Waste-Free Grocery Shopping: A Guide For Beginners

Have you ever noticed that when you get home from the grocery store and start unpacking, there tends to be a big pile of plastic bags at the end of the process? If you’re like most, you might ball them up and put them into a bigger plastic bag for undetermined later use (aka to hide in your pantry forever) or simply toss them in the trash.

There’s a better way, and you don’t have to be a total tree hugger to minimize your impact! Here are the tricks I use to keep my post-grocery shop trash pile to a minimum.

BYO Bags

I bring three different types of reusable bags with me when I shop: grocery bags, produce bags, and dry goods bags.

BYO (Grocery) Bags: There are a million cute tote bags out there, like all the ones by Emily McDowell but I throw it back to my college days with my not-at-all-cute-or-fashionable bags from Wegmans. (Does six years make them vintage?) Their greatest quality? I already own them. And sometimes they start a conversation about the wonders of Wegmans.

 Groceries & Shit Tote  Grocery Compromises Tote  I Remembered My Grocery Bag Tote

BYO (Produce) Bags: I’m a fan of my Simple Ecology Organic Cotton mesh produce bags. They come in a variety of sizes, so they work for anything from apricots to celery stalks. They’re easily machine washable (though recommended hang dried). And best of all, they Simple Ecology Mesh Baghave the tare weight written right on the tag, so your grocery checker can subtract the proper bag weight at checkout.

BYO (Dry Goods) Bags: For dry goods like bulk nuts, granola, and grains, I’m all about my Simple Ecology Organic Cotton muslin bags… for all the same reasons I love the mesh ones.

When I get home, produce and dry goods go directly from their mesh and muslin bags into glass storage containers in my fridge or pantry. Then I put all the bags together and toss them in my car so they’re ready for the next time I shop.

Stick to the outer edges of the market.Outer Edges

Packaged foods aren’t good for you. They’re also wrapped in one-time-use plastic that quickly ends up in landfills. To limit harm to your bod and harm to your earth, stick to the outer edges of the market to shop for fresh, minimally packaged ingredients like fruits, veggies, nuts, fish, meat, dairy, and fresh-baked goodness.

Choose recyclable packaging.

When you shop for foods that are packaged, choose products wrapped in something you can recycle or compost. (Check the bottom of plastic packaging for the number.)

Great Choice: Glass. Glass jugs and jars are easy to repurpose and easy to recycle, especially when your store accepts the jug or jar back for refund value. (Glass also doesn’t leach chemicals or flavor.)

Good Choice: Plastics #1 and #2. Milk jugs and containers made out of plastic #1 (PETE or polyethylene terephthalate) and plastic #2 (HDPE or high-density polyethylene) are recyclable in many recycling facilities throughout the country.

Sometimes Good Choice: Plastic #5 and #7. Anything that’s packaged in plastic #5 (polypropylene) or plastic #7 (polycarbonate) is only recyclable some places around the country. This includes things like yogurt containers, ketchup bottles, the tray grocery store sushi or rotisserie chicken comes in, and some berry containers. Check your local recycling center’s website (or take a look at the bin they gave you) to see if they accept plastics #5 and #7.

Bad Choice: Wrapped packaging. Anything that resembles a wrapper is not great news for landfills. This includes things like protein and granola bars, cellophane-wrapped goods, bagged bread, bagged or boxed cereal, and just about anything else (other than cans or glass jars) in the dry goods section/inner aisles of the market. If you look for alternatives, you’ll be able to find them!

Speaking of wrapped packaging…

Avoid wrapped packaging whenever possible.

In addition to the inner aisle junk, you’ll also have to watch out for wrapped packaging in the meat section (vacuum-sealed or tray wrapped packaging), cheese section, and produce section. Why English cucumbers must always be wrapped in plastic remains a mystery to me.

SodaStream GenesisPass on beverages you can’t make yourself.

The only drinkable liquids I buy are milk, (because I don’t have a cow in my backyard), beer (because my husband loves his Belgian Trappist ales), and wine. If I want juice or iced tea, I make my own. If I want fizzy water, I use our SodaStream. (The Genesis is an awesome starter model. The Crystal is even better because it’s made of glass.)


Notice a trend here? Healthy foods tend to be packaged in less crap, meaning not only are they better for you… they’re better for the environment too! Grocery shop without the waste. Eat without the guilt. It’s a wonderful thing!