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Plastic-Free Grocery Shopping Part One

by Nick

Since it’s Earth Day tomorrow, I thought it was the perfect time to share a guest post series from my good friend, Melanie.

She has been sharing her progress on moving away from using plastics on Facebook and I’ve learned so much that I asked her to share some advice on grocery shopping without plastics.

While it’s easier to implement some of these ideas if you live in a city, I think we can all learn a bit on how to reduce our waste (and eat better in the process). Today’s post will focus on preparation and tomorrow’s post will actually go through a shopping trip with her!

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Earth Day is tomorrow, and one of the major ways we are impacting the earth and our bodies is through our food packaging.

If you are like me, much of your trash and recycling is produced in the kitchen. The chip bags, yogurt containers, Tetra Pak boxes, milk jugs, and plastic wrappers around cheese and meat products I produce in the kitchen represents about 95% of my household’s waste.

You’ll notice in the above list, I co-mingled (so to speak) both recyclable and non-recyclable items.

Many folks are very eager to point to recycleable food containers as being “better” than non-recyclable containers. While that might be true to an extent, here are my top reasons for thinking that buying recyclable plastics is not really better:

  • Plastics are bad. The more I read, the more I understand that most plastics, including the “BPA-free” ones and the compostable ones are messing with our hormones. Keep in mind that almost all packaging is lined with plastic, including cans and cardboard packaging.
  • Recycling is Down cycling. Real recycling would take a plastic drinking bottle and turn it into another plastic drinking bottle. This rarely happens, and due to the aforementioned hormone issues, it’s not recommended to reuse disposable plastics. Our plastic bottles are actually downcycled into non-recyclable products. While downcycling keeps the plastic out of the trash longer, we’re just delaying the inevitable trip to the landfill.
  • Sent to China. I live in San Francisco, and none of our recyclable plastics are actually recycled in the U.S. It is all sent to China. The lifecycle energy costs of a single “recyclable” bottle of water, therefore, is insane.
  • Watch this. Shhh… just watch it. (Sound and depressing-ness.)

I was amazed at the impact I had on my waste and recycling by cutting back on my food packaging.

Before I get to specific tips, there are two amazing authors/bloggers that have compiled immense resources to undertake this next step, and I borrow from their advice frequently in this post:

To get you started, here is a personal account of how I’ve started shopping plastic-free and (almost) zero waste.

Preparation

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The biggest thing about waste free shopping is just planning ahead. There are a few things you’ll need to undertake a plastic-free shopping trip:

  • Reusable grocery tote bags. I won’t go into the lifecycle of single-use paper bags, but I try to avoid them because they just pile up and can’t be reused for very long. Technically, yes, paper bags can be composted, so do what you can.
  • Reusable glass jars. Quart and pint sized should do, and while reusing the jars you get from pasta and pickles is great, it’s a good idea to use heavy duty ones for hot liquids and for freezing to prevent shattering. Quart-sized Ball jars are good for hot liquids and also freeze well. There are lots of choices for glass jars that meet these requirements, however, so try a few different types before stocking up on a dozen.
  • Cotton cloth bags. Preferably organic if you’re buying new, and if you have some old (clean) T-shirts, you’ll find lots of online tutorials (sound) for making bags from stuff you already have.
  • Labeling. Ideally, a grease pencil or washable crayon to label your bags and jars with bulk numbers without using extra stickers or twist ties.
  • Bulk Grocer. A nearby grocer with a bulk aisle or a farmers market (for great plastic-free produce, eggs, and more).

This last point is the hardest part about this undertaking.

While most major metropolitan areas in the U.S. have a Whole Foods or other health food store (I definitely recommend exploring your local health food stores!), some folks simply do not have access to these types of stores.

Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home actually created an app called Bulk where you can search for and add locations where bulk food, cosmetics, and beer/wine are sold. So, check it out, then do what you can with what is available.

But don’t be discouraged–there is still a lot you can do to cut the packaging you bring home from any grocery store, just skip the below bulk tips and focus on the other tips tomorrow!

Bulk

bulk cosmetics

I recommend making a separate list specifically for your bulk shopping.

Nick might call this the first step in “meal-planning.” Basically it involves setting some boundaries around the shopping, because you don’t want to end up going home with nothing but 3 types of flour and a variety of seasonal granolas.

Here is the list I used on my last trip:

  • Grain
  • Pasta
  • Legume
  • Nut
  • Chocolate snack
  • Trail mix
  • Tea

The nice thing about planning your shopping in food categories is that it really simplifies things.

When you run out of your jar of pasta, you try a new type of pasta. I used to have a box of 3 different types of pasta at all times, and every time I went shopping, I’d purchase another, wanting to be sure that whenever I had a craving for linguine, I could have it.

But then I had pasta sit opened in my cabinet for months.

By planning like this, you get to where you can see everything you have, and you’re eating what you buy. So a side win is that you’ll waste less food.

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I really geek out on an organized cabinet.

From Nick:  This is a lot to take in from a preparation angle, but I already can identify a few areas I can improve. I hope you can do the same!

Ask Melanie any questions you might have at this point in the comments and I’ll post PART TWO tomorrow where we will actually go shopping with her and see some of the issues and solutions she has encountered!

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14 comments on “Plastic-Free Grocery Shopping Part One

  1. The plastics also present additional problems…they are a danger to wildlife! Here in Florida, the often get wrapped around our marine mammals and shore birds. I am a volunteer on call to rescue injured birds, and most of the time, it involves entanglement in plastic bags, monofilament fishing line, monofilament netting, and plastic “six-pack” rings. Anytime I do have these in my kitchen or dispose of any fishing line or nets, I take the scissors to them and shred them to the point that they cannot harm the animals after they are discarded. In addition, Florida often has protected disposal receptacles for discarded line, etc, near heavily fished areas, such as piers, docks, etc.

  2. Great tips! Looking forward to tomorrow’s post–I do a pretty good job of organizing things at home to reduce the waste, but the produce bags and containers from the produce and bulk sections of the grocery store really pile up over time. I’m looking for tips that I can use and that won’t be a hassle for the (underpaid and underappreciated) cash register clerks who have to deal with me!

    1. Hi BIll! I know what you mean. Have you tried the cloth bag approach? The grocery clerks won’t have to tare the bag, and you can wash it between shopping trips. (The only slight drawback, I’ve noticed that chocolate melts a bit in these bags, so keep this in mind if you’re a chocolate person like me).

      For supplies like this, Beth Terry has recommended http://www.lifewithoutplastic.com/store/, and Bea Johnson sells supplies through her blog: http://zerowastehome.blogspot.com/p/store.html.

    2. Many stores don’t have the capacity to tare at the checkout counter, so if you can purchase either some net bags, or look on Etsy for super light produce bags, you and the clerk will have an easier time! The links given by Melanie are definitely helpful.
      Unfortunately really lightweight bags are usually nylon, so there’s a dilemma… If the cashier can tare, use cotton bags with the tare weight on them.
      Whatever you use, you can leave the bag open, folded down if can’t see through it.
      Also, remember everything DOESN’T have to be bagged.

  3. Great post! Im getting better at this and just discovered a co-op near me where I can get anything imaginable in bulk, so Im excited to further reduce my waste. Looking forward to tomorrows post!

  4. When buying in bulk – how do they measure the weight when it’s in a mason jar? Are they able to adjust for that extra weight? Or do you put it in the plastic bag at the store and then transfer to a jar at home?

    1. When you first enter the store, bring your empty lidded jars to the customer service counter and request a tare weight. The tare weight is the weight of the jar empty which the grocer will write (in ounces or pounds) on your jar, usually by putting a piece of tape on your jar and writing the tare weight on that. Fill your jars and keep track of your bin number or the price per pound/ounce (I use the back of my shopping list). When you check out, the cashier will weigh the item then subtract the tare weight. Alternatively, you can bring some TazzyTotes or EcoBags produce bags with you and you don’t have to tare weight. TazzyTotes come with a dry-erase pen and have a tag for you to write your bin number or price per lb/oz on your item. I love them and gave them out as Christmas presents this year.

  5. Sadly our the vendors at our local farmers market put everything in plastic bag. Supposedly some Michigan “market” laws prevent them from selling bulk. Everything must be pre-bagged and weighed. It really sucks, since I take the time to bring my cloth bags to carry things. Even the closest natural food store pre-bags everything but the Frontier herbs. Geepers.

    1. I’m sorry, Lynn, though not surprised. If you’re up to the challenge, Beth Terry’s book has a lot of resources for being an advocate/activist, even on a very small scale. Sometimes it’s cathartic to write a letter to whomever you think has the ability to change those rules, even if you aren’t optimistic that you can have an effect!

  6. Love the article and I’m on board with all the mason jars. I use them for everything. Lucky me, I have a grocery store in our sub division so I don’t have to stock a lot of stuff. I can shop as I need. I never thought about just having one pasta on hand and buying as I need it. My fear of not having food gets in the way, but I’m totally going to put more thought into it. I grow my own herbs so no plastic waste or transportation there. My friend is a farmer, so I get lots of local produce in baskets we trade back and forth. I know there’s so much more I could do.

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