3 Tips for Lower-Waste Shopping

I’m excited to share with you my favorite tips on lower-waste shopping. Buying groceries in less packaging means less waste goes in the garbage. This is important because waste not only ends up in our oceans but packaging requires energy to create, increasing the product’s carbon footprint. Reducing packaging for food products is one way to care for our world and protect water sources, which also protects the health of our fellow humans.

There are impressive people out there doing 100% zero waste shopping, but it is difficult (if not impossible) in some areas. (If you aren’t familiar with what zero waste shopping is, it is basically the goal of purchasing package-free food or only getting packaging that can be composted or recycled). First, zero waste requires you to have the access, food knowledge, and money needed to purchase food in bulk using refillable containers. The ability to do this already excludes the majority of the population. The time and effort alone needed to figure out how to accomplish zero-waste shopping is also going to be a hurdle many aren’t able to cross. And ultimately, nothing is really zero waste. Everything in the bulk bins at the grocer was transported there in packaging, so we are collectively aiming for reducing waste — not eliminating it.

In light of this, I wanted to share the top 3 ways I have accomplished lower waste shopping that almost anyone can do. Here we go:

#1 Bring reusable grocery bags AND reusable produce bags

This one is easy. Most people already have a flock of reusable grocery bags lying around. I keep half of my supply in the car and half in my apartment for when I walk to the grocery store. In addition to grocery bags, I also recommend getting a set of cotton produce bags (I’ve been using these). They are perfect for putting your loose produce in when shopping (think Brussels sprouts), helping you avoid the plastic bags. They are also great for storing produce when you get home, preserving the life of the fruits and veggies. (This is especially true for cilantro. Storage tip: Put cilantro in a little cotton produce bag, run the bag under water to get slightly damp, and store in your produce bin. It will keep fresh for weeks!) You can also use cotton produce bags to fill with bulk snacks and items like nuts and grains if bulk shopping is available to you.

#2 Find stores where you can buy your staples with the least packaging

This tip can take a little time up front, but once you figure it out, you don’t have to think twice about it. For example, I have two grocery stores near me. Store #1 has lots of produce available without packaging, while the other has most of the produce wrapped in plastic. When I need to get produce, I go to store #1.

On the other hand, store #2 has pantry items that are made by sustainably-minded companies with recyclable packaging. So when I need cereals, canned items, and spices, I’m off to store #2.

Finally, I also go to a bulk store every couple of months to get foods like hemp and chia seeds. By getting the biggest package possible, I avoid buying tons of little, non-recyclable bags and I save money.

No one store will be the best for everything, so I pick the store keeping in mind the amount of time I have and what is on my shopping list. Am I mainly low on produce? Off to store #1. Is my pantry frightfully bare? Store #2 it is!

I also published a guide to low waste shopping in Chicago, so if you are my neighbor, check it out for specific tips.

#3 When choosing between products, think about packaging

We all know U.S. supermarkets are the absolute king of options. From a million salad dressings to aisles of crackers, picking between products can be quite the obstacle to grocery success. To make the picking a little bit easier, select options with packaging that either can be recycled, composted or reused.

For this tip, keep in mind what your city will actually recycle. For example, some cities don’t recycle glass, so picking glass with the goal of recycling the container doesn’t make sense.

Here are some examples of products to pick and avoid:

Choose flour in a paper sack that you can compost versus a non-recyclable plastic bag.

Select milk in a returnable glass jar versus a plastic gallon jug.

Buy grains in compostable cardboard boxes versus plastic containers.

Go for syrups in a reusable glass jar versus plastic containers.

Also, look for packaging that says it is made of recycled materials. This helps to reduce its carbon footprint as well! Again, once you figure out your go-to brands, you won’t have to think about it as much.

Do you have any tips for how you cut down on packaging while you shop?