Shopping, the Plastic-Free Way

I was standing in the shop, looking for the best option for a garbage bag. I have a cat and cat litter needs to go into the garbage. Since I do most of my shopping plastic-free, this is something new to figure out.

Life before Plastic Bags

Did you know plastic was invented in 1898? It wasn’t until the early 1950s that we had high density polyethylene – the plastic that most grocery bags are made with. In 1965, the US patent for the “t-shirt plastic bag” was approved, taking still another two decades before the majority of American supermarkets switched from paper bags.

Before the plastic bag, meat was wrapped in paper, milk was delivered in glass bottles, some food came in tins or glass jars, and groceries taken home in paper bags. The paper was reused or burned in the fire for warmth. Bottles were returned and jars, reused for homemade jams. People bought bulk, locally, and seasonally. What is commonplace today was often a novelty or a treat.

Shopping, the Plastic-Free Way

The first step to shopping plastic-free way is to know our consumer habits and motivations. Do we know the consequences of our convenience- and plastic-loving culture? Its impact on our personal and environmental health? Have we wondered why puberty starts so much earlier these days?

The awareness of plastic in the ocean (8 million tons of plastic waste each year) has increased exponentially in recent years, thanks to social media shares. You’ve probably seen photos of turtles with straws up their nostrils or whales full of plastic. Definitely the plastic island, right?

Plastic pollution feels overwhelming, a global issue so far beyond you and me. Yet, you and me can make a difference. I’ll admit that it does take effort. After all, we are breaking multiple ingrained habits and mindsets. We just have to start, one less plastic bag, one less plastic wrap, one less plastic toothbrush, one less plastic straw, at a time.

The next step after deciding to make a change is to research alternatives, such as plastic-free or zero waste vendors.

If you have shops like The Soap Dispensary, Package Free Shop, Nada Grocery Shop, these shops in Melbourne, or these zero waste shops in Europe, plastic-free shopping is a lot easier. Or maybe you shop at wet markets and farmers’ markets. Perhaps you participate in a cooperative or community supported agriculture program. Even growing container vegetables on your balcony helps.

Ideas for Shopping Plastic-Free : 

Bring your own bags

The easiest way shopping plastic-free is by bring your own reusable shopping bag and smaller ones for loose items like fruit and brussels sprouts.

Opt for ones made from recycled materials or a more environmentally-friendly one like hemp. Cotton is water- and pesticide-intensive and is not the best choice. Since using virgin materials is also more costly, consider repurposing old clothing into bags. Or perhaps a woven basket is more your style. The more we choose a reusable bag over a plastic bag, the more environmentally-friendly that bag becomes.

Ask for Paper

It may be faster to pick up a prepackaged piece of meat or a filet of fish. You also get unnecessary single-use plastic and foam packaging. Instead ask the butcher to wrap it in paper or bring your own parchment paper.  Using silicon instead of wax, parchment paper is recyclable or compostable, depending on the brand.  If You Care’s parchment paper is FSC-certified unbleached chlorine-free paper that you can compost. I have one made of recycled materials that is recyclable, not compostable. Better yet, for the trees, bring your own container to carry it home in. Making a grocery list helps us better plan our shopping trip so that we are prepared with our bags and containers.

Use Containers for Bulk

Buying bulk is more economical and it can be more environmentally-friendly. Instead of absently grabbing a plastic bag off the roll, bring your own containers. Be sure to have it weighed and labelled first. An easy way to transport glass containers is with a box or crate. Or one of those trolleys. Some shops, like Eat Organic in Singapore, always have handy their packing boxes for their customers. Sometimes bigger stores have policies about their recycling and may not readily give them out.

There are so many things we can buy bulk, from nuts and seeds to flours and spices. In addition to the bigger chain stores such as Whole Foods, Choices, and Save On, I also have a family-owned neighbourhood bulk shop where my family and I go to. Lots of Asian food markets also offer bulk. Look around, talk with people, google.

Choose Better Packaging

If we take a moment to look at what we buy, we may be surprised – because we’re so used to it – how much comes wrapped in plastic. Hard plastics for products such as batteries. Bottles for water and juices. Containers for our personal care products, from toothpaste tubes to shampoo bottles. Choosing alternatives may take some research, well-worth research. For toothpaste, I use Uncle Harry’s which I found years ago in the US. Now I get refills at The Soap Dispensary, where you can purchase glass containers or grab one from their donated bin. Those little yoghurt glass jars area also perfect for toothpaste, or lotion.

Make Your Own

You can also easily make many of these products – shampoo bar soap, facial oil, scrubs, for example. Instead of grabbing an almond milk or kombucha from the store fridge, why not make your own? Making small batches also means we are less likely to waste. The bonus is we can choose the ingredients and ensure their quality. No preservatives needed.

What about simplifying your cleaning products? Many people are surprised by how effective vinegar and water is as an all-purpose cleaner. Two simple non-toxic and wallet-friendly ingredients. Or use baking soda as a scrub. (It’s also great as a deodorant.) Baking soda, vinegar, hot water (not all together) can also unclog drains.

Rethink Your Pads

Opt for reusable sanitary pads or a menstrual cup instead of disposable ones. Speaking of pads, ditch your (organic) cotton facial pads and buy or make reusable ones made from unbleached hemp or linen.

What about wipes? Amber Sawyer shares how she makes environmentally- and baby-friendly wipes. Probably works for pets too.


Samples are a great way to try a product like a facial moisturizer or foundation. I used to get or even buy them for travelling. They however often come in plastic containers or foil packaging. Have a chat with the shop to see if you can bring your own container instead. Generally buying a bigger sized product means fewer containers in the long run as well.

Know Your Plastics

For your health, get to know your plastics. My Plastic Free Life reminds us to avoid # 3 PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride), #6 PS (Polystyrene), and #7 Other (Polycarbonate). They are either problematic for the environment or for our brain and nervous system health.

Do note that #7, the catch-all category, includes biodegradable plastic. This type of plastic cannot be recycled with other plastics and can contaminate the load and reduce second life use. Biodegradable plastic also does not belong in a landfill, where it will not biodegrade. Compostable bags don’t seem to fare any better in landfills, where they are believed to degrade, though they produce methane which is far worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Sometimes shopping plastic-free is challenging and tricky. If absolutely unavoidable and you have to buy something with plastic packaging, be sure to recycle. Remove food remnants and debris, wash and dry plastic containers and bags, and sort into the proper bins. Plastic bags and films require machinery different from what processes hard plastics and not every municipality offers it. In Canada, Toronto recycles “soft stretchy plastics” through the blue bin while in Vancouver, these have to be taken to places like London Drugs.

Plastics account for 8 – 10% of the world’s oil supply to make, a process requiring stages that take place in different factories. This adds to its carbon footprint. There is a front-end and a back-end impact of using plastics, whether it’s landfills or incinerators.

So far less than 5% of plastics produced is recycled. This is a stumbling block. If we can divert them from landfills, recycled plastics can be made into other plastics, including road paving and outdoor furniture. With plastic production estimated to increase by 40% over the next ten years, the best thing we can do is to change our behaviour around plastic use, especially since compostables are not as green an alternative as we may believe.

So in the end, I decided to go with paper bags made from recycled materials. My cat’s litter is made from walnut shells and the package says it is 100% biodegradable. And not to use plastic bags.