Make Your Grocery Game Zero-Waste

Five ways to render grocery shopping easier on the planet—and your wallet

By Mukta Patil

February 4, 2019


Photo courtesy of Nada/Maxine Bulloch

Shopping for groceries can be overwhelming. Once you get past the sheer volume of products staring down from the aisles, you’ve got to reckon with their ingredients, prices, and the way the food is packed. For environmentally conscious shoppers, the latter—excessive packaging and the resulting pollution—is especially irksome. Enter the zero-waste grocery store.

These small-but-budding enterprises are increasingly popping up, and they're promising plastic-free, packaging-free products ranging from grains and produce to detergent and shampoo. The original zero-waste grocery story was the late in.gredients in Austin, Texas, which unfortunately shut down last April after five years of selling exclusively (un)packaged and locally sourced food. In its wake, however, in.gredients hatched a trend. The similarly modeled Package Free Shop cropped up in Brooklyn in 2017. Vancouver’s Nada opened in June 2018. Nada owner Brianne Miller, a marine biologist, says her zero-waste store and cafe was inspired by her research travels, which made her realize just how widespread plastic pollution was. “We want to inspire a better world by changing the way people shop for groceries,” Miller says. “Through these individual actions, we can reduce food waste and plastic pollution.”

Because Nada patrons tote along their own food containers (anything goes: mason jars, Tupperware, yogurt and take-out containers) and buy only as much as they need, they not only reduce their food waste but also their spending. For as Miller points out, when we buy packaged food, we end up paying for all that plastic and paper. On average, she says, families can save up to $1500 annually through packaging-free shopping.

Courtesy of Nada/Amanda Palmer

And while not all stores can stock only organic and local produce, they certainly can cut down on waste by adding bulk sections and other packaging-free options for customers. Look no further than stores like Northern California’s Davis Food Co-op, Berkeley Bowl, and Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, all of which for years have maintained popular bulk food sections, where shoppers can peruse organic and conventional selections.

The good news is you don’t have to live near the above-mentioned stores to make a serious dent in grocery waste. All you need is an army of cloth bags, jars, bottles, and cans. After all, this is a war against packaging and food waste, and you’re in it to win it. As you march toward the grocery store front lines, keep these five pointers in mind.

1. Take a close look at your trash. No, seriously. Tracking the waste you’re creating is the first step toward reducing it. Together, food and packaging/containers account for almost 45 percent of the materials landfilled in the United States. As part of its Food Recovery Challenge, the EPA encourages businesses like grocery stores to conduct assessments of wasted food and packaging, and Julie Loke, the main grocery buyer at the Davis Food Co-op, recommends the same to shoppers. “What are you putting in your recycling bin or trash the most? Try to find those in a waste-free option,” she says. “Pick one thing at a time and try to replace it with something sustainable.” To this end, Loke points to kombucha taps. During recent focus group meetings to address a design overhaul, co-op members rallied for them, and ever since, sales of refillable growlers have skyrocketed.

2. Make Lists. Yes, we see the irony in a listicle item beseeching you to make more lists, but planning in advance what you’re going to cook throughout a given week, and buying food accordingly, increases the likelihood that you’ll also plan for all the reusable packaging you’ll need to carry and store all those items. (And as a bonus, smart list-making cuts down on the likelihood you’ll have to contend with wilted lettuce and strange-smelling meat after you bought it on a whim.) The USDA provides resources to help plan weekly meals and create corresponding grocery lists. After all, shopping in a way that reduces waste—both food waste and packaging waste—requires care and planning.

3. Buy in Bulk. One of the best resources to find local bulk items is Litterless, which lists stores and online marketplaces that are bringing back bulk. “Next time you go grocery shopping, have one bag with you and buy something in the bulk department of your local grocery,” Regni advises. "Just try it once and you’ll see that it’s not complicated.”

Courtesy of Nada/Maxine Bulloch

4. Refill and Reuse. What do olive oil, shampoo, laundry detergent, dish soap, and essential oils have in common? Every time you buy these items, the bottle, even if it’s not plastic—eventually ends up in recycling. So why not just refill it? That’s the question that led Stephanie Regni to start, an online refill service in the San Francisco Bay Area. Fillgood provides skincare and cleaning products with zero-waste packaging, because after all, Regni wants her customers to “Relax and ‘fill good’” about their plastic-free lifestyles. (Even Fillgood’s delivery service is designed to leave a minimal footprint: The service pools customers according to their neighborhoods and makes deliveries to each area once every week, using a hybrid car.) The Refill Shoppe, based out of Ventura, California, offers a similar service. Talk to your local grocer about options for refilling existing bottles with fresh product.

5. Be mindful of date labels on food. Food waste is estimated to account for between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply. What’s more, all this wasted food is the biggest occupant of America’s landfills. Part of the problem boils down to the various labels you see on grocery items, which include dates like “sell by,” “best by,” “best before,” and “use by.” Up to a whopping 90 percent of Americans occasionally toss out still-fresh food because of confusion caused by these dates. Date-labeling policies also increase the burden on manufacturers and retailers with more compliance issues by making them unable to donate perfectly good food past its “best if used by” date. Interestingly enough, according to federal regulations, infant formula is the only food item that legally requires dating. If you’re not sure whether a product is safe past its due date, the USDA’s free FoodKeeper app can help you determine how soon specific items should be consumed if stored in the pantry, and how long they’ll last in your refrigerator once opened.

Nada's zero-waste refrigerator and freezer section | Courtesy of Amanda Palmer & George Street Media

Talk to Your Grocer About Food Waste

As consumers, we can change our behavior to reduce individual waste, but the US retail food sector generates 8 million tons of waste a year in distribution centers and stores, which accounts for a whopping $18 billion a year in lost value, according to a 2018 ReFed analysis. And on average, the value of wasted food equals roughly double the profits from food sales. So it’s not just about reducing waste or feeding the hungry; addressing food waste also presents opportunities for grocery stores to boost their bottom lines.

Does your local store house a suggestion box? Because here are three ways grocery stores can reduce food waste:

1. Embrace technology. From monitoring the state of fruit and vegetables as they are being transported to helping grocers stock the optimal number of lettuce heads, technology has a lot to offer grocery stores. For example, Zest Labs can reveal the shelf life of a product by monitoring certain metrics like temperature and harvest conditions. Afresh is another service that uses artificial intelligence to optimize the availability of fresh food and reduce waste.

2. Use donation-matching software. These apps connect food sellers and restaurants with donation receivers such as pantries and community kitchens that’ll gladly take excess food off their hands. Some existing platforms include Spoiler AlertCopiaFood Rescue US, and Food Cowboy.

3. Buy and sell imperfect produce. Too much importance is placed on “good-looking” produce, which leads grocers to weed out misshapen fruits and vegetables. But by moving beyond cosmetic bias, grocers can boost their revenues by marketing discounted “imperfect” produce. So tell yours that you like edible ugly ducklings! After all, popular subscription services like Imperfect ProduceFull Harvest, and Misfits Market have already proven that there’s a market for them.