Climate Friendly Grocery Shopping: Here’s How to Get Started

Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT


Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.


Aiming for a zero-waste household is a laudable goal, but for most of us this is somewhat impractical. That doesn’t mean there’s no point trying, but it does mean being smart about the kinds of packaged goods we bring into the home. To make this easier, we thought we’d offer some insight on how to create a recycling-oriented grocery list, i.e., the best way to buy groceries is to cut down on trash that ends up in landfills and cannot be recycled.

Table of Contents
  1. Your trash bag vs. what you can recycle locally
  2. The best, most recyclable, packaging
  3. Ways to create a recycling-friendly grocery list
  4. What about toiletries?
  5. What about cleaning products?
  6. Other top tips
  7. In summary
  8. No more single use packaging!

Where I live in somewhat rural Canada, our local recycling depot is fantastic, which is essential because we don’t have curbside recycling. Once a month I load up my car (I know, I know) with hard and flexible plastics, tin, glass, tetrapaks, cardboard, and paper, and miscellaneous items like batteries, lightbulbs, and even broken smoke alarms and such, all of which can be handled at the depot for free. Our household produces about one grocery bag’s worth of ‘trash’ every month and a half or so, and even that seems like too much!

Your trash bag vs. what you can recycle locally

What if you’re not so lucky though, and your local depot or local government curbside collection only does the bare minimum for recycling?

A good place to start is to see what you’re currently throwing in the trash. Next, familiarize yourself with what you can recycle. Then, look for easy switches for those items that come in packaging you most often have to send to landfill. There may be a very similar product or brand at the same price point that comes in recyclable packaging or that can be bought in bulk or loose, so you can use your own refillable container. For example, our team that lives in Jackson Hole chooses not to buy one of their favorite local produce products because the lettuce come in plastic packaging that isn’t accepted at local recycling centers.

The best, most recyclable, packaging

The available of recycling facilities can vary greatly depending on where you live, but there are some types of packaging that are almost always easier to recycle no matter where you live. Here are a few top tips for what to look for when creating a recycling-oriented grocery list:

  • Packaging that consists of just one type of material or easily separated distinct materials
  • Paper or cardboard only packaging
  • Aluminum or other metal not lined with or fused to plastics or cardboard
  • Glass
  • Biodegradable packaging such as organic cotton, hemp, or jute.

If you do see a product you want and it’s packaged in plastic, think first about if you really need it, second if there’s an alternative, and third if the plastic can serve a purpose beyond the original packaging. Upcycling plastic is a great way to reduce its overall environmental impact. This can mean using yogurt pots as plant pots or to hold paint when crafting.

Know your plastics

It’s also good to get to know your plastics. Most plastics now have a label somewhere showing a triangle with a number (usually 1-7). The closer the number is to 1, the more likely it is that the plastic can be recycled. Numbers 6 and 7 are very hard to recycle and should be an absolute last resort if you’re trying to minimize your impact.

Ways to create a recycling-friendly grocery list

Other excellent strategies to cut down on trash include shopping at local farmers markets and produce stands. You can also look for loose or minimally packaged goods at the grocery store. All of these options allow you to use your own containers for produce, such as reusable cotton produce bags, glass and stainless steel storage containers, and paper bags. If an item such as mushrooms or fresh fruit is sold in a plastic punnet, ask if the seller can reuse the punnet if you transfer the food to your own container. This helps demonstrate demand for zero-waste options and helps you reduce your recycling or garbage.

In some areas, it may be an option to get a local weekly fresh food delivery in a reusable tote. Instead of dozens of plastic bags and containers, you can have all your loose produce delivered in one big old bin that you then rinse and put back out for collection the next week! We do this and it’s lovely to know we’re supporting local agriculture and avoiding a whole heap of unnecessary packaging.

You can score some big wins for reducing packaging by buying:

  • Big bags of sacks of rice, flour, pasta, oats, sugar, and other staples and then decanting into glass jars
  • Sacks of potatoes, carrots, onions, and other vegetables and storing these in a cool, dark place, such as under your kitchen sink or in a root cellar
  • Freshly made bread at the grocery store, which is usually packaged in paper bags rather than plastic
  • Milk and juice in reusable, returnable, glass jars – some companies even deliver locally and pick up empties to refill!
  • Olives and other deli items and using your own containers (ask them first, so they can weigh your container empty).

If you still buy meat and cheese, get this at the deli too and ask them to put the item directly into your container, rather than wrapping it in plastic first.

What about toiletries?

It’s one thing to buy a few loose apples or use your own cotton bag for produce, but what about shampoo, body wash, deodorant, toothpaste, and other toiletries? Happily, there are plenty of eco-friendly, zero-waste or recycling friendly options here too!

For instance, if you buy shampoo bars instead of liquid shampoo, you’re saving on transport emissions, packaging, and space. Most such bars, as well as bar soap and conditioner bars, are packaged in paper and/or cardboard which is easily recyclable.

Another good option here is to find a zero-waste store or natural health store and use your own containers to fill up from their bulk items. If this isn’t an option, look to buy larger sizes of products at the regular store as this can help cut down on packaging overall.

Ideally, any toiletries packaging would be fully recyclable, meaning glass or aluminum bottles. If those aren’t available, look for plastics numbered 1 or 2. And remember that many soaps, such as Dr. Bronner’s, are multipurpose, meaning it pays to buy a big container and then decant into smaller bottles for laundry liquid, the shower, and hand soap.

You can also keep packaging to a minimum by switching to reusable items such as:

What about cleaning products?

Cleaning products are often sold in plastic bottles and refill pouches, but there is a better way. For instance, you can find natural cleaning products such as vinegar sold in glass or at refill stations. Bicarbonate of soda is also available in cardboard packaging that can be recycled, and even laundry detergent is available as strips packaged in paper and cardboard.

Other good options include laundry powder instead of liquids, with the same for dishwasher powder. Soap nuts, and liquid refills are other ways to cut down on packaging. And, if all else fails, go for a bigger size of liquid laundry detergent to minimize overall plastic packaging (and look for that 1 or 2 in the triangle!).

As for toilet paper, while most is wrapped in plastic, some is available in paper packaging that can be recycled. Or, you could use washable wipes and a bidet to reduce the need to buy any toilet paper!

Other top tips

There are so many great ways to create a recycling-oriented grocery list and to take a few more steps towards being zero-waste. For instance, if you notice you have a lot of plastic packaging from treats and snacks, look for ways you can make just as delicious replacements at home using baking supplies bought in bulk.

Biscuits, cakes, crackers, and other treats are some of the worst offenders for unnecessary packaging (designed to appeal to kids, most of the time!). Start a habit of baking cookies, muffins, bread, and/or crackers once a week or even once a month and just defrost as needed. Biscuits can be frozen in glass jars, and bread can be wrapped in a clean tea towel to be frozen. No plastic needed!

Sure, you’ll need to buy more flour, sugar, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, baking powder, and so forth, but these are almost always available in paper packaging which is easy to recycle.

The same goes for tea, which is easy to buy loose in bulk or in paper or aluminum tins. Use a tea strainer, tea ball, or reusable organic cotton tea bags and cut down on microplastics in your tea and on plastic packaging too.

Herbs and spices are also often available loose and can be bought in paper, tin, or glass. Avoid those plastic puches for these smaller items wherever possible as the plastic really adds up over time and is often not recyclable in many places. You can also grow your own herbs! Just dry some and store in airtight containers for use throughout the year.

In summary

If you’re trying to create a recycling-oriented grocery list, ask yourself these questions before buying something:

  1. Do you really need this item?
  2. Can you make it yourself from bulk or fresh items? – Tomato puree, gravy, cookies, yoghurt, nut milk, bread, pizza bases, etc., can all be made at home and save on plastic and other waste.
  3. Can you buy it in glass or tin? – Ideally returnable, refillable, or otherwise reusable, and at minimum recyclable.
  4. Is it available packaged in compostable materials? – Look for paper bags and wraps for bread, sugar, oats, flour, and so forth, and compostable cardboard baskets for mushrooms and fresh fruits.
  5. Is it available in a bulk size? Buying in bulk helps minimize packaging overall. You can then switch to smaller, reusable containers or wraps at home and freeze, refrigerate, or cold store items until needed.
  6. Check your numbers – Plastic packaging typically sports a number (1-7) in a triangle. Lower numbered plastics are easier and more likely to be recycled, so look for 1 and 2 if plastic-free options aren’t available.

No more single use packaging!

Finally, while it’s great to start switching to more recyclable packaging, the better strategy overall is to reduce single-use packaging in the first place. Buying glass and tin is better than buying plastic that cannot be endlessly recycled, but it is still energy intensive to keep transport and grinding down or smelting these materials. Even buying two liters of milk and a liter of juice once a week results in hundreds of glass bottles that then need recycling. A refillable bottle uses a fraction of the energy and resources that a recyclable bottle does. So, where there’s an option for refills, that’s always the better choice!

One last thought: committing to a zero-waste lifestyle seems super daunting, and for good reason; everything we do creates waste in some way. But every baby step you take towards a more sustainable lifestyle still counts.

That might mean using your own washable produce bags at the store or switching your liquid shampoo to an eco-friendly bar shampoo.

Making the switch for just one type of packaging or product can make a huge difference to your personal footpring. For instance, if you switch out disposable razors for a reusable razor, you could save a staggering 2,400 razors (or more) over a lifetime of shaving, which equals around 1,200 lbs. of trash per person, and that’s just for the razor without the plastic packaging! The same goes for other items, many of which we have covered on So, one final tip: before you buy, search the site for a more eco-friendly option in more sustainable packaging!

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