The grocery was the first place I started with zero waste. That was several years ago now, but what I do remember is that a set of produce bags was one of the very first purchases I made when I decided I was finally brave enough to start emulating the few folks I'd heard about who were working on paring down their waste. Four years later, and those same produce bags are still in rotation every week. (Albeit quite stained and a little worn, but hey).
The grocery store is not, of course the place that you have to start, but I found that starting with changing up my grocery run was an angle that offered a good measure of instant gratification. And that can-do spirit I felt when I watched my kitchen trash shrink each week motivated me to make changes in other areas, too. Groceries are by volume and number the largest amount of new things I bring into my home each week, so it makes sense that slashing my packaging waste in that arena propelled me on to others.
A little forethought and some time spent assembling gear means you'll be ready to tackle a lower-waste grocery run, too. Or, even if you already have, sharing some of the stuff I take along might give you a behind-the-scenes thrill. Here's what I tend to bring:
Containers for liquid bulk.
When liquid bulk goods like vinegar, olive oil, or tamari are on the list, I make sure to bring along a few glass jars. I like to use repurposed glass vinegar bottles when possible, since the plastic lids don't rust like metal Ball jar lids do, and the narrow neck means I don't waste any food when pouring. Luckily, as I've mentioned before, glass bottles like these are better hoarded from past uses than bought new, although you can certainly purchase something like a glass swing-top bottle to do the trick for these instead. (They're also worth scouring thrift stores for).
If you're buying something super sticky like honey or molasses, a narrow-neck bottle might not work as well as a wider-mouth jar, where you can get a spoon in and clean that sucker out at it gets empty. Luckily, honey and molasses and the like are less likely to rust a metal lid than corrosive vinegar is, so you're probably in the clear with a standard Ball jar.
Containers for produce.
Produce bags comprised my very first zero waste purchase, and I'd posit that they're a good one. Wrestling open clingy, squeaky plastic produce bags is not something I miss. I keep a big stack of cloth produce bags around because I use them for everything: produce, sure, and bulk dry goods, but also holding craft projects while traveling, as a makeshift lunch bag, to send extra food home with friends (a la this), and on and on. It's nice to have enough that I can make a grocery trip even some of my bags are in the laundry pile.
The bags shown here are these mesh bags and solid cotton bags, which were a recent gift from EcoBags. It's a treat to have a few bags that aren't stained (yet), and I'm especially glad to have the mesh bags, which mean that I answer fewer questions from the cashier at check-out about what's in each bag, since they can see through the mesh. (Otherwise, our interactions can look something like: "What's in here?" "Lemons." "And here?" "Kale." "What's in here?" "Cremini." "Are these fuji apples?" "Nope, pink ladies.")
Containers for bulk dry goods.
These can be glass jars, plastic containers (like these very un-fancy ones), or even cloth bags like the ones you'd use in the produce section. To make my life easier, I try to grab my bulk dry goods like beans and nuts in glass jars when possible, so that I can put the glass jars directly into my pantry when I get home, rather then spending time decanting purchases into different containers.
Looked at another way, though, carrying a big load of clanking, heavy, breakable jars to the grocery can be anything but convenient. Bringing some cloth produce bags or plastic containers in addition to your glass jars can mean a lighter load. Where possible, I choose to put items with larger pieces (beans, nuts) in produce bags, and items that will be harder to decant, like cocoa powder, spices, and tiny grains directly in the glass jars in which I'll plan to store them.
Containers for bringing it all home.
A.k.a. tote bags. Reusable tote bags are the only piece of zero waste gear that's been pretty much universally adopted, so you probably already have way too many. And thank goodness for it. Store them in the trunk of your car, piled on a hook in the coat closet so you see them each time you reach for your coat to head out the door, keep an extra folded up in each purse. The string bags pictured here, a gift from EcoBags, are a recent favorite version of mine, as they make me feel farmers' market-y, even in the winter when there's no market to be had.
And, the ability to remember to bring it with you.
The best-stocked kit in the world won't help you if it's in your hall closet as you head to the grocery. Like all habits, this one can take a while to build, but it does eventually stick. Now I'd no more leave the house for a grocery run without my produce bags than I would leave without my wallet. If you have a car, keeping a small box in your trunk with clean containers and produce bags might be the trick you need; if you tend to walk or take public transportation to the grocery, you could hang your tote bags on your door handle to remind you, or put up a temporary sign like this.
What you choose to stock your kit with, of course, depends on what you can find in bulk near you. (You can use this guide to help you find local options). If you are lucky to have a place to buy liquid bulk items like olive oil and white wine vinegar, you'll want to prioritize a few bottles that seal tightly. If you only have dry bulks goods available, maybe glass jars or plastic containers and a stack of produce bags will be all you need.
Over time you can add to and take away items as you figure out what you use most during a normal month. If you have extra produce bags, they make great holders for knitting supplies, travel toiletries, snacks on the go, really anything. And if you have extra glass jars, well, those are darn useful elsewhere too.
What does your grocery kit look like these days? Favorite things to keep on hand?