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.

11 Responses to Zero waste field trip: Grocery shopping in the UK

  1. I enjoyed this so much. When I first read Zero Waste Home, I was really inspired, but I was living in north London at the time, and got quickly discouraged by the lack of bulk options, since I feel this is where a lot of people start with zero waste. I also didn’t drive, so was limited to what I could buy on foot (so limited in quantity I could buy at once!) and order through the grocery delivery service. We also had a small fridge, so stocking up on things was hard to do, meaning that shopping from multiple places meant shopping very frequently. Sadly, these difficulties made me largely give up on pursuing zero waste at the time.

    Now, though, I realise I could have done a lot more. We also had a weekly market in our town with fruit and veg, and sometimes bread and cheese; a local bakery (which actually let me volunteer in their kitchen in exchange for lessons on making sourdough bread!); and a fishmonger; and a free-range butcher a short bus ride away. Incidentally, both these meat vendors would also give me free bones for making stock, something I have not encountered in the USA. I miss that! I also could have explored options for ordering certain things in larger quantities, even if packaged.

    • I didn’t even bother trying for a long time because it seemed so cut and dry. Sometimes I think we need to just let ideas simmer for a while before we’re ready for them.

  2. Well, that describes very well how it is for me in Germany, too. I buy fruit and vegetables and cheese from the farmers market, bread at the bakery where I can put it in my own bag; I don’t buy meat or fish; and for everything else I have the supermarkets which look exactly like the pictures above.And here also the food handling laws have made it very difficult to sell anything unpackaged … it’s gotten really difficult, for example, for a church to do a baking sale to raise some money, because the regulations they have to observe are sooo crazy.

    • Oh, wow — that’s really interesting about the packaging laws. Our church has various groups selling tamales out of coolers all the time … probably totally against health codes, but no one seems too worried about it. With fairs and farmers’ markets and the like, items have to be made in a certified commercial kitchen. But I don’t know how they regulate that or make sure it’s actually happening.

  3. What a revolutionary approach to grocery shopping. I did not think about it that way. I hope that they allow that here in my side of the world. Although our community had already made an effort to minimize waste by suggesting that we bring our own bags. Bringing containers is still an amazing idea.

    • Love that your community is making an effort to reduce waste! It’s amazing how much waste is saved simply by bringing your own bag.

      Let us know how it goes if/when you try bringing in your own container. It helps to ask ahead of time to see if your stores will allow it.

  4. Really interesting Anna! My shopping experience is similar here in Australia. We are fortunate to still have high street shopping, and even my little town of 2000 people has a wonderful butcher (no greengrocer/fresh produce though, sigh).
    Frustrated by a lack of locally-grown produce, a few friends and I started a monthly fresh produce exchange so we can swap our excess home grown fruit, veg and eggs, and seedlings, yogurt cultures, pickles, jams and chutneys. It is really popular, and I am really pleased I took the step to do this, and stopped worrying ‘what people would think’:-)
    From your wonderful example Trisha, I am going to back to the unpackaged bulk food co-op in the next big town which runs monthly. I joined about 5 years’ ago when we moved to the country and I was all gung-ho about reducing waste/living plastic-free, but after we moved further away it just become inconvenient. No more excuses! I can surely give up a couple of hours once a month!

  5. Yes, that is a good summary of how things are in the UK. I live in a medium sized city, and have a wholefood coop that are willing to let you fill containers from their store room (everything in the shop is pre-bagged), though I haven’t taken them up on it yet. It always pays to be bold.and ask, they don’t advertise it. Interestingly, they were planning on being a bulk bin shop but were scuppered by Soil Association regulations on vending organic food and avoiding cross contamination.

    Nationwide we used to have a franchise called ‘Scoop and Save’ which had bulk bins, but they gradually disappeared through the nineties and noughties. I think they are due a revival.

  6. Sounds about right – I don’t know of any bulk options anywhere. I suspect it would be regarded as unhygienic. I don’t have a local butcher and I think they are quite rare now. We use very little meat but I do get a monthly meat box from Abel and Cole, as well as the weekly veg box.

  7. Pingback: Grocery cart revisited | The Simple Year

  8. Pingback: Zero waste field trip: Food swap in Australia | The Simple Year

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