Here are my top 11 ways you can eliminate plastic at grocery stores and restaurants right away. We all eat 3-5 times per day, so these are ways to make a real difference!
This post does not contain any affiliate links nor was I paid to review these items. These are all products I have honestly tried myself and recommend!
1. REFUSE plastic shopping bags, every time. The first change I made many years ago was to switch to reusable shopping bags. There are endless choices! Please note that many of the 99¢ lightweight bags sold at the grocery store are made of polyester-type material, and polyester is plastic. I have been buying my bags at the craft store! They sell canvas and cotton bags for $3-$10 that people usually buy to decorate. You can decorate yours too! Get your creativity on and help the environment!
You can also elect for paper bags if you forget your reusable bags. They are made from trees, but many laws require paper bags to be made of a certain percentage (often 40%) of post-consumer recycled content.
2. STOP buying water and soft drinks in single-use disposable plastic containers. Buy a reusable canteen or water bottle for all drinks (soda, water, juice). When I go walking and pick up litter, I would estimate that 80% or more of what I pick up are drink containers or parts (bottle caps, plastic lids, straws). There are literally thousands of choices at supermarkets, department stores, and online. I use Kleen Kanteen products like the stainless steel one pictured. My son has the Kid Classic Sport version in red, and he carries it everywhere, including school.
3. STOP buying coffee in disposable cups (they are lined with a plastic film which makes them unrecyclable) and purchase a reusable coffee cup if you are regularly visiting Starbucks or the local coffee shop. Again, there are hundreds of choices in shops and online. I personally use Hydro Flask’s insulated coffee cup which I’ve found keeps my coffee hot for as long as a few hours.
Hydro Flask also sells water bottles, tumblers, food containers, and even beer containers! My husband, an avid beer drinker, has the True Pint Cup and loves it. “The True Pint is actually the best vessel I’ve ever found for enjoying beer, because of how well it keeps the drinks cold. I often recommend it and have purchased it as a gift for friends.”
If you do happen to forget your reusable coffee cup, you can request no lid on your coffee cup. “It’s what we in the zero-waste community like to call ‘going topless,'” according to Kathryn Kellogg of goingzerowaste.com.
4. USE a French Press for making coffee at home – this creates zero waste. If you’re buying coffee out every day, this will save you a ton of money. If you’re using a pod machine, such as a Keurig, buy a refillable K-cup and use your own coffee. The disposable K-cups are #7 plastic, which is bad for the environment, and your health as #7 plastic can be potentially toxic. The refillable pods will likely provide a better cup of coffee, too.
I personally used to have a Keurig machine because we received one as a wedding gift. However, the waste it created bothered me. I sold the machine and switched to a French Press. Additionally, I use the coffee grinds in my garden and in my compost bin. I currently use a Bodum Chambord French Press (previously I had an OXO French Press) but any French Press will do – just look for one constructed primarily of glass and metal.
If you’re a tea drinker, you can eliminate plastics by switching to loose tea leaves. Teabags are often made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic or polypropylene (PP), and nylon (also plastic), and these release toxins and phthalates into hot water. You can purchase a metal infuser or strainer. Tea Forte is my favorite type of teaware as they made cups and teapots that come with a fitted infuser.
5. REFUSE the straw. Just don’t use one. Or bring your own! There are many options for reusable straws these days. I have a plain stainless steel straw from lifewithoutplastic.com but for Christmas, I received a FinalStraw as a gift. It folds and comes in its own cute little carrying case.
6. DON’T bag your produce. I know this seems unusual, but the grocery store does not require that you bag your produce. They can weigh lemons unbagged just as easily as if they’re in a bag. Some fruits and vegetables grow their own protective covers. Corn, for example, comes in its own packaging so items like that especially don’t need to be bagged! There is a myth that plastic keeps foods “fresh” or “sanitary” but the truth is that you need to wash off your produce anyway. Also, avoid buying produce prepackaged in plastic and polystyrene. This just isn’t necessary.
“Plastic keeps food from getting dirty, but food literally comes from dirt, from the ground…It doesn’t sprout from the soil wrapped in three layers of plastic.” -Kathryn Kellogg, 101 Way To Go Zero Waste
But you can also bring your own produce bags. I use them mostly for lettuce and kale and choose not to bag most other produce. You can buy these on Etsy or Amazon, just try to find cotton bags instead of mesh ones made out of polyester (which is plastic). Or, you can make your own! A fun DIY project if you’re handy with a sewing machine.
Buying at the farmer’s market or your local market is another option – just remember to bring your own bags! This is also better for the local economy and the environment.
7. BUY from bulk bins whenever possible. Choose food products from the bulk bins of grocery stores like Whole Foods. If I can find a food item in bulk, I’m able to skip the packaging altogether. Grains, beans, granola, spices, nuts, dried fruit, candy, flour, and cornmeal are just some of the items you can find in bulk depending on where you live. Referring back to #4, I regularly buy my coffee from bulk coffee bins at Whole Foods. I can grind the beans at the store and take them home in a reusable jar or coffee bag.
I now bring my own glass Ball jars to Whole Foods. They weigh the jars at customer service and take off the tare, or weight, of the jar at check out. This works best for me since I’m going to store my food items in glass jars anyway. I save time and mess by not having to transfer the food from a bag to a jar. You can buy them at almost every supermarket these days!
Often packaging contains air to make the package look fuller than it actually is, to trick people into thinking they’re getting a better deal. Buying from bulk bins allows you to buy the exact amounts you need, which can save you money.
You can find bulk bins by using Zero Waste Home’s bulk bin finder or Litterless’s Zero Waste Grocery guide, but always verify the store is still open and still offering bulk bins, as these change frequently and I don’t know how often these websites are updated for every location.
8. CARRY your own take-out/leftover containers. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s not – and it’s easy! I keep two glass pyrex containers with lids in my car, next to my reusable bags. When I go to a restaurant, I just grab one to take home my leftovers. No one objects, and often I get compliments from the restaurant staff for doing this. Last, leftovers are often boxed in styrofoam or polystyrene, which contains chemicals and toxins you don’t want in your food.
9. BUY milk and juice in refillable glass jugs. Whole Foods and other stores sell milk and sometimes juice in glass containers often by the quart and half-gallon. You pay a deposit and receive the deposit back once you return them – it’s a great system! We did this for several years and I loved doing it! We’ve since gone mostly dairy-free in our home, but it’s still an option I use for the occasional milk product or juice.
10. LIMIT the amount of processed foods a.k.a. convenience foods that you eat. There’s so much plastic in frozen microwave meals, microwavable soups, applesauce or tuna packets, and dairy products like single-serve yogurt cups or pouches. Canned soups and vegetables are often lined with BPA, and if they’re not, they’re often lined with something else that has not yet been tested on human health. The cardboard cartons that contain broth, soups, non-dairy shelf-stable milk, etc., are lined with plastic and foil, and these cannot be recycled because they contain too many materials that have to be separated. You can more about those in Part 4 of my Packaging Series.
These foods lack nutrition, often contain toxic chemicals, and are bad for the environment. You can be good to your body and the environment by avoiding, or at least limiting these items. Ever heard the phrase, shop the perimeter? That rule can help. Focus on eating whole foods, which means food that is minimally processed.
“Despite…packaging breakthroughs, the actual safety and nutritional value of processed foods is often questionable.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic
11. REFILL water in your own refillable glass jug, if you buy water by the gallon. You can even use a growler (just make sure you wash it well if switching between beer and water). They look like the one pictured but often if a grocery store has a water station, they also sell jugs for filling as well. I bought mine at Whole Foods for $9.99 (a cost I’m happy to cover instead of having a plastic jug end up in the ocean). Since then, I found several others at Goodwill for just $2 each! I sanitized them and now we have plenty of containers for water (or beer!).
Another option is to implement a water filtration system in your home. I have a Brita pitcher that uses filters to filter our water. These do create waste, but TerraCycle does have sponsored programs for both Brita and Pur water filtration systems. You can also filter water with activated charcoal, according to goingzerowaste.com, although I haven’t personally tried this yet.
My brother-in-law and his wife installed an under-sink water filter in their house. They installed it where the sink sprayer used to be, and they only have to change the filter every 6 months! There’s a ton of DIY instructions online if you want to install one.
Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero-Waste Chef, noted that if you do the shopping for your household, you control what comes into your home. So, if you don’t buy and bring disposables home, everyone in your home will make do with what they find in the kitchen. This is such a good point to remember!
I hope this guide is helpful to you! Leave me questions or comments below. Thank you for reading.
Series of articles, “The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently,” written by Marie Cullis at becauseturtleseatplasticbags.com.
Book, Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too, by Beth Terry, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2015. ISBN 9781632206657.
Article, “100 Steps to a Plastic-Free Life,” myplasticfreelife.com, accessed November 5, 2020.
Book, 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, by Kathryn Kellogg, The Countryman Press, New York, 2019. ISBN 9781682683316.
Book, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste, by Bea Johnson, Scribner, New York, 2013. ISBN 9781451697681.
Book, The Zero-Waste Chef: Plant-Forward Recipes and Tips for a Sustainable Kitchen and Planet, by Anne-Marie Bonneau, Avery, New York, 2021. ISBN 9780593188774.
2 Replies to “11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food”
Good thing to strive for. Not always possible. Haven’t seen non-dairy milk or yogurt in glass. I will try the coffee cup since my weekly treat is a Starbucks coffee. Ty for the info.
Hi Kay, thank you for your comment and you’re welcome for the info! You’re right, it’s not always possible. But every time you use one less disposable item, you are making a difference!