How To Start Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

June 20, 2017

How To Start Zero Waste Grocery Shopping: A Guide From A Beginner To A Beginner

How To Start Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

For a long time I’ve been in the mindset that recycling was enough, that I was doing my part. Then we started composting and working to reduce food waste, which felt really good and as my sister’s sister-in-law put it, “kind of like a game you’re playing against yourself.”

All of these are good first steps, but that still leaves our garbage. We’re down to half a bag a week but ever curious, I started to wonder what was making up this waste? And is there a way to cut it down more?

Upon a little rifle, Michael told me I really shouldn’t dump it on the ground and sort through it, no promises for the future, I found that our weekly trash consists mostly of the following:

  • Plastic produce bags
  • Packaging from foods like: nuts, chips, tofu, applesauce pouches (this is a serious culprit of waste in our house and I have to stop buying them), the plastic bags inside the paper boxes of foods like gluten free pasta and cereal.
  • Rubber bands. So many rubber bands. They come on our asparagus, broccoli, and sometimes even our bunches of celery, god knows why, nature made celery bunch together all on its own. I looked up whether rubber bands are recyclable and they aren’t. I keep some for reuse but I have way more than I need so to the trash they go.
  • Plastic shrink-wrap from items such as: packs of toilet paper, the occasional roll of paper towels (although I’m trying hard to use rags instead of paper towels these day) and other household items.
  • Diapers and wipes, huge sigh. Our use of these is quickly dwindling as Noe gets closer to being fully potty trained, but we diaper her at night so that’s still 7 diapers of week. We should have done cloth diapers looking back on it all, we even talked about it before Noe was born but we were scared new parents and now there are thousands of her diapers in the landfill and it makes me sad that I was so lazy.

As you can see from this list, it’s a lot of plastic and A LOT of food packaging!

Looking at the list above I realized that the first two bullet points are probably the easiest ones to cut down or out completely.

Here’s how we’re trying to cut down our waste in these areas.

Produce Bags:

I’ve always been pretty good about not bagging bigger items like apples, carrots, onions, lettuce, etc. I’ve never understood why things like bananas or kale need their own bag. None of the below was bagged either. I just bunch like veggies and fruits together at checkout to be weighed as one.

How To Start Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

But, even using them judiciously, I still buy little foods like blueberries, Brussel sprouts, green beans, mushrooms, grape tomatoes. These require bag, bags that we sometimes reuse but eventually waste.  So I started looking around and what do you know, Amazon has about 600 different types of reusable versions for this very purpose.

I currently have 12 of them in all different sizes and brands. But these Muslin Organic Reusable produce bags are my favorites, if you’re looking for some of your own.

I took them to the grocery store with me on Saturday and still don’t feel like I have enough. But let me tell you, it felt great when we went to check out. There wasn’t a plastic bag on the belt!

Food Packaging:

I don’t think we’ll be able to avoid food packaging entirely unless we’re willing to really shift our diets. I don’t know how to make gluten free breads (believe me, I’ve tried) and I hate to admit it but I just love my chips so.

But this is a practice in zero waste, not a mission to be perfect.  

We can absolutely make some small changes and cut down immensely on our waste and still buy certain items.

So, you know those bags for produce I was talking about above?

They also work in the bulk foods section and as luck would have it, the food in the bulk section is usually fresher and cheaper, probably because it doesn’t require expensive packaging, win-win.

So here’s what I’ve been buying in bulk. Some of it was already happening but making a conscious effort to do it all here really helps reduce waste. I also like that I can control how much we buy, further reducing our food waste!

  • Walnuts, cashews, almonds, peanuts (no more plastic bags of nuts from Trader Joe’s for this family)
  • Couscous, lentils, rice, quinoa, millet (instead of buying packages of them)
  • Dried fruit (instead of buying a bag of dried apricots or a package of raisins)
  • Spices (instead of buying a jar of them from the spice aisle that probably isn’t as fresh, I’m buying in the bulk bins and then simply refilling the spice jars I already have at home.

Things I’ll be buying in bulk as soon as we run out:

  • Loose leaf tea. As soon as our current stash of tea bags are gone, I’m switching to loose tea.
  • Sugars and flours. I was buying some of my gluten free flours in bulk but now I’ll buy all of it there.
  • Tofu. It turns out that our grocery store has bulk tofu, next time I’ll bring a container for it. In case you were thinking tofu with the rice and dried beans seems really weird, not to worry. It’s not in the bulk bins, it’s refrigerated.

If you made it this far, thank you for your interest in reducing food waste and the zero waste movement.

I love learning about all of this. Challenging myself to try new ways of shopping that may feel a little foreign but is actually quite easy.

These are little steps for sure but I’m certain that the more we practice, the more we can cut down.

Just as reducing food waste has led me to figure out how to start zero waste grocery shopping, it’s extending into regular shopping as well. It has me thinking about our home overall and ways we can reduce waste in areas like the bathroom, cleaning supplies, laundry, etc.

I’ll keep you posted on our progress.



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  • Reply Heather Way June 20, 2017 at 5:34 pm

    Wow Lisa! Such a great post. I’m SO inspired to buy the reusable bags. Great tip about buying bulk too!

    • Reply Lisa June 21, 2017 at 10:51 am

      Thank you for the sweet comment Heather! I really love those bags and it’s such an easy way to be greener. Let me know if you end up buying/using them and how it goes for you.

  • Reply Afi June 21, 2017 at 10:35 am

    There are some bulk stores that have liquids (olive oil, ACV, honey, laundry detergent….) that you can refill your existing containers with. Also some with the grinding machine for peanut/almond butter. I reuse lots of glass jars for these things. Sadly, there aren’t any such stores in my new town but there are supposedly a couple not terribly far from where I now live. I just need to check them out. That requires driving which I try not to do.

    • Reply Lisa June 21, 2017 at 10:56 am

      Yes, I definitely feel fortunate that Berkeley has so many great grocery stores. The best bulk section is at one that requires driving too but I’m with you, I try to walk as much as possible if I can. I just started reusing old glass pasta jars to store my bulk items. I love recycling them. I’ve been buying my peanut butter but in the past I’ve just made it at home, it’s super easy so I think I’ll start doing it again. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Reply 7 Ways to Reduce Waste At Home: Buying Smarter, Greener + Cheaper - Makings Of June 26, 2017 at 10:31 am

    […] week I talked about how to start zero waste grocery shopping. I got a great response from readers interested in making changes and a few comments about how […]

  • Reply sassette00 June 27, 2017 at 9:08 am

    I love this post Lisa! Like you, I haven’t been bagging larger produce for a long time, but I still sometimes need to use those wispy plastic bags; I hate that they’re not recyclable! I will definitely get some of the bags you linked to and try them out! I’m also a big fan of the bulk bins, both because of the reduced packaging, and that I can buy as little of something as I need for a recipe if it’s an unusual item. Thanks, this was so inspiring!

    • Reply Lisa June 28, 2017 at 11:05 am

      Thank you Marlena! So glad you found this post helpful. I like that too about the bulk bins. Sometimes I don’t need a whole package of something. It’s nice to be able to control the amount of food you bring into your house.

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