As a former consumer, I used to produce mounds of garbage each week after grocery shopping. Last year, however, I realized just how harmful and expensive packaging truly was. I decided to spend a few months of trial and error to live a package-free life. Today, I now produce 95% less garbage than a year ago, and in the process I save thousands of dollars in food costs. The best part is that now, apart from composting kitchen scraps, I hardly ever take out the garbage anymore. Here’s how I did it, and how you can, too:
Buy directly from farmers. Avoid shopping at convenience stores and supermarkets. Instead, buy your food closer to its source by shopping at farmers markets and the farms themselves. Local farmers tend to be smaller in scale, and so they stand to save time and money by using less packaging. Most farmers markets sell produce without any packaging by default. I’ve even heard of dairy farmers that help you reuse old milk jugs (cleaned and sanitized after each use, of course). You might also consider supporting organic farmers and signing up to a community supported agriculture program as well.
Example: Why buy fruit juice from the supermarket when you can easily make your own with fresh fruit? When you go shopping at the local farmers market, remember to bring a burlap sack, cardboard box, or reusable tote so you can buy fruit in bulk. These fruits can be blended at home using a blender or food processor to give fresher fruit juice without plastic bottles. Homemade juice is more nutritious, since you can keep all the healthy fiber while omitting preservatives, food coloring, and added sugar.
Buy fresher, less processed food. Processed food generally uses far more packaging than fresh food. Whenever you can, then, try to buy unprocessed food and instead cook your food from scratch. You can easily spot highly-processed food by looking for the nutrition facts label. The best foods have no label at all, whereas the worst foods have ingredients you would never put in yourself. For example, the presence of hydrogenated oils, fructose syrup, or hydrolyzed soy protein is a sure sign that a food is highly processed.
Example: I used to buy TV dinner pasta, but later I realized that I could save plenty of packaging by purchasing the starting ingredients in bulk. In place of microwaveable pasta, I now buy bulk whole wheat noodles (in 20lb. quantity) along with fresh tomatoes and herbs at the farmers market. I make my own tomato sauce instead of buying canned sauce at the stores: not only is it tastier and healthier, but I have less garbage to take out afterwards.
Buy in bulk. Buying in larger quantity results in less packaging expenses for the manufacturer, who in turn passes the savings back to you. Whenever possible, buy items that come in warehouse quantities rather than individually-wrapped packages. When you buy in bulk, moreover, you can often bargain for a lower price—especially if you shop at farmers markets.
Example: Instead of buying beans in small cans, you can buy dried beans in large sacks (20lbs. or more). The overall per pound cost of dried bulk beans is extremely cheap since you no longer have to pay for the weight of water and for expensive aluminum cans. To cook the beans, simply soak them overnight and boil for an hour. If you blend salt, oil, spices, and lemon juice to boiled chickpeas, you get a simple, delicious hummus dip. Buying dried food in bulk is an extremely important tactic for bicycle commuters, since they should always avoid carrying unnecessary water weight during shopping trips.
Buy generic. Generic items have no branding, so they avoid most unnecessary shrink-wrap. This save on marketing costs, which again helps save you money. As a rule of thumb, avoid food containing logos, advertisements, commercials, and even health claims.
Example: Instant oatmeal is a popular breakfast food that is often individually-wrapped packets and loaded with sugar. Not only does this waste cardboard and paper, but it also defeats the health benefits of oatmeal. Why not try plain rolled oats instead? You can buy rolled oats in generic 10lb. sacks from a warehouse for pennies on the dollar. Other stores might carry rolled oats in a bulk bin, which uses even less packaging. Boil the oats, then add maple sugar, nuts, and fresh fruit for a far more nutritious breakfast at about the same price.
Buy from bulk bins. These bins are often tucked away in the minor corner of the store, but don’t overlook their value. Bulk bins allow you to control your purchase size by filling it yourself with a plastic bag. This helps to reduce the amount of packaging you use, since you only use a single, thin plastic bag. In fact, I sometimes even reuse plastic bags. Vendors save on expensive marketing packaging, and you often pay less per pound.
Bring your own bags. Bring a reusable shopping tote with you on your next shopping trip. If you don’t already have one, there’s no need to buy one: almost everyone has a spare bag lying around. Any plastic bag, cardboard box, or backpack can serve as a reusable tote.
Example: In addition to bringing a reusable tote, I like to bring old plastic bags along while shopping. This lets me reuse old bags instead of grabbing new ones for when I buy food from bulk bins and when I need to wrap produce. So far, I’ve only tried this at local farmers market, where most vendors have actually been very supportive. Supermarket clerks might not understand, but that might be another reason to avoid shopping at chain stores.
Not every suggestion worked for me, so I don’t expect every tactic to work for you. As one example, I never could find a dairy in Southern California that would accept reusable milk jars, so I simply moved on and practiced the other tactics. However, since there are a lot of options available, just pick a few tips and stick to them for a month. You’ll be amazed at how much less garbage you produce. Perhaps you will, like me, discover that not having to take out the trash is incentive enough all on its own.