When you buy groceries, there is a lot of waste. You get the food home and then throw away all those plastic bags, wrappings, boxes, and other materials that were used to package your items.
Plus, it’s often difficult to find recyclable containers for leftover items like yogurt or salad dressing. But you can do something about this problem by following the 21 tips for zero-waste grocery shopping we describe right here in this article.
What is zero-waste grocery shopping?
Zero-waste grocery shopping is the practice of buying only what you need and using every part of it. This includes trying to avoid the waste created by grocery stores, such as plastic bags and petroleum-based packaging materials like styrofoam and paper sacks.
Over the last few years, people have become increasingly aware of the waste that’s created by getting groceries. Some consumers are now doing away with traditional grocery shopping and instead of participating in a growing trend towards buying food from bulk bins at health food stores and other retailers.
Here you can purchase only the amount of food you need and put it directly into your own container or bag. You can buy as much or as little as you want so there is less chance to overbuy and throw away uneaten food.
If using reusable bags, many retailers will even credit you for bringing your own bags—and some cities provide biodegradable plastic bags for customers who forget their own shopping bags.
You don’t have to do all of your shopping this way. But try to bring reusable bags and containers when you go to the grocery store. That way, you can cut down on packaging and reduce overall waste.
What are zero-waste shops?
Zero-waste shops are stores that don’t use any disposable or recyclable packaging. You bring your own reusable bags and containers to the store, fill them up with food, and then take them home without creating extra waste.
The term “zero-waste shopping” is also sometimes used as a catchall phrase for several different types of shopping practices. For instance, it might refer to going to a traditional grocery store but using less plastic by asking for fruits and veggies not to be bagged, bringing your own container to the deli counter for meat products that typically come wrapped in wasteful packaging, or asking about whether a product has any recyclable cartons before buying it.
You might hear the term zero-waste shopping being used interchangeably with terms like bulk shopping or bulk buying, where you buy food from bins so you can get the exact amount of food you need. In this case, it might be packaged in a paper bag instead of a plastic bag—but it’s still packaging that you would not have to clean out and recycle or throw away.
Is plastic-free shopping possible?
Many people who go zero-waste grocery shopping don’t use any plastic at all. If you forget your reusable bags, then you might have to buy some new ones or just carry your items in your hands or arms.
It might take a little practice, but it certainly is possible to not use any plastic when grocery shopping. Just be sure to take what you need with you the next time so that you don’t forget anything.
21 Tips for zero-waste shopping
1. Bring your own bags/containers/boxes
This is the easiest way to reduce packaging. Just don’t get anything that will end up thrown away—and if you forget, you can always buy some reusable bags from the store.
If a store offers credit for bringing your own bags, consider asking them how they would prefer you bring them in. Some stores might need you to bring your own grocery bags while others accept all types of reusable bags and bins.
2. Buy lemons/limes without plastic
Lemons and limes are typically sold with a plastic wrapping around their stems even though stem removal isn’t necessary before eating or cooking with the fruit inside. To get around this problem, just ask for no bag when buying lemons and limes at the grocery store. Plus, you might save a few cents in the process.
3. Look for unpackaged produce at your local farmer’s market
If you don’t have access to any bulk bins in the grocery store, then check out your local farmer’s market or community-supported agriculture (CSA) program to buy unpackaged fruit and veggies.
The prices should be lower than at a traditional grocery store—and you can ask about which fruits and veggies aren’t sold with packaging when they’re not available in bulk bins. Plus, by supporting small farmers, you’ll help keep food dollars close to home and lessen one’s carbon footprint.
4. Buy loose meat/cheese from the deli counter
Instead of buying shrink-wrapped meat and cheese, just ask for unpackaged deli items.
For example, if you’re looking for some chicken breast at the grocery store, you could go to the deli counter and ask them to either put it in your own container or give it to you without extra packaging.
5. Get milk/juice in returnable glass bottles
Many people who are trying to reduce their environmental impact steer clear of buying milk because there’s always plastic involved (both around the carton itself as well as inside the cap).
However, this isn’t true if your local store offers milk in returnable glass bottles—in other words, containers that can be washed out at home and refilled again and again (rather than recycled).
6. Shop at bulk food stores
There are a number of different products you can find at bulk food stores—and not having to buy them in wasteful packaging might lead you to even try some new foods.
For example, instead of buying a kid-friendly cereal that comes in a colorful box and includes plastic produce bags inside the box, pick up a container of oatmeal from a bulk bin.
This way, there’s no plastic bag or cardboard box that will end up thrown away after opening it. This is an easy way to keep your family healthy while reducing waste.
7. Buy produce grown locally rather than imported
Imported produce often has more packaging—and if’s conventionally grown (i.e. not organic), then there’s usually a variety of chemicals involved in growing it.
Instead, buy locally grown fruits and veggies that come unpackaged—and if you’re visiting an international grocery store or farmers’ market, then be sure to find out where the produce was grown before buying it.
8. Avoid products with packaging that isn’t recyclable
Some types of products come wrapped in paper (which can be recyclable) while others are provided with their own individually-wrapped plastic produce bags (and other non-recyclable items).
If you want to make sure you’re reducing your waste as much as possible, then look for the products that involve the least amount of packaging.
9. Don’t buy meat or seafood in Styrofoam trays
Rather than buying meats and seafood wrapped in plastic-lined foam trays, look for items that are packaged with waxed cardboard instead.
Styrofoam is extremely slow to decompose and doesn’t break down in an industrial composting facility (unlike waxed cardboard, which can be recycled). The dangers of Styrofoam also include toxic chemicals that can leach into the food, contaminating it and potentially poisoning anyone who eats it.
10. Don’t buy bottled water or soda
If you’re like most people in the U.S., then your grocery list probably makes sure to include a bottle of water and a candy bar—but these items often come wrapped in wasteful plastic packaging (or with plastic caps).
Instead, bring your own reusable bottle when buying water and make drinks like lemonade or juice at home to avoid buying them prepackaged. Soda is one of the biggest sources of unnecessary waste for Americans because much of the beverage gets thrown away after just one use—and this includes both cans and plastic bottles.
11. Limit meat/dairy intake
If someone follows a vegan diet rich in whole grains and beans, then their grocery shopping can be zero-waste.
However, this isn’t always the case for meat-eaters—so when you do have to buy meats or dairy products, try limiting your intake so that it’s not wasteful to buy in excess.
An easy way to reduce how much waste is generated from your grocery shopping is by buying less meat/dairy and trying new recipes to use up fresh veggies that would’ve ended up in the trash otherwise!
12. Watch out for excessive packaging surrounding produce
For example, a bag of clementines may come wrapped in a plastic pouch with a cardboard box around it—which means the individual pieces of fruit won’t be touching each other during transit to the grocery store (which results in bruising).
Some stores also offer reusable mesh bags that you can use to carry your items home in, rather than using wasteful plastic bags.
13. Rinse and reuse plastic containers
Sometimes plastic containers are simply unavoidable, especially for items like yogurt or cottage cheese.
In this case, simply be sure to rinse it out and use it again as a storage container once the product has been consumed—or if you’ve run out of a useful item, then put the empty containers back in your recycling bin instead of throwing them away. This way, they can still be recycled rather than turned into waste after one use.
When using a plastic bag from a store, wash it out and reuse it as a trash bag or lunch box.
14. Buy at least 2 things without any packaging at all
For example, a bunch of bananas or a block of cheese.
By doing this every time you grocery shop, you’ll be helping to reduce the amount of waste that stores produce—and it will help incentivize them to stop using wasteful packaging in the future.
This is a good way for companies to start making their products more environmentally friendly.
In addition, see if there are any local farmers who offer their goods without packaging so that they can be purchased directly from them. It’s often cheaper and more sustainable than buying prepackaged items from a store!
15. Buy loose, unpackaged items first
This tip can help make a store’s packaging less wasteful by putting the loose items first, which you’ll be picking up before buying anything that comes in a package.
If the store doesn’t have any unpackaged produce or products, then simply buy from another one that does—and keep your reusable bags and jars with you so that they’re always readily available.
16. Take your time to shop for food items
If you’re in a rush to get to the store, then you may end up throwing items into your buggy that are wasteful—for example, buying individual servings of yogurt or juice.
When grocery shopping, take your time and think about how many things you really need so that there are no unnecessary purchases. It may help to have a list of the things you need to have prepared ahead of time!
17. Make a list before shopping to reduce impulse purchases of unnecessary items
Instead of throwing packaged, prepackaged snacks into your cart or grabbing a juice box because it’s convenient—try making a list so that you only buy the things you need.
This also helps to keep frozen and fresh items separate in your buggy, which can help you remember to take the right things home with you and reduce waste. Remember, it’s important to keep your frozen and fresh items separate so that they don’t get ruined while you’re transporting them home!
18. Buy foods in their whole form if possible, instead of pre-packaged products
One of the best things you can do for reducing waste is to buy groceries in their whole form whenever possible. For example, buy a whole loaf of bread instead of pre-sliced packets—which often come wrapped in plastic and will be disposed of after opening.
This tip can also help your wallet since buying whole foods is often cheaper than pre-cut items!
19. Learn to love your freezer
By freezing food that would otherwise spoil if not consumed quickly, you can extend its life—which is good for both your wallet and the environment.
For example, instead of letting fruits or vegetables go bad before using them up, freeze them so they can be used later on down the road.
However, make sure that your freezer is compliant with environmental standards to prevent releasing too many greenhouse gases.
20. Pick up reusable containers and jars for storage
Many stores offer reusable containers for fruits and vegetables, so see if they have any in stock before picking up prepackaged items.
If there aren’t any at the store you’re shopping at, then simply save your own plastic containers or jars—and remember that you can use them later when putting products into your cart.
21. Tell grocery stores about your zero-waste shopping preferences
It’s better for the environment to only buy what you need rather than overbuying.
So, let stores know about your shopping preferences by filling out a comment card or contacting customer service—and express that you’d appreciate it if they took into account any concerns you have about packaging waste.
This will help them make their products more eco-friendly for future customers.
6 packaging alternatives to make your shopping zero waste
Glass is a good alternative to plastic and other kinds of packaging because it’s reusable and can be sterilized easily.
This is helpful because it means glass containers don’t have to be disposed of after using them once—or else they won’t accumulate waste in the environment.
So, if you happen to see a food item in a glass container, then it’s a good choice since you can use it multiple times and then recycle it to help reduce waste.
Unlike plastic, paper containers are biodegradable—and thus won’t harm the environment while they’re sitting in a landfill for too long.
These kinds of packaging come in handy when bringing lunches from home and storing food—such as crackers, chips, and even cereal.
If you can’t find any paper packaging at the store itself, then it’s easy to order containers online or just save your own from previous trips.
Stainless steel containers are the best kind of packaging because they’re durable and can be re-used and recycled several times.
These kinds of products also come in a range of sizes, so you can find ones that fit what you’re buying—and some even come with their own lids!
They won’t decompose like paper or break like glass, so they’re perfect for multi-purpose storage.
Bee’s Wrap is a great alternative to plastic since it’s made from organic cotton and beeswax—so you can wrap up meats, fruits, veggies, cheese, sandwiches, and any other items without adding extra waste.
The wax coating will help keep out pests and prevent moisture from getting into the food—and it’s reusable, easy to clean, and won’t contain any harsh chemicals.
So, if you’re looking for a sustainable way to store food at home or on the go, then this is perfect since it can be used over and over and won’t add more waste.
Beechwood baskets are another reusable option since they can be used to store fruits and vegetables—which is better for the environment than having to purchase produce in prepackaged bags.
You can also use these to bring your own containers of food into grocery stores, restaurants, and cafes—which will cut down on waste compared to if you were to buy something in disposable packaging.
Bamboo is extremely sustainable since it’s eco-friendly, lightweight, durable, and can be used to make utensils—which are helpful for when you want to bring your own lunch with you.
There are tons of bamboo products available online if you’re looking to replace plastic kitchenware with something more sustainable.
And many dishes you can buy now come with their own bamboo steamers or utensils, so it’s even that much easier to make your groceries zero waste.
3 things to avoid while grocery shopping
Owning reusable containers isn’t the only way to reduce your waste.
There are also certain items that aren’t sustainable—which is why it’s important to avoid them whenever you can so you can keep your carbon footprint low.
These kinds of items are made out of plastic or other kinds of waste that could either end up for hundreds of years in landfills, get stuck in the ocean, or be harmful to animals.
So, it’s best to carry around your own reusable versions so you won’t have to buy more when you need them.
Pre-packed sandwiches are likely to have tons of plastic, chemicals, and other non-sustainable materials in their packaging.
Or they may be in a paper container that can’t be recycled—and again, it’ll take hundreds of years for the paper to decompose instead of breaking down quickly like it would if you just brought your own sandwich in a reusable container.
You may be tempted to purchase these kinds of items because they’re already prepped—but don’t fall for the convenience trap.
Since it’s more likely that you’ll have to use more plastic bags when purchasing produce in smaller portions, it’s best just to cut your own so you can reduce waste and save money.
There’s a lot you can do to reduce your grocery shopping waste.
And by making sure that you’re only buying sustainable products, bringing your own containers where possible, and avoiding certain items when you go to the store, you’ll be able to make every trip zero waste.