In 2018, 350 Fairfax member and Mothers Out Front Fairfax County co-leader Bobby Monacella wrote a thoughtful and detailed overview of how to avoid plastic waste when grocery shopping. Of course, for many of us, grocery shopping is a whole different thing in 2020.

If, like me, you are still making in-person trips to the grocery store, much of Bobby’s advice applies. I still, for example, avoid plastic produce bags and instead opt for placing produce loose in my cart (to be washed when I get home) or for using my reusable mesh produce bags. I still bring cloth grocery bags to the store with me, and at MOM’s, they’ll let me use them.

If you are going to a grocery store that does not allow reusable bags, consider asking that your groceries be placed loose in your cart after you pay for them. Then roll your cart to your car, and bag everything in your cloth bags there.

Bulk bins have become an issue, though. And so has bread. Most of MOM’s bulk bins are now filled with little plastic bags of dry goods. So I’ve been buying beans in cans this month. And I used to buy bread from the bakery at Whole Foods and put it in my own bag or a paper bag. Now I’m not shopping at Whole Foods, and my only bread option is in a plastic bag.

And before you say “make your own,” let me tell you I’ve tried the whole bake sourdough bread from scratch thing. As a mom, I’m trying to keep a child alive; I don’t care to spend time thinking about keeping a sourdough starter alive too (#reasonswedonthavepets). Plus, my enthusiasm for making food from scratch has waned considerably since the pandemic began…

If you’re ordering your groceries online, you’re facing a few more obstacles. Stores pack EVERYTHING in plastic. It’s horrifying. 350 Fairfax co-chair Helene Shore shared some great tips for Plastic Free grocery delivery a couple of weeks back. Number one: Consider joining a local CSA, like Potomac Vegetable Farms, Whitehall Farms, or Great Country Farms. Number two: Consider getting a weekly ugly food box. Hungry Harvest and Imperfect Foods boxes include minimal plastic packaging.

So here is an abridged version that 2018 post (which you can find in full here). I hope that regardless of current circumstances, it sparks some new ideas.

–Julie Kimmel

As we all know, now that we’re into Week 3 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 have found that trying to be totally Plastic Free at any grocery store is really hard, but I can get much closer if I shop 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. [2020 Editor’s Note: Earth Fare has closed its Fairfax location, but a new grocery chain with an excellent bulk foods section has opened in Herndon: Sprouts.]

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…

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!

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 [2020 Editor’s Note: The milk in refillable glass bottles at MOM’s in Herndon is now from Smith Mountain Creamery.]. 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 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).

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!

By Bobby Monacella