It seems like no matter how much I try not to, I always manage to leave the grocery store with a cart full of plastic in all its various shapes and sizes. It’s no secret that single-use plastic can have devastating effects on the environment. It is just what its name suggests: plastic that’s designed for one use, so you can’t simply repurpose it the way you can with some other types of plastic, Roland Geyer, industrial ecology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental, tells SELF. And unfortunately, he says, it’s mostly used in the context of packaging—especially at grocery stores.
Even if you’re diligent about recycling, Geyer says there’s a good chance the plastic you use will never actually get recycled. That’s because the recycling systems that we currently have in place are insufficient to account for the high amounts of plastic being used worldwide, he explains. In a perfect world, he says, everything we put in the blue bin would be hauled to a material recovery facility or MRF, where it would be sorted, cleaned, compacted into bales, and sent off to recycling facilities where it would be broken down to be reused. But he says it doesn’t always work out like this for a number of reasons.
For one, Geyer says that the U.S. used to send about 60 percent of its plastic to recycling facilities in China and has had nowhere to send it since China instated its ban on plastic last year. Plus, there aren’t systems in place to recycle all the different kinds of plastic, Geyer adds. There are seven different types of plastic, and they can all technically be recycled, but in most of the facilities in the U.S. and around the world, only the first two types of plastic get processed—PET, which is typically used in soda bottles, and HDPE, a slightly milky plastic that is used for cleaning products and milk jugs. All of the different types of plastic need to be recycled separately, because they’re all made from different chemicals and won’t create a useable product when combined, he explains. And for now, most recycling facilities don’t have the capabilities to successfully sort and process each different kind. (Even if they could, it’s also not always easy to tell what type of plastic a product is made from, because there aren’t always clear labels indicating that.)
Basically, as disheartening as it sounds, no matter how diligent you are about recycling, there’s still an uncomfortably high chance it will end up in the ocean. If we really want to clean up the plastic in the world, Geyer says we need to shift our focus from recycling to reducing and reusing instead.
Thankfully, change on a higher level, like plastic straw and plastic bag bans, has gotten more and more people talking about both reducing and reusing. I’ve been painfully aware of how easy it is to end up with plastic even when you’re trying not to, especially since I collected all the garbage I made in a week for a story I wrote a few years ago. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and I’ve tried to change my habits for the better ever since, but the more I see people talking about reducing plastic consumption the more I know that I need to increase my efforts. Specifically, I want to know how I can stop winding up with a bunch of plastic packaging after a trip to the supermarket.
According to bloggers who specialize in living sustainably, avoiding plastic at the grocery store isn’t as simple as just bringing a reusable tote—though that definitely helps. To make even more sustainable changes, you may need to adjust your mindset, too. That might mean forgoing an ingredient that was on your shopping list because it’s only available wrapped in a bunch of plastic. It could also mean bringing your own jars to fill up in the bulk section, which requires a bit of forethought.
Here, sustainable living experts explain the strategies they use to cut down on single-use plastic when they go grocery shopping and some of the tools that help them along the way.
1. Switch to reusable totes. Right now.
If you aren’t already grocery shopping with reusable bags, it’s officially time to make the change. “We use a plastic bag for an average of 12 minutes, but they take hundreds of years to break down in the landfill and only 1 percent are returned to the store for recycling,” Erin Augustine, corporate sustainability expert and founder of @carbonfreefamily on Instagram, tells SELF. Some cities have even banned plastic bags, or started mandating that retailers charge for them in an effort to encourage shoppers to bring their own eco-friendly alternatives.
“Reusable tote bags are absolutely key,” Dominique Drakeford, creator of Melanin and Sustainable Style, tells SELF. They aren’t hard to find (your local supermarket definitely has some options), they last forever, and they’re affordable.
As for which totes you should use, literally anything you have will get the job done—and it’s always better if you can repurpose items you already own. “You don’t need to buy fancy new shopping bags,” Augustine says. “I encourage people to use what they have.” Drakeford adds that she’s never actually purchased a reusable tote and just uses bags she has collected over the years. Many of them, she says, she received for free from an event.
If you’re not sure when you’re going to be grocery shopping, make it a habit of keeping a few totes in the trunk of your car (or one folded up in your purse) so you’re always prepared.
2. Use mesh bags for produce.
If you’re used to putting loose fruits and veggies in their own plastic bags to keep them from spilling in your cart as you shop, upgrade to a reusable version. Drakeford says that mesh bags are perfect for the job. You can buy her favorite one here.
3. Skip produce wrapped in plastic.
Whenever Augustine goes to a traditional supermarket, she checks out the produce section first to scope out the plastic-free options. “I look for ‘naked’ fruits and vegetables, those displayed in piles without any packaging,” she explains. “Produce displayed in this way allows me to choose the right quantity for my family, minimizing food waste and packaging waste at the same time.” It’s a win-win.
4. Choose products in glass or paper containers.
“When buying packaged products, my first preference is glass or paper since it can be easily reused,” Micaela Preston, creator of Mindful Momma, tells SELF. She says that a lot of pantry staples—like pasta sauce, peanut butter, salsa, and cooking oils—often come packaged in either glass or plastic, so it’s easy to make the change. “Take a look at the options and try to switch over to the glass packages,” she says, “even if it means switching brands.” Of course, it’s important to note that glass does not come burden-free, Geyer explains. He says that because the glass recycling rate in the U.S. is only around 30 percent, and because recycling glass comes with its own set of problems, it’s better to reuse what you have whenever you can. If that’s not an option, glass is still a better choice than plastic.
5. Bring your own jars for bulk foods.
Preston loves buying food from the bulk section at stores like Whole Foods for a few reasons. “I can bring my own container and avoid packaging waste, I can buy just the amount I need and no more (which reduces food waste), and if often costs less,” she explains.
When she plans on shopping from the bulk bins, she brings glass jars like Mason jars or old reused pasta sauce jars from home. Just be sure to calculate the tare weight on the jar or bag so that you’re only charged for the weight of the food. If you’re not sure how to do that, ask an employee at the store to help you do it on the bulk scale. Or, consider investing in these totes, which Augustine loves because they have the tare weight printed on them.
6. Shop at a farmers market when possible.
Augustine says that it’s way easier to avoid plastic packaging when you’re at the farmers market versus a grocery store, simply because there just usually isn’t as much there. “Most of the farmers bring their fruits and vegetables to the market without any packaging,” she explains. Just remember to bring along your reusable bags to carry your goodies home.
7. Be willing to skip a product if the only option is wrapped in plastic.
In some cases, it can be hard to find an ingredient you’re looking for that’s not packaged in plastic, Preston explains. She says that though there is usually an alternative way to buy a product, sometimes the only options are wrapped in plastic. For example, if she can only find cherry tomatoes packaged in a plastic clamshell container (you know the ones), she will skip it entirely.
But Preston says it’s also important to give yourself a break. “Don’t beat yourself up for buying food packaged in plastic occasionally,” she explains. “It’s about progress, not perfection.” Just making one or two small changes at first is a great place to start.
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