We all live in different situations. Some of us have multiple natural food stores, co-ops, and even zero waste shops to buy unpackaged bulk foods. Some of us just don’t. I personally don’t have many options around me. But even if I had easy access to bulk, sometimes you just can’t justify or paying 2 or even 3 times the price. So how can you shop without bulk bins and still reduce waste?
Reduce Food Packaging
First look for completely unpackaged items. This will usually only be fruits and vegetables, although you can ask the bakery or deli to get items without packaging (by bringing your own container or bag). They may say no, but it’s always worth a shot.
When you do need to buy something with packaging, limit the amount of plastic as much as possible. Choose cardboard, glass, and metal packaging instead. Sometimes metal cans are lined with BPA, a plastic coating that can be harmful and should be avoided. There are some brands who note their cans are BPA-free, but some studies have shown the alternatives used still disrupt hormones the way BPA does.
When purchasing naked produce, you don’t need to then put it in a plastic produce bag. Produce bags aren’t necessary, and few cashiers – if any – will care if your items are loose. You can always bring your own cloth or mesh produce bags too. If they are light enough, they won’t add any weight to your purchase. My produce bag weighs a little bit, so I remove the items before weighing at checkout and stick them back in afterward.
Reduce Food Miles
Produce stickers and price signs will sometimes say what country the items came from. By reducing the amount of travel your food had to do, you eliminate some pollution from the boats, trains, and trucks who brought the food from farm to grocery store.
Also check out any local farmers markets. These items were grown nearby and are usually organic. Vendors sometimes will take back the packaging (egg and berry cartons, for example) for future use. This prevents you from taking in waste and prevents the vendor from needing to purchase more containers. Small mom-n-pop butchers and delis are also good resources if you eat an omnivorous diet as they are more likely to be accommodating.
And if we’re reducing food miles, why not reduce them to zero? If you have the space, you can start your own garden with seeds, starter plants, or even kitchen scraps (link to something on Pinterest about the scraps)! All you need is a sunny spot so don’t think you need a yard. Balconies and windowsills work too.
Packaging and food miles aren’t the only ways to shop environmentally. Organic goods were grown without harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Runoff from farms can contaminate adjacent ecosystems and waterways. Pesticides kill important pollinators like bees. Buying organic foods tell companies you care about the environment and its wildlife.
If you aren’t sure whether a product is organic, look at the produce sticker. Stickers numbers starting with ‘9’ mean the item is organic. Organic bananas always have a plastic wrapper around the stem. This is to slow the ripening process, but it’s also a good indicator of being organic. Sadly this means the bananas will come with some plastic.
Shop the Outer Perimeter
Most grocery stores are set up the same way: produce when you walk in with a deli along the wall, refrigerators and frozen on the back wall and opposite side of the store to the produce, then bakery in the far front corner. All the packaged and processed goods are stocked in the middle aisles. By shopping the outer perimeter of the store, you avoid being tempted by packaged foods. Your shopping cart will then mostly contain whole ingredients with minimal packaging.
If you must enter the middle for packaged items like pasta and canned goods, avoid wandering each aisle. Go directly to the aisle with what you’re looking for and return to that outer perimeter. Sticking to your grocery list will help prevent impulse buys along these aisles.
The Other Type of Bulk
Wholesale food clubs like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s are a double-edged sword when it comes to environmentally-friendly grocery shopping. On the one hand, buying larger quantities reduces the packaging ratio. For example, a 10 pound bag of rice will have less total packaging than ten 1 pound bags of rice due to the difference in surface area.
This larger quantity will take longer to eat and therefore can reduce the number of trips you take to the store, cutting down on transportation emissions. I can’t speak for other wholesale clubs, but BJ’s also sells a large variety of organic foods.
On the other hand, wholesale clubs have a very limited selection of unpackaged produce. The only things I usually see unpackaged are melons and pineapples. Otherwise everything comes in a plastic bag, cardboard box, or other packaging.
My pet peeve is items bundled together with extra packaging. A plastic wrapper or thick plastic ring will hold multiple normal items (peanut butter jars, juice jugs, etc.) together to ensure you are buying the correct amount and scanning the correct barcode. So for some items, wholesale bulk is a good option, but for others, you’re just creating more waste. Keep packaging in mind when buying in wholesale bulk.
Whether you can shop from bulk bins or not doesn’t prevent you from lowering your shopping footprint. You can shop without bulk bins and still create little to no packaging waste. In addition to buying sustainably, make sure to read my post from earlier this week on 12 Ways to Reduce Food Waste.