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Zero Waste 101: Grocery Shopping

For a minute, forget the metal straws, the beeswax wraps and the canvas tote bags. Have you noticed which business produces nearly 1 million tonnes of plastic waste every year? Walk down any aisle in your local grocery store – produce, pasta or paper towels – and you’ll find one thing they all have in common: plastic packaging. 

It can be difficult and even frustrating to try shopping plastic-free. Not only is it hard on you, the consumers, but it’s hard on the municipalities who have to collect, sort, and recycle your plastic. In the Canadian recycling market, certain plastics hold different values and municipalities can only recycle what’s profitable. The rest goes to landfill. That’s one of the many reasons why the Ontario government has been working on a special model similar to British Columbia’s  that mandates waste producers shoulder the full recycling costs taxpayers and municipalities traditionally pay. Right now, they only pay up to 50 per cent of the cost.

Back in June 2019, then Ontario environment minister Rod Phillips appointed David Lindsay to write a special report on the state of recycling in the province. The report was full of recommendations to fix our recycling crisis. This included the wind-up of the current blue box program to the IPR (individual producer responsibility) model.  The hope is that a reinvented system will boost the province’s diversion rate, which has been stalled at around 60 per cent for the last ten years, and keeps waste out of our overflowing landfills.

Until then, here are a few ways that we, as consumers, can reduce how much waste we’re personally responsible for sending to the curb.

Buy in bulk

An easy and underrated way to minimize the amount of plastic you take home is to buy bigger amounts. If your budget permits, buy the family or jumbo sizes of things you eat 

regularly. Not only does that save you a few dollars and a few extra trips to the store, but you reduce the amount of packaging you produce every year. Buying bulk gives you the flexibility to buy as much or as little as you need. This helps reduce food waste too.

Bring your own

Buying in bulk and bringing your own containers go hand in hand. Stores are increasingly opening up to customers bringing their own jars, containers and bags to fill with their favourite foods. Oats, beans, rice, or sugar – your local bulk or zero waste store will have it and will be more than happy to let you fill up your clean Mason jar with whatever you want. Make sure to check your local store’s container regulations before you start stocking up. And don’t forget your reusable bags!

Visit local stores

Local businesses are run by people like you and are often opened because a consumer was looking for business that didn’t exist yet. Enter your neighbourhood’s zero waste stores and farmers’ markets. Small businesses are quicker to take action because the organizations are smaller, and owners are often more in-tune with the community and its needs. If you live in Ottawa, try visiting Nu Grocery, a zero-waste grocery and lifestyle store. Toronto, visit package-free stores like Bare Market or Unboxed Market  or supporting shops like the Sweet Potato, who ran a black plastic recycling program for its neighbourhood. 

Make it yourself 

A lot of my favourite pre-made foods tend to be packaged in layers of hard-to-recycle plastics. The solution? Try ditching pre-made and pre-packaged foods and making your own. This can mean taking up baking to make your own cookies or learning how to personalize a homemade pasta sauce. Not only does making your own food let you control the amount of packaging waste you produce, but it’s fun too!

Pick easily recyclable plastics

Not all plastics are created equal. It may sound silly, but plastics are not all the same. Some cities’ recycling programs take certain plastics and others don’t. This is because plastic recycling comes down to money. Recycling programs are only sustainable and profitable if the waste materials are valuable in another market (think textiles or construction). If your food only exists packaged, be critical about which plastics you bring home. Rigid plastics like HDPE (high-density polyethylene) are high in demand and accepted in most of Ontario’s curbside programs. Avoid plastics like black plastic, plastic films and wraps, multi-layer plastics and polystyrene (Styrofoam). According to David Lindsay’s report, these materials cause problems for blue box systems for a number of reasons. Look for foods packaged in aluminum cans, glass jars and paperboard boxes when possible.


Photo by Sylvie Tittel on Unsplash.

Large grocery store chains play a big role in packaging waste from food. Ultimately, we’re their clientele and if we don’t change our ways, they will have no reason to change their own. Take a moment the next time you go grocery shopping (or a peek into your fridge and pantry) and make mental notes of everything packaged in plastic. Ask yourself: How long is the plastic used or kept before it’s thrown out? Is this plastic packaging accepted by my municipality’s blue box program? Could I buy this product “naked” or make my own?

Remember, just being conscious of your waste and taking steps to reduce it is important and valid. Zero waste is a process and it doesn’t mean perfection. Keep checking Her Campus Carleton for the next dive into zero-waste living.

Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs is a Journalism and French double major at Carleton. She enjoys photography, graphic design, and photo editing. She loves travelling, writing, and learning languages and hopes to combine the three in her future career. She is a repeat sustainability writer and a big fan of recycling -- properly.
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