Unless you exist solely on takeout and restaurant food, buying groceries at the supermarket is a necessity of life. It is a thing so mundane that many probably go through the motions with a degree of thoughtlessness, wandering up and down colorful aisles, reaching for those items they are familiar with, perhaps grabbing something new and intriguing. Stocking up on paper goods, fresh produce, a guilty pleasure here and there. But what effect is your loaded shopping cart having upon the environment?
These days, with global warming looming ever more closely on the horizon, a growing global population and increasing scarcity of natural resources like water, it is more important than ever to be environmentally aware and shop as sustainably as possible.
Making environmentally friendly changes to one’s day-to-day habits does not require a huge life overhaul — small changes can have massively positive effects upon individual health as well as the health of the planet.
One easy change to make if you are trying to be more environmentally conscious on your next supermarket sweep: Ditch the single-use plastic bags that will end up in landfills for hundreds of years and grab some tote bags instead. Throw in your reusable water bottle in case you get thirsty on the way — it’s as simple as that.
Once you get to the store, you can help the planet by making some surprisingly simple amendments to your shopping list and choosing to buy more of these most eco-friendly supermarket items.
Amaranth is the ancient pseudo-grain you may not have heard of, but should be eating. Like its more popular cousin quinoa, amaranth is a great source of complete protein. It’s a resilient plant that can be grown in many different soil conditions and with little water and, to top it all off, it’s loaded with fiber, important minerals and B vitamins.
Bamboo absorbs 35 percent more carbon dioxide per hectare than trees and can thrive without the use of pesticides, so choosing to buy bamboo over other material, when possible, is an eco-friendly no-brainer. These days many grocery stores stock bamboo kitchen tools like cutting boards and cooking utensils as well as certain not-so-obvious things like tea towels.
Beans (or pulses if you’re feeling fancy) like chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, peas and more, are among the most eco-friendly pantry staples you can buy in the grocery store. To begin with, beans are an excellent meat-alternative source of protein. They require less water and less land to produce — both good things when eco-conscious farming is concerned.
But these nutrient-dense, naturally gluten-free (not to mention cheap) sources of good, plant-based protein are not just less destructive to the environment — farming them actually has a positive impact on the ecosystem. Nitrogen-rich soil is essential for good plant health; bean plants “fix” nitrogen from the air, storing it in their roots until it gets plowed back into the soil once the crop has been harvested.
Depending on where it is, it can take anywhere from 15 to 1,000 (!) years for a plastic bag to break down. Plastic bags don’t just take up space in landfills — 8.8 million tons of plastic (bags included) end up in the ocean every year. That’s the same as a garbage truck dumping a full load of trash into the ocean every minute. The plastic wreaks havoc upon aquatic species, causing choking, entanglements and destruction of habitat.
Giving up plastic bags for a more eco-friendly option is a no-brainer — it’s easy to do, and once you get into the habit, it has zero effect on your own life while making a big difference. Use tote bags (everyone inevitably has too many anyway) or buy yourself a few of those reusable bags that fold away into practically nothing so you can always have one handy for any impromptu purchases.
If you really don’t have any bags handy, ask your supermarket for an empty cardboard box, which is biodegradable. Extra points if you throw it on your compost heap after you are done using it!
Items like granola, nuts, dried fruits, seeds and grains often come in plastic or cardboard packages. But you can go to the bulk section of your supermarket to find the same item. By bringing your own jars, cloth bags and other reusable containers, you can cut out all of that unnecessary, non-eco-friendly material and still stock up on your favorite dry goods.
Some stores even sell items like olive oil, maple syrup and other less commonly found items in bulk! With a bit of research, you can easily cut down on the amount of packaging you bring home after each trip to the grocery store.
When plastic and paper plates and other disposable items come into contact with food, they are considered contaminated, making it impossible to recycle them — meaning they are destined, like so much waste, for the landfill, where they will sit for years and years.
If you really need to buy single-use dishes and cutlery, opt for a more eco-friendly option by buying something that can be composted.
Anything labeled as “fair trade” is guaranteed to be made by workers in fair conditions. Environmental protection is a key element of fair trade producers’ view of sustainability. When a product is fair trade, manufacturers make sure that both the worker and the local environment are treated in a sustainable and respectful way with minimum negative impact.
Coffee, chocolate, tea, cotton and sugar are some of the most prevalent fair trade items found in supermarkets, but more and more options, like soft drinks and even Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, are increasingly produced according to fair trade standards.
They may be full of dead wasps (kind of) but figs are a great, naturally sustainable crop. The trees thrive in dry and sunny weather, do well even in poor soil, and require much less water than other fruit trees (like almonds). Fig trees are naturally hardy and resilient, which means few herbicides and pesticides are used in fig production.
Not only do they do well in inhospitable surroundings, they also provide essential shelter to various animals and even help cool down the nearby habitat!
A great way to shop in a more eco-friendly way is to choose as many local and seasonal items as possible. That’s not just because supporting local farmers and producers connects you directly with your immediate environment; by buying and eating more local food, you can ensure that your food hasn’t traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to get to you, meaning that its carbon footprint is probably a lot smaller than similar ingredients from farther afield.
Buy loose leaf tea and use a stainless-steel tea infuser and never buy tea bags again! With their string, staple and (often) chemical- and plastic-laced nylon mesh bag, a lot of tea bags are not actually compostable, though people may think that they are.
To cut down on the unnecessary packaging, buy loose leaf tea from the bulk section — with a reusable container, obviously!
What happens to all of those chemicals that end up being washed down the drain and into the surrounding environment? Does the thought give you the heebie jeebies? Because it should!
It makes sense that all-natural cleaning products are better for the environment, right? These days you can find some really great products, like dish soap, laundry detergent, deodorant and shampoo, that are free of all the nasty chemicals we have grown so accustomed to. Eco-friendly cleaning products are made using sustainable manufacturing practices and naturally-derived, safe, nontoxic and biodegradable ingredients that don’t negatively impact the environment. Back in the day, some of these natural alternatives didn’t always cut though grease and dirt the way their chemical compadres did, but with increasing awareness and demand for eco-friendly products, it is becoming easier and easier to find great, low-impact items that actually get the job done!
Whenever possible, choose organic. — even if you switch out just a few of your regular items for their organic counterparts, it will make a difference. Organic means that a food is grown and processed according to specific guidelines that require strict monitoring of things like soil quality, pest and weed control, animal-raising practices and use of additives.
Organic produce must be grown on soil that has been free of prohibited substances like pesticides and chemical fertilizers for at least three years. For meat to be labeled organic, the animals must be reared, free of antibiotics or hormones, in a way that accommodates for their natural behaviors, like grazing on pastures and eating a diet that is 100 percent organic. This translates, basically, to happier and healthier animals. Why would you want to encourage any other kind of animal husbandry?
If you are looking for a great eco-friendly alternative to those high-greenhouse-emission meat products, organic tofu is a great option. Soybeans require far less water to produce than meat (not to mention less feed), and buying the organic stuff ensures that no GMO crops or synthetic chemicals are being used.
Not all tofu is created equal, however; soy production is responsible for a large amount of deforestation, and therefore is not always eco-friendly. That’s why it is especially important to read the labels and find out where the soybeans used in the tofu you are buying have been sourced from.
Ahh the lovely, delicious, and versatile potato! Compared to another hard-hitting carb, rice (perhaps the hardest-hitting carb other than wheat), potatoes are an eco-friendly godsend, requiring just 50 gallons of water per pound, compared to the 403 gallons of water per pound that is needed for rice.
Potatoes also produce natural pesticides and fungicides that greatly reduce the need for and use of chemical pesticides and other chemicals. To top everything off, potatoes are naturally gluten-free, an excellent source of vitamin C, and (if you eat the skin, which is delicious) a great source of potassium. Go ahead, knock your socks off and enjoy some scrumptious spuds.
They might be trendy, they might even be organic, but those sealed, single-use pouches of seemingly “good” baby food are actually terrible for the environment, since they cannot be recycled due to the impossible-to-remove food residue.
If you cannot live without the convenience of the little pouches, buy some that are resealable and can be filled at home, cleaned, and used over and over again!
Just like bottles, reusable coffee cups are an easy switch to make that will help out the environment. Instead of going through hundreds of disposable coffee cups a year use a mug that can be filled over and over again. Most thermoses and coffee cups are actually even easier to carry around than their flimsy laminated relatives. You don’t even have to stop buying your beverages — just ask your barista to make your drink of choice into your handy and eco-friendly travel mug instead!
What on Earth is a sandwich wrap? you may be asking. And why should I be using one? These handy wraps, made from waxed cloth, completely eliminate the need for those troubling single-use plastic bags that are so synonymous with a packed lunch. They keep your sandwiches safe and snug until lunchtime and can even be used as a makeshift placemat while you eat.
Plastic straws have been a hot topic lately, with several cities and restaurant chains giving them up entirely in an effort to save the environment. You should give up plastic straws too! If the idea of sipping your smoothie sans-straw horrifies you, don’t panic — there are tons of different options when it comes to eco-friendly straws. Choose glass, stainless steel, or bamboo straws and sleep soundly at night knowing you have avoided one of the least eco-friendly things you can buy at the grocery store.
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