As part of my ongoing effort to reduce the amount of new plastic entering my life, I’ve developed a shopping system to avoid some common plastic packaging. First of all, I buy in bulk whenever possible – 25 pound bags of rice, pinto beans, flours, all of the staples I can find this way, to be stored either at room temperature or in my chest freezer. When I have to buy something in a smaller package, I check my options to find the product in a glass jar instead of a plastic tub, or in a paper bag instead of plastic. With a bit of sleuthing, I can almost always find a version of what I want that’s free of plastic-packaging. Here’s what I bring with me when I go to the grocery store or farmers’ market:
- Glass Jars
- Natural Waxed Paper
- Natural Waxed Paper Bags
- Cloth Bags of Varied Sizes
- Clean Old Socks and Felted Sweater Sleeves
- 1 Black Sharpie Pen
- Large Baskets
Glass Jars: Given my love for jars, it’s no surprise that my entire shopping and storage system is based on them. They’re readily available, affordable, non-toxic, closed-loop recyclable at the end of their lives, they keep insects and moisture out, and they can be used on pantry shelves and in the fridge and freezer.
I have amassed a collection of glass jars with sturdy lids, everything from Costco-sized artichoke heart jars to baby food jars, with everything in between (I use a lot of quart and pint wide-mouth Mason jars). The jars are mostly from food we’ve eaten, Freecycle, and garage sales, but once in a while I have to buy a case of new Mason jars to replace those I’ve given away and the ones I have stashed in the freezer, full of fruit or soup.
Waxed Paper & Waxed Paper Bags: I use these for small bulk items and for cheese and baked goods. I’ve found a local shop that’s happy to put my cheese on a piece of waxed paper that I’m holding instead of onto their own plastic wrap behind the counter. When I don’t want to dedicate a jar to an item that I’m buying just once, in a small quantity, I use one of the waxed paper bags. I reuse the bags and waxed paper for in packed lunches and to store food in my fridge; they last a surprisingly long time! I like this brand made with natural vegetable waxes and unbleached paper because it can be composted when it wears out.
Cloth Bags of Various Sizes: I bought a large cotton sheet at a thrift store and made myself a stack of drawstring bags. I didn’t use a pattern, I just eyeballed the sizes and stitched them up in less than an hour with my sewing machine. Some are the right size for a loaf of bread or two heads of cabbage, others are just right for nuts and dry beans, some are tiny enough for special treats from the bulk candy section of our local store. I also have a collection of the standard grocery bag-sized handled tote bags in washable fabrics.
Old Socks and Felted Wool Sweater Sleeves: I use these to protect jars. After I fill a jar at the store, I slide a clean old sock with the toe cut off or a felted wool sweater sleeve around it. Jars swaddled this way can be packed close together in my cart, bags, and baskets without breaking – Just get a good grip on them when you pick them up so the jar doesn’t slide out of its wrapper!
Black Sharpie Pen: This is the one non-recyclable plastic item in my shopping kit. It’s the best thing I’ve found for recording bulk bin numbers and tare weights (the weight of the empty container) on my jars and bags. I’m still looking for a plastic-free alternative to my Sharpies – Please let me know if you have any suggestions. I’ve tried grease pencils, but they don’t work well on waxed paper or fabric bags, and they’re not permanent on the glass jars, either. It’s awfully handy to have the tare weight recorded permanently on each of my jars.
Large Baskets: I picked up three large round baskets at our local grocery store’s annual sale of incredibly sturdy, natural fiber, fair trade Bolga Baskets. I use them for all sorts of modern hunting and gathering: groceries, hardware, garden harvests, foraging, picnics, swimming towels, potluck dish transport, dumpster diving…When my baskets get dirty, I wash them in the tub and set them outside to dry (in our rare fine weather) or on my inside drying rack. I love my baskets. Their strong sides hold and protect my jars, but I also have cloth bags that work well.
How I Use These Things: My first stop is the checkout stand, where I wait in line to ask one of the cashiers to weigh my containers and write the tare on the lid. The people who work at our local store are used to people bringing in containers from home, and they’re happy to use my Sharpie to write the tare on each of my jars.
Sometimes I’ll bring in a container that still has some food in it from my last trip – Some sugar at the bottom of the jar, but not enough for any recipe. When this happens, I stop by the cashier for an updated tare that includes this food, and ask to have it written on a piece of paper for me to hand over w/ the container when I’m checking out.
After I have a tare for everything, even my cotton bags and a representative waxed paper bag (I ask them to write the tare for that on the box of bags, so I have it for future use), I get busy filling the containers up.
I use jars for the bulk of my bulk purchases. They work well for bulk nut butters, grains, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, shredded coconut, tea, sugars, chocolate chips, etc. I prefer glass bottles with a narrower neck for liquids; that narrow neck makes for much easier pouring at home.
As I fill my jars in the bulk department, I use my Sharpie to write the item # and description on both the lid and jar. This makes it easier for me to keep each jar-lid pair together – Even for mass-produced things like quart Mason jars, the weight of individual jar-lid combos varies greatly. I use jars for items that I buy regularly, using the same jar and its dedicated lid for shopping and home storage and for return trips to the store. Sharpie ink stays on glass jars and lids through the dishwasher, making this an easy system once you’ve made your original move to jars.
Small jars and waxed paper bags are great for dry spices. I write the item number directly on the bag w/ my Sharpie and fold it closed or cinch it with a piece of string or paper and metal twisty-tie.
My cotton bags work very well for beans, nuts, pasta, and grains. They’re also perfect for fresh produce, baked goods such as bread and rolls. I don’t cinch them tightly closed until after I’ve checked out – I don’t want the cashier to have to wrestle with the drawstring to see what I’m trying to buy.
I love storing produce in my cotton gauze bags at home – I can get the bags slightly damp under the tap at home to keep produce a bit fresher for longer in the fridge, and they work equally well for things that like to stay dry.
We buy our meat in bulk once a year, so I don’t usually have to stop at the butcher’s counter. It’s worth asking at your local store’s meat and seafood areas if they can put your purchases directly into your jars or waxed paper. Whether they can do this will depend on local health department rules, but it also helps to be friendly and explain why you’re asking with patience and a sense of humor. I once got a large jar filled with seafood because the fish counter fellow thought my effort to live free from plastic packaging was slightly crazy but also amusing…And he had fun packing clams into the jar, disregarding whatever the health department rules may have been. I’ve found shopping this way to be a good time to practice that old adage, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
When I check out, I make sure the tare and bulk bin numbers are visible and easy to read, and I make darn sure to thank the cashier for their help with my system. So far, no one has complained to my face; we usually get happy excited questions and supportive comments, instead.
This isn’t the end-all zero waste grocery shopping guide, it’s just what works for me. I’d love to hear about what works for you, with your local shops and rules!