So at this point, everyone knows BYOB—that’s, Bring-Your-Own-Bag. But what other simple steps can you take at the grocery store to reduce plastic and unnecessary waste? Let’s take a look.
Anything but plastic
Aluminum cans, glass jars, paper—literally anything is better than plastic. Because of the current recycling crisis, an overwhelming amount of America’s recyclables are now piling up in warehouses or being sent directly to landfill. That means even if you recycle with good intentions, at least a portion of those items may sadly end up in the dump.
Now, I want to be clear—waste is waste. An aluminum can ending up in the garbage is just as bad as any other material. But what distinguishes plastic from other materials in landfills is what follows its disposal. Unlike plastic, aluminum and glass do not leach microplastics as they degrade, therefore posing less risk to our environmental wellbeing. Even better, these alternative materials are great for reuse and repurposing. A glass tomato sauce jar can easily become a to-go iced coffee mug and soda cans can double as retro flower vases.
Not-so-valuable value packs
Buying produce in plastic wrapped ‘value packs’ is an easy habit to justify. It’s usually cheaper than buying single fruits or vegetables, feeds far more people, and for those of us without easy access to transportation, it’s simpler to carry a large, plastic bag of potatoes than it is to try and wrangle ten individual ones.
But what many people don’t realize in buying this way is that bulk doesn’t always mean getting a better deal. For example, let’s say you buy a bag of 7 red peppers. Yum, right? Well, yeah, for the first week. But unless you’re obsessed with peppers, you and your household probably only eating one or two per week. The remaining peppers are in a rush against the clock. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that North America has the highest rate of food waste in the world, hitting anywhere between 30-40%.
Before buying value produce, it’s important to consider what you can realistically consume. Knowing that most fruits and veggies start to go bad after a week or so, try to plan out meals prior to hitting the grocery store. If you and your partner aren’t big salad people or on a mighty juice cleanse, buying an enormous box of baby kale probably isn’t the right option for you. In the end, you’d likely spend around $6-8 and only consume half that value, when you could have spent less than that on a fresh, unpackaged head of kale. It may take some time to get in the habit but a simple cost-benefit analysis can really help you figure out what your most sustainable food options are.
In most produce departments, there’s a small section dedicated to dried fruit and nuts. While part of me is like, yay, healthy snacks, the other part of me is like, no way that’s sustainable. First off, dried fruit and nuts are expensive. Unlike bulk options, where you pay by weight, prepackaged bags give companies a heavier hand in dictating costs. So maybe you think you’re getting a $10 trail mix pack, but what you may not realize is that you’re actually paying a premium. Companies find sneaky ways, like using cheaper nuts and candy, to supplement more expensive ingredients and make you think you’re paying for a better quality product than you are.
Fortunately, shops like Whole Foods and Wegmans offer a variety of bulk options, including organic and non-organic nuts and dried fruit. Bring your own produce bag and you can choose the exact amount you want to buy and pay. If you haven’t tried something before, bulk bins let you get a taste before purchasing to prevent wasted money and food.
Boycott the bad guys
On top of avoiding products made by big corporations (i.e. Unilever, P&G, etc.), you can also look out for problematic ingredients like:
Found in things like chocolate, peanut butter, and shampoo, palm oil use is widespread—and so are its consequences. Its demand has led to unsustainable growth practices that threaten biodiversity and endangered species. Thanks to the clearing of land used to grow palms, nearly “558 million metric tons of CO2,” have been released into the atmosphere.
One of the double-edged swords to come from the vegan/plant-based movements is the popularity of almond milk. While it’s healthy and doesn’t rely on heavily-polluting animal agriculture, it takes nearly “100 liters of water to produce 100 ml of almond milk“. And with the vast majority of almonds coming from dry and water-depleted California, almond milk is putting a lot of unnecessary strain on precious resources and environments.
Like palm oil, soybeans, used in insulation, a range of food products, and animal feed, require huge plantations in order to keep up with current demand. Much of the land being cleared for production has come at the cost of invaluable rainforests in Brazil and has overtaken land populated by native species.
Say no to singles
It’s very tempting to buy products in smaller packages—trust me, I work in advertising. Like many people, I’m a sucker for little jars of yogurt and those tiny bins of Vaseline. But when you can resist, do. There are times when buying just a single portion of something helps prevent food waste. But when it comes to buying a lot of individually wrapped items instead of one larger portion, you actually end up using more packaging and plastic per serving—not to mention overpaying along the way.