Grocery stores in America are a wonder compared to much of the world. We have a multitude of options for almost any kind of food we can imagine. However, with most of these options comes a lot of packaging which may or may not be recyclable. Growing up in Seattle recycling and conservation are very important to me.
I recycle as much as I can but my recycling bin fills up so quickly that it’s concerning. Even though the recycled paper and plastic will have a second life, it still takes a lot of energy and resources for that to happen. Recycling can be a misleading term since most things are downcycled into a lesser quality product and only recyclable 2 or 3 times before the final iteration head to the landfill.
For this reason, I try and reduce my environmental impact as much as possible while shopping. Mainly by making most of my purchases in produce and in the bulk food and spices sections.
Nearly every type of nut, seed, bean, grain, flour, dried fruit and even candy can be found in the bulk food section of a health-oriented grocery store like Whole Foods or Central Market. And other grocery stores like Kroger and QFC are introducing bulk sections as well. Check and see what’s available nearby.
Here are some of my favorite tools and techniques for minimal waste grocery shopping!
My Grocery Store Arsenal consists of:
1. Large, 100% organic cotton shopping bags: these bags fit a ton of food and even have sleeves inside to hold containers to the side. I found mine here.
2. Open weave produce bags: 100% organic cotton, these are lightweight and expandable. The open weave allows cashiers to read the barcode sticker and the tag on the side provides tare weight. I added the tare in pounds as well. Whole Foods’ tare input system is in pounds and this is easiest for the cashiers. Pictured are small, medium, and large sizes. You can find them here.
3. Bulk spices in original jars: I cut the barcode off the label empty spice jars and use them for a bulk refill. This way I don’t have to guess what’s in the jar or make a new label for it, just use the original. Cashiers might be confused when they try to scan it though, so be ready to explain.
4. Nut milk bags: I use these for bulk items that won’t work in mesh, like flour, sugar, oatmeal, and dried coconut. I love that these ones have a rounded bottom, no corners for fine goods like flour to get stuck in! I found these 100% organic cotton bags on Etsy.
5. Big jars: Save glass jars and bottles for nut butters and bulk liquids like honey, agave, and maple syrup. Mine are from nut and seed butters and an old Bragg’s apple cider vinegar bottle. I prefer shorter jars with an opening as wide as the jar for easier cleaning when empty. To remove the labels make a paste of olive oil and baking soda. Let it set for a few minutes and then scrub off with a dish brush or steel wool.
6. Snap a pic of the barcode: taking a picture eliminates the need for a tag. I like to line up all my bulk items in the order of the pictures so it’s faster to swipe and give the numbers to the cashier
7. Mark the tare: I put a piece of tape on the glass containers and write the weight on all my bulk/produce bags. A wax pencil/china marker is another option. You can ask a cashier to weigh your containers at the beginning of your shopping trip or weigh them at home if you have a kitchen scale. If there is one store you shop most, ask what their tare input value is. At first, I marked the tare in ounces while shopping at Whole Foods. It wasn’t until I was charged $20 for a jar of almond butter that I learned that their system in pounds. The cashier made a mistake because my tare weight wasn’t automatic for her to put in. I have since updated all my tare weights to be in pounds and have had no further issues.
8. Choose naked produce: Most fruit and veg come with a strong skin, they don’t need a plastic bag for protection! Instead of sacks of potatoes/apples/oranges, pick individual pieces of fruit and vegetables where ever possible. You get a wider selection, won’t get stuck with moldy pieces, and are less likely to purchase more than you need. If you don’t have/don’t want produce bags, just let the produce mingle and get to know each other! I promise, no fights will break out. It’s ok if they touch.
9. Note which stores sell loose produce: Whole Foods has loose carrots and a wide selection of bulk, including tea and spices. All carrots and bulk items are in bags at Natural Grocer’s across the street, but the celery has no rubber band and the organic avocados are only $1! Decide what works for you. It doesn’t make sense burning fuel driving all over town to avoid plastic. But for me, these two stores are just a few miles from my house and literally across the street from each other!
10. Keep all shopping bags and containers in the car: I used to forget my bags all the time! It was the worst! What’s the point of investing in reusables if you don’t use them?! Now, after I unload the groceries I return the bags and clean containers to my car so I don’t have to remember them. They’re just always with me! If you don’t drive, keep your shopping kit somewhere visible, like next to your keys, so you see it before you leave. There are also net string bags like these that are small enough to fit in a pocket but expand to carry lots of produce!
I hope these tips help you make more environmentally friendly decisions at the grocery store. When you purchase something, food or otherwise, you pay not only for the product but also for the resources used to package and transport it. When you buy in bulk, you don’t pay for packaging! Hello $avings! You also save time as there’s nothing to dispose of!