One of the easiest ways to make a shift towards a zero waste lifestyle is to change the way you think about and prepare for your grocery shopping. With just a few minutes of foresight and preparation before you head out, your next market stop can be simple and eco-savvy.
1. Bring your own bags
The most basic way to reduce waste in your shopping excursion is to bring your own bags. For many of us this is already a standard practice, but sometimes we get caught unprepared, or we make an impromptu shop stop, and feel stuck using plastic bags. The easy solution is to be prepared: keep a few large totes or reusable shopping bags in your car if you typically drive, or find a few bags that fold up well and keep then in your purse.
2. Bulk up
Buying food in bulk means less packaging in general, but are we really doing any better if we end up pouring food into single-use plastic bags? Thinking ahead means bringing along your own empty jars or reusable silicon baggies—just be sure to have a sales associate weigh jars empty first so you don’t end up with additional costs (you can use a marker and write the weight on the lid so that you don’t have to do this every time.)
The silicon baggies can be a great solution for bulk buying because they are light, foldable and easily transported around in greater numbers, and they can hold your liquids or solids safely. Once you get home, transport the items into your jars or storage containers, wash the baggies, and have them bundled together ready to go for the next trip.
3. Let your produce breathe
Skip those wasteful plastic produce bags and either add the items loose into your cart to be weighed together at the cashier, or pick up some reusable mesh baggies. Muslin or any other light cloth such as tea towels or even old pillow cases can also work well, as you can tie your lemons and oranges up in a little bundle for easy weigh-ins at the register.
4. Choose plastic-free alternative packaging
If you need a food item that’s harder to find in the bulk stores, look for options that are packaged in cardboard, glass, or cans, which can be fully recycled. You can buy your pasta in the cardboard box, your tomato sauce in cans or jars, and your vanilla extract, coconut oil, or peanut butter in glass. If you usually buy the plastic option out of habit, you’d be surprised how many other options there are!
5. Hit up the service counters
The deli, butcher, and fishmonger counters are where you need to head if you’re concerned about excessive styrofoam and plastic waste. Those silicone bags that are so great for bulk buying come in many different sizes, and are a great way to ask for your fish, cheeses, or meats to be packed. Most markets will also wrap your items in that pink waxed or oiled butcher paper, which while it can’t be recycled, can be torn up and composted.
6. Refill your empties
When you’ve already got hand soap pumps and big plastic laundry detergent bottles, look for ways to reduce your plastic footprint moving forward. Find a bulk store or refill depot that carries liquid soaps, have them weigh your empties, and fill them up. Or try a brand like Plaine Products that lets you return and refill your shampoo bottles for free.
If you are limited in your refill options based on where you live and what’s available, consider buying solid soap alternatives or even make your own and reuse the bottles you have for storage.
7. Imagine your alternatives
What other products do you typically buy that have sustainable alternatives? Skip the bundle of paper towels, and invest in a few more tea towels or reusable/washable napkins. Or repurpose old clothing in DIY wipes. No need to buy a case of plastic water bottles when you can pick up some stainless steel or glass bottles (thrift or dollar stores are a great place to find stainless steel options at an affordable price).
Instead of another roll of plastic wrap for your food storage, use storage containers or buy a few sheets of all-natural beeswax food covers. If you are really aligned with the zero waste lifestyle, you may occasionally need to fully pass on products that don’t yet have more eco-friendly packaging options.
8. Buy fresh
Frozen fruits and vegetables may be an affordable way to stock up on your plant-based foods, especially when local crops may be out of season, but whenever possible, buy fresh and do the freezing yourself (you can freeze in jars, or those wonderful reusable baggies!).
You’ll rest easy knowing that your food is without added preservatives, you’ll be certain about just how long that food has been frozen, and there’s one less plastic bag added to the landfill. Once farmer’s markets are in season, head out with your cutest tote bag and shop right from the source.
One of the best ways to further reduce waste once you’re home from your shopping trip is to get into the habit of composting all of your food scraps. Certain compost bins can be kept indoors much like a litter box if you don’t have the yard space for one, and all of your food waste finds its way back to nourishing the soil rather than adding to the garbage bulk.
After you make those first few low/zero waste trial runs, you’ll be surprised to find how quickly these behaviors can become the new normal. With a bag stashed here and there, you’ll always be prepared for a quick stop on the way home. While bulk shopping with jars can be a bit more of a production, think of it as its own separate trip, and try not to leave this stop for when you’re in a mad rush.
Remember that even making a few changes and reducing your waste is an important first step, so try not to be too hard on yourself if you find yourself backed into a packaging corner—when brands and industries take note of how consumer values are changing, hopefully the packaging will too!5