How to go zero-waste at the grocery store

You don't need to buy anything to start.
produce in recyclable bags
You don't even have to buy fancy eco-friendly bags to start. Markus Spiske / Unsplash

The idea of an existence free from single-use plastic is intoxicating. Sometimes it even seems imperative, what with the World Economic Forum saying the ocean will be filled with more plastic than fish by 2050. But the idea of a zero-waste lifestyle can also sound intimidating and unattainable. This is especially true when you think about everything you buy each week and realize how much of it is just made to be thrown in the trash.

Fortunately, reducing the waste we produce doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In fact, there’s plenty we can do on an individual level to help keep single-use out of use, starting with a simple trip to the grocery store.

What is zero-waste?

As the name implies, zero-waste is a way of living that produces as little waste as possible. And it’s not just something universities, cities, and states are increasingly committing to—it’s an achievable mission for individuals and families, too. At this level, zero-waste means buying fewer single-use products and repurposing reusable items as often as you can, all with the goal of throwing less garbage into overflowing landfills.

People throw away their weight in garbage every month, and in addition to creating environmental and public health issues, we’re running out of room to store it all. Throwing plastic in the recycle bin isn’t an ideal solution, either: In 2018, we recycled only 8.7 percent of plastics, due in large part to non-recyclable items contaminating the process.

[Related: Can zero-waste stores be affordable for everyone?]

From a practical standpoint, zero-waste living includes compost bins for food scraps, reusable silicone bags instead of disposable zip-tops, glass jars instead of plastic containers, and buying food from bulk bins or in cardboard packaging.

It’s easier to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle if you think of products in a circular way instead of in the typical linear manner of buy-use-trash-repeat. When you’re at the store, ask yourself if you can use what you’re purchasing just once or if you’ll be able to reuse it and recycle it. For example, you can repurpose a glass jar and even if you don’t have alternative uses for it, it can be recycled infinitely. A plastic bag, on the other hand, is difficult to recycle (if at all) and will promptly end up in a landfill or in waterways.

A common mistake is thinking zero-waste is only for the wealthy. Yes, filling your fridge with local, organic farmers market produce, buying lip balm packaged in cardboard, and avoiding single-use plastic entirely can be resource-intensive—but it doesn’t have to be. 

In fact, according to Isaias Hernandez, environmental justice & sustainability advocate, educator, and creator of Queer Brown Vegan, shopping with the goal of creating less waste is about asking how we can extend ourselves to a deeper level of thinking. This means thinking less about the things you can buy to reduce waste and more about what happens to those products once you’re done with them. 

Tips for shopping zero-waste

First, know that you don’t have to buy a single thing to create less waste with your grocery shopping. 

“It’s important to remember the most eco-friendly thing you can do is use what you already have,” says Kathryn Kellogg, the founder of sustainable lifestyle website Going Zero Waste.

Use every drop of cooking oil or toothpaste. Learn how to store food so it lasts longer. Repurpose salsa jars for leftovers. Use any old bag-like item to carry bulk products—Hernandez recommends pillowcases and the like. Don’t feel the need to go purchase fancy new “eco-friendly” products when things you already have will work just as well.

Then get shopping. Become familiar with the bulk bins at grocery stores near you and bring glass jars or reusable bags to fill with things like grains, beans, nuts, and dried fruit. Farmers’ markets are also a great way to score produce that’s often free from packaging.

If neither is a practical option for you, choose items in glass or metal packaging as they are easier to recycle. Cardboard creates less waste, too, as it is both recyclable and biodegradable.

In the produce department, opt for whole, fresh produce and forego the plastic produce bags or pre-cut products in disposable containers. Leave fruit and vegetables loose in your cart or bring your own reusable bags if you don’t want to fumble with a dozen apples.

If you never seem to remember your reusable shopping bags, leave a few in the backseat of your car or, as Kellogg suggests, clip several small packable bags together and attach them to your key ring or on your bike so they’re always available.

Then, proceed to create less waste by buying less. According to studies, 40 percent of food in the US is wasted, so take stock of how much you actually eat so you don’t end up throwing anything out. Also, consider replacing that one big weekly haul with more short trips to the grocery store so you only buy exactly what you need.

If you’re feeling ambitious and have the space, learn to compost food scraps, including peels, cores, and eggshells, and use them to fertilize your plants.

Also, keep in mind expiration dates are not federally regulated and don’t indicate an actual deadline by which food becomes inedible—they’re more of a guideline for freshness than a hard-and-fast rule. So don’t just toss food because it’s past the date on the package. 

“It’s always best to do a taste and smell test before throwing things out,” Kellogg suggests.

Avoid single-serve snacks and instead buy larger quantities that you can separate into your own smaller reusable containers at home. Skip bottled water—tap water is actually more regulated than what you can find at the store, so stick with what you get at home. If you don’t like the taste of your water, investing in a filter is a great idea.

[Related: How to keep food, plastic, and fabric out of the landfill]

As for other household items, swap disposables like paper towels, napkins, plastic wrap, and baggies with reusable waste-free alternatives like cloth towels, reusable wax wraps, washable silicone bags, resealable storage containers, and more. As a bonus, you’ll save money in the long run.

Finally, if you have the capacity, make products like yogurt, tomato sauce, and snack bars at home instead of buying them in disposable packaging. If you’re really feeling adventurous, take a foraging course or learn how to grow your own herbs and vegetables. Then, when you do have to buy stuff, opt for packaging you can upcycle: you can use jars to store tomorrow’s lunch, and hot sauce bottles for homemade salad dressing. The options are endless.

Every bit matters

According to Hernandez, zero-waste grocery shopping, just like sustainability in general, is a spectrum. 

“Don’t focus on perfectionism,” he says, especially if doing so has a negative impact on your physical or mental health. 

He suggests starting with a question: How can I reduce waste by 10 percent? Look at your cart, take stock of how much plastic and waste is there, and make one swap at a time as it’s feasible and practical. You’ll be reducing the amount of waste you create in no time.