Student-friendly · Zero Waste

Zero Waste 101: How to Food Shop – Without Access to Bulk Stores

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If you’re lucky enough to live in London or another large metropolitan city, there will likely be a plethora of options available for buying foods in bulk or unpackaged. Not everyone is so lucky, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t take steps towards reducing your own consumer plastic waste.
Here are some tips for reducing the amount of plastic waste you produce, while still shopping in conventional supermarkets and shops.

1. Simplify what you buy

This is such an important tip, which is why it’s number one! A major message from the zero waste movement is to simplify your life and reduce the amount of things that you need. This is something that I am slowly learning to get better at, but it’s definitely a journey! I’ve definitely found a major part of my life where this message is relevant is in the kitchen. I now eat pretty much only foods that I can buy unpackaged or in bulk. This has meant that I’ve got a bit more creative with what I cook, but it doesn’t mean I eat any less healthily – in fact quite the opposite, as I no longer buy processed foods or junk foods like crisps and sweets. Figuring out what the staple foods are in your diet is the first step. Making shopping lists, meal planning and going through your cupboards to see what you really use, and what needs to be used up and not replaced, are all good first steps.


2. Buy loose fruit and veg

Markets are fantastic for buying loose fruit and vegetables, with little or no plastic packaging. And if you can’t find what you’d like without plastic, it’s always worthwhile letting the stall owner know – they may be open to making simple changes to the way they sell things, like providing things loose, or in paper not plastic. My local market stall recently started selling all of its leafy greens (like spinach and kale) loose in a pick-your-own style system, due to popular demand against plastic packaging! There are plenty of fruits and vegetables sold loose in supermarkets too, but some supermarkets are better than others. In the UK, the Cooperative is particularly bad for selling everything wrapped in a ton of plastic, while Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose normally have a lot of loose fruit and vegetables. The only downside is the plastic stickers on lots of loose fruits and vegetables – these are hard to escape! Sometimes you can avoid buying items that have them on, but it’s not always possible. Still, the amount of plastic waste you will generate is still far less than if you bought these items packaged.


A top tip when buying bananas is to go for ones in singles and twos rather than bunches – these are often the ones that end up getting thrown out by supermarket chains, as people don’t tend to buy single bananas.

3. Bring your own refillable cotton bags to shops and supermarkets

Bringing your own cotton bags to use to buy loose vegetables such as mushrooms and tomatoes is another easy way to refuse plastic bags at markets, in shops and even in supermarkets. You can also use your own bags to buy loose bread from shops and supermarkets – I have done this successfully in both Tesco and Lidl! You might get a few interested or querying looks, but the staff are generally very accepting of this!

4. Buy in card instead of plastic

Card will biodegrade in landfill even if you don’t recycle it, unlike plastic, so it’s always a better option. Simple steps like buying washing powder in card instead of plastic bottles, or buying staples like pasta and oats in card not plastic, will make a massive difference.

5. Buy in recyclable glass or metal instead of plastic

This tip applies to things like spices, vinegars, oils, peanut butter, jam and other condiments. Wherever you can, try and rethink what you buy to see if there is a plastic-free option! Glass can also be recycled, but unlike plastic, when it does eventually end up in a landfill site somewhere it is a very inert material that won’t leach into the surrounding soil.

Glass jars are also incredibly useful to hang on to reuse for a range of purposes. I use them for bulk shopping, leftover food storage, storing homemade preserves and other staples, homemade cosmetics and cleaning products, storing buttons and other craft materials, and even as water glasses.


6. Buy in bulk to reduce packaging

Don’t have access to shops where staples like pasta and rice are sold in card? Not to worry! The next best thing is to buy in bulk where you can – for example, one large plastic bag of pasta is much better in terms of reducing plastic waste, compared to buying several small plastic bags. Buy recyclable plastic wherever possible.

7. Reduce canned food

Unfortunately, most tin cans are lined with some kind of plastic coating, which commonly contains BPA (against which evidence is mounting regarding various associated health risks)  and is of course, not fully biodegradable. Canned food is therefore something to aim to reduce wherever possible. The main things I buy in cans are chopped tomatoes for cooking, and cooked lentils, beans and chickpeas for curries and stews. The first is easy – simply buy loose tomatoes from the supermarket, rather than canned ones – and my solution to the second has been to buy dried pulses in bulk, cook in large batches and freeze (see this guide for how to freeze beans successfully, it’s super easy, all you need is an airtight container!).

8. Make sure you recycle packaging properly! 

Figuring out your area’s recycling policy is key to ensure that you are redirecting your waste responsibly. And if there are things that you definitely can’t recycle kerbside (e.g. metal, hard plastics, batteries, pens), try to keep a store of these items in a box or bag to take to a recycling centre when you can. Certain film-y plastics, such as plastic bags, and the covering of toilet paper and kitchen roll, aren’t recyclable kerbside, but you can take these to plastic bag recycling points at major supermarkets.

9. If you shop online – request no plastic packaging

If you buy online from a food delivery service like Ocado, request no plastic bags, or no plastic packaging for fruit and vegetables. You might not be successful in your request – but at least you tried, and if you try enough times the message will probably get through!

In other cases, you can often find your favourite food items in bulk online, sold much cheaper than in supermarkets. If you know it’s something you love and eat all the time, why not stock up? Obviously, it’s important to make sure you only do this with foods you love, to avoid any unnecessary food waste. But no one could keep me away from this peanut butter, for example (which is not only delicious, but also far cheaper than supermarket brands) for long!

Certain items, like toilet paper, are really hard to find in shops without non-recyclable plastic packaging. Either follow my tip above about recycling the packaging at designated recycling points, or, shop online for more eco alternatives. You might be surprised at how economical it can be! For instance, I can buy EcoLeaf toilet roll, which is 100% recycled paper and in compostable plastic packaging, for 45 rolls for around £20, which is slightly cheaper (including shipping cost) than buying the equivalent number of rolls of conventional toilet roll for £4.45 / pack.

10. Explore local markets 

Markets are some of the best places for finding accidentally zero waste options. I say accidental because although these options aren’t being sold with zero waste in mind, they can easily be bought plastic free. I buy loose medjool dates from a local market stall (much cheaper than buying from the supermarket, and I eat a lot of them!), where I can also buy other dried fruit and nuts either in paper bags or in my own bags / containers. Just another good reason to always carry a small cotton bag and/or container round with you, so you can be prepared for impromptu zero waste finds!

Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home, talks in this short video about how going zero waste has brought her out of her own bubble and given her the opportunity to expand her relationships with local food producers and sellers. When was the last time you had an actual real life conversation with a grocer or food seller? Supporting your local community where you can is fantastic – look online for farmers markets and zero waste stores or explore the independently owned shops near you for other zero waste finds. Or, is there a veg box scheme near you that offers a delivery service to your door? These companies are often great at providing little or no plastic packaging.


11. Switch to loose leaf tea

This may be a very British problem, but did you know the majority of tea bags contain small amounts of plastic? It’s used in the adhesive sealant on heat-sealed tea bags and means that most tea bags are not fully biodegradable, so if you’re concerned about microplastics entering the soil and ultimately the food chain (which you should be!) you shouldn’t really put tea bags in compost. That’s why I’ve switched over to loose leaf tea, which I make using a tea pot with infuser, like this one (you can also buy super cute, reusable wire mesh ball infusers which make great reusable “tea bags”).


12. Start making your own staples

If you can’t find something without plastic packaging, could you try making it yourself? Examples of super easy to make staples include, bread, houmous, nut mylks and cream…the list goes on!


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13. Find a system that works for you

Rather than trying to get all your food shopping in one place, it can be helpful to split your shop between several different places that offer zero waste solutions. Shopping for staple items occasionally in bulk reduces the hassle associated with this. For instance, if you love pasta, then next time you’re in Sainsbury’s, stock up on Barilla pasta sold in card. Or if you see oats sold in card on offer, buy several packs instead of just one. Eventually, you’ll get to the point where your regular shop is mainly for perishable items such as fruits and vegetables.

14. Don’t try and change too much, too fast

Be kind to yourself! This lesson is key for sustaining your journey to zero waste. It can feel exhausting at first to try and reduce the amount of plastic waste you produce when there are so many sources around your home – but I promise you, it’s not an insurmountable mountain! Start with simple changes – like bringing your own cotton and fabric bags to the supermarket, buying vinegar and oil in glass bottles, and buying staples in card or recyclable plastic.

There you have it! I hope these simple steps have helped to show that it’s easy to start making simple changes to reduce the amount of plastic packaging you produce when food shopping. Let me know if there’s anything that’s helped you, or if there’s anything I’ve missed out, in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Zero Waste 101: How to Food Shop – Without Access to Bulk Stores

  1. Thank you for ideas! I’m just walking my first steps on zero-waste journey.
    Actually today i also thought that it’s time to return to good old washing powder in cardboard 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good article! I love those cotton bags – where did you get those? I live in London, but don’t own a car (9 years and counting – feel proud of that) which makes shopping (for a family of 6) in places that don’t use an obscene amount of plastic very difficult. Yet I am committed!

    I did find these – made in the UK which helps with kids’ lunches and food storage – If I had more time I’d be all over making these things (like those white bags for veg) myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I’m glad you found it useful!

      I got the drawstring cotton bags from a BioCoop last time I visited France – I’ve seen them in lots of eco/organic shops over there. I’m sure you could get some online tho! Or – make your own from any spare fabric you have lying around or old t shirts (google: how to make a bag out of a t shirt, it’s super easy (no sewing required) and free!). I use them for buying loose fruits and veggies and then the drawstring cotton bags just for buying pulses and grains in bulk 🙂

      In some parts of London there are lots of zero waste / bulk options in stores. Depends where you are based but there may be places nearer than you think … have you looked at the zero waste UK map? If not, it’s linked in the article.


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