Skip the Packaging: Zero Waste Grocery Shopping

By Nina Bhattacharyya

A great place to start incorporating zero waste into your life is at the grocery store. Many of us realize the environmental benefit of bringing reusable bags to the store, but another aspect of shopping that is often overlooked is the amount of packaging and containers used for the items we purchase. All this packaging adds up. According to the EPA, containers and packaging make up over 23% of the waste in U.S. landfills (EPA 16); it is also the most common litter found along roads, in our springs and rivers, and at the beach. Beyond the environment, there is also an economic impact. For every $11 spent on food items, $1 goes to packaging (Humes 106). Think of how much money that amounts to over the course of the year! 

 Honey at Lucky's

Honey at Lucky's

The good news is that with a little extra planning, you can shop at the grocery store package free. The first step is to remember your reusable bags! In addition to bringing grocery bags, take it one step further and bring along some extra cloth or mesh bags for produce. Think of all the plastic you can avoid when transporting fruit and veggies from the store to your home. 

Another essential part of zero waste shopping is to buy in bulk. We are fortunate in Gainesville to have a number of stores with a range of bulk food items. But before you start filling a container, you need to calculate the tare weight (this is a fancy way of saying the weight of the empty container). I found each store does it a little differently:

 Lucky's instructions for bring your own container.

Lucky's instructions for bring your own container.

  • Lucky's has signs around the bulk items that tell you how to use your own container. To start, bring the container to the cashier and ask them to calculate the tare weight, then write it on the container (I used a permanent marker). Now you are ready to fill the container with the bulk item you wish to purchase. Once you checkout, the cashier will subtract the tare weight from the total weight of the item. The nice thing about this process is you only have to calculate the tare weight once and you are good to use that container for any product. I have used my own container for many items at Lucky's including honey, peanut butter, lentils, rice, flour, and so on. I have even used my own container for the salad and olive bar.
 Bulk items at Ward's Supermarket.

Bulk items at Ward's Supermarket.

  • Ward's Supermarket is another option for bulk food shopping, however, they have a slightly different process. First, bring the empty container along with the PLU number to the cashier by the exit (this is the cashier located behind the counter and closest to the bulk items). They weigh it using the PLU number to calculate the ‘price’ of the empty container. The price is provided to you in a minus dollar figure format (e.g. -$5.00). I record the price in my phone to avoid using a label sticker. Once you checkout, they will subtract the container ‘price’ from the total price of the container with the goods you are purchasing.

While Earth Fare does have bulk items, I discovered not all employees are familiar with calculating the tare weight of the container or know how to charge for an item less the container. This may have been a one-time issue with a cashier, but I ended up leaving without the items I wished to purchase.

We would love to hear from you! What other ideas do you have for zero waste shopping in Gainesville? Email us at info@zerowastegainesville.com

Sources:

Humes, Edward. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. Avery, 2013.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Reducing Wasted Food & Packaging: A Guide for Food Services and Restaurants. 2015,  https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-08/documents/reducing_wasted_food_pkg_tool.pdf