6 Ways to Shop More Sustainably at the Grocery Store

Small changes in how you shop for food can make a big difference.

<p>Mike Harrington</p>

Mike Harrington

Whether you consider it a pleasure or a chore, grocery shopping is one of life's essential tasks—and it's one where making intentional choices can have a big impact. Food accounts for 10 to 30 percent of a U.S. household's total carbon footprint, so changing how we food shop can really make a difference.

We asked experts to share their top tips for shopping greener at the supermarket, from bringing reusable bags to reducing packaging waste to choosing more plant-based products. Making just a few (or all!) of these small changes can have a beneficial effect on the planet—and you might find they even make grocery shopping a little more enjoyable, too.

Meet Our Expert

Related: Want to Be Greener at Home? Follow This Eco-Friendly Routine from Dawn to Dusk

Start Small

Set yourself up for success by starting small—you won't be able to completely overhaul your grocery shopping in one trip, and that's OK. Pick one or two new practices to commit to and treat yourself with grace when you fail. Also, remember to talk to your friends and families about your choices and why. When we all do it together, even imperfectly, we work to reduce the environmental impact of food.

Bring Your Own Bags and Containers

Americans use an estimated 100 billion plastic bags a year, most of which end up sitting in landfills, where it can take up to 500 years for them to decompose. Worse yet, plastic can enter our oceans, contaminating waterways and threatening wildlife. It's a planetary crisis—and it's also a contributor to the climate crisis. More than 99 percent of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas. Yet, there are small steps that we can take to dramatically reduce the use of plastic, ultimately helping to protect our health and the planet.

Start by bringing your own reusable bags to the store. Once you've got that down, see where else you can use your own bags or containers.

Bring Reusable Produce Bags

"They're a single-use item with such a short life," says Kate Bratskeir, the author of A Pocket Guide to Sustainable Food Shopping: How to Navigate the Grocery Store, Read Labels, and Help Save the Planet. "You use them to transport your produce from the store to your home, and that's it. If you think they're protecting your fruit and vegetables from a gross conveyor belt, know that your food has already traveled miles in dirt and grime and has been touched by countless hands." A better idea? Swap them for reusable produce bags you bring with you.

Bring Your Own Containers

You can also bring your own reusable containers for meat or fish bought from the butcher or seafood counter, or even bread from the bakery. If you call your supermarket bakery ahead of time, they will often put a loaf aside for you sans packaging.

Related: 20 Essentials for Your Sustainability Starter Kit

Choose Sustainable Groceries

The food that we buy and and where we choose to buy is it one of our most significant opportunities to make green choices while nudging the food system towards greater sustainability. What we have available to us comes from what we demand and buy. When you choose sustainable products, you're voting for the future and shifting the system, says Camilla Marcus, chef and founder of regenerative provisions brand west~bourne. She suggests becoming familiar with where your food comes from and learning about what food is in season and grown near you as a useful step to selecting sustainable groceries.

"Getting to know the farmers and producers who grow your food can deepen your appreciation for each meal, and it's a fantastic way to support sustainable practices and local economies," she says. It's also a powerful way to reduce the carbon footprint linked to transporting food across long distances. If you can't make it to the farmers' market—or there isn't one near you—look for organic, regenerative, fair-trade, and local certifications on products.

Related: Beyond Organic: Learn How Biodynamic and Regenerative Farming Are Changing Sustainable Food Production

Be Mindful of Meat Consumption

Livestock farming is one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, yet a more plant-based diet can significantly reduce your carbon footprint and is easier to do than you may think. "Incorporating vegetable dishes into your diet is a great way to explore a diverse world of flavors and nutrients," says Marcus. She suggests trying new ingredients in your cooking as you move away from a meat-centric style.

A 2023 study of more than 55,000 people and 38,000 farms in 119 countries found that plant-based diets produce 75 percent less heat-trapping gas, generate 75 percent less water pollution, and use 75 percent less land than meat-rich diets—those that include at least 100 grams of meat daily, or the equivalent of one steak about the size of a deck of cards. 

How to Use Less Meat

Buy less meat at the store. Start incorporating more vegetables, beans, nuts, and legumes into your lifestyle and gradually introduce non-dairy and non-meat alternatives. Try to adopt one plant-based meal or snack per day. Or consider subbing half the meat in a dish, say a burrito, for beans to add extra fiber.

Remember that not every plant-based food is good for you or the earth. Some meat-free processed products, while technically plant-based, are packed with artificial ingredients, preservatives, and sodium. Make your plant-based diet focused on plants, not processed foods.

Related: How to Eat Less Meat (Without Missing It)

Reduce Food Waste

In the U.S., food is the single most common material found in landfills. According to the FDA, more than one-third, nearly 100 million tons, of municipal waste is organic, with food making up 66 million tons. It's a huge problem.

Once in a landfill, food is trapped under other debris, which, as it rots in that oxygen-starved setting, emits methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, food waste accounts for up to 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that for most individuals, reducing food waste is the biggest thing you can do to reduce carbon emissions. And it's possible to do.

Related: 9 Food Scraps You Should Never Throw Away—and the Best Ways to Use Them

How to Waste Less Food

  • Bratskeir recommends doing a trash audit. Look through your garbage for wasted food. Are there foods you throw out often because they've gone bad before you can consume them? Use that to inform your shopping, but before you hit the grocery store, you need to make a meal plan.

  • Meal planning, in combination with inventorying the food in your home, helps to determine what you have to buy and wastes less food. Once you have your food, with a bit of preparation, you can reduce your food waste and ensure when you reach into the fridge for that head of lettuce, it will still be fresh by storing food properly for your climate by properly storing your food.

  • Don't forget to use your leftovers.

Related: 15 Smart Ways to Repurpose Kitchen Scraps to Reduce Food Waste (and Save Money)

Minimize Packaging Waste

From the plastic cling wrap around a head of cauliflower to the styrofoam trays chicken is in to the bag of chips, packaging is everywhere at the supermarket. Start thinking about all that packaging and it's hard to unsee. It's used once and then ends up in the trash.

Packaging makes up almost a quarter of all the garbage that goes to U.S. landfills, according to the EPA. Once in the landfill, all that waste contributes to methane emissions and our increasingly warming planet. Yet there are ways to minimize packaging waste.

How to Reduce the Amount of Packaging You Buy

Bring containers when you shop, and shop at farmers' markets or for bulk food items at either zero-waste stores, local health food stores, and co-ops—or even bulk food aisles at the grocery store.

How to Handle Food Packaging

Even after that, it's nearly impossible to not come home from food shopping without some packaging waste, at least not until the system itself changes. Here's how to approach food packaging:

  • Bratskeir says to reduce, reuse, and recycle—in that order. If you have the choice to buy a product in a plastic container or an aluminum can, go for the can, as these are 100 percent recyclable.

  • Avoid plastic when at all possible. "Plastic recycling is incredibly complicated," says Bratskeir. She adds that we should also be skeptical of words like "biodegradable" and "compostable" because they are essentilly meaningless, especially when the label lacks any official certification.

  • A useful certification is the "BPI-Compostable" label from the Biodegradable Products Institute. The products they certify are generally safe for composting and will naturally break down in the environment over a year.

Read the original article on Martha Stewart.