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How to grocery shop when you can’t bring your own containers

Learning which plastics are most harmful to health is one thing you can do.

The coronavirus outbreak has led many stores to alter their policies on reusable containers. This means that customers are no longer welcome to bring their own and must use the disposable plastic bags and containers provided by stores. It comes as a blow to people who have worked hard to establish zero-waste shopping routines. Now they're forced to come up with alternative ways to source groceries – and must reckon with the fact that they will likely be generating more waste than usual.

It is an unfortunate but necessary shift, and hopefully it won't last long. The good news is that there are some ways to approach shopping that can reduce waste, even when eliminating it completely is out of the question. Here are some suggestions.

1. Choose paper and glass.

Packaging is not good or bad; it falls on a spectrum, with some types better and worse than others. Choose food packaged in paper or glass in order to improve the chances of it getting recycled or reused, and to have less negative impact on your health. Nut butters, milk, pasta sauces, mustard, oils, vinegars, soy sauce, and many spices can be bought in glass, although they might be a bit more expensive than their plastic counterparts. Oats, potatoes, mushrooms, sugar, pasta, rice, flours, butter, and other baking supplies are easily found in paper.

2. Avoid the worst plastics.

Learn which plastics are most harmful. If you look at the triangle on the bottom, you'll see a number. Avoid these ones: No. 3 (polyvinyl chloride) contains dangerous additives such as lead and phthalates and is used in plastic wrap, some squeeze bottles, peanut butter jars, and children’s toys. #6 (polystyrene) contains styrene, which is toxic for the brain and nervous system, and is commonly used in disposable food containers and plastic cutlery. #7 (polycarbonate) contains bisphenol A and is found in most metal food can liners, clear plastic sippy cups, sport drink bottles, juice, and ketchup containers.

3. Buy the largest quantity you know you'll eat.

This reduces the amount of packaging (and cost), but only do it if you know the food won't go to waste. Ask yourself if it's a regular staple or if it can be stored for a prolonged period of time. Consider splitting a large bag with a friend or neighbor if it's too much for you.

4. Opt for loose produce.

Long before zero-waste bulk stores became trendy, there was always loose produce at the grocery store, and I haven't seen any restrictions on that yet. Take your cloth bags to the store and stock up on apples, oranges, pears, lemons, grapefruit, potatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts, and more.

5. Seek out alternative vendors.

Smaller, privately-owned retailers might not conform to the same regulations as a supermarket chain and could allow you some wiggle room when it comes to reusables. Go to a farmers' market (if you're lucky enough to have one at this time of year); they'd probably appreciate the business right now. I order various items from an online local food co-op that delivers to my doorstep and packages some items in paper bags. If you have a CSA (community supported agriculture) provider, ask for items to be packaged loose. See if a butcher or cheesemonger will wrap their products in paper.

6. Consider the Loop Store.

I wrote recently about the Loop pilot project that is set to expand across the US, Canada, UK, and parts of Europe this year. “It’s designed to be simpler than traditional refill systems in stores — rather than cleaning and refilling your own container, you bring back dirty containers, drop them off, and buy already-packaged products on the shelf.” In this age of coronavirus, it solves the sanitization problem by letting the brands handle it in-house, and allows you to shop zero-waste and guilt-free.

Haagen Dazs mocha ice cream© Loop

7. Get better at DIY.

This could be a good opportunity to try making some things from scratch that you haven't tried before, such as homemade crackers, granola, bread, tortillas, yogurt, condiments like jam or mayonnaise, stock, applesauce, bread crumbs. Check out this list of 20 foods you can make to avoid plastic, and no doubt there are many more!

Learning which plastics are most harmful to health is one thing you can do.