Here’s Everything a Plastic-Free Expert Brings to the Grocery Store
Staying mindful about how much plastic you bring into your home — and even taking the plunge and going entirely plastic-free if you can! — is just one way to protect the environment, but your environmental impact doesn’t have to end in your bathroom or kitchen. How you consume (or don’t consume!) plastic when you’re out in the world is equally important.
One way Marissa Jablonski, a plastic-free expert and executive director at the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin, makes her sustainability efforts count? By bringing her own DIY shopping kit to the grocery store, a place that’s rife with single-use plastics. Here’s everything she packs in her grocery kit to reduce plastic consumption (and, just as importantly, how she uses all of it).
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One of the easiest ways to unwittingly harm the planet is grabbing single-use plastic produce bags for your head of lettuce or fresh herbs. While many stores now supply supposedly biodegradable “green” bags, Jablonski says that specific type of plastic contains an ingredient known as PLA, or poly-lactic acid, that doesn’t easily compost because it requires super-high heat to do so. “We as a society don’t have a way of fully composting those bags on a regular basis, so they’ll end up at a landfill anyway,” she says.
That said, what type of bag you use to replace the single-use option matters. Because polyester involves drilling for oil, Jablonski typically opts for reusable cloth bags, even though cotton technically isn’t ultra-sustainable because of the amount of water needed to grow it. Even better, she says, is if you can grab a 100 percent recycled plastic bag to use expressly for this purpose time and time again. “Debatably, someone could argue that’s more sustainable than cotton, but to me it’s the same thing, because you’re also using resources to recycle the plastic,” she says.
If she’s grabbing bulk oats or rice, she uses the same type of bag, although she notes many stores still don’t allow customers to bring their own containers due to the pandemic.
Planning to grab chicken salad or cold cuts from the deli counter? When you can, avoid using the store’s single-use plastic containers, which, like the bags, require oil-drilling to produce and end up in landfills. Instead, Jablonski brings her own food storage containers.
You’d think it’s best to use glass containers, but she actually uses recycled, reusable plastic containers (like Tupperware) that she inherited from other people — part of living a plastic-free lifestyle is less about never using plastic, and more about making sure to throw away as little of it as possible. “I personally don’t want to throw that plastic away, but you could also use glass or stainless steel containers,” she says.
That said, be ready for rejection from the deli counter, who might not be up for filling, let alone handling, your potentially dirty container. If the counter attendant will allow it, ask them to weigh it before adding the food. Jablonski doesn’t mind adhesive labels on her container — she just soaks the container in soapy water to remove the excess. “But if you have a problem with that, you could stick the label on your piece of paper or your hand and then give it to the checkout person,” she says.
Salad bar containers
Those paper salad containers at Whole Foods might seem like an eco-friendly alternative, but that doesn’t mean they’re compostable or recyclable; according to Jablonski, most are lined with plastic to prevent leaks. That’s why she usually brings her own containers — the same type she’d bring to the deli counter — when she’s planning on grabbing lunch to-go.
Again, keep in mind the store might have rules against using your own Pyrex due to hygiene precautions. Call ahead before you haul your own containers with you; your local store might be willing to make an exception for you, or troubleshoot an alternative you’re both happy with.
Reusable shopping bags
There’s no great option for single-use grocery bags. Plastic sits in landfills, and paper uses so many natural resources to produce (plus, many people don’t actually recycle it). For that reason, Jablonski never uses either one.
The best option is to bring reusable bags you already have. (If you absolutely need a new set, look for ones that you can wash time and time again rather than replacing them. Alternatively, ask a friend if you can take some of their infinite tote bags off their hands.) “I just shove mine inside of each other, then put them in the back of my car or keep them on a hook on my way out of the house,” Jablonski says. In the event she forgets her bags, she loads up her groceries in her trunk directly from the cart, then brings them into the house using her bags. But in no circumstances does she ever take plastic bags from the grocery store.
If you’re trying to reduce plastic use at the store, keep an eye on the bagger at checkout; many times, they’ll put meat or produce in a separate plastic bag as a courtesy. “If that happens, I usually thank the person and tell them the single-use plastic will live forever on earth, but I’ll only use it for ten minutes,” she says. “People in the service industry just want you to feel comfortable, so the key is reminding them that eco-choices are what make me feel good.”