The Zero Waste Grocery Store Challenge: Trader Joe’s

When you decide to reduce your waste in your home, office, school or wherever, you may notice as many of us do that a huge source of daily garbage is …food packaging.

This summer I’m teaming up with a dream squad of bloggers to show you how we shop at conventional stores while still reducing waste.

-East: I’m profiling Trader Joes’, Costco, Hannaford Supermarket, and Wal-Mart.
-South: Manuela from Girl Gone Green will be going to Aldi, Publix, Thrive, and Wal-Mart.
-Midwest: Celia from Litterlesss will be taking you to Kroger, Jewel-Osco, and Wal-Mart.
-West: Andrea of Be Zero will be featuring Lucky’s, Safeway, and Wal-Mart.
-Pacific: Kathryn of Going Zero Waste will be visiting Target, Grocery Outlet, and Wal-Mart.
+ Follow the #ZWGroceryChallenge on social media and join in! Share your triumphs, challenges, questions.

Sometimes it seems like there are a lot of barriers to entry into the zero waste movement. Trust me, I know. You may not eat or live like the people you see online, and that’s okay. If I can do it, you can do it. Be wary of people (ahem, online bullies) who tell you that you have to be a certain way in order to be eco-friendly or reduce waste.

You may envy the hauls you see from bloggers who shop at “zero waste friendly” stores with miles of bulk/loose bins and farmer’s markets with huge piles of beautiful package-free locally grown produce. However, you can absolutely shop with reducing trash in mind at any supermarket. This challenge is exciting and so important because living low waste is possible for anyone regardless of available resources.

So how does shopping at a conventional grocery store actually look and work for a family like mine? Quick recap: We are feeding two adults and a child (who eats like an adult… plus snacks!) and a baby. We primarily eat a paleo-style diet.

This is a real world example and I’m sure the opinions will flow about what I could have done differently. I’m happy to read any and all advice, but the truth is that I’m not perfect and I have family, budget and time constraints just like anyone. This season of life learning to navigate life with two children has been incredibly challenging and the truth is we’ve had to limit some of our zero waste “tactics” to get through this chapter.

Moving on to the challenge. The first store I am highlighting is Trader Joe’s. Known for affordability and interesting food finds. Also known for over-packaging pretty much everything. There are a few things I keep in mind when shopping for food there.

  • Buy whole and cut/prepare at home.
    For example, instead of buying a bag of mixed greens, can I buy Kale and other lettuce unpackaged and wash and mix myself? It’s worth a minute of extra work in my mind. Plus it’s typically recommended to wash greens anyway. Same goes for cut-up fruit. Can I buy it whole and cut it up instead of buying the pre-cut version? Yes, and again the extra work isn’t as difficult as it once seemed to me. A sharp knife does wonders! Also check out my “hierarchy of buying produce” – here. 
  • Avoid plastic packaging as much as possible.
    Material usage matters and I don’t love the idea of my food sitting in plastic and then having to ultimately dispose of it. I choose to avoid plastic film and rigid plastics whenever possible. I chose unpackaged avocados over the ones in the plastic netting, for example. 
  • Instead of plastic, I choose unpackaged, packaged in glass, or packaged in paper/cardboard.
    I can clean and reuse the glass for food storage and recycle or compost the paper products.
  • If I do have to buy something in plastic, I choose the largest container I can possibly use and store. 
    For example, I’ll buy a large container of yogurt for my daughter instead of the 6-pack of small yogurts. I buy a whole chicken instead of buying breasts or tenders. For those of you who eat meat, I highly recommend learning how to cook larger and different cuts of meat. It saves money, resources, and isn’t that hard. I used to be intimidated and would go for boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Instead I buy a whole chicken, roast it and my family has dinner and a few lunches.
  • I look for ingredients to make things myself instead of buying the packaged counterpart.
    For example, I might buy the ingredients to make crackers instead of buying a box. This isn’t always an entirely plastic-free solution since I am gluten free and specialty flours are often packaged in plastic. However, I still feel that I am ultimately producing less trash and I’m controlling the ingredients that my family eats.
  • Be flexible. 
    If the recipe you have in mind calls for shallots but they come in a plastic bag, choose unpackaged onion instead. If you want to use zucchini but can only find it in packaging, see if there is other unpackaged produce like eggplant or peppers you can use instead. The internet is such a great resource for recipes – with some quick searching you’ll likely be able to find a recipe using what you bought. Or just make it up when you get to your kitchen! Some of our favorite recipes we make often came from experimenting due to available produce. 
  • Bring your own bags for produce and to carry out all of your purchases.
    This is a simple habit to make no matter where you shop. If you forget your bags in your car, still refuse the bags in store. Pile all your stuff back in your cart and fill your bags once you get to the car. Easy peasy. If you are purchasing meat, remember to bring a separate bag for that so you can refuse the plastic film bags at check out.
  • Refuse stickers at checkout
    Trader Joe’s loves to give kids a bunch of stickers which is cute in theory except they end up all over your shirt and car. For about 15 seconds of fun you’re left with a lot of unnecessary garbage. If I can, I’ll ask the cashier not to give my daughter any stickers or limit it to one. 

We got some basics and food for three dinners – hopefully with enough for leftovers for lunches. We also got food for breakfasts and snacks. The packaged bread and jam was a treat for my daughter. The nut butters in plastic jars were a treat for my husband. Again, this is a very real and revealing post! 😉

We planned to make: 1.) Nom Nom Paleo Tuna Cakes (we got canned salmon for this) 2.) Beef Bolognese sauce over cauli rice (we got the grassfed frozen beef for this) 3.) Roasted chicken (we got the organic whole chicken and used the Instant Pot!) with fresh corn

We also got fruit and olives for snacks (yes my toddler loves Kalamata olives!) and some staples like organic coconut milk, eggs and Kerrygold butter. Also wine. Because TJs wine section is pretty great. Choose a twist-off top and you can easily recycle! Corks these days are often made of plastic … ew.

The truth is that we supplemented this shopping trip with produce and meat from our CSA, local farmer’s market and local natural foods store to round out the week’s meals. I definitely could have been more strict and only used food we purchased at Trader Joe’s, but this challenge is about real life, and that’s what we did.

I say this a lot but I’ll say it again: I’m not trying to “win” zero waste. I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone on Instagram or online about how little trash my family can produce. I’m setting myself up for the long haul – for a lifetime of my family being mindful about how we view materials and treat our planet through decisions big and small.

In America the average adult produces 4+lbs of garbage a day. Reducing that garbage shouldn’t be off the table for anyone, regardless of their situation. We can only do what we can given certain parameters, and that’s okay! Collectively we will be making a difference.

Also this summer I’ll be shopping at Hannaford Supermarket, Costco and Walmart so stay tuned! Please leave your questions in the comments!

23 thoughts on “The Zero Waste Grocery Store Challenge: Trader Joe’s

  1. I agree that starting out with changes you can manage at your specific stage of life will make you more successful in the long run! Great tips on avoiding plastic and packaging in general. I’m really interested to see the Aldi review by Girl Gone Green, as it’s one of my favorite stores to shop at budget-wise but I HATE all of the packaging that their produce comes in!

  2. I work at Trader Joe’s in San Francisco. I can say for sure that there is a crap ton of packaging and plastic waste going on. Even where the customers can’t see it. It’s overwhelming sometimes how much gets thrown away. But one thing I do like at my work is that they are really strict about what gets thrown away, what gets recycled, and what gets composted. If something goes bad, we open the packaging and compost what we can. If it can go to a food bank we donate it to them. It’s difficult to be completely zero waste at Trader Joe’s, but you can still reduce your waste.

    1. Thanks for the comment Red! Yes you’re so right – so much happens before products even get to the shelves. I’m so glad to hear about the composting, though! I’m not sure other grocery stores do that.

  3. I used to loooove Trader Joe’s, but once I took the blinders off and actually realized how much everything was packaged, I shopped there less and less. I am glad you took the time to try this. Thanks!

  4. I’ve just started my zero waste journey after working on my zero food waste mission for a while now. They seem to go hand in hand. After I started really paying attention, I found Trader Joe’s to be the worst about all the packaging on their produce! Luckily we live in the Bay Area where little produce markets are abundant and package-less. Thanks for the tips though and I love your philosophy about not “trying to win” at being zero waste. I’m looking at this as a long term process as well and every little bit helps! Keep up the great work!

  5. Thumbs up and hi-fives for everyone! I am in alignment/agreement with every comment here. Being single (shopping for one) has always been overpriced. Whether it’s retreat lodging – (extra surcharge for a single room) or grocery shopping – it costs more to buy ONE single item 😦 But I do, because ONE avocado does not come in netting. I’m aiming for the day I have enough confidence to approach my local grocery store and ask about their food waste/over packaging – requesting them to reconsider how they do things. It’s all terribly overwhelming at the moment. But I thank each of you for blazing a trail of consciousness. I think we are part of the food revolution. Once individuals become awake and aware, the suppliers must conform. I pray!

    1. Thanks for reading and the comment! You touched on such a good point- right now reducing waste is often the responsibility of the consumer but it should be everyone’s responsibility, especially stores/manufacturers.

  6. Thank you for doing these practical challenges! I’m a toddler mom too – trying to balance my sanity with doing everything I possibly can to reduce my impact. I think it’s important to break things down into doable steps so it isn’t overwhelming to start, stick with it or pick back up again. Keep going! It’s super important to put this out there!

  7. Hi! This challenge is wonderful! I find myself doing the challenge myself. I have recently moved and am visiting so these stopped by my new home to figure out what my new zero waste grocery shopping routine will be. I find that the chains vary a lot with what they offer in different locations. It’s been frustrating. I think I was the first person to bring my own containers to my local Fresh Market. No one new what to do! I enjoyed reading this. Would you please post the links to the other stores/blogger’s challenges? Thank you!

  8. Hi! This challenge is wonderful! I find myself doing the challenge myself. I have recently moved and am visiting several of these stores by my new home to figure out what my new zero waste grocery shopping routine will be. I find that the chains vary a lot with what they offer in different locations. It’s been frustrating. I think I was the first person to bring my own containers to my local Fresh Market. No one knew what to do! I enjoyed reading this. Would you please post the links to the other stores/blogger’s challenges? Thank you!

  9. I just found your page. Our local recycling service is no longer taking plastics or glass so I’m on the hunt for alternative options. I understand buying the largest packages etc but anyway to avoid them all together. Will store let you bring in paper bags for produce or bulk nuts & grains? What about dairy. Sorry I’m rambling and spinning. And just starting this journey. Thanks for sharing what you guys have done!

    1. It depends on the store! Look for “bulk stores” or stores that have bulk options, and ask their manager/customer service what they’ll allow. Most stores with bulk bins will allow you to bring in your own jars or cloth bags. You simply write the weight of the container and the bin # or description of the product on the outside. One store near me allows my cloth bag for bulk items but they print a sticker to place on the bag. Still lower waste than using a plastic bag or buying something prepackagd. Sometimes it’s best just to try, though! If I need something from the deli case like sliced cheese, I hand over a (very clean!) glass container and ask them to put my choice right inside. They’ll deduct the weight of the container as if it’s a “deli platter” and then you’ll only be charged for the product inside. Thanks for the comment and hope this helps!

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