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How to shop organic without the plastic

A zero waste lifestyle and eating organic should, in theory, go hand in hand - after all, both promote looking after our environment and have potential health benefits. In practice it can be tricky but with a few changes to your shopping habits it is possible. Kate Arnell shares her five top tips.

Photo: Kate Arnell

Five years ago, I decided I no longer wanted to add to the growing waste problem. I’m passionate about choosing organic but my bin was still filled with single-use plastic packaging after each grocery shop. I realised I would have to make some changes. Below are my top tips on how to do it.

#1 Pick the low hanging (organic) fruit

I began by tackling the easy stuff; things I could do from the comfort of my laptop. I set up an organic milk delivery in returnable glass bottles within a matter of minutes. If you don’t have any organic veg shops near you or farmers markets, or you simply prefer things being delivered to your door, then try signing up to an organic veg box to help reduce packaging. I recently found a plastic-free veg box online but the majority of them have minimal packaging anyway and they usually collect any packaging to be reused.

There are also some online stores selling plastic-free organic dry goods such as pasta, herbs, spices, flours, grains and dried fruits and nuts.

Try not to take the zero-waste lifestyle too seriously. Yes, the amount of packaging can be frustrating but have fun with it, be creative and there is no such thing as failure, just learning as you go.

#2 Geek out

I researched locations near me where I could buy the essentials. Meat and fresh produce made up the largest proportion of our grocery shop, so I found a local organic farm shop with a deli and butcher’s counter where I took my own containers and asked them to put the meat straight in. They simply deduct the weight of the container. I soon became known as the “tin girl”. It’s always helpful getting to know the staff in local stores and I’ve found them to be more than happy to oblige any package-free requests. Don’t be shy, just ask!

Next, I located places where I could buy dry goods and refills. This really depends on what you have available to you in your local area. The good thing is, when you start looking for loose options, you begin to notice them everywhere.

Use this Zero Waste Shop map to locate places near you. Simply strolling into local health shops or visiting farmers markets can also be a great way to see what your neighbourhood has to offer. You might be surprised to find all sorts of things from wine and tea to oils and pasta available in refills or unpackaged.

Remember you don’t always need a specific “zero waste shop” to buy unpackaged food. Alternatively look for items that are packaged better, either in glass which can be infinitely recycled or paper which can be easily recycled or composted. Plastics (if they get recycled!) are usually down-cycled into something that cannot be recycled again.

#3 Invest in reusables

I've found that investing in items I love means I’m more likely to remember to bring them with me. A nice stainless-steel bottle for drinking water on the go, a reusable coffee cup for my takeaway organic caffeine fix and some reusable (organic cotton) cloth bags for buying loose dry goods or grabbing a croissant on the go all mean I can reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. You could even try making your own cloth bags if you’re crafty. It’s useful if you write the weight of the cloth bags and containers on them somewhere so the cashier can deduct the weight if necessary.

The key with reusables is to think ahead before grocery shopping. How many containers will I need for meat? How many cloth bags for fruit and veg? Making a list helps a lot. When I’m leaving the house, I always think “phone, keys, wallet, cloth bags!”

#4 Scrub up

Let’s not forget the bathroom - this can be a huge source of waste. The first thing I did was remove the bin as people tend to throw everything and anything in it, no matter if it’s recyclable or compostable.

Next, I simplified the products we used. A bar of organic soap replaced bottles of body wash and liquid hand soap. I started using a shampoo refill or shampoo bar for washing my hair and an organic bamboo toothbrush for brushing my teeth. When it comes to period products, there are various options that not only save money but are also a lot healthier than disposables. Try organic cotton reusable pads, a reusable silicone menstrual cup (my personal fave!) or invest in some organic cotton period pants that can absorb the equivalent of 2-3 tampons.

It can be tricky to find organic beauty products that are also packaged without plastic but there are some out there. Often, simple kitchen swaps will work just as well as “products”. I love to use olive oil as a moisturiser and make-up remover. Bicarbonate of soda works as a deodorant and tooth powder while cocoa powder can replace bronzer and brown eyeshadow as well as act as a dry shampoo for those with darker hair (try arrowroot powder if you have light hair).

#5 Show me the funny!

Us Brits tend to hate causing any inconvenience or bothering people. But asking for something to be refilled or to go in your glass jar is no big deal (I promise). I usually throw in a line like “oh you know, just saving the planet, one plastic container at a time” which often gets a smile. Find the funny in the moment and try not to take the zero-waste lifestyle too seriously. Yes, the amount of packaging can be frustrating but have fun with it, be creative and there is no such thing as failure, just learning as you go. Communicate any frustrations with brands and companies but again, keep it light with useful alternative suggestions. Ranting at people rarely works.

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While a lot of the above may sound a bit out of the ordinary and extra work, I have to say after a few simple habit changes, it now feels completely normal. Enjoy exploring what your local area has to offer (many supermarkets are now encouraging customers to bring their own containers and reusable bags which is great to see) and who knows, you may even start to see grocery shopping as less of a chore and more of a pleasure. I certainly have. Going zero waste doesn’t happen overnight, but a few simple swaps can carry you a long way. Happy shopping!

Kate Arnell

Kate Arnell

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