A Beginner’s Guide to Zero Waste Shopping—How to Stop Using Plastic and Start Saving Money
Grocery shopping without all the wasteful packaging.
It’s difficult to shop for groceries — or pretty much anything else — without encountering plenty of wasteful plastic and packaging.
Many people who who are concerned about the environment have settled on the supermarket as the best place to start mitigating the amount of plastic they use. They are seeking out “zero waste” grocery stores or bulk foods stores, where customers bring in their own jars, bags, and other containers to fill up from bulk bins of everything from honey to basil to baking supplies to veggies.
Zero waste grocery stores allow shoppers to buy products in the exact quantity they need, with no plastic or cardboard packaging, thereby eliminating the likelihood of goods winding up in landfills. Full-fledged zero-waste grocery stores, where shoppers see no single-use packaging whatsoever, have been popping up in eco-friendly neighborhoods of places like Brooklyn and Denver. (You can search ZeroWasteHome.com by zip code to see if there’s a zero-waste supermarket or bulk foods store nearby.)
Many other mainstream grocery stores, including Whole Foods, also have bulk-foods sections, where customers are invited to fill up recyclable or reusable containers with only the amount of spices or coffee beans that they truly need. Every little bit helps. After all, the amount of packaging in every box of cereal, lunchtime snack, jar of peanut butter, and so on purchased by shoppers all over the world really adds up.
Although not all of us live in a neighborhood where we do zero-waste grocery shopping on the regular, there are definitely ways you can embrace zero-waste living. To minimize the amount of packaging your runs to any supermarket, you can easily invest in some reusable bags to cut down on plastic. Also, bring some reusable containers when you go grocery shopping, since you can often find bins of bulk dry goods in natural or health-food stores, or your local supermarket.
Every shopper should try to go green, and not just on Earth Day. As an added motivation, zero-waste shopping can help you save some green: Often, the unit price of bulk foods is considerably less than what you’d pay for the packaged equivalent. Another way to save is by splitting the bounty of a warehouse club or bulk foods haul with a friend or family member, dividing that giant vat of pickles or tub of almond butter into more manageable quantities.
To shift toward becoming a zero-waste grocery shopper, you’re going to need the right equipment — those mismatched Tupperware containers underneath the counter aren’t going to cut it. We hit up household savings groups on social media sites, frugal-living blogs, and zillions of online reviews to find out what you really need to have — and what you can skip. Grab your collapsible canvas totes (three for $27 at Walmart) and follow along.
A lot of people who go all-in for the zero-waste living recommend Weck jars, which are similar to Mason jars but have a wide mouth with a gradually tapering shape, which makes them easier to fill.
If you don’t plan to use them for canning, the other option is wide-mouthed jars with a flip top and a rubber seal like these. Since the lids are attached, you have the advantage of not having to keep track of them.
Of course, regular Mason jars also are a workhorse for containing your zero-waste grocery-shopping haul: They come in a wide variety of sizes, for starters. They can hold all sorts of items and keep a tight seal; unlike most plastic food storage containers, they can withstand being heated and sterilized repeatedly without warping or potentially leaching chemicals, and stains or odors won’t cling to the glass.
For keeping small-quantity items like spices or baking powder fresh, small glass jars with tight-fitting seals are the way to go. Oh, and another piece of advice from zero-waste practitioners that’s worth heeding: Spring for a set of funnels so your goods don’t wind up all over the countertop.
It might be surprising, but most people who use a lot of Mason jars say it’s usually not worth the trouble to seek them out at thrift stores. You can often get new ones for around $1 each, especially if you seek out sales — Walmart had 12 Mason jars for $12.47 when we looked. If you buy them new, you won’t have to search high and low for lids that fit (lids are frequent casualties in the secondhand market).
Fine-weave mesh bags can also be used for items like dried beans or fruit if you don’t want the bulk and weight of lugging around a bunch of jars. (Stick to jars for flour or other powdered goods, though.)
The other thing you’ll need is a way to label everything (trust us, you don’t want to mix up the paprika and cayenne pepper). If you’re using glass containers, a permanent Sharpie marker is the way to go, especially if you’re shopping at a bulk-food outlet that lets you bring your own containers. Permanent marker lets you keep the “tare” weight — what the container weighs before you put anything into it — handy for reference so you don’t wind up paying for the weight of the container. (Oh, and it’s not really permanent; rubbing alcohol will take the ink off glass if you need to remove it.)
For containers that might hold maple syrup one month and mustard the next, being able to re-label is just as important: Chalkboard labels with vinyl backings that won’t tear and can stand up to the dishwasher are one cute option, and you can get ones that go on the side or on the lid of the jar, depending on how you’ll be storing them.
People who like to not only label but color-code their groceries (ie. red for meat, green for produce and so on) recommend multicolored painter’s tape — perhaps labeled with permanent marker if you want to keep track of when you bought or cooked what’s inside. This seems to be a favorite for freezer storage, since you can see at a glance if you have the right category of food without having to keep the freezer door open and let out all the cold air.
The best part about all of this is it’s easy to experiment and see what products and methods work best for your lifestyle. And even if going zero-waste grocery shopping seems like an impossible task, there are other ways you can cut down on single-use items in your everyday life. Bring your lunch in a bento box or use reusable sandwich bags (these seriously get raves from eco-conscious folks) and pack reusable bamboo flatware — so even if you grab takeout, you can at least skip the plastic fork.
Get a travel mug for coffee, and have some high-quality reusable straws handy for drinks. If you have teeth that are super-sensitive, grab a special set of reusable straws designed for cold beverages.
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