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13 sustainable shopping choices

Hands scooping ingredients out of a bulk bin

Trying to avoid waste while shopping for your everyday needs can be challenging. It's hard to avoid disposable items, excessive packaging, and single-use plastics when you're buying groceries or other household items. What can an eco-conscious consumer do? We have some suggestions for sustainable choices! Some may not be available in your grocery store, but are easily found online. All of them will help lessen the amount of waste you and your family generate and help you step lightly on the planet.

Sustainable choice: Buy in bulk and bring your own container

Replaces disposable plastic packaging

Grocery stores and specialty shops sell all sorts of grains, nuts, beans, spices, and more from bulk bins. You can also buy shampoo, laundry detergent, and other household products. Buying in bulk reduces packaging and packaging waste, and is usually cheaper as a result. Even better: Bring your own reusable containers rather than putting your bulk goods in the plastic bags offered at the store.

Sustainable choice: Shampoo and conditioner bars

Replaces shampoo and conditioner in plastic bottles

Plastic packing is not always recyclable (or always recycled) and most shampoo and conditioner bars are either package-less or packaged in a recyclable/compostable paper wrapping. The bars are more concentrated (the first ingredient of bottled shampoos is usually water). Lather the bar in your hands then apply to the hair like a normal shampoo and conditioner. Bars are great for travel — fewer little bottles in your plastic bag at airport security. They also save space in your shower, and have a smaller transportation footprint.

Sustainable choice: Toothpaste/mouthwash tablets

Replaces toothpaste tubes and bottles of mouthwash

Pop a toothpaste tablet in your mouth, crush it with your teeth, and then brush as usual. For mouthwash tablets, let them dissolve in water then use like normal mouthwash. Toothpaste/mouthwash tablets are zero-waste, plastic free, and have a smaller transportation footprint than traditional products. Because the tablets do not have liquid, they do not include many of the preservatives required for other options. Most tablets are sold in either glass bottles or compostable paper pouches. Traditional toothpaste tubes are almost impossible to recycle.

Sustainable choice: Bamboo toothbrush

Replaces plastic toothbrush

Bamboo has a smaller ecological footprint than plastic. Bamboo grows quickly, stores carbon, and is biodegradable and compostable. The toothbrush bristles are often still nylon (not compostable) and need to be removed before disposal. Some are available with boar bristle but that may be too abrasive for some people. Plastic toothbrushes cannot be recycled and end up in the trash.

Sustainable choice: Soap nuts or detergent sheets

Replaces laundry detergent in plastic bottles

Soap nuts are the name for the berry-like fruits from the Sapindus Mukorossi tree. It takes nine years for a tree to bear fruit but it will produce for 90 years. Soap nuts release saponin which is a surfactant that releases the dirt and grime from clothing. To use, just put them in a fabric bag and toss into the wash with the rest of your clothes. They are effective for four to six loads and then can be composted. Buy them in bulk with your own packaging; they're also available in compostable packaging.

You can also buy laundry detergent in sheet form; throw a sheet in with your load and it dissolves in water. By making the detergent without water, the manufacturers can avoid the bulky plastic bottles and package the sheets in recyclable cardboard. The sheets also have a much smaller transportation footprint.

Sustainable choice: Reusable produce bags

Unsustainable choice: Plastic produce bags

You may have gotten into the habit of bringing reusable bags to the grocery story, but are you still using plastic bags in the produce section? Reusable produce bags are more durable and can be reused many times before they wear out.

Sustainable choice: Reusable food-storage bags

Replace disposable plastic storage bags

Reusable silicone food-storage bags are safe for freezers, microwaves, and dishwashers and some can even be boiled for defrosting or cooking. They hold liquids better than disposable bags. The silicone bags are more expensive up front but you won't have to keep buying plastic bags, and they'll reduce your plastic trash.

Sustainable choice: Reusable food wraps

Replace plastic wrap

Most reusable food wraps are made with cotton fabric, beeswax, pine resin, and jojoba oil. Beeswax and jojoba oil have natural antibacterial properties (to help keep food fresh). There are also vegan versions available, or you can DIY your own. To mold the wrap around the food or container, hold so that the heat from your hands softens the wrap to make it stick. You can use the wrap in the refrigerator or freezer (up to a month). When no longer useful, the wraps can be composted.

Sustainable choice: Rechargeable batteries

Replace disposable batteries

Disposable alkaline batteries can be recycled but it's not cost effective, so they generally end up in the trash. Rechargeable batteries don’t last as long per charge as most disposable batteries, but their lifespan is much greater and they can be recycled.

Sustainable choice: Cloth napkins

Replaces paper napkins

Generally, cloth napkins are bigger, more absorbent, and more durable than paper napkins, and can be used over and over. You may spend more upfront on cloth napkins, but they are often readily available in thrift stores or easily made from repurposed fabric. Buy or make a couple sets so you don’t run out before laundry day.

Sustainable choice: Wool dryer balls

Replace disposable dryer sheets

Dryer balls fluff while drying, so your clothes dry faster and you save energy. Dryer balls last for years, so you save money compared to regularly buying dryer sheets. Dryer sheets and fabric softener use chemicals that may be hazardous to your health amd can irritate sensitive skin. Fabric softener leaves a film on fabric that can make your towels less absorbent. If you miss the fragrance of dryer sheets, you can add a few drops of essential oil onto the dryer ball before using.

Sustainable choice: Silicone baking mat

Replaces parchment paper

Silicone baking mats are reusable and easier to clean in a sink than a metal baking pan. You don’t need to use as much oil or butter to grease the pan.

Sustainable choice: Reusable gift wrap

Replaces wrapping paper

Most wrapping paper is not recyclable, and its useful life is very short. Instead, you can use reusable tins, gift bags, fabrics (towels, furoshiki, pillowcases, sew-your-own bags, etc.), and boxes. If you are giving something made of fabric (like a tea towel) you can even use it as wrapping for the rest. If you must use paper for wrapping, make it recyclable or biodegradable. Better yet, you could use some paper you already have, like paper grocery bags, comics from the Sunday newspaper, or paper that comes in packages you’ve ordered. Wrapping paper is pretty, but it ultimately ends up in a landfill, so try out a more sustainable option.

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