Zero Waste Grocery Shopping for Beginners

By Connie

Last Updated:

Living low waste is a lifestyle change and it can be a pretty difficult change to do, just as many lifestyle changes are. One of the biggest changes in switching to a low waste life is grocery shopping, as it is an essential part of our lives but it produces a lot of our weekly waste.

A lot of us have grown up with a grocery store in relatively close distance to our homes, where we can just pop by and grab what we need to make dinner that night, or grab a few bags of chips and some dip for watching a movie, or grab pre-made frozen dinners. It’s all rather convenient.

Two images: top image of empty jars and canning funnel; bottom image of groceries spread out on a kitchen counter.

When my kids were in high school they ate a lot of frozen mac and cheese which just had to be warmed up in the microwave because I would work until 5 or so and we’d have to rush off to a hockey game or practice as soon as I finished.

But with living low waste, those quick “grab and goes” tend to be a thing of the past. Also, depending on what you have access to and depending on how strict your zero waste goals are then you might not be able to have very many processed items anymore.

The crazy thing is that when our grandparents were young, packaged and processed foods were a treat, not a staple. I remember my grandma spending hours canning, pickling and preserving.

As she got older, I would try to talk her into buying processed/packaged items so that she didn’t have to work so hard. She would sometimes come home with a package of butter tarts or a box of cookies, but for the most part, she made everything from scratch. It was just her way of life and it’s what we’re now trying to work back to.

After starting the goal of living a low waste life, if you walk around your local grocery store you might be overwhelmed with how much wasteful packaging lines the shelves. And if you take a look at your weekly waste I’d assume most of it came from a grocery store (am I right?).

Now, if you’re lucky like us, there will already be a few low waste stores close enough to do your weekly shopping at. For us, we live semi-close to 3 Bulk Barns and we live in a close enough distance to Zero Waste Bulk that we can make once-a-month stock-up trips for specific items that Bulk Barn doesn’t offer, like meatless chick’n tenders.

find bulk/zero waste/plastic-free shops near you:

Let’s Go Zero Waste  |  Litterless  |  Bepakt  |  Zero Waste Home

If you’re lucky and you live near a bulk/refill store then it’s going to be a lot easier to cut down on the waste you create from grocery shopping. And if you’re even luckier than us to live near a bulk food store that is more specialized than Bulk Barn then you’ll be able to enjoy a wider variety of zero waste grocery items.

How to zero waste grocery shop without a bulk/refill store

But if you don’t happen to have a bulk/refill store in your area, that’s okay! There are still so many ways that you can limit the waste that comes with buying food.

And this information is good even if you have a Bulk Barn in your backyard because some foods can’t be bought at a Bulk Barn (like bread, meat and cheese) and sometimes you’re travelling, etcetera.

Also, if you don’t have a local bulk/refill store, keep an eye on our directory as new ones are popping up all the time.

What you will need:

Bread & Baked Goods

Regarding bread and baked goods, a lot of regular grocery stores have a bakery section where you can bring your own containers or reusable bags.

For us, most of the time the items the grocery store has loose are buns, bagels, croissants and various treats. We haven’t seen many that have a loaf of bread that you can buy sans-plastic.

Croissant in a reusable produce bag.
Croissant in a reusable produce bag.

But baking a loaf of bread is actually super easy and other than the wait time it takes no time at all. And when we say “super easy” on this blog, we really do mean super easy because I am not baking/cooking-inclined. So, if it’s super easy for me, it should be super easy for you too (my kids agree). Just make sure you use bread flour.

However, another option is to go to a local bakery or farmer’s market and ask if they can put the loaf of bread straight into your bag, bypassing the plastic-wrap or paper bag.

Meat, Cheese & Deli

We are slowly finding places where you can get your meat, cheese and deli items package-free. As we find these hard-to-locate shops, we will list them in our directory.

A lot of grocery stores have a deli section where you can ask for your deli products such as lunch meat and cheese to be put into your reusable containers. As well, some grocery stores have a meat section where you can ask for your meat products such as pepperoni, sausage and steak to be put into reusable containers.

We have found that this process is store dependent. Not every store will do this as they cite “health regulations” as the reason (which is reasonable, but annoying).

A good tip for this is to find a local grocery store that will put your products into reusable containers and then use them as your “go to” store for such products until you have time to test out another.

The other issue we’ve had is where they will put the product into a container for you, but won’t weigh the container first. This means that you’ll also pay for the weight of the container, so make sure you ask about that first.

We have found, through trial and error, a local grocery store that allows us to use our containers and also subtracts the weight of the container so we only have to pay for the product. So, they are out there, but they may take a little bit more searching to find.

Other ways to shop without a bulk/refill store

  • Look for farmers’ markets in your area
  • Buy in glass or cans instead of plastic when possible
  • Buy produce naked, i.e. produce without plastic packaging
  • DIY – we make our own nut milk and orange juice because making your own nut milk is super easy and we haven’t been able to find orange juice in glass bottles yet.
  • Utilize your grocery store’s small bulk section, if they have one. Generally, if they do it’s mostly seeds, nuts and snacks. Half the time we buy our nuts for making nut milk at our grocery store’s small bulk section. You just need to bring a light weight produce bag with tiny or no holes.
  • If all else fails, don’t worry so much about food packaging and work on your low waste lifestyle in other areas of your day-to-day life, such as your bathroom or kitchen.

Related: How to make a zero waste kit & remember to use it

Note: Zero waste living is also just one aspect of an eco-friendly, sustainable lifestyle, and zero waste grocery shopping is also just one aspect of zero waste living.

You may not be able to be as “zero waste” as you want in terms of grocery shopping but there are many more ways that will help save the environment, and many more ways that you can live zero waste too, such as:

  • Low carbon diet or go vegan
  • Shop local
  • Get rid of single-use items in your kitchen
  • Change to eco-friendly items in your bathroom
  • and so many more

More often than not social media paints zero waste as being a lot easier and prettier than it is in real life. And this probably makes a lot of people shy away from trying because being that perfect is really hard when we all lead really busy lifestyles.

But you don’t need to be perfect and you don’t need to do everything zero waste, you just need to try because “we don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly” (Anne Marie Bonneau, Zero Waste Chef).

We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.Anne Marie Bonneau, Zero Waste Chef

Anna Marie Bonneau, Zero Waste Chef

We’ve been doing this for about 5 months now and we still buy our Becel margarine (which comes in a plastic container) because some things can’t be changed with a snap of your fingers because change takes time.

When we do buy items in plastic containers, we take a look at the product to see which container would be best suited to reuse in the future. For example, we bought our mayonnaise in a plastic container and opted for the larger size because we knew that we could use the empty container for storage.

And just an FYI, this is one reason we’re doing this blog, to show our journey to zero waste, even if we never actually get all the way there because zero waste is like an asymptote.

In math, an asymptote is a line that a curve approaches for infinity but never actually reaches. Zero waste is an asymptote that our journey keeps approaching but can never completely reach.

Zero waste is like an asymptote quote.

Prepping your kitchen for bulk shopping

If you are lucky enough to have a bulk/refill food store near you then keep reading to find out how you can get started with preparing your kitchen.

Note: One of the most important things to accomplish when committing to the possibility of zero waste in the household is noticeable changes and progression. This is easily done by eliminating as many items as possible that are stored in plastic packaging.

What you will need:

First of all, take pictures of the food in your dry food cupboards for later comparison. You will most likely notice that most food items are stored in plastic packaging. This is your starting point.

Messy cupboard filled with spices and baking ingredients
Cupboard pre-zero waste (September 2019).
Organized zero waste cupboard filled with spices and baking ingredients.
Cupboard 4 months post-zero waste (January 2020).

If you have enough containers, change out each item from the plastic bags to glass jars that you already have at home.

Pro tip: purchase a canning funnel or two to make the transfer of food into your glass jars so much easier! And you’ll be able to keep using it every single time you come home from your bulk store. Check out your local thrift shops before buying new.

You will start to accumulate plastic containers and glass jars as you finish off items you currently have stored in them. We suggest using the glass jars as storage containers and the plastic containers as transfer containers or short-term storage containers.

For example, once you finish that jar of jam or marinara sauce, you will have a new glass jar that you can use to store another item. This is a great way to obtain storage containers. If you would like to have matching containers for those that will sit on your counter, you can buy new glass jars at a local secondhand, grocery or dollar store.

And the plastic containers are great to use as transfer containers when you pick up your items at your local bulk store as they’re lighter, safer and easier to carry around, and then when you get home you can just transfer them to your glass jars.

You may also need taller glass jars for items such as spaghetti; these can also be found at a dollar store. I would suggest no more than 10 new jars to start as this will get you going and you may find that you won’t need any more brand new ones.

If you find that you’d like to purchase a few more plastic containers for short-term storage (such as food leftovers), it’s best to go to a secondhand store as you will be repurposing the containers rather than buying new plastic ones.

Messy cupboard filled with snack items.
Cupboard pre-zero waste (September 2019).
Organized cupboard filled with snacks.
Cupboard 4 months zero waste (January 2020).

So, now when you look in your dry food cupboards, you will see a beautiful sight with very few or no plastic bags (though no plastic bags does take time as we still have food we bought pre-zero waste in plastic bags as seen in the above photos). 

Having semi-zero waste cupboards is a great feeling! But where will you get replacements for all of the bagged items that you once had? Keep reading to find out.

How to shop for food at a bulk store

First, if you haven’t already, look to see if you have a bulk/refill food store near you.

Next, follow these steps to ensure you have a great bulk store experience:

1. Prepare

Make a shopping list beforehand – this is especially important when buying in bulk because many times at the beginning of our zero waste journey we couldn’t buy all that we needed/wanted to because we ran out of containers. So, make a list and bring at least 3 more containers than items on your list. (The 3 extra are in case you see products that you forgot to write on your list).

Grocery shopping list for Bulk Barn.
Shopping list.

Pro Tip: if you’re shopping at Bulk Barn (or any bulk store) check for coupons first. Also, sign-up for their email list as some deals are only offered if you’re on their list.

Bring your own clean reusable containers and bags.

These can be any type of container: mason jars, cloth bags, stainless steel tins, glass snapware, clean margarine/yoghurt/sour cream containers, as long as they’re clean and can close (be that by lid or drawstring) you can bring any container you like. At Bulk Barn the container has to be completely clean and dry or the cashier won’t weigh it for you.

We personally try to bring our big and light containers (such as margarine containers) and just transfer our items over to jars once we get home.

Pro tip: buy/find a canning funnel for your food transfers.

Canning funnel on a kitchen counter.
Canning funnel.

2. Weigh

When you arrive at the store take your containers to the cashier so they can weigh your empty containers and that way you only pay for the weight of the products.

They will write the weight of the empty container on the container’s lid. Don’t worry, they use a wax crayon which washes right off with warm water.

3. Fill

Fill your containers with however much product you desire.

Lady filling reusable container at Bulk Barn.
Filling glass jar with pasta at Bulk Barn.

4. Bin#

After filling your container you’ll need to record the Bin# so that the cashier knows exactly which product you’re buying. Don’t worry if you forget because the cashier can look it up, it just takes a little more time when checking out.

You can take a picture of the Bin#, you can write it on a piece of paper or you can type it on your phone, along with the product name.

Pro tip: bring your own wax crayon to write down the Bin# and/or product name on the lid of your container. This makes the process so much easier for both you and the cashier. We ordered ours on Amazon.

Pack of China Crayons/Markers.

5. Checkout

Bring your filled containers back to the cashier and weigh and pay for your products. They’ll take off the weight of the empty container which is written on the lid so that you’ll only be paying for the weight of the product.

If you didn’t write the Bin# on the products you’ll need to read them out as the cashier rings up your order.

6. Arrive home

Now, when you arrive home with all of those goodies you can transfer them to your glass jars if you need to and you can snack! Or make an awesome meal!

Groceries spread out on counter.

As you begin your journey toward zero waste, remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. What is important is that you work on what you can and that you take your time so that you don’t get overwhelmed.

Once you’ve taken your first step forward, you will be a positive contributor to the zero waste movement and you can be proud of this accomplishment. Remember, if you have any questions at all, please let us know and we will do our best to assist.

So, let’s go zero waste together!

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Two images: top image of empty jars and canning funnel; bottom image of groceries spread out on a kitchen counter.
Ultimate guide to zero waste grocery shopping, and how to shop low-waste without a bulk store.
Zero waste grocery shopping for beginners.
Beginner’s guide to zero waste grocery shopping, and how to shop low-waste without a bulk store.

We’d love to hear from you!

Thank you for visiting our blog! We’d love to hear about your experiences with zero waste grocery shopping! Do you live near a bulk/refill store? Does it have more than just dry goods? What’s your craziest or most fun experience with zero waste grocery shopping? Do you have any questions about zero waste grocery shopping? Please comment below.

2 thoughts on “Zero Waste Grocery Shopping for Beginners”

  1. Hi Courteney!
    Love the blog. Thanks so much for all of the information. I just bought some cotton mesh bags to use for produce and bulk foods. Will the chain grocery stores subtract the tare for the bags? We have Zehrs and Freshco in Fergus.


    • Thank you Ms. McFadden!

      As far as I know they don’t subtract the tare for the bags. We are planning to ask about this once COVID-19 passes, especially because the reusable bags from Sobeys actually have their weight written on them.

      We generally either weigh our fruit & veggies out of the bag and bag them after, or we just take the loss on the bag’s weight. Regarding the bulk products found at chain grocery stores, we generally only buy them there when we don’t have the time to go to a bulk food store, so again we’ve just taken the loss. But whenever we use produce bags at chain grocery stores we always try to use the lightest ones possible.

      We do purchase cheese at the deli in chain grocery stores and the tare is subtracted from our reusable container, so I’m optimistic that they will consider weighing produce/bulk bags in the future.

      I’ll let you know what I find out as soon as I do. I hope you and your family are happy, healthy and safe!



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