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).
So if I – person on an extreme budget living in Indiana in a county with less than 180,000 people – can make it happen, chances are 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 and is thus a great example. For my ‘zero waste’ shop I chose Fresh Thyme, a Midwestern chain dedicated to natural, organic products. (Think Whole Food lite, where they’re actually very happy to help you with your containers.)
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 honestly looks pretty typical to what I buy except I also add milk and eggs, and occasionally cheese along with assorted other items on an as-needed basis. 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:
- Cost: if something packaged was significantly cheaper than the unpackaged version, I’d buy the packaged version.
- 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; yes, these are real prices as of November 2017 in Lafayette, Indiana. (No I didn’t actually buy the same groceries twice – I just weighed everything out in the store!)
The outcomeGreen 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).
Surprising because I was able to buy about 50% of my products organic from Fresh Thyme (versus maybe one from Walmart) by choosing the cheapest option so I was definitely getting better quality.
Unsurprisingly because I did in all honestly get more for my money from Walmart than Fresh Thyme (in the case of oats, quinoa, apples, and potatoes). So Fresh Thyme was cheaper by a bit, but I had a smaller cart. Quality vs quantity is something to consider.
Fresh Thyme’s bulk allowed me to be a lot more selective about how much I bought. So while a one-pound bag of quinoa may be cheaper at Walmart, there’s only the one pound option. If you don’t cook with a certain item that much, it’ll lead to waste (which I’ll talk more about in the next section). 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.
Not so shocking was the amount of waste the Walmart trip produced, but even I was surprised 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. Cheaper prices drive you to purchase more even if you don’t need it. 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.
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 (for higher-priced items) and time (for likely traveling to a specialty store or several stores to shop completely package free).
- 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.
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 (noting 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?