Naked Groceries

Maybe I just love a grocery challenge, but I’m fed up with plastic packaging and I’m trying to come home with less of it.

I was so disheartened to hear about the contaminated loads of Canadian recyclables rotting in the Philippines and Malaysia. We can’t keep shipping out our garbage, “out of sight, out of mind.” We have to stop making and buying those products.

So far it is not going very well.

Last week, I bought my usual groceries. Call it the “control group,” if you will. My usual strategy has been noticing the plastic packaging and trying to minimize it, but not to the point of refusing to bring home my favourite foods.

The menu plan for the past week’s dinners was:

  • Monday and Tuesday – nut loaf with baked potatoes and vegetables
  • Wednesday – pasta with tomato lentil sauce (made large batch for the freezer)
  • Thursday – popover (eggs)
  • Friday – out (special occasion)
  • Saturday – frozen pizza
  • Sunday – out (Father’s Day)

Breakfasts were cereal, oatmeal and toast or bagels with peanut butter. Lunches were salads/crackers/yogurt (my go-to lunch Monday to Friday at work), leftover popover on Saturday and leftover pizza today.

I have mostly mastered buying the right amount of food and having no food waste.

Groceries Week 1

Here is the plastic content of the groceries shown above:

First photo:

  • Plastic bags and wrappers for apples, grapes, lettuce, bread and pitas
  • Plastic liners for 3 boxes of cereal
  • Plastic milk jug, yogurt container and pop bottle
  • 3 plastic-coated milk/soy milk containers
  • 2 cans (all food cans are lined with polyester or acrylic)
  • 1 jar lid (metal jar lids are lined with plastic, just like cans)

Second photo:

  • Everything! (the larger containers are trail mix and cashews)

I checked and found out that elastic bands are still made from natural rubber, but they take decades to decompose, and I never have any further uses for them (or twist ties, or bread bag clips). But maybe I am just not creative enough: see these ideas for getting crafty with bread bag clips!

So, the problem is recycling. We had always been led to believe that if packaging was recyclable, it would actually be recycled and reused. Now we know that world markets for plastic recyclables have crashed and a lot of our recyclables are being landfilled.

The plastic industry says that its products keep food fresh, and they reduce transportation costs because the products are so light weight. All true. But if they are not made into new products, they last for eternity and that is unacceptable.

In the above photo from CBC News, Malaysian workers show “poor quality and contaminated” plastic sent there for recycling. Yet as Canadian consumers, we are told to put all plastic bags out for municipal recycling pickup. We are still told to recycle clean plastic wrap and bubble wrap. I have decided to use discretion. This article was helpful: Confused by Plastic Bag and Plastic Film Recycling? Clearly, the recyclers don’t want crinkly plastic bags like chip and pretzel bags, cereal box liners, and metallic wrappers like granola bar and protein bar wrappers.

The answer is probably to prepare all your own meals and snacks from scratch, but I have tried that and it wasn’t sustainable. For us, it took over 3 hours a day, not including eating time! (When these posts were written 7 years ago, we were still eating meat.)

Real Food: Time Well Spent

Easy, Medium and Hard Homemade

Farmers market haul includes whole wheat bread and olive spiral bread

Before I say what my next steps are, I’ll show you the groceries bought for the coming week. We decided to go to the farmers’ market and see what was available. It is impossibly early in the growing season, so the produce we bought must have been from greenhouses. There was one stall that sold locally-made cheese but it was all portioned out and sold in vacuum-packed plastic.

Coffee and tea

I have been drinking only loose-leaf tea for a few years now because most tea bags are made with plastic. This weekend I impulsively bought some loose tea from David’s. I forgot they used plastic bags – I could have brought my own container.

I bought supplies to make yogurt again: milk, starter yogurt and skim milk powder, all of which had plastic packaging. I had to buy a 750g container of plain yogurt because our local grocery store doesn’t sell individual servings, except 4-packs. I wasn’t going to drive to another store to buy a smaller yogurt.

Groceries Week 2

After going to the market, we still needed to top up at the grocery store. I was unhappy that this dry cat food is now sold in plastic rather than heavy paper bags. The fresh bunches of carrots looked so dreadful that we bought a package instead. I realized my recipes for the week required a third bell pepper. Ataulfo mangoes were on sale. And we got some veggie sausage patties.

Today I revisited my local Bulk Barn to see what products I can buy there.

They now have natural peanut butter without sugar or salt. I buy oatmeal, lentils and dried beans there. They carry every kind of grain, flour and seed, dried herbs and spices, and dried fruit. For salty snacks they have pretzels, corn chips and cassava chips, but no potato or tortilla chips! For breakfast cereals they have Post Shreddies (which I do like) and lots of varieties of granola. They let you bring your own containers.

So far, I’ve found that none of the nuts from Bulk Barn taste as good as the ones from Costco, and they are more expensive by unit price. The Costco packages are huge, but nuts are a staple of our diets, so it’s a non-issue.

I didn’t make much progress in week 2. I need to make some hard decisions.

  • Which products can I give up? Am I willing to do that? For example, could I do without tortilla chips? (Real tortillas and pitas come in plastic bags, too, so crisping up the real thing in the oven wouldn’t help much).
  • How far should I drive to buy plastic-free products? For example, one shop has loose coffee beans and allows you to use your own containers, but it is 14 km away and I wouldn’t otherwise visit that neighbourhood. Should I stock up on coffee beans every few months?
  • Which things should I buy in large quantities? Maybe buying huge boxes and jars of things from Costco is better than a lot of individual containers.
  • Which things are worthwhile to make myself? You know I have a candy habit. Since I don’t plan to quit sugar, I wonder if I could control my consumption by only eating sugary snacks I make myself, like cookies, brownies and fudge? (as recommended in Mark Pollan’s Food Rules book). That way I can avoid “industrial foodstuffs” and their packaging.

Now that I know a little more about the naked foods available at my usual stores, I hope I can plan recipes accordingly from now on.

Up this week:

  • Monday and Tuesday – veg stir fry with udon noodles and veg sausage
  • Wednesday – pasta with lentil tomato sauce (from freezer)
  • Thursday and Friday – curried chick peas and veg with couscous
  • Friday and Saturday – eggs or pizza

Have you eliminated any foods because of how they’re packaged? Have you changed the way you shop?

32 comments

  1. Cool. Using an altered line from “Treasures of the Sierra Madre” and reprised in “Blazing Saddles,”

    “Bags? We don’t need no stinking bags.”

    If you have seen neither movie, it loses a lot in the translation.

    Keith

  2. Seems supermarkets are worse for wrapping fruit and veg in plastic and on plastic trays than the green grocers. We mainly shop for fruit and veg at the green grocers. When we buy “wonky fruit”, or not perfect but still perfectly good to eat, the grocer has reusable coloured bags. I wish they did that for all the fruit. You put want you want in the coloured mesh bag so the checkout operator knows it is the cheaper prices item. After they weigh the goods, they tip the produce into your shopping bag and the bag goes bag on the shop floor.

    I was only thinking of toiletries this weekend. Toothbrushes. Toothpaste. Face cream body lotion. Shampoo. All in plastic. I think I will buy big portions so there is less plastic in relation to volume.

    I haven’t given up anything because it comes in plastic. Yet.

    • I am struggling with all the plastic in toiletries, too. Like you, the only solution I can think of is to buy larger sizes. We don’t have any local shops that do refills. I have tried the shampoo bars available at Lush but unfortunately they didn’t do my hair any favours. We use bar soap that comes in paper boxes. I suppose one thing that works for me is to stick with brands I like, rather than always buying the latest thing and not being happy with some of the new products I try.

      • I tried bar soaps too. For the same reason. My hair looked horrid. So used them up as soap and returned to shampoo for my hair.

      • I found that the Lush bars got my hair nice and clean (unlike other solid shampoo I have tried)…however I ended up with a really itchy scalp (which I don’t blame the bars for, I think my skin is just way more sensitive/dermatitis prone than I realised!) so I have gone back to a bottled shampoo, albeit from a more ‘ethical’ retailer than before.
        I used to wash my hair every day, but I broke that habit over a year ago…which in itself reduces my shampoo consumption!

  3. Oh, I’m right with you on this! We’ve been trying to cut back on the plastics we use but almost everything appears to come with some sort of plastic attached in some way. The best we’ve been able to do is reuse as much as possible (like plastic bags), shop as much as possible where paper bags are available for produce or to wrap meat (but even these places still use plastics), use things like beeswax wraps that are reusable, and recycle whenever possible. Options for going to places that don’t use plastics, like for tofu or coffee, can require a LOT of driving around (which is a problem in its own way). We go with the larger sizes from Costco if possible (peanut butter, nuts, etc.) and try to reuse the containers before recycling (but still have to throw out the plastic lids), or bring our own bags or a basket to the farmers’ market (really frustrating the other day when we bought cherries but the farmer dumped them out of the recyclable paper basket and put them in a plastic bag – we asked for the paper but she said they reuse them if possible).

    I feel though that we barely make a dent in all that’s out there, try as we might. As Lucinda says, basically everything comes in plastic bottles, our toothbrushes are plastic, etc. Plastic is everywhere. Still, it helps that you are conscious of the issue and trying to make a dent in your own usage. For now, we do the best we can, but it’s very frustrating.

    • I have had the same experience at farmers’ markets – the sellers dumping stuff out of a paperboard container into a plastic bag! On the other hand, lots of egg sellers will take paper egg cartons for reuse. I am hoping to find bamboo toothbrushes locally.

  4. It’s difficult to make these conscious decisions but so important ! Good to see people making positive changes in their lives. Every effort counts 🙂 well done.

    http://theeatingspree.com

  5. All questions I have asked and still ask myself. Nowadays I buy 10 main meals delivered, as they are healthier than I cook for myself, more veggies etc. They come with a plastic peel top lids which I trash and a clearish plastic tray which I recycle. (I also bin dive for cans and bottles which we can earn 10c on, and remove my neighbours incorrect bin selections for soft plastics, dark plastic trays etc etc). These are evidently not the most waste free meal option, but the lesser evil, once I committed to prepared meals (for my health). Other brands had black trays which are rumoured to be very very unlikely to have any recyclable value.

    My local grocer, since I last lived nearby, has moved from foam trays and plastic bags, to paper bags of produce out the front – like bananas or capsicums. I love this. And I return the empty bags – just as I used to with the foam trays. I still buy tetra pak milk and continue to believe they are recycled despite strong doubts. I even buy crisps on a craving, which is irregularly, at least?

    • Hi Sarah, Did you see this? https://time.com/5573333/are-meal-kits-bad-environmental/

      We get 5 cents back on cans and bottles – the rate hasn’t changed in 50 years!

      A few months ago, a bag of my neighbour’s recycling blew into my yard. It didn’t look right, so I resorted it, and I was quite disgusted by what they put in there (like dog food tins that were not quite empty, and not rinsed).

      • Oh yes, I’m a made rinser! And I move dirty recyclables to the trash bin.

        We get 10c as it’s just started.

        I’m SURE meal kits are bad, the waste is elsewhere, where I don’t see it. But I eat healthier, and that trumps the other values I hold.

  6. Fiona

    Yes! Have definitely eliminated products on the basis of packaging. I was just about to write a post on this topic because we have also had articles in Australia about the recycling crisis and how so much is being landfilled. Like you, I find it very labour intensive to cook from scratch so I still buy packaged sauces and the like.

    I will write a full post but in short, Australia banned plastic grocery bags one year ago. It’s easy to buy naked fruit/veg here. But moving away from jars/cans has been hard. Hardest of all…wine! Have to write post though as we have some local recycling options we use.

    • I look forward to your post. The first thing I stopped buying was cup ramen. Link used to like them. They came in a paper cup you poured boiling water in. Then they switched to styrofoam cups – shrink-wrapped in plastic! No thanks. Wine is no problem. Save your bottles, make your own wine and refill them!

  7. Fiona

    P.S. I will post links later but we have a local recycling company that makes prosthetic limbs out of certain hard plastics. Also a brilliant local company that takes crisp, candy and foil packets to make recycled park benches! Might be something similar in Canada! (You can’t go without crisps and tortillas, lol!)

  8. Tina Lemna

    Well done on trying to limit your purchases of single use plastic. I take my own bags to buy lentils, beans, oats, nuts and some veg. The only bulk grocery store I have close to me is Whole Foods which isn’t cheap but better than it used to be. I just try to be aware and swap when I can. I follow zero waste doc on Instagram and she has lots of good ideas. One thing she mentioned is don’t drive out of your way to buy loose veg. Using more gasoline isn’t good for the environment either. I love reading posts like this and seeing what other people buy and ideas you have for less waste.

    • Thanks. Whole Foods, yikes! We shopped there on a Toronto trip to buy breakfast items. Big bucks! But beautiful food. And better than travelling further. I am not on Insta; I will have to check that out.

  9. Great post! I stopped buying rice cakes because they come in non recyclable packaging and most weeks I make my own bread.

  10. I have been working on this more and more – but they don’t make it easy!
    I have bought a set go reusable mesh bags for my produce and I keep a set of jars for the Bulk Barn so that helps a bit. But – I use a lot of frozen fruit & veg (I don’t have a garden – don’t know a tomato plant from a weed), not a lot of local veg ready as yet and I don’t enjoy canned all that much except in a few stews or shepherd’s pie – and they all come in a type of plastic bag. It’s the same with meat and fish!
    I think that toiletries are the worst – shampoos etc. I can get one or two items in tins but I really think there should be more. Glass is dangerous and too heavy – tins would be just fine.
    I recently saw a TV program (think it was CBC’s “Marketplace”) and they visited a supermarket in the UK that used only products in recyclable packaging – it wasn’t that difficult to find and it was consumer driven so it is possible.
    I’m going back to making my own yogurt – I carry reusable bags and I reuse all the containers that I can – but can’t help but feel that what I do is a drop in the bucket.

    • I feel the same. Ultimately consumers are not pressuring grocery stores enough to change, or insisting on new environmental regulations. Industry lobby groups are so persuasive. “If we reduce plastic packaging we will eliminate jobs!” Groan.

  11. I think like you and everyone else this is a work in progress for us – but has been since the 70’s when we had our no plastic kitchen. Since then it has been an uphill struggle as more and more companies switch to selling their goods in plastic. Yoghurts used to be sold in cardboard tubs, Heinz tomato ketchup in a glass bottle, Weetabix wrapped in paper then in a cardboard box – I could go on. The governments have to lead the way and force the food companies to change their ideas – we should not have to go tramping from shop to shop to find non plastic wrapped food – that just increases our fuel emissions – after all there are no corner shops left anymore so you have to travel now to buy food. As always though everything has to come to crisis point before the governments takes any notice. If more notice had been taken in the seventies then we would not be in this mess now.

    • You are right. I suppose plastic is lighter weight for transport and reduces spills. I was thinking over the weekend that maybe I should buy fruit that is transported to the stores in cardboard boxes, like bananas, pineapples and mangoes, even though they’re imported (because of our short growing seasons, everything is imported for at least 8 months a year).

  12. NicolaB

    The big change I have made in terms of food and packaging was making bread from scratch, and now sourdough to eliminate the need for packaging for the yeast! So there is some packaging for the salt and the flour, but much much less.
    I have an allotment and get a veg box delivered when there isn’t enough veg from the allotment. The veg bag does have the occasional plastic bag, but most of the packaging is card and can be reused by the company or recycled.

    We do have a zero waste shop in town that I should use more often for pasta etc in my own containers.

    I have many thoughts on this and am considering reviving my blog to write about this subject…

    • I hope you do revive your blog, Nicola! Leave a link here if it is different from the old one!

      It is cool that you make sourdough. I was recently reading about a local wine made with wild yeast!

      How is your allotment doing this year? I keep thinking I could easily grow sprouts or leaf lettuce.

      I am not afraid to skip a day of hair washing, either 🙂

  13. Lisa

    To answer your questions, yes and yes! I really think you have to come to terms that your grocery bills will increase – it doesn’t make sense but until more people are avoiding plastic packaging it will be the reality. Unfortunately, I think this is why we will not see more people seriously avoid plastic packaging because of the costs. Fortunately, I can afford to do it and thus do (but I have a very frugal mind so its been a serious mind shift and struggle…environment won though 🙂 ). For example, to avoid the plastic bags I now buy loose apples, peppers, carrots, etc., even though it costs more. I also buy all our nuts, beans, grains, spices, dried fruit, etc at Bulk Barn instead of Costco or the grocery store at an increased cost (maybe our BB has more turn over than yours because I haven’t noticed a difference in my almonds, pecans or pistachios that we eat daily).
    Ways I avoid plastic: make many of my own food stuffs including yogurt, bread at times, granola, muesli, salad dressing, BBQ sauce, desserts, etc. I make yogurt once a month and I use it daily. I make a batch of granola and muesli once a month. I really don’t find that it takes that much time to do (yes, I do work too) and I like the products better.
    Luckily our town has recently opened a refilling store. I can take in my own containers and fill them with shampoo, dish soap, laundry powder, lettuce, spinach, frozen fruits, nuts, oils, vinegars, etc. For meat, I buy from local farmers and they use butcher paper, which does have plastic in it, but not as much as the Styrofoam trays and film. For tea, I buy loose in bulk from an online tea company and my husband buys his coffee in bulk reusing the packages. Whenever there is a choice between plastic and a glass/tin jar we choose the glass/tin jar (we have been doing that for years) e.g., peanut butter, mayo, honey, yeast, pop, maple syrup, etc.
    Of course there are still some products I have to buy in plastic since I can’t figure out a solution to avoid it and I have to buy the item – no choice. For example, our pet food and litter. I have used an environmentally friendly litter for years but a couple of years ago the company switched from a paper bag to plastic. I wrote the company and it was all about loss of product from the paper bags. We never had an issue with them and I find that unfortunate. I haven’t solved that problem and my only recourse is to buy the 40 lbs bags (the largest). I put my cats mainly on wet food so we use less dry food now.
    What I have given up because I can’t find an alternative – ketchup, my favourite Oh Henry chocolate bar (also because it has palm oil in it),
    What I haven’t managed to give up or switch as yet – the occasional local fresh fish fillet, crackers (next on my list to try to make my own), vitamin D (I’m low), pasta (my husband is starting to make it fresh but that does involve time), asian noodles and rice paper, toothpaste and garbage bags (I buy biodegradable ones, but still…). The process continues.
    Thanks for the post and good luck. I would think Halifax would have a refilling store somewhere, but maybe it is too far out to justify the trip.

    • Hi Lisa! You are doing great. I have been back to Bulk Barn and did well this time. Very pleased that they will weigh containers you bring from home. I haven’t found a refill store yet for personal care and cleaning products. We do make our own laundry detergent, don’t use paper towels or cling wrap, etc. For now I am just buying the larger sizes of shampoo, etc. and using things down to the last drop. I made yogurt again this month for the first time in a long while. I have come to the conclusion it is just very fragile. I can’t transport it to work without it becoming runny, but it’s fine at home! Most recently I brought some to work in a container with some berries, without stirring it, then topped it with an ice pack for the trip to work, and it was much better. I also buy 40 lb bags of enviro cat litter! (the pine one) This coming week I am making fudge in an attempt to cut down on candy wrappers 🙂

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