Paper or Plastic? Neither. Your Guide to Zero-Waste Shopping.
We’ve all been there. You arrive at the grocery store, only to realize that—gasp—you forgot your reusable bags. (Cue the Portlandia parody.)
I’ll admit, I feel pretty smug every time I turn down a plastic bag at Trader Joe’s (and score that raffle ticket) when I bring my own. It’s a small gesture, but over time, a significant impact: Americans use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags every year. Even though we often reuse them at home for secondary reasons, they eventually make their way into a landfill, and worse, the ocean.
UNPACK(AGE) THE PROBLEM
So, just skip the plastic bag, and you’re a bona fide eco-warrior, right? Sorry for the buzzkill—but let’s take a walk down the aisles.
Plastic-wrapped loaves of bread. Bagged oranges. Styrofoam-enclosed ears of corn. There’s a layer of packaging separating us from almost every item we purchase at grocery stores. It seems like it’s out of our control, aside from stuffing the suggestion box with requests for less waste.
Fortunately, there’s actually a lot we can do to reduce our impact. It all lies in the zero-waste movement.
BACK TO THE (ECO-FRIENDLY) BASICS
Sustainability pioneer Bea Johnson has produced virtually no trash for years. One wildly successful blog and book later, she continues to inspire people around the world to send less to the landfill. Our visit to her zero-waste home uncovered rows of mason jars, burlap bags, and organic cotton cloths. Not a single plastic bag, disposable coffee filter, or gum wrapper in sight.
Meanwhile, in France—Bea’s home country—a woman named Alice Bigorgne took this new lifestyle to heart. She opened the country’s first entirely package-free grocery store: day by day. Shelves are lined with glass jars, all chock-full of high-quality bulk ingredients. Dry pasta, beans, and other goods are sold by weight and ready to be poured into whatever container the customer brings. Only need a teaspoon of cinnamon? A cup of rice? The self-service store encourages you to take as much—and only as much—as you need. (Food waste is another problem entirely—an estimated 30% of our world food production ends up in the landfill.)
We might not have a similar grocery chain in the U.S., but the idea of zero waste is gaining serious momentum. Also motivated in part by Bea’s example, a student named Lauren Singer discovered the extent of our collective wastefulness and started the popular blog, Trash is for Tossers. While finishing her degree in Environmental Studies at NYU, she began to eliminate trash from her lifestyle. Three years later, she’s succeeded in producing so little trash that it fits in one mason jar.
Living a zero-waste life in New York City? That’s gotta be tough. For Lauren, it’s just life. She makes her own toothpaste, brings around her own stainless steel straw, and even sells her own all-natural laundry detergent through her new company, The Simply Co. Her habits extend all the way to—you guessed it—the grocery store. So we asked her to show us the ropes.
NAVIGATING THE AISLES
Lauren took us on a tour of a typical shopping trip. The destination? Manhattan’s Integral Yoga Natural Foods, one of her top picks for package-free purchases in the city. She filled up a basket with lentils, vegetables, honey, and not a scrap of plastic. Here are some tips inspired by her example.
1. Use a bag to organize your jars.
Lauren uses a bag that’s designed to hold six bottles of wine, but more often carries mason jars full of dry goods. This keeps them from toppling over and helps distribute the weight for the walk home.
2. Go beyond the bulk bins.
Many people are familiar with the pay-by-weight containers of beans, nuts, and dried fruit found at Whole Foods and other stores. But you can get so much more than trail mix. Many places sell olive oil, shampoo, or Dr. Bronner’s in oversized jugs. Bring a refillable bottle and explore the pours.
3. Shop for the next few days, not the next few weeks.
When we stock up a month’s worth of groceries, some of that food inevitably gets wasted. Try finding a store along your commute home so you can stop in a couple times a week. Buying smaller quantities per trip will lead to more realistic amounts of food.
4. Write down the weight of your glass jars.
Most bulk ingredients are priced by weight, which is why stores provide flimsy bags and containers that weigh next to nothing. While more sustainable, glass jars tip the scale. Bring an extra jar for the cashier to weigh or write the weight on the lid. That way, you can subtract it and not get charged for your good deed.
5. Download the Bulk app.
Not sure where to find a store that accommodates your plastic-free efforts? Use the ZeroWasteHome Bulk locator app to search your zip code. Most Whole Foods and co-op grocery stores have a bulk bin section.
6. Shop straight from the farmer.
We dare you: make your next grocery run a zero-waste trip. Then report back! We want your tips, questions, and discoveries.