Shopping Zero Waste When You Don't Have Bulk Foods Near You

It’s always been part of our mission to make the zero waste movement more accessible.  Sadly, the people who are most affected by climate change are usually those who have the least power to change it.  If you aren’t aware of this disparity, look into the term “environmental injustice.”  For example, people in lower income areas often aren’t the focus for improving public transportation or providing options like health food stores with bulk sections.  There are towns in the developed US that don’t have access to clean, drinkable tap water.  It gets worse: landfills are placed according to the average income of an area.  They literally put new landfills in poorer areas.  This further decreases the value of those homes and the air quality for those who live there.  I think that’s wrong.  As Gloria Steinem wrote in My Life on the Road, “decisions are best made by those affected by them.” 

These topics barely scratch the surface of the problem.  What I’m trying to get at is that when we talk about shopping in bulk or drinking tap water from refillable bottles, we understand that those are privileges.  Part of the research and advocacy we do is trying to pave the way to a better future where environmental work benefits all people equally and we all have access to clean air, water, and nontoxic food packaging.

If you’re in a suburban area that doesn’t have many grocery stores, and certainly doesn’t have a health foods store with a bulk section, this article is for you.

There are ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle and actually save money.  And there are ways to do it when all you’re working with is Costco and Fred Meyer.  We’ve compiled this guide for shopping zero waste at a regular old grocery store.

1. No bulk section? No problem.

Choose the best store in your area with the greatest focus on healthy natural ingredients and good neighborhood values.  If it’s a mom & pop store or a farm stand, support them with your shopping as if you’re casting a vote for more stores like theirs.

Does your store have a salad bar or a hot foods section?  Treat those like a bulk section.  Stock up on cheddar cheese or olives or beans. 

Tell a staff member what you’re doing and confidently mention you’ll be using your own container.  If they won’t let you, try reusing a plastic one of theirs that you’ve washed and dried.  Worst case, you can reuse the plastic containers as food containers at home (just don’t microwave them, as plastic can leech toxic chemicals into your food.  If you like to reheat your meals, stick with glass containers - you can often find a set at Goodwill or another secondhand store)

If they don’t even have that, move on to the next step:

2. The lesser of two evils.

When you’re shopping, choose the food that has the best packaging available to you.  Choose the pasta in a cardboard box instead of a plastic bag.  Look for items that come in a paper bag or a paper box without a plastic bag inside.

Buy a big box of snacks instead of individually wrapped granola bars.  It might still have a plastic bag, but it’s less wasteful overall.  Choose the least amount of packaging and the most natural ingredients you can find.

If everything is wrapped in plastic, choose the food that’s the most local.  If it’s made or grown in your state, that means it produced less carbon in traveling to the store, and carbon is arguably a bigger environmental problem than plastic.

Buy things in aluminum cans instead of glass bottles or plastic packaging.  Beans, soups, oils, sauces…  Aluminum cans have the best chance of actually getting recycled and making it back on the shelf as the same type of item, and they take the least amount of energy to make.  In fact, an aluminum can will be back on the shelf as a different can within 60 days. 

Think of it this way: an aluminum can is recycled and remade into an aluminum can, giving it a circular life cycle; plastic may be recycled, but it can only be used for food once, and then it has to become recycled into lunch trays or trash cans or flooring, due to food safety regulations.

Sustainable Grocery Shopping

3. Buy big or go home.

If you can’t buy in bulk, buy the largest quantity you can so that you waste less plastic wrappers.  Costco offers a 20 LB. bag of rice that comes in a burlap bag.  Even if it turns out to be plastic lined, it’s still half as much plastic packaging as four 5 LB. bags would have.

Look for restaurant supply stores or hotel suppliers in your area that will let you buy olive oil, rice, dish detergent, or toilet paper from them.  Often it comes in larger bottles or paper bags or boxes, and it’ll be cheaper too.

4. Go to bakeries and deli counters.

Become a regular at a bakery and then ask what days they bake bread, and ask if you can pick up a weekly loaf in your own cloth bag or pillowcase. 

See if the deli will let you put the cheese and meat in your own containers.  Even if it was originally on a huge block that was wrapped in plastic, you’ll still avoid the plastic it would be rewrapped in once it was cut down to size.

5. Who needs packaged food anyway?  Go plant based.

Another way to live a more sustainable lifestyle is to cut down on your meat intake.  Meat production creates a lot of greenhouse gases and uses a lot of energy and plastic packaging to get to your table.  Try meatless Mondays or try cooking Vegan or Vegetarian a few times a week, and see how easy it is!

If you primarily shop in the produce section and supplement your fruits and veggies with a few essential grains and beans, you will reduce your kitchen waste an astounding amount. 

Just make sure you’re buying the individual potatoes and the brussel sprouts that come on the stalk instead of buying those in the plastic netting.  And who needs a plastic bag if you’re just going to wash the produce when you get home anyway?  If you have to put it in a bag, use the paper ones they provide for mushrooms.

Get used to a plant based diet and you’ll be well on your way to a plastic free lifestyle.

Plant Based Lifestyle

6. Make friends.

Be really nice to the cashiers or store staff when you explain why you want to use your own container.  Get to know that guy or gal that runs the restaurant supply store and lets you pick up a few items in bulk every month.  If we start talking about why we live a zero waste lifestyle, it gets people on board and they’ll want to help us.

7. Use your voice.

Write on the comment cards!  Request a bulk section!  What you say matters, and if your friends start thinking the same way, and enough of you ask, the corporations and stores will start to hear you.  It’s all about business, so if the demand is there, they’ll be forced to change.  Power of the people, baby.



We hope this guide was helpful!  If you have any tips we missed, comment below.  And share this article with your friends who are interested in a more sustainable lifestyle.