Zero Waste Without The Bulk Stores: Doing your best in a small town
I was lucky enough to live in inner Melbourne for a while, where I lived happily low waste.
I'd split my shopping between The Source bulk store for dry goods, the South Melbourne markets for unpackaged produce, and a variety of organic, vegan or regular supermarkets within walking distance of my inner city apartment for everything else. This is the time that people started noting me as a zero waster and looking to me for advice on becoming the same way. I had a direct line to local produce, a kitted out kitchen, and the world at my feet.
But in early 2017 I picked up and moved 2000km away to my regional Queensland hometown, where I was crashing with different people, and living with others that didn't share my finesse for reducing waste. No farmers markets, no vegan supermarkets, no co-ops, no bulk stores, and a population that largely can't tell the difference between vegan and gluten-free.
My income was below the Australian poverty line, I was dealing with restrictive chronic illness symptoms, I was without a fixed home to settle into, and I had nowhere to source the packaging-free products I was used to. It was around this time I started getting messages of people informing me that there was plastic in my grocery shopping, disappointed in me. Offering suggestions for options that were inaccessible to me. I felt like the Internet was now questioning every choice I made and demanding explanations from me.
Yet while I certainly don't live quite as "zero" as I would love to, I can confidently say I continue to this day to live my values and still research and pursue the best options available to me. I do this by following general waste avoidance rules I always followed before I even knew the term "zero waste" existed!
Perfect is the enemy of good.
Whether or not you can be completely zero waste does not prevent you from using reusables or limiting the amount of packaging you buy. Regardless of your income, your physical ability or your access to packaging-free options in your area, everybody can find their voice and be an advocate for responsible consumerism. We all have our zone of influence and while some may feel their zone is restrictive, only we as individuals know what our "doing our best" looks like. It's our own standards we need to hold ourselves up against.
Here are some ideas for products you can buy online or find already in your home to cut down on single-use trash, regardless of where you live.
- A reusable water bottle, $25
- A reusable coffee cup, $14
- Reusable shopping bags, $10
- Reusable produce bags, $14
- Tea towels and reusable cloths, $17
- Reusable cutlery, $9
- A compost bin, $60
- Zero waste floss, $13
- A safety razor, $42
- Unpackaged soap and shampoo bars, $8
- A menstrual cup, $60
- A bamboo toothbrush, $4
Outside of those small changes we can make in the household, there are many decisions we make in the supermarket that make a difference. While it can be more difficult for some than others to find stores that sell naked produce and dry goods that are packaged in recyclable materials, there are always different options to take into consideration.
When shopping in a regular chain supermarket like I do, we look for:
- Unpackaged produce
- Cardboard, aluminium and glass packages
- Thick plastic bottles, not thin plastic or any plastic that crinkles
- Recycled paper or plastic packaging
- Bulk quantities
So here are a list of questions to ask yourself when buying traditional plastic-packaged toiletries, food and household items from a conventional supermarket.
Can I make it myself?
The first question is of course, whether you need to buy the item at all. Do I have it at home? Can I borrow it? Can I go without it? Can I make it myself? This can go for lots of things like pre-made meals, seasonings, non-essential beauty products and odd kitchen appliances marketed as being more "convenient" (I'm looking at you, weird plastic avocado saver). What you buy is always less important than what you don't buy, and abstaining can be the most powerful action you'll ever take. A great life hack is to learn to cook a few basic meals because once you know how to take a bunch of unpackaged ingredients and turn them into a meal, you're really on your way.
Can I find it without packaging?
I'm standing in the dry goods aisle. I'm looking at the packaged nuts. They look right for my recipe. But, can I get them elsewhere without the plastic? Even the most regional supermarkets often have a handful of items in bulk bins. We have about four items available in bulk. Even if you don't have any bulk bins, don't despair. We can continue to look for naked produce and choose unpackaged ingredients where possible. If you can't find your first choice vegetable unpackaged in the produce section (celery being a big one I can never find without plastic), you can potentially sub it out of your recipe for another vegetable. Instead of celery, could you try carrot? They come without any plastic or stickers.
Can I find it in compostable packaging?
So, you don't have bulk bins and your plastic-free produce options are limited. I feel you. But, can you find it packaged in something compostable like paper or cardboard? I've even seen rice and oats in fabric that could biodegrade if disposed of properly. An example of choosing compostable packaging would be choosing laundry powder in a cardboard box over laundry liquid that comes in a plastic bottle with a plastic cap. Laundry powder boxes still contain the plastic scoop inside, but this is all about finding the best options available. Another example is choosing a box of pasta over a plastic bag. The box will more likely than not have a small plastic window to see the pasta inside, but these easily pop out and can be put in the trash while the rest of your pasta box is put into recycling or compost.
Can I find it in glass or metal instead?
So you can't find it unpackaged, and this item can't reasonably be packaged in paper or cardboard. There's a good chance if you're buying something wet, it will come in one of three options: Plastic, glass or aluminium. While glass isn't the best option for recycling (it has low recycling rates), glass is fantastic for keeping and reusing for multiple purposes. Storing leftovers or packed lunches, DIY beauty products, gift-wrapping, etc. Then there's aluminium, which is one of the most recycled products on the planet. Putting aluminium in the recycling bin has a pretty good guarantee that the resources will be repurposed and reused for another product. While most plastic has to be binned, washing and either reusing or recycling glass or aluminium is a more eco strategy.
Can I buy it in larger quantities?
So, you don't have any of the options above. That's cool. Not your fault. Your last line of defence is to buy things in as great a volume as you can at a time. Rice is a great example. In any given supermarket you'll have options from those single serve microwave packs up to at least 2kg bags, if not all the way to 5kg or 10kg bags. Not only does this mean you have a lower packaging to gram ratio, you're also paying less with food becoming more discounted the more you buy at once. Reasonably, you're limited to what you can physically carry or afford on any given week. (Even if you eat rice everyday you might genuinely not have the cashflow to afford $50 worth of rice in this grocery haul.) But knowing your meal plans and maintaining a little minimalism in your diet allows you to purchase the largest quantities of foods in minimal packaging, knowing it won't expire before you'll use it all up in time.
Which plastic am I buying?
Another point I wanted to touch on is the difference in plastics, because I wouldn't expect anyone living outside a big city to find perfection in plastic-free shopping. There's a general rule: The thicker the plastic, the better. The only plastic you realistically want to be buying is HDPE which is non-toxic and also recyclable. For an easy example, a 1L plastic bottle of vinegar would be more recyclable than a plastic biscuit packet. If it's thin and makes a crinkly sound when you scrunch it, the plastic is not ideal for recycling. Now, while Redcycle does exist, it is not accessible everywhere and it is not a magic solution to our rampant overconsumption of plastics. There are still definite issues of the effectiveness of recycling thin plastic with very little being reused, and the reality of whether people will actually hold onto their trash to source a Redcycle recycling bin. The likelihood is low. It's easiest to just check labels and try to avoid any plastic that is not HDPE.
The plastics you want to avoid include:
- Water bottles and their lids
- Plastic bags
- Butter and yoghurt containers (some may be HDPE)
- Chip or biscuit packets
- Blister packs
- Bread bags
- Shrink wrap
- Cereal bags inside boxes
The plastics you can put in recycling include:
- Milk and juice jugs
- Spread jars
- Detergent or household cleaner bottles
- Some other condiment or oil bottles
Does anyone make this locally?
The final question to ask yourself while shopping after the packaging is whether the product is made locally. Where was this item made? What are the food miles? How heavy is the environmental footprint of air travel? Is this supporting my own economy? Can I instead support a local brand that will be made in Australia and require far less resources than an item that needs to be shipped internationally? Can I better invest my money back into a small, local business that maybe sells this product out of a specialty store or their own home? How about a small business online seller? I, for one, love to buy Australian brands as much as possible. If you're standing in an aisle looking at two similar products and you're unsure which to get, check where it's made. Buying something made nearby is a lot more eco-friendly than flying an item across the world for you to only use once.
Above is just a list of considerations I've found I live by. This is the way I lived before I moved to Melbourne and jumped onboard the zero waste movement, and they're the kinds of questions I plan on asking myself no matter where in the world I end up.
Very soon I'm relocating to a small North Pacific island, and I have no expectations to be accessing organic produce markets or zero waste bulk stores there, either. All we can do as consumers is make the best with what we've got, and continue to drive this shift in the corporate world towards a green way of way of business by making considered consumer choices.
Always choose the best option that is accessible to you, whatever that is. Be vocal about why you're making the choices you are to generate awareness in the people around you. Be mindful of not only what you are buying, but also what you're choosing not to buy. Because what you don't buy is more important than what you do buy. And that's something you have full control of, no matter where you live.
Be an active citizen that's involved in dialogue around excessive packaging, especially at this pivotal point in history where governments are finally taking action and outlawing practices like animal testing cosmetics and using plastic bags in supermarkets. We can't choose what stores are in our town, but we can choose to lobby for change and continue being an advocate until such time that these zero waste options become available to the many and not just the few.
I've been on the other end and I've seen how easy it is to provide these packaging-free options and live a zero waste life. If we all show that this is something we care about and we'll boycott unsustainable products, the companies will make the necessary changes to give the consumer what they want. Money talks, and sustainability isn't too far out of reach.