Zero Waste Grocery Shopping Tips

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Zero Waste Grocery Shopping Tips

Ella Rosenblum, Staff

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What if you had to carry around every piece of trash that you produced like an accessory? By the end of the day, you would be absolutely covered in garbage, sporting everything from plastic water bottles to Starbucks cups to grocery bags. As chic as this may sound to some, waste is a serious issue. Humans love to throw trash away and never think about it again. But in reality, that Starbucks cup from a 20 minute coffee run will stay on the planet for 450 years. This trash is filling our landfills and our oceans every minute.


 Waste production has been a well-known crisis for quite a while now; people thought that by recycling, they were doing enough. But it has been proven that less than 50 percent of things in the recycling bin actually get recycled. The rest stays on the planet until it decomposes, which can take centuries.

Recently, many people have taken initiative by making a conscious effort to reduce their carbon footprints and the waste that they produce. “Low impact” or “zero waste” movements have become increasingly well-known. People who partake in these lifestyles attempt to make little to no waste in their everyday lives. This may seem radical or impossible, but it is becoming easier with more businesses becoming eco-friendly and trying to make it easier for people to buy low-waste products. 

Grocery stores are a part of this effort, including giving discounts to customers who bring their own bags and having bulk food sections where customers can fill their own containers full of food and ingredients. 

I decided to go to Whole Foods, a common chain grocery store that has made a public effort to reduce waste and document a zero waste shopping trip. I took a friend along with me to be my photographer and companion.

The first thing that we made sure to do was bring a reusable tote bag for the trip. Using reusable bags is important because single-use plastic was something we were trying to avoid at all costs. Plus, we got a 5 cent discount for using our own bag. 

We went straight for the customer service section of the store to get the jars that we brought from home weighed so that when we filled them with food from the bulk section, the cashier would know the exact weight to calculate price per pound.

Customer service worker at whole foods weighs and labels mason jars 

After getting our mason jars labeled with the tare weight by an incredibly nice customer service representative, we went straight for the bulk foods. The bulk foods aisle had an incredible variety of foods such as nuts, grains, dried fruits, candy, flour and much more.

Bulk section at whole foods

It was time to put our carefully labeled mason jars to use. There were three types of dispensers in the bulk foods section; we tried all three. We started with the nut butter dispensers, which churned fresh nut butters at the click of a button. It was truly an experience. Seeing the butter being made right before my eyes was something that I had never seen before. This made me realize that shopping bulk also means that the foods are likely whole and unprocessed. For example, most almond butters bought in the store have added sugar or are highly processed with palm oil or something similar. In the bulk section, the ingredients are right in front of you.

Almonds are churned into butter in the mason jar

After filling the jar and placing a lid on it, it was time to write the PLU, the price lookup number, on the jar so the cashier could easily look up the price of the product that we were buying and charge us the correct amount. The bulk section provided us with stickers and pens and even had a label for the almond butter that we could stick on to the jar.

PLU number stickers 

  writing PLU number stickers

Final Product


We used a different type of dispenser to buy pistachio nuts. This dispenser had a lever that, when pulled, released a stream of nuts into the jar. The issue was that the nuts had a much wider stream than the mouth of the jar, and the nuts went everywhere. We were careful to pick them up and put them into our jar. 

Aftermath of pistachios

Despite this slight mishap, we continued our journey toward a zero-waste shopping trip.  Our final bulk item that we purchased was dried mango. The dried fruit came in a different type of bulk food dispenser. It was kept in a plastic tub with tongs attached for easy pickup. 

After completing our bulk shopping, we set out to find other ways that one could shop zero-waste at Whole Foods.

The first thing that caught my eye was a buffet-style assortment of hot foods. This section of the store was labeled “Hot Bar,” and though there are plastic and cardboard containers available at the station, people were allowed to bring their own containers to fill with food from the Hot Bar, though we had not brought our own.  

The Hot Bar had many options that were all warm and ready to eat. These included many different kinds of pasta, including macaroni and cheese and penne pasta, and many forms of meat including chicken, beef and pork. Rice, vegetables and a wide selection of legumes were also available. The Hot Bar would be a great place to stop for a zero-waste dinner or lunch that is already made. It is not very easy to find ready-to-eat food to take home that is not heavily packaged, so this is something to look out for. 

Our next stop was the refrigerated section of the store, in hopes of finding milk, as most families purchase milk often. Though there were no zero waste milk bulk option, as expected, there was milk packaged in glass bottles. This packaging is sustainable and eco-friendly, as it is reusable. Not only can you wash it out and reuse it to store anything from liquids to pasta in your house. If you return the bottles after rinsing them, they will also pay you. Straus Family Creamery glass milk bottles can be returned for a deposit of $2. If it is not possible to 

find the item without packaging, going for the eco-friendly packaging is the next best thing.

We found a few other things with zero packaging or creative packaging around the store. Our honorable mentions include soap, mochi ice cream and cookies, which were all available package-free.

Our last stop was at the fresh produce section to pick up some bananas.

Fresh produce can very easily be zero waste, but be sure to avoid a few things. Make sure the fruit is not wrapped in plastic or any other packaging. Do not use the plastic bags in the produce section; they are not needed if you bring your own bags. As earlier mentioned, bring your own bags for the produce as well. They even sell zero waste produce bags at Whole Foods. 


We picked up some bananas and put them into our reusable bag with the rest of our food. 

Finally, it was time to check out. We had shopped bulk in every way possible, scoped out reusable packaging and got some fruit from the produce section, all without producing any waste. Our one exception was the sticker on the banana, which was compostable.

Checkout went smoothly. Our jars did not cause an issue, and it took no longer than a normal checkout. Needless to say, we were exuberant about our purchases and had to take a photo flaunting our new waste free lifestyle. 

Once the celebration had commenced, it became clear to me that there was an issue. People do not just buy food at grocery stores. People buy things like soap and detergent. While we had seen some zero waste bars of soap, there definitely was not an option for detergent or dishwashing liquid. I knew that many people who are zero waste make their own laundry detergent and cleaning supplies, but there has to be a more practical way than making your own products. 

Luckily, a solution has begun to arise: refill services. They are not very common, but they are definitely becoming more mainstream. Some are stores where you can stop by and fill up your empty detergent container, or any other container, with detergent, soap and other liquid products. Others deliver refills by mail such as Fillaree or Common Goods Co. These stores send products by mail and offer refill packets to purchase by mail. 

Fillgood Co. is a local Bay Area refill company that has a “milkman” approach to refills, where they will stop by your house and refill your products at the door. I talked to the owner of Fillgood, Stéphanie Regni, 39, about what the company does. 

“It’s a local business that gives solutions for people to reduce plastic waste,” she said. “We have a store in Albany where people can shop for plastic free items and products.”

Fillgood refills products such as laundry detergent, body wash and many more. 

Regni also said that she had calculated how much plastic waste they had avoided, and since they started in December, they have avoided 3,000 pounds of plastic waste. 

She said that they are constantly looking for systems to reduce plastic in people’s everyday lives. For example, they do not do deliveries on demand. The orders are grouped by products so that there is less packaging used. The detergent they order for their company is also eco-friendly, as it is graywater safe, and they bring back the containers to the company so that they can reuse them. Their products are also healthy and organic, so the selection is not huge, but each product is very carefully chosen. 

Companies like Fillgood can be very helpful for people who do not have a bulk section near them or do not have a way to get zero-waste detergent but want a quick and efficient way to refill their products. TThe easier it is for people to reduce their waste, the more people will do it. 

This was our zero-waste shopping experience. I found it easier than I expected, but definitely not without struggle. I challenge you to try it for yourself. It is the small steps that count. Whether you start bringing your own bag or getting your milk in glass containers, it is all essential to reducing the waste we produce and keeping our environment clean. 


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Zero Waste Grocery Shopping Tips