It’s a challenge in our era of grab-and-go, but with a little extra effort it can be done. Plus it’s kind of fun!

As we all know, now that we’re into week three of our Plastic Free Challenge, the grocery store can be, well, challenging. As soon as you step into almost any grocery store—if you’re paying attention—you immediately notice you’re surrounded by plastic. I soon found that trying to be totally plastic free at any grocery store was really hard, but I could get much closer if I shopped in the right places. I gave up trying at a typical store, like Giant or Wegman’s, because while the people who work there are really nice and try hard to be accommodating, they’re just not set up to make it easy. It felt kind of lonely.

I soon found my people at Mom’s Organic Market, Earth Fare and Whole Foods. These are my best bet for most things, with a few trips to Fresh Market needed here and there. Of course, then we have to weigh the fossil fuel used in driving to various stores against the plastic use, not to mention many other issues that come into play while grocery shopping: organic and sustainable farming versus factory farming; local and in-season versus global; vegan, vegetarian, paleo, keto and many other diet needs or choices; and everyday time constraints versus make-your-own from scratch. The list goes on, but for our purpose here, I’m concentrating on plastic free, with an effort toward zero waste.

Circle Game: Plastic Free grocery shopping is a cycle that starts before you leave the house

I’m forming new habits by participating in the Plastic Free Challenge, and one of the most important ones has been never leave the house unprepared. This is totally against my disorganized nature; it’s been tough, and I’ve had many fails. But if I’m doing well, I will plan a trip to Mom’s, where I know I can bring a lot of things that can’t normally be recycled and where I can drop off compost. So I collect my stuff, including reusable shopping bags, mesh bags for produce, mason jars or whatever I have on hand for bulk items and any other recycling and compost I’ve collected since my last trip. If I’m not on top of things (which happens a lot), then at least hopefully I have my reusable shopping bags. I try to always keep them on my front passenger seat so I don’t forget them.

So now let’s walk through the store and see where we can cut the plastic…

Terra Cycle at Mom’s Organic Market in Merrifield

First stop: Recycling and compost

At Mom’s in Merrifield, right when you walk in there’s a great recycle center (the recycle center at the Mom’s in Herndon is near the checkout lanes). You can recycle a lot of things you normally wouldn’t because they have TerraCycle drop-off spots for things like foil-lined protein bar wrappers, snack food pouches and drink pouches, as well as reuse bins for old eyeglasses, cell phones and sneakers. You can also bring your compost (again, it’s a circle, because they have compostable produce bags so you bring your veggies home in them and then use them to bring your compost back), your normal recycling that goes to American Recycling Company (see what can be recycled here), and your plastic film and grocery bags (no film is too thick to be recycled here). At Earth Fare, there’s just plastic grocery bag recycling and at Whole Foods there’s no plastic grocery bag drop-off, but in Vienna they do have #5 plastic recycling and cork recycling. Obviously, Mom’s is dedicated to helping its customers reduce their waste so it’s the best choice for in-store recycling.

Fruits and Veggies: Skip those plastic produce bags

Next stop is produce—this is an easy plastic free nut to crack. You can buy the mesh produce bags, and if you remember them, you’re way ahead of me. I had only one on my recent trip to Whole Foods, so I used it for the romaine since that’s harder to wash with soap and water. Everything else I just put straight in the basket and washed well when I got home. No plastic here, except for those darn strawberry clamshells (one of my many Plastic Free Challenge failures). Those are not recyclable, so it kills me to put it in the cart, but it’s one of the only fruits my daughter will eat. If someone has a solution that still involves leaving the store with strawberries, please let me know!

So many bulk options at Whole Foods in Vienna

Bulk Bins: BYO packaging

Next up is the bulk bins. At Mom’s and Earth Fare, you can bring your own containers so you avoid any plastic bags or waste. These can be anything you have—Tupperware, glass jars leftover from spaghetti sauce or even cloth stuff sacks. Stocking up at the bulk bins is also a great way to reuse plastic that has, as 350 Fairfax co-founder Helene Shore says, “come uninvited into your home.” If something is given to you in a zip-top bag or a takeout container, you can wash it out and use it for the bulk bins. Just bring your container to the customer service counter, and they’ll weigh it for you (it’s called a tare), and then they’ll write the weight on the container so they can subtract it at checkout. Go fill up, mark your PLU number, and you’ve got a zero-waste grocery item.

If you’re at Whole Foods, which is where I normally go since it’s the closest, they won’t let you bring your own container, but here’s a great tip: I asked the customer service people and they said just grab one of the paper bags they have out for the coffee and use that. Write your PLU on the front; they know at checkout how much they weigh (3oz). The paper is recyclable, and the twisty tie that’s attached can be reused. Not zero-waste, but at least it’s plastic free!

Meat, Fish and Dairy: Super Challenging. (Now’s the time to go vegan if you’ve been considering it!)

If you’re buying meat, just get it at the butcher counter instead of picking up the prewrapped packages in Styrofoam and plastic wrap. But this is where it gets challenging: Mom’s has everything prepackaged in plastic, and Whole Foods has a great fish market but doesn’t sell chicken at the butcher counter (except premade kebabs). Earth Fare has a full butcher counter, so this is your best bet for all kinds of meat wrapped in paper. You can also obviously go to any butcher for this—in Vienna, Fresh Market is the go-to, but in NOVA there are several others like the Organic Butcher in McLean.

For milk, buying it in the recyclable cartons is the better choice over the plastic jugs, but better yet, you can get refillable glass bottles of milk from Trickling Spring Creamery at Mom’s. Yogurt also comes in glass at all three stores, but it’s also really easy to make at home so if you have time that’s a great option.

Cheese is really a hard one. You can certainly get cheese for a nice cheese board that is wrapped in paper, foil, wax or in a little wood box, but what about plain old cheese, for tacos and mac and cheese or other yummy comfort foods? I have no good answers. You can make your own soft cheeses, but for cheddar, my best solution is to cut down on the plastic by buying a huge block of it at Costco. You can grate a bunch and freeze it so it doesn’t go bad.

Other Stuff: Check out your options and think inside the box (not the plastic jar)

As you go through the other sections, you see things wrapped with plastic everywhere, but there are often alternatives. For example, the glass jar of applesauce rather than the little individual plastic containers, a box of chocolate pudding you make at home instead of individual cups or bread from the bakery section that you can put directly in a clean grocery bag. Once again, making your own of any of these from scratch would be the best option (#lifegoals).

Bulk foods in home pantry

Bring It Home: Storing your food so it stays fresh and yummy

One of the biggest changes I have made since attempting to break up with single-use plastic is in my fridge. We have a lot of Tupperware that I use for my kids’ lunches. There are plenty of them, so I started using them to store the avocado halves, red pepper halves or cheese that I would have wrapped in plastic wrap or zip-top bags. I don’t think I’ve noticed any difference in the avocado getting browner or going bad faster.

You can also wrap them in beeswax wrap, but the Tupperware was already in my house so I figured why not use it. You can make beeswax wrap pretty easily, so it’s a great option.  It might save some room in your fridge to use the beeswax wrap too; mine is kind of a Tupperware fiesta in there.

As for produce, you can leave most things loose in the produce bin, but for greens or other things like celery and carrots that get limp with no protection, you can wrap them in a damp towel and that keeps them crisp.

The bulk items can be transferred to a different container or can just be plopped in your pantry straight from the store.

It’s a Circle Game: Start all over again!

A key habit I’ve formed is to bring those grocery bags right back either to the car or the back door as soon as they’re unpacked. Then I start cleaning my jars, and I get my compost bag from the produce set up so I’m ready for my next trip. Fingers crossed that those things make it with me when I walk out the door!

Remember it’s never too late to join the Plastic Free Challenge! Sign up here!

–Bobby Monacella