Zero Waste Tip #10: Mindfulness of Food Packaging

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10. Begin to notice packaging options and let that influence your purchases.

Food is definitely the most challenging aspect of trying to go zero waste, at least for me. It seems that nearly everything comes wrapped in plastic these days, and there are just certain ingredients that I need no matter what. I’m not to the point yet where I’ll ditch the cheese just because it comes in a plastic bag.

However, I’m learning that if I take the time to look around, often there are lower waste options for many of the products I was going to buy anyways. I just have to look for them… and guess what? Every single time I shop, it gets a little easier!

Below are the top 4 shopping tips I’ve picked up along my journey to reduce our household waste!

1. Try to steer away from the center aisles of the grocery store. Why? Nearly 100% of foods sold on the center aisles are packaged and often highly processed. Most of the healthier, fresher food options are located around the outside walls of the store: fruits and vegetables, less-processed meats, dairy. Now, I realize this isn’t practical for every single ingredient, BUT many items can be swapped out easily with a little forethought.

Take a can of Rotel for an example. One can of Rotel at Walmart is listed here for $0.98. Now is where it’s important to read the ingredient labels on your foods! The front of the can states “Diced Tomatoes & Green Chilies.” Yet if you turn the can around, the actual ingredients are: “Tomatoes, Water, Chopped Green Chili Peppers, Less than 2% of: Salt, Calcium Chloride, Natural Flavor, Citric Acid, Cilantro.”

This makes for an easy swap! Just pick up 2 extra Roma Tomatoes and 1 green chili pepper from the produce department, and dice them yourself with a dash of salt. Voila! You’ve made fresh Rotel – without the aluminum can, without the added calcium chloride and citric acid preservatives, and without the natural flavor (who even knows what that means?!!!). For roughly the same price, you’ve gone zero waste AND have arguably a healthier product in your meal. Win, win!
Note: many swaps would be much easier if you have a veggie chopper, like this one from Amazon, which is currently on my wish list! 🙂

2. Not all packaging is created equal. If there are no package-free options, first check to see if you can find what you need in glass, and then cardboard or aluminum, before resorting to plastic packaging. According to this article from the Glass Packaging Institute, “Glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity.” It also doesn’t leach into your food over time, as do some plastics.

Cardboard is biodegradable and, when recycled, can save both trees and energy. It could also be composted, avoiding the waste bin altogether. And when a single aluminum can is recycled, One Earth Company states here that it “saves enough energy to power a TV for three hours.”

3. Do not buy fruits and veggies wrapped in plastic. All these items are regularly sold wrapped in plastic, but can EASILY be swapped for the exact same product without packaging: tomatoes, avocados, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, kale, lettuce, garlic, apples, bananas, kiwis, cilantro, parsley, carrots… (essentially all your produce)! If you need frozen produce, simply buy it unpackaged and freeze it yourself. Berries are an exception. I rarely find berries without the plastic containers, unless I’m shopping at my local farmers market; however, they’re also 100x better from the farmers market, so it’s worth it when you can!

4. Drink more water! The United States has some of the cleanest drinking water in the entire world, yet many Americans prefer to drink anything but H2O. Sodas, carbonated flavored water, juice boxes, drink mixes, energy drinks — all are unnecessary purchases that aren’t beneficial to your body and comprise a big percentage of what enters the landfill. Note: for some tips on reusable water bottles, check out my Zero Waste Tip #7!

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