navigating how to record what you place in them.

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1. Choose a sturdy, reusable container that suits the item you hope to buy. Glass canning jars, stainless steel bowls with lids, cloth or mesh bags, and Tupperware make effective options.

2. Find the “tare weight” of this item. The tare weight simply refers to the weight of the container when empty; this number will be subtracted from the final weight at the register. For ultra-lightweight items such as mesh bags, don’t bother getting the tare, but do so for all jars and containers. You can weigh them at home, on a kitchen scale, or ask someone behind the counter to weigh them for you. Many stores also have scales in their bulk sections for customers to use.

Once you have the tare weight, write it down on the container. You can use a wax pencil or marker to do this, or you can invest in stickers that display the tare weight and a place to write in the PLU code.

3. If in the bulk section: Fill your container with your desired product. Easy-peasy!

If going to the deli counter: Order your desired items and kindly tell the person behind the counter that you would like them in your reusable container. Hand over your (clean!) container for them to fill. They should also be able to get a tare weight here, if you don’t have it yet.

Photo by Queren King-Orozco

4. Don’t forget to make note of the item you got! Write down the PLU code with your wax pencil, or snap a picture of it on your phone.

Going through the checkout line with all of your jars and bags may make you feel self-conscious at first, but don’t worry — it gets easier! Remind yourself of the reasons you’re trying to cut down on waste, and be kind and upbeat if someone asks.

Talking About Zero-Waste

Not knowing how to interact with others can be a huge hurdle in going zero-waste, or making any change that goes “against the grain.” Since cutting back on waste is something that ideally everyone will get jazzed about someday, we want to make this lifestyle seem fun, inviting, inclusive, and nonjudgmental. If you choose to talk about it, make it personal to you, but don’t mention other people or what they “should” be doing. Lead by example whenever you can, and remind yourself of the reasons you’re making this commitment to the environment.

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Here are a few ideas for how to communicate your zero-waste wishes when out shopping:

  • “I’m cutting down on my trash for a zero-waste challenge.”
  • “I want to reduce my plastic usage. May I please use a paper bag?”
  • “I’m going zero-waste with my grocery choices. Can you recommend a similar product that comes package-free?”
  • “I’m switching to more sustainable shopping. Does this product come in bulk?”
  • “Thank you, but I’ve brought my own bag/container today.”

Melani Schweder is a certified health coach, herbalist, and writer. Her journey with chronic illness ignited her passion for fresh food, wild medicine, and nontoxic living. Follow her at A Brighter Wild, or on Instagram and Facebook.