When taking steps to make less trash in the home (and in life), the biggest hurdle that comes up is food packaging. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to grocery stores with bulk bins, access to farmer's markets, or locally made items.
One of the topics that gets missed the most when talking about zero waste ideas surrounding this lifestyle is that their is simple no zero waste economy. Trash happens. Packaging exists. Our current infrastructure is linear, which means we design products (from clothing to cookie packaging) with waste as an end product. We do not have the global infrastructure, laws, recovery systems, and consumer demand in place yet to support a zero waste (circular) economy. But we can live with a mindset that helps us dramatically curb our waste and become more resourceful, thrifty, community-centered, and most importantly material mindful. I believe collectively this mindset will help to push and move us forward in the right direction.
With a circular mindset we can live our lives with dramatically less waste and bring about change through our consumer actions and voices. At Be Zero, we teach and inspire this circular mindset as a way to rethink how our actions interact with the world around us.
In circular (zero waste) economies, trash is designed out of the equation. And everyone is on the same page about materials from the manufacturer, consumer, recover systems, and reapplication of materials. This is a very simplified look at it (I could talk for hours on this), so in the meantime know that you can do three things:
1. Rethink materials (under what is recyclable in your specific area)
2. Use less
Curbing our waste while grabbing our weekly grub isn't as hard as one might think. Much of the decision making comes down to looking at the packaging and also rethinking what we are buying in the first place. Most items in grocery stores today are unnecessary and expensive. And with a little time and shifting habits around you'll see that you'll be buying less, eating better, and making more quick and easy meals from simple ingredients. These are skills that everyone should have in their back pocket.
I'm going to take you on a photo tour of our local Boulder Safeway. I'm going to share some ideas with you to help you think about packaging and product and where to rethink purchases with the end goal of reducing your personal waste stream while at the grocery store.
The photos I'm going to present are simply for guiding - not exactly what to buy. I went through each aisle basically looking for examples of low-waste packaging. These items don't reflect my personal purchases or diet - not that it should matter to anyone.
Remember! Grocery stores are different from city to city. And they often cater to the vibes of that city. Here in Boulder, people are generally eco-conscious and focus on natural health and well-being. That being said, this Safeway reflects those qualities with a quarter of the store dedicated to natural and organic foods. As you can see from the photo below.
So let's start in the produce section. As you can see there are plenty of unpackaged items! Now produce can be expensive so learning how to extend and do more with produce is key (which is also another topic). But my advice is to stick with seasonal as much as you can and remember there is a lot you can do with onions, potatoes, garlic, and simple greens.
Tips for produce:
- Bring your own cloth or mesh bag!
- Prolong veggie/produce life with natural food wraps like these, these, and these!
- Get resourceful and thrifty with produce | think about at least 2 different way to use an item in two different meals.
The image below shows packaged and unpackaged lemons. Unless you're going actually utilize a whole bag of lemons, just grab one or two and get the most of those two. You can even turn the peels into a great multipurpose cleaner.
Rethink Packaging | Less is More
What about the rest of the grocery store? Most foods in grocery stores are gimmick foods that appeal to our cultures fast and convenience tendencies. But remember, fast and convenient comes with a cost. Not just over packaging, but generally unhealthy, bad quality, and expensive (because you usually can only do one thing with that item rather than putting the food to work in multiple capacities).
You can do a whole lot more with a can of beans than you can with a box of mac and cheese. Likewise, you can do more with a bottle of vinegar than you can with a bottle of Windex. The middle aisles of grocery stores are full of noise that drowns out the simplicity of food and product. Basically, we are overloaded with stuff that we don't need. And learning to navigate that for one's self is important.
Below is an extensive aisle of cleaning products. We're told that we need a different cleaner for every part of the home. This simply isn't true. Much of these items are toxic, wasteful, and downright unnecessary. I can clean my whole home effectively with three ingredients (vinegar, baking soda, and essential oil). So this whole aisle is avoidable on most accounts. But if there is something you need or not willing to give up, just ask yourself how this product adds value to your life, health, and planet.
Material mindfulness | Thinking about how materials are packaged
This grocery store had Borax and baking soda that both came in a paper cardboard boxes. These, when broken down and gently wiped after use, can go in your recycling bin. They did have vinegar in both plastic and glass. Now for economics sake, I'd choose the largest vinegar in plastic and you'll get multiple uses from that. These are generally way cheaper than buying multiple disposable cleaning wipes or cleaning products.
Glass is inert. It doesn't interact with your food like plastic does. There are multiple choices in each aisle for glass over plastic. From sauces, jellies, sodas and condiments. Sometimes it may cost a little more, but remember you're buying more than just the item. You're also buying plastic made from undisclosed ingredients and additives. Not to mention the environmental havoc and death plastic generates from pollution and lingering on the planet. Think birds, whales, and sea turtles with bellies of plastic.
Glass jars are also perfect for reuse. Since they don't interact with your food you can use them for storing drinks, leftovers, and even for household projects and gift assembly!
Remember though, plastic packaging sometimes is unavoidable. But if you're reducing your single-use plastic waste everywhere else and concentrating on items that have a bigger value, say a big bag of dried beans compared to a Tetra Pak of ready beans, that's a step a step in the right direction.
While aluminum cans are not free and clear of issues (many are lined with plastic), they are a material that generally has a good recovery market. They are also good for larger meal planning and convenience.
All paper isn't created equal. Some are coated with a thin lining of plastic making it 100% landfill. The most common products found in paper/cardboard are flour, sugar, baking soda, and often pasta. You can do the rip test to see whether your paper has a sneaky layer of plastic underneath. If it does, into the trash and if it doesn't send it to compost.
Plastic water bottles are EXPENSIVE. Think about it. Your buying something to just throw it away. That goes for any disposable item. No wonder that in the mid 1950's when disposables where on the rise, most people looked down on them at first. Why would you spend your hard earned money on something you were going to toss in a few minutes? It wasn't until good old advertising started to shift our mindset on these disposables (also a story for another time).
From bagels to donuts, I haven't seen a grocery store that hasn't had one of these grab and go bakery shelves. This method allows you to grab only what you actually need. You can use your own cloth produce bag to grab your item and if you happen to forget it, take a paper bag and compost it when your down or reuse it again.
In the end, the absence of bulk bins does not make you less "zero waste" (whatever that means), because there is no zero waste right now. But you can have the zero waste (circular) mindset to dramatically curb your waste and reset your consumerism so someday our global infrastructure will move towards a circular economy. We simply must.
A circular mindset teaches us to put value back into the things we use use and to take ownership of what's in our care. It's taking into account the footprint of where it comes from, how it will interact with our lives, and what will happen to it when we are done with it.
Putting value back into the resources, materials, creators, and community in which are stuff comes from is the essence of it all.
Waste is a reflection of what we have lost value in. Collective attention will create change in putting value back into our planet, communities, and each other.