Condo Blues: Zero Waste on a Budget: How to Grocery Shop without a Bulk Bin Store

Monday, March 2, 2020

Zero Waste on a Budget: How to Grocery Shop without a Bulk Bin Store

After seeing the explosion of zero waste ideas online (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,) I get a little worried that people may not try or quit because they aren’t meeting the strict one year’s full of trash in a jar “standard” they see shown on social media.

Which is a bummer because Zero Waste living isn’t black and white or should be so restrictive it is a struggle.

Or at least it shouldn’t’ be.

In reality, shifting your mindset to a lower waste living is much more sustainable because it takes into consideration what you have available locally, what you can’t, or don’t want to give up. Are you seriously going to deny grandma life saving medication because it comes in a plastic bottle?!

zero waste living on a budget at a conventional grocery store
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Often how zero waste you can go depends upon what is available where you live. Fill your own container bulk bin sections and stores are fairly anemic around here because local code enforcement strongly reminded everyone that shoppers have to use store provided containers. Winter means nothing grows here for 6 months out of the year.  Sadly zero waste utopia doesn’t mention that. So what do you do?

You do it by concentrate on reducing and stop focusing on the zero - without guilt.

Guilt is not productive. Trying is.

How to Live Zero Waste When You Shop a Regular Grocery Store

Instead of looking at what you have to buy, look at what you don’t have to buy first. I think that’s the best place for you to start and especially good if you have a limited budget. Use and use up what you have  first. For example, you probably already have containers you can use instead of plastic wrap and zipper baggies even if they are repurposed empty butter bowls.   You probably already have utensils (honestly I toss a plastic take out fork in my lunch bag and hand wash it for the next time because I don’t want to lose my every day kitchen silverware) instead of buying a fancy zero waste kit like this one right off the bat. (Disclosure: I am including affiliate links in this post for your convenience.) You probably already have reusable mugs. You might have shampoo and soap and conditioner and lotion stockpiled, either because you bought extra or you got some as gifts or whatever else. 

Start by being more conscious of what you’re using and change the size/type of packaging accordingly if you can. For example:
- If you have to buy an item that is in a container buy the largest one you can. Consider one large package instead of many small. For example, buying a jar of bullion granules instead of a jar of wrapped bullion cubes means you have one container in your recycling bin instead of one container in the bin and a bunch of wrappers in the trash. Or the opposite may be true. A big tub of spackling compound dries out before I finish it. I won’t waste any if I buy a couple of small containers and put the rinse empties in my recycling bin. 

-  Are you using a bunch of different cleaners around your house when one all purpose cleaner or two might do? I ended up buying a steam cleaner like this one that sanitizes everything with good ol’ tap water for package free cleaning.

- Do you end up wiping away a significant amount of extra when you apply something because you can be a little overzealous when you dispense it?  I’m trying to break this habit with moisturizer and sunscreen and such.

- Do you run off to the store when you run out of a family favorite when you already have a substitution on hand in the back of the cupboard? I realized I did this after an unofficial Eat This and Give Me Cupboard Space month  (also called an Eat from the Pantry/Freezer Challenge.) Oddly using glass jars for food storage after a Spring Kitchen Ant Invasion helped me reduce this  by easily seeing how much I have on hand (as opposed to guessing how much is left in a cardboard box) when I make my grocery shopping list to leave on the kitchen table. While my kitchen looks like the Perfect Zero Waste Kitchen full of glass storage jars  I decant it from packages bought at a regular grocery store (because throwing away all of your kitchen staples three times in one year due to pantry ants and moths is so. much. fun!)

- Do you keep running out of necessary things because the super eco friendliest packaging is also the smallest or an item goes bad because you buy the warehouse club giant size?  Tip: While it is a bit anal retentive, writing the date on the package when you open it may help you decide if you need to adjust the package size or how many to keep on hand to get you through to the next sales cycle. I did this once per staple item since I have pretty much zero extra storage space in my condo.

- Can you wash and reuse the container/packaging when it is empty? Sure everyone goes on about saving and reusing glass jars but there may be other things you can save and reuse too. For example, while people hate in plastic often that’s what’s available and I can’t go without. Instead we try to get an extra reuse out of everything within reason before it hits the bin. For example, I use plastic packaging bags for household trash, empty frozen vegetable and bread bags for pet waste pick up, and plastic containers with screw on lids to organize just about everything in the house from craft supplies, workshop hardware (because I kept knocking glass jars off my workbench. Apparently I’ve turned into a cat,) and to keep dishwasher powder from absorbing moisture in the box and losing its cleaning oomph. These aren’t perfect zero waste world solutions but don’t let good enough be the enemy of perfect.

An example of disposable takeout containers I repurpose to use as craft room storage.

Consider changing some of type of ingredients in the meals you eat. Try shopping and cooking with more ingredient type food like fresh or frozen vegetables, plain grains, rice, pasta that you flavor yourself instead of the stuff that comes in a multi packet boxed/frozen meal.  Consider stir fry type recipes that load up on vegetables and and use the protein more as a condiment verses the one big chunk of protein per person recipe.  Shop and cook with ingredient type food which often has friendlier packaging, such as pasta in a recyclable/compostable cardboard box with a cellophane window instead of a plastic bag. Fresh vegetables (Budget tip: The fresh vegetables on sale at the grocery are almost always the in season vegetables. If you recognize the trends and start shopping/cooking with the seasons, you’ll get the best quality produce bang for your buck.) Can you buy a big package of the protein of your choice and repackage it into smaller recipe friendly portions for the freezer?

Aw, you thought I was going to say eat a plant based diet or do Meatless Mondays, didn’t you? You can if you like. I also know from experience that sometimes those types of recipes produce just as much or more waste as carnivore meals. It all depends on the type of ingredients you use.

What do you do? Add your low and zero waste living tips, hacks, and ideas or yell at me in the comments below!

Looking for more quick and easy zero waste living ideas? Check out the following options - and more! - below!

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