Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

You often read about or see zerowasters shopping in beautiful bulk stores or at farmers' markets. These options are ideal for living a zero waste lifestyle in that they provide fresh produce and kitchen staples mostly package free. Grocery stores with bulk aisles are hard to come by and often located in more affluent neighborhoods, as is the case with many farmers' markets.

Everyone's zero waste looks different and is highly dependent on access. I am fortunate enough to be able to drive myself to my local grocery cooperative which has a bulk aisle and many options for organic, healthy, and minimally packaged products. We also live within a few miles of four major farmers' markets on three different days of the week.

But what if you don't live near these options? Or maybe the closest option is priced way too high for your budget?

Here are a number of ways you can continue shopping at your conventional grocery store and still avoid a large amount of packaging or make more environmentally friendly decisions.

Meal plan

If you know what you need at the store and know what you'll be making with everything, you can better avoid random purchases. We've all been to the store super hungry and with no shopping list to stick to. This is when we tend to leave with more than needed.

So, make meal planning and shopping a normal part of your routine. Find a few meals you can prep ahead of time for the week and plan for healthy snacks in between meals.

I'm a little more old fashion and like to find recipes in cookbooks to make a list of items needed to complete those recipes. But there are a lot of apps out there to help you meal plan. Technology is amazing, take advantage of it!

Stick to the outer perimeter 

The outer perimeter of your grocery store is likely to house all of the fresh produce, the most unpackaged items in the store. Frozen and canned veggies or fruit are convenient, but the packaging is not recyclable.

You can always choose a day to prep and freeze your produce so that the rest of your week of cooking is a little easier and faster. Taste of Home provides a great guide to freezing fruits and veggies and do note that not everything can be frozen raw.

Avoid bags of bulk produce

This may seem a tad counterintuitive since I'm always touting the benefits of bulk, but it's best to skip those plastic and/or mesh bags of produce. These are often priced lower than individual pieces of produce, but have you ever finished that giant bag of potatoes before they start to spoil in the back of your pantry?

Not only are we buying something that's been packaged in plastic, but we often waste food this way. Wasting food is also like throwing money down the drain. Unless you are planning a meal for a large number of people and the price point is something you can't pass up, buy individual and unpackaged produce items. And buy only what you need.

BYO reusable produce bags

These are so easy to come across these days and might even sell at your grocery store. Reusable produce bags don't have to be pretty, or matching, and be sure to use fabric or bags you might already have at home. I got mine on Etsy a while ago and the shop no longer exists, but I'm sure there are other shops selling them.

You also don't need that many. Most fruits and veggies come with their own protective and natural skin and I just throw them in the cart without bags. I reserve my produce bags for lettuce and other produce with skin that I don't peel before eating, like apples for instance.

BYO container to the deli counter

If your grocery store has a deli counter, ask them if they can tare your personal container and then weigh the meat or cheese in it. You might be turned down, but don't let that keep you from trying. You can talk to the store manager/owner to get more information on their policy about personal containers. State and Federal Health Code laws are fuzzy in this area and they'll likely refer to those laws to back up their policy.

In California, Assembly Bill 619 provides clarification on how to handle customers with their own containers, making the health code much clearer. Businesses still don't have to let you bring your own, but hopefully, consumer demand will shift their attitude a bit.

Ask for butcher paper wrapping 

If they will not allow you to use your own container, ask for your cheese and meats to be wrapped in butcher paper instead of plastic bags. This also might not be an option at your store, but 100% worth it to ask.

When you get home, put butcher paper-wrapped cheese in an enclosed glass container so that it stays fresher longer.

Depending on the type of paper, you might be able to compost it. Generally, any paper that appears shiny or waxy cannot be composted as it is lined with paraffin wax or some other plastic. If it is not shiny and is free of tape or stickers, you can likely compost it. However, when in doubt, throw it out.

If your store has no deli counter at all, try not to buy meats packaged with a styrofoam bottom. If it has a plastic no. 1 or 2, you can recycle once you remove the plastic film and it's completely clean and dry.

Cheese in large blocks is going to be more economical than bags of shredded cheese or string cheese that's individually wrapped.

Choose aluminum or glass over paper or plastic

Aluminum and glass are infinitely recyclable and have not been impacted too much by China's recycling ban as plastic and paper. You can read a bit more about this in my post about recycling here.

So, where you can, choose products that come in aluminum or glass. Many brands are selling condiments in glass jars over plastic now. However, rather than recycle the glass jars (because it often gets broken before reaching your recycling facility) try repurposing the jar for storing things around your home.

If you must purchase an item in plastic, look for plastics no. 1 or 2 as they are more recyclable than no. 3-7. Try to stay away from styrofoam at all costs.

The exception to this would be buying dry goods in bulk plastic bags, like dry beans. From what I've seen available, a large bag of beans carries much more bang for your buck than several aluminum cans. I'll talk about bulk dry goods a bit more in the section below.

Paper packaging can only be recycled, in most cases, if it's dry and clean. Cardboard from cereal/snack boxes is probably your best bet. Paper milk cartons can sometimes be recycled depending on your local recycling facility, so be sure to check that out before you head to the store. Some paper packaging might even be compostable, but reducing our paper waste is key to decreasing the demand for deforestation.

Buy bulk bags of dry goods 

If you look towards the bottom of the store shelves, you'll find many options for bulk dry goods like beans, rice, or cereal. These will last you a long time, especially if transferred from the plastic bag to an airtight container.

Pro tip: if you have a dog or cat, carefully cut open the top of the plastic bag so that you can reuse for pet waste later on.

Avoid individually wrapped snacks

I know I grew up with every individually wrapped snack possible; pretzels, chips, granola bars, string cheese, etc. They are so convenient when packing your lunch or for grabbing a snack on the go, but do try to avoid them.

Buying larger bags of chips or pretzels or other snacks is better. Making your own snacks or switching to fresh fruit as a snack is best.

BYO reusable shopping bags

Probably the most obvious tip of all, but hey, we all need this reminder...bring your own reusable shopping bags. Leave them in your purse, backpack, on a hook by your door, in your car, anywhere you'll be reminded to bring them along. I still forget mine from time to time so I will either opt for no bag and carry everything by hand, or for larger grocery trips, I'll opt for paper and use them for trash bags at home.


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