How To Shop At A Zero-Waste Grocery Store

Plus, the top five things to buy.

Assortment of vegetables sealed in clear jars.

Unboxed Market. (Photo, Jeremy Chan)

As zero-waste grocery stores continue to pop up across the country, you may be wondering how they differ from conventional markets. With a focus on initiatives like reducing food waste and curbing the use of plastic packaging—only 9 percent of plastic waste in Canada is actually recycled—zero-waste stores offer a more environmentally conscious way to shop.

To get the details, we spoke with Michelle Genttner of Unboxed Market—Toronto’s first bricks-and-mortar zero-waste grocery store—and Claudia Cotici, a designer and zero-waste blogger based in Stratford, P.E.I., about how zero-waste stores work and the top five things you can purchase at one.

What is a zero-waste grocery store?

Zero-waste grocery stores aim to reduce or eliminate excess packaging wherever possible. You won’t find single-use plastics like produce bags or clamshell containers in a zero-waste store, but the effort often extends behind the scenes, too. “We work really hard with our distributors, vendors and manufacturers to eliminate all of that excess [packaging] up the chain, as far as we can go,” Genttner says.

Items that typically come pre-packed are instead available in bulk, including things like olive oil, yogurt, pasta and spices. At Unboxed Market, when packaging is necessary—like for prepared foods or preserves made in-house—they only use glass or aluminum, which can be recycled at home or brought back on a deposit system once you’re finished with the product.

What can you buy at a zero-waste store?

Much of what’s available depends on where you live and the store itself. Unboxed Market is a full-service store, meaning they have everything you’d find in a regular grocery or bulk store, including personal care, household and pet products. Many of their goods are still recognizable brands too, only they’re sold in bulk—like French’s ketchup and mustard, which they have on tap!

Some zero-waste stores only carry limited or specialty goods. “Sometimes I have to go to various places for bulk [items]; it’s not always just one stop,” Cotici says, noting there’s only one zero-waste store in her town.

At Halifax’s The Tare Shop, for example, their grocery selection includes dry goods, frozen foods and liquid goods, like oil and nut butters. Similarly, Bulk Basket, which is located in Saskatoon, offers dried and liquid goods, plus dairy, eggs and produce.

If you’re unfamiliar with what’s available at your local zero-waste store, Genttner recommends stopping by just to browse for the first time. “Don’t go in with the intention of shopping. Just go in and wander around to get a sense of what the store has and take note of what’s there.”

Food assorted into glass jars filled in a grocery fridge.

(Photo, Jeremy Chan)

How to prepare and what to bring

You’ll need to bring your own packaging: cloth produce bags, glass jars, plastic yogurt containers, beeswax wrap. The key, Genttner says, is ensuring your packaging is clean and that it can be closed properly.

Cotici also recommends making a list, so that you know how much packaging you’ll need to have washed, dried and ready to go for your shop.

Is there a cost difference?

At a zero-waste store, you’ll be paying for most products by weight. The weight of your containers or packaging is measured before you shop—also known as taring—so that it can be deducted from the final weight once filled.

Prices may vary, depending on the store itself. Cotici says she spends a bit more on average when shopping zero-waste, but that some items, like household cleaning products, tend to be cheaper. Genttner says that in general, at Unboxed Market, items are on par or below when compared to major grocery chains.

One cost-saving benefit of zero-waste shopping is that it’s easier to buy only what you need, so you’re not spending money on something that might eventually end up in the trash. “If you only need one avocado, but buy a bag, and then throw the other ones out, now that avocado is much more expensive because you’ve wasted money on five and only used one,” Genttner says.

What are the environmental benefits?

One of the most direct environmental impacts of zero-waste shopping is the reduction of packaging and single-use plastics, much of which eventually ends up in landfills. Cotici has seen this firsthand with her own household waste: “I’ve been tracking how much garbage we put out, and we’ve reduced it by 80 percent. Sometimes our garbage bin is really empty.”

Given that zero waste stores are designed specifically to reduce environmental impact, supporting one also means you’re contributing to that effort. It’s estimated that in Canada, 12 percent of avoidable food loss and waste happens during the retail stage, which is due to numerous factors, but includes the rejection of produce that fails to meet visual standards. To help counter this, at Unboxed Market, for example, leftover produce is turned into jams or sauces, which are then sold in the store, preventing further food waste.

Toilet bombs in clear glass jar with silver lid.

(Photos, Jeremy Chan)

How to make the most of the experience

“Take your time and don’t rush into things!” Cotici says, noting that will make the experience more enjoyable. Genttner echoes that sentiment: “A lot of our world right now is so fast, and we really need to take a minute to stop and connect with our food and our space. [A zero-waste] store offers that opportunity because you have to take the time to measure things out.”

Cotici says being curious and asking questions can also go a long way. “Get to know your local zero-waste store and develop that friendly relationship with the people there—it’s such a good place for community.”

The top five things to buy at a zero-waste grocery store

  1. Anything local! Most zero-waste stores have a curated section of locally sourced groceries. By purchasing those goods, you’re supporting the local economy and reducing your overall grocery footprint, since local products haven’t travelled as far as those sourced from elsewhere.
  2. Bulk kitchen staples: Buying kitchen basics like olive oil, vinegar, honey or condiments in bulk means you eliminate the plastic bottles these items are typically sold in. Plus, you can buy a quantity more suitable to your household needs—large or small.
  3. Bulk dry goods: Dry goods like pasta, rice, flour or oats are easy to measure in bulk and easy to transport, too. Bring reusable bags or lighter containers for these items, instead of glass jars, because glass can be particularly heavy when filled. You can easily transfer dry goods to different storage containers once you’re home.
  4. Cleaning basics: Bulk hand soap, dish soap and laundry detergent are often cost-effective when compared to conventional options. Just like food products, the cost for these types of household products is calculated by weight.
  5. Reusable packaging and products: Zero-waste stores are a goldmine when it comes to finding reusable products that will help you cut down on disposables. Stock up on things like silicone bags, bread bags, beeswax wrap, cloth produce bags, steel straws—you name it, they have it.

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