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4 Low Waste Food Shopping Tips For Traditional Grocery Stores

Earth Day is around the corner. Have you considered how to reduce your waste in everyday activities? Check out these four ideas for reducing waste while grocery shopping at traditional grocery stores. 

Thanks to Lotus Produce Bags for gifting me a set of their bags to try out. All opinions are my own. 

Earth Day is next week. While it might always feel like Earth Day here on the blog, Earth Day around the country and the globe is a great reason to revisit some of our simple habits that might have a harsher impact on our planet then we’d like.

These not-so-earth-friendly habits appear in many forms, but let’s start with one of the simplest and most routine tasks many of us perform at least weekly: grocery shopping.

Environmental impacts of our grocery shopping can run the gamut from truly deplorable to nearly free of harm, depending on the source of our food and its packaging, among other things.

Unfortunately, our food system is pretty broken. Finding food that is grown responsibly and bears a minimal negative impact on the Earth in our communities can be really challenging due to the systemic oppression, waste, harmful production processes, and more, that are inherent in our food supply chain. We need policy changes to fix most of these issues; individual action isn’t a realistic broad solution. 

We can bypass some systemic issues by shopping locally through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, purchasing from local farmers, ordering from companies like Misfits Market, and purchasing from farmer’s markets. However, not all of us have access to these luxuries, nor is there sufficient supply to meet all our demands through these “better” channels.

Four Simple Tips for Low Waste Grocery Shopping

All that aside, today I want to focus on a few simple habit modifications we can make right now while grocery shopping at traditional supermarket chains to reduce our negative impact on the planet Earth.

Bring You Own Checkout & Produce Bags

I know. I know. Everyone already knows this right?! It’s on every zero or low waste grocery shopping hit list. But here’s the thing (or two things really). 

First, most people still don’t bring their own checkout bags?! Why oh why?! Once in a while I forget to bring my bags. I get it. But even if we assume everyone forgets on occasion, most people would still have their own bags. But they don’t! 

Bringing your own checkout bags isn’t just about helping the planet and our communities. It’s about functionality. Reusable bags are sturdier, steadier, and hold more so you have fewer bags to carry. They’re so much better (even the free ones given out at various events around town). 

Also, I cringe when I see a cart full of little plastic bags to carry each type of produce. In many cases, produce just doesn’t need a bag. Doesn’t everything get washed at home? A few things, like broccoli or brussel sprouts, are much cleaner and easier to manage in a bag, but we shouldn’t have a cart full of little plastic bags that are ultimately headed straight to the trash or recycling bin once home. 

I’ve tried a variety of produce bags from different brands. I’ve also made my own drawstring bags and used other types of bags as produce bags. After all my test runs, I’m sold on mesh produce bags with tight closures. They are light and easy to use, and the produce doesn’t fall out while I’m shopping. They have tare weights on the tags or bags. They are washable but breathable. Despite trying to make the most of what I have already, I’m convinced that investing in real produce bags is worthwhile if it’s in your budget. 

I started using these Lotus produce bags and definitely recommend these. They are my favorite brand and also have a reasonable price relative to competitive brands. 

If you’re feeling extra fancy, Lotus also makes trolley bags that hang in standard grocery carts and can be used as regular reusable bags. They are pretty neat. They have extra pockets for fragile things like wine and eggs. Additionally, one of the bags is a cooler bag so it will help keep fridge and freezer foods cold during transport. 

Tare Labels on BYO Jars, Bags and Containers

The tare of a bag or container is the weight of the item when it’s empty. In other words, it is the weight that should be subtracted from the jar or bag when filled to determine the true amount of product being purchased in that container. 

Some containers and bags, like the Lotus produce bags, include the tare on the manufactured product. However if you’re using a reused glass jar, like one of these re-purposed glass jars in our cabinets, you’ll need to measure the tare of the jars or container on your own.

For light bags, I do not measure the tare. I may be paying slightly more than necessary, but the bags are so light that the difference is very tiny. The weight of a glass jar however, is much more significant. In this case, I prefer to tare the jar one time and adhere a label with the tare amount to the jar so I don’t have to measure it each time.

I ordered a set of Mabel’s Labels that say “tare” on them, and use these labels as needed. For each jar, I use a Sharpie to write the weight on the jar on the label. We have used Mabel’s Labels on the boys lunch boxes and other school supplies for years. They are awesome because they stick so well and don’t come off in the dishwasher. 

Choose Packaging That is Reusable, Recyclable or Compostable

The simplest habit change that involves no advanced preparation might be simply paying attention to the packaging of the products you buy. 

When making a purchase, consider if you can reuse the packaging. You might opt to buy something in a nice glass jar instead of a flimsy plastic alternative if you can use the glass jar for something else down the road. For example, we buy Rao’s pasta sauce, and I save all the jars. They are about the size of a mason jar, and I can easily clean and reuse the jars

Additionally, opt for cardboard or paperboard packaging instead of plastics when possible. For example, pass up the eggs in plastic cartons and opt for the eggs in paperboard cartons that can be recycled or composted. Find all the details about composting at home in this guide.

Sugar and flour often come in plastic or paper bags. Choose the paper bags and recycle or compost the packaging instead of choosing more plastic to send to the landfill. I’ve shared a whole bunch of other tips for zero waste and low waste baking that include these tips about packaging and many more.

Head to the Bulk or Unpackaged Sections

Some grocery stores have fantastic bulk sections full of dry goods, baking ingredients, snack foods, and more. If your local grocery store has bulk sections, take a look around and see if you can buy ingredients and items from those sections instead of the shelves of pre-packaged good. 

Many grocery stores, however, do not necessarily have Instagram-worthy bulk bins. But they do have more bulk or unpackaged food then we might initially realize.

Consider the produce section. Produce is not a quintessential bulk product by definition, but many fruits and vegetables come without packaging. I love the Lotus produce bags because I can grab all of my fruits and veggies that do not come in plastic packaging without pulling loads of plastic bags off of the spindles.

We can also find bulk products on the shelves. To the extent you’re in search of food that comes in different size packages, skip the individual servings and opt for the largest container you can find that you will use before it goes bad. The products still have packaging but they require less packaging (and significantly so relative to items that come in individual servings). 

Many meat, fish, and deli counters also allow you to choose just the right amount of food to meet your needs. If you’re feeling ambitious you may even be able to use your own containers at these counters. Some stores are more accommodating than others. 

Lastly, some stores have salad bar sections, mochi freezers, and bakery sections that all allow you to select exactly what you want without packaging. If your stores have these options, consider if they meet your needs and fit into your budget. 

For many of us, true zero-waste grocery shopping isn’t realistic. There are too many systematic challenges to overcome that make it time and cost-prohibitive. However, we can still significantly reduce the waste we create (especially with respect to single-use waste) by making a few more conscious or thoughtful choices about how we grocery shop. 

Do you have any great zero or low waste grocery shopping suggestions for traditional grocery stores? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

If you’re looking to reduce waste while grocery shopping, you might also like these tips to reduce food waste at home. Check out all the tips including a two page printable of ideas to try at home. I’ve also shared all about our zero waste leftover lunch charcuterie board. It was one of the best family lunches we’ve had in a while!

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