I decided to stop making trash in 2013. It was June, temperatures in Boston were already hitting 95, and I had spent a decade freakin’ over climate change. Slouching about the apartment one night, my partner Peaches interrupted a Friday Night Lights binge to show me a website about garbage. Colleen Doyle’s Trash Free Project taught me how a young artist (like me), living in a city apartment with sparse resources (like me), freakin’ on climate change (like me), gets through her days without making trash. It really ganked my gourd. It slithered my lizard. It “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”’d me. In the words of Jim Morrison, it “Light My Fire.” I was both inspired and jealous of Doyle’s activism; throw ten years of climate change angst into the mix, and motivation levels were max. The Peachman and I jumped into trashless livin’ and have been doing it ever since.
Do we make some garbage? Yes. About a shoebox worth of trash every 6 – 12 months. It’s not possible to reach absolute zero waste in a culture that relies on single-use packaging and products. But it is possible to change your mind about what’s “convenient” (as in: America, is it convenient to haul around 250 million tons of trash each year). And it’s certainly possible to question WTF “disposable” means (uhhh leaving your personal orbit does not equal gone forever). Thankfully, perfection is not required to live a low-waste life. In this trashy world, small efforts can equal big benefits – for the environment, yes, but also for your life.
Zero-waste is a meaningful practice with many rewards. It provides focus in a culture stuffed with consumer choices. It amplifies positive attributes such as empathy, efficiency, and resourcefulness. It means eating healthier, learning a whole lot about cooking and growing food, and saving money. Spending more time creating and less time consuming. The goal of trash-free has greatly improved our lives because, in many ways, it has simplified them. I can’t imagine going back to our old wasteful ways.
Every month, TRASH IS TRAGIC will provide waste-cutting knowledge to help anyone cut this shit out. Today’s lesson is all about grocery shopping.
THE BASICS OF ZERO-WASTE GROCERY SHOPPING
By now, most people are familiar with the concept of reusable grocery bags. This basic principle can be extended into the practice of buying the groceries themselves :-0 . Refill your own containers with bulk groceries to cut waste and save cash.
Before we go further, I’d like to clarify what I mean by “bulk food.” I’m not talkin Costco here. Bulk food is sold loose in bins, without packaging, and purchased by the pound. This shopping model allows customers to refill their own containers, purchasing as much or little as needed. Bulk foods are usually found in health food stores like Harvest, B Fresh, and Whole Foods. They costs less because you’re not paying for brand names or single-use packaging.
Before Leaving Home…
- Grab your grocery list. Keeping a list is a simple organizational practice which prevents over-buying. It also saves time at the store. In our apartment, The List hangs on the cupboard door and we add to it throughout the week as pantry staples run out. Keep a pencil nearby because your list is as good as dead without one. Looking for a pencil is a one-way ticket to Distraction Central and all roads there lead to internet.
- Pack enough reusable containers to purchase what you need. My reusable container collection includes: glass jars, old wine bottles, homemade cotton bags, and watertight stainless-steel “tupperware.”
At the Store…
- Weigh your containers. Bulk food is charged by the pound rather than with a SKU. Containers must be weighed by a cashier before food goes into them. The weight of the container will be deducted from its total weight during checkout.
- Fill your containers with food.
- Put produce directly into your cart, instead of a plastic produce bag. The bags are mindless garbage. Do not use them. Use cotton bags for the babies (mushrooms, peas, brussels). Or whatever – a handkerchief, a reused brown bag, etc.
- Bulk items (oatmeal, almond butter, beans, coffee) go in jars or bags.
- Fill yer bottles with liquid bulk items (olive oil, dish soap). Empty wine bottles with a cork stopper, or empty Grolsch bottles with the pop top, will serve you well here. Dark glass is best for oils, as it prevents light-related spoiling.
- Fill cotton bags with loose loaves of bread from the bakery.
- Check out the salad or antipasto bar for tasty unpackaged delights.
- Containers can be filled with meat or cheese at the deli counter. Politely ask the counter worker to place your order in the jar instead of a plastic bag. If they refuse, work it out. Say, “I’ve done this here before without an issue” or “Can I see your store policy on this” or “I’m allergic to plastic.” If they still say no, consider going without.
Can’t find it in bulk? Go directly to the source by finding a local supplier, such as a bakery, deli, ice cream shop, brewery . . . Or make it!
The Intimidation Factor…
Do you feel like people are staring at you and your jars? They’re probably just curious. Trash-free grocery shopping isn’t the norm. Own it. You are an inspiration to us all.
- Store food properly so it doesn’t rot. Did you know a carrot will stay snappin’ fresh for weeks if stored in water? For more tips, read Beth Terry’s How To Store Produce Without Plastic.
- Replace bottle stoppers with spouts (optional). See those beautiful refilled bottles of olive oil and dish soap? Replace the cork stopper with metal pour spouts. Spouts allow liquids to flow freely, reducing mess and waste. Your bartender friend may be willing to sneak you a few.
- Freeze food scraps to repurpose later. Simple scrap recipes include: vegetable broth, bone broth, and here’s ten ideas for what to do with citrus peels.
- Compost what you can’t repurpose. Learn more about composting here.
- Pay attention. When it’s time for another trip to the store, be thoughtful about how much you need. Did any of last week’s groceries go bad? If so, buy less.
Can’t go whole hog off the bat with zero-waste groceries? No problem. Build up confidence this week with a few modest goals:
- Replace a couple food items on your list with the unpackaged version. For instance, swap out canned beans for dried bulk beans, packaged lettuce for a loose head, boxed rice for bulk rice.
- Ban plastic bottles. Carry a reusable bottle instead. Make homemade kombucha or ginger beer. Drink tap water – it’s cleaner, cheaper, and less wasteful than bottled.
- Try a couple package-free meals. There are some easy ideas in Zero Waste Chef’s 7-Day Menus.
EXTRA CREDIT FOR TEACHER’S PET!
Grocery-related media from some of my favorite zero-waste writers will inspire and entertain you:
- This short video shows Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home, doing her zero-waste grocery thing. Sexy!
- Go Plastic-Free in 2018 (Or Close to It), essential tips from Zero Waste Chef.
ZERO-WASTE GROCERIES IN BOSTON/CAMBRIDGE
BFresh – In Somerville and Allston. I haven’t been yet, heard it through the zero-waste grapevine, but I have seen photos and yes: they have bulk.
Breweries – Buy beer in growlers, which are filled at breweries and returned for re-use. On average, there is a $2 deposit which is paid at purchase and then refunded when you return the jug. You might also bring your own container and ask for a fill-up – check with the brewery to see if they’ll do it. Check out this list of all the New England craft breweries.
Cambridge Naturals, Porter Square – This natural health store has a comprehensive selection of dry bulk items related to health and wellness, making it a great spot for witchy types who make medicinal/nutritional supplements and beauty products. They carry unpackaged soaps and trash-free menstrual products. Sexy!
Central Bottle, Central Square – This wine merchant has loose loaves of locally made bread, a dope cheese counter, and an olive oil fusti where you can fill a bottle. They’re accommodating to customers who bring their own containers. One time, I got a jar filled with meat and a small boy drew a picture on it.
Find a supplier – Visit your local bakery, fish market, or butcher for unpackaged specialty foods. See if they will cram your jar with meats.
Food for Free, Cambridge MA – Food For Free rescues fresh food that might otherwise go to waste and distributes it within the local emergency food system where it can reach those in need. Free produce is offered to anyone each week on Bishop Allen Drive in Central Square.
Harvest Co-Op, Central Square & Jamaica Plain – I might starve to death when this place closes. Harvest boasts a diverse, inexpensive bulk section which includes: cooking oils, castile soap, laundry detergent, lotion, shampoo, honey, maple syrup, nut butter, grains, cereal, beans, legumes, various flours, and a large spice section. Recycle old plastic bags here (plastic bags CAN NOT be placed in curbside bins, but can be dropped off at designated recycling spots).
Mass Farmers Market, various locations – These pop-up grocery markets sell locally grown produce directly from the farm to consumers, often at a lower price compared to grocery stores.
Whole Foods Market, Inman Square – Here, deli and fish counter workers will gladly put fresh cuts into containers you bring. My jars have been unwelcome at some WFM locations (I’m looking at you, River St). Apparently some WFMs are more afraid of being sued than others. Regardless, all locations in Boston/Cambridge have a bulk section.
QUESTIONS FOR MEL?
Email questions to email@example.com and I’ll address ‘em. Or leave a comment below – you know how the internet works!