zero waste living :: grocery shopping

One of my resolutions for the new year is to reduce waste in our home.  I've been on this journey for the past few years, but this year I have decided to really make an effort to become as "zero waste" as possible.  If you are not familiar with the term "zero waste," I encourage you to read Bea Johnson's book Zero Waste Home.  In the book, Johnson lists 5 steps to zero waste living: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.  The order of these steps is very important, as the key to zero waste living is reducing the amount of waste you generate by getting to the source of the waste.  Zero waste living starts by examining everything that comes into your home through the lens of what happens to it once it leaves your home.  

So, I'd thought I'd bring you along on our journey to zero waste through a series of blog posts over the next few months.  We are far from living a completely zero waste lifestyle, but we have definitely reduced our waste over the past few years and I'm hoping to reduce it even more throughout this year.  The main way I'm tackling that right now is through grocery shopping.  I've found that so much of what we as a society throw away comes from the kitchen, whether it be from food packaging or food waste.  We compost most of our food waste or give it to our chickens, so the packaging is the main source of waste in our home.  To reduce this, I need to reduce how much of that packing comes into our home.  Here are a few of the ways I'm working to do that. 

  • Reusable Shopping Bags:  We all have piles of reusable bags floating around our homes that we've received for free at stores, fairs, events, etc, but I've found that for me I prefer to have just two sturdy canvas bags and a woven shopping basket.  The canvas bags hold more than the freebie bags and I value them more because they aren't freebies, which helps me to be more intentional about using them.  The basket keeps my jars and eggs from rolling around and it's so sturdy.  (The basket I have is a handmade basket made in Ghana.  It also works really well for bringing food to gatherings and on the road.)  I've started bringing my own bags not only to the grocery store, but to other stores as well.  Anytime I leave the house with a plan to shop, I grab a bag on my way out!
  • Shopping in bulk:  This is the main way that I reduce kitchen waste in our home.  By bulk, I don't mean shopping at Costco or Sam's Club, I mean shopping in the bulk isle at your local grocery store.  Buying in bulk reduces waste, especially if you are able to use your own containers, which can completely eliminate the need for waste to come into your home for those food items.  Our food co-op has a very large selection of bulk items including wet and dry items.  I realize that many do not have access to this large of a selection, but demand can drive supply!  I currently buy the following things in bulk: produce, eggs, flour, sugar, oats, barley, quinoa, rice, beans, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, pasta, peanut butter, maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, molasses, honey, herbs, spices, loose-leaf tea, baking soda, baking powder, salt, crackers, hummus (dried and fresh), coffee, and some candy. 
  • Bulk bags/containers:  Bringing my own containers has become one of my favorite parts of my weekly grocery shopping trip.  (I'm weird like that...)  It takes a few extra minutes to pull together my bags/containers before I leave the house, but it saves me time when I get back home and am able to just put them all back onto their shelves and don't have to worry about transferring things from packages into my storage containers.  I use a few different bags/containers for different types of bulk items.
    • mesh produce bags:  I bought a few of these a few weeks ago and love them!  Our co-op sells spinach and mixed greens in bulk and they work great for that! They also work great for things like mushrooms, green beans, snap peas, and even bigger produce items like apples, oranges, carrots, broccoli.
    • hemp/cotton bulk bags:  I made a few of these out of an old vintage sheet a few months back and then Dan bought me a few more for Christmas.  I love them!  I use them for produce like apples, oranges, onions, potatoes, and also for dried bulk items like flour, oats, beans, nuts, etc.  They work especially well when I have a lot of things to get and don't want to bring a bunch of glass jars/canisters with me.
    • jars/canisters:  I store almost all of our pantry items in glass jars or canisters, and so when their contents get low, I bring them to the co-op and fill them up!  As I said above, some things I bring my jars for and others I use my bags for.  It usually depends on how much I need and how messy the item is.  I've found that for flour, it's nice to just fill up my canister.  However, my canister is really big and it's a pain to lug around, so I usually use a bag for flour and deal with the mess. 
    • egg cartons:  Our co-op sells bulk eggs and since our chickens are free-loaders right now, I've been buying a lot of eggs!  It's great to just keep using the same egg cartons week after week!
    • glass container for meat:  This past week I brought in a container to use at the meat counter for the first time!  Meat packaging is often what makes us take the trash out, as our trash usually gets smelly before it gets full, so using a glass container made me so happy to know that at least for one meal there would be no smelly packaging to throw away!
  • Label/weigh your bags/containers before you shop:  Using your own containers can take longer if you don't have a good system in place.  First, when you use your own container, you have to weigh it before filling it up.  This is called the "tare" weight.  For my bags, I have the tare weight written on all of them in permanent ink so that I can just fill them up when I get to the store.  For my jars, I like to put a piece of masking tape on each of the lids before I leave home.  I then weigh them quickly at the store before filling them up.  I could weigh them at home too, but I like the scale at our co-op better, so I just use that. I then write the tare weight and item number on the masking tape.  For my bags, I use one of the stickers at our co-op to write the item number on my bags.  Some people use crayons to label their bulk containers, which is truly zero waste.  I've thought about trying that, but for now, my system is working well and efficiently.  One thing to note: not all stores may let you or encourage you to use your own containers.  I recognize that I shop at a grocery store that values zero waste and that is not the case at many grocery stores.  However, that doesn't mean that it's not possible to use your own containers.  You just have to ask!  Ask at the customer service desk and if they say no, dig deeper!  Talk to a manager and politely explain that you're trying to reduce the waste in your home and you'd like to be able to use your own container.  It's worth a shot! 
  • Stay organized:  I've found that keeping my shopping basket in an easy to reach place in the kitchen makes staying organized and efficient a lot easier.  After I shop, I empty my bulk bags, throw them into the laundry if needed, then store them in my shopping basket in the kitchen.  As we empty an egg carton, it goes into the basket as well.  Then on shopping day, I make a quick loop around the kitchen and pull out the jars/canisters that need filling and decide whether to just fill the container or use a bag.  Keeping it all in one designated spot helps me to prep and get out the door a lot faster, which is vitally important when shopping with an 11-month old! 

How about you?  Are you able to shop with your own reusable containers?  Do you?  In what ways are you reducing waste in your kitchen??  I'd love to know.