The first step to creating less waste is to change the way you think. And to do that, you need to change the way you shop. And that usually means changing the way you eat, too. So many changes, I know. I say nothing revolutionary when I say that Americans eat a diet full of processed foods, made with a laundry list of ingredients—and these processed foods don’t lend themselves to a zero-waste lifestyle.
Although it’s fairly easy to buy whole foods without packaging, it’s a challenge to buy highly processed foods without the wrapper. If you’ve become accustomed to a processed diet, transitioning to a lower waste, whole foods diet can be tough. Even if you’ve been eating whole foods for years, making the switch from plastic produce bags or pre-chopped and packaged veggies isn’t necessarily easy. But if you know where to find healthy, package-free foods, then you’re already two steps closer to easier waste-free shopping and eating.
For New Yorkers making the switch, I offer a list of some of my favorite shops.
New York’s only zero-waste grocery store is located in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It’s a beauty. You can read about my visit to Precycle here. Precycle sells bread, produce, spices, grains, nuts, legumes, dried fruits, pickles, oil, vinegar, kombucha, personal and home cleansers, and more.
A veritable bounty, Greenmarket operates in several neighborhoods across New York City. While not all vendors offer package-free products, many do. Others offer products with packaging that can be returned to the vendor (cardboard produce boxes, cardboard egg cartons, glass bottles, etc.). Ask your vendor at the time of purchase if they take back containers, and bring your own mugs and produce bags. You can find locations and vendor information here. Offerings vary by season and location, but on big market days shoppers can generally purchase meat, fish, mushrooms, eggs, sweeteners, grains, baked goods, produce, milk, apple cider, yarn, soap, and other items either package-free, or in returnable packaging.
Although Whole Foods sells many items wrapped in unnecessary packaging, one can also find a bulk section at any location. Regrettably, the size and quality of bulk sections will vary by location, so learn the offerings at your local stores and plan accordingly. Depending on where my travels take me, I tend to visit four different Whole Foods in the city (Harlem, Upper West Side, Columbus Circle, and Union Square) and prefer the offerings at Union Square, where I can purchase grains, legumes, dried fruits, candy (although I never do stock up on the sweet stuff), olives, freshly ground coffee, freshly ground nut butters, fresh juice, kombucha on tap, and more. A portion of Whole Foods produce is both package- and sticker-free, and the salad bar, hot bar, and meat counter offerings can be placed into your own containers, if you consult with an employee and ask for or present them with your tare.
The Health Nuts
Like most health food stores, this shop, located on the Upper West Side, has plenty of packaged foods, but they also have a nice variety of package-free foods. Bins of nuts, dried fruit, legumes, grains, and snack mixes are in the middle of the maze-like store. Around the corner from here, one will find bulk coffee, and around the corner from there, bulk peanut and almond butters. Bring your own containers, know your tares, and round the bend to check out.
Located in the West Village, LifeThyme Market has a small bulk foods section and sells a small selection of bulk herbs and spices. If you can’t find the herbs and spices you need here, take a little jog over to—
Flower Power Herbs and Roots
A bit of a trot to the east, Flower Power Herbs and Roots is a bit crunchy but the offerings are solid. The prices may sound steep, but the organic and sustainably source wild offerings, on which the store prides itself, come at a cost. Culinary and medicinal herbs and spices are available here in spades.
Nestled among the Indian restaurants in Murray Hill, is your favorite store, Kalustyans’s. This place has so many types of spices and rices and flours and loose leaf teas and medicinal herbs but most of them come prepackaged under the Kalustyan’s label. Can the owners be persuaded by consumer demand to sell some of these items in bulk? Who can say. For now, however, shoppers can find a small selection of candy, nuts, and dried foods in the bulk display beside the door and another display on the far side of the registers.
I am an evangel for loose leaf tea. I used to think it was messy, too much trouble to brew, or that the tea bags at the grocery store offered a wider variety of flavors. Looking back, I can see how wrong I was about that. Like I say, I love loose leaf tea and will often visit tea shops when traveling to different cities—Teagschwendner in Chicago, and D’un Thé à L’autre in Montréal, for instance.
I’ve been drinking loose leaf tea for years but that doesn’t mean I’ve been drinking package-free tea. I’m addicted to Sadaf Earl Grey, which comes in a box, sealed in a plastic-ish bag. So, when I finish up the last of my Sadaf tea, which shouldn’t be for a while yet, I’m going to try to find a new favorite. David’s Teas, a chain tea store, has a few locations in the city and I’ll probably start my search there. I’ve shopped at the 6th Avenue location and it’s perfectly lovely, although many of their herbal teas are overly sweet. It’s been a while since I’ve been in here, and I’ve never brought my own container, but I’m sure they’d be accommodating.
The bread baked at local bakeries is fresher than any you’ll find in a plastic bag on the shelf of an ordinary supermarket. Much of the time, this bread is bagged in paper at the time of purchase, but you can request that the cashier place your bread in your own reusable bread bag instead. Many (but not all) New York neighborhoods have at least a couple bakeries. One good centrally located bakery is Breads Bakery, with locations in Union Square, Bryant Park, and Lincoln Center. Ditto goes for bagel and pastry shops.
For me, the search for package-free bread is a bit harder. I don’t eat wheat due to an allergy and New York is lacking in the alternative bakery department. When one does manage to find a gluten-free bakery, the bread is often wrapped in plastic to avoid contamination with allergens—and subsequent legal suits, presumably. If I find a good local source for gluten-free bread (as opposed to pastries, etc.), I’ll share the good word. (Edit: I did find a New York bakery where I can buy gluten-free bread and bagels without the packaging: Modern Bread and Bagel on the Upper West Side. You can read a little more about my visit, here.)
Butchers and fish shops
Like bakeries, many butchers and fish shops will place your purchase directly into your own container. Be polite, ask nicely, and your courteousness can get you far. Many neighborhoods have a trusted local butcher or fish shop—my butcher is downstairs from my home and my fish shop is a 2-minute walk away. If you don’t know of a butcher or fish shop near you, ask any of your neighbors who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. If you can’t get to a local butcher or fish shop, you can go to the meat, fish, or deli counters at your local grocery store instead. Grocery stores that usually have meat, fish, and deli counters include: Whole Foods, Fairway, and Westside Market.
Bulk Finder App
You can find even more shops that offer bulk foods in New York by using this app created by Zero Waste Home.
One thing I’ve learned is never be too shy to ask to use your own containers. While some shop owners and employees won’t understand (or like!) what you’re doing, there are just as many people who are concerned about the amount of waste that humanity is generating. Seeing them smile when they ring up your reusable container filled with salad bar items or your old jar filled with peanut butter is really fun. Fellow customers, too, sometimes marvel and strike up conversations with me about my containers.
I believe these actions, while small, can help shift culture. It’s true that we need large agencies, corporations, and governments to help us make meaningful strides toward more sustainable and climate-friendly living, but if more people change the way we shop, we can send a message that can cause those in decision-making roles to rethink the way they do business. I don’t believe that this is wishful thinking; consumer demand changed the way tomato growers did business in California, and consumer demand can spur other changes as well.
So I’m going to feel good about bringing my own containers and reducing my shopping waste. And then I’m going to carry on with the other work of helping us move away from fossil fuels and consumeristic ways of being, armed with the knowledge that the process of building new systems that help us combat climate change doesn’t start or stop at the grocery store. We’ve got a long way to go and many roadblocks along the way, so let’s roll up our sleeves and go.
Edit: An earlier version of this story included a listing for Package Free, before I’d had a chance to make it to the Brooklyn storefront myself. Package Free has since been removed from this list for reasons that can be inferred from a quick glance at my post called, helpfully, “Forget everything I ever said about Package Free.” Keep reaching, folks!