Every time I post pictures on Instagram or Facebook of my bulk shopping or farmer’s market hauls, I get lots of questions:
- Do you bring your food home in bags and transfer it to jars? (No, I bring the jars shopping and fill them directly.)
- Doesn’t your food cost more because the jars weigh so much? (No, have customer service weigh and mark the jars BEFORE you fill them up with food.)
- Stores let you bring your own containers?! (Mostly…)
- I live in the UK where bulk stores are almost non-existent. What can I do? (Read on.)
- I live in Canada where the farmer’s markets run from May to September only. How do I avoid the over-packaged produce in the grocery store? (Ditto.)
So I thought I should write a post on shopping practices and rank those practices in order from good to better to best. Some practices fall in between these subjective categories so I had to make the call in a couple of cases.
I live in Northern California, with access to several good bulk stores (and one amazing one) and year-round farmer’s markets. Because I avoid buying much of anything besides food (unless I can get stuff second-hand), I can live plastic-free and zero-waste pretty easily. But you may not have similar shopping choices or you may just be starting out on the zero-waste path, in which case, I’d suggest you make your changes slowly. Otherwise you may feel overwhelmed—and give up.
If you don’t have a good bulk store near you, you can still reduce your product-to-packaging ratio by:
Buying giant packages of food (that you will eat and not waste). For example, when I bake a lot, as I fill up my jars with flour yet again, I often think to myself “Maybe I should just buy the large bag of flour the store fills these bins up with.” Yes, I would have a large bag to deal with, but, unless I grow, harvest and mill wheat myself, I do generate some waste shopping at the bulk bins, albeit not nearly as much as if I bought many small bags of flour.
Buying giant packages of food and splitting them with friends and neighbors. When you pitch this idea to your friends and neighbors, explain that they will save not only money but also time, as only one person will have to do the actual shopping and schlepping. Plus, when you all get together to split the goods, you can make a party of it (woohoo!). Who knows, you may even start your own buying club. Over 40 years ago, residents at a commune in San Francisco needed to buy large quantities of food, started buying it in bulk and then began selling it. Rainbow Grocery (a.k.a. bulk heaven) was born.
Bring a bag. If you don’t have access to farmer’s markets, where you can (usually) find delicious food unpackaged, take reusable cloth produce bags to the store for buying produce. I make very simple produce bags the same size and shape as the plastic ones that stores provide. You can also buy reusable produce bags if you don’t want to make them. Fill your bags with loose apples, carrots, potatoes and so on. Buy greens such as bunches of spinach and romaine lettuce rather than the pre-washed in plastic bags. Yes, trimming does require more work. Save all the stems for vegetable broth.
Join a CSA and request no plastic bags. About 10 years ago, I belonged to a CSA (community supported agriculture) but all the plastic bags inside my box drove me crazy. (Also I enjoy picking out my produce myself…) Some CSAs use less packaging than others. Ask around. If your CSA wraps its food with lots of plastic packaging, when you return your box, return the packaging along with it too and a note explaining why. In the US, you can find a CSA near you at Local Harvest.
If you do have access to bulk bins but the store won’t allow you to use your own containers and produce bags, I have a few ideas:
Ask for a paper bag. Some stores may have paper bags you can use instead of plastic. Plastic is just plain terrible. It lasts forever. It clogs our oceans. It kills wildlife. Paper, while wasteful, does break down. You can also reuse it.
Reuse the store’s plastic bags. My daughter returns to Canada next month for school, and can shop at a Bulk Barn near her. The store, however, will not allow her to bring her own containers. The chain seems to want its customers to use new plastic bags every time they shop. But if you reuse Bulk Barn bags over and over, how will they know? I’m just asking…
(Update: Bulk Barn began allowing customers to bring their own containers in 2017.)
Complain. It amazes me that some shops just flat-out refuse to allow customers to do bring their own bags and containers. Don’t they want our money? Is business so good that they can afford to turn it away? If you speak with store management, explain to them that they will save money if they allow people to bring their own bags.
Shop at the farmer’s market. I try to go to the farmer’s market every weekend. I find it outrageous that in Northern California—where farms abound—I can’t find a local apple at Whole Foods. The apples there travel all the way from Washington or even Chile. Plus they have those annoying produce stickers stuck to them.
Produce at my farmer’s market has very little—if any—packaging and it tastes better than anything I can buy in a store. At the farmer’s market, you can also buy “ugly” fruits and vegetables that supermarkets refuse to carry. This helps reduce food waste (we toss 40 percent of the food we grow in the US).
To make your trip to the farmer’s market zero-waste and plastic-free, you’ll need some minimal equipment:
- Cloth produce bags. Often farmers will give me a bit of a deal for bringing my own bag—maybe a quarter off or an extra piece of fruit.
- Metal containers. I like to use these in the summer for strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. I had been using my cloth produce bags for these but on the way home, would accidentally make jam out of my fruit. LunchBots sent me six containers recently. I love them.
- Glass jars. I use these for strawberries also. When I get home, I freeze some of them. I fill the jars with water to wash the berries, cut them up and freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Once they’ve frozen, I transfer them back to the empty, dry glass jar and put them back in the freezer.
If you have access to bulk bins in a store that allows you to bring your own containers, then you can shop with:
Glass jars. Just make sure you get these tared—in other words, weighed—before you fill them with food. You don’t want to have to pay for the weight of the jar, especially if you buy tea that costs $40 per pound. Where I live, some stores set out scales and you weigh and mark the jar yourself with a sticker (or with a china marker on the glass). At other stores, customer service will weigh and mark the jars for you.
Metal containers. Get these tared also. My small LunchBots are a good size for bulk candy 😉
Cloth produce bags. These work well for “chunkier” food, like bulk pasta, beans, rice, popcorn, oats and granola.
Extend the season. In Ontario, Canada, my mom can shop at the farmer’s market for only a few months. If you also live in a cold climate, extend the season by learning to preserve food, something our grandmothers knew how to do.
For example, right now, during tomato season, you can buy piles of tomatoes cheaply and:
Roast and freeze them. I have been buying extra tomatoes every week and roasting them so I’ll have some throughout the winter.
Make tomato or pizza sauce and freeze it. You’ll be so happy come December to find your sauce in the back of the freezer.
Ferment them. If you haven’t tried making fermented salsa, you won’t believe how delicious it tastes. You can also ferment tomatoes plain. If you don’t have a cold cellar, you can store these in the refrigerator.
Dehydrate them. A chef on Facebook today told me she dries her tomatoes—sprinkled with oregano, salt and pepper—in the oven and then freezes them. I’ve dehydrated them in a solar food dryer and they taste like candy. They actually are candy. I would like to keep them through the winter but we eat them all…
Can them. I have canned jam but not tomatoes. You can put up a pile of them now and have them all winter long.
Grow your own. I originally planned to include “shop at the farmer’s market” in the best category but I think growing your own—which I know many of you do—is ideal. Not everyone can do this (or wants to) but when you grow your own, you become more self-reliant, you save money, your food tastes delicious, you teach your children valuable life-long skills, you reduce your waste and your food travels the shortest distance possible to your table. (Gardening also provides cheap therapy.) I have grown food sporadically in the past. One of these days, I hope to have the sunny space for it.
34 Replies to “Good, Better, Best Zero-Waste Shopping”
You are basically my ZW food guru, as I think most of our household waste comes from food or food packaging. I think some people may be afraid to take this step, but basically you just have to own your lifestyle and ask local businesses/farms if you can bring your own food packaging. My Oma has beautiful tomato plants right now here in Germany. I’ll be heading home soon to my four little plants, but hopefully I have grown enough to make something, like sauce or salsa. Thanks for sharing your experiences and ideas!
Thanks so much Nadine. We found the same thing when we started–most of the trash came from food and food packaging. I think people can find the “zero” in zero-waste intimidating. But you start small and go from there. Your sauce or salsa will be delicious! Nothing beats homemade. Have a safe trip home. ~ Anne Marie
Zero waste shopping can be intimidating, but now that I’m in the habit I’d never go back. I came up with a solution to make shopping with Mason jars very easy by using reusable bulk jar labels. You can read about it here: http://thebeautyinsimple.com/reusable-bulk-jar-labels/. Thanks for blazing a path in this movement! You’re remarkable in what you’ve accomplished!
OMG that’s brilliant Julie! It looks so much nicer than a sticker and you can reuse them. So smart!!! I’ll share this on social media. Thanks so much! ~ Anne Marie
Thanks for sharing on social media! The reusable labels have worked great for me! It makes shopping with mason jars a cinch. 🙂
My pleasure. My Facebook followers think your brilliant! I’m going to make some of these on the weekend 🙂
Great photography here with your text and ideas… the images really enhance.
Thank you so much 🙂
really informative post, thank you 🙂
Thanks for reading 🙂 Have a great weekend.
Some of the stores around us will not allow you to bring your own containers citing a FDA or USDA or something (?) rule… Have you had any issues like this?
I’m not an expert but it seems to me that stores make up their rules arbitrarily. I don’t have trouble shopping with my own containers where I live and with people shopping this way for decades at stores like the one I mention in the post, I would think some sort of health inspector would have called the store out by now. But I hear this question regularly (like once a week) from people. The first time I tried shopping with my own metal container at my Whole Foods meat counter, the guy waiting on me looked like a deer caught in the headlights. He said he had to go find the manager and ask. When the manager came out, he looked at my container and said, “Oh yeah, we do that at other stores all the time.” Since then (that was 2011), the butchers now actually thank me for bringing my containers and smile! They may be thinking, “Don’t upset the crazy container lady” but either way, they do it now 😉 ~ Anne Marie
When I first started shopping at Whole Foods with mason jars, one employee told me I had to dispense the product into a plastic bag and then I could dump that into my jar. I’ve never followed “the rules” – not that day or any day since then and always dispense directly into my jars. No one questions me. It makes me wonder if the rule really exists or if like you said, no one wants to “upset the crazy container lady.” Ha ha!
Hi Julie. I don’t think the rule exists. That’s just my theory. I should investigate more. It would make a good blog post…
~ Anne Marie
Excellent post!!! We live in Ottawa and have a few tricks up our sleeves to shop zero waste! avoiding the bulk barn 😉 and having a zero waste store opening up soon! https://www.instagram.com/zerowastestore/
We are starting to preserve fruit & veg for winter, but too tempted to eat it all fresh! 😀
I wonder which city your daughter lives in?:)
Thank you! My nephew lives in Ottawa also. So pretty there. My bf here in California is a crazy skater and would love to skate on the canal some day 🙂 Thanks for the link. They are opening in Toronto too it looks like! My daughter goes to school in Guelph. Super cute town and close to TO. I have been doing the same with summer produce–hoarding tomatoes and strawberries for winter (not that we have much of one here, but they do go out of season). Sadly, the strawberries won’t make it. We will eat them all. But we will still be eating tomatoes in January.
Guelph is nice! We used to live in Waterloo, not too far 😉 I’ve been hoarding blueberries! We bought a looot from a local organic farmer, but did not have willpower to freeze them. We simply ate them all! 🙂 Hope you and your partner will come visit someday and get to skate on the canal! 😉
Yup, Waterloo is very close. Blueberries don’t last here either, unless I hide them, even then… Thanks, I hope we come up there skating soon 🙂
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Cosmetically challenged avocadoes, hehe! Love it! Lots of great tips here – thank you 🙂
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Hi! Do you happen to put your flour in a cloth bag or bring a jar? It seems that even when I bring a wide-mouth jar, I end up spilling, and I’m about to buy or sew some non-mesh fabric bags. Just wondering if they might leak flour out the seams… thank you for all the lovely recipes and tips!
Hi Rachel, Sometimes I put flour in cloth bags but I usually use jars. It does leak out a tiny bit in a cloth bag–makes a bit of a flour cloud when I set it down. But they work. I sewed my bags out of fairly tightly woven cotton, if that helps. Thanks for checking out my recipes and tips 🙂 ~ Anne Marie
Bulk Barn listened! They now allow customers to bring their own containers:
Love this, as a student I can’t always afford to buy at bulk bins (that alongside there being less of them in the UK. I’ve started buying the 3kg bags of pasta instead fo the 500g ones – small change but better than nothing like you say.
Up until they introduced the reusable container program Bulk Barn would not allow me to reuse their bags. They caught me reusing a bag. Must have been the faded printing on the bag! Not many people use the program but I love it when one of their coupons is for 20% off qhen using reusable containers. Even my 93-year-old Mom takes part.
Good for you to sneak those bags in! I’m glad the store has since changed its policy. My daughter lives in Canada right now and shops at Bulk Barn quite a bit. She really likes it. I hope she is using the coupons! That’s a good deal!
~ Anne Marie
Do you have any bulk store recommendations in the South Bay Area?
The bulk bins at Country Sun on California Avenue in Palo Alto are still open but the staff has to assist and fill your jars for you. They have a fairly good selection but no flour. I can’t find bulk flour right now so I’m buying it in paper bags. I hope that helps.
Isn’t the foods that are sold in a farmers market during the winter the same foods that are sold in grocery stores?
At my local markets here in France most merchants are perfectly happy to deal with containers the customers bring. One of the fishmongers has even institutionalised this by offering a discount to anyone who brings their own containers and he has a sign up advertising this and encouraging customers to contribute to reducing plastic waste this way.
Here most bulk stores have closed (plastic) bulk distributers with a sliding valve at the bottom (you know what I mean? Do you have these in the rest of the world??) so the rice, beans, granola, whatever, is visible and easily accessed without touching it or breathing over it. But they do not sell flour or sugar (too volatile and sticky??) that way or at least I haven’t seen it. I buy flour in 5 kg paper bags and then use the bags for other stuff.
I wish more stores here encouraged people to bring their own containers. Although still rare, I did see more of it pre-Covid. I think we will all get there eventually though. That’s the future.
We have those types of bins here also. It depends on the store. But I’ve never seen flour or sugar in them either. At our bulk stores, those are always in the types of bins that customers scoop from.
So much of these food preparations contain a great deal of sodium. Anything those
of us who have to restrict the sodium amount can do?
Fermented food is quite salty. I don’t really buy much prepared food though. I think cooking is the best way to cut out all that sodium.