Zero-waste grocery shopping: Tricky but not impossible

Around 800 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into our oceans annually, ending up in the bellies of wildlife and along shorelines, according to Plastic Oceans International. And despite recycling programs, a lot of what you chuck in the blue bin can still end up in landfills.

But zero-waste living is a growing movement. Thousands of social media influencers are sharing their trashless journeys. Plastic-free shops are popping up and the phrase BYOC — bring your own container — is becoming normalized.

So last week, I tried a new diet. The only rule? Don’t buy anything that comes in disposable packaging. That meant no containers, bags, wrappers or jugs.

I had some prior experience with this. A few years ago, I did Plastic Free July. It was a challenge for me — and food was the main culprit.

Many of us in Canada are used to one-stop grocery shopping. Going plastic-free, however, requires more planning and time.

I’m fortunate to live in Toronto, which has a number of stores that encourage a BYOC mentality, carrying the basics you’d find at a big-box store, minus the plastic. Many more have popped up around Canada, including in Vancouver, Charlottetown and Sudbury.

I had all the supplies I needed: reusable bags, containers and jars of various sizes — things most people have in their homes anyway. And so off I went on my plastic-free odyssey.

Quick win: fruits and veggies

The easiest feats were in the produce aisle, given that most fruits and vegetables have a protective layer. I used some cotton bags I had for smaller items such as brussels sprouts. Otherwise, I left them unpacked until weighed and paid for.

A timeless idea: buying in bulk

Bulk Barn has a reusable container program that allows customers to shop with their own containers — as a result, grains, spices and snacks were no sweat to gather. (Bulk Barn sometimes even offers discounts for BYOC.) Many other stores also have bulk sections, but may not be as accommodating. I found the bulk option was cheaper than buying these items in the grocery aisle, and led to more conscious consumption.

Trickier: Proteins and bread

For meat, bread and cheese, I visited a number of specialty shops as well as a major grocery store. All of the stores I visited accommodated my requests. I used a cloth bag for bread, which had to be bought fresh from a bakery. When buying meat and cheese, the employees weighed my items prior to placing them in my container and then labelled the price. 

That said, my items were almost double the cost of the pre-packaged equivalents, though fresher and higher quality in most cases. I also had to be sure to thoroughly clean these containers with soap and hot water after use, especially if I had stored raw meat in them.

Challenge: Oils, condiments, most beverages

I didn’t find any waste-free alternatives to cooking oils or most condiments. Most beverages were off-limits, too, seeing as they come in cans, bottles and cartons.

I spotted only one option for milk — a brand with a glass jug deposit program. But since I stick to plant-based milks as a personal preference, that was out. Making it from scratch using a nut milk bag is one alternative, but it wasn’t a realistic option for me. I caved mid-week and bought a carton of oat milk for my loose-leaf black tea and oatmeal at breakfast.

Another challenge: Anything instant or frozen

Frozen and instant foods are often wrapped in multiple layers of packaging, and that looks unlikely to change.

My takeaway

I concluded that the only solution for the problem items would be to make my own. But I can’t be a one-woman brewmaster, chef, baker, barista, juicer and confectioner. 

I can, however, transition away from trash by incorporating new habits over time.

“The material is not the enemy. It’s our addiction to single-use,” said Vancouver-based marine plastic researcher Rhiannon Moore, who runs a blog documenting her low-waste lifestyle. “I want to support farmers and producers that are making things with less waste and travelling a shorter distance to get to me.”

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