Jaclyn’s Declassified Shopping Survival Guide
Jaclyn Merica | 3/9/16 3:38pm
| Updated 4/21/16 4:32pm
American Word Magazine
Before starting out on my sustainability spree, I discussed some of the concerns I had with one of my friends, like washing my hair, using tampons and ensuring I don’t go hungry. He insisted being waste free just wasn’t practical because it’s impossible to feed yourself without producing trash. Truthfully, his sentiments weren’t unfounded. One of my most worrisome issues was how I was going to keep up with grocery shopping, while remaining sustainable and staying on a student’s budget. As much as I’d like to, I don’t have the time or the gas money to buy directly from a weathered but amiable farmer in West Virginia each weekend. With the resources I have around me, including corporate grocery stores like Giant, Whole Foods and Safeway, I genuinely found it to be an easy transition into waste free living.
My first approach to shopping for unpackaged and unprocessed food was from local farmers markets around the District. I note what produce is in season and jot down a few recipes I plan on making later in the week. With my reusable canvas bags proudly but clichely proclaiming “I Love Green Trees” across the front, I make my way into the hoopla that is the Dupont Circle Farmers Market. Denim-clad vendors sell everything from smelly cheeses to obscure selections of kale, and my denim-clad self is all about it. I allocate a certain amount I can spend for my shopping spree and have found $40 to $45 gets me plenty of produce and meat for the week. I’ll know I’ve succeeded in adulthood when I can afford a $14 cold-pressed juice from Fruitive, but until then, I’ll stick to what I’ve consistently bought: $6 large loaves of bread, $7 packages of herb sausages, around $5 of apples and $3 quarter pound bags of mixed greens. After that, I get creative with what I want. A couple sweet potatoes or squashes are only ever $4, while brussel sprouts are a bit pricey at $7 for two cups.
Dairy products and eggs are abundant at the markets, too. Different vendors sell fresh eggs from between $4.50 and $5. A useful tip is to never throw away an egg carton after the last of the eggs have been used. Vendors give discounts to patrons when bring cartons back, so being a hoarder comes with its benefits. Fancy cheese is sold in bulk, and a square cost me $8. I brought my own cheesecloth in order to avoid plastic wrappings, and I feel like I’m paying homage to Julia Child. A few vendors sell milk in reusable glass bottles, while others sell it in recyclable plastic bottles. The main vendor at the Dupont Market raises his cows free range, feeds them an organic and corn-free diet and insists there are no hormones or additives, which is unfortunately uncommon in the States. One week, I splurged and bought all natural butter and yogurt. It came out to be $11, which impeded me from buying some other produce that week, but that one purchase sustained me for two and a half weeks, so it’s a trade off.
I realize dedicating every Sunday morning to a farmers market can be an arduous task, and even I find myself unwilling to leave my bed at times, even for the sake of sustainability. It’s possible to utilize corporate grocery stores while maintaining a waste free lifestyle, and the first step is to bring a variety of different sized reusable bags for produce, breads, grains and anything else of interest. Reusable sandwich and snack bags (found on Amazon) are also useful to hold smaller items that I’d typically put in plastic bags from the produce section. It can take a thousand years for plastic bags to breakdown, and all too often the bags find their way to the ocean. When purchasing produce at a place like Giant or Safeway, my only restriction to what I can buy is whether the produce has a sticker on it. The adhesive on stickers are non-compostable and non-recyclable. Stickers limit me from buying things like apples, pears, mangos and bananas, but a lot of other fruit are fair game. Items packaged in plastic or paper crates can be recycled, so berries are my go to, but they can’t have a sticker across the plastic covering. Vegetables are a less daunting task- onions, sprouts, potatoes, beets, greens and carrots are all sticker free.
I found it a bit difficult to shop for certain types of meat at grocery stores. A lot of meat is packaged on styrofoam plates and wrapped in plastic wrap. Styrofoam is flat out non-recyclable, but plastic wrap is. However, plastic wrap, as well as plastic bags, ziplock bags and plastic packaging, requires special services to either collect or drop off to. There’s an option of buying meat or fish at the meat counter, but on a budget, I’ve never been able to do so. When I am able to afford that option, I would just ensure that I bring a container with me so the butcher can hold off on wrapping my food in plastic and adhesive stickers. I’ve seen it done, and the butchers are happy to put the meats in personal containers. Tofu containers are recyclable, so if I don’t have meat from the farmer’s market, I can still get enough protein in my diet. Rice, beans, lentils and quinoa are available in recyclable plastic bags, so my grain intake doesn’t suffer. Many come in cardboard boxes, too, which are compostable.
In all honesty, I still find it a bit challenging to snack while being waste free. I’ve been craving a big bag of tortilla chips and Pringles for weeks now, and that’s something I’ve had to get used to. Individual sized chips are handy, but they’re just not sustainable in any way. If I want packaged crackers or chips, I can always buy Wheat Thins or Triscuits, as long as I wash the plastic bags the crackers come in before recycling them. I’ve had to turn to bulk items to satisfy my snack cravings. Buying in bulk is advantageous to a waste free lifestyle, and it makes grazing easier. At stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, there are bulk bins filled with everything from grains to granola to gluten free yogurt pretzels, and I scoop up as much as I want into a reusable bag. Even lentils and quinoa can be bought in bulk instead of buying the prepackaged boxes. Then, by storing the rest of my groceries in glass or metal containers at home, I’ve eliminated all the unnecessary plastic all together.
Facing the unfavorable truth of just how many plastic food containers and bags I brought home after a trip to the grocery story was horrifying. Cutting back on my plastic packaging, yet still feeding myself well, all while staying within my financial means is a feat I’m very proud of. The true technique of being waste free on a strict budget is knowing exactly how much I need to make it through the week. Wherever I chose to shop, I heed the advice to only shop once a week to cut down on waste and maximize my time. I overbought for a few weeks, and then settled into a routine of knowing exactly how much I would need to feed myself, as well as my friends. Familiarizing myself with waste free grocery shopping was the critical part to feeling like I should have been waste free years ago.