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Musings

Plastic-Free Grocery Shopping Part Two

by Nick

This is a guest post from my good friend, Melanie, to celebrate Earth Day. Melanie Loftus is a healthy building consultant in San Francisco. Read more blogs from her at Healthy Building Science. Follow Melanie on twitter: @melanieloftus and @HealthyBldSci.

You can read part one of the series yesterday where she talked about preparation. Today’s post is all about actually navigating the stores!

Taring and Timing

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Taring prevents tears.

Once you have a store in your sights, it’s a good idea to call ahead and ask if they have the ability to tare a glass jar.

Most stores that handle bulk food can handle this, but not all. Calling ahead will help you avoid the “oh crap” moment when you roll up to the cash register with a jar of $16.99/lb organic chocolate covered almonds and there is no way to subtract the 1 lb weight of the jar.

Also, consider doing your first shop at a non-peak time.

It will take you longer to navigate the store as a bulk shopper for the first time, so you’ll need a little space to get your bearings. Since my first time, shopping has gotten significantly faster using the bulk method.

Also, a note on etiquette: don’t push your shopping cart into the bulk aisle. It’s annoying to other shoppers when you block bins.

Let’s Go Shopping!

My local store bins.

The bulk selection at my local co-op.

When you arrive at the store, weigh your jars and mark the weight with your crayon or grease pencil on top of the jar.

Something like “1.0 T” usually gets the point across that the jar is 1 pound. You can use the jars for dried items, or to save weight you can just bring 3 or 4 jars for olive oil, nut butters, and your meats and cheeses (see below).

The rest goes into the cloth bags. You can use your pencil to mark the bulk code on top of jars and directly onto the cloth bags–it’ll come out after they’re washed and ready for the next trip.

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Mark bulk code directly onto your cloth bag with a washable crayon.

Depending on the layout of the store, you’ll move on sequentially to produce, dairy, meat/deli, and bakery. In a large grocery store, you’ll stick to the outer perimeter of the store as you shop. All the packaged food is in the middle aisles.

Produce

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Loading “naked” produce into our cart.

The hardest part is getting used to not bagging each item of produce.

I know, carts are filled with germs, and I wouldn’t suggest putting loose produce onto the child seat area.

But as Beth Terry pointed out in a recent presentation I attended, our produce is handled by so many people and touches so many surfaces in the process of going from field to transport to display, are you really saving yourself that many germs by placing it in a sterile bag from the grocery store to your refrigerator?

Either way, it’s a good idea to wash your vegetables before eating them.

If it’s too hard to get over transporting your produce unbagged, stock up a little more on cloth sacks. You’ll need these anyway for smaller produce items like green beans and mushrooms.

When you get home, storing vegetables without plastic bags in the refrigerator is possible, but you’ll have to learn a few tricks. Here are some suggestions.

Compostable Biobags are not good for storing vegetables in the fridge, from my experience.

Dairy

In the Bay Area, Straus Family Creamery sells reusable milk containers that can be returned to your grocer for credit. They aren’t perfect (the cap is still plastic), but they are much better than the plastic jugs and far superior to the non-recyclable Tetra Paks being used for almond, soy, and rice milk.

(If you have any suggestions for milk alternatives that use reusable glass containers, leave a comment!)

I found a type of butter that was wrapped in compostable wax paper. For yogurt, Saint Benoit Creamery sells returnable containers throughout California.  And cardboard egg cartons are compostable. (Find a local dairy near you.)

An advantage of buying farmer’s market eggs it that they’ll take back cartons and most other packaging to be reused.

Meat and Cheese

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The cheese selection at my local health food store is all plastic-wrapped. They also do not sell any meat.

I grouped cheese with meat because they both require a manned counter, something you’re unlikely to find at smaller health food stores.

But at large grocers, they both work great because you can buy them in your own packaging. For cheese, one of my friends turned me on to a great reusable cloth/wax wrap called Abeego. A glass jar works too.

As for meat, I haven’t attempted this yet, but apparently presenting your own glass container makes some people nervous about contamination. Be persistent and persuasive.

Bakery

This one is pretty straightforward. If there are unwrapped bread and baked goods available, use your cloth sack to transport them home. You’ll have to get used to buying fresh bread and freezing it instead of buying loaf bread.

If you can’t buy the bread loose, most fresh bread I’ve seen comes in a (compostable) paper bag that you can reuse to store your mushrooms in the fridge.

And if you’re prone to wanting impulse goodies from the bakery, bring an extra reusable to-go container for a cupcake.

Results!

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So there you have it. I’ve now tried this shopping style a handful of times, I thought I’d mention a few side benefits I’ve noticed from the change:

  • I’m eating fresher food.
  • I’m eating healthier food (despite aforementioned jar of chocolate covered almonds).
  • I’m wasting less food.
  • Shopping is faster when I avoid the grocery’s center aisles. (Decisionmaking can be paralyzing in the face of packaging designed to influence you!)
  • My kitchen is more organized.
  • Shopping is less expensive. (I don’t know how, but it is).
  • We are getting closer to canceling trash collection at our house. We’re now using our big trash can for compost, and the countertop compost bin is for trash.

Issues

A few issues I have yet to resolve:

  • It’s hard to get chips that aren’t already stale in bulk bins. It’s probably not the end of the world if I stopped eating chips, but still.
  • At our local health food store, you often can’t get cheese, meat or salad bar items like olives without plastic packaging. I know, it’s not the end of the world for me to cut down on cheese and meat either, and it’s a good thing for my environmental footprint.
  • You have to be crafty about storing vegetables and it takes a little experimentation.
  • Stickers come on a lot of stuff at the grocery store. They are stamped on produce, stuck onto your meat and cheese purchases, and used as labels for egg cartons and glass jars. Unfortunately, these are all non-compostable non-recyclable trash. Same goes for twist ties that come on loose greens. Farmer’s markets have produce that is sticker-free, and you can return packaging each week to be reused. But if this is the only trash being produced from my grocery shopping, I suppose I’m doing pretty well.
  • Pets! I used to make my dog’s food, which is super fun and I recommend trying it, even for a bit (see this book for recipes, also talk to your vet). But I found that the time and energy involved was difficult to maintain. So, I’m back to raw food that is packaged in massive plastic bags. If anyone knows of ways around this, leave a comment!

Please give me feedback if you have helpful tips, ideas and resources to share. And if you’re just getting started, feel free to pose any questions that come up. Good luck, and I’m excited to hear how it goes!

Melanie Loftus is a green building consultant and lives in San Francisco.

Melanie and her dog, Wendy.

Quick Note from Nick: This can be a lot to take in, but I think most people would agree that producing less waste is a good thing. I would recommend (and am trying) the “perfect is the enemy of the good” approach. Don’t feel as if you have to do everything at once. Pick a small change you can make and see how it goes and go from there.

And leave a comment with any questions you have!

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7 comments on “Plastic-Free Grocery Shopping Part Two

  1. Hello Melanie!

    Thanks for including Abeego in your post about plastic free grocery shopping! I love the bit about not packing your produce in the plastic bags. I stopped using any bags to pack produce almost 10 years ago. I can’t say I have ever missed them. Have a wonderful earth day!

    Best,
    Toni

  2. Thanks so much for all the info! I do a lot of freezing and was wondering if you had any suggestions on how to go plastic free with freezing things like meat and bread? I already freeze liquids and some vegetables/fruits in mason jars but have been trying to find a good way to keep everything else and avoid using the dreaded ziplock.

    1. Hi Kat,

      If you bring your meat home in a glass jar, you can throw it right in the freezer. We’ve done that with ground meat and fish and it works very well. I find the jars do a better job than glass tupperware does at protecting against freezer burn. I don’t have a good solution if you want to freeze a whole bird or a steak–except perhaps a bigger jar?

      As for bread, Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home puts all her bread in the freezer inside a big pillowcase. I’ve also frozen bread in a paper bag, and it’s done quite well for a week. For longer term storage, you might need a better solution than this, but certainly on a weekly basis, a paper or cotton bag should do it.

      I hope this helps–let me know if you come up with something better!
      Melanie

  3. Also had no issues freezing meat in the glass Pyrex containers I have – no freezer burn. I’m not even sure what freezer burn is, so I’m not scared of it :p

  4. Thanks for the helpful information! Inspired by a documentary by Taina Uitto- ‘From the Waste up-Life without Plastic’- I have recently begun my quest to go plastic free and I am feeling a little lost when it comes to purchasing cheese. I have found a few specialty cheese shops but frankly I just want some good ol’ orange cheddar. My local deli sells cheddar cheese that I can have packaged in my own container, but it comes to the deli in plastic anyway, albeit larger portions. Suggestions? Also wondering is anyone has experience making homemade sour cream that they can pass along. I attempted my own using whipping cream and lemon (as suggested by youtube videos) and instead of sour cream, it tastes more like cream and lemon…

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