Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

Source: Trash is for Tossers

In a world choked by plastics and pollution, doing your part to help the planet can seem overwhelming. What will refusing one straw really do? How important can individual consumption patterns really be?

Although often overlooked and underappreciated, small-scale change is incredibly powerful and empowering. My roommate successfully convinced her colleagues to replace single-use plastic cups with reusable mugs at her work. My mom bought her team bamboo utensil sets as holiday gifts, eliminating much of the demand for single-use plastic utensils in her office. One person encouraging small changes can create a domino effect, inspiring people around them. Additionally, having a tangible impact is empowering for individuals trying to help the environment. At Berkeley Bowl a few weeks back, a woman approached me in the produce section. Noticing that I was putting mushrooms from the bulk section into my mesh produce bags instead of buying mushrooms wrapped in plastic, she expressed her admiration at my efforts to reduce plastic and pledged to start doing the same. Having been able to influence someone to minimize their plastic usage not only made my day, but inspired me to continue my efforts to reduce waste and to share tips with those around me. In addition to this, zero-waste shopping has saved me so much money. So, here is a beginner’s guide to a zero-waste grocery shopping trip!

(P.S. I consider waste to be things that end up in landfill AND all plastics, since plastics will almost always end up in a landfill. Glass and metal can be recycled indefinitely, and food scraps can be composted.)

  • Ditch the plastic produce bags. Mesh produce bags are one of the best things that have happened to me in terms of reducing waste. They’re inexpensive, super lightweight, and relatively easy to find in stores or online. Another great option is making your own, if you have the time. There are numerous templates and instructions online– all you need is some fabric and a needle and thread! Another Berkeley-specific option: word on the street is Stonemountain & Daughter fabrics has free fabric scraps that could work perfectly. Sustainability on a budget AND reducing fabric waste.
  • Bulk produce, when you can. It depends on the grocery store, but Berkeley Bowl has loose mushrooms and spinach. I’m not a fan of Trader Joe’s (sorry) because they wrap LITERALLY EVERYTHING in plastic. Bell peppers do not need to come in a plastic bag!! Taking the time to put loose produce in mesh bags reduces a lot of unnecessary waste.

Source: Trash is for Tossers

  • Bulk snacks are a game changer. Berkeley Bowl (can you tell there’s a theme?) has an UNREAL bulk section. Granola, pasta, spices, chili lime banana chips, pancake mix, it’s all there. Even better, they allow you to bring your own containers. Most stores have systems in place so that the weight of your container is subtracted from the total cost. Bulk food is often cheaper than packaged food because you aren’t paying for the packaging and marketing that are often responsible for increased prices. The Berkeley Student Food Collective also has bulk snacks!
  • Still not over bulk snacks- use glass jars! Try not to fall for the trap of buying mason jars for $15 or whatever people try to charge. It’s easy to reuse jars for bulk foods. I save all of my glass jars from pickles, peanut butter, pasta sauce, and jam. Just wash these out and you’re good to go.
  • Let’s get this (plastic- free) bread. I will admit, there are a lot more things people like to buy at the grocery store than produce and bulk snacks. But fear not! There are many zero-waste options out there. Try buying your bread from the bakery! Specifically bread that comes in a compostable paper bag without those plastic windows. More importantly, fresh baked bread is SO good.
  • But what about…? Milk!! Ice cream!! The TetraPak cartons that dairy and non-dairy milk often comes in can be composted by the City of Berkeley (shoutout to hemp milk, the love of my life). I *think* Berkeley accepts ice cream cartons for compost, but honestly I’m not too sure. I’ll probably email Ecology Center after writing this. If you’re really into it, some places will let you bring your own container to get a pint of ice cream (another shoutout to Scoop in Fairfax).
  • TOFU. Berkeley Bowl at it again. In the alternative meats section, there is a bin of bulk tofu. All you need to do is bring your own container! It is SO cheap (69 cents per block of tofu, no lie) and tastes delicious. I thought shopping zero-waste meant no more tofu. I was wrong.
  • Drink up. Kombucha almost always comes in recyclable glass bottles anyways, but Berkeley Bowl has KOMBUCHA ON TAP which is just way more fun than regular kombucha. Bring your biggest bottle and fill up! This is more cost effective, since you pay five cents for every glass bottle you purchase.
  • Peanut butter (jelly) time. Some grocery stores have grind-your-own peanut butter. So delicious, and so much cheaper. You’ll likely need to weigh your container before you go, just like other bulk foods. Whole Foods on Telegraph in Berkeley has this. Yummy!
  • Scrub a dub. Berkeley Bowl and the Berkeley Student Food collective have bulk liquid and solid soaps, as well as other toiletries. Dr. Bronner’s is a great bulk liquid soap for doing just about anything, AND they’re leading by example right now by sourcing from one of the only sustainable palm oil plantations.
  • Treat yo’self. Try and find chocolate that is packaged in stiff paper, like cardstock, and foil. These things can typically be recycled.
  • Get creative. If something you like can’t be bought without packaging, don’t be afraid to try making it at home! I make my own hummus now and not only is it super easy but it tastes so good. Same story with tortillas. As a busy college student it often feels like I barely have time to eat and far less time to cook, but I’ve found that making my own food when possible can be relaxing and gives me more autonomy over my consumption patterns.
  • Bring your own bags! You may already know this, but I cannot stress enough how important it is! A reusable bag is far less likely to break on you than a paper bag anyways. Also, paper can’t be recycled forever, so it’s best to avoid it when possible.
  • Say no to the receipt. If you can get it emailed, even better. Most receipts contain so much plastic (including BPA, a possible carcinogen) that they can’t be recycled. Try taking a picture of the total at checkout instead!

The first time you try doing a zero waste shopping trip, give yourself time. It may take a while to get used to not just grabbing and going, but the rewards are so wonderful. Minimal waste AND a smaller bill? A win-win! Obviously this is not the solution to end all environmental problems, but I honestly think it’s really fun. Above all, don’t forget that you don’t have to be perfectly zero waste. Every little step helps. The change starts with you. Happy shopping!

Kira Barsten

Kira Barsten is a senior majoring in Society and Environment with a concentration in Global Environmental Politics and double minoring in Peace and Conflict Studies and Conservation and Resource Studies. She is passionate about zero waste and minimizing her personal environmental footprint, as well as environmental politics, justice, and policy. She has been involved with the environmental community on campus through ECO-sponsored ASUC senator offices, the Berkeley Student Food Collective, undergraduate research, and Epsilon Eta. In her free time, she enjoys backpacking, climbing, skiing, and watching as many sunrises and sunsets as possible. Kira Barstein covers conscious consumerism and capitalism’s impact on the environment.

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