“Zero waste grocery shopping kit? What’s that??” 

Intrigued? I was too.

So I was talking with a friend the other day, and he was describing how hard it is to grocery shop “zero waste”. Especially with a family and a membership to Costco (or somewhere similar). He talked about how natural it seems to pick up something in plastic packaging to throw in the cart. And if you’re buying more than one for a good deal, it’s often wrapped together in even more plastic. After checking out, you take all your plastic bags home. Then you unpack that car full of plastic, put all the items away, and throw out the plastic. Is there even any other way? 

joke about buying everything in plastic packaging at grocery store and then not using a plastic bag to carry it all home

You may feel the same way my friend felt. Trapped and wrapped in plastic. And it might feel like the only possible zero waste option would be to drive around to a bunch of different stores, bakeries, tortillerias, farmer’s markets and more – if these locations are even in your area. Then you could buy all the things you want with no packaging, right? But who has time for that?

And actually — that’s not zero waste. 

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it a billion times more: perfection, like 100% totally ZERO waste, is not the goal. That’s nearly impossible. What matters is caring enough about your footprint on this earth to make changes. To do the best you can. And to keep educating yourself. 

If you think about it, driving all over your city to try and achieve a plastic-free life causes other problems. This emits pollutants into the air as you waste fuel, time, and money on this impossible (though well-intended) goal. 

We all have an environmental impact simply through our own existing. We all need food and other essentials to live. And we all have different levels of access to certain resources, healthy food, finances, etc. Based on these factors, living “zero waste” may have many challenges. So how do we minimize the negative effects of our environmental impact when it comes to necessary tasks, like grocery shopping?

Well, we can all do something

Remember the 6 Rs? This post is part one of a two-part series focused on this R word: Reuse. You could also substitute this word: Refill. In both posts, I’m going to guide you in building your “zero waste shopping kit.” Today, we’re focused on groceries. In part two, we’ll focus on refilling household goods from a zero waste store. 

Your kit will require both physical essentials and mental essentials. Whether you’re a beginner or more advanced in sustainable living, you can customize this information to fit your life. So, without further ado, let’s dive in!

Disclosure: some of the links below (noted with an asterisk*) are affiliate links. This means, at no additional cost to you, I will make a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. For more info regarding how I decide when to use affiliate links, see full disclosure here

Zero Waste Grocery Shopping Kit: Physical Essentials

No matter what store is in your area, I would recommend bringing these physical items on your grocery shopping trip. This way, you’ll be the best prepared for minimizing a great deal of unnecessary waste!

Reusable Shopping Bags

reusable shopping bags hanging by door

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s hilariously easy to forget them! Building a habit takes time. You may need to keep a stash in your car or hanging on your doorknob to remember. If you need a set of reusable bags, sometimes they’re given away for free at events you attend or you can find them secondhand. You could always ask for them as a gift! If you want to buy new, consider investing in a company with high ethical standards, like ChicoBag. They take their environmental and social responsibilities very seriously! I have a bag like this* and love how it tucks back into itself for easy storage. 

You can also check out my post on reusable bags if you want to know more about the incredibly positive impact they make, how to make your own in a super easy DIY project (no sewing!), and for more tips on remembering to bring them with you. This is definitely a staple element of your zero waste shopping experience.

Reusable Produce Bags and/or Containers

Getting into the habit of bringing reusable produce bags and/or containers will also take some time to adjust. I recommend putting these inside one or more of your larger bags. This way you can’t miss bringing them all at the same time. 

When you’re buying produce, you can use your own little bags instead of the single-use plastic ones at the store. And it’s totally up to you to decide when you even need a reusable produce bag! For example, I place lettuce and delicate produce into one of my bags, but other food directly in the cart. If it has an outer peel that’s coming off anyway, I don’t feel the need for a bag. Or if it’s a fruit / veggie that I’m planning to wash well before eating, I also don’t worry. But again, totally up to you.

Some stores provide bulk bin sections — my favorite! If a store near you has one, I highly recommend using it often. Remember, no need to drive all over the city, though. The bulk food is not 100% exempt from waste (it needed to be transported, right?). But, it’s much more efficient than a bunch of single-use plastic packaging. The store I go to has a delicious variety of bulk food available, like dried fruits, rice, grains, beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, granola, pretzels, trail mix, oats, salt, flour, sugar, protein powder, and more!! 

You can search for any bulk store options near you through the Zero Waste Home site — check it out here!

Your experience will depend on where you live and if people are open to the idea of “zero waste”. For example, many stores in Denver are ok with you bringing your own container. You can fill it, and they’ll subtract the initial weight of the container at checkout. BUT, the store nearest to me really doesn’t like it when I do that. I’ve found it’s easier to fill reusable bags with food from the bulk bins at that location. Then the cashier doesn’t have to subtract any weight at checkout because the bags are so light. 

You can easily make your own reusable produce bags out of a t-shirt or pillowcase (see linked post above for DIY)! If you can’t find any secondhand or want to invest in a new set, check out *these options: 

  • For a cloth set to hold things like salt or flour without making a mess, try these
  • For a mesh set to easily see what’s inside, try these!

If your store provides access to refilling liquids like olive oil, honey, syrup, nut butter, etc – you’ll definitely need jars or some kind of container to fill. And if you eat meat and cheese, be sure to ask the deli if they wouldn’t mind using your container. They will typically weigh the container, place the meat/cheese inside, and weigh it again. Then they’ll print a sticker to put on the lid with the weight of the food to make checkout easier. 

After some experimenting, you’ll find what works best for your zero waste grocery shopping routine. Then you can bring reusable produce bags and/or containers accordingly! 

Phone or Wax Pencil/Crayon

When refilling from the bulk section, you’ll need to be prepared for identifying PLU (Price Look-Up) codes and accounting for the weight of any containers you may be using. 

I always take a picture of the PLU code, listed on/near the bin. Then I read it to the cashier at checkout. This way, I don’t need to write the numbers on twist-ties that are just going to be tossed at home. Make sure to have your photos ready at checkout, especially if you bought multiple bulk-bin items. 

If you use containers at your store, you’ll want to record the weight of the container FIRST when it’s empty. If you’re unable to do this at home, there’s typically a scale near the bulk aisle. Weigh the empty container, then write the weight (the “tare”) on the container with a washable wax pencil or crayon. Write your numbers clearly so it makes it easy for the cashier to subtract the correct weight from your full container. This guarantees you only pay for the amount of food you put inside. 

Some Way To Transport Everything

baskets in a pile

If everything you’ve bought is light enough to fill your reusable bags, then no worries! Just carry your bags to and from the store and into your home like normal. 🙂 

If you filled many containers, it may be awkward trying to fit them all inside your own bags to carry. Obviously, you could just keep everything in your cart and wheel it to your car, then unload carefully at home! I’ve also seen some people invest in specific crates, baskets or boxes with handles to make the carrying process easier. You could totally find durable crates secondhand – you’ll just want to test that you can carry the weight when full.

Zero Waste Grocery Shopping Kit: Mental Essentials

Some of the most important zero waste actions are overlooked because they’re not as obvious or popular. Building your “mental kit” might even be is actually more important than the physical kit! Below are some essential ideas to consider.

Meal Plan

iPad and stylus showing a "weekly planner" on the screen for planning a zero waste shopping trip

I’ve mentioned this before, but the power of planning your meals is incredible. Try investing even 10 minutes of your time to plan what meals you want to eat during the week. Then use this as a basis for your shopping list. You’ll be more prepared to use the food you already have, buy ingredients needed for that week, and then actually cook and eat the meals you planned. Check out my post with tips on storing food without single-use plastic! You’ll keep food fresh longer and cut down that $161.6 billion dollars’ worth of American food waste every year!

Grocery Shop Once A Week

cart for a zero waste shopping trip

If you plan your meals and make a list, you’re also more likely to grocery shop only once a week rather than go to the store multiple times. This cuts down on impulse buying, which reduces unnecessary waste and saves you money. Unless you walk to the store, this also means your amount of driving back and forth decreases. Your fuel consumption will be more efficient and the air a little bit cleaner. Plus, think of all that time you could spend on other activities instead of hangrily running to the store! This small step brings “zero waste shopping” to a deeper level. 😉

Choose A Sensible Route

woman holding iPad deciding on route with Maps app which saves emissions for a zero waste shopping trip

Speaking of driving, let’s be smarter about this! No one (that I know) likes spending time in traffic. The environment is greatly impacted by all our emissions. (click here if you want to know more about the effects of car pollutants) Ask yourself, do you need to drive to the store multiple times a week? And if you dedicate one day a week to grocery shopping, could you create a sensible route that includes most/all of your errands? 

Of course we cannot plan all the details of our lives and count on them playing out accordingly – ha! Wouldn’t that be nice?? But you can do your best to be efficient with your time, resources, and drive responsibly. What if you planned multiple stops in the same day on a route that makes sense – like groceries, post office, gas, meeting a friend, etc? Could you carpool with a friend or neighbor and get all your grocery shopping done together? Or stop at the grocery store on your way home from work once a week? A little creative planning saves you from extra trips and unnecessarily wasted time and energy. 

P.S. If it’s possible to walk, bike, or take public transportation, consider giving that a try! 

P.P.S. As a bonus tip, some breweries and wineries will refill your own bottle/growler with alcohol or kombucha! Maybe that could be one of your stops along a sensible route.

Look For Local CSA Programs Or Farmer’s Markets

veggies at zero waste shopping trip to farmers market

There are often many opportunities to connect consumers directly to farmers and to support your local businesses. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Programs and farmer’s markets are great ways to support your own community. Plus, it’s less wasteful to buy locally and/or seasonally! 

When you buy locally / seasonally, you tend to make healthier choices, spend less money, and connect deeper within your community. One food distribution program I love to support in Denver is The GrowHaus. They provide access to healthy food and education within their surrounding area. Their motto stands firm on this access being a human right, not a privilege. When I buy produce locally grown from them, I’m using my money to vote for my values.

You could also look into programs similar to Misfits Market. “Imperfect” produce is collected from farms and stores that won’t sell it due to highly visual standards. The produce is then sold and delivered to people’s homes so it’s not wasted. Most of these programs are still on the rise in America, but they are spreading from state to state. 

Buy As Ethically As Possible

hand holding a compass

Now I’m not going to tell you what your moral values should be. I am going to stand for basic human rights and urge you to do so with me. Especially if you have the privilege of choosing whatever you want to eat. It’s amazing how much you will learn when you simply begin asking questions. A big question to ask regarding your groceries is: Where did this come from?

Take chocolate, for example. When you’re wandering the grocery aisles and come across the sweets section, pause. Before you toss a chocolate bar into your cart because it’s cheap, ask the question. Where did this come from? I talk a lot about the shockingly high statistics of child labor and poverty within the cocoa industry in this post. Corporations don’t typically feel the need to change unless there’s a lot of pressure to do so. We, the consumers, can cause such pressure. 

How about fruits and veggies – where did they come from? Were they organically grown? Were they coated with pesticides, toxic not only to our health, but to the health of the laborers and people living near the water polluted by chemical runoff? Things to consider.  

Meat and dairy products… I know this is a messy topic. It’s not my job to tell you what you should and should not eat, especially without knowing your personal situation. I am not a doctor nor a nutritionist. But I have done extensive amounts of research on the positive impacts of a plant-based diet on human health and the earth. The average American was predicted to eat 222 lbs of red meat and poultry in 2018 (source) — a record high! We don’t need to be consuming this much, it’s excessive. Cutting back would be a tremendous place to start. Would you consider adopting Meatless Monday? Maybe even eating plant-based twice per week? It’s actually a fun challenge to step outside your comfort zone and try new recipes!  

If you would be willing to consider new information on this topic, I would encourage you to look into these things: 

  • Where does your meat and dairy come from?
  • What are factory farms / CAFOs? 
  • What are the impacts of added growth hormones in industrial farms?
  • How does the contamination from CAFOs affect the surrounding community, homes, and families? (And a deeper question, what is environmental racism?)

If you’re interested in learning more about buying ethically, check out the Food Empowerment Project. If you’re interested in learning more about plant-based eating and the impact of the meat/dairy industry on both health and environment, check out “What the Health?” and “Cowspiracy” on Netflix.

Shop Sustainable Packaging

aluminum cans of food on shelves which is a more sustainable material when recycled for a zero waste shopping trip

Unless you make all your own food from scratch, some packaging really can’t be avoided. I try to reduce the amount of plastic packaging in my purchases and opt for more sustainable materials instead. No manufactured material is completely exempt from creating waste, but there are much more sustainable options! Glass and aluminum, for example, are much more sustainable – if recycled! Check out this video on glass and this video on aluminum

You’re Ready! Put That Zero Waste Grocery Shopping Kit Into Action!

No matter your area, your level of experience, or your budget, you CAN make a powerful difference! Everyone can do something. Prepare your zero waste shopping kit with what you’re able. 

The ideals of “zero waste” are not all about living plastic-free. Bring your physical kit. Bring your mental kit. Ask questions. Do a little digging. Step out of your comfort zone. Challenge the norm – even with something that seems simple, like grocery shopping. 

You’ve got this. 

neon sign that says "make your wave"
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