Forget Zero Waste: Just Become a Better Shopper

Don't get stuck on perfectionism. You can make a difference without spending a ton.

shopping for apples

Getty Images / d3ign

A colleague recently sent me an article to read in Canada's National Observer: "Cutting back on waste is possible – if you can afford it." It argued that reducing household waste – food-related, in particular – is an expensive endeavor and a near impossibility for anyone working precarious low-wage jobs with little extra time.

The conclusion? Zero waste is something only privileged people can afford, while those "who are struggling to get by simply can't." 

While that may be true, I take issue with the idea that zero waste must be all or nothing. I think this is an unfortunate mentality that threatens to undermine valuable progress toward reducing one's food-related household waste. When we get too hung up on the idea of literal zero waste, of being like the zero waste superstars Lauren Singer and Bea Johnson who can fit years of trash in a single mason jar, we start missing the broader point. The goal, after all, is to make smarter shopping decisions and establish practices that are sustainable for us, as individuals, with our own unique resources and living situations.

Over the years my own food-shopping approach has shifted from wanting to be like those zero waste exemplars to embracing a more realistic low-waste lifestyle. The fact is, I have three growing children who eat ravenously and must be fed without our food budget going off the rails. I live in a small rural town with no fancy zero waste stores or "refilleries." My husband and I both work full-time. I am uninterested in spending my free time doing DIY projects and driving from store to store in search of perfect packaging. As a result, I don't stress too much over what's unaffordable, unavailable, or too much work. I do the best I can. It's these strategies that I want to share with readers.

Work With the Stores You Have

When I first read about Bea Johnson's multi-stop grocery shopping routine, I tried to copy it. That lasted a few weeks before I gave up.

Unlike her, I still had babies to haul around, and I did not live in balmy San Francisco where stores are presumably closer together than in rural Ontario. Instead, I've resigned myself to the supermarket being the main supply of food and trying to work with it. 

Now, when I enter the supermarket on a once-weekly basis, I view all packaging through a critical eye. I make constant comparisons between how one brand packages its food to another. That is the main factor in deciding what to buy, though I also consider the unit price, the origin, and the ingredients.

For example, I'll choose a paper bag of potatoes over a plastic one, the loose bunch of radishes over the bagged one, a bare head of broccoli over a plastic-swathed cauliflower. I shop with cloth mesh bags and fill them with whatever loose seasonal produce is cheapest; sometimes it's apples, other times pears. I also use the strategies outlined in the next points.

Bulk Is Always Best 

Being a family of five, it's easy for me to justify stocking up on large quantities of food. No matter how much I buy, I know it will get eaten! So when plastic packaging is unavoidable, I buy the biggest bag, box, or container of whatever it is – nuts, seeds, cheese, rice, beans, spices, cooking oils, condiments, cereal, frozen berries, etc. If that means divvying it up into smaller portions for freezing when I get home, I do it. It may increase the grocery bill for that week, but I know it'll balance out over the long run. 

Keep an Eye on Deals

Whenever something with "good" packaging — think paper, metal, glass — goes on sale, I buy more of it. Pasta is one example; I prefer the tasty Italian pasta in cardboard boxes, but it's often double the price of plastic-wrapped pasta. The same goes for rolled oats in paper, BPA-free canned items in the organics sections, milk in returnable glass jars that sometimes goes on clearance, artisanal baguettes in paper sleeves, organic tortilla chips, and more. These get loaded into my cart whenever the opportunity arises.

Supplement the Supermarket

Don't stop looking for alternative sources of specific ingredients. For example, I met a woman who keeps chickens and so I now buy eggs from her; she delivers them to my back door and I return the empty cartons. I get a weekly supply of organic vegetables from a CSA share that runs for almost half the year; those are all loose and unpackaged, so I don't feel as bad when I have to buy bagged produce occasionally during the winter.

It costs more upfront but works out to substantially less than if I bought the same organic produce at the supermarket – around $32/week. (Many farms offer financing plans.) In the fall I buy a bushel of apples from a fruit farm and keep them in the basement. It's not a year-round solution, but it covers us for a few months.

Use Online Ordering to Your Advantage

I am a member of a local food co-op that would be exorbitantly expensive if I bought everything from it, but instead I buy only certain hard-to-find items, such as organic heirloom beans in paper bags, large quantities of organic garlic (also in paper), homemade jams and preserves, and local free-range meats. I place orders online about once a month and they're delivered right to my door in returnable bags – no extra driving needed. 

Waste Comes in Different Forms 

Remember that waste isn't limited to packaging. Food can be wasted and is, in fact, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Anyone worried about reducing personal waste should be laser-focused on ensuring no food gets unnecessarily discarded at home. That's why I often buy almost-expired items from the supermarket clearance rack, even though they come wrapped in plastic. Bringing home the plastic, I figure, is the lesser evil of letting that food get thrown away – plus, I get a 50% discount. 

Be diligent about checking your fridge for leftovers. Store food in clear containers so you can see what's there. Just this morning, my husband pulled out a week-old boiled potato and suggested I fry it up with my vegetable omelet for breakfast; it was delicious. 

Find What You Like Doing

I believe that sustainable, eco-minded behaviors have to be accessible and even pleasurable for people to continue doing them. Figure out what you enjoy doing and focus on that. Some people might love taking a Saturday morning to visit multiple shops. Others may like taring and filling glass jars at a bulk store or making their own skincare products. I like to make bread, granola, cookies, and ice cream from scratch; my family prefers them homemade and I find the process relaxing. It's a big plastic-reducer for our household. 

A Reminder: It's OK To Spend Money on Groceries

If you're buying good-quality ingredients to make delicious food from scratch that you'll eat, and if that means you don't have to order food or eat out, then I don't view that expense as a waste – especially if you're not spending money frivolously on other things. When you have a family, pretty much anything you get at the grocery store is going to save you from having to go out to eat, and that puts you ahead financially. 

The idea of zero waste can set expectations too high and make the task feel impossible. Don't get hung up on perfectionism. Think "low waste" instead. Focus on becoming a better shopper, on using a critical eye to assess different forms of packaging, on weighing the pros and cons of a purchase. Make small incremental changes where you can, in ways that you can sustain, and you'll find over time that a small effort makes a big difference.