Zero Waste Shopping for the Organizationally Challenged

When I recently inventoried the contents of my family’s garbage and recycling bins I found that most of what was inside these containers came from food related packaging. For ideas on how to reduce this type of waste I turned to one of my favorite books on this topic Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson.

In her book Bea describes how shopping in bulk has allowed her to eliminate most grocery related packaging. She uses cloth bags when purchasing dry bulk items like flour, sugar, beans, and cereal. She puts loose produce in mesh bags, and she brings small jars for “wet” bulk items like honey or peanut butter. She reuses empty bottles for liquids like olive oil, vinegar, and syrup, and large-size jars for counter items like meat, fish, cheese and deli item.

While I think these, and some of the other ideas she shares, are wonderful I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m not going to commit to the level of organization required to shop in this way. These ideas have inspired me though to look for ways to reduce packaging while shopping that don’t require a significant amount of pre-planning.

I’ve stocked up on lightweight nylon bags for carrying my groceries. They can be rolled into a self-contained pocket which makes them compact enough to keep conveniently stored in places like my car, bike basket, or purse.

When I find myself bagless, which occasionally happens when I’m making an impromptu stop for a handful of items, I pass on a bag all together and just load my items directly from the shopping cart into my car.

A little over a year ago we started buying milk in reusable glass containers. When they are empty we put in them dishwasher, which gets them clean enough to avoid lingering orders while they sit on the counter and await to be exchanged for full ones on our next shopping trip.

In my more organized moments I do make it to the store with own containers ready to shop the bulk isles for things like pasta, popcorn kernels, pretzels, cereal, and loose leaf tea.

More often then not, I arrive at the grocery store unequipped to shop in bulk, and find myself shopping the pre-packaged isles where I keep in mind that not all packaging is created equal.

When glass and paper products are recycled, they are made into equally recyclable glass and paper products. When plastic is recycled on the other hand it is really “downcycled” to an inferior quality of plastic that cannot be recycled again. So when I do purchase pre-packaged items, I try and avoid plastic and instead opt to buy items that come in glass or cardboard.

For example I’ll choose items like mayonnaise, mustard, that come in glass jars rather then plastic containers, and I’ll buy pasta that comes in a box instead of plastic wrap. I even found a brand of yogurt I like that comes in a glass container.

I’m always keeping my eye open for other plastic packaging alternatives. At the Davis Food Co-Op I found brands of dental floss and laundry detergent that are packaged in cardboard instead of plastic.

Instead of using liquid shampoo, I’ve switched to a bar shampoo, I also found at the Co-Op.

Shopping at Rite-Aid the other day I spotted small bins filled with completely packaging free tweezers, nail clipper, and nail files.

A favorite after school snack of my sons is a croissant from Nugget. Instead of buying them pre-packaged in a rigid plastic container, I pull a few from the bakery cabinet and put them either in my own bag, or a paper one provided by the store. If my son is with me, I skip the bag all together and just hand one to him.

When we host a family friendly get together I no longer purchase juice boxes for the kids. Not only are they not recyclable, the little plastic straws and plastic wrappers they come in never seem to end up in the garbage. Instead as a treat for the kids I buy juice drinks squeezes, which come in recyclable glass bottles.

Shopping for a dessert to bring to a friends family get together the other day I was happy to see that the Nugget is now offering some of their baked cookies and pies in cardboard containers rather then the rigid plastic ones.

While we are on the topic of cookies, Whole Foods offers what I like to describe as a cookie bar where I can pick and choose from a variety of 10-15 different treats, and load them into my own container, or use one of the paper bags provided.

My family is a long way from living a packaging free life. My daughters favorite yogurt only comes in a plastic container, and my sons favorite bread only comes wrapped in multiply layers of plastic, and on occasion, despite my efforts to avoid rigid plastic plastics containers the desire to eat the baked goods contained in them override my desire to live a zero-waste lifestyle. So while I don’t see myself making my own granola bars any time soon, I will continue to look for things my family can do to lessen our impact by reducing our waste.

Questions, comments, or ideas? Please feel free to contact me at michellemillet@sbcglobal.net

About Michelle Millet

Michelle is a 25-year resident of Davis. She currently serves as the Vice-Chair of the Natural Resource Commission and sits on the Executive Boards of the Explorit Science Center and Davis Bicycles! Michelle writes periodic columns for the Davis Enterprise and maintains a blog about her family's efforts to live a zero-waste lifestyle, and works as a part time substitute teacher. Michelle and her husband Mitch live in South Davis with their 11-year old daughter Emi, their 9-year old son Drew, plus their 2 dogs, and 6 chickens.

4 Responses

  1. Great post! I actually commute and started working near where you live. Do you recommend The Nugget for bulk shopping–i.e. is it comparable to Whole Foods? I have never shopped there but I pass it every day during my commute!

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