Ever wonder how anyone can shop for plastic free groceries—no matter where you live and what you can afford? Here are some easy tips to go plastic free.
Ever wonder how to shop plastic-free? Even if you don't have a plastic-free shop near you? It's #plasticfreejuly which means more people will be doing their best to cut down on unnecessary plastic this month and maybe visit a plastic-free shop.
Our world is built on plastic, so avoiding it can be a real challenge. While I could easily go into all the reasons why it's more important now than ever to avoid it, I really don't want to be a downer, so instead, I'll provide you with some ways I try to avoid plastic and hopefully inspire someone out there.
One of the places I know we pick up extra plastic is at the grocery store. From produce bags to shopping bags, wrappers, containers, and produce stickers (which are not compostable contrary to popular belief), we get most of our waste from food.
While some of it can be recycled, packaging takes a lot of energy to produce and even though we try to recycle it much of it won't be—so it's best to avoid it if possible. These are my favourite ways to avoid plastic and packaging when shopping, and I'd love to hear yours!
Where to Shop
I'm lucky to live in an urban area that has a strong zero waste community and lots of plastic-free shops, but even if you live in a smaller town, you should be able to shop for a lot of things in bulk. Most major grocery stores have a pretty decent selection of nuts, seeds, flour, and beans in the bulk aisle.
While these major retailers aren't always set up for you to use your own glass jars (and containers that need to be weighed prior to filling), there should be no issue for you to bring your own clean, reusable bulk bags for shopping (I know a lot of people who shop bulk at Safeway).
Smaller shops, coöps, and organic markets will likely be more accommodating (mainly because of the lack of corporate red tape), but even some major retailers (like Bulk Barn which is in nearly every Canadian city) will help you tare your jars. If you're in the USA and looking for specific bulk stores, Celia has a wonderful state guide for plastic-free shops. When in doubt, just speak to your local grocery store and ask their policy on jars, and if in doubt stick to cloth bags.
What You'll Need to Shop Plastic Free
There are three main things to help you shop as plastic-free as possible.
1) It's pretty obvious and something we all have a ton of - the reusable shopping tote. The great thing about these is they are so easy to come by. I've collected a ton over the years from companies, museums, concerts, etc. They don't have to cost a fortune and can even be cute enough to use as a purse/backpack/beach bag. Because they can be an easy thing to forget, I always make sure:
- I hang a few near the door as a reminder before I leave
- stick one in my purse at all times (usually a small one like this), and 3) in the warmer months opt for a big purse like this which is great for filling with produce. The use of one cloth bag will save on average 170 plastic bags from being used.
2) Small bulk bags - there are three main types of bulk produce bags out there. Big mesh, small mess, and solid fabric. Larger mesh ones are designed for veggies (think lemons + lettuce) while the fine mesh ones are for items you'd find in the bulk aisle (nuts + seeds), and solid fabric for items like flour, sugar, and other tiny particles.
I find the small mesh ones to be the most useful while the larger mesh ones less so (I don't really have a need to put broccoli in a bag). If reusable isn't an option, choose paper. A plastic produce bag will take 500 years to decompose (while leaving plastic particles in the soil and water) while paper will take 4-5 months.
3) Glass jars- perfect for buying bulk in, but if your store doesn't accept the use of glass jars, you'll still need them for food storage at home. To be fair, not all glass jars are created equally. I like Weck jars for their look, but in all honesty, the plastic seals stretch and lose shape, meaning they are only good for dry ingredients (I now use them without the seals and they are prone to leaking). Ikea sells affordable jars that I love for items like flour and nuts, but my favourite would have to be classic mason jars. They are affordable, accessible, don't leak, and versatile. Plus if you're not a fan of the lid there are a ton of options to switch them out.
How to Shop Plastic Free
If your market allows the use of jars (speak to customer service) you'll need to tare it. Some bulk stores will do this for you, so no worries if you don't have a scale at home. Once you know the weight on your jars, keep it written down for future trips -I like to have the weight on a sticker placed on the bottom of the jar. Most bulk bags don't weigh enough to worry about, but good brands will provide the weight of the bag on a label inside.
Shopping plastic-free is really not much different than the shopping many of us are used to. When buying bulk items and produce, fill your jars and mesh bags with items just as you would plastic bags. When it comes to writing down the product number try either using a scrap of paper (like an old receipt), or use the "note" function of your phone (example - red lentils #1006). If you're using jars, you can use a grease pen to write the bin number on the lid.
For buying produce, again use the mesh bags as you would plastic. For 99% of my produce, I skip bags altogether and just toss the veggies in my cart. I usually use bags for mushrooms, loose greens + sprouts, and small items like turmeric and hot peppers. I've never had issues with not using bags for produce, but be sure to group your items (like all the lemons) at the till to help the cashier.
If you buy items like deli goods or meat, check with the teller because I know some grocery stores even allow you to use your own containers for those items.
Choosing What to Buy
I try to live by the old idea of shopping the perimeter of the grocery store which is not only the less processed ingredients but the less packaged. Most veggies can be purchased packaged free, but some (like berries, cucumbers, cauliflower and baby greens) often come in plastic. For this reason, I try to avoid them and instead get them at the farmers market or buy alternatives (heads of lettuce over baby greens).
We're definitely not at that stage in shopping where we don't have packaging (a girl needs her chips), but we do make a conscious effort to avoid certain packaging. If there isn't access to items like bulk flour and cooking oils, instead look for ones packaged in a paper (be careful it's not plastic lined) or glass. Items like tinned beans and tomatoes are essential to have on hand for emergencies but again look for brands that are BPA free.
For a general rule, you can always get these items in bulk:
- Spices (in some stores)
- Dried Fruit
For items that you cannot get bulk,
- Look for packaged foods in the glass over plastic. If tin (not BPA lined) and glass are the options, choose tin over a glass.
- If loose tea isn't available, look for tea that has compostable tea bags (a lot of brands contain plastic)
- Buy seasonal produce like berries in the summer and freeze for winter use.
- Choose items packaged in paper. Be careful plastic packaging isn't hidden inside.
- Avoid individually packaged items. Example: choose large tubs of yoghurt over singer serving.
- Try to make your own alternative to packaged items. Example: almond milk, nut butter, mayo, mustard, tahini.
- Look for bread in paper over plastic. This might mean going to a bakery instead of the market. Some bakeries will also allow you to use cloth bags over paper or plastic.
How to Store Your Plastic Free Groceries
Most people use plastic bags at the grocery store to ensure that their produce stays fresh, but there are a few things you can do at home to keep food crisp. First, transfer all bulk bin items to glass jars. Items like nuts should be stored in the fridge so they don't go rancid. Most other things can be stored at room temperature.
For items like lettuce, kale, and leafy greens I prefer to wash them when I get home then store in a large container in the fridge lined with a tea towel to absorb the extra liquid. I like to do the same with berries (except raspberries which I rinse right before eating). Items like carrots, broccoli, beets, fennel, peppers, asparagus, etc. do well stored as is loose in the crisper drawer.
Larger veggies like cabbage don't need to go in the crisper and are fine stored on the fridge shelf. Softer veggies like avocado, tomatoes, as well as garlic, potatoes (and yams), squash, garlic, ginger, and turmeric are great stored in a bowl or basket on the counter. Same goes for fruits like apples, pears, citrus, mangos, papaya, bananas, pineapple, uncut melon, and other tropical fruits.
Hard fresh herbs (like rosemary, thyme, and sage) do well stored in the crisper drawer. If you don't go through them very fast I'd place them in a glass container on the shelf. Basil is best washed and storied like lettuce, while cilantro and parsley can be loosely wrapped in a slightly damp tea towel and placed in the crisper drawer. I know a lot of people who like placing their herbs in jars or water, but I find they go slimy quickly.
Bread should never go in the fridge (moisture is bread's enemy), but instead should be stored on the counter. If I'm buying bread I always choose unsliced over sliced as it lasts longer. For best results, keep the sliced side of the loaf down on a cutting board to wrap in beeswax wrap. A good sourdough should last at least 5 days wrapped in a beeswax wrap.
Looking on what to buy? Check out my guide on how to stock a pantry!