10 Steps for Zero-Waste Grocery Shopping

Food provides sustenance, but unfortunately it also generates trash, especially if the majority of food comes from a grocery store. While packaging is helpful and often necessary for keeping food fresh, uncontaminated, and easy to transport, anyone wanting to reduce their household trash knows what a nightmare it is to come home with thin plastic produce bags that get thrown out as soon as fruit meets the fruit bowl.

It is possible to reduce your ‘shopping footprint,’ but it requires much more organization and forethought than conventional shopping. (You’ll be surprised to realize how ingrained your shopping habits are.) Arrive at the store prepared, with the right equipment, and be ready to get some strange looks, but you’ll thank yourself for it when you get home.

1. Buy reusable cotton produce bags and use them to buy fruits and vegetables. Always choose loose varieties. If you run out of bags, keep produce loose in the shopping cart.

2. Take large glass jars or other reusable containers to the store. Use these wherever an item needs to be weighed. The employee can tare the jar on the scale before filling with whatever cheese, olives, fish, sandwich meat, or deli products you want. Jars with screw-top lids are handy for wet foods.

3. Keep your phone handy in order to record container weights if you’re in a bulk food store. Weigh prior to filling, then refer to your list in order to record the accurate price.

4. Use a solid cloth bag to buy bread and dry bulk items. You can buy these online in various sizes, or use a small pillowcase. Bea Johnson of the Zero Waste Homeblog and book recommends washable wax crayons for writing the product code on the bag.

5. Avoid little things that usually end up in the trash, such as twist-ties, bread tags, plastic code stickers, receipts, and paper lists.

6. Use several large canvas tote bags or a sturdy bin with handles to take your food home. Never accept plastic grocery bags, even if you forget your totes. Author Madeleine Somerville of “All You Need Is Less” proposes the following solution to forgetfulness:

“Take your purchases without. The reason is that this experience will be so horrific, and so infuriating, and so utterly humiliating as you load your purchases one by one into the grocery cart with the entire line-up behind you watching in bemused confusion, that it will be forever burned into your psyche… and mark my words, you will remember your cloth bags.”

7. Stash your shopping kit in the car after putting away the groceries so that you never find yourself in that situation, even when making spontaneous purchases. Put them on the front seat so you notice them when leaving the car. Keep a reusable bag in your purse, glove box, backpack or bicycle saddlebag.

8. If you must buy a pre-packaged item, always choose recyclable packaging made of glass, metal, or paper over lower-grade plastic packaging. Keep in mind that plastic is never truly recycled, but rather gets ‘downcycled’ into a lesser form of itself until eventually it ends up landfill; other materials, however, maintain their integrity through recycling. If you do end up using a plastic bag, rinse and reuse.

9. Be prepared to refuse items based on packaging. This can be hard, especially if you’re craving whatever comes on a plastic-wrapped Styrofoam tray, but that whole packaging combo is a bad idea – and a whole lot of unnecessary trash in your house once that craving is satisfied.

10. All of this is made easier by shopping at stores that support zero waste practices, i.e. bulk food stores that allow reusable containers. Usually smaller, privately owned, local companies are more flexible than chain stores. Seek out alternative sources of food, such as CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares for produce and grains.

Good luck!

article by Katherine Martinko

image credit: CC BY 2.0 rick

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Debbie Crowe
Debbie Crowe3 years ago

I have used cloth bags for many, many years. My first bag was an old purse (LOL)!
When I got married again 21 years ago, I got my husband and step-son into using them also. We keep them in the trunk of the car at all times.
I have never heard of "reusable cotton produce bags", but I need to check into them!

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa3 years ago

Thank you

Joy S.
Joy s3 years ago

we reuse the plastic bags carrying our own homegrown produce from the garden to home or to friends and family plus we also use them as small trash container liners. The bags will melt away totally in the trash fire.

Claire Jordan
Claire Jordan3 years ago

Point 10 depends on having such a store nearby. If not, the extra petrol and waste heat expended in getting there will probably outweight the ecological saving on packaging. I note that the author of this piece just assumes you *will* be using a car, not a bus or going on foot.

I should look for biodegradable packaging, btw, which will rot down into compost.

Marija Mohoric
Marija M3 years ago


Erin H.
Erin H3 years ago

Excellent article, thank you! I'm definitely going to try to do more of these things.

Taylor Story
Taylor Story3 years ago

This is a great way to eliminate waste.

Karen Martinez
Karen Martinez3 years ago

I keep bags in the car all the time, and my husband and kids are good about remembering them when I'm there, but conveniently forget when I'm not, even though all cars have a supply of bags. One of the local cities has banned plastic bags, and I went into a store last week (don't normally go to that city to shop, and I went into a store to buy ONE thing--$50.00 later...), and luckily I remembered and ran out to the car and got a bag. I wish more cities would do the banning plastic bags thing. I can't see my local Sprouts weighing my empty flour container, then doing the math, although their employees seem to be a bit more cognizant than the other grocery store chain...

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago

I use the backs of used envelopes for my lists.

Heidi Aubrey
Heidi Aubrey3 years ago

Good ideas. I do keep my reusable bag in the front passenger's seat so I don't forget it.

It would also be nice if the grocers would put their about to expire produce on sale a couple of days before it goes bad.

Where I shop usually, they leave the produce on the shelf, for sale, to the point that it begins to smell. The avocados are absolute mush before they finally throw it out.

The store is called Stater Brother's.