Zero Waste Grocery Shopping
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Many people have asked me what I eat. But like really, what do you eat? You can't buy crackers, potato chips, bread, candy, meat, milk, eggs without plastic packaging. What is left that isn't packaged and fills up my fridge?
Zero waste grocery shopping can be really intimidating for most people and honestly pretty confusing. Depending on where you live, you might not have access to the same selection of items as well which means access is a big factor in how much plastic you'll bring home. Overall though, there are some simple strategies you can use to reduce your waste when buying groceries.
Zero Waste shopping can be tricky to figure out at first but after years of carrying jars to the grocery store and visiting farmers markets, I have figured out a few tricks that I want to share with you!
1. Get Curious, and Creative
First off, let me just say that all of those items above can be purchased without any packaging if you just know where to look. The first step of buying zero waste foods is to be creative and willing to try something that you've never done before. You may have to ask around, explore stores you've never been in, or participate in a community garden. We have been so trained in our lives to look for things in packaging that it takes a while to start looking for things without it. Although some places won't have everything you want to buy in bulk, you might be surprised at how many big box stores now have a bulk section! Don't be afraid to wonder around a store just exploring!
2. Bring your own bags
This is one of the simplest steps you can take and usually the one people begin with. Get a few, nice grocery bags that you can use over and over and bring them every time. Did you catch that last part? Buying the reusable bags only actually helps if you bring them to the store with you.
3. Buy in Bulk
After you've broken the habit of those nasty plastic grocery bags, it's time to reduce the packaging that actually comes around the food you buy. Buying in bulk has many steps. Start with buying some easily things in bulk like pasta, flour, sugar, and snacks. These can easily be purchased in cloth bags that don't have to be tared (if you don't know what "taring" is, you can read about that here) as some stores will put up quite a stink about weighing your jars.
You can also opt for bringing your own jars to the store, taring them, and then having the cashier weigh and subtract the tare at the counter. This is what I usually do so I don't have to transfer it from the bag to the jar once at home. When you have mastered the dry goods, bringing jars becomes necessary for purchasing peanut butter, honey, syrup, olive oil, and the like.
If you plan on bringing your own jars, it might be a good idea to check with the grocery store you normally shop at to see how receptive they are to taring items. Some stores may also have a ridiculous policy of not allowing customers to use their own containers, so make sure you don't end up at the counter having to pay for the full weight of your jar on top of the weight of the food. Most small stores and coops will usually be happy to see customers bringing their own jars. Fred Meyer on the other hand...not so much (although I have convinced them with a little pressure and a call to the manager).
4. Shop at Farmer's Markets or Stalls
Many items like eggs and cheese I have only been able to find without packaging at a farmer's market. For cheese, I bring my own container and they just toss it in. With eggs, you can either bring your own carton or check with the farmer about returning the cartons after use.
Many fruits and vegetables come tagged with those pesky stickers in grocery stores. But you won't find those at the farmers' markets! I've even found cauliflower not wrapped in plastic (which is impossible in any store around here). Even if you don't plan on buying anything, always check out your local markets to see what is in season and what might be cheaper than in the store!
The only difficulty with farmers' markets is that they don't usually go all year long. Many take a few months off for the winter since it is cold and the crop variety reduces. In this case, the next step comes into play...
5. Consider Your Options: Which packaging is better?
So ideally we avoid all packaging. Okay...but as just mentioned, sometimes that isn't always possible. When that happens, consider the options you have. For example, for a dietary issue I need to take daily probiotics. Here are my options at the store:
A large glass bottle of liquid probiotics
Plastic containers of one-day servings of probiotics
Probiotic pills that come in a plastic container
Probiotic pills that come in a glass container with a freshening packet
Carefully look at each option and the resources put into them. Are they recyclable? Is it local? Can I go without this? In general, it is better to go with glass, metal, and paper packaging over plastic. It is also usually best to go with local items given that is reduces carbon emission produced to ship the item. In the case of my probiotics, I chose the glass jar since it would last me almost a month and is a recyclable material. It's not "packaging free" but given the alternatives, it is the best option.
And yes, abstaining from an item is always possible. Until I found an alternative to chips, I just went cold turkey and stopped eating them.
6. Learn to love an alternative food!
The last piece of advice I have is to be open to finding new foods you like to eat. I loved crackers before going zero waste and I still haven't found any that can be bought without packaging. I have however found little flavored sticks that can still easily be dipped or brought as a snack - and in five different bulk flavors at my coop! If you find yourself without a package free option, check to see if there might be something similar. Can't find package free coconut milk? Try making almond milk at home! Can't find tortillas without the bag? Try using a lettuce wrap instead!
Just start somewhere!
So do you feel ready to go shopping? Maybe. But probably not. It can be intimidating. And sometimes you mess up. Break a jar. Buy the wrong thing. Forget to tare a container. I was terrified to start going to farmers' markets just because I never knew how to buy items since I didn't have a cart.
But just start. It doesn't have to be everything. Find the candy isle at Haggen and bring a bag. Buy a piece of fruit from a road side stand. Ask for your bagel to just be placed in your hand to eat! It will get easier with time and suddenly you will find that going to the grocery store without your jars just feels wrong, and you'll turn your car (or should I say bike?) around to go get them.