Zero waste grocery shopping without bulk

Zero waste food shopping can be intimidating. I chose to 'green' every other aspect of my life I could before making my first zero waste food shopping trip. I was probably afraid of store personnel telling me I couldn’t use my own containers, but get this: I’ve never done a full grocery shop at a zero waste store, always shop at regular grocery stores and I've never had trouble with store employees.

So even if you don’t have cloth bulk bags or a single bulk bin for miles around, there are ways you can shop more mindfully to prevent so much plastic from going to landfill and purchase products with packaging that can be recycled back into a circular economy.

Of course, the lightest footprints from our diets and food shopping come from diets low or devoid of animal products. This post isn’t about that, omnivore friends, but this post is if you’re interested.


Milk in glass bottles

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Byrne Dairy is an option all over New York state. This is how it works: you pick up milk in a glass bottle, pay a small deposit, return the bottle and grab a new one when it’s finished. It’s that simple. If you don’t need more milk, just get your deposit back instead of buying more. If it’s available, start picking up your milk there instead of in disposable containers. They also have orange juice at some locations. This way, there’s almost no waste from the milk container and no extra energy used to recycle like with plastic milk jugs.

eggs 

This solution is so simple you won’t have to think twice next time you shop. Instead of reaching for the eggs in the transparent plastic carton (or worse: Styrofoam), move your hand six inches to the left and pick up the paper/cardboard carton of eggs. This plastic is totally avoidable and the paper cartons can be used for a million things: making fire starters, using as paints pot, starting seedlings, and more.

one component packaging

This is a bit of an indirect recommendation but hear me out: mixed materials are harder to recycle and are often not recyclable. I once purchased a container of cocoa powder that came with a foil seal, plastic top, metal bottom, and paper around the edges. It wasn’t recyclable, and it would have been a nightmare to separate the paper for compost or recycling from the rest of the packaging.

Recycling isn’t the answer, I’ll say it again, but it’s not the wrong choice either. If you can’t get something package-free or with packaging that is returnable, recyclable is a good alternative. Even if 91% of plastic isn’t recycled, something that isn’t recyclable is 100% not recycled, so it’s better to opt for something recyclable and recycle correctly if package-free isn’t available.

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large containers

A six-inches-to-the-left tip, all you have to do here is opt for the larger package of food, which usually seems like a good idea anyway. Pick the largest tub of yogurt instead of 6 individual plastic cups. Go for the family size over individual packages. As long as you’re able to seal the food with clips or store it so it doesn’t go bad, this can help reduce needless packaging and waste even if the packaging is made of plastic.

large quantities of produce

I’ve never been turned away for using cloth bags in a grocery store, even in rural upstate New York. If for some reason you genuinely cannot use your own produce bags or have absolutely no means/access to produce bags, use the plastic sparingly. If you eat apples every day, buy as many apples as you can fit in the plastic bag, because apples are a fruit that won’t rot quickly. I don’t suggest overbuying food, because then it might spoil, but when you buy things that don’t spoil easily like onions, garlic, potatoes, and the like, fill the plastic produce bag as much as you can. If you eat many bananas, pick up green bananas as well as the yellow for the following week to get as much use of the produce bag as possible. You get the picture—if you use the bag, try to get as much life out of the bag as possible; use it to line a trash can or something after, too. Don’t be shy, and use the plastic bag again for produce if you can. You should wash the produce before eating anyway, so there's no need to worry about contamination.

condiments in glass

If you can spring for a little bit more cost, you can usually get a slightly better product with better packaging. Instead of plastic, try the jam in glass. This choice might not be the cheapest of the cheap, but most big grocery stores have their own brands that will have better prices on glass packaged products, from soy sauce to marinara. Another six-inches-to-the-left suggestion, there might not even be an extra cost for choosing glass over plastic.

Why is glass the more zero waste choice? It’s infinitely recyclable and unlike plastic, when entirely broken down, doesn't pose the same threat to the environment. While glass does require a lot of energy to recycle, it’s also possible to reuse, even for preserving your own foods.

butter and cream cheese in foil

Much like the eggs and condiments, reach six inches to the left. Instead of buying cream cheese in a plastic container, go for cardboard and foil. Aluminum foil isn’t recyclable everywhere, but if it’s properly cleaned, it can be recycled. While it will be relatively easy to find cream cheese in foil and cardboard, butter might be a bit more difficult. Butter typically comes in a cardboard box and wax paper. The issue with many wax papers is that the paraffin is derived from petroleum and doesn’t compost particularly well. Some butter can be found in foil, so if you have access to that, consider it while keeping in mind that foil packaging isn’t a more responsible choice if the butter is imported. Butter and cream cheese packaging are hardly the biggest threats to our environment concerning pollution, but it’s an easy switch to support more responsible packaging.

Basta with the bottles

water

Hopefully if you’re reading this, it has already occurred to you to stop buying bottled water. If you live somewhere with safe drinking water, just use tap water. The convenience of plastic water bottles is meaningless when you consider the needless plastic waste and resources that go into bottling and shipping water to places…that…already…have…drinkable…water. Beverage containers (like disposable water bottles) are one of the top 6 most common kinds of ocean debris, i.e. ocean trash.

Other beverages

If you’re an avid drinker of lemonade, iced tea, Gatorade, or whatever it may be, the most zero waste recommendation would be to drink less in order to reduce your waste. Since I’m trying to work with you here, I instead suggest you stop buying jugs, cans, or bottles of your favorite beverages. If you can buy dry mix or make it at home, try doing so. Iced tea can easily be made at home with bulk tea, and lemonade is definitely makeable from scratch (and zero waste). Do what works, and take baby steps if that suits you better. Start mixing up your own lemonade from powder mix even if it comes in a plastic container, and maybe in the future start making it from scratch. Reduce, reduce, reduce. It’s better to have one plastic tub to recycle at the end of the month than 30 plastic bottles.

recycled packaging

We all buy things in packaging, even the most zero waste zero waster you’ve ever seen carrying around coconut oil in a mason jar and wearing thrifted vegan Birkenstocks. Buying pasta? Check out if any of the available brands have cardboard boxes made from recycled paper. Easy as that. If recycled paper is used, it’s almost always written somewhere on the packaging. Buying anything, usually near the nutrition facts at the bottom of the label, you’ll see some kind of seal or label of recycled materials if any were used in the packaging.

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Day-old shelf

Whether it’s in plastic, paper, or both, buying day old and almost expired food is a great way to take part in the responsible use of resources. What does that mean? Stores have to throw away things that have expired or are past their date, even if those foods are perfectly safe to eat. Before you pick up a loaf of bread from the bakery section of your supermarket, check out the day-old section. Your supermarket may also have an odd shelf tucked away with discounted food as well. While baked goods may actually be at risk of spoiling within a few days, it’s less likely to occur if they’re stored in the fridge. Many of these sale foods as well are dry goods like tins of soup or dry mixes—chances are that these foods will keep in your cupboards just fine.

Shopping bags

Finally, don’t forget your grocery bags! While some stores already charge for disposable shopping bags, many still give them away for free. Don’t be tempted to take disposable bags just because they’re free. These days reusable shopping bags are available everywhere, even for 30 cents at the thrift store.


A zero waste shopping trip isn’t always going to look like mason jars and cotton bags. Reducing your waste when grocery shopping is available to you with or without bulk, and with or without a zero waste shopping kit.

What do you think? What ways do you reduce your waste when food shopping?

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