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An Adventure in Waste-Free Shopping

November 9, 2012 at 1:08 pm
By Courtney Dufford and Julia Moen

The Setup:

The residents of Wellstone House try to be conscientious consumers… we buy organic produce and support local farmers when possible, reuse our solo cups, and recycle and compost. Additionally, throughout the term, we’ve been looking through our waste (wait, most people don’t do that!) and have noted that the majority of our trash is from food packaging. Thus, we set out on a grand adventure to reduce our house’s waste for one week by consciously purchasing food based on packaging. Our house is already ahead of the curve in terms of packaging reductions: at the beginning of the term we ordered many food staples (flour, chocolate chips, rice, pasta, etc.) in bulk through the Co-op. These necessities tend to be wrapped in plastic or other non-recyclable packaging, so we’ve already avoided those purchasing challenges.

Pre-shop:

We knew that we wanted to bring reusable shopping bags and backpacks to easily reduce our waste footprint. From our waste monitoring, we knew that plastic produce bags are a continual problem, and so decided to reuse plastic bags we had accumulated from previous shopping excursions in place of the in-store bags. Finally, we wanted to have the freedom and ease to do comparative shopping. We borrowed a car, which is more energy intensive than our normal bike-riding strategy.

The Shopping:

We started our adventure at the Northfield Co-op in the produce section. This was a pretty waste-free stop, as most fruits and vegetables have a package-less option. We used the reusable plastic bags instead of the produce bags and avoided a bag altogether when produce was bunched. However, the carrots stumped us: we prefer the convenience of baby carrots, but they come bundled in a plastic wrap. We opted to buy the whole carrots and will peel and prep them en masse at the beginning of the week. We also debated frozen vs. canned vegetables and easily opted for canned for its recyclable properties.

Waste Free Shopping      Waste Free Shopping 

Because we were shopping for 11 other people besides ourselves, we struggled to balance individual requests with our waste-free quest. Some house members wanted to cook polenta this week (and it was on sale!) and others need goldfish crackers for their mental health and well-being. Both of these requests had non-recyclable packaging, but we decided to buy them anyways and bought in bulk as was available.

Waste Free Shopping    Waste Free Shopping

We also discovered that in many instances we didn’t have options to purchase minimally packaged house necessities. For example, at both the Co-op and Cub Foods, brown sugar is only available in a plastic bag, so we did the best we could and bought the largest option available.

Waste Free Shopping     Waste Free Shopping

As a quick aside, many of the foods we bought (like cream cheese, ice cream, milk, etc.) come in plastic containers. This is good because these products can be recycled, but only if we make sure to wash them out reasonably well (they don’t have to be spotless!) and make sure they get to the recycling bin! Those extra couple of minutes are really worth the time and energy to reduce our footprint!

Finally, Wellstone House eats a LOT of cheese, bread, and tortillas. In all three of Northfield’s grocery stores, there were no options to purchase these products with minimal packaging. We considered making bread and tortillas at home, but decided it wouldn’t be time feasible for our busy house members, especially this late in the term. The cheese section, although delicious, was particularly horrifying from a packaging perspective… so much plastic!

Waste Free Shopping    Waste Free Shopping

Lessons Learned:

All in all, we were pleased with our waste-free shopping experience. We made a few compromises, like the goldfish and polenta, but also on the other end of the spectrum with the baby carrots. In the interest of full disclosure, we didn’t actually end up cutting up the carrots because we still had baby carrots in the house. However, today when we ran out of baby carrots, we discovered how easy it is just to grab a carrot and peel it…a minute of work yields a perfectly sized snack! The point is that even with our compromise, extra food prep time and the headaches that might go along with that were basically nonexistent. That said, we did decide to buy bread and tortillas which we could have made to reduce our packaging, but as consumers we have to make judgment calls. If we know we need lots of bread but simply don’t have time to make it nor a viable packaging alternative, it’s not a huge problem to just get the bread!

The best take-away for us is just to be conscientious. While it might not be feasible to live in a package free household, we can reduce our landfill waste considerably just by thinking about what we buy. Hopefully, as we continue our waste conscious shopping, we will get better and better at choosing our products wisely. For now, we learned a lot, reduced our packaging and fed our house: check, check and check!

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