Getting (near) zero waste groceries without bulk options is incredibly difficult. I’m pretty lucky to live near some decent bulk options – if I’m not fussed at stopping by several different places, I can get pretty much anything I need in bulk.

That being said, sometimes we don’t have the budget for bulk or hyper-local, organic good from our farmers market.

Compare some of our staples at a bulk store and Save-a-Lot, a super cheap discount store:

  • Rice: $4.99/lb for bulk vs. $5.99 for a 10 lb bag
  • Tomatoes: $3.99/lb at the farmers market vs. $.99/lb at the store
  • Chickpeas: not available in bulk/$1.99 for a can vs. $.69 for a can

Those prices are a pretty big difference!

To make matters worse, some people don’t even have an option for bulk, even if they did have the budget.

With all that in mind, I thought I’d share with you a recent shop I did when we were really tight on budget and then some tips for zero waste shopping without bulk.

I’ve written previously about going zero waste on an extreme budget if you’re curious. I’ve also outlined a zero waste meal plan shopping list.

This grocery trip was done at my nearest Save-a-Lot (a discount chain) on 38th Street on Indy’s east side. If you know anything about Indy, this is essentially a gigantic food desert and definitely not a place where zero waste is typically on the radar. Sometimes access to fresh produce at all is a struggle.

Here’s what I got (about a week’s worth of food for me and my husband with some of the extra things we had rattling around our fridge):


All of this cost just under $26. It was a bit more expensive than it otherwise might have been since we had complete run out of staples like flour, rice, and beans. It’s not fancy and we certainly stretched all of that food as far as it could go, but we made it work.

Waste created:

  • recycling: one glass jar, two tin cans
  • twist tie: compostable paper, metal tie will be saved for use later
  • plastic pouch from cheese: what can I say, I’m weak?
  • plastic bag from rice: we reuse these as trash bags (which we empty and wash) until they become unusable
  • some compost fodder in the paper/cardboard
Look for bulk options, even in packaging

You can still approximate bulk shopping, even if you’re trying to get zero waste groceries without bulk. Rather than buying one small bag of rice, I bought the largest size available. Not only does that reduce packaging waste overall, but the larger bag can serve many purposes once the rice has been used up.

Most stores also have plenty of bulk options with produce. Just avoid fruits and vegetables pre-packaged in plastic bags and go for loose options that you can put into your own produce bags.

Remember, not all bulk has to come out of bins or be perfectly zero waste.

Think if you can DIY it

Back before zero waste, I used to love being lazy and would often buy tins of diced tomatoes for sauces. Or pre-made pasta sauce. Same with hummus. Or really any kind of dip. Why pay more for packaged, branded pre-made stuff that you could DIY in just a few minutes – and for way less money.

In the case of tomato sauce, grab a couple loose tomatoes, onions, and fresh or dried herbs. It takes about 10 minutes to make your own and it’s cheaper and more delicious than the pre-made version!

For everything like this, consider batching it (ie. making large quantities of it at a time) and storing it for later.

Be willing to go without and be flexible in your meal planning

Here’s the deal: you’re not going to be able to get everything you want if you’re really committed to reducing your packaging waste. Pretty much everything frozen is out. Everything pre-prepared or meant for convenience is out.

Zero waste is not just about reducing waste. It’s not just about being able to spend more on package-free options. It can be a huge time commitment and I totally respect that some people are time poor. Be zero waste, but only in a way that’s sustainable for your lifestyle.

Stay along the outside of the store where most of the fresh, unpackaged options live. If you venture into the inner aisles, be wary of what packaging lies within. (For example, those compostable cardboard boxes that end up having a secret plastic bag hidden inside!)

Consider what can be recycled

… And what that product will be like after it’s recycled. Here’s a handy breakdown of the most eco-friendly food packaging. Glass and aluminum are great options because they can be recycled infinitely into new products. Sure, there’s an energy cost to processing recycled goods, but you at least divert items from the landfill.

Even if you can recycle plastic, try to avoid it. Plastic often does not actually get recycled so it may end up in a landfill anyway. Plus, plastic only downgrades when it gets recycled which means it has a very finite lifespan even with recycling.

Do you feel a little inspired to get zero waste groceries without bulk? Do you have any more tips for shopping when you don’t have access to bulk or don’t have the funds to buy bulk? Please share in the comments below!


Green Indy is a blog about zero waste, minimalism, and generally being less of an a**hole to our Earth (Indianapolis, specifically) by me, Polly Barks. I’m a writer, teacher, and a natural-born researcher/experimenter.


Allison Mackey · December 29, 2017 at 12:20 pm

Can you still recycle glass? Our city stopped accepting glass in recycling quite a while ago; I know of others who live in different states with no glass recycling options as well. I was told there “was no market” for recycled glass products any longer.

    Polly · December 29, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    Yes we can. Where are you from? I don’t know anywhere in Indiana or Virginia (the two states I’m familiar with) where you can’t recycle glass. I would think that would be a pretty decent money-maker vs. plastic but apparently not?

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