How hard could it be to shop the zero-waste way?

Very hard. But you probably already knew that.

I’m not living a zero waste lifestyle but it’s my goal to get close without burning out, alienating my friends, or driving myself insane. A recent evaluation of my grocery shopping waste shows where I’m at in the journey.

I had Saturday free, which is rare for me, so I took the opportunity to head down to the zero waste grocery store, Precycle, in Brooklyn to pick up some staples. Since Saturdays are Greenmarket days, and since I have to go through Union Square to get back home, and because Whole Foods is right there, I decided to combine my shopping trips. All three of these destinations offer opportunities for zero waste shopping. But did I seize my chances?

Well, as you can see from the picture, the answer is a little gray.

zero waste grocery shopping evaluation

Here’s what I bought.

From Precycle:

  • 750 ml canola oil
  • 750 ml olive oil
  • 3/4 bottle of dish detergent
  • small jar of cinnamon
  • half jar of sea salt

From Whole Foods:

  • 14 ounces of peanut butter

From Greenmarket:

  • 1 small apple
  • 1/3 lb loose cranberries
  • 1 loaf gluten-free bread
  • 2 lb chicken breast, free range

Waste avoided:

  • Plastic bottle and bits, label, and price tag, on canola oil packaging
  • Plastic pourer, label, price tag, and cellophane safety seal on olive oil packaging
  • Plastic bottle, label, squeeze top, price tag, and safety seal on dish detergent packaging
  • Plastic sprinkle top, label, price tag, and cellophane safety seal on cinnamon packaging
  • Metal pour-top, price tag on sea salt packaging
  • Label, price tag, cellophane safety seal on peanut butter jar
  • Produce sticker on apple
  • Plastic bag and price tag on cranberries
  • Plastic or paper shopping bags
  • Water, metals, lumber, petroleum, inks, run-off, electricity needed to create the packaging that I would have consumed by buying conventional products

Waste generated:

  • 4 short pieces of masking tape, Precycle
  • 1 long piece of masking tape, Whole Foods
  • plastic bread bag and bread tag, Our Daily Bread, Greenmarket
  • plastic bags, twist tie, label, and chicken fat, Quattro’s Farm, Greenmarket

So, what’s the story behind the waste?

The four pieces of masking tape from Precycle were given to me by the shop owner who wished to mark the tare weight of my jars. Now that I know the tare weight of my jars, I can mark this number on my jars with permanent marker or paint. In other words, I will not need to recreate this waste next time I shop at Precycle.

The long piece of masking tape from Whole Foods was given to me by the cashier when he strapped it across the top of my bring-your-own peanut butter jar. Cashiers are trained to put masking tape across the plastic bulk containers and salad and hot bar containers, and since old habits die hard, the cashier probably went on auto-pilot when he went for the tape. In my experience it is really hard to prevent Whole Foods employees from putting tape on your purchases, but I can probably avoid this in the future by putting my hand over the tops of my jars or placing them in my reusable bag as soon as they ring up my item.

Bread bag and tag. I really wanted bread today. But I’m allergic to wheat so I couldn’t buy the bread at Precycle, and I couldn’t get any package-free gluten-free bread flour or all-purpose flour at Precycle, Whole Foods, or Greenmarket so that I could make my own bread at home. And, while there are many great bakeries in New York, I don’t know of a single gluten-free bakery in Manhattan that sells bread, let alone package-free bread. So, I picked up a loaf of bread from the Greenmarket stall of Our Daily Bread, out of Chatham, New York. I need to look into whether or not I can recycle the plastic I generated from this purchase. (Edit: I found a New York bakery where I can buy gluten-free bread without the bag.)

Bags, twist tie, label, chicken fat. A real climate champion has probably already gone vegan, but I haven’t. I still eat pasture-raised eggs, some types of poultry, and some types of fish. While I’ve more or less found a way to eat eggs and fish without creating additional packaging, I haven’t found an ideal solution for shopping for chicken. As long as I’m eating chicken, I want to make sure that I’m eating chicken that’s been raised as far outside the industrial farming system as possible. Buying chicken from my preferred Greenmarket vendors allows me to do this. However, I also want to buy chicken that doesn’t come with additional packaging, and I can’t do this at the Greenmarket. Now on the flip side, I can buy package-free chicken from my local butcher shop but I don’t have control over my butcher’s vendors and I kind of have to take his word that the chicken is raised as far outside the industrial farming system as I’d like it to be. Industrial farming creates a lot of waste. Plastic bags create a lot of waste. I have to weigh these factors when making my decision and today I decided to buy what seemed like the least industrial option on the table.

Anyway, that’s my haul from the latest shopping trip. It’s nice to be able look at my choices and reflect on the amount of waste I avoided and the amount of waste I still managed to generate on this shopping trip. Taking the time to evaluate helps me meditate on what it’s going to take to reduce my waste: vigilance; sacrifice in the form of giving up certain foods. It also illuminates for me that it’s really hard to live an ethical life and that part of the work is to help shift the culture so that it’s easier to make choices that are better for humans, the planet, and all its creatures.

Read about what I thought of my first visit to Precycle, here.

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