It’s the unfortunate truth that these days, buying food often means producing a lot of waste. There’s the food waste we produce when we don’t eat all the food we’ve purchased before it goes bad, of course, but there’s also the waste that comes from food packaging. Ideally, we’d all work to be as close to zero-waste as possible, but that can be tricky to do depending on the kinds of grocery stores you have access to, the amount of time you have to spend on food shopping and any kind of dietary restrictions you may have.
But just because we can’t all achieve perfect zero-waste status in the kitchen doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce our food packaging consumption and aim for a low-waste lifestyle. By making a few small changes, we can cut down on the amount of trash that ends up in the landfill thanks to our snacking habits. Here are some simple tips to reduce food packaging waste.
1. Bring your own bags and containers to the store.
Shopping low-waste can be as easy as bringing your own bags and containers to the grocery store. Having some shopping bags on hand can cut down on the number of plastic bags you end up using at the checkout, and you can even bring smaller bags for produce. If you shop at a store that has a bulk section, consider bringing your own reusable jars instead of filling up new plastic bags every time you shop.
However, don’t assume that reusable bags are always a better choice than plastic. Although plastic bags can be bad for the environment in many ways, they take fewer resources to produce than cotton bags and bags made from many other materials. Therefore, it’s probably not a good idea to buy a new reusable bag every time you forget yours when you go shopping. Instead, try to use the bags you already have over and over again to reduce your carbon footprint at the grocery store.
2. Buy non-perishable items in bulk.
A lot of ingredients come in an unnecessary amount of packaging that just gets thrown out the second you cook the food. Therefore, it makes sense to buy non-perishable items in bulk instead of buying the smaller-portioned and hyper-packaged versions of the same foods. At many stores, you’ll find nuts and seeds, dry beans, oatmeal and other grains and even spices available to buy in bulk for a more low-waste option. Not only will this cut down on the amount of packaging waste you’re throwing away, but there’s also a good chance it’ll save you some money at the same time.
3. Shop local.
Some grocery stores are notorious for over-packaging their foods. (We’re looking at you, Trader Joe’s—not every piece of produce has to be individually wrapped in plastic.) But you may find that excessive packaging is less of a concern when you buy local. Shop at a farmer’s market, for example, and you’ll likely find that you’re encouraged to bring your own bags. Similarly, co-ops and small neighborhood grocery stores are likely to offer staple foods in less (or no) packaging. Plus, you can feel good about supporting a local business instead of a huge food corporation.
4. Find ways to reuse containers at home.
Most of us will end up buying packaged foods from time to time, and the containers they come packaged in may or may not be recyclable. To ensure that packaging isn’t going to waste, you can find ways of reusing this packaging for storage, decoration or gifts. Salsa jars, glass bottles and sometimes even plastic containers can be reused for a wide range of purposes.
5. Plan to cook from scratch.
Cooking from scratch can be time-consuming and laborious, and it’s not possible for most of us on a daily basis. But by planning to cook from scratch as much as possible, we can cut down on the packaging ready-made food usually comes in. Opting for locally grown tomatoes over imported tomato paste, for example, cuts down significantly on packaging, and meal prepping your own pasta dishes for the week is likely going to produce less waste than buying several single-serve, plastic-wrapped meals.
The goal here is not perfection: Our economic system is designed to keep us in a constant loop of consumption, and that loop can be difficult to break out of when we’re trying to juggle our careers, families, friends and other responsibilities. But by being more mindful of what we buy and identifying a few easy ways to cut back on that consumption is a step in the right direction.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.