How to Shop Low Waste at an Ordinary Supermarket – 5 Ultimate Tips
We’ve all seen the dreadful pictures of marine life strangled by plastic or beaches with trash piled up for kilometres along the shoreline. We also all want to do something about it. But when we hear the word “zero waste” it sounds like a lot of work, a bunch of fancy stores and a whole lot you can’t do if you don’t live in a big city. So we erase the thought off our mind’s eye, ditch a plastic bag here and there and move on with our lives. Spoiler! You don’t have to live zero waste to decrease your waste immensely. You don’t need expensive equipment or fancy bulk stores. It all comes down to making a few more conscious choices that you can easily integrate into your normal shopping routine. In the following I’ll give you my 5 ultimate tips on how to shop low waste for groceries at an ordinary supermarket.
TABLE OF CONTENTS :
1. Can You Even Live Without Making ANY Waste?
2. Waste isn’t Our Enemy
3. Average Grocery Shopping vs. Low Waste Grocery Shopping
4. How to Shop Low Waste at an Ordinary Supermarket – 5 Ultimate Tips
5. Will it Actually Make a Difference if I Shop this Way?
Can You even Live Without Making ANY Waste?
Let’s take a quick sneak peak into that “zero waste lifestyle” term. As I say in my bio I am not a fan of lifestyle labels that scare people off and inhibit them from making small changes. I do not live a zero waste lifestyle. In fact, noone really does. Not if they live somewhat of a Western lifestyle. Even zero waste heroes such as Max La Manna and Lauren Singer will create a small amount of waste over time. Lauren from trash is for tossers shows what’s in her trash after 4 years in her video. But as you can see even they can’t completely live ZERO waste. What I’m trying to tell you is that our goal shouldn’t be to make zero waste, it should be to avoid making waste that is unnecessary.
I do not live a zero waste lifestyle. In fact, noone really does. Not if they live somewhat of a Western lifestyle.
Waste isn’t our Enemy
Waste has always been part of the natural ecosystem and it’s nothing to be afraid of. The only thing that has changed is that it is no longer a natural circular process. As with many things, we’ve interfered in a working system. If a orangutan eats a fruit and drops the peel to the ground it will dissolve naturally. Spoken in fancy terms the fruit packaging is 100% compostable. But we’ve moved away from this system and now we are working on finding a way back to it. While we aren’t at a point where everything is compostable within a couple of days, it’s important to decrease the waste we make. To make less waste you don’t have to completely overthrow your shopping behaviour. You’ll already have a great impact simply by making a few tweaks here and there to the way you shop.
Average Grocery Shopping vs. Low Waste Grocery Shopping
So if it isn’t zero waste shopping you’re aiming at what should you be aiming at? Well, I like to call it low waste grocery shopping. The difference between average grocery shopping and low waste grocery shopping is the consciousness with which you make decisions. You avoid making trash when you can and you deal with trash by the principles of the 5 R’s of Zero Waste. That means expanding the way you think about trash by incorporating words such as “reusing” and “upcycling” into your trash vocabulary.
How to Shop Low Waste at an Ordinary Supermarket – 5 Ultimate Tips
Now let’s get to the good stuff! Here are my 5 ultimate tips on how to shop low waste at an ordinary supermarket.
BYOB – Bring Your Own Bags
And not only to pack up your groceries at the end of your shopping trip! A lot of people are already bringing their own grocery bag to the store. Especially in countries where you now have to pay a fee for grocery bags at the checkout counter. If you’re not already doing so, this is one of the first steps you can take to avoid plastic bags or new paper bags that have the sole purpose of carrying your groceries home.
What I really want to talk about here, however, is the use of plastic bags or new paper bags (some countries have replaced plastic with paper) to pack fruit and vegetables. There are many reasons you shouldn’t use either of the two. I don’t want to go into too much detail here but let me know in the comments if you’re interested in learning more on the topic!
Most of the plastic we use, no matter where we live, will be burnt or will end up in the environment. A new paper bag has to be used at least 3 times before it is considered more sustainable than a plastic bag. Which is why it’s best to bring bags you already own. By doing so you won’t be using any new ressources.
To quickly sum up: plastic bags aren’t necessarily less sustainable than other options IF they were to be reused for a long time and finally recycled properly. Unfortunately neither of the two is usually the case. With this in mind most plastic bags are a single-use product. With approximately 6,400 million metric tons of plastic waste having been generated as of the year 2015, only 9% of the mass has actually been recycled*. Therefore a lot of the plastic we use, no matter where we live, will be burnt or end up in the environment, which in many cases is the ocean.
Unlike the plastic bag the paper bag will dissolve or be recycled which makes it seem like the better option. But it is a bit more complex than that. A new paper bag has to be used at least 3 times before it is considered more sustainable than a plastic bag**. So if you throw out the bag after using it once, it isn’t necessarily the better choice.
Which is why it’s best to bring bags you already own. By doing so you won’t be using any new ressources. If you don’t have bags that are suitable, you can now often purchase them on the spot in the aisle.
A bag to last
If I’m going to buy a bag to last, I personally prefer having one I can use for different purposes and that fits my sustainability standards. This is why I created a bag that I use for fruit and veg. You can see the bag in the first picture of the article ⬆️. I mainly use it for bread though to keep fresh and moist for longer without loosing the crunchy crust. It’s a game changer! Note: Germans don’t joke when it comes to bread consistency 😄. It is also aesthetically pleasing for the eye, which I simply enjoy. The bag is GOTS and fair trade certified, vegan and made from 100% organic cotton. If you’d also like a bag like this just send me a quick message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The difference between average grocery shopping and low waste grocery shopping is the consciousness with which you make decisions.
The fruit and veg aisle usually already has quite a few unpackaged options. So to start off you can use those bags from tip 1. above and buy loose produce instead of prepackaged. But fruit and vegetables aren’t the only things you can purchase package-free in an ordinary supermarket. A lot of supermarkets around the world will have a fresh baking section, so you can use your own bag to pack up your bread. I use the one I also store it in (see tip N 1.) making it a win-win in terms of resources. Lastly, if you choose to eat meat and cheese or are on a part-time plant based diet you can bring your own containers to the fresh produce counter instead of having the employees wrap it in plastic materials or buying it prepacked.
Go for Local Products and Reusable (Natural) Packaging
Glass, Paper, Plastic? It almost sounds like the eco version of the game “rock, paper, scissors”. The only problem is, it’s not as easy to decide who wins. What is really the most sustainable packaging we can choose? And what do we measure it by? The raw materials, the carbon footprint, the recycling rate? The rulebook is pretty complex. A lot of variables go into a packaging product. So sometimes determining how to really shop low waste is difficult.
For now I want to make it easy for you. Rule of thumb: go for locally sourced products and choose the one with the most natural and reusable packaging. Reusable can mean both – the company can reuse it or you can. So for example, you could buy a locally made wine in a glass bottle and reuse it as a candlestick. Or the store takes back a locally sourced glass water bottle that will be cleaned and refilled. The important thing to remember is the longer you use it the more sustainable the choice will become – no matter the material.
Another factor that goes into my decision is the naturality of the packaging material. As mentioned above, if it ends up not being recycled and lands in the environment, I want it to be a natural material that won’t spit up toxins and will dissolve quickly.
Waste has always been part of the natural ecosystem and it’s nothing to be afraid of. But it is no longer a natural circular process. We’ve moved away from this system and now we are working on finding a way back to it.
Don’t Buy Things You Don’t Need
After talking about what we should choose let’s look at what we shouldn’t choose. Because this is also one of the biggest aspects of how to shop low waste. At the top of the list should be things you seriously don’t need. The supermarket always has some persuasive deals that get you hooked. “Wow, a plastic rainbow spoon attached to a cereal I never buy!”. We all know it and we should all ditch it. Remember every little freebie needs resources.
Then there’s the thing with certain products we actually think we need and are just not used to not having. For instance I don’t use trash bags – neither plastic nor paper. Why? Because I don’t need them. Same goes for cling wrap, baking paper and store bought water. I know you’re asking yourself now – but doesn’t your trash get nasty and doesn’t everything burn in your oven? And the answer is no, it doesn’t 🙂 And it’s not because I have fancy equipment, I’ve simply understood what I actually need and what society taught me to need. You’d be surprised at all the things you don’t really require.
As for my trash, I keep my biowaste in a small closed container. Therefore my other bins will usually only hold things that aren’t messy. When any of my bins start to smell I simply rinse them out – this only happens every 4 weeks or so. To get started you could try going without one of the things I named above. Of course you’ll have to experiment around a bit. So give yourself a couple of tries to get that aha moment. It’s a great way to reframe your needs and to lower the amount of waste you produce while also saving money.
Make Easy but High Waste Products Yourself
I am not hugely into DIY (Do-it-yourself). A lot of times I simply don’t make the time even though it can be a lot of fun. But that doesn’t mean I don’t do it at all. I do it where it makes sense for me. I’ve realized there are a lot of products that you can make yourself in a snap that therefore aren’t just package free but also a lot cheaper!
One of my favorite things is making my own deodorant. I mix coconut oil, starch and baking soda in a bowl and voila. 2 minutes and a couple of cents in production costs. I also make my own chai spice that I put in my oat milk every morning, which takes me less than a minute to make. The one I love most though is probably hummus. The packaging of hummus in Germany is very wasteful. It’s a lot of plastic for very little hummus and a high price. So I came up with my own recipe that I mix in my food processor for 2 minutes to have amazing hummus with zero packaging and lots of flavor! Overall you don’t have to become a DIY homemaker but there are some products where it really is not only the more sustainable but also the cheaper option.
Will it actually make a difference if I shop this way?
I think one of the biggest hurdles with changing certain lifestyle habits is the feeling of being powerless. Sometimes you might feel like it doesn’t matter if you choose the fruit with the plastic wrapper because it’s just one wrapper, what difference does it make? But that’s the tricky part about change. The only reason we have these problems is because so many people are thinking that exact same thought. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the brilliant part about it is, it works both ways. If we all think we make a difference, which we do, then these problems, that arise on an individual level, change.
And if that doesn’t convince you then think about it this way: every purchase you make is a decision, a vote and a demand. You are in charge because the store will only sell what you will buy, the politicians will only change the things you demand in order for you to vote for them. You think they make the rules but it’s you they are dependent on.
I hope this article motivates you to make changes to the way you shop. As you can see it’s really not hard to go low waste grocery shopping at an ordinary supermarket. You don’t need to live a zero waste lifestyle, shop in fancy stores or live in a big city. And with those 5 new tips you’ll make more sustainable choices in a breeze!
Sending you those good vibes ☀️
*Source: Journal Science Advances “Production, Use and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made” by Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck and Kara Lavender Law
**Source: BBC Reality Check, “Plastic or paper: Which bag is greener?” by Tom Edington