How To Do Your Weekly Grocery Shop Plastic / Waste Free

Reusable Nation - How to shop at bulk stores

A completely waste-free grocery shop may seem like an insurmountable obstacle, but you’ll soon be proudly shopping plastic free or waste free with our step-by-step how-to guide.

I say plastic free or waste free as it is best to start small so you don’t become overwhelmed.

In the beginning, you’ll be using a lot of brain power for the planning process and finding out where to shop, but it’ll become routine in no time!

1. Planning

The first, most important and most painful step is planning. It may be a pain in the ass today, but you’ll get nowhere without it and, if done right, will make the rest of your week a breeze.

You’re going to need to figure out what you need to buy, if you’ll be able to buy it waste free or if you need to think of an alternative, and what you’re going to put your package-free produce in.

You'll make a shopping list as usual, but you’ll have to think about each item a little harder to make sure it will be possible to buy it waste free. Some foods you can’t buy plastic free. These can be substituted with something else or made from scratch, for instance wraps used to always be on our lunch menu, but we haven’t managed to find wraps without plastic packaging so no wraps for us unless we make them ourselves!

Start with products that are easy to get waste free first and then slowly make your way to the harder ones. Don't try to get everything waste free on your first shop – it'll leave you frustrated and frazzled! If a package-free replacement isn't obvious or readily available, find other options and replace packaged versions as you run out one by one.

Start by listing the fruit and vegetables you need as they are the easiest to buy waste free. Next, list the meat products you want, then the grains, which are also usually pretty easy to buy free of packaging, and breads, which you can use a fabric wrap or bag for.

It gets a little harder when you get to the dairy products, spreads and sauces, as these are almost always found packaged.

This is where I recommend firstly going plastic free until you can find substitutes for these products or get used to making them yourself or going without. So, only get the versions of these products that come in glass bottles or jars. I also go for the bigger size, as the glass jar will be more useful for future reuse and less waste is produced.

It is also good to divide your shopping list up like this as you will probably need to go to different stores to get everything on your list in your own packaging.

After your list is done, you need to ensure you have a bag or container for each item on your list.

Fruit and vegetables can go into any reusable shopping bag or produce bag (for example one of these (AU) or these (AU) or these (US/CAN), while some may require more protection and a more solid container. Just make sure that you have enough bags! Meat products can go in plastic, steel or glass containers or lunch boxes. Here, you’ll need to be sure they’ll be big enough. Grains can also go in produce bags or allocate each grain a glass jar.

When it comes to containers, you can buy products specifically made for waste-free shopping, grab some second-hand glass bottles from second-hand shops or use old Tupperware containers, glass bottles and recycled plastic containers you already have at home.

I always take more bags and holders than I think I need if I can fit them in in case I have underestimated how many I need, or come across something else I want or remember something else I need.

2. Weighing

You’re not off to the shops yet! Each container’s weight needs to be recorded on it, so this weight can be subtracted from the overall weight once it has been filled with whatever you’re filling it with, so you only pay for the weight of the produce and not the container’s weight as well.

Luckily, this is easy as and only needs to be done once for each container.

Grab your kitchen scales, pop the container on the scales – don’t forget to do this with its lid on! – and clearly write the container’s weight on its lid or in an easily visible spot with a permanent marker. Done!

3. Going to the right shops – knowing where to buy

Now, where are you going to get all your groceries? Do your research before you go to minimise the number of shops you need to visit, as well as the frustration of not being able to find what you need.

The good news is that a lot of this research has already been done for you. If you live in Melbourne like us, our Where to Shop Waste Free in Melbourne Map will show you where you can shop waste free in and around Melbourne.

Zero Waste Home has a worldwide map of waste-free-friendly shops here. Or, join a local waste-free Facebook group and ask if anyone in the group has found that one item you can’t live without sold sans packaging.

Also, explore your local neighbourhood and ask local shops if it would be possible to get certain items waste free. You’ll be surprised at where you’ll find little sections of bulk goodies and you might get some shop owners thinking about getting bulk containers.

You’ll soon learn where to ask and which shops to avoid. You can get away from the big supermarket chains waste free, but your options are a lot more limited and many don’t allow you to use your own containers for foods like meat because of health and safety concerns and fear of lawsuits. It is worth trying your local supermarket as it might be one of the few that do allow people to use their own containers.

You best bets are smaller, single-purpose stores like bakeries, butchers, fruit and veg stores, farmer’s markets or bulk food stores. We also prefer to support small, family run businesses in general.

4. Checking the shop’s procedures

Whenever I am bulk shopping at a store I haven’t been to before, I first check in with one of the staff members before starting my shop to see what their procedure is. Each store has a slightly different way of doing things and it causes much less hassle if you ask first before filling up your containers.

They may want to check the weight of your containers themselves or require you to record the name or number of the product you put in them.

So, I just say “I have my own containers with the weight recorded on them” and ask “Is that fine?”.

They’ll say yes or no, and give any further instructions.

If you are doing a big shop and could potentially get confused about what you have in each container, or if the store requires you to record the product name or number, I find that the easiest way is to number your containers with your permanent marker and then make a note on your phone of what is in each number container. No need for pen and paper!

There are other options like permanently labelling containers – especially if you will be using the same container for the same food stuff.

5. Fill ‘er up and pay

Pull the handle and listen to the glorious sound of a bulk good streaming into your reusable container!

Put your plan into action and put your reusable bags and containers to work, filling them up as you intended as you make your way around the store or to different shops.

The unexpected benefits of a zero-waste shop are that you’ll buy healthier, fresher, and preservative-free produce and you won’t buy more than you need (cause you’ll have to find something to put it in!). This means less food waste as well.

It may cost more for produce bought in bulk or at butchers and bakers, but because you are only buying what and how much you actually need, as you are consciously considering everything you are buying, the cost should end up being similar.

And, can you put a price on the earth’s and your health?

6. Feel proud

Well done! You did it! You have shopped responsibly and saved a shop's worth of single-use plastic from being sent to landfill!


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