Here’s a challenge — picture how much plastic packaging snuck into your kitchen the last time you bought groceries. It’s a surprising amount, right? Food packaging adds up to a lot of waste, from cucumbers individually wrapped in plastic to the plastic bags inside cereal boxes to the styrofoam trays and plastic film covering meat and fish.
What Is Zero Waste Grocery Shopping?
Zero-waste is a movement toward eliminating garbage by reusing, composting, and recycling as much as possible. In the grocery aisle, zero-waste shopping can mean bringing reusable bags and containers, selecting foods without plastic packaging, or purchasing items in glass or metal containers that can easily be repurposed.
Waste-less shoppers might frequent the bulk food section of their local supermarket, local farmers’ markets, or they might visit specialty zero-waste grocery stores. These stores eliminate post-consumer waste by offering bulk goods and package-less produce. Shoppers bring their own containers, eliminating the need for plastics and wasteful packaging, and buy only the volume they need, reducing the roughly 40% of all food that gets thrown out.
That’s a lot of food wasted! The World Resources Institute estimates a staggering third of all food is wasted, equaling $940 billion annually and creating 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Planet-protecting consumers like you are turning to zero-waste grocery stores to combat this problem, with sustainable grocery retailers available in many cities and online.
Why Plastic-Free Groceries Are Important
We don’t need to tell you that plastic pollution is an incredible environmental issue. National Geographic summarized a scholarly article from the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances into these key points:
- 91% of plastic isn’t recycled, which means only 9% is
- 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1960s, and of that, 6.3 billion tons is waste
- Half of all plastic manufactured is trash in less than one year
- Plastic packaging, including food products, accounts for 40% of plastics created, driving the demand for non-renewable packaging and the growth of plastic production
- Finally, if we continue on this path, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills
Plastic production’s sheer scale may seem insurmountable, but we promise you it’s not. With conscientious purchasing decisions like striving for zero waste, we can drive down the demand for single-use plastics and encourage more companies to rethink their relationship with non-renewable resources.
How To Grocery Shop Without Waste
How do zero-waste grocery stores work? Is it really that different from regular supermarkets? The answer is yes and no. A zero-waste grocery store will stock the same foods you normally buy, just not individually packaged. Shoppers take home their pantry items, meat, cheese, and produce in their own glass jars or other reusable containers. If you’ve ever shopped in the bulk food aisle, you’re already familiar with the concept.
All this might make you wonder how you can grocery shop without bringing home plastic. It takes preparation and dedication, but you can do it! If picking up zero-waste products from specialty stores is out of reach, you can still get zero-waste groceries from your local shops with these tips.
Bring Your Own Bags and Containers
One of the best ways to go zero waste at the grocery store is to come stocked with bags, containers, or boxes. According to the Pacific Institute, manufacturing plastic produces up to 3lbs of carbon dioxide per container. Not only that, a plastic bag is used for an average of just 12 minutes before sitting in a landfill (or worse, the ocean) for the next 1,000 years.
Bring your own cotton or hemp bags for fruits and veggies, coffee beans, and bulk items like cereal, nuts, sugar, and flour. Ask the store employees if they can put items like cheese, meat, and bread in the bags and containers you brought. We think you’ll find most people are very accommodating!
Avoid Pre-Packaged Goods
As the environmental impact of product packaging grows, so does the urgency with which we must change our consumption patterns. By 2050, the World Economic Forum says the oceans will have more plastic than fish. And in the US, the waste from packaging comprises almost a quarter of all landfill waste.
So how do we get from here to sustainable groceries being the norm? Many eco-conscious food shoppers opt for farmer’s markets and local sellers. For those of us who don’t have these options available, we can make our trips to the grocery store more sustainable. Try these tips:
- In the produce aisle: leave it loose, or use your own bags
- At the deli counter: avoid pre-packaged meat and cheese — ask for it to be placed in your container
- At the bakery: bring a bag or beeswax food wrap and ask for your loaf at the counter — they can slice it and pack it in your bag for you!
Buy In Bulk
Obviously, you can’t unbox granola in the cereal aisle and take it home in your reusable bags, but you can find a tasty alternative for breakfast in the bulk aisle. To shop bulk, place your empty container on the scale, and hit tare to subtract its weight. Then fill it up with whatever you like, print the label, and you’re all set!
Pro tip: bring a marker and write the item code and weight on your jar (or take a picture) to eliminate the label.
Some items are just not possible to buy in bulk (milk comes to mind). In these scenarios, we suggest getting the largest size you’ll use, as smaller sizes use comparatively more packaging. It’s a delicate balance between buying more products than you need and consuming more packaging than you need to, but remember, the goal is progress — not perfection.
For more tips on being environmentally friendly, learn some easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint.
Where To Find A Zero Waste Grocery Store
If you’re like us, you love to find new eco-friendly places to shop. Groceries are no exception! Not everyone has a zero-waste grocery store in their neighborhood; fortunately, Litterless compiles a zero-waste grocery locator. Or, try some of our favorite sustainable grocery stores:
If you’re in the San Francisco, California area, visit the popular grocery cooperative Rainbow Grocery. As a co-op, the customers choose what will be sold, with an inventory of over 800 bulk products.
On the east coast, we love Precycle — the New York City-based zero-waste supermarket selling package-free produce and bulk goods like pasta, rice, and spices.
Loop is a circular lifestyle. The online zero-waste marketplace stocks popular brands of food and household products, but in reusable containers! It’s a great way to get brands you love, like Haagen Dazs and Tropicana, and return the container for a refill the next time you shop.
Fresh Direct is an online grocery retailer shipping pantry staples and fresh produce to several states in the US — skip the car trip to the grocery store altogether and do your grocery run from your couch!
If you’re more of a meal kit person, Factor is a good option for a less-waste lifestyle. While there is some packaging involved — cardboard boxes, reusable ice packs, recyclable plastic containers — since the meals are pre-cooked, they don’t individually package each ingredient like other meal services. Plus, there is less potential for food waste since shoppers buy by the pre-portioned meal
Shopping Carbon Neutral Online
We understand that not everyone can get out to the zero-waste grocery store in person due to personal, health, or regional constraints. Fortunately, we have options to reduce the environmental impact of shipping household goods and fresh foods to our homes.
To eliminate the carbon footprint of online purchases, thousands of retailers offer carbon offset shipping through EcoCart! EcoCart calculates the carbon emitted from shipping your order, then donates a percentage of your purchase to verified carbon offsetting projects worldwide.
It’s easy to do — whenever you see the EcoCart extension, all you have to do is select “make my order carbon neutral” in your cart. Then, shop as you normally would while doing your part for the planet.
We all need to eat, but buying groceries doesn’t have to be wasteful. Every time we change our shopping habits, like bringing our own bags, buying from zero-waste grocery stores, or carbon-offsetting the shipping from our online purchases, we’re helping protect the planet from plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.