15 Tips for Reducing Food Packaging Waste

Let’s talk about reducing food packaging and food packaging waste. But first, let’s talk about stress and energy. I had a stressful week. One of my beautiful, lovely, (and I thought: safe) indoor cats had a fluke accident, needed surgery, experienced some complications from the surgery, and had to stay at the vet’s for several days of additional care. Hopefully I get to pick him up and take him home tomorrow.  This, needless to say, was stressful. And also costly. Looking at pet insurance is now on my to-do list. But the point is, I don’t know about you, but when I get stressed, my energy levels drop into my boots. Going to work and coming home seem about the most I can manage, and cooking meals, writing blog entries, tending to my community garden plot, and going biking all seem to take a lot more energy than they did before. So when I was thinking about these tips for reducing food packaging, I wanted them to be easy enough and manageable enough that they could be attempted even during a stressful week, even when energy is low, and even when there are so many other things vying for our attention.

At its heart, reducing food packaging waste is really about two things: good intentions and planning. Together, good intentions and planning help you forge new habits and awareness when it comes to food packaging. Before you know it, you’ll be wondering why it is that you haven’t had to empty your garbage or your recycling in weeks, because they are just so darn empty. And you’ll feel a hop in your step, because your impact on the planet is lighter and you know yourself to be a conscious consumer.

15 Tips for Reducing Food Packaging and Food Packaging Waste

  1. Get inspired and get educated. Read about people who have taken it to the next level and ignite your own passion for kicking excess packaging to the curb. I like My Plastic-Free Life as an example.
  2. Bring your own grocery bags. Leave reusable bags in your car, or get a tiny one that folds up and keep it in your purse. You’ll almost always need a bag at the grocery store, so why not reduce the packaging you need to carry your other packaging home?
  3. Bring your own produce bags or skip them altogether. You know those people who pull plastic bags off the rollers at the grocery store like they’re pulling toilet paper off the roll and/or starting a lawnmower? Don’t be one of those people. Either bring a few small bags along, skip the bags altogether (you’re going to peel and/or wash the food first, right? and I’m assuming there isn’t any contaminating meat in your cart) or purchase a set of washable, reusable mesh produce bags. I have four such bags and they are worth their weight in gold. There is a whole world of reusable bags out there. Check out all these fun options.
  4. Shop at the bulk store and bring your own bulk bags. This one can be tricky, because buying six chocolate almonds and putting them in a fresh bag each week might not be the best way to reduce food packaging. My secret? Keep the bags! When I get home, I pour the grains/flours/chocolate chips I’ve purchased into jars, and then I fold up the bags and store them in the pantry. Next time you might be going to the bulk store, just toss ’em in your reusable shopping bag, and use them for your next purchase. Now, some bulk stores have more stringent rules around health and safety, so just be prepared that if you accidentally scoop four pounds of the wrong kind of cashew into your bag from home, there are no put backs. You scoop it, you bought it.
  5. Shop at your local farmers’ market and bring your own bags. You know we couldn’t get through this list without a good farmers’ market reference. Mushrooms, dried tomatoes, olives, fresh fruit and vegetables, hummus, sauces, bulk foods, the list goes on and on. Most markets have an indoor and/or an outdoor part, and between the two, they cover most things you might need, and, frequently, without any packaging. Plus, farmers’ markets will often let you use your own bags, and the money goes directly to the farmer or farm stand, without supporting (I’m going to get a little political on you here) the pseudo-corporate advertising and processed food playground that is often the large chain supermarket.
  6. Shop at your local co-op or independent grocery store (and yes, bring your own bags). Again, same reasons apply. Most foods come from closer by, you can use your own bags, you can form a relationship with the store and its employees, and you will generally have more options for local, organic, unpackaged foods.
  7. Develop a collection of bags for different purposes and keep them organized. You might notice a bit of a ‘bring your own bags’ refrain here. I think of my pantry bag selection as just being part of my overall storage collection. I have glass storage containers, mason jars, shopping bags, produce bags, bulk item bags, paper bags, etc. Then, when I review my grocery list, I just decide what bags I might need, pop them into the reusable bag, and off I go.
  8. Don’t buy packaged produce. This one is pretty straightforward. Avoid buying foods that come packaged in styrofoam containers, or wrapped in foil, or in a non-recyclable bag, especially if there are unpackaged versions sitting right beside hoping to get your attention.
  9. Bring your own travel mug. I admit, I wouldn’t initially have thought of this because I so infrequently purchase drinks. I don’t say that to be ‘rah rah Emily’ – I’m just being honest (I have other vices, don’t worry). However, if you are an avid coffee or beverage purchaser, you can make a significant dent in your personal waste footprint by bringing your own mug.
  10. Bring your own doggie bag container. This one involves a certain amount of pre-planning, it’s true. But if you can pull it off, hats off to you. If you know are you are going out for dinner, bring along an extra glass tupperware container. I almost never manage to eat my entire meal, and that means even your restaurant meal ends up with food packaging waste in the form of styrofoam containers. Put the second half of your black bean burrito in your own container, and the magic happens. A second meal with no packaging waste.
  11. Avoid purchasing individually packaged items. Throwing out a little package every time you want a snack isn’t really a great way to go, and plus, those stupid 100 calorie treat things are never satisfying anyways.
  12. Make it yourself. Homemade foods are fresher, healthier, and (almost always) better tasting. Making your own muffins, cookies, breads, pizza crusts, almond milk, hummus, spice blends, and so on really reduces packaging, especially if the ingredients were bought at the bulk store in bags you brought from home.
  13. Buy it in season and freeze/preserve/dry/sauce it. I canned for the first time last year – not nearly as scary as I thought, and not a single incident of botulism. Buy a few extra containers of tomatoes or strawberries or rhubarb each time you shop at the market and freeze it. That might save a few plastic bags down the line in January when you want some strawberries and the only ones for sale are from New Zealand or come frozen in a non-recyclable plastic bag.
  14. Try glass straws. This one seems kind of random, maybe, but if you are a serial smoothie drinker, you know what I’m talking about. Glass straws are washable, reusable, and especially handy if you want something to protect your teeth while drinking your morning lemon and water.  I have this straw from Upaya Naturals and I love it. It’s strawsome (I did not come up with that).
  15. If you have to purchase something in a package, look for something recyclable, like glass, BPA-free cans, or recyclable plastic, or something you know you can use again. For cereals, try to buy the kind that just come in a recyclable bag, not a non-recyclable bag inside a box. Buy soups in mason jars and keep the jars for storage. Wash out bulk bags and use them again. Keep twist ties and rubber bands. You get the idea.

If you have any other tips, please share them below!

And remember, this isn’t about perfection. It isn’t about never buying another container of manufactured almond milk. Remember the stressful week above? I definitely caved and bought some almond milk in a package. I made homemade, too, but it didn’t last the week and I didn’t feel up to making more. The point is to make some strides, however small, towards making your grocery trip an empowered experience: heavy on the delicious healthy foods and light on the packaging and planet. Try one tip for the next month. Or try two. Or lovingly kiss your almond milk tetrapack goodbye and vow to never purchase packaged almond milk again. Choose your level. It’s a cliche, but it’s true: every little bit helps.

Chocolate Chip & Raisin Almond Pulp CookiesAnd now, I’m off to make some more chocolate chip almond pulp cookies. Waste reducing and food upcycling at its finest. Until next time!

© Eat Well, Live Vibrantly


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