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Recycling 101: Buy This, Not That (Packaging Edition)

Tips to Make Your Shopping Trip More Sustainable

While we always advocate for using reusable cups, packaging, and bags wherever possible, we know that’s impractical for many. In the modern world, it's near impossible to avoid packaging altogether.

BUT there are ways to choose better and more sustainable packaging. Until systems and companies change completely, the onus still falls on us, as consumers, to make the best, most sustainable choices. Every time we buy more sustainable products, we are showing these companies that we want sustainable options and that we value them making positive changes.

So, here are some easy swaps you can make on your next grocery shopping trip to be less wasteful.

1. Buy loose produce, NOT plastic wrapped produce.

Wherever possible, choose loose produce over shrink-wrapped produce or pre-packaged produce in a plastic bag. And if you do need to bag them, bring your own reusable produce bags or use the paper mushroom bags if necessary. This will prevent you from ending up with plastic wrappings that can’t be recycled.

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2. Buy aluminium, cardboard, and glass, NOT plastic.

Look for products that are packaged in aluminium and glass. These are more readily recyclable than plastics. Additionally, while some plastic may be recyclable, it can generally only be recycled a couple of times before it degrades. Aluminium and glass, on the other hand, are infinitely recyclable.

Things like peanut butter, sauces, and fizzy drinks usually have both plastic and aluminium or glass options. Detergent also usually comes both in liquid form from a plastic bottle or powdered form from a cardboard box, which is more sustainable. Making these simple swaps can have a big impact on your personal waste.

3. If plastic is a must, buy recyclable plastics, NOT non-recyclable ones.

While looking for glass or aluminium is best, plastic is often unavoidable in modern supermarkets. So, when you can’t avoid it, look instead for plastics that are recyclable in your area by reading the plastic codes. #1, #2, and #5 are generally the most widely accepted, but it’s important to verify that with your waste provider/council.

These tend to be hard plastics like milk jugs, drink bottles, detergent bottles, and plastic clamshells. It’s important to note that some plastic (like soft plastic) does not have a code listed, in which case it’s generally not accepted kerbside.

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4. Buy packaging made from a single material, NOT multilayered materials.

Some packaging may look like one material but are actually several layers of material. Two prime examples are takeaway coffee cups and chip bags. Unfortunately, because these types of products have two or more material types glued or melted together, it makes them hard to separate and recycle.

The one possible exception to this rule is Tetra Paks. Tetra Paks are commonly used for things like alternative milks, stocks and broths, and juices. However, a study by thinkstep-anz showed that even Tetra Paks thrown in the landfill have the lowest carbon footprint of all single-use material types. Even so, avoiding them all together will have the biggest carbon saving benefit, as they are still not accepted by most kerbside recycling programs (Auckland is the only council in New Zealand to collect them). However, if you can’t avoid Tetra Paks completely, look for specialty recyclers – like saveBOARD in New Zealand – that can use them in some way.

5. Buy in bulk, NOT single servings.

Another easy switch is to buy bigger containers and portion them out yourself. When buying yoghurt, for example, buy large tubs and spoon out portions as needed. This uses less plastic overall, and tubs tend to be made from more recyclable #5 (PP) plastic versus individual portions, which tend to be #4 plastics – which aren't recyclable. It may be slightly less convenient, but it also usually is cheaper, which can make it worth it.

At Method, these bigger yoghurt and ice cream containers made from PP are particularly useful – they are recycled into our bins!

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6. Buy reusable cloths, NOT paper towels.

An easy way to reduce waste is to switch paper towels for reusable, washable cloths. While paper towels are usually compostable, cloths are better overall and can be used over and over again. It’s more of an upfront cost but can save you money in the long run. Plus cloth generally works better than paper towels and look nicer.

7. Buy silicon ziplock bags, NOT plastic ones.

Snap lock bags are convenient for taking small portions of food or items with you on the go. But because they’re single-use soft plastic, they can’t easily be reused or recycled. Instead, invest in some reusable silicon snap lock bags. These lightweight alternatives are easy to wash and reuse many times over without producing unnecessary waste.

8. Buy in refillable containers, NOT throw-away containers.

Many cities around the world have embraced zero waste shopping with the opening of refilleries and zero waste shops. If your city has one, it’s a great way to support a local business and buy grains, sugars, beans, and other pantry staples without packaging. You simply bring your own containers and fill them up there – you can use old glass jars, durable plastic containers, cloth bags, or any other thing you have.

However, if your city doesn’t have any of these shops, most supermarkets have a bulk food section. You can generally bring your own containers to fill up instead of the plastic bags provided.

Often, you can also bring your own containers to the deli or bakery counters to use instead of the single-use packaging provided.

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9. Buy cornstarch-based takeaway containers, NOT styrofoam ones.

As of 1 October 2022, styrofoam containers (made of #6 polystyrene) will be banned in New Zealand. However, elsewhere they continue to be prevalent as takeaway containers. While you generally don’t have control over what sort of containers your local takeaway uses, you can choose to frequent cafes and restaurants that use more sustainable packaging. It’s just one way to vote with your wallet. Otherwise, petition your favourite cafes to switch to compostable or at least recyclable containers.

Otherwise, some restaurants will accept personal containers, so you can ask politely. Additionally, companies such as Reusabowl in New Zealand have specifically designed bowls you can use to reduce single-use takeout containers.

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Wrap Up

Reducing waste by buying long-lasting containers as alternatives is always the best choice when it comes to sustainable action. But because that’s not always possible, you can also look for the most sustainable options when browsing the supermarket shelf. We've made an easy cheat sheet above, to keep on your phone, for the next time you're shopping.

Even making a few simple swaps can help decrease your overall waste. Plus, once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature.

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