I Tried Going Plastic-Free in the Kitchen for 7 Days. Here’s What It Looked Like.

Grocery stores are full of plastic packaging and shopping without plastic seems impossible. Here's what I learned after my first week of going plastic-free.

Kiersten Hickman/Taste of Home

For as long as I can remember, the trash can has always been an important fixture in my kitchen. When it comes to trash, the term “out of sight, out of mind” is how I’ve been living my days. I would just throw something away and never think about it again. 

But when I started to pay attention, I was shocked by how much I’m addicted to throwing things out. Especially when it comes to cooking in the kitchen. My garbage can was full of all sorts of plastics, and honestly, a ton of those plastics weren’t needed. Most of the time I was tossing the packaging that I used to transport food from the grocery store to the kitchen. Sound familiar? When I found out that the only 9 percent of the world’s plastics are actually recycled, and that 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, I decided to make a change: living plastic-free.

Grocery shopping plastic-free: Is it possible?

When I first made the commitment to reduce my plastic, I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was. I started using reusable bags, coffee cups or water bottles instead of grabbing those single-use ones on the daily. I have cutlery and dishes at my desk instead of using plastic items, and I even carry around a folding spork and reusable napkin. (Psst! Here are a few items that will make your desk lunch so much better.) I was packing up my breakfast and lunch before making this commitment, so not much changed for me there.

Those swaps were pretty simple, but my biggest challenge was trying to grocery shop. 

Kiersten Hickman/Taste of Home

First stop, the farmers market

After writing up a meal plan and grocery list for the week, I went to the local farmers market first. I brought my reusable bags and stocked up on Brussels sprouts, carrots, potatoes, onions, spinach, leeks and apples. I was surprised by how cheap it was, and at that moment felt pretty positive about plastic-free grocery shopping so far. I also picked up a loaf of whole wheat bread from one of the bakeries at the market and asked them to put it in a paper bag. Paper bags can easily compost, or even better, can be reused the following week for your next loaf. It may sound silly, but you would be surprised how long those paper bags will last you before they start to rip.

I’ve always loved farmers markets, especially since it gives me the opportunity to support local businesses. So when it comes to shopping plastic-free, my new motto is to try the farmers market first. If you can’t find it there, then you try elsewhere. Check out the best farmers market in your state.

Kiersten Hickman/Taste of Home

Shop in bulk

My second stop was at a bulk foods store in Brooklyn. Now I admit I was shocked to find out that there aren’t a ton of bulk food options in the city. The closest one to me was at a local co-op, which has numerous bins full of snacks, nuts, grains, beans, spices, coffee, honey, and even machines to make nut butters. However, the co-op’s prices were absolutely ridiculous. It was hard to look at those prices per pound and know I could get it way cheaper in plastic packaging. (If you’re thinking about joining a co-op, read this first!)

So I regrouped and looked for a second option, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Whole Foods also offers bulk. I parked at Whole Foods and brought a bag of empty jars to the customer service desk. I found out that if you want to shop in bulk using your own items, you have to find the weight of that container so you don’t get charged for it at checkout. The receptionist weighed each jar and put the tare number (weight) on a piece of tape which now sits on the lid of my jars. Once I had the weight, I went to the bulk section.

Although some of the prices were still a little steep (hard for me to adjust to paying $4/pound for pasta instead of $1), they were infinitely better than the co-op I had just been to. I was able to get oats, rice, chocolate chips, popcorn kernels, quinoa and chia seeds for pretty cheap. I was even able to get some dried apricots and honey-roasted sesame sticks for snacks during the week.

Everything went smoothly until I hit the checkout, where I quickly learned that I need to grab the SKU number of each item so my cashier knows what to ring up. After making that mistake, I make sure to always write down the SKU number on my phone so I can read it off to the cashier.

Kiersten Hickman/Taste of Home

Next stop, the actual grocery store

Stop one and stop two went well, so I assumed I was going to have the same success during stop three. Sadly, I was wrong. Traditional grocery stores are full of plastic. It was almost impossible to try and grab something that I needed without it. Sure I can get almond milk in a box carton, but that still has a plastic cap. All of the dairy products I needed were wrapped in plastic (yogurt, cheese, sour cream, milk), and I quickly realized that all types of snacks would have to be eliminated from my diet. Chips, candy, even granola bars are all packaged in, you guessed it, plastic.

As I browsed the shelves, I made sure to only pick things up that were packaged in glass, aluminum or paper. As for eggs, that carton can compost, so I made sure to grab a paper carton instead of the styrofoam kind.

My first (and last) trip: the butcher shop

I also learned why most people who are committed to zero-waste are vegan: It’s almost impossible not to be. Meat is always wrapped in plastic. In my attempt to avoid that packaging, I decided to take a trip to a butcher shop near my apartment.

At this point, my groceries had been fairly cheap (around $30 to be exact). Mind you, I shop weekly for my husband and me, so I was feeling pretty good about how much I spent so far. The butcher shop changed that real quick.

In order to get two pounds of chicken, two pounds of ground beef, and two pounds of sausage wrapped in paper instead of plastic, I had to pay $50. In case you’re not familiar with meat prices, that’s a lot for meat. I’d be happy to spend $20, maybe $30, on the meat we’ll eat for the week, but $50?

I made sure the butcher wrapped everything in paper instead of plastic, which he thought was very strange. After quite a few times of telling him not to wrap something in plastic, I was able to get my meat in wax paper. Sure the wax paper does compost (no, it doesn’t recycle), but some wax paper used by butcher shops actually contains plastic as well. So I left the shop feeling a bit defeated.

Recycling & composting scraps

Now that I have less plastic packaging to throw out, I’ve found myself using that trash can less and less during the week. Cooking will be easy plastic-free, but the trick is to make sure you are properly composting and recycling. If you have glass products (jars of sauce or salsa) or aluminum cans, those recycle easily. Food scraps can actually be composted, and you may be surprised by how easy it is to do so. Most towns have composting bins or sites where you can drop off your scraps. I put mine in a paper bag in the freezer during the week (to avoid smell) and drop off the bag at a composting pick-up in Brooklyn on the weekends. And yes, that paper bag can also compost.

Kiersten Hickman/Taste of Home

My conclusion: Avoid 91 percent of plastic

After almost four hours of grocery shopping, I was exhausted. I had made five stops in order to fully grocery shop (counting the co-op I decided not to shop at), and decided right away that this wasn’t a sustainable way to get my groceries during the week. I knew that committing to a plastic-free life meant losing a lot of normal comforts, like simply shopping at one grocery store. But I’m not about to turn vegan just so I can give up dairy and meat products, and I really don’t want to spend over $50 on meat every week. My husband, obviously, agrees.

However, I’m not letting this become a reason to quit my commitment to giving up plastic. So instead, I decided to give up 91 percent. Since 91 percent of plastics are thrown into landfills, I want to make sure that I’m contributing to as little of that as possible. The only time I plan on using plastic is when I buy dairy and meat products. Everything else in my life is completely plastic-free. I try to shop in bulk as much as possible, buy produce without plastic packaging that I can easily wash, and make all of my snacks from scratch (like these three dozen hearty healthy snacks).

Maybe giving up 91 percent of plastic would be difficult for you, and that makes sense. But I think giving up those easy single-use plastics—bags, bottles, straws, cups, cutlery—can be an easy thing for you to do. Plus, you’ll feel way better about not contributing to that 8 million tons of plastic being dumped into the ocean.

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