Why I'm hooked on grocery shopping with glass jars

Bea Johnson with glass jars
© Zero Waste Home (used with permission)

Back in January, I wrote a post about the Johnson family, who have reduced household trash to one quart a year. Right around that time, I missed curbside recycling pickup for the third time, thanks to holidays and blizzards. Since pickup is biweekly, that meant I was living with six weeks’ worth of recycling on the front porch – and it was an atrocious sight. Seeing all that recycling really drove home the message I’d been reading about in Bea Johnson’s book, “Zero Waste Home.” Recycling and garbage trucks simply remove waste from our sight, but it all has to go somewhere. Recycling, despite its usefulness, is only a last resort.

I’ve long considered myself to be someone who cares about the environment, and I try to reflect that in my daily actions – hanging laundry to dry, using cloth diapers, eating local food, keeping the thermostat low, conserving water, refusing Styrofoam and takeout cups, composting, buying thrift clothes. But my recycling bin continues to overflow, and that’s unsustainable.

The first step toward eliminating waste is to refuse its entry into the house. So, following Johnson’s directions, I now shop for food with a collection of 1-liter glass canning jars in a big basket. When I approach the deli, meat, or fish counters, I hold out my glass jar and politely ask the employee to put it in the jar. I’ve encountered a few confused looks, but the key is confidence. I don’t ask permission, but rather act as if I’ve been doing this for years.

Most people have been supportive, but I ran into difficulty at Bulk Barn, Canada’s largest bulk food retailer. Their policy doesn’t allow reusable containers because, as HQ told me, “not all people sterilize their containers like they say they do.” That doesn’t make sense, considering that Bulk Barn’s bins are anything but sterile – open to the environment, to stray hairs, snot globules, exploratory hands, and coughing children.

Bea Johnson has developed a free app called BULK, which allows shoppers to locate reusable container-friendly bulk stores across the U.S. and Canada. It’s a great concept, but it needs some TLC up here in Canada, judging by the fact that I found a single location in all of Ontario. Doing my own research, I’ve found plenty of bulk stores that allow reusables, and I recently visited one in Toronto called Noah’s Natural Foods.

The next challenge will be to find a good source of milk, since here in Ontario it comes either double-bagged in plastic or in non-recyclable (at least where I live) cartons. I make yogurt and bread at home, and most vegetables and grains come from an organic CSA. When shopping for fruit, I keep it loose to avoid using a produce bag. (There are reusable ones, but I haven’t bought any yet.)

A month into my quest for Zero Waste, I have noticed an encouraging reduction in my family’s waste. The best lessons I’ve learned so far are that (1) a minimal increase in organization and planning can go a long way, (2) there are more reusable options out there than I thought, and (3) people are ready for change and willing to help.

Why don’t you try shopping with jars this week, and see what happens?

Tags: Food Miles | Fruits & Vegetables | Shopping | Zero Waste

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