Have you ever gone grocery shopping for a big party or event and forgotten your list? I know I have and if you’re like me, there’s no worse feeling than getting home and realizing you forgot something (or several somethings!) essential. I barely have time for one trip to the store, let alone two!
Preparing for a Zero Waste shopping trip is a lot like shopping for an event, especially when you’re just getting started. You still need a list, but you also need to be organized with some essential supplies. This doesn’t mean things need to be overly complicated, we just need to be prepared! When I first started out on my Zero Waste Journey I kept forgetting things I needed every time I went to the store. Every. SINGLE. TIME.
To make things easier I put together a Zero Waste Shopping kit. Now I easily grab all of the tools I need on my way out the door. I haven't forgotten to take anything with me in weeks (which is saying something, because I'm usually quite forgetful).
I should note we live in a rural area. We do not (yet) have a store in town that has a bulk foods section for filling our own bags and bottles. I know how discouraging it can be to try to live Zero Waste when it feels like you don’t have the resources at hand to make it possible. But remember, perfection is not the goal, and there are still steps you can take to reduce your waste, even if your only grocery options are limited to the neighborhood grocery or Walmart.
Since our in-town choices are limited, I have two types of grocery trips:
Our weekly trip to the regular grocery store where we buy mostly perishables like fresh produce.
Our monthly “big” shopping trip out of town where we visit the Co-op or natural foods stores to fill our bulk food bags, refill our jars with olive oil, maple syrup, and even things like castile soap. Basically, this trip focuses on nonperishables and things that will last at least a month. We often make several stops to make this trip worthwhile including a stop at the Museum of the Rockies so the kids can see the dinosaurs, and our ever-important trip to the brewery to fill up our growler(s) with beer.
For this post, we will focus on the shopping kit I use for regular grocery trips. However you can visit this post if you are interested in finding creative ways to source Zero Waste Food outside of the grocery store.
So what exactly goes into our Zero Waste Grocery kit? The list below will tell you everything you need to know!
Reusable Grocery Totes: Even if you take nothing else with you, be sure to bring some reusable totes. Using these instead of plastic (and even paper!) grocery bags saves a huge amount of waste. While most of us have a plethora of totes and bags leftover from conferences, promotional events, and other giveaways, it may be necessary to purchase more to ensure you have enough to fit your entire grocery haul. When I bought my grocery totes, they needed to check the following boxes:
Made of environmentally friendly and biodegradable material such as cotton so when they finally do give out they can be composted instead of thrown away. Many of those reusable freebie bags are made of plastic or nylon that is very difficult to dispose of in a sustainable way.
Easy to clean/can be thrown in the washing machine if needed
Big and sturdy enough to actually fit my groceries
Durable enough to last for several years.
I settled on large grocery bags made from organic cotton. They were a little pricier than the nylon variety, but not nearly as much as you would think. I’m not really recommending any particular brand, rather, I’m encouraging you to be aware of the material type and quality of the design. I purchased four bags that check all of the boxes above and these are plenty large enough to get a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four. occasionally I get a little bit of help from one or two of those freebie bags when I do my monthly “bulk foods” shopping trip. Someday, hopefully, several years from now, when I’ve washed these bags for the last time, I’ll toss them into the composter to become food for my vegetable garden.
Mesh Produce Bags: Using the same criteria outlined above, I also bought a set of cotton mesh produce bags to use in place of the plastic produce bags they have at most grocery stores. I love my mesh bags because, not only do they cut down on the amount of plastic I use during my shopping trips, they also help with food storage and organization when I get home! I use these bags to hang things like onions and potatoes on a hook in the pantry, which helps to keep them fresh, and I put other produce (like apples, heads of lettuce, etc…) directly into the fridge inside of the bags.
Woven Bulk Foods Bags: Rather than using plastic bags to get supplies from the bulk bin, I use a set of cotton bags to transport bulk foods from the store to my pantry (where I transfer them to mason jars or other airtight canisters) during my monthly big shopping trip. I use small bags for things like nuts and snacks, and medium or large bags for things like flour. I do still tend to use paper bags for things like chocolate chips and sugar, because they can get sticky or messy inside of the bag, and then I compost the paper bags at home. I have about 10 of these bags in a variety of sizes. You can purchase these bags or if you’re crafty you can sew your own from old sheets or pillowcases (remind me to post a tutorial on that in the future!). You can also use your bags to transport things like bread and baked goods.
You can also get a set with all three of these types of bags from Life Without Plastic.
Mason Jars and Glass (or reused plastic) containers and bottles for liquids: I keep a couple of mason jars in my bulk shopping kit to get things like peanut butter (if I don’t have the motivation to make my own) or to get things like olive oil or maple syrup. You can also reuse old glass or plastic olive oil bottles or other similar containers for liquids. Many bulk food stores will let you zero out the jar or bottle before filling it up so you don’t also pay for the weight of the container. I also always bring a couple of smaller containers for whichever spices or seasonings we need to refill. In theory, I might be able to grab my reusable spice jars themselves. In practice, I always forget, so just having some small containers packed in my kit and then transferring them to the correct jar when we get home works a lot better (Have you noticed that I tend to be forgetful yet?).
Growler (optional): We also pack a growler or two to fill with beer from the local brewery. However, even if you don’t drink, growlers can be used for other liquids like Kombucha. We just love our beer and want to cut down on the number of tin cans and glass bottles we use.
Glass Milk Jar (optional): There are a couple of “ifs” with this one. IF your family consumes dairy and IF the service is available in your area, some dairies work with grocery stores to create glass bottle exchange programs like this one, where you can purchase your milk in a glass bottle and exchange it each week. Unfortunately, we do not have this service in our area, but I’m always hopeful we will get it someday.
Attitude: Remember when I compared Zero Waste Grocery Shopping with prepping for a party or event? Keep that mindset with you. Parties are (usually) fun and Zero Waste shopping can be an exciting adventure. I know it’s one thing to bring your own bags to the natural foods store or Co-op where everyone else doing it too, but it can feel really awkward to be the only person using them at WalMart when everyone else is putting their apples in plastic bags. Just remember, no one else is all that worried about what you are doing, and if they are, you may just inspire someone else to try Zero Waste shopping.
And that is it for my Zero Waste Grocery Shopping kit! Our entire kit fits inside of one larger tote bag that I can easily store in the bottom of the pantry and grab on my way out the door. After our shopping trip we put everything away, I wash any containers that need washing and put everything back in the kit as soon as I can so I don’t forget to do it later.
Please note you may also be able to find some of the items listed in this post (or similar items) at the EarthHero online store. They are an online retailer dedicated to sustainability.
As always, remember that perfection is not the goal. Things like frozen fruit and veggies are really tough to find in anything except plastic packaging. If you find yourself needing an ingredient or item that is only available this way (looking at you tofu) don’t beat yourself up. If you have no options at all to obtain bulk foods right now, know that using reusable bags to transport your produce is still a huge win.
All these efforts add up: every plastic bag refused, every jar reused, and every choice we make to live zero waste is a small victory. By taking a little bit of time to put together tools like this grocery shopping kit, we can achieve these wins more frequently.
If you have another great Zero Waste Shopping tool, have any questions, or if you think I missed anything important, let me know in the comments!
If you're interested in more Zero Waste basics, check out my previous post on putting together a Zero Waste kitchen.