5 Essentials for a Zero-Waste Shopping Kit

In order to run my zero-waste kitchen, I need to plan my shopping trips a bit. Before heading to the farmer’s market or grocery store, I take a look at the running shopping list on my phone and add a few things we might need. List in hand, I gather my zero-waste equipment. The list helps me figure out what I’ll need and while shopping, I stick closely to it.

zero waste kit
Simple zero-waste shopping supplies: glass jars and bottles, metal containers, cloth shopping bag, cloth produce and bulk bags

1. Glass jars

bulk Guelph
How to discourage single-use packaging

I use my glass jars at the bulk bins. Get the weight on these before you fill them up. At some stores, customer service will weigh them for you and mark the tare on them. Other stores set out scales and you weigh the jars yourself. The cashier will deduct the weight of the jar from your food when checking you out so you pay for weight of the food only. Lately I’ve been taking jars to the farmer’s market for berries. That way I bring home whole fruit rather than jam 😉

The pic above comes from a health food store in my daughter’s university town, Guelph, Ontario. Stone Store doesn’t charge for all packaging but it does charge for nut butter containers, which I find brilliant. How many students will forget a jar at 50 cents a pop? And who doesn’t own a glass jar? Look in the recycling bin if you need to. Check out the sign in the top left: “You can bring your own containers!” So smart! On social media, I have not-so-subtly suggested to Bulk Barn, a Canadian chain of bulk stores, that it allow customers to bring their own containers but I always hear the same response: “No way!” (Update: Bulk Barn began to allow customers to use their own containers in 2017.)

2. Metal or glass containers

I use these for meat, cheese (if I can find it) and doggy bags in restaurants. Life Without Plastic carries all sorts of different metal containers (and other great plastic-free wares like cloth shopping bags and produce bags), including LunchBots (the top open container in the pic of my zero-waste supplies near the top). The butchers at my Whole Foods store actually thank me when I bring a container (this was not always the case). Still, meat and cheese just about drive me over the edge. I have trouble finding responsibly raised meat without packaging. If you go zero-waste and plastic-free, think about eating lower on the food chain (think about it regardless).

3. Bottles

2014-04-20 16.07.53
Bulk oils at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco
2014-04-20 15.33.03
Bulk shampoo and conditioner at Rainbow

I am spoiled living in Northern California (and not for the weather only). I can buy olive oil in bulk and so many other liquids! My kids prefer shampoo to my baking soda/homemade scrap vinegar hair care routine, so I buy that in bulk for them. I quickly learned to use stubby bottles for shampoo and conditioner. The long-necked bottles clog up and take forever to fill. Or course all of this stuff does arrive at the store in giant plastic containers. Although I do generate waste shopping this way, these large bulk items dramatically reduce packaging overall.

4. Cloth produce bags

shopping essentials bags 07.28.14
My VERY simple cloth produce bags; I specialize in easy

I use these cloth produce bags for buying fruits and vegetables and sometimes for larger items at the bulk bins, such as oats, nuts and dried fruit. I support plastic bag bans but they do not address the massive amounts of plastic going into the bags, such as plastic produce bags. I sew VERY simple cloth produce bags, the same size and shape as the plastic ones and I simply tuck these into my cloth shopping bags so I always have them on hand. When my bags get dirty, I toss them in the washing machine. In the pic of my zero-waste supplies near the top of this post, you’ll see a grey bag, which I made from the leg of worn-out linen pants that had drawstring hems.

5. Cloth shopping bags

Meg's bag

The reusable bags made of plastic wear out quickly and wind up in landfill along with their flimsy predecessors. Heavy canvas or cotton works well. If you have a very talented and generous friend like Mrs. M to crochet you a gorgeous bag like the one above , you can open it up with a flourish as I do (it forms a little ball when not in use) and outdo everyone at the farmer’s market or store with your bag-fashion sense. (Here’s the pattern for this beautiful bag.)

6. But-wait-there’s-more bonus items!

If you have planned a long trip with several stops, bring your travel mug, a napkin and real utensils. All that shopping can make you hungry and if you want a cup of tea or snack, you’ll be prepared.

Warning: Do not aim for perfection

fat container

Occasionally, you may fail. It happens. I took a container to the butcher a while ago to fill with pork fat. (The butcher throws this out!) I usually ask for at least five pounds, which takes the butchers a few days to accumulate. They used to put it in a plastic bag, wrapped in paper, and sometimes wrapped that with more plastic (!). So I brought my own container to leave behind. When they called me to pick it up, I promptly rode over, looked at the container and my heart sank.

Don’t beat yourself up if you come home with contraband. Although I find shopping this way pretty easy—unless I want cheese…I won’t start in on the cheese—our stores and food system are not designed for this type of conscious shopping. However, with a little planning, anyone can reduce their waste.

67 Replies to “5 Essentials for a Zero-Waste Shopping Kit”

  1. I just love your practical tips Anne Marie. You continue to inspire me to be less wasteful in my kitchen!

    1. Thank you so much, Karen. I’m happy you feel inspired 😀

  2. I had to smile at ‘do not aim for perfection’ – it’s a sure way to cause lots of stress, particularly if you live in a place that is behind the times re packaging-free food. (I say this as one who regularly gets very stressed out because I cannot follow my values 100%)


    1. Aiming for perfection certainly does cause stress, Madeleine. I used to be such a perfectionist that fear of failure prevented me from attempting things. Now I try to focus on what I can do and if I fail, I just move on (usually…).

  3. Mrs. M’s knit bag is really cool! I think it’s crochet, and I wish Grandma was still alive to make them for me.

    1. You’re right Aggie. It believe it is crochet. I love my bag. It’s very sturdy and Mrs. M told me at the end of its life, I can compost it!

  4. […] Source: 5 Essentials for a Zero-Waste Shopping Kit | The Zero-Waste Chef […]

    1. Thank you so much for the reblog!

  5. Mrs M’s bag is crocheted.But I forgive you. [grin]
    We have one of these shops a few suburbs away; but when I went along it was absolutely chaotic, with people squeezing past each other and making each other grumpy.This kind of place needs SPACE. Also, in truth, it’ too far for me now, as I don’t have my own transport and the commuting buses never coincide. Sydney needs LOTS of these. Sighh …

    1. Oh right, I should have known that. I do knit occasionally…

      All cities need stores like the bulk stores I’m so lucky to have access to! Eventually I think they will become more common. More and more people want to shop this way…unless they get shoved around by grumpy people 🙂

      1. …which makes all the others grumpy, too ! Or could it be just me, I wonder …?

      2. No, it’s not just you. It can spread like a virus.

  6. Reblogged this on Fundstücke aus dem Internet and commented:
    So ähnlich sieht auch meine Ausrüstung für den müllfreien Einkauf aus.

    1. Thanks for the reblog! 🙂

  7. You are such a voice in my conscience, and I am trying to improve when I can. A great post (as usual) 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Annie 🙂

  8. I also like your “warning”. Would make a great bumper sticker! 🙂

    1. Thanks Lori 🙂 I wish I had heeded this advice when I was younger. I am a recovering perfectionist.

  9. Yep, our food system has a ways to go, but baby steps!
    I knit myself a similar bag from yarn someone gave me that was just not suited to making anything wearable. I still have some more of that yarn – I should make myself another, although I’m not sure I really need another bag. I have oodles.

    1. I think I’ll try making a couple. I used to knit a lot when my kids were very little and the sweaters small. The last thing I made was a dish cloth out of some beautiful yarn that sat in my closet for at least 10 years. I see a sharing theme emerging here–Mrs. M gave me this bag, someone gave you the yarn. I think knitters tend to be very generous.

  10. I’m so frustrated by Bulk Barn! I live in a really small town and its really my only bulk option. I’ve decided the best I can do is to use their bags and tubs in the store, then bring them home and empty the stuff into my own jar, wash out the bag/tub and bring it back next time 😉 its not perfect but it saves a lot of bags being thrown out. I’ve had a few for over a year now and I’m still reusing them!

    1. That’s great! Over a year! Think of the number of bags you have diverted from landfill. My daughter does the same thing when she shops there (which is less frequently than she would if the store would change its policy!). She brings in her old plastic Bulk Barn bags and containers. The store says if people bring in their own bags and containers the food will get contaminated but some people are reusing their bags anyway! So it’s more of a “no use or reuse of non-Bulk Barn” bags and containers policy. Oh and her friend who is allergic to peanuts once found one in a bin of chocolate or something or other. So, if they are really concerned with contamination, they will switch over to the gravity-powered drop-down bins. My daughter and I have both complained to the store. I was thinking we should do a change.org campaign but don’t know how effective those are. I know I would garner at least three signatures–yours, mine and my daughter’s 😉

      1. That’s what they told me too, and I pointed out how their bins are pretty open for anything to fall in and “contaminate” things. Our Bulk Barn is actually pretty gross, a lot of people use their hands or use the same scoop for several different items. But I would absolutely sign that petition, and so would a lot of people around here!

      2. Lol. People absolutely do that! It’s such BS about the contamination!!! I will look into the Change.org thing 🙂

  11. Reblogged this on Zero Kitchen and commented:
    Zero waste shopping, big part of zero kitchen.

    1. Thank you so much for the reblog!

  12. Great list! I especially appreciate “don’t aim for perfection.” I’ve come a long way (I used to never even bring reusable shopping bags; now I’ve got cloth produce and bulk bags, too), but things like meat, cheese, and those few processed items I’m loathe to give up (Kraft mac and cheese) trip me up.

    1. Thank you! Sounds like you’re doing amazingly well. I have written many times on my blog that I will not give up butter. It’s just not happening. Maybe one day I will be able to buy it in bulk.

  13. Surely you can buy butter blocks wrapped in waxed paper? That’s just the way it comes in New Zealand. Only the premium brands come wrapped in thin foil. How is butter wrapped in US?

    1. I buy it in a paper box, which I can recycle. Inside the box however are four, 1/2 cup sticks wrapped in paper. It LOOKS like wax paper, but it might be coated with some petroleum-based crud so I haven’t been composting it. I will email the company right now and ask. You have emboldened me 😉 Thanks!

  14. Before plastic no cheese was pre cut and pre wrapped. If you can find a cheese store that cuts cheese as it sell it, then ask them to wrap your purchase in paper. Same for sandwiches. Just ask for a paper bag. That’s how it was done for a very long time.

    1. I used to be able to buy cheese this way when I lived near Toronto, Wendy. But I haven’t found a vendor where I live in California that does this. Whole Foods used to slice it and put it in my container but my store stopped carrying cheese in the deli for some reason 🙁 Every time I ask for cheese at the deli counter (hoping they have brought it back) they direct me to a wall of shrink-wrapped cheese in small portions. The giant blocks the used to carry at the deli counter were wrapped in plastic also, but they were such large amounts of cheese that by using my own container, it really did cut down on the plastic. Can you buy cheese in paper where you are? I agree, it used to be the norm!

  15. I think now know why the little white knit (or crocheted, I’m not sure) bag I have that looks very much like your red one, has two sets of snaps at about where yours has the drawstring. I didn’t know it was meant to fold up. It’s something I found in some very old items at my Mom’s, and we don’t know who made it and when, but it looked to have never been used. That makes so much more sense now!

    1. It is in fact crocheted, Amy. Here is the link to the pattern Mrs M used: https://www.etsy.com/listing/108254431/crochet-bag-pattern-string-bag-pattern

      I’m glad my post shed some light on the mystery bag you found 🙂 It’s very convenient the way it balls up when not in use.

  16. Reblogged this on …….. Beautiful Golden Sunflower and commented:
    I try hard for zero waste, but I have room for improvement! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for the reblog! Have a great weekend 🙂

  17. Rosie Posie says: Reply

    I used to work in a grocery store. When some items are expensive and sold by the pound, you can end up paying a few cents for each of your reusable bag!

    1. It’s true, Rosie. I once bought vanilla beans ($149 a pound!) in a bag and had the cashier take them out to weigh them without the weight of the bag. It made a difference. Some stores I shop in consistently give me a 5 cent discount for each produce bag and jar (after they deduct the tare from the jar–so win-win). Others don’t do it regularly. I try to use lightweight fabric when I make these. My sewing machine embroiders (but is on the blink), and I am planning a bag giveaway on Instagram soon, so I’ll try to mark the tares on the bags. Thanks for pointing this out!

  18. I wish we had bulk for everything in Brazil, but it’s limited to food (and not any kind of food). I have never bought any oil in bulk. At least I can choose to buy it in glass, which is less bad and I can take it to recycling… And, yes, we can do our best, but the people involved in the process may “kill it”. That happens to me often when I take my containers to shop and the employee uses plastic or whatever to cover it up or to separate the slices of prosciutto! That kills me, but at the end of the day I did my best. Cheers!

    1. Well, I think the one store I go to is an exception unfortunately but I imagine more and more will pop up in the future. I used to have to explain very well to employees how to put my food in the container but that has improved also, as long as I stick to certain stores! I tried a new one last week and the butcher refused to do it 🙁 So frustrating! But we do our best and keep trying 🙂

  19. Reblogged this on Accidental Hippies and commented:
    Definitely something to strive for!

    1. Thank you so much for the reblog!

  20. I love your outlook and hope to gain many tips!! I try to live closely to the no waste but it seems a bit hard and our recycling bin is always jam packed even though we do not use any convenience foods.

    1. Thanks so much 🙂 I would find this lifestyle tricky if I didn’t live close to good bulk bins or have such a wonderful farmer’s market. If you don’t eat convenience foods, you are doing better than most! And you’re probably very healthy too.

  21. Great tips!!
    What I do when going shopping (because even at the bio shops or farmer’s market they offer you plastic bags!) is to always carry folded cereal liners to reuse them and place the produce there… I also use fabric bags but usually are big, so inside I place all of the cereal liners with the produce separated (if that’s the case)
    Thank you for sharing!

    – Ale

    1. Thank you Ale! The farmer’s market is teeming with plastic bags! And the “green” shops too. Drives me crazy! But I do see some people bringing reusable bags or big baskets to fill up without bags. Thanks for sharing your tips also 🙂

  22. I have nominated you for the “Sisterhood of the World” Bloggers Award. Please check it out. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much. I will check out it 🙂

      1. You are welcome. Can’t wait to read your answers. 🙂

  23. I love your writing and it’s been a pleasure to find a kindred spirit. Your shopping equipment looks just like mine! I have a confession to make, though. I don’t even bother putting produce in a cloth bag, or any bag for that matter. I haven’t used bags for apples, potatoes, and other produce like this for years and I haven’t had any negative feedback at the checkout counter. It’s just one less thing to think about. Looking forward to reading through some of your past writings, too. Many thanks. — Liesl at Pioneering The Simple Life, Trash Backwards, and The Buy Nothing Project.

    1. Thanks for that. It’s a great point. The less you have to take to the store, the better. If I buy just a few apples, oranges or carrots, I don’t use a bag either. I have also found that the cashiers don’t seem to mind. Thanks for checking out my posts 🙂

  24. So funny that cheese seem to be a problem for you… Besides fruits and veggies it’s the easiest thing to buy package free in Germany!

    I never thought that go shopping can be so much fun before I started living Zero Waste!


    1. I have cheese envy now Verena! I agree, shopping is so much more fun this way.

  25. […] Si tienes preguntas sobre cómo realizar las compras con “cero-desperdicio”, da clic aquí (en […]

  26. Hi Zero waste chef. I don’t know if you heard about the petition I started last year….well Bulk Barn has introduced a reusable container program

    1. Hi Tiffany. OMG! I didn’t know about the petition. Thanks for doing that. This is great news! My daughter is back in Canada now. I’ll let her know. Good work!!! ~ Anne Marie

  27. As always, I LOVE your ideas. Does your knitting friend share her bag pattern? If you made your fabric bags (as I do) I have a suggestion, sew some tie ribbons into the side seam to tie your bags closed. Or sew in a casing along the top and use the ribbon as a drawstring. Lots of times I just use the satin ribbons that are attached to the shoulder of garments to keep them from falling off the hanger when on display in stores.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you so much, Judith. I asked my friend for the pattern and here it is: https://www.etsystudio.com/listing/108254431/crochet-bag-pattern-string-bag-pattern I want to make some of these too. Thanks for the idea for the ribbons. I love that! I have been saving ribbons for years and have a small stash of them just sitting in with my fabric. I knew they would one day come in handy 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  28. Danielle Epifani says: Reply

    Darling bag. I’ll put this on my list of things to make for sure. And the easy peasy bags. I forgot I don’t need to include a drawstring!

    If you have the opportunity, I’d love to get you started on cheese. I am able to buy in bulk at a few places where they have fresh feta or mozzarella and I bring my own jars for example. However, any other wheel (it was explained) has to be unwrapped from it’s plastic film and then replaced with new film to keep it air tight if I want it cut to order (thus creating more plastic waste for them). Or if I buy a whole wheel that gets pricey- maybe find someone to split with?

  29. Update: Bulk Barn now encourages customers to bring their own containers at all stores across Canada. That squeaky wheel finally got greased!

  30. […] Anne Marie at the Zero Waste Chef’s Zero Waste Kit […]

  31. […] our refillable merchandise at their Muswell Hill department.   The key to refilling is preparation – though all you really want a shopping list so what you wish to purchase, a set of containers […]

  32. […] together a Zero Waste Shopping Kit of your […]

  33. I’m doing a deeper dive on your page to find out where you shop. I’m in downtown San Jose and our local Whole Foods won’t let me use my own containers. I’m bicoastal and have an awesome system on the east coast, but I’m slowly building a system here. I have our farmer’s market visit pretty well oiled, but the rest of the shooing is still meh. Is there a website or other resource you recommend for local vendors?

    1. Hi Joosey,
      You can buy soap, detergent, toothy tabs and and other similar items at Source Zero in downtown San Jose. The Whole Foods in Cupertino and Sunnyvale allow BYO at the meat and fish counters. I haven’t used the bulk bins since before the pandemic. Sprouts is pretty good. I’ve taken my own bags to the Sprouts in Cupertino and Sunnyvale. So that’s another one to try in San Jose. I haven’t had great luck there with jars but bags work with what they carry (beans, rice, nuts, candy, baking supplies…but not flour I don’t think). Up here, Country Sun in Palo Alto has a good selection of bulk items and you can bring your jars or bags. I’m actually working on a website that lists local vendors but it’s a brand new project and will take a while to get going. Bea Johnson has a bulk finder app on her website. You can check that here: https://app.zerowastehome.com/ I hope you’re able to get a new routine down here 🙂

  34. I love your simple bulk/produce bags – I had previously purchased some with tare weight tags on them… how do you mark the tare weight on your cloth bags?

    1. Thank you! You could embroider them on. I would do that near the top so it doesn’t compromise the fabric at all. My machine does simple embroidery. Or you could do it by hand. People have told me washable crayons work but I’ve never tried them.

Leave a Reply