This Zero Waste thing sounds good in theory, but how can you take the principles and easily adapt it into your every day life? That’s the challenge, and today I’m here to help with one of the biggest offenders of packaging and single-use plastics: The Grocery Store. Just think about it. They have handy little plastic baggies to separate and weigh vegetables. Sometimes they even have each individual vegetable vacuum packed in it’s own plastic! Meat comes on styrofoam platters wrapped in plastic, which takes over ONE MILLION YEARS to decompose. Yes, one million. I wish I had learned that little fact earlier in life so I could have avoided it sooner! Things just continue down the line as you progress further down your grocery list. Boxed pastas, bagged flours, individual containers sold in larger groups. Then you get to the checkout and things are placed into plastic sacks for easier carrying. Do you know how many of those bags are recycled? Less than 5%. Considering we as Americans consume over 100 BILLION bags per year, that’s a lotta bags in the landfill. I like to save the ones that cycle through our house, but over time I hope to completely eliminate plastic bags from our home and use completely. Anyway, you get the picture. Conventional grocery shopping practices are incredibly wasteful, and over time we’ve adapted to it since it’s the only thing we’ve known how to shop. I grew up with the bags, and boxes, and cans. But! Here are a few very easy ways we can do things differently to make BIG changes.
First up: the reusable bag. I know, I know, I forget them sometimes too. But I’m able to do all my shopping in just four bags, which get wiped down or washed in between uses. I haven’t had to use plastic bags from the grocery store in over a month since taking more time to plan out my trips. I have a few different cloth bags collected over time (you know the drill, from handouts, conventions, random goody bags and such) but you can also try to source eco-friendly commercial bags or totes, or even make your own from worn out fabrics and belts! Even produce bags. I decided to go with these Earthwise produce bags to completely cut out the flimsy plastics when I’m grabbing mushrooms or peas. There’s also a lot of great tutorials on how to make them from old t-shirts. But you’ve all heard about reusable bags for a while now. Let’s move on to the fun stuff!
The Bulk Section.
Image from Swamplot
Most HEB stores will have a bulk section. I’ve also seen them at Brookshire Brothers, and other grocers in Texas. You may be wondering, why should I buy in bulk? Well this is where you’ll want to go to reduce your packaging consumption. You can also adjust your sizes and not be tied down into whatever portion the manufacturers decided for you. So, if you need one cup of beans, you get one cup of beans. If you only think you’ll use a tablespoon of some random, obscure spice, you can get that! The bulk sections vary, but they tend to have a wide selection of spices, nuts, beans, grains, and treats. I can usually find gluten-free flours like coconut, almond, and even arrowroot. There are so many different organic and natural options too! I can’t usually find organic beans in the aisles, but they’re here in the bulk section. Along with raw nuts, which are great for paleo eaters because I can make my own preservative-free almond milk and cashew cream. This does require a bit of planning, because I need to pack jars and reusable baggies for weighing and storing. So now I make my list and pack my “grocery kit” the night before, which has my bags, produce bags, jars, and weighing baggies as well as a wax pencil for any marking I may need to do.
Things work a bit differently than some other stores, and it took some trial and error to find a good system. At first, I weighed my jars, marked them, filled them, re-weighed them and marked the filled weight then subtracted the tare and wrote and circled the net weight. Um…yeah. Not only was that a lot of math, but the cashiers and managers HATED me. I still feel bad about that. I’m notorious at the Dripping Springs store as “That Hippie Girl” who lost them a whole bunch of money one day when the cashier gave up in exasperation and just entered in random numbers for all my bulk goods. So, don’t be like Newbie Me. I was learning my way. Now, however, this is my “Manager Approved” method:
First I fill up my jar with the item I need. This time it was black pepper. (please excuse my horrible photos, but I didn’t also want to add “that weirdo blog girl” to my reputation with a big camera taking photos in the bulk section, so I just sneakily snapped pics with my phone) I bring my own reusable bag. This is a Neat-Os bag, which is pretty darn awesome (and means I don’t have to buy zip lock bags ever again!) Now I’ll be honest with you. The tare weight of the plastic baggies is .001 and my Neat-Os bag is .004 so there is a tiny, tiny difference in price. If you are a stickler for saving money, you can pick up one of the provided plastic bags and reuse it for all your bulk weights and bring it home and wash it to use next time. But I find that difference to be so minuscule that I would rather go with my easy, more durable Neat-Os. If I’m weighing larger items like chocolate chips or nuts, I just use the lighter produce bag. Okay, moving on.
I pour the contents of the jar into the bag. Why? Because it’s obviously lighter in the jar. And while it may seem like it makes sense to just fill and weigh the bag, THEN pour, I want to make sure I have the correct amount in the jar first and it isn’t over or under filled. So, I fill the bag, enter the code, weigh it, and put the printout sticker on my jar. There’s just no way out of the stickers at these stores, sadly. It’s the only way the cashiers can ring up the purchases because they would have to add the weight of your jar at the register. But a small piece of paper that can biodegrade is better than a larger baggie, so I take what I can get at the moment. Once that’s finished, I pour the contents back into the jar from the bag, and then start over with my next item.
Now, you may need to bring a few bags to prevent cross-contamination. I try to plan things in order and do solid items like beans first, then flours, then spices. It takes a few tries to figure out the system that works for you. But don’t be discouraged! Once you get into the swing of things it goes by very quickly and you’re no longer spending an hour in the bulk section 😉
The Meat Section:
Now as I mentioned before, most of the meat sits in coolers on display, where you casually walk by and grab pre-packaged goods. In an effort to A) eat better quality food and B) reduce my consumption of packaging and styrofoam, I decided to stop first at the meat market to get individual cuts. Now, Bea recommends bringing glass containers and asking them to put the meat into the glass instead of the paper. But I haven’t called up the courage for that just yet, so I have the meat packed in freezer paper which I then toss into our “dirty” compost pile out back to decompose. (note: I don’t use meat-tainted materials in my garden. It’s more like an open-air recycling area where things can break down without being packed into a landfill) Sometimes I can’t avoid the packaged meats, but I’m trying to work out alternative sources for them. We’ve already run out of our home-raised chicken, so occasionally I buy a package at the store. You don’t have to go all-or-nothing on your first round with Zero Waste. I’m treating it as a process. We are striving to go completely packaging-free, but in the mean time I’m not being heavy-handed about it. This is just supposed to provide a jumping off point for others who are also interested in bringing Zero Waste practices into their homes. It can be intimidating and overwhelming to try and find an answer for every problem right away. So this is a learn-as-we-go blog series. I hope you enjoyed a glimpse into the methods of my new madness, and hopefully it inspired you to make a few changes in your grocery shopping trips as well!