Have you ever walked into a grocery store and felt overwhelmed by the plastic packaging? You’re not alone.
I’ve seen some things that have literally made me roll my eyes and shake my head: Like cucumbers individually wrapped in plastic film.
Manufacturers have a terrible habit of overdoing it when it comes to our food’s packaging – it’s like they forget it comes from the ground. It doesn’t need so much protection.
That said, I do agree certain items (like pre-chopped produce) can help make fresh foods more accessible.
I realize not everyone can peel and chop their food – but there are tons of people who can and still choose the convenience option.
I think there needs to be a balance here, and there are many areas for improvements and innovation. Thankfully, there are ways to shop plastic-free, even amidst this chaos.
Here are 11 simple tips for zero waste grocery shopping.
Table of Contents for 11 Simple Tips For Zero-Waste Grocery Shopping
- Grab some reusable bags
- Don’t forget reusable produce bags
- Head to the farmers market
- Hit up a bulk store
- Bring your own container for meat
- Use beeswax wrap for cheese + bread
- Get eggs from local hens
- Make whatever you can’t find
- Go for fresh foods, not processed
- Only buy what you know you’ll eat
- When in doubt, get items in recyclable packaging
1. Grab some reusable bags
First off, to start zero waste grocery shopping, you’ll want to invest in some sturdy reusable bags to put all your grocery buys in.
I recommend canvas bags, as these are sturdy, but can break down in compost at the end of their life. If you like bags made from recycled plastic, you can try those out and they can be compacted into a small lightweight pouch perfect for travel.
These will last a long time and you can wash them – if they tear, you can always sew them back up too. I have a mix of both materials and find both to be extremely handy.
2. Don’t forget reusable produce bags
Along with tote bags, you’ll want to invest in reusable produce bags. These can be washed and reused over and over to store fresh loose produce. There are several kinds of reusable produce bags to choose from – synthetic or cotton materials.
Synthetic bags are usually made from reusable plastic: They’re lightweight, semi see-through, and machine washable.
Only problem is they don’t biodegrade at the end of their life. Cotton produce bags are bit more durable and can be added to the compost at the end of their life. They come in both mesh and solid styles.
Choosing which kind is up to you. All types are better than their single-use counterparts.
3. Head to the farmers market
This is one of my favorite zero waste grocery shopping tips, honestly. I love shopping at the farmers market because so much can be found there without plastic.
Lots of farmers grow their food locally, without pesticides at the market. But they also don’t use nearly as much packaging. This includes those pesky produce stickers – they’re so much easier to avoid at the market.
At most, you’ll find rubber bands on your food and mesh covers on your berry cartons – but all of these can actually be returned to your farmer to create a closed loop system.
There’s more than fresh produce at the market too – you can find a variety of things from diary to maple syrup here, depending on the vendors in your area.
4. Hit up a bulk food store
Bulk food stores have bulk bins you can use to get dry goods package free. My local health food store has a pretty big bulk bin section that I love to explore.
I just take my produce bags and mason jars with me, have them tared, then fill them up with whatever I want. They get weighed at checkout and I pay for them. So simple, and no plastic needed.
You can find everything from dried beans, to lentils at the bulk bins. Sometimes even candy, herbs, spices and dried fruit. Try typing in ‘bulk food store near me’ to find something, or just explore your town on foot! Literless also has an amazing bulk bin locator for the USA organized by state worth checking out.
5. Bring your own container for meat
Heading to the butcher or fish market? Bring your own container and ask them to put the meat inside it. This can be Tupperware or glassware – whatever you have is okay to use. Otherwise, they’ll wrap it in a lot of unnecessary plastic.
If you’re afraid they’ll say no, you could always call ahead of time and ask if they’re okay with you bringing your own container. A lot of local butchers and fish stores will be happy to make an exception for you, whereas a more mainline one may not. You can also visit them beforehand and ask in person too.
FYI, I’m not here to judge people based on their eating habits, but I do personally recommend trying to eat a more plant based diet when possible.
Plants have a smaller carbon footprint overall, plus it’s easier to find package-free. This is just something to consider – but at the same time, I’m well aware not every can go vegetarian or vegan, nor should they.
6. Use beeswax wrap for cheese + bread
A lot of cheeses and breads sold in stores is already pre-packaged. Instead, find them at your local farmers market or artisan store and ask them to wrap it in beeswax wrap.
Beeswax wrap will act similarly to plastic film – but it’s not single use. You can use the warmth of your hands to mold it to the food you’re trying to cover. At the end of its life, you can cut up and compost your beeswax wrap.
For bread, you can also ask them to cut up the bread for you on the spot and put it in a reusable produce bag, or beeswax wrap.
For a baguette, I recommend beeswax wrap to preserve the freshness better. Beeswrap sells ones specifically designed for bread. They also have some vegan options too that utilize candelilla wax instead. These are also compostable at the end of their life. I love the pretty patterns too!
7. Get eggs from local hens
Most eggs at the grocery store come in plastic containers (styrofoam especially), so you’ll want to avoid this.
See if you can get eggs from some local hens – a good bet is a farmers market or seasonal pop up market. They often have eggs in paper cartons you can just return when they’re empty to be reused. The eggs from these chickens are often ten times more nutrient packed and flavorful too, because the hens are treated much better and fed better.
After all, a small time farmer/chicken owner certainly has more means to raise their chickens right than a big time factory farm. Think small and local.
You can even ask around to see if anyone in your neighborhood has a chicken coop and if they’d be willing to sell you their eggs! Enjoy being a homesteader? Take it one step further and raise some chickens in your own backyard for fresh eggs every day.
8. Make whatever you can’t find
Having no luck with zero waste grocery shopping, or just cannot find one item plastic-free?
Try your hand at making it! For example, let’s say you can’t get ketchup plastic free, but really want to avoid buying it in plastic. You could try your hand at making a homemade version.
In fact, a lot of condiments like nut butters, vegan cheeses, and mustard can be made at home. Not to mention nut milks, dips, spreads, dressings, frosting, and sauces.
Try your hand at making items instead of constantly buying this pre-packaged. You’ll save money and get the satisfaction of knowing you made it yourself. You can also fully customize it this way to meet your needs!
Some really easy things to make at home that shouldn’t be bought in packaging is brown sugar and powdered sugar. For powdered sugar, just add granulated sugar to a blender and pulse it for under a minute, or until it becomes fine.
For brown sugar, just mix white sugar with molasses. You can store both of these in glass jars and you’ll never have to buy the packaged version again.
9. Go for fresh foods, not processed
You might notice when you start zero waste grocery shopping how little processed foods you’ll be buying. That’s no coincidence – and it’s a good thing for your health and the planet’s too.
Processed foods like cookies, cakes, chips and bars tend to come in a lot of packaging. When you’re trying to go plastic-free, these just won’t do.
You might find yourself reaching for more fresh, whole foods instead – and that’s honestly for the best. Don’t settle for a cookie where a package free peach will do.
Start snacking better by making your own granola bars, or simply opting for fresh produce snacks like chopped apples. Better yet, pair the produce with some kind of homemade dip or sauce and you’ve got a tasty treat on your hands.
I find zero waste snacks often have 3 different tiers:
- Tier 1: Minimal effort (often fresh produce)
- Tier 2: Requires some assembly (popcorn made over the stove)
- Tier 3: Has to be made (granola bars, hummus, kale chips, etc.)
Depending on your time and mood, you can choose which tier you want to partake in any given day. I find myself wanting to make more snacks in the winter months and stick to minimal effort snacks come summer.
Eating seasonally will help you keep processed junk off the mind better too – because trust me when I say nothing compares to an in-season berry or nectarine. It will help satisfy your sweet craving for sure.
I personally love making almond nut butter then combining that with apple slices in the fall. For summer, a fresh peach, nectarine or slice of watermelon always does the trick.
10. Only buy what you know you’ll eat
It can be tempting to get adventurous with all the food options you’ll likely encounter at a farmers market or bulk food store.
In fact, you may see some things you never have at a grocery store (examples being goose berries, yellow watermelon, and purple carrots, etc).
But to avoid creating waste, I encourage you to only buy what you know you’ll eat. So that means two things: Sticking to the veggies + fruits you know your family likes, and not over-buying. You never want too much because even if you like a food, there’s only so much you can do with it before it starts to overwhelm you.
For example, buying 5 pints of berries might seem great at first, but if you don’t use those up quickly, they’ll go bad. And that’s just wasted money and resources. It takes a lot of water, time and energy to grow food so you want to reduce food waste as much as possible. If it helps, create a grocery list of items you need and stick to it.
11. When in doubt, get items in recyclable packaging
Can’t find something package free? Fear not – you can always just purchase it in recyclable packaging.
When I say that, I encourage you to try and avoid plastic as much as possible and opt for glass, aluminum, cardboard or paper first. These tend to be easier materials to recycle, and glass + aluminum can be recycled infinitely without losing quality.
The same cannot be said of plastic, as it loses quality over time and can never be the same item more than once. That’s why it’s best to avoid plastic packaging whenever you can.
It’s okay to get something in a cardboard box or paper bag – just try to reuse it at least once before recycling or composting. If you must get it in plastic, try to get the biggest container you can afford – this is better for the environment than smaller plastic containers because smaller items can easily get lost in the recycling process.
Which of these tips for zero-waste grocery shopping would you try? Let us know in the comments below!
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About the Author:
Ariana Palmieri is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste living and sustainability. Her work has been featured on Going Zero Waste, Mother Earth Living, Green Matters and several other publications. Get her free e-book “10 Ways to Reduce Trash” by signing up to her newsletter and learn how to reduce your waste today.