A Guide to Zero Waste Shopping

Before we had decided to go Zero Waste we had played around with the idea. We weren’t sure how to go about it or even if we would be able to go about this lifestyle. We live in the metro of Iowa, good ol middle of nowhere state. We are so forgotten we are literally the LAST to get any trends. The lowest on the chain. The thought of having to shop entirely zero waste left me feeling slightly hungry, as if we would starve if we had to follow this life. But we researched it, and looked into grocery stores that have bulk etc. We really put a huge effort into making lists of what we would need to be able to survive. A LOT of research went into this before we started making the switch. It was a long and rather difficult process. We are STILL trying to find things that we need without any packaging. While we are not able to get ALL things without any packaging we have managed to get about 95-99% of our items that we need either in bulk or biodegradable packaging. We also only try to buy those items in packaging that can be 100% recycled over and over (so items like glass, paper and metal) so that when we do recycle we are ensuring that it won’t be reused just once. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best that we can do.

So how does one Zero Waste shop when you live in an area where people think of Costco or Sams club when you say you need to shop in bulk? With a little work, but it’s honestly not as hard as I had initially thought. Our locally bases grocery store pretty much has everything that we need, and in the event that we need something else we are lucky enough to have a Whole Foods store in the area. Although I try to avoid them since they told us we are not allowed to bring our own containers and the only thing they offer are plastic baggies.

Most grocery stores are set up the same way, they either have 2 doors labeled “Home goods” and “Grocery” or they just have the one door. The grocery door usually leads to the fresh produce right away, and if there is only one door that usually leads straight to the fresh produce first. I will be following this pattern as I go through this guide, mostly because that is how we shop but also because it is good to have a plan when shopping zero waste.

So let’s dive right into Zero Waste shopping:

1. Bring your own bags and jars for fresh produce, bulk and checkout. We bring reusable bags for our produce and check out. We opt out for jars when bulk shopping because our bulk bins offer paper sacks vs plastic and we have no way to weigh the tare of just the jar. If you are able to though, I recommend bringing your own jars. Don’t ask if you can do this, if you have a the means to weigh the tare and all that then just bring the jar/container and fill it. When bringing your own bags to a store that offers plastic ones, hand those to the cashier first and say “I brought my own so please use these” and always, ALWAYS be polite but do not let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Ask to see rules in writing, or to speak to a manager if someone says you can’t have your own container. Most of the time it is not worth the fight and they do not actually have these rules. Just remember to be nice and polite about it.

2. We always hit the produce first, since it’s the first thing there as we walk in the door. Our local grocery offers pretty much everything without plastic except for berries and sugar snap peas. Which is kind of a bummer since berries are a staple in smoothies. We stock up on apples, citrus, bananas (we buy bananas in bulk and freeze them in a baking dish), potatoes (thankfully these come in singles that you can bag yourself) lettuce, kale, onions, radishes, carrots and whatever random lose food item we feel like buying that week. It will take some time, and you may have to scope out a store first to see that kind of produce that they have in stock. Some items will also be loose and some will always be in packaging. You will have to decide if you really need that item anyways or to just find a way to live without. What I find helpful when shopping is to just follow the rainbow diet. I try and find items of every color so in the end I have the whole rainbow and try and vary that throughout the day.

3.Next up is bulk, again you may want to make a pre-trip and see what they have. Our bulk bins offer a large range of rice, nuts, oatmeal, granola, snacks and nut butters. We also have a bulk candy section so that is a plus when it comes to finding snacky items. We fill up on oatmeal, chia seeds, flax seeds, nut butter (fresh pressed and free of any additives) as well as granola, various snack items, rice and what ever grain like couscous or quinoa that we need. Unfortunately we have not been able to find bulk pasta anywhere. Don’t be afraid to get too much. Bulk tends to last a while and you might find you’re eating a little more if you aren’t used to fresher items from the store.

4. Our next stop is the baking aisle, if we need anything. We still buy flour and sugar and basic baking items because we can’t find them easily or at all in bulk and they come in paper packaging which we can compost or recycle. We can get most spices from the bulk area so we usually try and do that, or we buy spices in glass. If you do fill up spices (or tea of coffee) at the bulk section than use the same method you would with jars and bulk bins. A plus side is if you have cloth bags they don’t weigh that much and can be weighed without knowing the tare. Old pillowcases can be good for this.

5. Canned goods. We still use canned items for some things. It is up to the buyer if they feel that is not making any waste. For us we do not have the time or the means to cook that many items, and while we are switching to dry bulk beans we can’t cook tomatoes every time I want a pasta sauce. It is too much and too time consuming, so I buy cans and recycle them appropriately. We don’t like most canned items though and prefer fresh to canned.

And that’s it, that is how we shop. We are usually done in about a half hour, depends on how long we debate on the things we need. We don’t hit any other areas of the store unless I need sparkling water (which comes in cardboard and aluminum cans that are infinitely recycled) otherwise we just stick to the fresh or canned items and I started making most items at home. I just made homemade vegan tortillas, I can make pretzels, bread, pancakes, cookies and cake all from home so we don’t worry about a grain intake. My next task is homemade pasta and we should be set on everything we need to eat and enjoy.

Zero waste may seem like an impossible thing to accomplish but it really isn’t. And if you start small you can make huge strides in reducing waste for the environment. Instead of grabbing a pre-packaged bag of lettuce, or apples, grab the fresh unpackaged kind. Sometimes it’s cheaper! I really like being able to pick each individual fruit or veggie personally. Then I know that I’m not getting a rotten or smooshed one at the bottom. You may not be able to find iceberg lettuce without plastic but Romaine lettuce comes loose. And while buying unpackaged certainly helps reduce waste we still have to deal with the pesky stickers and rubber bands on items. While we may not be able to 100% reduce waste we can make huge steps by making little changes.

We have found it is easy to make these changes and to start making most items at home. If we want juice, we just juice it. It’s tastier and healthier. This lifestyle also forces you to eat healthier since you can’t really get unhealthy items in bulk. Besides the occasional bulk candy (which I hardly buy because I forget candy comes in bulk 99% of the time) we eat a Whole Foods, no meat diet and it’s so much healthier. If you still eat meat and animal products you can still do this life. Some milk comes in glass bottles, you can bring your own container for meat and buy eggs in cardboard containers vs styrofoam. Once you start you really see how simple this life is.

So, happy zero waste shopping. If you want to see how I zero waste (and naturally too) clean then comment down below! I have tips on how to keep your cleaning routine safe, natural and pretty much zero waste. What are some zero waste tips you can share? I would love to hear from other zero wasters on how they manage in their area.

Have a great, trash free, day!

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