What I Learned From Zero Trash Shopping

Photographed by Shirley Yu.
I don't really think about the amount of waste I produce on a daily basis. In my apartment, shared with my boyfriend and two cats, we probably take out the kitchen trash and the recycling two to three times a week. Lamenting the walk downstairs to throw away our bags is pretty much the only interaction I have with my food-related trash.

Every year, Americans waste approximately $640 worth of food per household, according to American Chemistry Council research reported by USA Today. In 2012, the country threw away a staggering 35 million tons of food, The Washington Post's Wonkblog reports — and that doesn't even include the trash that was produced as a result. So when Refinery29's own Lucie Fink tried to produce zero trash for an entire week, that got me thinking: Could I even do one week's worth of grocery shopping waste-free?

I wasn't even talking about Seamless or other packaged food I would inevitably end up eating. I just wanted to see if I could make one single trip to the supermarket without ending up with more trash than actual food. And as it turns out, I had a lot to learn about waste-free grocery shopping.

An Average Week

On an average week I might end up at several grocery stores, but usually at some point over the weekend, I'll do one bulk shop. I usually stock up on produce, maybe buy a meal or two that I can make at some point, grab any snacks that I might want, and eggs and milk if I'm running low. Before attempting a waste-free shop, I thought about all the trash I typically produce during this weekly routine. Spoiler alert: It's a lot. Here's a breakdown of what I found when I starting paying attention on just one trip to the store:

1. Plastic Bags
If I forget to bring my reusable bags to the store (which happens more often than I'd care to admit) I usually end up with two plastic bags (doubled up), for a total of four. Then there's all the produce bags. I try to limit myself, but I usually try to bag fruits, veggies, and herbs that don't have a protective outer layer so that means I end up with at least three our four smaller plastic bags. Plus there's more plastic when you consider all the other things that come in bags, like grains, snacks, chocolate chips, etc.

2. Containers
Second realization: Pretty much everything that doesn't end up in a plastic bag comes in a plastic or glass or aluminum container. From lettuce to thyme, berries, canned tuna, soy sauce, and milk, seemingly everything leaves a footprint.

3. Stickers & Rubber Bands
There are stickers on EVERYTHING. There's at least one sticker on every single piece of produce, not to mention price tag stickers on just about everything else. Certain produce is held together with rubber bands or some other kind of paper or plastic holder.

4. Receipts
Yes, every time I go to the store I get a receipt (sometimes two if they're printing out coupons) and I immediately toss it upon returning home.

5. Actual Food Waste
Then there's the actual food that doesn't get eaten, like orange peels, carrot tops, or anything that is past its prime. I'm also totally guilty of waiting too long to eat leftovers, so they go in the garbage, too.

An Attempted Waste-Free Week

Photographed by Shirley Yu.
After taking a long, hard look at the disgusting amount of garbage I produce with just one measly trip to the store, I headed out in an attempt to change my ways. I wanted to try to buy everything completely waste-free, including things that I would usually recycle, which ended up being way harder than it sounds.

The first step was changing my grocery store. The closest market to my apartment is a Key Foods, but I also like to shop at Trader Joe's. However, neither offers bulk dry items, which I knew was the easiest place to start. Plus, both stores package a lot of their produce and proteins in plastic containers, plastic wrap, and even styrofoam, so that was an automatic no-go.

I started at Whole Foods, because they're in most major cities across the U.S. and it was the only place I could think of off the top of my head that offers bulk items. I set out armed with reusable tote bags and Mason jars for my bulk goods, and I quickly learned that I had no idea what I was doing.

First of all, most of the produce at Whole Foods still has stickers and rubber bands, in fact the amount of unavoidable waste I saw just making one lap was anxiety-inducing. In order to avoid stickers, I would have to go to the farmers' market, which meant spending more on produce than I'd generally like to and being forced to eat a largely local and seasonal diet, which while admirable, isn't necessarily the point of this exercise.

Meat was a whole other problem. Everything is prepackaged. And even if you try to order at the counter — and make a complete fool of yourself asking if you can put said meat or fish in a tupperware instead of in the paper they wrap it in — they still have to weigh the protein on a piece of paper on a scale. Plus, that inevitably prints out a price sticker that you have to use to purchase it. Even farmers' market stalls typically wrap their meats, fish, and cheese inside some kind of paper or plastic. So then my shopping trip suddenly turned vegetarian, another twist I was completely unprepared for.

The experience wasn't a total bust. I was able to buy bulk dry items like quinoa and lentils, which is cheaper in the long run. You can even buy bulk snacks package-free, like granola, trail mix, and nuts. And there's peanut butter, which you can grind yourself. Plus, after speaking to an employee, I found out that I could write down the code numbers of whatever I was purchasing and tell them to the cashier instead of getting stickers printed out — score!

After checking out (I hold up the line with all my bulk codes and learn that it's pretty impossible to avoid a receipt unless you just don't take it, but it still gets trashed), I head to the farmers' market. I drop way more money than I usually do on just produce and dairy, but I grab sticker-free fruits and veggies and I'm able to get milk in a glass bottle that I can exchange once it's empty, and an egg carton that I can also bring back. Plus, if I come back next week, I can bring any compost that I've accumulated, instead of throwing it away.

At the end of my shopping, I've spent more than I'd like, but I've got a similar haul to what I'd normally grab, including grains, dairy, and produce. I'm missing meat and any sauces, butter, oil, or spices I'd need to make certain recipes, but I don't buy those things on a weekly basis, anyway.

What I Learned & Moving Forward

Just one largely uneducated attempt at waste-free grocery shopping taught me a lot. First, this isn't a process that you can just snap your figures and adjust to immediately. It takes a lot of planning and dedication, two things that take time. Second, you have to have the means and the access to shop for a waste-free diet. I am lucky enough to be able to easily travel to stores where I can shop in bulk and farmers' markets where I can buy sticker-free, return cartons or containers, and compost. However, not everyone has the same kind of fresh food options or the extra cash. Third, this kind of shopping forces you to eat a certain diet. I ended up shopping like a vegetarian who prefers an organic and largely local lifestyle, which isn't necessarily me.

That said, there's definitely room for me to make smarter choices — to make my routine less wasteful without upending my whole lifestyle. Here are some simple fixes I'm going to work on moving forward:
1. I don't need to be using plastic bags, ever. Keeping a reusable bag in my purse is a simple fix, plus for bigger shops I can easily pack all of my produce into multiple bags without needing to use the produce baggies.

2. Recycling is my best friend. Since I can't avoid waste altogether I'll choose items that I know I can recycle. No more veggies prepackaged in styrofoam! I'll also double check the labels for snacks and other items to make sure the products I buy are blue-can friendly.

3. I can plan for a monthly bulk buy. It wasn't particularly convenient doing a weekly bulk goods shop, but I can find a bulk-selling health-food store — where I would have an easier time finding a larger variety of things — and stock up via Mason jar once a month on spices, grains, flour, and even olive oil. That way I can get into the habit of buying staples waste-free, which will save me money and help the planet in the long run.

4. Composting isn't as impossible in a city as it seems.
I don't hit the farmers' market every week, but if I know I'm going, I'm can definitely save some food scraps that I would otherwise throw away. (Here's a guide to composting from my local market.)

While it's tough to motivate yourself to reduce waste in a world that is centered around convenience (just look at these avocados), making some positive changes isn't as tough as I originally thought. Do you have more waste-free grocery shopping tips? Shout them out in the comments!
This month, we're asking you to toss out everything you thought you knew about spring cleaning and give every corner of your life a refresh. The inspiration for a happier, clutter-free you is right this way.

More from Food & Drinks