This article is part of a Teja on the Horizon Circular Living series, which is about my experience transitioning to a more circular, low-waste life. This article describes my experience trying my best to achieve close to zero waste grocery shopping while living in an apartment in the big city.

For why a zero waste & circular lifestyle is important, watch the video below.

Where relevant, I include feedback from my friends, to give a sense for alternative choices people might make, and why. Obviously, people are different and live different lives. I think zero waste solutions advice need to consider this range, rather than assuming everybody should live the same way in order to become sustainable.

On the other hand, having the ability to go against the current linear mass consumerism and experiment with changes, does require a minimum quality of life. When you’re living in poverty, you have to take the options you can afford. So, the articles in this series will likely be more relevant to middle class people and above.

Additionally, I am based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Consequently, the options and financial comparisons provided in these articles will reflect value calculations that are true for Kuala Lumpur; a different result may be true for your location. I welcome comments that describe how the choices would be different at your location.

Yes, zero waste grocery shopping is hard. At first.

I seriously embarked on my journey to eliminate plastic waste from my household after doing the Plastic Free July challenge (although I did it in April). Now, at the time I was already trying to reduce plastic when doing grocery shopping. I shopped with reusable bags, and tried to bring containers to buy unpackaged things in. And of course, I recycled.

But there’s a difference between just doing what I can and thinking it’s pretty good, and actually auditing the plastic packaging waste I was still left with after shopping. Plastic Free April showed me how far I still had to go, even with my very best only-for-one-month try. The good news is, doing Plastic Free April got me to pay attention to where all the waste is coming from. So for the next few years, I gradually made changes to eliminate it where I can.

Note that ‘gradually’ is important here. Firstly, the changes need to be something you can keep up in the long term. Sometimes, it takes a few tries to find a solution that works for you. Secondly, some of the changes require habit change, and those take time. I grew up in the conventional, plastic-heavy grocery shopping paradigm, and am still surrounded by it. There are many bad habits to change, and it’s hard to change many habits at the same time.

At the moment, I feel like I’ve reached an achievable plateau of sorts. As in, given certain pre-conditions, this level of zero waste grocery shopping is achievable in a Kuala Lumpur urban setting. This article will take you through what that looks like, what the pre-conditions are (if applicable), and which parts of my shopping are still not zero waste.

Why there’s so much plastic packaging for groceries (it’s food waste + industrialised agriculture)

But first, a short note on why we seem to be trapped in a paradigm of plasticful grocery shopping, when mass produced plastic has only been around for less than 100 years. After all, there are grandmothers still alive who shopped for groceries without plastic packaging. What made plastic so important, that it took over in the blink of an eye?

Of course, economics plays a part. Plastics are a much, much cheaper material for packaging compared to glass or metal, because it’s made from petroleum, which is primarily mined more lucratively for fuel. Whereas other packaging material aren’t by-products of another industry.

But that’s not the only reason why groceries, in particular, came to be so frequently packaged in plastic. This comes from some beneficial purposes of plastic packaging, and the drive to reduce food waste as well as increase hygiene and food safety in the middle of the last century. It also coincided with policies encouraging industrialised agriculture to increase availability of affordable food. This led to centralised farms far from towns and cities, so that food now had to be transported over longer distances.

More often than not, our big problems are a consequence of past attempts to fix other big problems. It’s just that we don’t think far enough ahead to anticipate the new problems of doing – basically anything – at massive scales. So perhaps there’s something to be said about encouraging more diverse, localised solutions to problems. At least, even if they all work, they probably wouldn’t snowball into another massive problem for a future generation to solve.

More production -> more food waste -> food processing for longer shelf life -> more packaged food

Eliminating plastic bags for grocery shopping

Zero waste grocery shopping is not about swapping one conventional thing, with a zero waste thing. It involves making choices, possibly stop buying some things or shopping for different things instead. It involves learning different shopping habits. So this article will be structured differently from my earlier zero waste articles.

I’ll start with the basic topic of avoiding plastic shopping bags and produce bags.

1. Reusable bags for bagging groceries

Like most people who try to do their bit for the environment, I bring my own shopping bags to the supermarket. This has been quite easy for me, because for one reason or another, my family keeps getting free bags. So I have a collection of them, some cloth and some are that kind of plastic fabric as you can see in the photo below. If I hadn’t gotten so many for free, I’d probably make some from old t-shirts and spare fabrics, rather than buy them.

I like cloth-type bags because they fold up small, and I can bring several in one bag and it doesn’t look bulky. However, baskets are also a perfectly valid option, particularly if you prefer to do a grocery run separately rather than combine it with other errands. Between real cloth and faux cloth, I prefer the former, because you can toss them into the washing machine every now and then and the print etc. won’t fade or degrade.

I have a coat rack near the door, and I hang my grocery bags from it. This helps me cultivate the habit of taking them whenever I go out. I take at least one, no matter why I’m out. You never know when you might want to randomly buy something, and this helps me avoid some plastic waste even then. When I’m going out specifically to get groceries, I bring about 3-4 bags, even though I usually only need 2-3.

Reusable faux cloth grocery shopping bags
Weekly groceries

2. Reusable bags for buying produce (fruits and vegetables)

Once you have a system for not forgetting your shopping bags, it becomes easier to add reusable net bags as well. These are bags that I bring to buy loose fruit and vegetables in. They’re netted so that the staff can easily see what’s inside when weighing it.

When I first began my zero waste journey, I simply re-used the previous plastic produce bag. I peeled off the price sticker, and re-used it on my next shopping trip. This had the benefit of being more recognisable to supermarket staff, who used to be far more confused and stumped by any bag that looks the least bit different. I also made them into bin liners after a few uses, as back then I generated more rubbish than I do now.

However, as I gradually trimmed down my household waste, not only did I not need the supermarket bags as bin liners anymore, I didn’t need the produce bags either. So I invested in some net bags. Again, baskets are perfectly valid too, especially if you tend to go to a market rather than a supermarket in a mall.

Reusable cotton net bag for fresh produce
Photo by micheile henderson on Unsplash

3. Reusable containers for meat & fish

Another source of waste plastic from my grocery shopping comes from buying protein. In very urban areas, the supermarket usually sells meat and seafood pre-packed in plastic on those little plastic trays. (The problem persists even if you were vegetarian or vegan. Eggs are also frequently packed in plastic containers, and all the tofu types are likewise in plastic.) There isn’t much you can do if you don’t have any options in your area, short of travelling out of the area just for protein.

This is true for me, for meat and chicken. However, most of the fish is fresh and comes from local Selangor fishermen, as are the shellfish. I personally favour shellfish like cockles and mussels as being the lowest carbon protein, but sometimes I do buy local fish. On those shopping days, I bring either a collapsible container or a long ziplock bag (from buying indoor-grown salad), so that I don’t have to take the tearaway plastic bag. Again, these are my preferred options due to their compact nature.

However, as demonstrated below by my friend Swee Keng, you can also pack any old container for your grocery run. She uses the universal Asian favourite: the ice cream container!

Zero waste grocery shopping by using old ice cream containers to buy fish
Photo courtesy of Aw Swee Keng

4. What do I use instead as liners for my waste bins?

When I first began my zero waste journey, I worried about not having enough bin liners once I stopped taking plastic grocery shopping bags. However, I gave it a go anyway, because I have the stereotypical Asian cache of plastic bags under the sink. I figured, surely it would last me until I can find the balance.

It turns out that once I separated out recyclables, and tried avoiding unwanted things coming into the house in the first place, my need for bin liners dramatically reduced. Most of the waste was packaging and unsolicited stuff in the first place!

At this time, I am down to taking out the kitchen waste twice a week, and even then it’s mainly for hygiene reasons and not necessarily because the bin is full. And if I had a home composter, it would be even less than that!

A lot of the plastic we throw away could serve as bin liners

At first, my ‘kitchen waste rate’ was still just a bit higher than my plastic bag replenishment rate. However, it then occurred to me that any bag-like packaging for anything I bought, is really a ‘bin liner’. Once I adopted the attitude that I am buying both the item and the bag it comes in, things went much better. Tip: it helps if you make your kitchen bin a small one – more plastic packaging instantly become a suitable size bag.

Noodle packets, pasta packets, laundry powder, mailer packets – they were all ‘bin liners’, just the same as the odd plastic supermarket bag that I still get randomly. I save rubber bands to tie up the tops of plastic bags without ‘ears’. I even began buying things in quantities that would get me ‘bin liner size’ bags on purpose. In fact, many of these bags are sturdier and made better bin liners, than actual bin liners!

Plastic bags from grocery shopping
It’s surprising how many plastic ‘bin liners’ you probably already have

Zero waste grocery shopping from bulk foods stores

An important part of my zero waste efforts was to find the closest bulk food store to me. This allowed me to buy groceries as refills. The Zero Waste app helps you figure out the options around you; you might want to go to different ones for different things depending on limitations like budget, choice, and convenience. However, since I have room in my budget to be flexible, my regular store is The Hive Eco Store, because it has a lot of range in one place.

1. Bringing my own containers for dry foods, liquids & spices

Bringing your own containers for grocery shopping doesn’t need to be complicated. Sure, if you want everything to match, of course you can buy matching jars and containers. But I basically just wait until I had jars from my existing grocery shopping, then I used those to gradually switch to refill versions. I also do this for oils and soy sauce. I typically use large yoghurt pots to buy rice in.

Grocery refills at the bulk food store is just a once a month trip. Next to the coat rack near the door, I have a tall set of shelves. One of the shelves is the “grocery shopping shelf”. When the jars / bottles / containers are empty, I move them to this shelf, and pack them into a reusable shopping bag when it’s close to time. To stop the glass from clanking against each other, I put old socks on them as buffer.

At this time, the items that I regularly buy as refills include dried fruits, nuts, rice, coffee, soy sauce, oil, vinegar, sugar, salt, some spices, flour, and dried noodles. This is also partly why I only need two bags for my weekly supermarket shopping and can go by walking. A lot of it now goes into this monthly refill trip rather than the supermarket trips.

Dry goods and soy sauce refilled from the bulk foods store
Refilling existing containers from the bulk food store

2. Returning jars for jams and pre-made sauces

Occasionally, I also buy packaged things at the bulk food stores. For example, artisanal jams and homemade spice pastes. You could just keep the jars they come in for your own re-use, and many people on this zero waste journey find themselves hoarding jars! But I now have too many jars so I try not to add to them.

This is another reason to find your local zero waste / bulk food store. You can return the jars of things you bought from there for re-use. If I need to do this, I just do it on the same monthly trip, so it’s not a hassle at all.

Zero waste while grocery shopping online – possible?

With the advent of online shopping portals, more and more people turn to ordering groceries online. Unfortunately, this doesn’t usually help reduce the amount of plastic involved in the activity, aside from the groceries normally coming in boxes rather than plastic supermarket bags. For this reason, I didn’t opt for online grocery shopping, up until recently.

1. What groceries do I buy online?

There were two reasons that led me to occasionally order groceries online. The first was to support farmers, via online ‘farmer’s markets’ like E-Petani. In other words, when I order groceries online, it isn’t from a supermarket, but from these farmers’ portals.

The second, more decisive reason, was to get free range eggs packed in egg cartons rather than plastic. I can get free range eggs by the tray and more cheaply on E-Petani, compared to the supermarket. But since it doesn’t make sense to order just the eggs, I add on some other groceries as well when I run out of eggs. Generally, these would be fruits and vegetables that would come in plastic anyway, if I were to buy them at the supermarket, so it makes no difference.

Eggs in carton tray
Photo by Jakub Kapusnak on Unsplash

2. How do I minimise packaging waste while grocery shopping online?

When I do order groceries online, I add a note to my order asking them to reduce the use of plastic packaging. I’m not sure whether it has any effect, since the fresh produce are often already bagged from the farm. And even though the groceries are delivered in a box, they still separate any loose produce in plastic bags.

Some of this plastic packaging becomes trash, but the bags become bin liners. The egg cartons get recycled. My wish list is to find somewhere that wants them for re-use, but so far I haven’t found it yet.

However, I bring the boxes to my local bulk food store, because they re-use them for their deliveries. This is another reason to find a regular local zero waste store. Not for what you can get, but for you to return resources into the system. Again, this is in the same monthly trip; it’s one trip to return/donate packaging material and also get refills.

What groceries do I still buy in plastic or other packaging?

Alas, it simply is not possible to go completely zero waste when grocery shopping in the city centre. I think I’ve eliminated as much of it as I can. Can you guess which grocery items are the most difficult to get without plastic packaging?

Yes, it’s fresh fruits and vegetables, for the reasons that I opened this article with. I can get loose onions, garlic, tomatoes, and yams. My local supermarket even used to offer carrots and mushrooms loose, but apparently not anymore. And as for fruits, I can get apples, oranges, lemons, melons, and dragonfruit without plastic. These are produce that can last for some time without help from packaging. So I still have to buy most vegetables, and things like chillies, herbs, mushrooms, noodles and pasta, with plastic. And I do still choose to buy other kinds of fruits, both local and imported, which entails accepting the plastic packaging.

I also still buy dairy. Yoghurt, cheese, butter and ice cream will come packaged, of course. And I do buy the occasional processed food and snacks. This is the remaining source of the plastic in my recycling bin and my kitchen bin (although some of it becomes the bin liners).

Fresh produce in a supermarket packaged in plastic
All in plastic. Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash

Ad hoc grocery shopping

Then there are grocery items that I only buy irregularly. For instance, I used to buy bread from the mini market sometimes, which typically comes in plastic. However, nowadays I tend to get it freshly made from the bistro across the road, which they wrap in paper.

And finally, there are those groceries that I normally re-stock when I travel. For example, I tend to buy wild or rural harvested honey from agro bazaars or highway rest area stalls. Usually, buying fresh produce from the rural areas comes without packaging by default. If you stop by the roadside to get fruit, you’re getting it by the bunch. But if you buy more processed rural goods, like keropok or snacks, then of course packaging will be involved.

Is it convenient to do zero waste grocery shopping?

Whether or not it feels convenient to do zero waste grocery shopping depends on a few things. On the one hand, it’s more convenient to just buy groceries at the supermarket, and throw away all packaging. However, if you try to be someone who recycles, then I think going zero waste can be more convenient because it helps you eliminate the packaging waste, which means less things to separate out for recycling.

Another consideration is what you’re already used to. If you start from a high waste paradigm, the transition period is inconvenient. This is because you’re trying to do things in two paradigms at the same time. So you have the extra work of preparing your containers and reusable bags, but haven’t yet gained the benefits of a lot less garbage to manage. But when you reach a new normal of (best achievable) zero waste grocery shopping, personally I don’t find it any less convenient than what I used to do previously.

Have a shopping routine to help you go zero waste

What you really want to land on, is your new routine that replaces or modifies the old grocery shopping routine. My parents used to do a big monthly shop, relying on hypermarkets, food technology, and the refrigerator, to last the month. This would, of course, require a certain kitchen storage size and a sizeable refrigerator.

When I moved out, I realised I could more comfortably walk to get my groceries if I simply did a smaller shop and went every week. This meant I didn’t need to drive through the abysmal city traffic, and find parking, just for groceries. I now only do such driving to the bulk foods store once a month, order groceries every few weeks when I run out of free range eggs, and generally only go to the supermarket for the other weeks.

Some people prefer to get groceries on the way back from work, so they may have a different routine. But whatever your routine is, once you find a best achievable zero waste outcome for your household, it probably won’t feel any worse than before, provided the extra effort is paid off by the elimination of other chores, like managing garbage or managing many different goods stored in bulk.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Waste less food in the first place & change eating habits

It goes without saying that zero waste grocery shopping is more affordable, and more convenient, if you bought fewer things in the first place. It helps to learn kitchen skills that keep food fresh for longer, and that help you use more of the produce you buy in different dishes. I find that when I expect myself to carry the groceries home, I’m considerably more motivated to make the most of the groceries!

For example, I buy oil relatively infrequently, since I use it sparingly. I sometimes keep bones for making broth, and occasionally save banana peels to make into ‘vegan bacon‘. Basically, it’s going back to the frugal ways of our grandmothers. When you reduce waste this way, it typically means another meal or two that you’re not buying for, which helps you stretch out your supplies a little longer and reduces the size of every shop.

It also helps if you adjust what you cook to use more of what’s available without packaging. People used to shop like that all the time, preferentially buying what happens to be in season. Even if you don’t do something so drastic as only buying the unpackaged things, at least you can tend to buy them slightly more often. And the way this makes sense, is if you knew more ways to cook with them.

And of course, given that the remaining plastic waste that I still have comes from processed goods, I could choose to buy them less frequently, and this automatically drops the rate that I would generate the waste. You don’t have to be extreme and not have anything packaged at all. But you could buy it less frequently, and replace it with different kinds of snacks instead.

It’s a lot easier to do for one person vs a family

And finally, I have a massive advantage on my journey towards zero waste grocery shopping. I have a household of one. I can imagine that the attempt becomes considerably more difficult when you have to change two people’s preferences, habits, and beliefs about what’s normal for meals and managing a kitchen. Even more, if you have children to raise with these habits as well.

Whenever I have guests staying over, the amount of waste immediately increases. Takeaway or food delivery becomes more likely, with the associated plastic packaging. There’s a higher likelihood of packaged snacks and boxed juices, whereas I would usually make juice from actual fruit.

It goes beyond personal food preferences, but also differences in need for convenience. If you travel a lot, or visit different children’s homes a lot like some grandparents do, you might rely a lot more on long shelf life processed foods in your own home. The more people are in your household, with different needs or paces of life, the more difficult it is to shop for household groceries in zero waste ways.

A transition to more circular norms in grocery shopping is not just about supermarkets selling loose produce, and supporting bulk food stores. At a certain level, it also requires a societal rethink on pace of life, city planning, neighbourhood relationships, and family culture.

Fresh produce on sale without plastic packaging in a small town wet market
Fresh produce in a small town market isn’t pre-packed in plastic

Is zero waste grocery shopping more expensive?

Whether zero waste grocery shopping is more expensive, is a very subjective question. There are still small towns and villages where the markets are (or can be) zero waste by default. By that I mean, if you brought your own bags and containers, so that you don’t need the complimentary plastic bags. So you can’t say that zero waste grocery shopping is ‘more expensive’, at least for those places.

But this article specifically focuses on an urban setting, that does not grow its own food and therefore, food must be transported in from the agricultural regions. The short answer is, my grocery shopping budget now is higher than what it used to be. However, my overall household budget, is less. This is due to zero waste principles allowing me to eliminate or drastically reduce many household product categories, such as household cleaning, bathroom, personal grooming, etc. which I’ll cover in other articles.

My advice is to pick a few things that save money or don’t really cost much more as refills, so that you have a reason to build a habit of going to your local refill store. But mainly prioritise going zero waste in these other product categories first, because it will visibly reduce the size of your supermarket shopping cart. This will make the rest of the journey more affordable and feel more manageable. And who knows, maybe one day the local supermarket is the local refill store!

Zero waste principles tend to save money

For grocery shopping specifically, there are two aspects to zero waste habits that are budget related. Learning better kitchen skills to make the most of the groceries you buy, saves money. Now that you’re charged for supermarket bags, bringing your own saves money too. Being clever about saving bags from all kinds of purchases means you don’t need to buy bin liners, which also saves money. And in general, produce that are sold loose in the supermarket don’t cost any more than those which are not, and sometimes they even cost less.

Grocery shopping in Pokhara | fresh produce in Nepal | roadside vegetable vendor
Buying vegetables the old-fashioned way

Zero waste grocery refills usually cost more

Bulk food store refills do tend to be more expensive in urban settings. (In small towns, they may still be the norm.) This is partly due to lacking economics of scale. It’s also partly because you also tend to get more value add, such as the item being organic. So it’s not an apples to apples comparison.

My rice refills are usually basmati rice from India, because it’s the most available and best value option at my bulk food store. It costs me about RM19/kg, whereas it would be about RM10/kg pre-packed in a supermarket. Regular fragrant rice is even cheaper at about RM7-8/kg.

Ground coffee has a narrower price difference, but refills are still more expensive at RM16.9 per 100g vs about RM12 per 100g for a similarly fair trade product.

A final example are cooking oils. You can’t get refills of the cheapest cooking oil, i.e. palm oil – not even the RSPO or MSPO certified ones. So I usually get coconut oil. Coconut oil can be between RM35-50/kg as refills, whereas it’s half the price at the supermarket, and palm oil is even cheaper at less than RM10/kg.

I chose the above comparisons deliberately, to indicate the effect of switching to refills for staples you buy on a regular basis. On the other hand, things that you only buy rarely, such as spices, may feel more affordable. In fact, a colleague of mine prefers to buy them at refill stores because she can get exactly the amount she wants every time, rather than have to buy a minimum amount which then goes to waste.

On the other hand, these prices tend to be more stable over time. They basically did not change over at least the last 4 years, despite inflation raising grocery prices otherwise.

Variety of colourful spices on sale on a Delhi street
Traditional spice market – weigh and buy only what you need

Can I go even more zero waste for groceries, and what is the trade-off?

I’m not 100% zero waste with my grocery shopping. But I feel that, given the options available in my city, this is the best reasonable level someone can achieve, given favourable but realistic circumstances (one-person household, regular full time employment, moderate-to-high disposable income, some spare time but not very much).

Could I go even more zero waste than this, and what would it take?

I’d need to move out of the city/ closer to a wet market

If I moved back out to outer suburbia or a small town, I could eliminate more plastic packaging related to fresh produce and protein. But that would mean more driving commutes and losing access to walkable amenities.

That said, my friend Swee Keng reckons the important thing is moving closer to a wet market. You might even be able to get plastic-free tofu in wet markets.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste

I could also switch to pasta and noodle refills at the bulk food store. However, they only stock whole wheat versions, and frankly, those don’t taste as good to me.

Sometimes, there are overriding ethical priorities

I could previously get bananas without plastic at my supermarket. However, for some reason all the local bananas come in a little plastic bag now. Only the imported Dole bananas come without plastic. But I can’t bring myself to buy Dole bananas when I live in a country with lots of native bananas grown in local farms rather than corporate multinational farms.

Additionally, I also intentionally buy salad grown in urban vertical farms. They invariably come in a plastic ziplock bag. I do this because I believe that urban zones should grow at least some of its own food, rather than be completely dependent on rural zones. Feeding cities drives land use conversion to agriculture, and increases pressure on nature and ecosystems.

I’d need to stop travelling

And finally, I could grow some herbs, which is possible even in an apartment without a balcony. I used to have a steady supply of basil when I had a plant during the pandemic lockdown. However, herbs don’t tend to survive being neglected when you travel. But it’s definitely something worth doing, if you have a more reliable home routine!

Share this article on Pinterest! How do you try to achieve zero/low waste grocery shopping? What works for you? Comment below and share!

US style corporate management promotes senior managers who see staff in terms of their job grade, like parts in a machine. So if two people happen to be in the same job grade, therefore they must be interchangeable.

As a kind of LOTR fan, I have to nitpick the phrasing and clarify that the reason why the One Ring was the least dangerous with a hobbit, is because hobbits just want to live life and get along, ie hobbits aren’t tempted to “rule them all”.

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