Seeing as how I just posted a lot of this to my friend’s Facebook page (sorry about that, K!), I thought I might as well turn it into a blog post, too.
Over the past year, as part of my ongoing effort to reduce the amount of new plastic entering my life, I’ve developed a shopping system to avoid some common plastic packaging. Here’s a bit about my system and my very local tips for the places where I’ve purchased food in the last year.
I have amassed a collection of glass jars with sturdy lids, everything from Costco-sized artichoke heart jars to baby food jars, with everything in between (I use a lot of quart and pint wide-mouth Mason jars), small tins of food-grade metal, and tightly woven cotton gauze drawstring bags. The jars are mostly from food we’ve eaten, Freecycle, and garage sales, but once in a while I have to buy a case of new Mason jars to replace those I’ve given away and the ones I have stashed in the freezer, full of fruit or soup. I’ve purchased the tins and cotton bags at close to wholesale prices through the buying club I belong to.
During T&C’s annual African basket sale, I bought a large market basket – These are incredibly sturdy and worth the price. I love my basket. Comparable baskets are much more online than from T&C during their summer sale, and I believe these are Fair Trade baskets. I pack my jars, tins, cotton bags, and large grocery bags into my market basket along with a black Sharpie (the main plastic item in my system – I haven’t found a workable alternative yet), a roll of unbleached waxed paper, and some unbleached waxed paper bags (Azure Standard has the waxed paper products for a good price).
Town & Country and Central Market:
If I’m shopping at T&C, my first stop is the bulk department, where I stand in line to ask one of the cashiers to weigh my containers and write the tare on the lid. The bulk department is staffed by very patient and accommodating people, and they’re used to people bringing in containers from home. I haven’t had to ask anyone at Central to mark a tare on a container for me, but I’m sure they’d be similarly helpful.
Sometimes I’ll bring in a container that still has some food in it from my last trip – Some sugar at the bottom of the jar, but not enough for any recipe. When this happens, I stop by the cashier for an updated tare that includes this food, and ask to have it written on a piece of paper for me to hand over w/ the container when I’m checking out.
After I have a tare for everything, even my cotton bags and a representative waxed paper bag (I ask them to write the tare for that on the box of bags, so I have it for future use), I get busy filling the containers up. Small tins and baby food jars are great for dry spices. Cotton bags work very well for beans, nuts, and grains if I’m going to use them immediately, otherwise I’ll use a jar. Really, I use jars for the bulk of my bulk purchases. They work well for bulk nut butters, grains, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, shredded coconut, tea, sugars, chocolate chips, etc. I prefer glass bottles with a narrower neck for liquids; that narrow neck makes for much easier pouring at home. I use waxed paper bags for things that I don’t usually buy, small items that I need just for some specific recipe, that sort of thing. I write the item number directly on the bag w/ the ball point pens hanging near the bulk bins, and when the bag is worn out, I toss it into my compost pile.
As I fill my jars in the bulk department, I use my Sharpie to write the item # and description on both the lid and jar. This makes it easier for me to keep each jar-lid pair together – Even for mass-produced things like quart Mason jars, the weight of individual jar-lid combos varies greatly. I use jars for items that I buy regularly, using the same jar (and its dedicated lid) for shopping and home storage then for return trips to the store. Sharpie ink stays on my jars and lids through the dishwasher, making this an easy system once you’ve made your original move to jars.
I use cotton bags upstairs for produce, making sure I don’t cinch them tightly closed until after I’ve checked out – I don’t want the cashier to have to wrestle with the drawstring to see what I’m trying to buy. I love storing produce in my cotton gauze bags at home – I can get the bags slightly damp under the tap at home to keep some produce a bit fresher for longer in the fridge, and they work equally well for things that like to stay dry.
I have tried to use my waxed paper and cotton bags for cheese purchases, but the cheese counter people at T&C and Central Market have generally been very resistant to any sort of alternative container. I did once manage to buy a chunk of Parmesan cheese (some of us here have been adding cheese back to our diets after several casein-free years) without plastic wrap from the T&C counter, but that required a written request, a month’s wait, then several phone calls and a rush trip to town to pick up the cheese as quickly as possible after it was cut from the large wheel. Another time, I managed to convince someone behind the cheese counter there to cut some Swiss cheese for me and put it, on a piece of waxed paper, into one of my bags. Along with the cheese, I got this comment “We can do this for you today, but if everyone starts asking us to do this, it won’t work.” Really? What’s to hate about maybe the store would save some money when you don’t have to buy plastic packaging for the cheese, and we’d all have a healthier home? I did my best to keep my smile genuine and my snark to myself. The cheese counter manager at Central Market told me that there was no way I’d get cheese in anything other than plastic wrap; after a little bit of discussion, he was willing to go so far as to say that, if I show up at “exactly the right moment” when they’re cutting and packaging large wheels of cheese, I might be able to get some without the plastic wrap. He also offered to remove the plastic wrap from any chunk of cheese there and throw it into the store’s garbage, but that really doesn’t work to reduce my plastic consumption as far as I’m concerned, so I passed. It has been about 5 months since I’ve visited either cheese counter, and maybe things have changed.
Jars come in handy upstairs if you’re buying things from the salad bar or olive bar, no item # required; you’ll just need to tell the cashier which bar it came from.
I had a quick chat with the very friendly people in the T&C meat department, and they told me they’d be happy to wrap meat in waxed paper for anyone who comes on the days when they package bulk meat. I believe they said this is usually Tuesday and Thursday, but if you’re interested, you should call them or stop by in person. They were genuinely interested in helping out, much more so than, say, the cheese counter.
I’ve promised my kids that I will only have a discussion about plastic with one department of the store per visit when they’re with me, so I haven’t spoken with the seafood counter at T&C yet. I’ll put that on my list and report back. The seafood people at Central were happy to put my order into a large jar; I didn’t ask about waxed paper, but I have a feeling they’d be willing to give it a try.
When I’m checking out at T&C, I use the downstairs cashier whenever I can, or I go to Scott’s aisle if he’s working – He told me once, after I apologized for my assorted containers, that he used to work in bulk and was happy to see people bringing in their own containers. Really, though, I’ve never had a snide comment, heavy sigh, or rolling of the eyes (not that I’ve been able to see, anyway) from any of the T&C cashiers.
One final T&C note: Whenever I have the space and money to buy things in large quantities and I can’t get what I need from Azure Standard, I see Fred in the bulk department. He is happy to place special orders, and I save an additional 10%, T&C’s standard case discount – Since the things I want in large quantities come in paper packaging, this is another way to avoid plastic.
Safeway: Since they don’t have a bulk department, I don’t find a lot to buy from them. But they frequently have better prices for non-bulk things I need, and I need better prices. I haven’t used any jars at Safeway, but I love their self-serve checkout counter. Before I wave anything across the scanner, I press “no barcode” on the screen, then the button that says something like “green discount – bring your own bag”. This gives me a discount of 1 cent, but more importantly, this means I can set my own heavy bag or basket in the bagging area without setting off alarms at the cashier-guard’s station. If I’m buying produce from them, I remove it from my cotton bag, weigh it, then place it back into the bag and put the whole thing into my basket. So far, that hasn’t set off any weight-triggered alarms, and I don’t feel bad about the bit of extra work since I’m doing it myself.
Pane d’Amore (Lynwood Center on Bainbridge): They are happy to pack bread (including their new gluten-free bread), pastries, and cheese into tins, bags, and waxed paper. I noticed last week that their cheese was already chunked up and wrapped in plastic, but when they first opened, it was being sliced to order from large pieces. I’ll check in with them to see if that is still an option. Along with a cheese counter that is friendly to alternative packaging, they have the best local prices for fancy cheese.
Shima Express: They are happy to pack their counter food (chicken teriyaki, udon, tempura, etc) into containers that I bring with myself. They are not able to pack sushi into my containers from home, as their ready-to-go sushi is already packed into plastic boxes. They did tell me that, if you order sushi to eat there, it can be made by the sushi chef just downstairs in Shima, if he’s not too busy. I’m assuming I could order sushi to eat there, sit down at a table as if I’m planning to eat there, then slide the sushi from it’s ceramic plate into my container from home. Instead, I just make my own at home to begin with and stick to the other items when we’re treating ourselves to Shima’s food.
Casa Rojas Express: Will only use their own plastic containers and aluminum foil for to-go food. They absolutely will not package food into any other container. They will hold back on plastic utensils, plastic bags, and paper napkins if you ask them to.
That’s all I’ve got for now – I’m sure I’m forgetting something, so maybe I’ll update this post later. Please share your local experiences in the comments – I know there are other options and better systems out there!