zero waste shopping in the ‘burbs

bulk aisle

I know that availability of eco options varies greatly by region, but I thought I would write this post anyway. A lot of zero waste bloggers seem to live in big cities, where the options are just different. I live in the Utah suburbs, where bulk shopping means buying a million individually wrapped bags of chips at Costco. If you can do it here, you can do it about anywhere!

My main focus right now is cutting out the plastic packaging. So if an item comes sold in tin cans, glass, or paper, I’m not too concerned (though I’m still trying to limit other throw-away packaging where I can). If I can only find plastic, I am looking into either 1) making my own substitute (doing this with toothpaste, mayo, yogurt, and vanilla extract), 2) looking online for a better source (such as eco brands of toilet paper, made of recycled paper and wrapped in paper instead of plastic), 3) buying the local option (because at least limiting the miles on an item limits its impact on the planet) or 4) not buying it at all (cottage cheese).
It’s been a bit of a hassle, admittedly. For example, I didn’t buy ketchup, though it was on the list for 2 weeks, until I found a store selling an organic brand in a glass bottle. It was something like $4.50, which is outrageous to me, but we will just limit our consumption of that kind of thing until I have tomatoes in my garden and I can make and can my own!

For some reason, I’ve always had a hard time being *that* customer. The one with all the questions. The obscure questions. But this has been a reconnaissance month in my zero waste journey, and finding local options to meet my goals is crucial. So I’ve totally been *that* customer. And shockingly, I haven’t died of embarrassment. I have asked a LOT of questions at three different grocery stores. I realize all they can ultimately tell you is no. I mean, the funny looks or confusion on their end is slightly awkward, but not the end of the world. Here’s what I’ve found out:

  1. Can I bring my own jars for bulk foods/can you subtract the weight of the jars? Answer: 1 yes, 1 no, and 1 “I have no idea” (obviously I need to talk to someone more helpful there..)
  2. Do you have a list of all your bulk foods? Answer: 2 no, 1 yes
  3. Can customers suggest items you sell (because I want brands sold in glass instead of plastic)? Answer: 3 yes (AWESOME! I’ve not taken them up on this yet, as I’m still trying to use up plenty of pantry items I’ve already got. But it’s nice to know.)

I also emailed my local dairy, which delivers our milk in returnable plastic bottles. I said I love that they offer returnable bottles, but asked if they would consider glass because it’s so much healthier. I was told they used to use glass, but due to the weight and fact that they were breakable, they opted for plastic. They also filled me in on the plastic they chose as being the best grade of plastic with no BPA concerns. I was only a little bummed at their response. They were so nice about it, and obviously put a lot of thought into their decision. It didn’t hurt to ask, and at least now I know the plastic they are using has little concern for toxins. It’s still the best local option I have.

One thing I’ve noticed (despite the $4.50 ketchup) is I am spending far less on groceries right now. I can’t do a full assessment because we’ve been using up pantry and freezer stock pretty vigorously, but I can already tell the bulk shopping savings more than offsets the costs of the expensive ketchup. Shopping strictly from a list isn’t a radical notion, but for me it kind of is. I would easily drop $100-$150 at Target each week before zero waste. Now my weekly trips to a grocery store have been $30-$50. I’m buying less, yes, but also wasting less (food as well as packaging). In 2015 I spent a lot of time focusing on lowering our grocery budget to about $500/month. Hopefully toward the middle of this year I can do another comparison to that and see if there’s a difference in our budget.

January has been an eye-opening month for me. Every replacement for a better option is encouraging. I’m re-learning to shop, so it takes some time. I know it’s not possible to control it all, but as long as I’m diligent about good choices, it adds up.

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