4 Problems With the Way We Shop for Food

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4 Problems With the Way We Shop for Food

By Cat O’Brien

Do you enjoy grocery shopping? 

I will have to admit that I don’t. I find it time-consuming and exhausting. 
The store is usually busy and there are always too many choices.

I end up five minutes deep in the canned goods aisle reading about different brands of organic chickpeas.

And by the time I realize how long I’ve been reading labels, I’m frustrated with myself for not being more decisive.

So, over the years, I’ve worked out a system for myself.  
I’ve recorded all the brands that I like, and I create a very specific list each week.

This way, I don’t have to actually make any decisions in-store.

It’s quicker. I feel more accomplished. And I get to zip around the grocery store grabbing exactly what I need without thinking twice.

I would have been happy to keep this system for the rest of my life. 
But I had an experience recently that threw a wrench into my well-oiled grocery shopping routine.

The Plastic Problem

Not long ago, a friend of mine made an off-handed comment about how pervasive plastic is inside grocery stores.

The next time that I went grocery shopping, I felt like a veil had been lifted from my eyes. Suddenly, I could not help but see plastic everywhere. It was shocking.

How had I not seen it before? It’s as if plastic is so common in grocery stores that it had become invisible to me.

My tried and true grocery store routine was painful that day.
I walked through the aisles grabbing my normal go-to items… Wrapping my produce in those little plastic bags from the spools that litter the produce section. 
I watched my cart fill up with more and more single-use plastic.
Rarely have I felt so duped.

Driving home from the grocery store that day, I made a commitment to myself to become a more responsible grocery shopper.

To that end, I’ve done quite a bit of research about plastic in grocery stores.
A lot of my findings were troubling. But the four problems below are particularly striking and have changed the way that I shop for food.

Problem #1: Plastic Grocery Bags

Let’s start with a problem that you’re already familiar with: plastic grocery bags.
We all know that plastic grocery bags are wasteful. 

I have my fair share of reusable bags and bring them to the store when I remember. 
But I’ll admit that there are plenty of times when I make a quick trip to the store and I’ve forgotten my reusable bags. 

I was never too hard on myself because most of the time I use my reusable bags ─ so I’m still doing better than most people… Right?

Actually, I think I’ve been wrong about that. At this point, any small contribution to the problem is too big of a contribution.



“The average American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year.”

Go back. Read that again. 
It’s a hard number to comprehend.

1,500 plastic bags for every household on average. That means that some of us are taking home more than 1,500 plastic bags.

Do you recycle them? According to Waste Management, only 1% of plastic grocery bags are recycled.

So let’s assume that your family is average:

You took home 1,500 plastic bags from the grocery store last year. You recycled only 15 of them. The other 1,485 plastic bags that you used are in landfills or the ocean.
How many plastic bags do you have stuffed under your kitchen sink or in the dark corner of your pantry?

Will they ever get used?

For most of us, they slowly trickle into the trash after one more short-term use.
Recycle them. And replace them with cloth reusable bags.

How I’ve Changed: Reusable Grocery Bags… Duh!

I’d bet a decent chunk of change that you have reusable grocery bags already  ─  even if you forget them at home most of the time.

The real test here is this: Do you have cloth bags to put your produce in?

I’m talking about avoiding those thin plastic bags you take from the spool right before you load up on apples or broccoli.

We need to stop using those plastic bags too.
And to do this, we have three options:

●      Option 1: Invest in cloth produce bags. There are tons of brands out there. Colony Co includes the tare weight on each bag so that the cashier can easily deduct the bag’s weight.

●      Option 2: Let your produce be free from a bag entirely! Go ahead: put it right in the cart. You’re going to wash or peel it anyway. The bags are totally unnecessary.

●      Option 3: Order from an online service like Misfits Market who will deliver fruits and vegetables to your door in a recyclable box.
Challenge yourself to never take a plastic bag from a grocery store again.

If you drive your car to the grocery store, keep the bags in your trunk. Throw one into your backpack or bike bag if that’s how you get around.

Have more reusable grocery bags than you think you’ll ever need? In this case, it’s better to have too many.

Problem #2: Rates of Recycling

We already know that plastic grocery bags are recycled at a rate of 1%. 
But grocery stores are filled with so much more plastic than just the grocery bags we use to carry our goods.

Pay attention ─ you’ll notice that most of what you buy is packaged in plastic
Everything from cookies to nuts to laundry detergent to those little plastic “windows” that let you see into the pasta boxes.

Plastic is everywhere.

“91% of plastic isn’t recycled”


It’s nearly impossible to walk out of the grocery store with zero-waste ─ Though, some hip grocery stores are trying to make this happen.
But even if you’re unable to shop at a zero-waste grocery store, there are ways you can cut down on the amount of trash you walk out of the store with.

The best way to do this is to buy products according to what they’re packaged in. 
Take a look at the rates of recycling for different materials:

●      Steal: 88%
●      Paper: 64.7%
●      Glass: 34%
●      Plastic: 9%



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Oh, How I’ve Changed: Buy Steel, Paper, and Glass Packaging

Most canned goods are made from steel. I’ve also seen things that typically are sold in cans ─ crushed tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas ─ being sold in plastic containers. 
Stick with the steal. And then recycle those cans!

Paper ─ or cardboard ─ is another easy packaging option to look for. Choose cardboard boxes over plastic bags or plastic boxes. And again, recycle that cardboard!

If your groceries don’t come in steel or paper packaging ─ looking at you liquids ─ spring for the glass option. You’ll find milk, juice, and oils often have a plastic or a glass option. Go for the glass. 

And ─ say it with me this time ─ recycle that glass! Or even use glass jars as storage containers for leftovers.

Problem #3: Impact on the Ocean

A lot of plastic ends up in the ocean. In fact, 8 million tons of plastic is added to the ocean every year.

Much of this plastic floating in the ocean has broken down into microplastics. When plastic breaks down, it doesn’t decompose, it breaks apart into smaller and smaller versions of itself ─ a.k.a. microplastic.

Microplastics end up stuck in the digestive system of marine animals. They are, unsurprisingly, hard to digest for the animals that swallow them.

And animals are swallowing them at a concerning rate. In fact, a recent study found that one-third of all leatherback sea turtles have plastic in their stomachs. 

The volume of plastic in the ocean is unfathomable. 
In fact…

There are “46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of the ocean.”

To understand this, I try to imagine 46,000 pieces of plastic floating around in every square mile of the air that I breathe. 

But I can’t.

I can’t imagine that many pieces of microplastic floating around. Pushing it out of my way as I walk my dog or go for a run.

I know that the number one place in my life where I use plastic is my food ─ specifically, my weekly trip to the grocery store.

If limiting the plastic that I take home from the supermarket each week will help the marine life and the health of our oceans, count me in.


Problem #4: Our Reliance on Plastic

Look around your home ─ where do you see plastic? 
I see it in my fridge, my pantry, my bathroom, my kitchen, my living room, and even my bedroom. 

Do you have any idea how much you rely on plastic, especially single-use plastic, every single day? 

Start taking stock. Because our reliance on plastic is only growing.


“Plastic packaging production is predicted to quadruple by 2050”


I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise. When I pay attention, I see plastic dominating packaging in all industries.

It’s cheap, it’s efficient, and consumers like you and I are used to it. 
And I believe that our passivity is the biggest hurdle to overcome in our search to diminish our reliance on plastic.

I’ve taken stock in my own plastic consumption. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, if I want to reduce my reliance on plastic, I have to change the way that I grocery shop and order take-out.


How I’ve Changed… Buy in Bulk and Cook at Home


When I can’t avoid plastic packaging, I buy in bulk. This both limits my trips to the grocery store and also lessens the amount of plastic I go through.

If you’re a meat-eater, you can buy in bulk by ordering a partial cow or pig from a nearby farm. They come wrapped in butcher paper, so you aren’t left with mounds of styrofoam trays or plastic wrap. 

And while plastic packaging may be predicted to quadruple, the forces to combat single-use plastics are also multiplying.

You can now find zero waste laundry detergent, toothpaste, and deodorant. 
And if you have a pet, read this article on how to better manage your pet’s waste. Those plastic poop bags for your dog will sit in landfills for up to 500 years. But there is a way to avoid those bags! 

You just have to be willing to look for alternatives. 

The other big change that I’ve implemented is ordering take-out less often.

Even when I indicate on my order that I want the restaurant to skip the plastic utensils, my food still arrives in plastic containers.

By the way ─ those plastic takeout containers make great tupperware. Because they’re plastic and won’t deteriorate for a long time, you can reuse them many times over. 

Recognizing the unavoidable plastic involved in getting takeout has encouraged me to dust off my stovetop and figure out how to make some of my restaurant favorites at home.


Take Action Against Plastic


There’s no one best way to fight single-use plastic.

We each must evaluate our own lifestyle and look for where we rely on plastic.
To get started, make sure you’re following these easy steps: 

●      Use reusable grocery bags ─ every time

●      Get cloth produce bags or let your produce travel to the register bag-free

●      Choose steel, paper or cardboard, or glass over plastic packaging ─ and then recycle it!

●      Buy in bulk

●      Look for zero-waste or waste-free options online for toiletries.

This site is a good option.

●      Learn more about how you can have an eco-friendly bathroom here.

●      Cook at home instead of ordering take-out.

Sign up for a Beach Clean up With Ocean Blue Project

The beachfront is where plastic both enters and exits the ocean. 
Sign up for a beach clean up with Ocean Blue Project.

Author Bio: Cat O’Brien is a mindfulness copywriter in Chicago, IL. You can see more of her work at catobriencopy.com.