Zero waste shopping: How to keep your plastic-usage low, even without access to a bulk store. Simple and small changes matter

One of the biggest challenges you will ever face on your zero waste journey is shopping. Unfortunately, the world has not yet caught on to this “trend” and most stores still package EVERYTHING in layers and layers of plastic. Or, if you are lucky enough to find a bulk store the chances are very good that they will stock some, if not almost all, of the usual basics but the moment you are in need of something more specific or “special”, back to square one – plastic.

I live in South Africa, in one of the biggest cities in the most populated province – Pretoria, Gauteng. In spite of the municipality issuing an official warning back in 2018 that we are running out of space for waste, and the zero waste movement gaining momentum, we still have no access to a purely bulk store. They have been popping up over the rest of the country, with a few in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, and even Balito. Johannesburg has its first one, it opened its doors late last year. Pretoria – nada. So what is a girl to do if you have to eat, so you have to buy groceries, and you really really want to do it without plastic?

Why is plastic bad?

Before we look into my easy tips, let us first discuss why plastic is a problem. You have probably heard the statement that “Every piece of plastic ever made still exists somewhere.” That is an extremely scary thought. Think about it – everything in life (except plastic it seems) has an expiry date. You can try to prolong life as long as possible, but we all die. Animals die. Leather erodes. Trees rot. Plastic? Nope. It simply photodegrades, meaning that it doesn’t disappear it simply breaks into tiny, minute pieces that then disperse into the environment. Those little particles then release toxic chemicals into the environment in which it finds itself, be it water, soil, air, intestines of animals. Plastic doesn’t judge, it wreaks havoc regardless. How ironic is it then that we choose the immortal material plastic to make our single-use items…

These toxins and other chemicals that leach out of the microparticles are not only harmful to your health, but they are also killing our sea life, land animals, birds, and insects. They are destroying our reefs and turning the ocean into a soup of plastic. The manufacturing of plastic and its products are also using up finite resources. Again, using finite resources to make throw-away things.

Steering clear of plastic is only a small step, but every great journey starts with a single step right? Right. When we refuse plastic or at least try to minimise the use, we stop fuelling demand. We start to use alternatives, and eventually, we can be part of the solution. There is a place for plastic, I will never disagree with that. But that is for things that are meant to keep, not for items that you use once and throw away. Don’t even try to justify your lifestyle by hiding behind recycling – research has proven time and time again that people do not recycle properly, and even if they do, a large percentage of items marked for recycling ends up on the landfill in any way (recycling fraud is real, and a major issue). Plus, the energy needed to recycle common materials such as glass and plastic is much more than what you would expect, making it essentially inefficient.

Zero waste journey

The above should serve to illustrate why it is important to pay attention to your waste and do everything within your power to minimise your waste. Which brings us back to zero waste shopping. You gotta eat, so you gotta shop for at least some of your food products.

Bulk food stores

The saviour of many an anxious shopper, but sadly not available to all of us. In a bulk food store, many if not all of their stock is contained in large containers from where you scoop out as much as you want, preferably into a reusable container or bag. This is then weighed and you pay the price per weight. Once you get home you can either store the produce in the containers that you bought it in or decant into another container. In a bulk store you will also be able to buy fresh produce, dairy products, eggs, etc. either loose or in cardboard or glass. Easy.

But what do you do if you do not have access to a bulk food store?

How can you minimise your shopping waste if you do not have access to a bulk food store? Not so easy, but do-able. As with most things in life, it just takes a bit of planning, lots of trial and error, and of course a few compromises.

My top tips for shopping zero waste, without a bulk store (but also applicable to bulk shopping)

1. Be prepared

Have a list of things that you need to buy. This is a helpful tip if you also need to stay within an allocated budget. Other than saving you money, it will also give you an idea of how many jars, bags and other containers you will need for the shopping trip. Do a bit of research to know which of your general grocery or convenience stores have a small bulk section. Usually, you can get nuts, seeds and some confectionary in bulk in even the smallest grocery store, and as you should know by now – even small changes matter.

2. Get the right equipment

Keep jars, bottles and other containers to use on your grocery haul. Have a few large containers for use at the butchery. Get a few cloth and net produce bags for buying loose fruits and vegetables. Keep your olive oil bottles so that you can refill them (for shops in South Africa and Gauteng that refill, see the end of the post).

3. Never take a plastic carrier bag!

If you forgot to bring your own reusable carrier bags, then load your shopping directly into your trolley and then into the car. It feels stranger than what it looks and is becoming more normal with each passing day. I have a few old grocery baskets that I got from a local store that I keep in the car. So even if I forget to take them out to go shopping I can at least load my bought goods into them when I reach the car, making unpacking a lot easier when I get home.

4. Support the farmers and local producers at your local farmers’ market

Most, if not all, areas in South Africa has some sort of farmers’ market that happens monthly, if not weekly. There you will find the best that local has to offer, from preserves to homemade butter, organic and free-range chickens and meat, eggs, loose fruit and veg, freshly baked bread. All mostly sold without packaging, or at least with minimal packaging. Take your own bags and basket and shop to heart's content knowing that you are cutting down on your plastic usage while supporting the local economy.

5. Buy loose

Where possible, choose to buy loose fruit and veg. This has a few added benefits other than cutting down on your plastic – you waste less because you can buy in the exact quantities that you need, you can choose which ones you want (ugly fruit tastes the same as the display-window ones!), and you don’t inadvertently buy fruit or vegetables that are rotten. You know, the ones that are normally hidden at the bottom of the punnet or box. Again helping you to cut back on waste.

6. Buy in cardboard, then compost afterwards

If you don’t have a bulk section, or if the product that you want is not available in bulk, then try to get it in cardboard. Usually, if you buy a bigger size it will be in cardboard BUT remember that not all cardboard is created equally. Steer clear of cardboard that has a gloss on it, that is lined with plastic, or even worse – where the product is still packaged in a plastic bag, inside the cardboard box.

7. Buy in glass, then reuse

Again, if you cannot find it in bulk, then opt for glass. There is, usually, a price discrepancy between products in plastic versus glass, but you will have to make peace with that. Some products should in actual fact never be stored in plastic, so choosing glass is also better for your health. Olive, or any other oil, apple cider vinegar, milk, etc. are all better in glass.

8. Buy in tins, then either use for DIY or recycle

Although tins are not always recyclable (they are sometimes lined with plastic to keep them from reacting to their contents) they are still more readily recycled than plastic wrap or another plastic packaging. Plus, you can reuse cans for various DIY projects.

9. Buy the biggest container possible

If it is something that won’t spoil, then buy as big as you can afford. You can then decant or divide at home. If it is something that can spoil, consider clubbing in with friends or family to cash in on money and plastic savings.

10. Make from scratch

Many of the food items that we buy often can be made from scratch. If you make it in your own kitchen, you eliminate the need for packaging, except for the packaging that the raw ingredients came in. But, if you make a large batch then you use raw ingredients in bigger quantities, meaning less packaging in the long run.

11. Shop from the specialists

Buy your bread from your local bakery, or from the bakery section of your supermarket. Same with your cheese and cold meats – go to the cheese counter. Take your own container (or cloth bag/pillowcase for the bread) and ask them to place your purchase in them. Buy from your local butcher, not only will you be able to save on plastic but you can ask the butcher to cut your meat to your exact specifications. And again, you only need to buy as much as you need.

12. Speak up

If you see something that is unnecessary, like individual fruits or vegetables that are wrapped in plastic, or food wrapped in a double layer of plastic, etc. then raise your concerns to the store. Take your concern to social media, just always remember to stay polite and respectful. We are allowed to ask questions and differ in opinion as long as we approach it respectfully. If more people raise their voices, the coming changes will happen faster.

13. Be ready to let go

If you cannot find what you are looking for in as little packaging as you would accept, and you cannot make it yourself, or you cannot find a suitable substitute, then be prepared to let it go. Make peace with the fact that you might not be able to take your favourite foods on this journey. Remember it is a journey, and you do not have to be perfect, so don’t punish yourself. Just remain responsible and accountable.

14. By from the day-old shelf, or the reject shelf

Whether it’s in plastic, paper, or both, buying day old and almost expired food is a great way to take part in the responsible use of resources. What does that mean? Stores have to throw away things that have expired or are past their date, even if those foods are perfectly safe to eat. Before you pick up a loaf of bread from the bakery section of your supermarket, check out the day-old section. Your supermarket may also have an odd shelf tucked away with discounted food as well. While baked goods may actually be at risk of spoiling within a few days, it’s less likely to occur if they’re stored in the fridge. Many of these sale foods as well are dry goods like tins of soup or dry mixes—chances are that these foods will keep in your cupboards just fine.

By making small changes, we are part of the solution and not the problem. Please add to the list if there is any other tips or advice that you can think of. If you want to buy more in bulk, or refill, then see my list of places in Pretoria that has semi-bulk or refill options. If you know of another store or supermarket, please add to the list!

Semi-bulk stores in Pretoria, or other stores that can help you minimise:

1. Food Lovers market has started to roll out bigger bulk sections. They have also gone back to the days where most of their produce was available loose. In some stores, you can still buy milk in your own container, and most of the stores have a bulk olive oil dispenser. Take your own bottle to refill.

2. Oasis water – found in most shopping centres, if you baulk at drinking tap water and don’t want to get a filter, you can take your containers to them for refills.

3. Rain beauty stores offer natural castile soap that you can refill. Bring your own container or buy one from them. Most of their products also come in glass or cardboard.

4. Lush stores. Most of their newly rolled out products are waste free, and you can also refill in some of their stores. If you do buy a product in their signature black plastic containers, or with their black dispensing lids, you can take them back for recycling. They offer a free fresh face mask for every 5 containers that you return (if I remember correctly).

5. Some Pick and Pay and Checkers stores have started to expand their bulk sections, and especially Checkers have started to move away from the plastic fruit and veg holders and are now using cardboard. Unfortunately, they still wrap in plastic and their loose fruit and veg section is usually small and unimpressive.

6. We have a few local veggie box schemes that you can look into. We used to make use of Pretoria Food Co-op, but their quality went down the last few months so we stopped. Find out from your local farmers’ market if anyone there offers this option.

In the other cities:

KwaZulu Natal

• The Refill Den, Suite 102, 68 Adelaide Tambo Drive, Durban

• House of Bravo, Shop 1, 295 Florida Road, Durban

• Azikho, Unit 15 Gregory Park, Garlicke Drive, Ballito

• Good Source SA, 42 Old Main Road, Hillcrest

Cape Town

• Low Impact Living, 12-24 Glen Road, Glencairn

• Nude Foods, 5 Constitution Street, Zonnebloem, Cape Town

• Nude Foods, Shop 22, Montebello Design Centre, 31 Newlands Ave, Newlands

• Shop Zero SA, 403 Albert Road, Woodstock

• The Unpacked Pantry, 4 Sol Cohen Drive, Heathfield

• Zero Waste Store, Earth Fair Market, Tokai (every 2nd Saturday)

• Zero Waste Store, Daily Goods Store, 29 Palmer Rd, Muizenberg

• Roots, currently crowdfunding for a shop in Northern Suburbs, Cape Town

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• The Refillery, Cedar Square, Fourways.

• Replenish Zero Waste Store, (various markets)

Port Elizabeth

• Waste-Not Groceries, 21 Bain Street, Richmond Hill, PE