This is an updated version of a post from 2017!

One of the big complaints I hear about zero waste grocery shopping – aside from lack of access to bulk – is how expensive it is. I always just sort of assumed that was true, but then realized I was making a 90% zero waste shop each week while staying under $40 (for two people). Most of the time, zero waste groceries are more accessible and more economical than you might expect.

Rather than just saying that, I recently put it to the test: same list, two different stores. Trying to be as budget conscious and low-waste as possible.

For my ‘regular’ shop, I chose Walmart. Love it or hate it, it’s easily accessible to a wide swath of the US population. For my ‘zero waste’ shop I chose Fresh Thyme, a Midwestern chain dedicated to natural, organic products.

But before we begin, a little video to show you not to be afraid of the bulk experience. Even my husband (who’s done it quite a bit), still struggles sometimes lol

What I bought

I based my grocery list on this post on how to eat a plant-based diet for $5/day, just as a simple jumping off point. (You’ll see the whole list below in PDF form.) I omitted some items that weren’t available at one store or the other, just to make the experiment a bit more straightforward.

This shop looks pretty typical to what I buy. My husband also buys meat once or twice a month which I don’t know anything about, so I didn’t include it!

What I focused on, in order:

  1. Cost: if something packaged was significantly cheaper than the unpackaged version, I’d buy the packaged version.
  2. Packaging: barring any major price differences, I’d try to get the least-packaged product available (ie. unpackaged, then paper, glass/metal, and finally plastic)

I then did a pretend shop at a local Walmart and Fresh Thyme. Marvel at the low cost of living in Middle America!

What I spent
Green Indy Blog: Walmart vs Fresh Thyme Shop - Sheet1

Surprisingly (but maybe not so surprisingly), the cost was essentially the same. While we consider zero waste shopping to be more expensive, we’re actually rejecting all those pre-packaged filler items that jack up our grocery bills. The final? $56.10 (FT) to $59.76 (Walmart).

Surprisingly, because I was able to buy about 50% of my products organic from Fresh Thyme (versus maybe one from Walmart) by choosing the cheapest or almost-the-same price option. I was definitely getting better quality. Unsurprisingly, since I got more for my money at Walmart than Fresh Thyme. So Fresh Thyme was cheaper by a bit, but I had a smaller cart. Quality vs quantity is something to consider.

I still think bulk wins out most times, though, when you’re on a strict budget. Bulk means you can buy exactly how much you need, which is cheaper in the moment. This is especially helpful when our budget has been super tight.

Trash

Not so shocking was the amount of waste the Walmart trip produced. Still, I was shocked by the sheer amount of packaging they give you with no other choice. If you want fresh fruits or vegetables, you have to get plastic 85% of the time. Additionally, if you could buy a few unpackaged apples for $2 or get a 5-pound bag for essentially the same price, I understand why you’d buy the bigger option.

But – if you are able – isn’t it worth it to spend a few more dollars to keep 18 plastic bags/containers out of the landfill EVERY WEEK?

That being said, I can foresee how a Walmart trip would result in a lot more food waste. I mean, we’ve all bought that big bag of apples with the best of intentions, only to find them going bad in the produce drawer of our fridge.

While in Fresh Thyme I was happy to see how relatively little trash I actually produced! (I use these bags for dry bulk and they’re amazing!) When you’re stuck into the zero waste lifestyle it can often seem like you produce a lot of trash, even if you’ve drastically reduced your waste. (Which you undoubtedly have.) So it was nice to see a side-by-side comparison of how much I was actually reducing my footprint with each shop.

Are you actually paying more for unpackaged groceries_ - Green Indy Blog

Are zero waste groceries expensive__ bulk vs Walmart comparison - Green Indy Blog
Things to consider before grocery shopping

While looking over these cost and waste numbers, I’d urge you to think about one thing.

What is your main priority? Deciding on the primary priority of your grocery shopping is critically important to create a sustainable, workable routine for your personal situation. For example, if you focus solely on zero waste while on a bare-bones budget, it’s likely that you’ll soon become frustrated and give up. So it’s important to consider:

  • Is your focus on reducing waste above all? Great! I hope to get there some day. If this sounds like you, know you will sacrifice money and time. But don’t focus too much on packaging – driving around is much worse for the environment. Plus, you can shop bulk online.
  • Is your focus on a strict budget? Give yourself some leeway – shopping on a budget is hard enough without implementing zero waste practices. Focus on areas where you can see success, like local, unpackaged produce. You can also check out some of my posts about going zero waste on a budget, shopping without bulk, and going zero waste in a food desert.
  • Is your focus on only organic items? Sadly, a lot of organic items (produce and dry goods) are often heavily packaged in plastic. Why is beyond me, but beware you’ll face a lot of greenwashing while shopping a totally organic diet, particularly in winter or in areas without many local options.
  • Is your focus on a certain diet restriction? If you have certain dietary restrictions (either by choice or otherwise), you’ll have to make concessions on certain items. For example, gluten-free items are often heavily packaged, as are soy or specialty vegetarian/vegan options.

Are you actually paying more for zero waste groceries?

What I learned

A few final takeaways from this enlightening experience:

  • Bulk buying actually has a lot more flexibility, even if your options are more limited. Shopping somewhere with bulk allowed me to get that exact amount – no more, no less. Obviously, you won’t always be shopping with an exact number in mind, but bulk shopping is an amazing way to cut down on food waste (and therefore lost money) by getting exactly the amount you need, even if the bulk aisle is smaller than a Walmart grocery area.
  • I went into this a lot more optimistic about Walmart than I should have been. I really thought I would be able to do a much lower-waste grocery trip at Walmart, but look at all the red in that list (denoting plastic packaging). Yikes! The Walmart shop was clearly not even close to a zero waste shop, but is a reality of many people. One way I could have gotten around this with a few items would be to buy the more expensive options. Again, that comes down to priorities.
  • I need a store with less distractions. Honestly, I love that Fresh Thyme’s outside aisles are so expensive. I like to wander through and make disbelieving comments about the prices. “Tortilla chips – FIVE DOLLARS?!” “A can of beans for $2.50?!” It’s very easy to say no. Walmart, on the other hand… Everything’s so cheap and available in so many options, it’s very easy to buy more packaging. To complete a low waste shop, I need to remove myself from that store entirely!
  • To effectively make this work, you have to be willing to give things up. Here’s the thing: you are not going to find satisfying zero waste versions of your junk food. Know the mere act of shopping zero waste comes with deprivation. My husband struggles with this, but zero waste and budget are my main priority areas, so it’s not so hard for me to say no. YMMV.

Does this shop comparison surprise you at all? How do you shop – and how important is your main priority while zero waste grocery shopping?


Polly

An online resource here to help you break down the complex issue of zero waste into simple, actionable steps.

13 Comments

Iris · November 16, 2017 at 3:44 pm

ah this is so cool!

    Polly · November 17, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Thanks, Iris! Hope it might help you sway some people into reducing their packaging waste a bit 🙂

Emily · November 17, 2017 at 9:08 am

Your groceries are so cheap!!! $2 for a gallon of milk!? I would say groceries where I live are 2-4x as expensive.

    Polly · November 17, 2017 at 10:33 am

    One of the perks of living in the Midwest, although I can guarantee the salaries are much lower as well!

    But yes, to buy fairly local milk (next state over) in glass containers is $3.50-4 with a $1.50 refund when you return the glass which is a really amazing deal!

Ariana Roberts · November 18, 2017 at 6:03 pm

I love this well thought out post so much I wish I could marry it (especially the color coded chart). I’m really surprised at the results actually, even though my Whole Foods grocery bill routinely ends up being cheaper than that of my friends or family- $28 this week (they eat meat though).

    Polly · November 20, 2017 at 9:01 am

    You’re welcome to marry the chart! Unspoken for, as far as I know.

    And, yeah, the meat/dairy can really skew it – even when my husband buys it very cheap, it can bump up our bill by about 30%.

Shona · November 18, 2017 at 9:42 pm

I shop at Sprouts ( which sounds a lot like your Fresh Thyme store), the local farmer’s mkt, and the local health foods shop. I make nearly all my meals from scratch and shop for ingredients and very few packages with bar codes. My husband shops at Wal-Mart and when I accompany him I do a mental price comparison. What I have found is organic at Wal-Mart tends to be higher in cost. I have my theories and I don’t want to offend or assume, but I had recently been at a Whole Foods (a rare trip) and for example, organic baguettes were $1.99 and Wal-Mart had organic baguettes for $2.97. Tofurkey sausages are about $2.00 less, but still more expensive than Trader Joe’s. I meal prep and can get by on about $25- 30 a week on groceries for me and some shared meals with my husband.
Sorry so long, I tend to defend the cost of organic, zero waste and health foods shopping.

    Polly · November 20, 2017 at 9:04 am

    Love the long comment – super interesting! (I especially love hearing from people in a similar situation to me, re: partners going a different path!)

    Organic at Walmart IS very expensive, perhaps there’s not enough of a market of organic buyers to lower prices? Or they’re evening out the costs of offering some items super low-cost? Whatever it is, one more reason to push Walmart out of my mind as much as possible!

Kelli · December 1, 2017 at 7:47 pm

Thank you for this. I just started going zero waste in the last two months and I’m worried it’s costing me more. Also my only local bulk store that lets you use your own jars and bags fills their bins from big plastic bags so I’m not sure it even makes a difference. I’ll have to try this comparison in my own city with my regular grocery store.

    Polly · December 3, 2017 at 8:49 am

    That happens everywhere, unfortunately. The real fact is that if you’re shopping at a store, you’re producing plastic – you just may not be taking it home with you. That being said, buying in bulk still makes sense assuming the store is using bags larger than would typically be available to consumers. Consider: buying rice in bulk cuts out the additional packaging of the plastic bag you’d otherwise take home. Same with beans, lentils, etc. A reduction of plastic waste is still working towards zero waste.

    Still, definitely frustrating, but that’s how things are currently! Good luck on your new zero waste adventure – it’s exciting!

Alexia · December 30, 2017 at 10:51 am

For me, I think that I spend less when I go to Fresh Thyme over Walmart. It comes down to buying too many wants at Walmart. I don’t need half the things I buy at Walmart. I still get treats at Fresh Thyme but I’m not buying fruit snacks and chips and cookies and granola bars.

I think the last comment you made about losing out on some things isn’t necessarily true though. You find new favorite sweets that ARE zero waste. Fresh Thyme has several candies in bulk. I love their salted chocolate covered toffee squares. YUM! Yeah, we eat less Oreos now and more homemade chocolate chip cookies but I don’t feel like I’m missing out.

    Polly · December 30, 2017 at 11:50 am

    Agree! Way easier to overspend when you have so many more options!

    As to your second point: you sound like you clearly have it together and you’ve gotten over that hump of feeling deprived. I totally agree that I’ve replaced old junk food with new treats, but for many people starting out that can seem impossible. Still, love hearing someone else saying ‘it gets better! it gets normal!’

Penny Thompson · November 14, 2018 at 6:13 am

Hi polly i live in england and walmart took over our asda i now shop at aldi. It bothers me that we get a lot of packaging but we are on a vrry tight budget so i have to compromise we also don’t have the bulk stores u have they don’t seem very popular over here otherwise i would use them Penny

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