I have been thinking a lot about what would be the most helpful tip when trying to lead a more zero waste lifestyle and I realized that one of the main ways we can all try to reduce waste is at the grocery store.
Think about it. Every 2-4 weeks we head to a place filled with all kinds of glorious food, stuffed inside all kinds of not-so-glorious plastic packaging.
We’re all basically shopping for trash every month.
And this creates a ton of unnecessary waste.
If there is even an inkling of curiosity within you on the best way to reduce your waste, then please read on.
In this post, I am going to go over a comprehensive list of the most beneficial ways you can reduce your waste at the grocery store.
And no, I’m not gonna give you some fluff information on how great farmer’s markets are.
Don’t get me wrong. I love farmer’s markets. They really are a great way to buy local, healthy produce without a bunch of plastic packaging. But not everyone has a farmer’s market near them and not everyone is able/willing to do a majority of their shopping there.
So, if you’re ready, let’s go into the best ways to do some serious zero waste grocery shopping!
Before we get started, I think it might be a good idea to go over some Recycling 101, so that you know what things at the store are landfill, and what is recyclable. If you’re already a pro in this area, woo hoo! Skip ahead, my friend.
For those of us not so familiar, or just want a bit of a refresher, then look at this short and sweet little graphic down below.
Landfill vs. Recyclable Items
The reason why I am giving a list on what is landfill vs. recyclable, is because it is important to know if you are buying trash or not when you’re at the grocery store, thus knowing what to avoid.
However, being zero waste doesn’t have to mean buying ALL naked produce (produce without any packaging). Sometimes all it means is buying things that can be recycled, like blueberries in a plastic clamshell, and then actually recycling it.
So, now that we’ve got that covered, let’s move on to the good stuff: How To Feel Like A Zero Waste Pro at the Grocery Store. Woop woop!
Step 1: Perform a waste audit.
Or cupboard audit. Either one works.
A waste audit is when you go through your trash and see what types of waste you are generating and where your trash is coming from, thus letting you know which things you need to buy differently.
If you’re not feeling like a racoon that day, then doing a kitchen cupboard/refrigerator audit would work too.
Basically you’re just aiming to see what landfill items you are buying. For instance, are you buying rice in a plastic bag? Are you buying lettuce in a plastic bag?
Find the foods you generally buy that are packaged in landfill material so that you know what you need to purchase differently.
For me, I always bought rice in a plastic bag and didn’t think there was really another option.
Well, after watching Blue Planet II and seeing a plastic rice bag (from the 1970’s) inside the stomach of a bird, I swore I’d never make that purchase again.
You really only need to do this kind of waste audit once, just to get an idea of what you’re buying. Then, comes the planning to grocery shop.
Step 2: Plan Ahead
When it comes to shopping like a zero waste pro, planning ahead is essential.
Of course, we all have to make quick grocery runs every once in a while, but for those of us who know we’re going grocery shopping on a certain day, it’s easy to plan.
And by planning I mean this:
- Make a grocery shopping list: this will cut down time spent at the store and prevent you from buying duplicate food items you may already have at home.
- Make sure all of your reusable grocery bags, mesh produce bags, and jars/containers are in your car, ready to go.
- Know which grocery store(s) you will be going to: preferably ones that have a bulk section and large selection of naked produce (aka produce without plastic film…. lookin’ at you Trader Joe’s).
Side note: Some stores I go to that have bulk food items are Food4Less, the local co-op, Grocery Outlet, etc. I go to Trader Joe’s as my last pit stop. They have a really good pasta sauce that I get but I never buy my produce there.
Step 3: The Actual Grocery Shopping Trip
If you bring any jars or containers with you to the store, the first thing you are going to want to do is go to the register and pre-weigh (tare) all of your jars.
This is so that when you put your bulk items in the jar and weigh it at checkout, they don’t count the weight of the jar.
And once you weigh them once, just keep the sticker on there so that you don’t need to do it again!
As for navigating through our plastic-filled grocery stores, here are some of my top tips:
- Avoid buying things in plastic film (any plastic that isn’t a recyclable container). Instead, make some simple swaps:
- Bagged lettuce –> whole lettuce head
- Rice in a plastic bag –> bulk rice
- Oats in plastic bag –> bulk oats
- Tea bags –> loose leaf tea
- Avoid paper milk cartons. They are made out of a mixed material (paper + plastic) and cannot be recycled.
- Instead, buy milk that is in a plastic jug and recycle it, or make your own homemade almond milk!
- Buy naked produce
- Put all of your produce in reusable mesh or cotton bags
- Put all of your nuts, grains, seeds, etc. in jars or mesh bags
Bulk Store Tip: to keep track of the code that is specific to the food item, you can either put the number in your phone’s ‘Notes’ app or take a picture. Then you can tell the grocery store clerk at checkout the numbers for all the items making it uber easy for both of you.
For non-bulk items, try to buy it in recyclable packaging like metal/aluminum cans or plastic clamshells/containers.
I would say that I am about 80-90% zero waste at the grocery store. However, life is not perfect and some items in landfill packaging are simply unavoidable if you really want those foods.
These may be things like chips, frozen fruit, pre-packaged food, etc.
For me, I still buy frozen wild blueberries in a plastic bag. I have yet to find a grocery store near me that sells frozen wild blueberries in bulk and that is one thing that I will still buy because I have no other option.
It’s important to note that your sustainability journey is unique to you and you should just try your best when going shopping at the store.
When you get home from grocery shopping, there are a few things you can do to continue your zero waste experience.
Step 4: Putting Your Food Away
If I buy lettuce heads, I immediately wash and cut the lettuce and put in a big container. This makes it more likely for me to make a salad during the work week and actually makes it last longer.
If I have produce in my mesh bags, I simply take them out and put it in my refrigerator.
However, I will leave my grains and/or nuts and seeds in the mesh bags. If you don’t want to do that, you can just pour them out into a mason jar.
When storing food (especially leftovers), avoid Ziploc baggies and cellophane…
Instead, use jars, containers, Tupperware, or beeswax wrap!
Other items that make great food containers are old pasta sauce jars or large yogurt containers with lids.
Although this all may seem like information overload, I promise you it is easier than you think.
Once you know what packaging to avoid, have all your bags/jars ready to go, and know where to shop, you will be a zero waste grocery shopping pro!
Feel free to download that graphic at the top if you want a refresher on what items are considered recyclable and what are considered landfill. This will help you immensely when you’re buying food.
Of course, some items may not always have an alternative option (unless you’re willing to forego buying it all together, of course). Maybe there’s a bag of chips that you love and always get at the store… to that I say, go ahead and get them! Don’t rob yourself of things you really love and don’t feel pressure to be “perfect.”
This is your journey and if you take even just one tip from this whole article when grocery shopping, then you are making progress and that’s all that really matters.
If you have any questions or feel like I’ve skipped over something vital, please leave a comment below and I will get back to you right away!
Happy zero waste grocery shopping, everybody!