When you go grocery shopping are you conscious about what you are buying and how that affects the environment? I have for a while now been conscious about purchasing organic food and reading labels. My shopping experience has been very much in tune with the health of my body. However, I have not fully shopped thinking of the environment, and how much of what I buy is wrapped in plastic and other non-recyclable material. Until now.
It’s incredible the amount of plastic that is used to wrap, store, cover, and contain things at the grocery store. When you go shopping with this in mind, and actively try to avoid it, things get very interesting. So I’d like to lay out some things I was thinking about during my recent shopping experience, and see if you can relate and perhaps try to implement in your routine.
Before I get to that though, I’d like to suggest to first try shopping at your local markets as often as possible. These farmers markets are important to support because they sustain the smaller local farmers near us. The more we support local farmers, the less industrialized food gets used. The food at your super market is grown somewhere far away (usually) and costs a fortune to package and ship it to us at our convenience. Needless to say it puts a huge toll on the environment, demanding we have these foods available to use any time of the year despite them not being grown in that season. Needless to say, it is healthy for you to eat local as this puts you in rhythm with the environment you live in. And of course it’s beneficial to the planet as a whole as it is what nature intended.
That said, sometimes we don’t have markets near us that sell local produce. Sometimes we run out of food and do need to take a trip to the grocery store. And sometimes there are items that we simply cannot find at the local markets, like dried goods and bulk items, that require (so to speak) to go grocery shopping at a super market.
That being said, some of the tips I recommend below can be utilized at your local farmers market, as anytime we are shopping we should be conscious of what we are buying, how it is packaged, and where it is coming from.
Preparing before your trip to the store
First of all, the number one thing you can do to be eco-minded when grocery shopping (or shopping anywhere really) is bring your own bags. If you do not have reusable shopping bags, I’d recommend investing in some. Most grocery stores sell them, and you will continue to use them for a long time. This will save you from bagging your items in (most often) plastic bags.
Second, bring your own smaller cloth or muslin bags. These can be used for smaller produce that you want to keep together. They are also great for in the bulk section. To be honest though, I didn’t have them with me this trip, and it worked out because I brought my own jars. More on that later.
Third, bring your own glass jars to fill up from the bulk section. If your grocery store does not have a bulk section, try to find one that does. This is obviously not always an option, and if that is the case for you, keep reading.
At the store
Once you get to the store, you probably have your usual routine set. I urge you to take a little more time considering everything you choose to put in your cart. I start at the produce section. I try to purchase organic whenever possible. A lot of the items I wanted I was able to grab organic, without packaging. So this leads me to the first thing to keep in mind:
First, choose items without packaging whenever possible. One thing I noticed is some of the organic items are wrapped or bagged in plastic. This is a huge bummer. For example, organic carrots are bagged. Organic spinach is in a large plastic box. Organic peppers are often packed in a plastic container with more plastic wrapped around it. Organic lemons, potatoes, onions were all bagged in plastic. Ugh. I happen to not need these items at the time. But more importantly, I knew the smaller market near me sold these items local and not in plastic (win, win!). So I simply opted not to purchase them here.
If that is not the case for you, check to see if they sell these items without packaging and organic. If not, think about the dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists. What is necessary to buy organic, and what is not? What is not, like onions, you could pick up non-organic which are usually available without packaging.
I had a moment where I really wanted to get some pomegranates (’tis the season, yeah?), but unfortunately the organic ones were in a plastic container wrapped in more plastic. I didn’t want to purchase them conventional because I knew they were probably sprayed in the process of growing (as most fruit is). In the end, I had to decide what was more important to me, having organic pomegranates or striving to help the planet by limiting my use of plastic. It seemed obvious when I consciously asked that question.
Second, the bulk section is your new best friend. Many items I would have usually grabbed pre-bagged in the organic section, were found organic at the bulk section. Oats, basmati rice, millet, and many grains are often in the bulk section. I was happy to find they were also organic. Sometimes I’d opt to grab a plastic container filled with nuts or seeds purely for convenience, but this time opted to take advantage of the bulk section for them as well.
This was when I used my glass jars that I brought. One thing I noticed at my grocery store (Wegman’s) is their scale did not have a tare option in the bulk section. This made it tricky for me to use a glass jar and appropriately weight the items without including the weight of the jar. What I ended up doing was fill up the jar with the item, then use a plastic bag they provide (sigh…if I had brought my own smaller cloth bags, I would have put them to use here) to pour the contents of the jar into and weigh it. Once I weighed it, I put the sticker right onto the jar, and filled the item bag into that jar. I reused the same plastic bag for all of my items until I filled up all my jars. There were some things I wanted but couldn’t find, and just skipped it instead of looking for it prepackaged somewhere else. Can’t with them all right?
Honestly, the bulk section is what took up the most of my trip, so be prepared to spend more time then you are used to at this part of the store. But to be honest, it felt really good to be thinking outside of myself and making choices I knew had a positive impact. Now, I don’t have kids and cannot attest to how this would work out with screaming kids in your arms. If you do, and you know what it’s like, let me know in the comments! For now, let’s take it a little at a time, hm?
Third, choose glass or paper containers over plastic and tin for the things that you do buy prepackaged. Remember when I said if you don’t have a bulk section in your store, keep reading? This is what I was referring to. Simply choose the items that recycle better than plastic bags and containers that may not. For example, I was happy to find tomato paste in a glass jar instead of a can. Since cans often are lined with BPA or BPB which are harmful for you, glass was a winning choice for me. I bought oil in a glass jar instead of a tin container, for the same reason. The butter I buy is wrapped in paper (which is more compostable that a plastic tub).
The point is, keep your eyes open. If I wasn’t determined to do my best this day, I would have gone through the store on auto-pilot purchasing the same items I always get just because I’m used to it without realizing their may be a better option.
Some words of wisdom
It’s not going to be perfect. Even when purchasing loose produce, you will find they have a sticker on them, or rubber band, or are wrapped in some kind of plastic label thing. Sometimes, the only way to purchase a certain item is in plastic. Like my favorite chips are in a plastic bag. I suppose I could have purchased some plantains and tried to make them myself, but honestly, we can’t do it all. It’s OK. You win some, you loose some. As long as you are conscious about your choices, you can always strive to improve. Listen, we are trying here, and that’s what really matters. In the future, maybe I’ll decide I don’t need the chips and become more serious about it. For now, I’m starting slow.
Another thing to think about is making more things from scratch. This eco-minded shopping experience led me to try making sauerkraut (finally!) instead of buying it. It also pushed me to finally soak and cook my own beans instead of buying precooked, canned beans. Some other easy-to-make items could include mayonnaise and almond butter, which I often buy purely for convenience. I hope to continue to be inspired to make more things and rely less and less on the packaged goods.
The more we practice this type of shopping and living, the better off we will all be. Sometimes it seems like an endless feat, but a little at a time does make a difference. Don’t pull your hair out over it, but also, don’t slack off either when you know there is a better option. If we support each other in making eco-friendly conscious choices, maybe the future doesn’t have to be an oil-covered, fog-filled wasteland as many futuristic movies seem to predict. Maybe instead, it is a green and luscious planet that we all can rejoice in together. We’ve got this.