How to food shop with less packaging

The problem of plastic waste

The scary fact is that every piece of plastic ever made (unless burnt) still exists in some form. That’s 60+ years of plastic and counting. With only 5% of plastic actually getting recycled in to something new. This fact goes part way to explaining how 8 million tonnes end up in the oceans each year! The Blue Planet II documentary has brought the impact of all this plastic to the mainstream consciousness like nothing I have seen before. Meanwhile in our supermarkets, almost everything is wrapped in plastic. The #PlasticFreeAisle campaign, by A Plastic Planet, is hoping to change this, campaigning for every supermarket to have a plastic free section. Their research shows 9 out 10 people would like to see this a reality. Here in the UK the government has just pledged to reduce “avoidable plastic” and increase R&D funding to find alternatives. I don’t want to wait for these things to happen, so I have been shopping thoughtfully to reduce the amount of plastic (and other unnecessary packaging) from my food shopping.

How does it work? What do I take?

No need to buy anything new. Save packaging you already have e.g.; jars, takeaway containers, bottles, egg boxes and paper bags. For fruit and vegetables make simple bags from old fabric, search online for inspiration. Or buy ready made ones. I wish that Onya UK had not stopped making their “weigh bags”. Luckily Australian Onya Life have them, and I have relatives who can bring them for me! But if this is not an option Lakeland have started selling very similar ones made in Sweden. Consider if you need leak proof containers for buying meat, fish, or deli items.

Items I take shopping with me.

My shopping

Packaging free shops have scales to tare (check) the weight of containers, before filling. This will be deducted from the final weight of your item.

Scales for checking the weight of your jars. Image from Unpackaged – Planet Organic

Benefits of packaging free;

  • Reduces the amount of waste I am putting in to my landfill and recycling bins.
  • Less packaging means less CO2 emissions from creating it and transporting it.
  • Saving me money, only buying what I need.
  • Cutting down food waste, less leftover bits of packets to be forgotten.
  • Supporting my local economy. Research on spending by local authorities shows that for every £1 spent with a small or medium-sized business 63p stayed in the local economy, compared to 40p with a larger business. I find the biggest range of packaging free items are from small independent retailers.
  • I have got to know the people who work in my favourite shops. This I feel connects me to my community. It’s easy for them to remember me with my own bags, jars, boxes and bottles 😉

History & food safety

Remember the bulk bins in the 1980’s? These had the potential safety issues of cross contamination and poor stock rotation. New gravity dispensers mean that these issues are now avoided.

Gravity dispensers. Image from Unpackaged – Planet Organic

It might be an obvious point, but it is my responsibility to make sure my containers and bags are clean and suitable for the food.

Zero Waste!?

The term “Zero Waste” is used a lot on blogs and social media. People proudly show the tiny amount of landfill (trash) waste they have produced in a year or more.

The trash mason jar of Lauren Singer – Trash is for Tossers.

I feel that this can often seem so unachievable to many people that they don’t see any point in trying to change anything. It can create a lot of “green guilt” and even conflict within the home environment. Everyones personal circumstances and local facilities are different. I feel that any reduction I can make in my own waste is a positive achievement. On the other hand I can see that the term makes a great hashtag and call to action.

A great (slightly American) reminder that green guilt doesn’t help you or the environment!

One thing that the tiny mason jars of “trash” don’t show is the plastic waste up stream. By this I mean the waste that the manufacture, growth, or production of your item has created. This is another reason to buy food that is as un-processed as you can. Here in the UK I understand bulk food stores currently struggle to get pulses, spices, nuts and seeds delivered plastic free. However the amount of plastic used is dramatically less than the same food packaged in much smaller bags for consumers. So it might not be the answer, but it’s a step in the right direction. Change takes time, and more people asking for it.

Start here…

Feeling inspired to make some changes to your shopping habits? Try some of these easy wins;

  • Use your own bags for fruit and vegetables.
  • Politely tell staff to use your leak proof containers, for deli, meat and fish purchases.
  • Explore your local shops for zero waste offerings, and ask them to consider stocking more loose items.
  • Add what you find to the Zero Waste app, or Facebook groups, to help others.

Next time….

In my next post check out some of the key packaging free food shopping destinations in London. Plus other resources I use to find shops, and to help others do the same.

This post has been linked to “A Green & Rosie Life” #GoingGreenLinky



9 thoughts on “How to food shop with less packaging

  1. I find the problem with buying without packaging in the UK is actually locating somewhere where you can do it! I’ve noticed a few new stores popping up recently so hopefully, it will become ‘a thing’
    I find farmers markets are good for loose veg & fruit and butchers for meat. #GoingGreen

    • I think it is becoming “a thing”. Check out my latest post on where to shop with less packaging, it’s the one after this one. I’ll be putting it on the Linky next month.

  2. I remember going to Fine Fare when I was a child to buy produce from the big bulk bins and the boxes of broken biscuits! Before the health and safety rules came along it closed and the got taken over by M&S Food which is full of packaging! It would be so going to see some of the new bulk bins going mainstream in supermarkets.Ne

  3. this is something I really struggle with in Dubai, there’s an assumption that everyone demands perfectly packaged items and that bags must be packed at speed or us British expats will complain and shout. I try to use my own bags, but as I commented on Rosie’s blog also, the packers just ignore me and i can’t unpack the trolley at the same time as I pack. when i give them my bags they pack into the plastic first and tie a knot in it, then pack inside my own bag, drives me up the wall #goinggreen

  4. I’d love to see more plastic free shops with tare scales. Excellent idea. Good commitment with your shopping too, this is something I really need to work on though finding the shops in the first place isn’t easy. #GoingGreen

  5. Even without bulk stores it is simple to reduce. Like you I shop more at local independents and the local market where it is much easier to buy packaging free than in the supermarket. And now I’m a regular I get surplus veg leaves free from the market to feed the pet rabbit too.

  6. We don’t have any specific zero waste shops where I live in Normandy but we do have organic shops that sell free-flow products which I put in my own bags – likewise I use my own bags at the supermarket and markets for fruit and veg … and grow a lot of my own produce anyway. And when I do need to get packaged products I try my hardest to avoid those in plastic. A great post and thank you for adding it to #GoingGreen and I hope you can join in again when the next one opens on March 5th

  7. I am really hoping that we have a zero waste shop open up near us.I completely agree with what you said about the term ‘zero waste’ its such an inspiring vision, but creates green guilt! I want to move our family fo six away from convenience food (thought we do eat a fairly healthy diet) and more towards a plant-based whole food diet. We are so used to the convenience, it’s going to take a lot of planning, recipes and organisation to move away!

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