Get Started With Zero-Waste Food Shopping

When I head to the grocery store, I often look like I’m going rather than coming. Because I try to avoid acquiring as much packaging as possible while shopping, I’m usually toting a number of empty glass containers into the store to fill with dried beans, spices, cereal, pasta, and other items from the bulk foods section.

Even a few years ago, it would have been unusual to see shoppers like me bringing their own containers into grocery stores. But with the relatively recent push towards sustainable packaging – and push-back over single-use plastic containers and bags – it’s become more and more common.

If you’re unsure whether your grocery store allows outside containers, check this online list. Even if your favorite store isn’t included, there’s still a good chance your containers are welcome – I’ve brought my jars to many smaller grocers that sell items in bulk without any issue.

Step by step

Shopping with your own containers takes just a little pre-planning before you’re ready to go waste-free. Follow these steps:

  1. Gather up your containers. Some people buy fancy glass containers, but that’s not necessary. While such jars certainly look nice lined up in the pantry, cleaned peanut butter jars, mayonnaise jars, spaghetti sauce jars, and even small curry paste or minced garlic jars (great for holding bulk spices), work just as well. Many folks use mason jars. You get the idea!
  2. Get a tare. “Taring” your container means weighing it empty and making note of its weight so the cashier can subtract the weight of the jar from the total at checkout. You can tare your containers yourself at home (in pounds, not ounces) or ask a cashier at the store to do it for you – before you fill up your containers, of course. I like to have the cashier do this for me so the weight is sure to be recorded correctly. I take the extra step of sticking a piece of masking tape on the jar for the cashier to write on before I leave the house, just to make the taring process a little quicker.
  3. Fill ‘er up! Head to the bulk aisle and get to work!

Bulk foods aren’t the only items appropriate for glass jars. Many stores offer shampoo, body lotion, shower gel, dishwashing liquid and other household items in bulk.

Just bag it

If you’d rather not tote a bag full of glass jars to the store, there are a variety of lightweight bags that work just as well for grains, beans and other dry items. These cloth bags are especially handy, since the tare weight is already included on the colored tabs. Bring them to the produce department as well! These are machine washable and dryer-friendly.

While bringing your own jars and bags to the store might feel awkward at first, it doesn’t take long to get used to the process. Get your feet wet at an organics-focused shop like PCC or Whole Foods, where no-waste shopping is commonplace. Clerks are used to seeing shoppers bring their own containers, and they’re eager to help if needed. For the ultimate bring-your-own-container experience, head to the new Scoop Marketplace on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, where reusable containers are not only accepted, they’re expected. Everything this store – from dried beans and rice to personal care products – is package-free. Owner Stephanie Lentz opened Scoop back in April because she was tired of feeling like a “weirdo” with her jars and bags at her usual grocery store.

“At Scoop, we have created a comfortable, judgement-free environment where we are all learning to waste less and live more,” Lentz says. “We are on a mission to normalize zero-waste grocery shopping.”

Photo used with permission of Scoop Marketplace.

Sheila Cain

A lifelong Washingtonian, Sheila Cain writes about everything from technology and architecture to food and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood with her husband, son, dog and three cats.