Plastic Free Grocery Shopping 101

One of my favourite chores is getting groceries. I know this is probably not true for 99% of you reading this, which is why grocery shopping needs to be fast, convenient, and as painless as possible! But how can it be all that and plastic-free???

Well, here is a simple guide to keeping your shopping from being a burden, both on you or the environment.

Armed with your reusable cloth grocery bags and your list, lets get started. [I have to mention a life-changing app here: Wunderlist is fantastic. The best feature is the ability to share certain lists with my husband so he can add stuff to the list while I’m shopping!]  I like to mentally sort my grocery list by sections in the store – produce, bakery, meat, etc. That way when start filling the cart the process feels a lot more organised.. A list also allows me to be prepared with appropriate bags and jars as needed. I can shop with intention, and (mostly) avoid the bright labels and sales tags tempting me to buy more more more! So, we’re ready, let’s get shopping!

The best place to start is in the produce – here’s how I shop Plastic-free for my greens: 

fruit_vege2– Select fruits and veges that are free from plastic wrap. Here is where you may notice this is becoming difficult: almost everything seems to come plastic wrapped! For convenience and branding, produce is being thrown in plastic bags, wraps, Styrofoam, containers, etc. All unnecessary waste to improve the “bottom line” at no cost to the producer. The inherent costs falls to the consumer (waste removal fees) and the environment.

-Avoid using those little produce bags. They are truly wasteful and have very little re-use value. Even if you put produce in a bag you still have to wash it all when you get home. All to often I see someone using these bags for 2 or even 1 apple or orange! If you are purchasing a hug quantity of apples or oranges, ask for box or get yourself some inexpensive, reusable produce bags (mesh or cotton).

-Shop at farmers markets. Sadly, farmers markets are starting to look like Barbie’s playhouse too, but not nearly as bad as our mainstream grocery stores. Plus you are eating & buying local!  This is the best place to buy plastic-free berries! Each summer I purchase berries in bilk boxes (no plastic containers) lay them out on a cookie sheet, freeze them and store them in jars or cloth bags!

– Weigh it out and Price it out! I have noticed a trend in regards to our branded, plastic-wrap, convenient veges. They are more expensive than their free-standing, loose counter-parts.  EG: the Tri-coloured Pepper pack. such a deal, right!? A red, a yellow, and an orange pepper packed together for one convenient price. BUT, if  you do a little bit of math, weighing a single red, yellow, or orange pepper on the scale you will see that the combined price of buying them separately is 9 times out of 10 less expensive* This “trick” can be tried on potatoes, tomatoes, lettuces, and beets… kiwis and apples and lemons and… well you get the point.
*Amendment: this may not hold true if you are buying bulk at places like Costco or Superstore which is great if you can eat it all before it goes bad.  However when you buy only what you need, it is less expensive to buy loose produce. Plus you can avoid food waste, which drives up the cost.
I would also suggest, if you need to buy in bulk go back to the point above: buy bulk in boxes at the farmers market instead. However, the mission here is to reduce waste and drive change with buying  power, sometimes cost of an additional few cents needs to takes a back seat.

Meat and Cheese!

Go to the counter. The deli counter –  Did you know you can usually bring your own container! They will tare it, add your sandwich meat and simply charge you for the product.

-Shop at a local butcher shop instead. again, you can bring your own container! Calgary Meats on Edmonton Trail is a fantastic little shop that always accommodates this for me.  Its pretty awesome, I bring my square glass dishes with a lid and pop it in the freezer when I get home.

-Wrapped in paper please! If you don’t have your own container, ask for your meat or fish or cheese to be wrapped in paper instead!

Bread and other baked goods

-Find the fresh paper-wrapped loaves  -I eat gluten free so I don’t buy too many glutenous products. Just a loaf of bread for my hubby – i simply search for the paper-wrapped loaves. The paper bag then makes a great compost liner!

-Head to the counter/bulk bun section – If you’re after more than just bread, most grocery stores have that nice little area with fresh baked goods for the picking. I head here if we need a couple buns or a pastry treat.  The paper bags provided help to avoid those terrible plastic clam shells. Plus, it really is a treat, not a giant pile of pastries to nibble on at home.

-Bakeries!  There are some fantastic bakeries in this city. Baking fresh bread daily. why not check one out? Bring a clean cloth bag or tea towel to wrap up the freshness. Cobbs or Sidewalk Citizen are amazing!

Milk and other dairy can be tricky to be plastic-free. Gone are the days of those milk men delivering glass jars.  Here are a few options to help:

milk2-Glass Milk Jars. I discovered Avalon milk just last week actually. They sell their milk in old school glass bottles. You pay $1 deposit, that you get back when you bring the bottle back clean. I’m really excited about this!!  Found it at Sunnyside Market & Community Foods.

-Make your own. Yes, this is for the more advantageous sort. But making your own almond or cashew or soy or rice or oat milk isn’t too hard.  And making yoghurt is even easier (google it).

-Buy in Large format! *See last point below*

Everything Else

And I mean everything else. Buy eating plastic-free, you will find yourself for the most part avoiding the inner aisles of the grocery store. The over package frozen section and the tempting chip and pop row. But there are definitely items in those areas you may need. Here are some alternatives to think of:


-Buy in bulk. Depending on your local store, you should have bulk section. Here’s a great place to find snacks, nuts, and candies if you need them. Be ready with your mesh produce/bulk bags.

If the bulk section at your store just plain sucks, you need to get yourself to Community Natural Foods or Bulk Barn.  Everything from spices, baking goods, cleaning goods, nuts, chips, dog treats, ect –  and both places let you BYO jars and containers.

-Be Aware of the Packaging & Look for Awesome Jars! When I do have to replenish the pantry I keep my eye out on the packaging, looking for packaging made of glass, metal, paper, or even wood. Remember, they sneak plastic into and onto everything – even our canned goods are now lines with plastic!

-Watch for “Good Jars” – glass jars with metal lids that you know you can easily clean and re-use. This step will help you build your plastic-free storage container collection. Large pickle jars are great! When the pickles are done, the clean jar can be taken and filled up at your favourite bulk store!

-Buy in larger formats – If no other solution presents itself buy the largest container you can. A container you know you can re-use or re-purpose trade small yoghurt containers, for one large tub. Buy a block of cheese rather than individually wrapped slices! Avoiding individually wrapped packages saves you money and avoids the waste! I know every Costco shopper just had a Wahoo moment!

Take it one step at time. Just like you don’t wake up at the finish line of a marathon, you’re not going to be instantly able to implement all these new habits tomorrow. Do what you can each day and be proud of those efforts!

EXTRA BONUS: you will find yourself eating healthier just by avoiding plastic in the grocery store!

~ Briana

Click here for your  Cheatsheet for PF groceries !

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I'm a passionate environmentalist at heart. Striving to create a difference in my community and in my home to make the world just a little bit better.