7 Ways To Buy Groceries Without Excess Packaging

Zero waste grocery bags

One of the most common places to find packaging is at the supermarket.  Almost every item in most supermarkets is wrapped in a package these days, sometimes even fruits and vegetables.  We all need to buy food, so how are we to avoid it?

A little research and planning go a long way.  You may have to change up your grocery shopping routine a little bit, maybe invest a bit more time and effort, but package-free grocery shopping IS possible.  


Bring your own bags.  This is waste reduction 101.  Plastic grocery bags are a thing of the past.  In fact, in a lot of cities and countries, they're now banned.  Don't use them.  They're garbage.  Bring your own tote bags with you and join the modern age. 

What about produce bags, you ask?  You don't need them.  The cashier can weigh produce without a bag.  Your vegetables don't mind rubbing up against each other in your tote bag.  Let them have a little vegetable party, and skip the unnecessary plastic.  You're going to wash them when you get home anyway.  If you must separate your produce, use your own reusable produce bag.  Easy peasy.

Bulk Market, London

Bulk Market, London

2. Shop Small

I could give you a lot of reasons to avoid big chain supermarkets, but one of them is this: small grocers are much less likely to package all of their produce in plastic.  They're more likely to carry produce that's grown close to home, and therefore doesn't need to be vacuum sealed in a package to preserve it over a long journey.  They're also more likely to carry independent and artisan brands of things like olive oil, pickles, and chutneys, which tend to be packaged in glass rather than plastic. 

If you're a meat eater, instead of buying meat from the meat section at the supermarket, go to a butcher.  A butcher will not only have more complete information about where the meat has come from, but he may be willing to let you bring your own container in which to transport your meat home, rather than wrapping it in coated paper or plastic.  I occasionally eat fish, and I asked my local fishmonger if he'd mind if I brought my own container with me when I buy from him.  He was thrilled that I asked and was happy to accommodate me.  

3. Shop Farmer's Markets

Farmer's markets are even less likely to package anything at all, and the beauty of farmer's markets is that you can actually TALK to the people who grow your food, and learn about the practices they use (whether they use pesticides to grow their vegetables, if their meat is grass finished, etc.). You'll know your food was grown locally, and hasn't had to travel far to reach the market, which means it'll be incredibly fresh, and have a low carbon footprint to boot.  

Bulk Market, London

Bulk Market, London

4. Buy In Bulk (If You Can)

Things like pasta, rice, dried beans, nuts, and dried fruit are almost always packaged in plastic.  Find out if there is a store near you that has bulk food bins (use this handy bulk locator).  Stores with bulk offerings will allow you to bring your own container, weigh it, and serve yourself from the bulk bins, avoiding packaging altogether.   

If you can't find a place near you that has self-serve bulk bins, try to buy the largest quantity you can of any one item.  For instance, Mat and I eat a LOT of pasta.  So we buy a giant bag of fusilli that lasts us for a long time.  One big bag uses a lot less packaging than a lot of little bags.  Just make sure you'll be able to go through the whole quantity before its expiry date, so the food doesn't go to waste.

5. Be Okay With Substitutions

Let's say you're at the market, and you're shopping for dinner tonight.  The recipe you're making calls for red onions.  This market offers red onions, but they're packaged in a plastic mesh sleeve.  They do, however, have loose yellow onions.  Could you sub out your red onions for yellow ones for the sake of saving some plastic?  Go for it.  

You may have to switch to a new brand of coffee that comes in a paper bag rather than a fused metal and plastic one.  You may have to buy a different brand of milk that comes packaged in a glass jar.  A little bit of flexibility goes a long way toward reducing your waste, and the more open you can be to substitutions, the more waste you'll be able to avoid.  

6. Think About A CSA or Local Veg Box  

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  In a CSA scheme, you buy a subscription for a growing season, or part of a growing season.  Local farmers grow produce, and the CSA organization compiles the produce into boxes for CSA members, usually weekly.  You simply pick up your box from the designated location on the designated day.  You get fresh, seasonal, local produce, and the farmer gets a guaranteed sale.  

I'm lucky enough to have a vegetable delivery scheme in my area.  The delivery service supplies fresh produce from local farmers in a box, all package free, delivered to my door on a Monday morning.  I can order by the week or four weeks in advance at one time.  The contents change from week to week, depending on what's harvested, and I love the surprise and challenge of cooking with fresh local produce. 


Food for Thought...

Is zero waste shopping an elitist concept?  Maybe.  There's no denying that shopping at independent grocers and farmer's markets can be more expensive than shopping at the big chain markets. The responsible choice is not always the most affordable choice.  You just have to know what your limits are, and where you're able to vote with your dollars for less packaging, rather than lower price.  Everyone's limits are different, but there are some choices we can make (bringing our own grocery bags to the market) that are absolutely free.  And there are others (growing your own vegetables) that can actually save you money. 

7. Grow Your Own 

One way to guarantee that you'll be free from packaging, of course, is to grow your own vegetables.  Two things I've had a really hard time finding in my area without plastic packaging are herbs and leafy greens, so this spring, I'm growing my own in my back garden!  You don't even have to have a garden to grow your own vegetables - some will grow just fine in containers on a sunny window ledge.  

Buying food without packaging can be tricky, and you might not be able to do it perfectly all the time.  For example, the independent green grocers in my neighborhood close really early, and if I'm home late and need groceries, I'm stuck with the big chains!  Generally, though, I try to plan ahead so that I can make choices I feel good about. 

Have you identified any ways in which you can cut out some disposable packaging from your food shopping routine?  I'd love to hear your ideas! 

7 Ways To Buy Groceries Without Excess Packaging