Learn how to master plastic free grocery shopping in every department of the grocery store – from the produce department to the bakery and everything in between. You’ll love these tips to avoid plastic for plastic free July and beyond!
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the ultimate plastic free grocery shopping guru.
But I try my best.
I do really well with the reusable shopping bags and produce bags, and reasonably well choosing non-plastic items when there are easy alternatives. The tough times are when plastic is the primary way something comes packaged – like berries, milk or yogurt for instance.
But since the goal is not to be perfect, but to be continuously improving, I think we should all feel good about the small changes we make to use less plastic at the grocery store.
Why Plastic Free Grocery Shopping Matters
As I’ve mentioned in past posts about how to reduce plastic use, we’ve got a huge problem with single-use plastic on this earth.
Plastic is piling up in oceans and on beaches around the globe. It’s overwhelming recycling facilities to the point where much of it is not actually recycled. It is killing millions of marine animals every year.
A few scary stats*:
- 9 million tons of plastic end up in oceans every year
- 40% of all plastic is single-use
- Only 18% of plastic is recycled globally
- About 30% of global plastic waste is types that are essentially non-recyclable (styrofoam and others)
- On some beaches in Hawaii, 15% of the sand is actually grains of microplastic
- Microplastics have been found in 114 aquatic species, many of which we eat
Bottom line, plastic is a problem and we need to use much, much less of it.
*Stats from National Geographic – Planet or Plastic.
Plastic Free Grocery Shopping Supplies
So are you ready to up your plastic free grocery shopping game? Let’s get our supplies ready first!
Reusable grocery shopping bags – I don’t know about you, but I have acquired a TON of reusable bags over the years. It’s likely you won’t need to buy anything new but if you do, you can go for a reusable bag set with a handy carrying pouch or a plastic free canvas grocery tote (preferably one with a square bottom for easy grocery loading.)
Reusable produce bags – I love these mesh produce bags because it’s easy to see what’s inside, but if I had to buy another set, I’d go for these organic cotton mesh bags. I also save cotton bags from various sources and reuse them for produce or the bulk bins.
Jars and containers – If you are planning to get food from the bulk bins, bring your own glass jars or reusable containers from home. No need to buy something new, just reuse jars from other food products or use your current stash of mason jars for the job.
Plastic Free Grocery Shopping Tour
Let’s go on a tour of a typical grocery store and see how we can minimize our plastic covered purchases, whether it’s plastic free July or any other time of year.
Since most of the fruits & veggies in the produce section are sold by the piece, it’s relatively easy to avoid plastic by bringing your own produce bags from home. If you forget your bags, put produce in the cart without a bag – unless you are buying a large quantity, this should be a fine solution. Skip the plastic containers of pre-cut fruit and vegetables unless it’s a special circumstance.
My biggest challenge: Berries and lettuce that only come in plastic clamshell containers. A true zero waste warrior would ONLY buy these items at a farmer’s market or co-op where they can use their own containers – but the rest of us can try our best to minimize these purchases.
This is a tough one because the majority of dairy products are packaged in plastic. Glass milk containers are making a comeback and you can try making homemade yogurt if you are up for the challenge (it’s pretty easy in the Instant Pot!) Cheese almost always comes wrapped in plastic but after opening, I store it in silicone Stasher bags instead of wrapping up in more plastic. Some deli counters will let you bring your own container for cheese to avoid any plastic at all.
My biggest challenge: Milk. My kids drink a ton of it so we buy it by the (plastic) gallon. Also yogurt – we don’t buy many individual cups but we do go through plenty of the 32-oz tubs. I save them and reuse for a bit before recycling.
Other Refrigerated Foods
Depending on the types of foods you buy, you’re going to run into things packaged in plastic – from fruit juice and nut milks, to refrigerated bagels or tortillas, to fresh salsa and hummus. Look for glass or paperboard containers whenever possible. Make homemade when you can. Otherwise, try to minimize the plastic as much as possible.
My biggest challenge: I make a mean homemade hummus but it’s not something I always have time to make so I’ll occasionally buy it from the store.
Buying food from the bulk bins is a fantastic way to avoid plastic – as long as you skip the plastic bags that are usually right next to the bins. Bring your own reusable bags and containers to fill but be sure to calculate the tare weight first so you don’t have to pay for the weight of the container. (Read my post about How to Buy from the Bulk Bins to learn how to calculate tare weight and more!)
My biggest challenge: I arrive at the store and realize I don’t have my jars and bags with me – so I use the bags at the store and vow to do better next time.
Meat & Seafood
Most meat and seafood comes packaged in plastic in some way for freshness reasons. However, when you shop at the meat counter, your purchases are wrapped in butcher paper which is often plastic-free. Even if the butcher paper does have a plastic coating, it is still considerably less plastic than a typical meat package.
My biggest challenge: Meat that comes packaged on a styrofoam tray is the WORST because styrofoam is not recyclable and never biodegrades. I try to avoid this by buying meat from the butcher counter, or frozen meat from ButcherBox or Thrive Market (where it comes wrapped in plastic but without a tray.)
Next time you’re buying peanut butter, salsa, pasta sauce or salad dressing, look for the brands that come in glass jars instead of plastic. You may have to switch brands, but it will be worth it for the planet! Look for foods like pasta, dried fruit or cereal in the bulk bins to avoid plastic packages. Also, bring a jar from home for freshly ground nut butters when you can!
My biggest challenge: I’m kind of addicted to Costco Pesto Sauce and it only comes in plastic. Grrrrrr!
Things like frozen fruits and vegetables always come in a plastic bags and so far I’ve never heard of a way to buy frozen with your own container. If you are super organized, you can buy up fresh produce in season and freeze it yourself. Most other frozen foods come in paperboard containers with plastic inserts so not a huge amount of plastic but good to keep to a minimum.
Biggest challenge: I don’t buy many frozen products but it’s the frozen fruit and veggies that get me every time.
Bakery & Bread
Most store bought bread comes in plastic bags to maintain freshness. When you buy bread or other bakery treats in the bakery department, you usually have a choice of paper or plastic – so go with the paper option (the crust keeps better that way too!) Or bring your own cloth bag from home (I love my linen bread bag).
My biggest challenge: As much as I’d like to make homemade cookies every week, I sometimes end up buying store bought cookies instead. The fresher cookies in the bakery department come in plastic containers which drives me nuts! Also our favorite sandwich breads come in a plastic bags. I usually find a way to reuse them, but wish I could buy plastic-free.
What are your biggest plastic free grocery shopping challenges?