Grocery Shopping Without Bulk, Part Two: Jewel-Osco

Grocery shopping without bulk at Jewel-Osco

First up in my summer series of trying to shop zero waste at a few of the large Midwestern grocery chains, we've got that Chicago cult fave: Jewel-Osco. Jewel-Osco is pretty much your standard big-box grocery store: a small organics selection, lots of conventional produce, and then basically a whole store of packaged foods and no bulk aisle. Come walk with me through the grocery store as I take you through how I made the decisions I did!

I visited on a Sunday night to grab ingredients for a few days' worth of meals. Because I live within walking distance to work, where there's a grocery store with a bulk section two minutes away, I typically shop for just a few days rather than picking up ingredients for a whole week's worth of meals. It's so easy to pop in and out of that store, and my evenings these days can be unpredictable (always up for a last-minute hang-out with pals). This helps ensure that I actually eat what I buy, and means that I have flexibility to do whatever I want in the evenings rather than worrying about what produce might be going bad.

So, I went to Jewel-Osco with a few thoughts of what I might eat the next few days bouncing around in my brain, but no firm plan. I think that's the best way to approach shopping zero waste at stores where it's a bit harder: having some sense of what you might want to eat, but being flexible in case what you want is only available in some form of heinous plastic packaging. It was HOT that week, and I wanted a few simple, low-oven meals: sandwiches, panzanella, salad, and then some healthy snacks.

With my cloth bags and reusable produce bags in tow, I made a bee-line for the organics section - although it's worth noting here that you certainly don't need to choose organic to be zero waste. I picked up celery, carrots, and apples for simple snacks throughout the week. Instead of baby carrots or shredded carrots, I bought whole carrots, which came with just a twist tie instead of a plastic bag. If you rely on baby carrots for lunches or snacks, you could purchase whole carrots and then cut them up into sticks yourself to store in the fridge. In the produce section, I also picked up a lemon (to put in water for a summery beverage) and tomatoes for the panzanella.

Next, I visited the bakery section to grab bread. Choosing loose mini loaves instead of plastic-packaged shelf-stable loaves enabled me to use my own cloth bag from home, zero waste style. I toasted these babies into croutons for salad and panzanella, and split them lengthwise for simple veggie sandwiches.

The other things I needed were beans to add body to the panzanella and to turn into homemade hummus, as well as vinegar for the panzanella and for salad dressing (I was using olive oil I already had on hand at home). I chose to buy beans in cans, knowing that the cans were recyclable. I also considered buying them dry in larger plastic bags, but I ultimately wasn't sure if the stretchy plastic bags were recyclable; I collect stretchy plastic bags that come my way and take them to a local drop-off for recycling, but I never am confident that they actually get recycled. So, cans it is. However, dried beans have a lower transportation weight (there's water in the cans), and you get more beans in the package - essentially a form of buying in bulk. So I think it could go either way on that one. I also purchased a small glass bottle of vinegar. I chose this one because it looked like the tastiest one on offer, but as a bonus it's packaged in glass (recyclable!) and I can take the cork on top to be recycled too, unlike a plastic cap that other ones would have. The bottle is so pretty, though, that I might peel off the label and include it with my next thrift store donation - I bet someone would love to reuse it.

I also grabbed soba noodles in packaging. I've been unable to find soba noodles in bulk anywhere in Chicago, and for years I did without - but I love them, they're protein packed and cook quickly, and I just find that my life is way better with them. So though they're not zero waste by any means, I still buy them. And I'm so happy that I do. I chose this brand because it's organic, inexpensive, and I can compost the cardboard insert. Since I gave away my trash can a few years ago, I keep non-recyclable plastic "bags" like the one the soba noodles come in under my sink to corral small pieces of trash I make. I like being able to upcycle them once before they hit the landfill.

Total non-recyclable trash from this trip: a receipt, five produce stickers, three twist ties, and the plastic sleeve on the soba noodles. Not too bad, right? The major key to staying zero waste here was purchasing mainly produce and then bringing it home in reusable cloth bags rather than plastic. In total, I spent around $30 on this haul, but many of the items - celery, carrots, vinegar, soba noodles - lasted for a while. And, I could have chosen less fancy vinegar to bring down the total.

Is this similar to or different from a typical shopping trip for you? Anything you would have done differently?

For more in my series on how to grocery shop without access to bulk foods (and to see who's profiling groceries in other parts of the country), hop over here.