I have found that once you ‘see’ plastic you can’t unsee it. Much like vegans who have come to associate any sight of meat or dairy with torture and distress (as I do), any sight of plastic for me now triggers images of where that plastic will end up. Zanna articulates it well in her vlog about why she’s taking part in Plastic Free July – when we throw something away, where is ‘away’? It doesn’t just cease to exist; it just move outside of our experience, away from our conscience. We encounter plastics at the very early stages of their life cycles; they still have many, many years to live out as pollution, and many lives to harm. If you didn’t see that video of the sea turtle with a straw up it’s nose and you need convincing that plastic is awful, go watch it.
Plastic Free July is well and truly underway, and it’s helping more people than ever to ‘see’ plastics and become aware of their plastic consumption. I’m absolutely LOVING the community it’s created; every time I flick onto Instagram I get new ideas and inspiration from all of you wonderful people taking steps to reduce your impact. Becoming aware of the plastic all around us can be overwhelming and distressing, so please take care of yourselves – but take that energy, the anger you feel when you see the harm we’re doing, and channel it into something useful. Keep educating yourself, keep changing your consumption habits, encourage others to do the same, and get involved in campaigns (google for existing campaigns in your area or join those by Greenpeace and the Earth Day Network – or start your own!). I will write up a whole other post about ways to take action, including how to set up your own local campaign and a template letter to send to supermarkets and other organisations, so stay tuned.
Anyway, this post is about zero-waste food shopping. First attempts at plastic-free, zero-waste shopping have the potential to be disastrous. Forgetting your bags, finding you don’t have enough bags, realising that you’re never going to be able to eat cucumbers again because they are ALWAYS wrapped in plastic… there’s a lot to think about, but plenty of ways you can prepare so that once you’re there, nothing can stop you coming away without an insta-worthy plastic-free haul. And bonus: Plastic-free foods tend to be unprocessed, whole plant foods, so you’ll be doing good for the planet AND yourself.
The first step is to do a little research. How well do you know your area? Google if there are any zero-waste shops nearby, or greengrocers, or health food stores. The latter often have small sections for things like nuts and seeds, such as Holland and Barrett, where it’s like a healthy pic n mix station. Be prepared to shop around a bit – I find that I have to go to a few different shops to have a complete weekly shop; greengrocers for produce, small supermarket for canned foods, a health-food shop for specialist items if I fancy, like tofu and sauerkraut, and the bakers if I want to get some bread. This may be because I don’t have a car though so I do my shopping in the little shops up the road, but if my mum is going to a larger supermarket I can often get a lot there all at once. However, supermarkets are usually not as good for zero-waste shopping so it can be a more frustrating trip, and if it’s possible, I’d always rather support local independent shops anyway.
I’m lucky enough to have a greengrocers near me which is usually pretty good for produce free from plastic. They do offer plastic produce bags though and it saddens me when I see people go in there and package everything in individual plastic bags. There are paper bags too, which aren’t the most sturdy but they’re fine for getting things like mushrooms home where you can then put them in more sturdy containers. I think I’ll have to speak to the owner about removing the plastic bags…
Next, make sure you’re armed with bags. Cotton produce bags are great, particularly when you eat the skin so maybe don’t want to put your fruit/veg directly into your bag. You can throw them in the washing machine or just hand wash them if they start to look a bit grubby. Make sure you’ve also got some tote bags or larger produce bags to actually carry things home with too.
Ready to go?
Check, and check again, that you have your bags. You do not want to be that person trying to fit a week’s worth of food in your pockets and balanced like jenga in your arms.
Now you’re in the shop, keep your cool. I know, there’s plastic everywhere, but you need to remain calm and complete your mission. The easiest things to find are bananas, apples, oranges, melons and anything firm or with a tough skin. Often they do have stickers on them, which are a real pain, but which sometimes are the best option you’ve got – I stick mine in my jar with any other avoidable plastic waste, which I will review at the end of the month to see if I could do better.
Berries and small fruits are another matter. I usually settle for a plastic punnet without the plastic wrap, as the punnet itself can be recycled where I live but the plastic wrap cannot. It’s not the perfect solution and I’d much rather not purchase any plastic at all, but at least it’s not single-use plastic; and I’d rather not go without berries as they are amongst the healthiest foods in the world. It’s best to check your local recycling facilities, you can usually find a document online supplied by the council which details what can and can’t be recycled in your area. It’s worth noting that black plastic cannot be recycled in the UK as it is coloured using carbon black pigments which cannot be detected by the sorting machines, so it ends up as landfill. So if you’re right at the beginning of your journey into a plastic-free lifestyle, definitely steer clear of these at least!
Some vegetables will be much easier than others. Sturdy veg is the easiest to find package-free – potatoes, courgettes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage – for the obvious reason that it can hold it’s own without protection. Leafy greens are really difficult to find unless you have a greengrocers or farmers market near you. Personally, I am willing to buy leafy greens in packaging if I can find no other option as these are again some of the healthiest foods on the planet and I don’t want to miss them out of my diet. However I will always try to find them free of plastic and I sort of ration myself so I don’t buy them excessively. The best solution here is just to grow your own, if you can. Leafy greens and herbs are the easiest things to grow!
Grains, beans and pulses, + other tinned goods
I tend to head to a supermarket for the bulk of the rest of my weekly shop. I pick up tins of beans, lentils, chickpeas and sweetcorn (no four packs wrapped in plastic though!), as well as chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, and any other cooking ingredients. I prefer my beans and pulses this way, but if you like them dried and there’s no zero-waste shops near you, buy in bulk to save lots of small packets. Alternatively, check out this shop I found recently. Called ‘Zero Waste Club’, you can order loads of foods that are hard to find plastic-free if you don’t have a zero-waste shop near you. I haven’t ordered from there yet but I will be as soon as I start running low on lentils, grains etc. I also can’t wait to try the freeze-dried tofu! Their packaging is all plastic-free and 100% recycled, and you can fill up your jars and then send the packaging back too. It may be a little pricey but I think I’ll save up and do a big order so I’m stocked for a while.
Beyond fruit, snacks will always be difficult as they are designed to be convenient. Crisps are pretty much a no-go, but you can easily make your own versions – just thinly slice potatoes or any other root veg, season them and bake in the oven. I also love baked chickpeas: drain and rinse a can, leave them to dry on a clean tea towel, season them with whatever spices you like, and then place them on a roasting tin and bake until crispy. If ever I’m after a savoury snack, these work really well.
I can’t forget chocolate – try and find chocolate that’s wrapped in foil and then paper/card, and try and buy as ethically as possible.
I get bread every once in a while from my local bakery; I don’t eat bread too often and I do like to make my own but their bread is just so good! I buy a loaf and freeze whatever I don’t use within a day or two so I can just take some out and defrost it whenever I fancy some. They package it in paper bags but I went a step further today and took a clean tea towel to wrap it in instead. The staff didn’t protest and even though paper is recyclable, reduce first. You should be able to do this at any supermarket bakery section, or get hold of some of your own paper bags if you can (a lot of supermarket bakery bags have a plastic strip to see inside).
Tofu is quite a staple for me usually, but I’m struggling to find any I like without plastic. I like the extra firm blocks like Tofoo Co or Cauldron, and I love the Taifun marinated ones, but they are all vacuum wrapped in plastic – same goes for tempeh. Apparently you can get some in jars? I’m also yet to find a solution for grapes, and cucumbers were really difficult but Morrisons have just started stocking packaging-free cucumbers – yay! It’s just a shame Morrisons is really far away for me. If you have any tips or suggestions of where I could find these items please leave a comment!
I hope this helps inspire you to make some zero-waste choices on your next food shop. I know I’m lucky to have places nearby where I can get foods package-free, and if you don’t then you just have to make do with what is available to you. When you walk into a shop full of plastic it can feel like you’re swimming against the tide, but know that there are plenty of us out here doing the same, and the tide is turning. Keep swimming!
I will do another post on non-food items such as toiletries soon, so stay tuned 🙂