Posts in groceries
10 easy steps to low-waste groceries

Yesterday, at Sprouts grocery store, I saw more people than ever shopping the bulk section with cloth bags! Fantastic! I was delighted, and give huge props to Sprouts: they’ve started selling their own cloth bags and are using marketing to encourage their use.

However, people seemed confused about how to mark the PLU number on their bulk items. A few were using twist ties (wasteful!) while others were writing the numbers on their grocery lists. I offered up my washable marker once or twice, and the recipients seemed slightly perplexed at why I cared about their grocery shopping experience, but also grateful.

My point here is, even whey you’re trying to reduce your waste, there can be a lot of logistical roadblocks. So to keep things as simple as possible, here’s my 10-step guide to buying low waste groceries:

  • one // Make a list. Divide it into sections:

    • bulk items

    • produce

    • deli

    • “middle of the store” items

  • two // At home, gather your materials:

    • cloth bags for produce and bulk

    • a washable marker

    • large reusable grocery bags

    • empty glass milk containers (if applicable)

    • a couple sturdy containers for the deli counter (if desired)

  • three // Go to the store. Walk or bike if you can!

  • four // Stop in the bulk section for any products that were on your list. You want to make sure you have enough bags for the things you really need. Use your washable marker to write the PLU code in large numbers on the outside of the bag, and then fill with the desired amount.

  • five // Shop produce. When you’re putting your produce in the cart, place it away from your bulk items so any moisture from the produce doesn’t touch the washable marker on your bulk bags. Put things in reusable produce bags if they fall into one of these four categories:

    • You’re buying several of one item (eg. apples or oranges); this will help the cashier weigh them.

    • You’re going to eat the outside of the item and don’t want to wash it (I put many items directly in my cart: cucumbers, cabbage, apples, peppers… but I wash them before eating).

    • You’re buying different types of a similar food. For example, I like to try many kinds of tangerines and oranges. It can get confusing for the cashier if they have to sort by type. (And sometimes you might be charged more if they lump them all together under the code for the most expensive type!)

    • The item is delicate. Such as lettuce and other greens, broccoli, stone fruits, pears, mushrooms, etc.

  • six // Shop the middle of the store for low-waste items such as:

    • Pasta in cardboard boxes.

    • Legumes and other items in aluminum cans.

    • Sauces, salsas, and juice in glass containers.

    • Beverages in cans.

  • seven // Return to the bulk section to use up your remaining bags (as desired). Look for items you commonly eat that are on sale or other new treats you might want to try. The beauty of bulk is you don’t have to buy very much. I often get just a handful of something new to see how we like it.

  • eight // Go to the deli counter and politely request they put your meat or cheese in your own container(s). I’ve never had anyone say “no” to me here in Denver, but I’ve heard it can be difficult in other cities depending on their health codes and ordinances. I do, however, stay close by and watch carefully to refuse any plastic they might slip in. Often the deli worker feels weird about putting the sticker directly on my container so they try to put it on a plastic bag and hand that to me. Obviously, this defeats the purpose, so just enthusiastically tell them they can stick it right to your container!

  • nine // Hit up the dairy section for milk, eggs, butter, etc. I buy local dairy milk in reusable glass bottles. I always check the back of the fridge for ones with later expiration dates. I also buy two cartons 18 eggs every time I go to the store. Eggs keep for a long time. Butter is unfortunately hard to buy without packaging. I buy the biggest package available; sometimes you can get a pound of butter in one wrapper instead of 4 individually-wrapped sticks.

  • ten // Check out. Watch carefully so the cashier doesn’t put a rubber band on your eggs or put something in a plastic bag. Sometimes they have questions or comments about my reusable bags, but usually they just figure it out. I assume they experience all kinds of quirky behavior with patrons!

de-plastic your food storage

I’m always up for talking about all things low waste with anyone who is interested. I know many people who want to decrease the plastic in their lives, particularly in their kitchens, but are unsure how to get rid of it completely. The “final frontier” for many seems to be figuring out how to de-plastic their food storage in the refrigerator.

This has definitely been my journey: I figured out how to buy food without plastic, but then once I was home, I would put my carrots or salad greens in a (reused) plastic bag or plastic container to store them. But in the past 6 months, after reading more about the health concerns of plastic, I’ve been working to de-plasticize my fridge. With some trial and error, I’ve figured out methods that work. There once was a time when we stored food for long periods of time without plastic. It is possible, people!

I also recently discovered the amazing website Save The Food. It’s devoted to ways to minimize food waste, which is a HUGE problem. Their section on storing food is phenomenal; they give lots of plastic-free storage solutions. Search by item! And don’t waste your food.

But to save you some time, here’s a quick rundown of how I’ve been storing produce without plastic (alphabetized by item):

Apples // Leave loose in the crisper.

Broccoli // Cut stalks at the bottom and submerge in water to store in fridge. I use a loaf baking pan.

Brussels Sprouts // Store in the fridge in an open container such as a jar, bowl, or breathable bag.

Carrots // Submerge in water and store in the fridge. I use a baking pan.

Celery // Give stalks a fresh cut and then stand upright in a jar with water in the fridge.

Corn cobs // Wrap in a damp towel and store in fridge for 1-2 days.

Cucumbers // Wrap in a damp cloth and keep away from apples in the fridge.

Green beans // Store in the fridge in an open container such as a jar, bowl, or breathable bag.

Green onions/scallions // Put in a breathable bag or open container.

Kale, lettuce, chard, herbs // Wash leaves and give bottoms a fresh cut. Store upright in a pint glass or jar, as you would flowers in vase. Keep in fridge.

Mushrooms // Store in a breathable bag or open container. Use ASAP.

Radishes // Wash and cut off greens. Put in the fridge in an open jar with just a bit of water in the bottom.

What are your tricks and tips? Please share!

low-waste snack ideas

One of the main reasons people buy food in packaging is for convenience. Right? That’s why I used to. Individual servings of chips, applesauce, granola bars etc. make it easy to pack lunches for yourself or your kids. Therefore, when you “give up” these individual packaged snack foods (which I would obviously recommend you do!), it can feel a bit daunting to have to come up with other snacks.

As a first step, you can always try just buying the food you like in the larger size…not zero waste but less packaging. But if you want to take it a step further and try to eliminate the packaging altogether, fear not: there are still tons of snacks available!

Easy “finger” foods:

  • Pasta (maybe tossed with some pesto)

  • chopped veggies

  • apple slices

  • chickpeas or lima beans (make your own from bulk or buy in cans)

Foods that come in their own “packaging:”

  • bananas

  • oranges

  • lychees (find at Asian markets)

  • snap peas

  • hard-boiled eggs

Foods that come in bulk*:

  • sesame sticks

  • nuts

  • dried fruits (mango is usually a hit!)

  • peanut butter pretzels

  • granola

  • trail mixes

  • plantain chips

  • popcorn

  • veggie chips

  • dark chocolate pieces or chips

  • chocolate-covered fruit or nuts

  • “real fruit” gummy bears (these are basically fruit snacks)

My favorite recipes for snack foods:
Most of these are freezable either after they’re baked or in their pre-cooked form. Keep a stash of any or all in the freezer for your snacking needs!

Snacks/recipes I want to try:

foods i {sometimes} buy in packaging

Below a picture from a trip I made to Safeway about 2 years ago. This was, clearly, earlier in my zero-waste “journey.” I used to buy some of these items regularly. Now, they are things I only buy a few times a year if I’m really in a food jam or it’s a special treat.

Nevertheless, these items show some of the challenges of shopping without packaging. There are many items you just can’t get. There was a time when I’d buy things anyway…I’d say to myself “well, raspberries only come in plastic, so that’s my only option.” But now, I just won’t buy raspberries. There are so many other fruits available without packaging. It’s hardly a sacrifice!

There are probably less than 1,000 people in the whole world who are actually going to sort of achieve a zero-waste lifestyle. For the rest of us, we have to use our consumer power to “vote.” If we won’t buy things in plastic packaging, we’re sending a message that we want different options. This is our power. Ask the manager at the store. Email the company. There are a lot of ways to make your opinion known. Don’t be shy; express it! And, if you really truly want the raspberries, get them!

1. Pasta. For some reason, pasta is rarely available in the bulk section. Occasionally I've found whole wheat macaroni at Whole Foods and tri-color rotini at Sprouts. But you can't count on it. So, I usually buy pasta in as much paper or cardboard packaging as possible (instead of in plastic bags). It's hard to find a box that's 100% recyclable, but most stores have pasta in cardboard boxes with just a tiny bit of plastic.

2. Alternative milk. I buy cow's milk in reusable glass bottles. I sometimes make nut milks at home. I buy coconut milk in cans. But as a family of 5, we go through a good amount of milk in coffee, cereal, etc. Tetra-pak (shown above, what many milks come in) is not at all a good choice. It's terribly difficult to recycle because it's a combination of plastic, aluminum and paper. Denver now has facilities to recycle it (as do most major U.S. cities), but it's questionable how many cartons are actually being captured and whether or not the material salvaged can really be used in any meaningful way. I buy in moderation and try to buy in a plastic jug if possible. because simply plastic is actually more recyclable.

3. Bread. Thanks to my mom, I have an awesome recipe for homemade bread. I make it regularly. If I don't have it in me to bake, I try to buy a loaf of bread without packaging from a local bakery. But let’s face it: life happens and the kids still need school lunches. Occasionally I buy bread at the grocery. I like this Dave's bread because it's one of few on the market that doesn't have added sugar. Plus it has a good amount of protein per slice. I reuse the bags and then take them back to the store recycling bins for plastic film.

4. Tuna + Beans. Aluminum is one of the most sustainable forms of packaging. Cans contain more recycled content than plastic or glass containers. They are easily melted and reformed into more packaging. They're light to ship. If a type of product is available in aluminum I will chose that over glass or plastic 100% of the time. When I occasionally buy my kids juice, I buy pineapple juice that comes in cans.

5. Yogurt. This is the worst thing I buy! Even though I've started making yogurt at home, and my kids enjoy it, when given the option to pick a "special treat" at the store, they often choose a fancy yogurt. They love the novelty of it, I guess? I hate it. I’ve gotten better at saying “no” or opting for the ones in glass instead, but occasionally I cave. I’m human. I like making my kids happy, and yogurt is a lot better than many things they could pick. I recycle the plastic...but that doesn't really make it much better.

6. Produce stickers and tags. Not much we can do about these unless the industry standards change. Even farmers' markets often have produce with stickers. I try to take the stickers off as soon as I get home so we don't accidentally compost them (on banana peels, avocado skin, etc.).

7. Tortillas. We eat a lot of tortillas. I really want to get a tortilla press and learn how to make my own, but in the meantime I reuse the resealable bags for storing food and produce.

8. Frozen peas. I buy almost all of our produce without packaging. But peas are the vegetable my kids will consume the most of, and so I like to have a “back up” bag in freezer for those times when there aren't any other vegetables in the house or I'm super tired or lazy. I wish fresh peas were more available. Maybe this summer I can find a bunch and shell them an freeze. #goals


Other things I occasionally buy with problematic packaging:

  • Cheese

  • Fish/seafood

  • Tofu

  • Dates

  • Potato chips

  • Frozen foods at the Asian grocery - dumplings, baozi, etc.

Foods we love but I try not to buy because of their packaging:

  • Clementines

  • Grapes

  • Cherry tomatoes

  • Baby carrots

  • Rice cakes

  • Crackers

What about you? Do you think about the packaging on the foods you buy? What tips do you have to share? 

ten first steps to reducing household waste

one. // Use what you ALREADY own.
Being “eco-friendly” is trendy. There are stores that will sell you many things to help you go forth on your “zero-waste” journey. Some of these things are very useful (metal straws). Some of these things are beautiful but not necessary (Wreck jars). Use up the things you already own. Using items that are already in your life is always better than supporting the manufacturing of new materials. Even if those companies are sustainable and ethical. Just a few examples of many:

  • There are some health reasons to avoid using plastic for food, but you can still find other uses for the plastic containers lying around your house. Use them to organize toys, or screws and other hardware.

  • If you’re having a party, don’t buy new decorations; decorate with what you have!

  • Shop your closet before buying new clothes. You probably have forgotten about some of the things you own.

  • Break out your grandma’s china. It should be used more than once a year!

  • Have you kids make art projects with “trash” instead of buying new art supplies.


two. // Buy LESS and buy USED.
The cold, hard truth is that the world is against us in this crusade. It might change in the future, but for now we live in a disposable economy and it’s incredible hard to avoid having trash come into your life. The best way to create less waste is to just consume less. When you need or want something, first shop your house. Maybe you have something like it that you’ve forgotten about. If not, ask around. Maybe you can borrow it or get it for cheap from someone you know. If that fails, buy it used. There are lots of online or local consignment options.

Food is obviously a semi-exception to this point because you have to buy some amount of food. It’s still a good area to think about buying less (statistics about wasted food are crazy!) but when talking about shopping for food, this is an area it’s more important to consider the packaging…

three. // If you have to buy, CONSIDER the PACKAGING and the MATERIAL.
Best choice = buy without packaging.
Better choice = buy with compostable packaging.
Good choice = buy in paper, glass, or aluminum packaging.
Less than ideal choice = buy in recyclable plastic packaging.
Worst choice = buy in non-recyclable packaging.

Packaging is pretty easy to “rate” but the material of the product can be harder. But the key question to ask yourself is “what is going to happen to this when I can’t use it anymore?” For this reason, I try to buy mostly clothing of organic fibers and toys made of wood or paper. And you always want to think about the quality of the item. If it’s really high-quality plastic that won’t likely ever break or is something you’ll use for years and years to come, then you should buy it!

four. // COMPOST and seek out COMPOSTABLE items.
Food scraps, brown paper bags, pizza boxes, wine corks, tissues, tissue paper, paper towels, paper napkins, toothpicks, bamboo = all compostable. Many cities, including Denver, have city-wide compost collection. It’s pretty ridiculous that in Denver we have to pay for it yet trash is free. However, the bin is large, so you can certainly share with several neighbors to defray the cost. Backyard compost is always an option too; look for free 101 classes at your local library or through the city.

If you need a single-use option, try to find one that’s compostable. It’s easy to order food “for here” at a coffee shop or restaurant and then pick it up off the plate with a compostable napkin. Much better than getting a plastic container! However, you should always try to use reusables before turning to compostable paper products. Paper towels, plates, tissues, etc. all take a lot of resources to manufacture and ship. This makes them less ideal for the environment.

five. // Develop a “rag system.”
In our house, we use different-sized towels or cloths for all kinds of tasks:

  • Towels are for kitchen clean up.

  • Large rags are for one-time messes like Zoë’s food on the floor.

  • Small cloths are used as baby wipes, tissues, or as toilet paper.

  • We use tablecloths and cloth napkins.

  • Cloth produce bags are for grocery shopping and taking food on the go.

After use, baby wipes (and cloth diapers) go in a wet bag and all the other soiled cloths are thrown in a big laundry basket in our unused downstairs shower. Everything gets washed on the “Sanitize” cycle in the washing machine and is used again. Our towels are an assortment of dish towels, and all the smaller cloths are cut-up old clothes. When I am out of the house I will sometimes throw away a “baby wipe” cloth. I figure the old clothing was destined for the landfill anyway, so at least it got a few more uses.

This is our system, but there are lots of ways you could do it depending on your family’s needs and your house/washing set-up. Also, everyone has a different tolerance for and understanding of germs…do what you’re comfortable with but I’m sure you can come up with a system that works for you!

six. // Use CLOTH BAGS and a WASHABLE MARKER at the grocery store.
Stock pile a whole bunch of cloth bags to use at the grocery for produce and bulk items. These can be bags you have bought (I, personally, avoid bags made of synthetic fiber, but that’s a personal choice), bags you already have (I have several cloth bags that purses or other items came in like TOMS shoes), or you can make your own if you’re a sewer (make me some too, please!).

The washable marker is to write the PLU number on your cloth bags for bulk items. The cashier can then see it clearly and it’ll wash right out in the laundry. If your grocery requires you to print out stickers for bulk items, your hands are probably tied, but you can always ask!

(A more “advanced” option is to take your own jars to places like Whole Foods that will tare them for you, but I don’t recommend tackling this if you’re just starting out.)

seven. // RECYCLE but only minimally. REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, REPAIR and ROT are all better choices!
Recycling is not the answer, particularly when it comes to plastic. Plastic gets downgraded each time it’s recycled and there’s not much of a market for thin/cheap plastic. I often hear people complain that their recycling bin is overflowing every week and they wish it got picked up by the city more often than their trash is collected. I agree with this to a certain extent, but if your recycling bin is super full, then you should still take a closer look at your materials consumption. Recyclables often end up in the landfill.

eight. // ANALYZE your waste.
Everyone is different and we all consume different types of products. Check out your own trash and recycling bins to see what you are throwing away on a regular basis. Ask yourself if you could procure those items in a different or better way.

Examples from my house:

  • Yogurt containers. Even though I was buying the big tubs of yogurt, we’d still have one in our recycle bin each week. As a first response, I started buying yogurt in a glass jar. That helped from the waste perspective, but it was expensive. I then started making my own yogurt which has worked really well for us. And it’s really not that hard!

  • Bread. We eat a lot of bread, and it was our main source of plastic bags. I used to occasionally bake bread, but now I’ve found a recipe that I can make weekly to keep us stocked. If I don’t get my act together to bake, I try to get to a local bakery and buy a package-free loaf.

nine. // Don’t be too SELF-CONSCIOUS.
Eighty years ago, people would have thought the idea of using something one time and then throwing it out was absolutely bonkers. But, today, it’s the norm. When you challenge the norm, people sometimes get a bit confused. When I first started asking for drinks without straws people looked at me like I had three heads. But now, they often reply, “oh of course, we don’t use straws anymore!”

The grocery worker often thinks I’m a bit weird when I ask them to put deli meat or salmon in my Tupperware, but then, sometimes, they have an “ah-ha” moment when they’ll respond “oh wow, that’s a good idea!” My family has rolled their eyes at me more than a few times, but I have observed subtle changes in their own behavior over the years. If refusing single-use packaging is important to you, just be friendly and polite, and usually you’ll get a decent response. Sometimes you’ll get a dirty look or a “no,” but just keep on trying!

ten. // Remember THIS:
All the plastic ever created still exists. It won’t go away in a period of time that we can conceptualize. That one fact keeps me up at night, but has helped me dramatically change my behaviors of consumption!

Now, go forth and reduce your waste. Fist bump, friends!