Simple Steps to Eco Living Part 1 - Grocery Shopping

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I read an entertaining article recently written by Lucy Holden, a journalist who attempted living without plastic 'I’ve been trying to live without plastic for a month — which writes off normal cheese from supermarkets and pretty much everything else you would fill your trolley with.' Holden finds it hard, near impossible to avoid plastic packaging (no surprises there) but she does make some permanent changes like switching to a reusable coffee cup and is definitely enlightened by the experience (evidenced by the fact that she starts assessing other people's recycling bin - I so do that!!).


I view trying to go plastic free as a bit like a fad diet. If you try to do away with all plastic straight away you are more likely to fail and less likely to make long term changes. We should think along the terms of being ‘plastic clever’ (a term coined by the inspiring young ladies of Kids Against Plastic). The easiest way to tackle plastic usage is in stages. In this updated edition of my first Eco Living Series (I'm always learning), I share with you some of the ways you could become more plastic clever with your grocery shopping;

Step 1: Take your own bags...for ALL shopping not just the groceries
The plastic bag tax has helped make it routine for us to take our own bags when food shopping. Don't forget to extend this to any kind of shopping, be it retail therapy or the DIY shop. Keep a stash of bags in your car and handbag so that you won't get caught short.

Take smaller cotton drawstring bags for loose vegetables, fruit and bakery items (rolls, croissants). I use mine on a daily basis; at the supermarket, market, corner shop and bakery. You can avoid using the thin plastic bags provided, and your food can be easily transported and stored at home in the bags. 

I take my large cotton bread bag to the bakers, to avoid the plastic bag and tag. This works well for both sliced and unsliced loaves. When home, you can pop your loaf straight into the bread bin. For extended freshness, I wrap the loaf in a beeswax bread wrap which keeps it really moist.

I'm a big proponent of using what you have at home, is there a cotton bag that you could repurpose for this? (I had two drawstring bags that new pyjamas arrived in). Are you a dab hand with a sewing machine? In which case you can whizz a few up. Carry out an audit of what you have and where you identify a need, we sell a range of organic cotton produce bags at The Wise House.

Organic Cotton Bread Bag wisehousestoragebags-7sq

Step 2: Take your own containers for meat and fish
Most of us have a drawer full of containers that are generally under used. Pick out the largest of them and take them to your local butchers and fish counter. Your purchase can be placed inside without the need for any sweaty plastic wrap.

I did feel self conscious using my own container first time around, but it is becoming far more common place now and I am often asked about it by people behind me in the queue. Your meat/fish will stay fresher for longer too, and it is a piece of cake to transfer straight to fridge/ freezer at home.

Consider taking your own containers wherever the alternative is a plastic pot or wrap - like delicatessans, cafes (takeaway) etc.

Stainless steel is a fantastic material for storing food - sustainable, durable and 'clean', without any manmade chemicals like BPA and phthalates. We sell a wide range of tins in all sizes, including a large oval tin which is perfect for meat (pictured below). I still use tupperware containers, but am gradually repurposing for non food uses.

Stainless Steel Container Butchers wisehousestartersets-3

Step 3: Buy loose fruit, vegetables and other deli items where possible
The easiest way to cut out a big chunk of plastic is to switch to a fruit and vegetable box, and the two main players are Riverford and Abel & Cole. The majority of produce arrives loose, with the exception of a few things like salad leaves (as a Riverford customer I know they are working on a compostable solution to this). All of the produce is organic and these companies are at the forefront of environmental issues (it is almost worth signing up to Riverford for Guy Watson's newsletters alone!).

This may seem like an expensive switch, but you can tailor your box very closely to what you need and will use. Buying this way also stops you from going 'off piste' and getting more than you need (plus other 'naughties'). We are quite often down to a few limp leaves the day before our delivery arrives, it makes you appreciate the contents of your box all the more.

Supermarkets are woefully poor at offering loose produce - try local markets, convenience stores and greengrocers (if lucky enough to have one near you!).

For dry goods, I use a fanastic online company called Plastic Free Pantry. You can buy pasta, rice, spaghetti, seeds, nuts etc in bulk, all packaged in paper and compostable packaging. The quality is superb, I didn't know rice could taste so good!

I also recently spotted a company (advertised on the Tube) called Farmdrop. Their tagline is 'The Ethical Grocer' and you can put in your postcode to find produce and organic food produced near-ish to your address. What's wonderful is you can see exactly where produce comes from and who made it - for example, Romano Peppers from the Growing Up Project where local children help to grow the produce 'According to Tom, he probably has the least effective and most expensive labour of any vegetable farm in the UK!'. Well worth a look.

There are some fantastic zero waste, bulk purchase stores popping up around the UK, like Hetu Vegan Zero Waste (Clapham), Bulk Market (Dalston), The Clean Kilo (Birmingham) and Zero Green (Bristol). A new refill shop has opened up near us in Teddington, London. You can find your nearest bulk store using the link below:

Step 4: Recycle stretchy plastic wrap
You are bound to end up with some plastic wrapping, no matter how good your intentions. Most supermarkets have a plastic bag recycling bin near their checkout. I recently discovered that you can recycle any stretchy plastic in these bins, so check as to whether any of your food film packaging is stretchy. Typical items are bags containing fruit, bread and frozen vegetables.

Helpful Link:

You can enter any national postcode and select the items that you wish to recycle and it will bring up a list of recycling bank locations closest to you. I'm a big fan of MRFs (pronounced Merf) but remember only around 10% of plastic reaches these recycling centres, so reducing and reusing is the holy grail of tackling waste.

Step 5: Switch to glass milk bottles delivered by your local milkman
We have being using our local milkman for years now. Initially this was a choice based on convenience, but it is also a great way to save a large number of plastic bottles from going to landfill.

Bottled milk is more expensive. A pint of semi skimmed milk is 81p versus 50p at Sainsburys, for example. The reasons for this is that the supermarkets command very low prices for wholesale milk, a practice which continues to threaten the industry as farms struggle to make a profit.

You are also paying extra for having your milk delivered to your door. The company who supply our milk, Milk & More, use local British suppliers (and provide details on each) so you can be assured of the provenance of the milk. The other thing to consider is whether you are likely to spend money when you pop down to the shop for milk. In simplifying your milk provision, you take away the temptation to buy other things!

Tips For Grocery Shopping With Less Plastic

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  2. Niki Hughes

    Loved reading your tips. Whenever I am in our local supermarket I am always raising eyebrows with my alternative bags and often challenge other shoppers to think about what they are doing! The beeswax wrap is fantastic. Now I am looking to invest in the stainless steel tins.

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  3. Dee Hodson-Wright

    I have bought food in packaging which I assumed was recyclable. It was a bag of frozen peas. When I found out it couldn't be recycled at the supermarket, I used the plastic bag as a bin bag instead this giving it two uses.

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  4. Julia Fowler

    Great Post, no preaching just solid, useful advice!

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  5. Bethany

    Those are great tips about recycling! The system can be quite confusing, I had no idea some of those items were ever recyclable let alone where to go. I thought that I had enough problems with not being able to recycle tetrapaks in my area (I save them to send with a family member) but now I see that ain't the half of it! I hate buying wasteful packaging too, I wish companies wouldn't use them but at least have clearer labelling when it comes to disposal.

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  6. Katherine Knock

    All good ideas and ones we do as a family I must admit. We were a little self conscious going into the local butchers with our own containers and greasepeoof paper but found they were very willing to accommodate our needs. I also stopped using cling film years ago and instead use foil which for the most part does. My one annoyance is that greaseproof often comes with a silicon coating. Has anyone else noticed this? I?m still on the hunt for greaseproof paper without silicon so any thoughts would be appreciated.

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  7. Jo Dixon

    Great blog for thought.....without the plastic of course !

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  8. Jen Mahl

    Thanks for all these greT tips, I already do a few of them but am going to start taking a wider range of containers for meat and deli items. I?ve just switched to buying cleaning products from Splosh and loo roll from Whogivesacrap - plastic free and they donate money to sanitation projects.

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  9. sue

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  10. Jodie Melling

    Thank you for the tips, I love the idea of taking smaller grocery bags to the supermarket as its something I've never thought of but would come in really handy for lots of uses. I would like to see the UK supermarkets follow on from some abroad where they have just 1 aisle of packaging free products where you can take your own tubs and bags. Hopefully it would encourage more people to buy packaging free and then hopefully 1 aisle would become lots of aisles. I know people don't like change and as you say some people find going plastic free unobtainable right now but lots of little steps all add up!. I'm quite new to this and doing my best to try and be conscious and not buy plastic or if I do then reuse what I have. I love the idea of the beeswax wraps! This week I recently bought a stainless steel lunchbox for work to go with my Klean Kanteen and I love it. - @wigan_mum

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