No specialty, health food store required. You don't have to drive all over town to buy specialty items. You have all you need to reduce your waste right in your normal grocery store.
The zero waste scene seems to be ripe with hipsters and homesteaders. Looking at zero waste posts on instagram is both inspiring and intimidating, especially if you are just a middle class suburbanite looking to love the Earth. The homesteading and hipstering looks so cool but also pretty out of reach for most of us. In suburban America, we don't live within walking distance of a bulk store, a bakery, and a farmers market. What are we to do?!
As cool as the hipster and homesteading scenes are, I actually like my suburban life. I really believe in a lot of the values that I see in our neighborhoods - kindness, neighborly love, hard work, and raising well-rounded kids. I also struggle against a few of the underlying values that creep in, unwanted and at first unnoticed - consumerism, greed, competition, and the throwaway culture. However, especially after outing myself through my blog, on Instagram, and on Facebook, I have found there are actually way more quiet, suburban hippies working on the same changes I am. I will venture to say that most of the folks in my neck of the woods are on board with creating less waste, using less plastic, and making better choices for the environment. The challenge? Almost all of the businesses we frequent push those unwanted values - buy more, use more, throwaway the old, buy more, again! In the grocery store, the most obvious way (and often the cheapest way) to shop is one that creates trash. However, for very little additional effort, us normal people could start making a sizable difference in our weekly shopping trip.
If your home is anything like mine, your grocery and food waste is the most regular contributor to your trash can - ketchup bottles, cans, plastic bags, grocery bags, etc. And, later, leftover food or unused food. There was a time in my life when my family was filling our big green trashcan to the brim, sometimes to overflowing, each week. We have slowly changed our shopping practices and drastically reduced our food packaging and food waste. If you follow zero waste folks on instagram or elsewhere, you will start to think you have to diy everything, make your basics (i.e. mayonnaise, nut milk, etc.), eat smoothie bowls, and make beautiful avocado on sweet potato "toasts" to have a less waste kitchen. It's all well and good if that's your jam (and, to be honest, that sometimes IS my jam), but I'm also just a mom living that suburban life. My family will try new foods, but they still love the unimaginative basics for dinner (pizza, lasagna, chicken and potatoes, chili, mac and cheese). For snacks, my kids will eat veggies and dip or pita chips and hummus, but, just as often, they would really like goldfish or chips and salsa. I firmly believe that if I deprive my kids of all things "normal" while still sending them to their suburban public school, I am going to create resentful kids desperate for commercial foods and toys. Instead, I try to create mostly green habits while allowing normal foods in our home, though perhaps a little less often than we used to have them. I hope (and pray and hope some more) that I will instill in them green tendencies without creating unhealthy anxiety about food and packaging.
Let's get on with it. How can you reduce your carbon footprint while you shop? Let's start. I will ease you in and give you this list in order of ease and how easily your store will accept the swap. Disclaimer: some swaps are more expensive. Don't beat yourself up if you need to choose the less expensive option. There are tons of green things we want to do, but can't because they are cost prohibitive (solar panels? Please.). Check out your options and plan accordingly.
Bring your own shopping bags
If you need to buy these new, consider buying a natural material (bamboo, hemp, cotton), although even buying the plastic-y reusable bags at most stores is definitely still greener than using disposables for each purchase. There is no good disposable choice (paper uses a lot of resources to produce; plastic never decomposes. Ugh.)
I shouldn't need to tell you this, but reusable bags are no good if you forget them. If you are like me and forget everything all the time, go RIGHT NOW and put a few bags in the trunk of your car. I try to keep a couple of bags in my car for last minute stops. And, if you get into the store and realize you left your bags in the car, go back out and get them. It's just a little more exercise! I also keep a bag full of bags in my mud room for planned grocery trips.
Buy your produce package free
A lot of produce doesn't really need a bag. You are going to wash it before eating it, anyway, so what's the big deal if it touches your cart? I buy the following things without any bag at all - lemons, limes, avocados, lettuce, cabbage, celery, peppers, melons, and pretty much anything else that isn't tiny and I'm not buying a ton of. I've never had a cashier scoff, so long as I put like items together on the belt.
Bring your own produce and bulk bags
Years ago, I got some handy dandy bags for bulk and produce. I loooooooove them, and the tags even already have a tare weight on them. They are durable, wash well, and come in multiple sizes. Get a few mesh and a few not mesh to start. Check out this cool gift set. Once you have your bags:
Use your produce bags!
Now, you have to change your habits a bit in the produce department. If you can buy it loose, buy it loose. Do NOT buy the prepackaged bags of apples, potatoes, onions. You can buy those babies in your own bag, and it is just as convenient. Most stores, including Walmart, have a pretty extensive selection of loose produce, including carrots, mushrooms, snow peas, and a million other things. Another benefit of cloth produce bags - most produce lasts longer stored in cloth than in plastic.
Shop bulk first - if you have your own bags
If you have your own bulk bags (or jars), hit the dry bulk section before checking out the rest of the store. Many mainstream grocery stores have at least a small bulk section with items you would normally buy in plastic. Take your time in a new bulk section to wander around and get acquainted. In general, you will need to know a few things. In order to have the weight of your bag, jar, or container deducted at the register, you will want to visit customer service before you shop. They can weigh your container, so you can mark it with the tare weight. My first time using a bag for bulk, I write on the tag with a sharpie, so I don't have to repeat this step in the future (even if the tare weight is pre-printed, it may not be in the same units your store uses. Be brave. Visit customer service). Same for jars, although it will eventually wash off in the dishwasher. Once you fill up, you will need to document the number of the bin either on your container or a provided tag/label. I often just write directly on my bag with a washable crayon or pencil. Yep, it makes my bags look less perfect, but it reduces my waste.
Because of bulk, I rarely buy the following in packaging anymore: granola, nuts, seeds, chocolate covered nuts or raisins, plantain chips, chocolatey treats, coffee - all found in normal grocery stores like Kroger and Wegmans. The benefits of bulk are two fold: 1. You buy only what you need, not getting stuck with way more than you could ever use, and 2. You skip the packaging.
Glass bottled milk
We took a while to switch to glass bottled milk, because it is more expensive than plastic milk. However, when we committed, we didn't look back. The milk costs about the same as organic milk, when you take into account the deposit you get back for the glass bottle. This is listed a little later down in our list, because it requires some organization to remember to take the glass bottles back. I keep the bottles on the floor of my mud room near my shopping bags in hopes I will notice them and take them with me when I go to the store. When you return them to the store, they will give you cash back. Note: Do not take the empty bottles through the cashier line! You need to return deposits to customer service.
Bring your own container for the meat and deli counter
Time to pull on your big kid pants and muster up a little bravery. I was so nervous the first time I requested that the deli guy put my sliced cheese in my container. Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home suggests handing the folks the container without making eye contact while asking them to put the product in your container. While I respect the sentiment, that is not my style. Here is how the conversation goes for me:
Deli person: Can I help you?
Me: Yes, Can I please have 1/2 a pound of cheddar cheese, and can you please put it in my container? I don't need plastic between the slices. [place the bottom portion of open container on counter]
Deli person: Sure! [slices my cheese, then weighs it]
Me: When you print the sticker, I will put it directly on my container. Thank you so much!
This has become seamless at my store, but it always takes a little education when trying it on folks who aren't used to it. To make it work, prepare yourself for the possibility of a "no," but stay friendly and calm no matter what. I have had luck in more than one local grocery store by stating my request nicely. Sometimes, the deli workers are concerned about food safety standards and not being able to take my container behind the counter. I calmly explain that they do not need to touch my container at all, and that, at other stores, they just slice the cheese or meat onto one piece of plastic, weigh it on that piece of plastic, then drop the cheese or meat into my container. Usually, this explanation is acceptable, but, be alert. When they print the barcode sticker, they might try to put it on an empty plastic bag for you to take with you to the register. You must catch them first and tell them you will take the sticker! I put it right on my container, and, as long as I don't press it all the way down, it peals right off when I get home.
The response from workers and other customers is usually really positive. 9 times out of 10, I have someone comment on what a good idea it is to bring your own container and save the plastic. But I have to be honest that, since this isn't all that common, yet, I have also talked to a couple of grocery store managers to get permission to buy my deli items this way when the staff wasn't sure if they were allowed to do it. I have never had a manager say no, and have always been assured that they would make sure the deli crew knows that they can place food in a customer's container.
Oddly, buying seafood and meat in my container is much less of an issue. I don't know why, but just roll with it.
Bottom line, this is an easy practice once you talk to your store, but it can be uncomfortable the first time. Plan accordingly and try it for the first time on wine tasting day at the grocery store.
Buy local products
My local grocery store carries some locally made items, and, when I know I will buy packaged, I try to choose items that haven't travelled far. While I do think it is important to bypass packaging when possible, reducing waste is so much bigger than trash. We need to think about using fewer resources, including resources used in transporting goods. I am able to find locally produced bread, hummus, cupcakes, icing, and cookies in my store. Yep, it's better to make these at home, but let's be real.
Don't buy anything in single serving packages
Invest in some small containers or reusable zipper bags for snacks, so that you can buy the biggest package that won't result in wasted food. On your hipster and homesteader blogs and instagrams, you won't find store bought tortilla chips, goldfish, and breakfast cereal. But I think we have established that I'm not that cool, and we aren't that perfect. I buy big ass bags of tortilla chips, and my kids eat them for snacks, lunches, and, on off days, for breakfast. Goldfish are a sometimes purchase, as well. I don't live a life that allows me to make everything from scratch, so, if I must buy packaging, I choose compostable or recyclable and I choose big. Instead of snack packs of goldfish, I buy the big carton and recycle it. Instead of tiny cereal boxes, I try to find the big bags of organic cereal. If that fails, I buy the biggest box I can find of a cereal my kids like that also doesn't have sugar as the first ingredient.
Save the lecture. I know these aren't healthy foods and we could just switch to fresh fruit or sliced veggies. But, as I've said before, I'm really ok with the balance we have going. I make my kids eat enough weird food and am already worried that I am giving them Earth Anxiety with my zero waste goals. I'm comfortable that at this stage of our zero waste journey they can have some packaged food, and I can feel ok about not buying it in tiny, extra wasteful packaging.
Ask before using a home container at the salad bar
There are usually government restrictions on using an outside container at a salad or hot bar. Ask before you do this. Even the greenest and local-est grocery store in our area has a sign up that customers should not use their own containers for this purpose. Luckily, they provide reusable plates, and it is easy enough to transfer these foods to your container after paying.
Glass over metal over plastic
Glass gets tons of use in my house (as drinking glasses and storage), so, even before being recycled, it gets a good life in our home. Metal recycles nicely, so, while it is still waste, it's not as terrible as plastic, which doesn't recycle as nicely.
Advocate for green changes in your store
If there is a change you would like to see in your store, tell the manager! Grocery stores are notorious for taking suggestions on what to carry in store (bulk items, glass bottle milk, bagged cereal without a box), and your voice is as good a voice as any.