There is nothing better than coming home to a fully stocked refrigerator. We love food and could spend days making new and delicious recipes, but in order for us to do this … we have to tackle the ever-dreaded task of going to the grocery store. Some people love food shopping excursions, but between the lines and the ubiquity of plastic containers, bags, and wasteful packaging, the grocery store can become a Green Monster’s worst nightmare.
We understand that our food habits have an impact on the planet and animals, so we try to be as mindful as possible when selecting what we eat to decrease our water and carbon footprint. However, we rarely think about the impact of packaging waste. Bringing cloth bags for groceries is a great way to reduce the footprint of our food shopping waste, but what about all the other bits and pieces of plastic and packaging that are involved in these weekly treks?
Beyond Plastic Bags
According to the EPA, containers, and packaging account for 23 percent of all landfill waste. Around 12 percent (13 million tons) of this consists of plastic. As we know, plastic packaging tends to find its way into waterways which poses a serious threat to the world’s marine life … and frankly, us too. Around 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface is plastic. Plastic is petroleum-based and when it begins to break down, it leaches toxic chemicals, endocrine disruptors, and neurotoxins into the environment. This can cause reproductive problems along with a host of other issues for marine species, not to mention these chemicals are often fat-soluble so when humans eat seafood, they are also ingesting these harmful chemicals.
In a similar manner, these chemicals can also leach into the foods that we store in plastic containers. Phthalates, BPA, and a number of other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that show up in plastics have been shown to pose significant risk to human health. The less plastic you use, especially for things you ingest, the better!
The average American throws away 185 pounds of plastic every year, so if we want to limit the amount of toxins we are releasing into the environment, minimizing plastic packaging waste while at the grocery store is a great place to start.
Before you set out on your shopping adventure, you’re going to need to do a little planning. Make sure you have a list of all the items you need and think about the quantities you want to buy. If you are stocking up on lentils for a recipe, take that into consideration. Once you have an idea of what you’ll need and how much, you can start thinking of creative ways to cut packaging waste.
If you are buying produce, you’d probably reach for the plastic produce bags that are conveniently located all over the store.
Say you use four plastic produce bags, on average, every time you shop. If you buy produce every week, that adds up to a total of 200 bags used for produce alone in one year. That might not seem like an incredibly significant number, but when you add up the amount of bags used by every person in the U.S., that number skyrockets. Keep in mind, it can take 1,000 years for these plastic bags to break down after you use them, and marine species like sea turtles, dolphins, and whales easily confuse those floating bags for jellyfish and accidentally ingest them.
Instead, opt for a reusable cloth produce bag. Plastic produce bags may be free, but for a one-time cost of $12, you can buy a set of reusable bags that come without the added cost to the environment.
2. Bulk Goods
Opting to buy bulk goods is a great way to save yourself from the unwanted cardboard, tin, and plastic packages for items like rice, beans, granola, and a whole host of other snacks that you can find in pre-packaged containers. According to the EPA, around 2.7 million tons of plastic bottles and jars end up in landfills every year, so think twice before grabbing one of those plastic containers in the bulk aisle. Come prepared with mason jars, reusable cloth bags, and ties, or other glass containers that you can store these loose goods in.
If you’re using glass, be sure to weigh the container beforehand – or while you’re at the store, if scales are not available in the bulk good section, stop by customer service to have them tare the jars for you (this is recommended when shopping at Whole Foods) – write down the weight of the container and then fill away! To make carrying all those jars easier, try using a reusable wine carrier that has divided sections inside to keep the glass jars upright and manageable.
If you really want to be a zero-waste rockstar, look for stores that sell olive oil, maple syrup, and other condiments in bulk. It can all be done, it just takes a little more planning.
3. Deli Counter
Jars can be used at the deli counter just as easily as they can be used in bulk goods. If you are plant-based, you probably won’t have to worry too much about this step, but there might be some items that you would usually purchase that come in packages that you can get from the deli counter instead, take, for example, pickles and olives.
You might get some strange questions from workers, but in the experience of zero-waste guru, Bea Johnson, if you shop in the same place long enough the questions stop. Added bonus knowledge from Bea, Safeway has never questioned her request to use jars instead of plastic bags or containers. These containers can be tared in the same way jars for bulk goods are tared.
4. Buying Bread
You might have forgotten that bread comes in a plastic bag too, we’re so used to not thinking about these subtle details when shopping that you might not have considered this hidden plastic packaging. Most large grocery stores have a bakery section where loaves are made and stored (sleeve free). Bring your own large cloth bag and ask to use your own bag instead of receiving a paper/plastic sleeve.
Once you start eliminating packing waste, especially plastic waste, from your life you start to realize how much plastic is really used in our society. It’s a massive problem that the majority of us don’t think twice about. Getting grocery shopping down is the first step, and when you are comfortable with the basics, you can start to think about other ways you can cut waste from your food routines.
Instead of grabbing pre-packaged granola bars for breakfast, make your own. You don’t have to bring your pre-made lunch to work or school every day, but bring reusable to-go containers to the places you eat out. It might seem a little strange at first, but in the long run, you are helping the planet, and yourself by avoiding processed plastic packaging whenever possible. We’re still a ways away from completely edible or biodegradable food packaging, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be ahead of the times.
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