Choices at the grocery store

It’s time to apply for The Simple Year 6! Click HERE for details, or check out “The Handoff” link above. Deadline is April 15.

I am, admittedly, pretty lucky when it comes to zero / low / minimal waste options at the grocery store — we have a decent bulk section, plenty of unpackaged produce, and the option of bringing our own containers to the meat counter. I hadn’t realized that, however, until I started this project. Part of the reason it took me so long to jump on the bandwagon was that I wasn’t living in an urban area with the various choices and benefits that go along with that. What could I do, really, in a small town?

It was a nice surprise and rather a boost to find there was a lot I could do. Even here.

As I mentioned on Monday, when I first started the project, I counted everything packaged the same, regardless of whether or not it could be reused, recycled or composted, or was trash. I’ve since concluded, for the sake of my general sanity, I need to relax that high standard — a tin can does not a project break. And it’s still working because our trash and recycling output continue to decrease.

Below are photos straight from my grocery store’s inner aisles (traditionally the hardest place to “go zero”) to illustrate how we’re making choices based on what produces the least amount of trash possible:

Bread aisle.

This is a hard aisle to start with, now that I think about it, because bread is Eric’s bye item, and this is the kind he likes — recyclable outer bag with an inner liner that is garbage. Ideally, I would chose something that only has the outer bag; I’m finding more and more stores in our area recycle those types of plastic bags, although they’re not accepted curbside.

The girls and I are rather attached to bread and rolls from the cute little corner bakery, which has no problem filling my bags (HERE and HERE). One clerk told me recently she’s seeing people bring their own bags more and more. Since the grocery store’s bakery department will not do that, this is my best option.

Canned fruit and veggies.

Spoiler alert: I don’t buy canned fruit, and I very rarely buy canned vegetables. I rely on home canned, frozen or dried — those are “from scratch” projects I’m on board with — and fresh, but if I had to buy canned, here’s how I’d make my choice:

In terms of reuse, glass containers are my first choice. Glass can be endlessly recycled — although that does use energy — and can be repurposed to hold various items from bulk purchases to leftovers. And they make great containers for homemade presents (HERE and HERE and HERE). Some containers can even find new life as spray bottles (HERE).

My second choice is aluminum cans — HERE is a fun little graphic on how aluminum is recycled — because it’s also endlessly recyclable AND energy efficient to do so. It’s also easy to recycle on the consumer’s end; we have curbside pick up, but we also have a couple of recycling sites run by various nonprofits who collect cans (and glass).

My last choice — and I would honestly just do without in this instance — would be the plastic containers, as seen on the top shelf of the above photo. Plastic has varying degrees of recyclability, plus one-use containers such as these have plastic wrap pull-tops that are trash. Also, plastic isn’t really recycled, it’s just down-cycled. I see plastic as a last resort. And as you will see below, it’s often the only choice, which is why I opt to avoid it when I can.

Oh, P.S. I noticed “single packs” of vegetables on the top shelf, too, the first time I’ve ever seen something like that. Weird.


Cheese is a weekly purchase in this household — well, maybe bi-monthly, since we get the two-pound loaves — but it’s not something that I can get unpackaged here. I can get feta and mozzarella at the olive bar, but I don’t do that very often because A) The feta is incredibly salty and we don’t do well with that (genetics!) and 2) Once I got mozzarella that was bad and I haven’t really been too excited to try it again.

So packaged it is. Instead of getting smaller packages, I go for the biggest one I can get, as one large package equals less waste than multiple smaller packages. (I don’t know, that’s advanced math, but it makes sense — one wrapper on a two-pound cheese block is less than 12 cheese slice wrappers in another plastic pouch.) I apply the same logic to any purchase that is ultimately packaged in something that is going directly into my garbage can, like Johanna’s periodic bag of chips (although now that she has braces, that’s going to take care of itself).

Cocoa powder and baking chocolate.

Cocoa powder isn’t available in the bulk aisle, so packaged is the only option. I suppose we could just do without, but what sort of life would it be? The natural foods / organic section cocoa powder is all in pouches, so I go for conventional brands.

In this situation, plastic containers are the better option to plastic wrap — one can be recycled, one cannot. I was checking out what seemed to be a cardboard container of off-brand cocoa powder … but I couldn’t be certain it was cardboard, so I went with what I knew.

Soup and broth.

Irony: I was prepared to write about how, on the soup front, I always pick aluminum over shelf-stable cartons because even though it says on the label that they’re recyclable, they’re not in our area. Then I went on our county’s waste and recycling website and discovered they JUST moved cartons — including dairy and juice — to the “yes recycle” column.

Huh. I guess that saves you all a rant. 😉

Well, I’ll still choose aluminum anyway — it’s just a more efficient recycling option in the long run. And I guess the lesson here is to regularly check your county’s recycling information for updates.

Anyway, the gist of all of this is just that I have a hierarchy that I follow when I shop, regardless of where it is in the store: I chose products without any packaging first, then based on the reusable or recyclable nature of their packages, refuse what I can, and go with larger sizes of what I can’t.

This post is getting way too long, but I want to add that I know that technically, the bulk bins, while zero waste for me, aren’t zero waste for the store, as everything is delivered in a package. I justify it by assuming it’s like our cheese purchases — by buying the biggest option possible, we’re cutting down on waste overall. In this instance, we’re just sharing the cheese with a bunch of people.

Questions? Comments?

Next up: Celebrating our one-year anniversary with some deep questions.