How To: Getting Around Packaging in Grocery Stores

Can you imagine shopping in a grocery store that has zero plastic packaging?

We sure can imagine, but it probably won’t happen soon. In fact, trends seem to be moving toward more plastic packaging and not less. This post is designed to offer some strategies for working around single use plastic in your own grocery store. No need to do everything all at once! Try a few techniques, see how they work, get comfortable and add more steps as you gain more confidence. We’d love to hear from you as you find what works and doesn’t work for you.

Steps toward diminishing single use plastic in your grocery shopping experience

With growing awareness of plastic pollution, it becomes more and more important to think about the plastic packaging found on so many of our foods in our grocery stores. In 2016, the majority of United States consumers purchased groceries at a supermarket or a super center, like Safeway and Walmart, and made one to three shopping trips per week.

The EPA estimated 14.7 million tons of plastic containers and plastic packaging were generated in 2015 in the US.

Shopping at grocery stores means consumers are constantly facing the purchase of packaged foods, from yogurt containers to sliced bread and juices. It is our mission at Zoetica to help everyone (yes, you!) take steps toward reducing plastic waste, even during trips to the grocery store.

Why Plastic?

In order to understand where a problem arose, we must consider the problems solved by plastic when it was invented. Plastic was able to protect food during long journeys in varying temperature conditions, protecting foods from bacteria, light, and humidity in order to prevent or delay rot. Plastic is strong and clear, allowing for consumers to see what they are purchasing and avoid spills. It can go into the microwave. It has been widely available and cheap to make, as long as you don’t factor in the entire lifespan cost from production to recycling or as in the case of 90% of plastic, the impacts of it being accumulated in our landfills for hundreds of years to come. There have been many reasons why plastic became so ubiquitous in our grocery stores.

But we didn’t always think of the downsides along the way. In order to make plastic more moldable, bendable, or insulative, chemicals were added that were later found to be toxic and to disrupt the endocrine systems of humans (BPA, Phthalates, Chlorofluorocarbons) and many of these were banned. We also didn’t consider how few people would embrace recycling (most urban areas have a recycling rate of plastic of about 22% and not all recycling centers are able to find takers for the recyclable materials so it heads to the landfill.) So we got excited as a culture about the upside of plastic without evaluating or understanding its potential consequences.

Because of plastic’s versatility, replacing it will be difficult. For example, a cucumber wrapped in shrink-wrap will allow its shelf life to extend from 3 days to 14 days. The wrap, however, may be int the landfill for more than a century. It is important to think about why plastic is widely used, so we can shift to decrease our dependence on it. The best solution is refusing to buy items packaged in plastic.

Going Grocery Shopping

Preparation

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It’s a Sunday morning, and you decide its time to go grocery shopping for the week. Before you go to the store, it is important to gather and bring along your reusable bags and produce bags. Many people have gotten better at remembering their reusable bags, especially as many municipalities ban or charge money for single-use plastic bags. We struggled with this until we found totes and produce bags compact enough to carry in a pocket, a tote bag, a purse or backpack. The best solution is to leave your grocery and produce bags in your car.

Preparing will help you have a better, more successful trip related to reducing your package waste. Think about what foods you want to purchase, how to avoid plastic packaging and what reusable items you’ll want to bring along for those products.

For example, yogurt containers are mainly made from plastic and often don’t get recycled. Looking for glass alternatives, or even buying milk in glass containers to make your own yogurt at home is a great start to reducing plastic waste. Avoiding the single-serving yogurt containers by buying the largest yogurt container you can find and filling your own reusable containers for on the go can help reduce the number of containers you generate. Sometimes a commitment to refusing plastic use means forgoing a purchase of a favorite product because it is packaged heavily in plastic.

(PS: If you refuse to buy something because of excessive packaging, be sure to notify the company of your decision. They may make a change because you and others spoke up!)


During Your Shopping

While you are at the grocery store, plastic packaging can often be everywhere and overwhelming. Although it may seem like you can’t escape it, there are so many alternatives to get around most of the products that include plastic packaging.

Seek out items that are unpackaged and unbaked like potatoes, fruit, and bulk foods. To avoid the plastic jugs that contain juices and other beverages, buy fresh fruit and juice your own citrus at home with a juicer, citrus press, etc. This kind of juice tastes so much fresher. Try making your own iced tea with a silicone tea bag or stainless steel tea basket in your own container. It is possible to buy tea in bulk at the health food store using reusable gauze bags and eliminate all the single serving tea packets.

Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, and can be found in almost 80% of all U.S. households. 

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Bread often comes in a plastic wrapping, which can be avoided by purchasing bread straight from the bakery counter and packing it into your own reusable produce bag, or of course by making bread on your own at home. Simple bread recipe will save plastic packaging, and will taste so delicious! If you must buy bread in a plastic film bag, find a place to recycle the bags that accepts plastic film recycling and converts it into building materials.

There is no need to put apples or oranges (most vegetables and fruits) into a plastic bag. They come with nature’s packaging already in place (peels, skin, etc). Use a reusable produce bag and then wash items when you get home for best food safety. At the food bars in Whole Foods and many high end grocery stores, fill your own leakproof containers with olives, mozzarella, and salads. You can pre-weigh your container at the deli or mark it with the weight with a wax crayon, or choose a container premarked with the “tare” or weight.

Instead of grabbing plastic-packaged meats, cheeses, deli items and seafoods, stop by the deli and butcher counters. The attendants will, upon request, minimize the packaging on your order by letting you transfer it from the scale on a piece of paper into your own container or reusable bag. Just remember to grab the printed sticker with the weight and cost information for the cashier. These grocery items are often the freshest in the store and rarely cost more.

If you are buying bagels, muffins and donuts, seek out the self-serve bakery areas. You can load these items into your own reusable produce bags.

So many of our groceries are increasingly packaged “ready to eat” in plastic.

So many of our groceries are increasingly packaged “ready to eat” in plastic.

After Shopping

After you have finished shopping at the grocery store, you may have not been able to completely rule out all plastic packaging, but the decisions you made during your shopping will make an impact. We hope you will feel proud for the progress you have made with each shop on which you eliminate one more plastic item.

59% of consumers consume packaged foods because they are convenient. How many times have we purchased lettuce in a plastic container to save time and not have to wash and cut heads of lettuce? When committing to reducing plastic packaging at the grocery store, sometimes we have to be honest with ourselves about what choices we make just for our convenience. A few extra moments of prep can save hundreds of years for a packaging item in the landfill!

Alternatives

If a product you usually purchase is in a plastic package and you can’t find it without packaging, try making the product on your own from bulk ingredients like tortillas, polenta, granola and protein bars, trail mix, ravioli, and tofu.

Be sure to go to your local farmers market(s) with your reusable bags to find less plastic packaging and very tasty, fresh food when possible. Many farms have started growing year round and offering local delivery programs throughout the winter. Avoiding plastic packaging means that our options for food are healthy, fresh alternatives. You might find your diet changes too!

It will be difficult, but giving up a certain packaged food may be the only option. If you are fully committed to reducing your plastic packaging waste, giving up foods packaged in plastic is an alternative. For example, it is almost impossible to find berries that are unpackaged or in bulk. We tend to wait for the farmers market season since we can usually get berries that are not in a plastic clamshell.

Finding stores where you're able to purchase food and household staples without packaging can be a challenge. There have been growing numbers of zero-waste grocery stores around the world! Try searching for a local sustainable and zero-waste store near you. We absolutely love The Refillery LA, which is a mobile unit in Southern California that you can visit or have some by to refill cleaning products, shampoos and lotions, oils, and so much more. Many health food stores have maple syrup, olive oils, and peanut butter, and filtered water in bulk to refill in your own containers.

For bulk goods, bring glass reusable containers or gauze bags to fill up with nuts, dried fruits, rice, granola instead of using the provided plastic bags one time.

Reusable gauze spice bag available from Montanya.

Reusable gauze spice bag available from Montanya.

Spices are another overpackaged product. Reusable spice bags can help reduce the amount of waste from spice containers and keep your spices fresher and free from plastic exposure when you transfer them to a sealed glass jar at home.

Finding Motivation

Getting rid of all plastic packaging is challenging and can be frustrating. At Zoetica, we have a hard time avoiding it all the time but we have made a lot of progress reducing the amount of packaging we purchase just by paying attention and trying. You don’t need to be perfect, just give it your best shot. Every piece you refuse matters. It is especially important to find what motivates you to change your habits, set goals, and feel productive. Step by step!

Kelly Barrows