In my opinion, zero waste grocery shopping is one of the most difficult aspects of living a zero waste lifestyle. Almost everything comes in packaging. We use tons of plastic bags, clip paper coupons, and get receipts down to the floor at the end of our visit. And this isn’t even the worst of the waste. Most grocery store waste comes from the food that we throw out at home from over buying and the food that the stores throw out to keep us customers happy.
This is one of the main reasons my focus with WasteLessThinking is a less wasteful lifestyle, rather than a waste free one. It’s also the reason why it is so important to cut down on grocery store waste where we can. Here are 8 simple tips to cutting down on waste when grocery shopping.
1. Shop at supermarkets as little as possible
To keep their shelves looking full, supermarkets will overstock product, knowing that all of it will not get sold. To keep produce sections looking perfect they will throw out any item that is bruised, over ripe, or misshapen, even if it is perfectly safe to eat. Similarly, boxes and cans are tossed when they have any dent or nick, even though only the packaging is affected and not the food inside.
I worked at a major supermarket for a few years and I can say from experience that the amount of food thrown out from these practices every day is unnerving.
In the bakery department, for example, we would bake twice the amount of goods than we would sell in a day, because we wanted to offer a full stock and plenty of options. Each morning my first task of the day was to fill a commercial sized trashcan with extra product from the previous day.
2. Shop at farmers’ markets as much as possible
So if you aren’t shopping at supermarkets where should you shop? Farmers markets.
They don’t sell only their cosmetically perfect product; they sell everything they have, even if it is ugly and misshapen.
They also have less available product overall so you are less likely to buy more than you need (unlike supermarkets that are full with all kinds of temptations that lead to over-purchasing and eventual wasting).
Most products at the farmers’ market don’t have any packaging at all. In fact, if you bring the right items with you, you can pretty easily have a zero-waste shopping trip to a farmers’ market.
3. Buy dry goods in bulk
Along with farmers’ markets you should try to shop at bulk food stores.
Buying in bulk means less packaging waste. One study found a 96% reduction in packaging used for bulk foods. The best items to buy in bulk are dry items that do not expire quickly and those that your family uses a lot of.
Try to bring your own glass storage jars with you when you shop for bulk foods to ensure that you don’t need to use bags from the store.
Bulk shopping also saves a lot of money because the price per unit is less than in supermarkets.
4. Shop for perishable items more often
A lot of food gets thrown away at home when people buy too much at the store and end up not eating it all before it spoils.
I remember growing up we would have to throw tons of spoiled food away when we went grocery shopping to make room for the new food, but my mother would still buy just as much at the store the next time, knowing that most of it would just get thrown away. And studies show my crazy mother is not alone. About 40% of the food we buy ends up getting thrown out.
A lot of food (and money) can be saved by buying foods that perish quickly, like fruit, vegetables, dairy, and bread, in smaller quantities.
5. Only buy what you need
Going along with that point, try not to buy too much of anything when you go grocery shopping. That 40% is not just made up of perishable food. All types of excess food end up in the garbage, which is probably not the future you planned for the food when you bought it.
Supermarkets can be filled with tempting displays, sales, and delicious looking foods that you were not planning on buying before you came to the store. Giving into these temptations means spending more and buying things that you do not actually need. It also means excess food will be eventually thrown out.
Write a list of what you need before you head to the store and stick to that list once you are there. It will keep your grocery bill lower and prevent excess food from being tossed out later.
6. Buy the ugly stuff
Grocery stores are always going to throw out tons of perfectly good food because it’s “ugly” and there is not much that we can do to change that. What we can do is show everyone that we are bigger than that and buy that ugly food.
When you pick around for the most perfect apples in the pile you are just perpetuating the idea that imperfect food needs to be tossed and a plethora of flawless food needs to be on display.
Remember… all apples are created equal! Instead, buy the apple with the brown speckled skin, the tomato with a hole in it, the crackers with a dent in the box, the squished box of cereal. These are all imperfections that will likely make the store throw these items out, even though they are perfectly good. It might not feel like a lot, but remember, buying is like voting. And buying only the most perfect options in the store is voting for stores to pick out the finest products and throw everything else away.
7. Bring reusable bags
I feel like this was one of the first waste-less grocery store trends that hit the mainstream. I am sure we have all seen the reusable grocery bags, so I won’t spend time explaining it. I will just say that using reusable bags can save 22,000 plastic bags over a lifetime.
I would like to add that if you do purchase reusable bags, try to find ones made from cotton or hemp, opposed to polypropylene, which is just another form of plastic. They are not much better for the environment and they are not machine washable, meaning dirty bags can contaminate your food.
8. Use reusable produce bags too
Even though we have all heard of the reusable grocery bag trend, not as many people are hip to reusable produce bags. It’s the same idea… rather than using a single use plastic bag, get some reusable produce bags instead. They save tons of plastic bags from reaching our landfills and our oceans.