A whopping 30-40% of all food in the United States is wasted each year, a considerable portion of which is connected with grocery retail. According to the EPA, food containers and packaging account for 23% of landfill waste, and grocery stores have been found responsible for 10% of all U.S. food waste. Grocery shopping also represents a considerable source of spending: the average American multi-person household spends an average of $118 a week on groceries.
Waste associated with grocery shopping happens on multiple levels: packaging and bagging groceries, choosing between the many options available, and actually using all the food once it’s made it home, to name a few.
Luckily, there are many ways to reduce waste and shop greener; from ditching single-use grocery bags, to decoding plastic packaging labels, to choosing produce more deliberately, our choices in the aisles make a significant impact.
1. Bring Your Own Grocery and Produce Bags
Roughly 100 billion single-use plastic bags are used by Americans each year, which are difficult to recycle and often make their way into waterways after being discarded, where they are consumed by wildlife and send further microplastics up the food chain.
Forgoing this source of waste is as simple as collecting a few reusable bags (no need for anything fancy) and keeping them easily accessible for grocery trips. Leave a few in the car in case you forget them, and check out packable bags to keep in your purse, backpack, or pocket for impromptu grocery runs.
Instead of putting produce in plastic bags, invest in an inexpensive set of reusable produce bags as well, which you can use to hold loose fruits, vegetables, and herbs, opting for the package-less option in the fresh foods section.
2. Buy in Bulk
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Plastic packaging is a major source of waste, especially regarding food; packaging and containers alone account for more than 23% of all waste in landfills, according to the EPA.
To avoid contributing to this deluge of plastic, take advantage of the bulk sections found in many grocery stores, where customers can fill containers with loose, unpackaged goods, and pay by weight. Better yet, you can use your own reusable produce bags, and skip the plastic entirely.
Buying in bulk is a convenient alternative to items traditionally wrapped in plastic – especially dry goods like coffee, beans, nuts, and grains – and can reduce food waste in your home by supplying exactly the amount needed, as opposed to the pre-determined quantities of packaged foods, which might be more than you can use.
You can also research all-bulk grocery stores or filleries – stores specifically designed to sell foods in bulk without packaging – in your area to buy even more unpackaged items like spices, butter, crackers, oils, baking ingredients, pasta, eggs, and cleaning solutions.
3. Ask Your Grocery Store About Taring
Some grocery stores are also set up to support taring: weighing reusable containers brought by customers to fill with bulk goods, sometimes including liquids and other items that can’t be put in a reusable bag.
Taring allows you to fill any vessel you already have: glass jars, upcycled plastic containers, Tupperware, etc. Most stores will require that customers pre-weigh the vessel and take note of the weight before filling it, which will be accounted for and subtracted from the total weight at checkout.
Even if your grocery store is not set up to support taring, ask an employee if you can take note of the weight of your container and subtract this from the total weight and price of your purchase.
4. Shop Local and In-Season
All food needs to get transported before it ends up in the grocery store aisles; often by boat, truck or plane, emitting carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane into the atmosphere.
Shopping locally if you are able cuts down on food miles – the distance a product traveled from the farm to your plate – while also supporting local farmers. Not all areas will have equal access to affordable local products, but research nearby farms that sell products or offer CSA memberships, or visit a local farmer’s market to learn your options. Some farms will also sell wholesale to grocery stores, so you can purchase their crops just as easily as conventional products.
Similarly, if you’re buying something out of season, it’s likely to come from somewhere far away where it is in season. Check out the USDA’s Seasonal Produce Guide to learn when in-season fruits and vegetables hit the grocery shelves, and try to shop according to the growing season.
5. Research Where Your Food Comes From and How It’s Produced
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It’s not always possible to shop locally or in-season, but you can still make a well-informed decision about what to put in your cart.
Find out who grew/manufactured the item and what their practices are, including whether they have ethical standards for raising meat, use pesticide-free pest management practices, etc.
Looking for labels is very helpful, especially USDA Organic and Fair Trade Certified. USDA Organic is a stringent certification, and guarantees that the farm has followed certain standards for pest management, additives, animal raising, etc. Similarly, if a product has been vetted by Fairtrade International, the product fulfills certain economic, environmental, and social criteria to ensure that trade is equitable and producers are paid fairly. Don’t be fooled by illegitimate certifications and phraseology like “pasture-raised,” “certified sustainable,” or other claims that aren’t based on actual, verifiable standards.
Commercial seafood production in particular has devastating consequences for oceans. Destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling – in which massive nets are dragged along the ocean floor – destroy delicate ecosystems, disrupt aquatic food chains by removing large amounts of one species, and often ensnare species (sometimes endangered or protected) that were not intended to be caught, called bycatch.
Look for the Aquaculture Stewardship Council or Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) seals on seafood to know it was produced responsibly. Seafood Watch also provides consumer guides for purchasing seafood in every region, a search tool to find the best options for a seafood product, and an app to help you find ethically-sourced seafood in your area.
6. More Fresh, Less Processed
Without the additional production and packaging undergone by processed foods items, fresh foods are often considered to have a smaller environmental impact, but this can be difficult to determine.
The sustainability of a food item depends on its entire life cycle: the processing, storing, preserving, and refrigerating needed to bring it from farm to plate. For example, buying minimally-processed foods – such as canned vegetables or dried fruit – might result in fewer emissions than fresh food that has to be prepared at home. Similarly, if eating processed foods results in less wasted food (since they last longer in the cabinet than perishables in the fridge), this might make them a more sustainable option for some.
However, many ultra-processed foods (those that contain little or no whole foods, and are mostly or entirely made with substances derived from foods and additives) contain palm and soy oils, which are associated with deforestation, degradation of natural habitats, and environmentally destructive large-scale agriculture.
Replacing ultra-processed foods with fresh, plant-based, local, whole foods is preferable, which produce relatively few emissions and retain more of their nutritional content. When grocery shopping, stick to the perimeter of the grocery story – where the fresh foods are generally kept – as much as possible.
7. Shop Ugly
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If produce is perfectly edible, yet cosmetically imperfect – carrots with multiple stalks, non-spherical apples, asymmetrical bell peppers – it’ll often be rejected by grocery stores or left on the shelves, untaken by consumers.
Ugly produce subscription boxes have offered an alternative to consumers – although their ethics and place in ending home- and store-level food waste has been questioned – but you can always opt for the “uglier” options on the grocery store shelves, ensuring that they don’t eventually get tossed by the store.
8. Plan Your Meals and Make a List
You might often find yourself at the grocery store without a grocery list or meal plan for the week, which inevitably leads to impulse-buying and speculating about what you might need. An average American wastes about 21% of the food they buy – equal to roughly $1,800 a year – much of which could be avoided by buying only what you know you need.
Make a list before every grocery trip, checking the fridge and cabinets to make sure you don’t buy anything you already have. If you generally buy the same items, create a generic grocery list to print out each week and mark what is needed.
9. Check the Plastics
Of course, you might not be able to ditch plastic entirely when grocery shopping. Check out the labels on items packaged in plastic before buying, and choose those that are less impactful and more easily recycled. HDPE and PETE products are generally easier to recycle, so purchasing items packaged in these kinds of plastic have a better chance of actually making it to the recycling plant.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.