Zero waste field trip: Grocery shopping in the UK

I’ve been intrigued by some of the comments I’ve gotten this year about the lack of unpackaged options in the UK, which makes zero waste shopping quite a challenge. I’ve never been to the UK and therefore have no frame of reference, so I messaged Anna about it recently, and she was kind enough to send photos and a write up about what a typical shopping trip looks like and what she’s able to do on the zero waste / low waste front in light of her options.

Many, many thanks, Anna!


Farm shop: Her first stop of the day was to “a great farm shop which has lots of unpackaged fruit and veg,” although she notes some items like kale and spinach were packaged. She was also able to pick up organic sausages that were prepackaged and frozen.

Anna’s purchases from the farm stand.

Cost was £27 (about $34 U.S.), and she notes this is more than enough to feed three adults for the week. “I think this is a good price compared to supermarkets,” she says. “I will probably cancel my organic veg box delivery and go there weekly (approximately 15 minutes away).” Veggie box description below.


Supermarket options: “This is harder for zero waste,” she writes. “I don’t know of any local bulk stores (or even any far away).” There are some loose produce options, but even that is often wrapped, she says, as is the meat. Larger supermarkets are located farther out of town and require a vehicle to get to, she notes.

Anna’s supermarket haul.

This week, she purchased boxed cereal (liner is plastic), glass bottles of oil and vinegar (plastic seals — same in the States, incidentally), meat in plastic trays and wrapped in plastic, flour and sugar in paper bags, eggs in a cardboard box, cheese from the deli — wrapped in paper, but with a plastic sheet first — bread in a paper bag with a peekaboo plastic window (yep, we have those too). “Do you spot the plastic theme?” she asks. “And this was me making an effort — most aisles are 100 percent plastic-ed. I didn’t buy any tinned stuff today — beans, tuna, tomatoes.”

These three photos are “regular aisles.”

Here’s where Anna got brave, and I am so proud: “I asked the guy at the fish counter about brining my own bags. He passed me to the duty manager, who said I could bring in containers, have them tared and filled! This gives me access to fish, meat and deli (cheese and cold meats). Although I think they have to use either a throwaway glove or plastic sheet to pick everything up (but baby steps, right?). I need to get me some big orange Tupperware as I don’t have anything I can seal.” (That made me laugh. My big orange Tupperware was a thing of beauty, and I miss it every time I go to the store.)

“A pretty small selection of cheese for a UK shop!” she says.



She notes her haul cost £48, “but I stocked up on meat.” (Or about $60 in the U.S.)


Thoughts on recycling: Anna is a big recycler. “We have ‘wheelie bins’ for refuse and recycling — large garbage containers for each house, collected fortnightly by the ‘dustbin lorry.’ We don’t even half fill our general bin, but fill up our recycling bin each fortnight. I guess we fill a skinny Brabantia bin bag each week.” (I had to look that up — 23-30 liters, or a bit shy of 8 gallons. That seems really good to me!)

“Grey is landfill, green is garden waste and kitchen food waste, blue is mixed recycling.”

“We are lucky and have the best recycling service,” says Anna. “Many folk have to sort recycling into smaller bags/boxes and only have a small compost bin for kitchen waste. I’m told the mixed recycling is properly divided up (I do hope so!).”

She cooks mostly from scratch, she says, which further helps on the waste front.


Other options and thoughts: Anna has the aforementioned veggie box subscription. “The carrots are in a compostable bag, and I reuse these bags in my fridge for veg until they disintegrate, then compost them. The ginger is also in a plastic baggie (unusual for a veg box scheme), but I will reuse that too once the ginger is gone.”

Veggie box subscription.

Anna actually repacked her veggie box just so we could see it. I owe her a coffee. Maybe two.

She’s also able to order bulk flour in paper sacks from an organic mill (uh, that’s awesome), which is also available in paper bags or her own bags at a local organic bakery. She gets cleaning and laundry supplies and toiletries through the mail. “They use large containers and small refills,” she says. “It’s a ‘reduce’ option rather than zero waste.”

Here’s what I thought was particularly interesting: “I visited the U.S. last year — Maryland — and you seem to have mostly big stores.” (True.) “There were some small towns more like the UK with rows of shops. We have high streets (small shops in a town centre, surrounded by residential area) and out of town large supermarkets (need a car, often with other DIY or large stores). We also have Costco but I’ve not been.” (Resist, Anna, resist!)

“My nearest is part of a ‘garden centre’ that sells mostly indoor and garden plants, but you get some such shops on the high street.” (I would love to go to a garden center for produce!)

She further explains the high street concept: “Typically we would have a butcher, baker, greengrocer and chemist (pharmacy) … High streets have taken a hit over the last 10-20 years because of supermarkets. I think most people get most of their shopping from a big supermarket. But farmers’ markets have grown in popularity over the last few years, and bakers and butchers seem to be holding their own.” (In the U.S., malls are what killed our downtown areas. But now malls are dying, so I’m not sure where that leaves us.)

“I think for meat, I need to go to a high street butcher,” she says. “Poultry isn’t included on the supermarket meat counter, a legacy of salmonella scares, I guess. I remember bulk stores about 20 years ago, but I think UK food scares and food handling laws killed them off.”


I love the idea of a high street and walking to greengrocer and butcher shops. We’re too spread out where I live — and our shopping districts aren’t set up like that at all. And apparently in the U.S. we don’t worry about things like salmonella — companies don’t even have to report it right away, and by the time they do, the damage is already done. We get cross-contamination warnings on the bulk bins, but that’s aimed at people with allergies.

It was also interesting to see that the “main aisles” of the UK shop looks a lot like the main aisles of U.S. supermarkets — that’s where the packaged, processed food lives.

Again, many thanks to Anna for taking the time to share her experience with us. When I say The Simple Year has the best readers, I really mean it. I love the sense of community we’ve got going on here.

Next up: Kerry’s comment on Friday made me wonder how much time I do spend prepping food for the week. So I paid attention and took photos this time.