Shopping zero waste sounds like a mammoth task and on instagram appears like one that only takes place in unpackaged food stores and at high end farmers markets, but that’s not really the case.
Zero waste food shopping is just about making the best choices you can with each food item to reduce waste, including the waste from producing it, transporting it, packaging it, and you travelling to buy it. It’s not always simple so we’re just trying to make the best decision we can.
For example, local produce will be transported fewer miles so will have less emissions on transportation but other places may be able to grow these products more sustainably with fewer emissions in production.
It’s just about making the best decision with the options we have!
It seems like supermarkets nowadays seem to try to stuff every fruit and vegetable into plastic, no matter if they have their own skin, but often there are loose available. I would shop around a few shops near you, including farmers markets or local markets, to see what is available as it can vary hugely with brand and location. Obviously don’t go too far, especially if you’re driving or the impact of avoiding the plastic becomes overshadowed by the emissions of the transport to get there. But if you are able to try out a couple, learn what each one offers and which gives you more capacity to buy packaging free. Sometimes it can be more expensive so if you need, start with the produce that is the same price or cheaper and work from there. Some shops will offer paper bags instead of plastic but this is still a single use product and requires trees to be cut down so if you need a bag to keep everything together, think about bringing a reusable one of your own from home.
Meat, fish and dairy can also be found with varying degree unpackaged. Some supermarkets are okay with you bringing your own containers to the meat/fish/deli counters for these products but others refuse, so give it a go and see whether, when you explain nicely that you’re trying to cut down on waste for the environment, they will let you use it. Often butchers and fishmongers are more happy for you to use your own container.
It’s a weird way to describe them, but in general, wet products are harder to find in bulk than their dried equivalent, which makes sense in terms of food safety and hygiene. However there are still options when shopping to avoid packaging especially plastic. Tins and glass are more readily recyclable alternatives to plastic which is down-cycled instead of recycled. However these come with their own problems. Glass is very heavy to transport so can have a bigger carbon footprint associated with it. Tins are lighter but can deceptively be lined with plastic, and also there is a large environmental impact of mining for aluminium. There’s no one perfect solution when buying these products so you need to just try to make the best decision you can with the options available to you and the price.
If there is dried produce that you can’t get at a bulk store then similar considerations apply for these as for wet products. However dried products may also be available in paper and cardboard packaging - like oats in a paper sack. These still come from trees and are a single use item but in some situations may be better than the alternatives. Unfortunately we are sometimes still stuck with products in plastic, whether this is due to availability of unpackaged stores, no alternative packaging, or even things like financial cost which still play a big part in decisions even in a zero waste life. In these situations I just try to work out what the best possible option is. If that kind of plastic can be recycled in your area then it may be better than buying a plastic that cannot. Either way, I recommend buying in the largest quantities you can find (and will eat as to avoid food waste) as it reduces your waste and usually saves you money to help with other zero waste swaps. This is a valid way to shop and I would recommend it if you get to this stage.
Shopping at a bulk unpackaged store:
If you have access to a bulk unpackaged store then this is a great way to reduce waste - although you will not be cutting it out completely as the food still needs to arrive at the shop in some sort of packing, usually in large paper sacks, or reusable containers.
The premise behind an unpackaged store is that you buy the products loose, but obviously you’ll need something to carry the products home in. There are different options here, like glass jars, old Tupperware or cloth bags, and you will need to find what works for you. If you would like more details, I have a post about how to shop in an unpackaged store.
Shopping unpackaged is a great way to supplement what you already eat with packaging free alternatives. However only buy products you will actually cook with and eat or else you will just contribute to food waste. I for instance know that at this point in my life am not organised enough to soak dried beans or chick peas before use so buying them would be a waste. I now either buy chickpeas in tins or I swap these foods for ones that can be cooked without soaking, like lentils.
Other things to consider:
Eating less animal products in general reduces the impact of your diet. To reduce your impact you do not need to necessarily decide to fit in with one particular dietary label, but by reducing the amount of animal products you consume, you will reduce your impact. To what end you are able to do that is personal, and all these changes need to be sustainable for you so you can continue them into the future. Some dietary problems or illnesses may make this unattainable. Of course this doesn’t address any ethical concern about the consumption or use of animals but that is outside the scope of this particular article.
Travelling long distances in a car to any food shop will add on increased emissions to your foods, even if produced locally so try to get public transport, or buy in big quantities so you don’t need to make that journey very often. I buy very little from supermarkets now and most of it is tinned goods or food in glass. In London I usually get the bus to the local big supermarket and therefore can’t carry much home. Because of this I have started to do a BIG online food shop a couple of times a year as I am able to get delivered in one journey what would take me many individual journeys. Getting it delivered does have greater emissions than if I get the bus for half an hour every week, but it is more sustainable for me as it saves me money and reduces the chance of me needing to run to the local store where the packaging options are much more limited.
See, it’s not about perfection. It’s about making the best decisions for you, with the options you have in front of you, in the life you’re currently living.