How to Be a Zero-Waste Grocery Shopper

SNAP recipients will have fewer chances to choose fresh fruits and vegetables under the proposed changes to the program. (Photo: CandyBox Images/Shutterstock)

The number of zero-waste grocery stores in the U.S. and throughout the world is increasing. These stores keep packaging for food to the minimum, selling foods out of bulk bins, foregoing plastic wrap around fresh foods, and encouraging shoppers to bring reusable containers and bags to put their purchases in.

Nearly 25 percent of the waste in U.S. landfills comes from food products, according to Smithsonian. Much of that waste is created because we prefer the convenience of plastic bags at our fingertips for things such as produce instead of bringing reusable bags or containers.

At zero-waste stores, shoppers have no choice but to bring their own bags and containers. But what about the shoppers at the regular grocery store where there's packaging everywhere? Can you turn your local grocery store into something zero-waste-ish? Perhaps you don't have a zero-waste store near you, or you're not ready to go completely convenience-fee just yet, but you want to cut back on the amount of food packaging you send to the landfill.

These tips will help you do that.

Bring reusable shopping bags

reusable grocery bag
Taking reusable shopping bags every time you go to the store can cut down on a lot of waste. (Photo: mavo/Shutterstock)

If you're already doing one thing to help reduce grocery store waste, bringing your own shopping bags is probably it. These bags can be used at any grocery store, even if the store has no intention of going zero-waste. Keep them clean to avoid spreading food contamination and keep them in your car to avoid forgetting to take them to the store. If you shop at a grocery store that sells wine, beer and liquor, you can get special reusable bags with dividers so the bottles don't smash against each other or you can keep some cardboard handy to keep the bottles separated.

Bring reusable produce bags

reusable produce bag
You don't have to use the plastic bags the store offers. You can put produce in reusable bags. (Photo: mamamorosz/Shutterstock)

Take you own reusable produce bags (or containers) to put bulk produce in instead of taking the one-time-use plastic bags. The store may not have a way to remove the weight of your bag or container when ringing up your purchase, so its best to make them as light as possible. For produce that has a durable outer skin such as bananas, citrus, or potatoes, you don't even need to put them in bag unless you're buying an unmanageable amount. You can simply put them in your cart as-is, but make sure you wash them well once you get them home.

Bring reusable containers for prepared foods

grocery store prepared foods
You don't have to use the store's containers for prepared foods. Just remember to bring your own. (Photo: mandritoiu/Shutterstock)

The prepared food section is convenient, but putting each food in an individual disposable container can create a lot of waste. Have your reusable containers for prepared foods weighed before you put the food in it, and that weight should be deducted when you ring the food up. See-through containers are best for this so the cashier can see what's in it without having to open it.

Choose bulk bins over packaged foods

bulk food bins at grocery
All those bulk bins can be intimidating. (Photo: Trong Nguyen/

It's convenient to swing by the cereal aisle and grab something like a canister of quick cooking oatmeal, but if the grocery store also offers bulk bins that carry grains, nuts, seeds, and more, take the few extra minutes to put bulk bin food into reusable containers. Bonus: bulk bin foods are usually less expensive than their packaged cousins, and sometimes you can get organic foods from the bulk bins for the same price as conventional packaged food.

Put a sticker on it

A small paid sticker creates a lot less waste than a plastic grocery bag. (Photo: Aquir/Shutterstock)

Does a gallon of milk, that comes complete with a handle, really need to go in a bag? Does cat litter? A 5-pound bag of potatoes or apples? You may not be able to get away from the packaging some of these items come in, but if you don't have reusable bags, or you don't have enough reusable bags for your entire order, go bagless. Most stores have small "paid" stickers that the cashier can put on those items so it doesn't look like you're sneaking out without paying.

Choose better packaging

yogurt, glass container
If you have a choice between two comparable yogurts and one is in plastic and the other is in glass, choose the reusable glass. (Photo: Dan Mace/Shutterstock)

Some packaging is better than others. Yogurt in glass jars that are reusable can be better than yogurt in plastic containers. A large package of nuts or other snacks will create less waste than individually portioned packages. You can divide the contents into single-servings in reusable containers when you get home if you need them for school lunches or portion control. Take your time to find the products that have the least amount of packaging.

By taking these steps, you won't be waste-free, but you'll certainly send a lot less packaging waste to the landfill and the recycling center. You may even become a little addicted to the process and make a game out of figuring out how you can take as little food packaging with you when you walk out of that non-zero-waste store because of your zero-waste focus.