Eliminate plastic packaging from your life one change at a time.
By now most people are familiar with the idea that plastic waste is hurting our planet. With over 9 million tons entering the trash every year, the scourge of single use plastic has contaminated our oceans, our forests, and our water supply.
Efforts by people across the globe have seen cities adopting bans on single use plastic bags and straws. These campaigns have also tackled the source of most of the plastic packaging entering our homes: the grocery store.
Recent statistics show that over 40% of all plastic waste comes from packaging. By 2015 more than 146 million tons of plastic went into packaging food and other products.
In 2018, Dutch grocer Ekoplaza became the first to offer a plastic-free aisle to its customers. Soon after, Thornton’s Budgens in the UK began offering plastic free zones. In North America, specialty zero waste stores have been around since 2012, but they don’t always offer the range of products that people are buying at major grocery store chains.
That begs the question, “Is plastic free grocery shopping even possible?”
Is plastic-free shopping possible?
The short answer is ‘yes’! More and more locations offer a shopping experience that is plastic free. Depending on where you live, you may have to adjust your buying habits or shop at more than one store to meet your goal. But it can be done.
Here are some tips and information to help you in your quest to eliminate or reduce plastic packaging.
Where to find plastic-free products
While major grocery stores in the US have not set up plastic free zones, some are tackling the problem from another angle. Kroeger is one of the first US retailers to partner with Loop, an online shopping platform designed to eliminate disposable packaging.
If you live in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Portland or Washington, D.C., you can sign up to order your favorite food products online. (More cities are being added all the time, so check back regularly for yours.) Soon after they’ll arrive at your door in returnable packaging. Once used, the glass and stainless steel containers are collected, rinsed, sterilized, and reused. This great service includes brand names like Tide, Hellman’s, Dove, and Haagen-Dazs.
Walgreen’s is also taking part in the Loop program, offering a variety of its products in returnable, refundable containers.
Bulk food stores
Many shops will allow you to bring your own containers to refill items stocked in their bulk food section or deli. Some of these stores are dedicated to bulk goods. Others simply have a bulk food section. Check out the following retailers to see if they have a store in your area.
Located across Canada, the Bulk Barn has been letting customers bring their own containers for a few years now. Cashiers will ‘tare’ or weigh your container before you fill, labeling your jar or tin with a sticker to prevent you from being charged for your efforts. Bulk Barn also offers reusable containers for purchase.
A Colorado-based retailer with more than 300 locations sells reusable bulk bags and jars. Sprouts encourages customers to reuse and refill.
In many states, large health food retailers won’t weigh your container since FDA law requires them to sell items in single-use containers. (For more information by state, visit the FDA website.) But even in these locations most retailers will permit reusable bulk food bags. Although you won’t get a discount for the weight of your bags, you can usually shop without plastic waste in the bulk food sections of the following stores:
- Whole Foods
- Fresh Thyme
Taking reusable bulk bags to any grocery store with a bulk food section is worth a try, since many stores don’t have an official policy on them. For a list of bulk food stores across the globe, visit the Zero Waste Nerd.
Zero waste shops
Zero waste stores take things one step further, eliminating plastic and other forms of disposable packaging (including bioplastics) from their offerings. The goal for these stores and their customers is zero waste living—meaning no single use packaging at all. Search for the closest store using the following links:
- Zero Waste Canada put together a national database of zero waste stores.
- Litterless maintains a database of American zero waste shops that’s updated regularly.
Farmers markets across the country are another way to avoid plastic items. Vendors commonly wrap items in newsprint or place them directly into your basket or shopping bag. But don’t be surprised if farmers selling bagged items offer no alternative to the clear plastic bag. This is still in the works in many locations. Share your feedback, and ask if they can load these items directly into your own reusable bags. Find your closest farmers market by searching here.
Best packaging alternatives
If you don’t have a zero waste store in your community, you can still replace plastic with materials that recycle or compost easily. Just keep in mind that longer-lasting materials can have a larger environmental footprint if not used multiple times, so it’s important to keep them in circulation by re-use or (in some cases) recycling. The following are less harmful options.
Unless it contains a plastic coating, paper is compostable. Look for unbleached with recycled or FSC-certified content.
One of the most recyclable materials on the planet, aluminum doesn’t degrade during the recycling process. It can be used over and over again.
Another versatile material, glass can be recycled again and again without loss of quality. It’s even better if the product you’re buying comes with a deposit for return. Instead of recycling the glass, some companies sterilize and refill for the next round. Ask your local milk supplier if they offer returnable glass. Single-use glass is resource intensive.
Sustainable beechwood is gaining popularity in European products. Manufacturers make a mesh bag suitable for toting fruits and vegetables. No more plastic mesh! The cellulose fiber is soft and compostable. But keep in mind that anything single-use isn’t the goal.
Used in place of plastic by some makeup brands, sustainable bamboo is biodegradable and compostable. Since it grows in many different parts of the world, it may also be local.
Stainless steel is durable and 100% recyclable. Like glass and aluminum, you can recycle this material indefinitely. Stainless steel is also costly and resource intensive, so you’re most likely to find it in products with returnable containers or in multi-use containers (like water bottles).
Your plastic-free shopping trip: what to bring
Avoiding disposable plastic is hard if you don’t arrive equipped. Here’s a list of useful items that will make your plastic-free shopping trip easier. Choose what goes into your shopping basket based on your personal needs.
Cloth shopping bags
This is your handy, reusable bag to put everything into when you’re done. Choose bags with durable fabric and tough seams that will resist splitting. Wide, soft handles will be more comfortable on your hands and shoulders when the bags are packed with heavy items. Making sure your bags are washable is also important.
Reusable bulk food bags
Best used for dry goods, these bags have a tight weave and are generally made from cotton muslin. Organic cotton is even better. A variety of sizes mean you’ll have something on hand for everything you need. Pack with bulk pasta, flours, salt, sugars, dried (non sticky) fruit and other dry goods.
Net or mesh bags
Woven mesh or net bags work well for buying fruit and vegetables. While you don’t need to put a handful of apples or a head of cabbage in a bag, some veggies are wet and are more easily transported using reusable produce bags.
Made from fabric coated in pure beeswax, this pliable material has a deliciously sweet smell. It’s a perfect replacement for plastic wrapping and plastic sandwich bags. Take along for wrapping items like cheese, cured meats, shampoo bars, bread, tea bags, and other dry items.
It can be tricky to get bags small enough for bulk spices. And since spices can stick to the sides of a cotton bag, glass or stainless steel spice containers are excellent alternatives if your store allows them. Feel free to reuse your old spice jars, but be sure to remove old bar codes.
These are perfect for packing in moist, bulk foods like coconut oil, honey, brown sugar and dried fruit that’s too sticky to put in a bag. They’re also easy to clean and reuse once empty, and come in a variety of sizes. Just be sure your store has a system in place for weighing them or you’ll be on the hook for the extra cost.
Larger stainless steel or glass containers
If your local market sells bulk cheese or meat, you’ll want to bring along a larger metal container or glass storage container. Hand over at the deli counter and tell them to fill it—invariably they will without question. If you’re buying meat, just make sure containers are sanitized for your own safety.
Perfect for refilling shampoos and liquid soaps, glass bottles are great for shops stocking personal care products in bulk. They’re also great for olive oil.
Tips for your trip
The containers you bring are only part of the picture. Here are a few other tips to help make your trip go as smoothly as possible.
- Choose a store with package-free fruit and vegetables. Often those bagged deals aren’t really a deal at all.
- If your local grocer doesn’t have a deli counter where you can bring your own container for meat, consider visiting a butcher shop. If you don’t have one nearby and you can’t bring your own container to the deli counter, ask for paper wrapping instead of plastic.
- If your store lets customers refill their own containers in bulk food areas, choose ones without chips or cracks—and make sure they are clean.
- Wash all reusable bulk food bags after each use. Produce bags can be used a few times before washing.
- If your store has a scale to weigh containers, record the weight on the bag, lid, or jar (a grease pencil works well for Mason jars) before filling. You can even tare your reusable bulk food bags if they’re on the heavy side.
- Fill your bags and jars carefully, recording the bin number on a piece of paper or on the container itself.
- Only buy what you need. This helps reduce food waste.
Life without plastic
With more grocery stores recognizing the harms of plastic packaging, the options for a zero waste lifestyle have expanded considerably. But even if you can’t eliminate all packaging, you can cut down and even eliminate the plastic you bring home. Life without plastic isn’t far behind.
Have you found another way to shop without plastic? Feel free to brag about your success in the comments below!