Zero waste grocery shopping guide
Aiming to be zero waste in your grocery shopping routine can be one of the largest opportunity areas to reduce your waste, yet also one of the most daunting tasks if you aren’t used to the idea of bringing your own containers and bags to the store, or if you don’t have access to bulk in your area. With this in mind, I’ve had the pleasure to collaborate with Alli Cherry, who is also living a low waste lifestyle, to bring our best practices for zero waste grocery shopping in this guide.
Take a look at the videos and tips summarized below — my video above covers the 5 essentials of prepping for a zero waste grocery trip, and Alli’s video below covers how to shop with less waste if you don’t have access to bulk in your area. Before we dive in, I wanted to also list out some of the things we like to pack, or have heard of from other zero wasters. The products below are the same or recommendations of what I might use.
What I bring to shop
Reusable grocery bag - These have bottle sleeves! Great idea if you don't have a wine bottle carrier.
Cloth bulk bags (or paper if you don't have a tare system in your store)
Stainless steel funnel - to make filling up easier
Reusable containers - tiffins, jars, or whatever you already own
My five essential tips
1. Plan out what you need: It's always good to remember that it is important to take inventory of what you have. I usually have a running list of items posted on my fridge of all the things I've run out of so I'm prepared with a list of things I need to get on my next grocery trip — Alli also has a running list on her phone. It’s also important for me to know when I’ll be eating out with friends, so I don’t over buy when I'm planning for the week.
2. Prepare to bring containers: Be sure to call your store beforehand to determine if their bulk section is container friendly. If they do not have a tare system at their register (and won’t be able to deduct the weight of your container when checking out), you could end up paying much more than anticipated. I like to take my list from the fridge and plan out how many containers I need and of what size, and I will also bring a few extra in the case I want a treat.
3. Packing everything: To organize and pack everything, I have one bag with my empty containers, another bag with my produce/bulk bags and extra grocery bags, and a large bag which holds all those things. Alli loves to use a basket to hold all her belongings too. To organize the jars, some people also like to use wine bottle carriers, but I try to keep mine stacked in the bag to avoid too much clanging on the way there.
4. How shop the bulk section with your container: You can use refillable whiteboard markers, a sharpie, china marker, etc. to label your containers. Before filling up, make sure you know the tare weight of each container (weight of container when empty) so the cashier can deduct the weight at checkout. You can do this at home or at customer service/the cashier in the store. It’s also handy to know whether they charge by oz. or lbs.
When filling up on items, mark the lid of the container with the product stock keeping number and the tare weight of the container. Both Alli and I prefer using wide mouth containers as well, since they are easier to fill. Cloth bags are also a great option for dry items like rice, grains and beans. You should be able to also see in the video a neat trick we use to tie a knot on our bags to avoid spills! Also, do be aware of not putting your container into bulk bins or cross contaminating — people with allergies especially will thank you for keeping the items clean.
5. Buying over the counter: When purchasing from the deli or bakery, remember that you may be encountering a store employee who may not be used to the concept of customers bringing in their own containers. So smile, ask kindly, and walk them through if they are new to it. Make sure the container is clean as well. You can ask them to weigh the product alone, and keep your container on the side until they have the sticker printed with the price of the product, asking them to put the item in the container after they are finished, instead of a plastic bag.
Alli’s bonus tips for conventional grocery stores
1. Consider materials: Favor items packaged in paper, glass, and metal over plastic, but do know the other environmental factors of these materials — for example, plastic uses much less energy when manufactured compared to glass, due to its lower melting point. There’s no perfect material, everything has it’s impact, but consider the factors and do what you think is best! It’s also a great idea to visit your local waste facility to determine what materials are most readily recycled in your area (it varies by region).
2. Buy big quantities rather than small, individualized packages: I learned this in school when studying packaging — packaging in bulk saves 15% of packaging material! You can also find neighbors or friends that may be willing to split large items with you.
3. Bring your own produce bags and shopping bags: Choose light fabrics that don’t need to be weighed, especially if your store doesn’t have a tare system. You could also use a small paper bag instead (may need to bring your own).
4. Buy in season fruit and vegetables: In season goods are fresher, less expensive, and usually more local so are a great way to lower your food emissions, and also reduce on packaging, since the food doesn’t need to be protected if it’s coming from a closely farm.
5. Utilize online bulk shops: Azure Standard or Nuts.com may sell large quantities of dried goods in paper packaging. You can split this with neighbors, family, or friends. For non-food items, there is also Refill Revolution, Refill Shoppe, Bring Your Own Long Beach, or Package Free Shop.
6. Know how to recycle: Check Earth 911 for recycling centers near if you if your city doesn’t offer curbside on how to recycle items, and utilize store drop off programs like thin plastic recycling which is often available at Target or grocery stores. Also see what options TerraCycle is offering for tough to recycle packaging/products.
Hope you all found this guide useful, and a great primer if you're just starting out your waste free journey. Let us know if you have any helpful tips as well that you think ought to go in here -- we'd love to hear what you think!