Plastic Free Shopping: Here’s Everything You Need to Know!

plastic free shopping - dispensers on wall in zero waste shops

If you’re looking to cut down on plastic, you may be interested to try out plastic free shopping. Shopping without plastic helps to reduce food waste and limits the amount of excessive packaging that you bring into your home. 

There’s a growing number of zero waste and plastic free shops popping up in cities, towns and rural areas across the country. It’s grocery shopping that allows you to choose what you want and how much you need, all without unnecessary packaging. 

It can feel a bit like being a child in a sweet shop again!

If you’ve not visited a shop like this before you probably have lots of questions about how it all works. What exactly is a plastic free shop? What can I buy there? What do I need to take with me? How does the pricing work?

We’re about to cover all this and more so you’ll be all set to take your first plastic free shopping trip in no time. Less plastic in your home is about to become a reality! 

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What is a Zero Waste or Plastic Free Shop?

If you’re new to the zero waste or plastic free movement you might be wondering how these shops are different to traditional supermarkets.

Zero waste shops allow you to reduce or minimise the environmental impact of your shopping. They allow you to shop for goods without the need for excess packaging or plastic.

Everything is sold in bulk and you bring your own containers to carry the products you’d like to buy. 

Plastic Free Shopping - Jars on shelf

These types of shops are also commonly referred to as refill stations or bulk shops. (Although sometimes bulk shops refer to shops that have larger packet sizes rather than there being little or no packaging.)

The majority of zero waste or plastic free shops abide by the following:

  • No single-use plastic – everything is contained in large refillable containers. Customers select items from these and transfer the goods to their own containers.
  • Zero waste – there is no, or very limited, packaging or food waste from the store itself. 
  • Bulk buying – stock is bought in very large quantities. Most shops will endeavour to buy goods in the most environmentally friendly packaging they can. They often return the packaging to be reused by the wholesaler.
  • Organic where possible – most shops try to source products that are as kind to the planet as possible.
  • Local and seasonal – products are sourced that keep carbon emissions and air miles to a minimum. Ask any shopkeeper and they’ll have a reason why they stock each of their individual products.

What You Can Expect to Find

Plastic free shops are all slightly different, depending on their size and location. But you’ll typically find the majority of these items in store:

  • Pantry staples – oats, pasta, rice, grains, cereals, flour, sugar, dried fruit
  • Dried goods – herbs, spices, coffee, tea
  • Pulses – nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, fresh nut butters (so amazing!!)
  • Liquids – oils, vinegars, honey, tamari/soya sauce 
  • Household – beeswax wraps, cloth bags, lunch boxes, reusable bottles, straws, jars
  • Bathroom – toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, sanitary items, shampoo, conditioner, liquid soap
  • Laundry – washing up liquid, cleaning products, cleaning cloths, scrubbing brushes
  • Fresh produce – loose fruit and veg

Some shops provide full lists on their website, others just list the main categories. 

We’ve done all the research for you and collated this information into our plastic free and zero waste shop directory. You can search for shops near you and filter by what you want to buy. You can also check out what other goods shops stock before you head out the door. 

If you’re looking for something specific and haven’t visited a particular shop before it’s always a good idea to check with the shop. You’ll find that most shops will get back to you if you send them a quick message on social media or via email.

plastic free shopping - jars with pantry items

How Plastic Free Shopping Works

It can be a little overwhelming when you arrive at a plastic free or zero waste shop if you’ve never been to one before. But the system is simple once you know what’s going on. 

Most shops adopt a simple four step process: weigh, shop, weigh and pay. 

STEP 1 – Weigh Your Containers

Place each container that you’ve brought with you on the scales to weigh the container. Record the weight – how you do this will depend on the shop. This is called taring the container.

You do this to avoid paying for the weight of your bag or box. All you need to pay for is your zero waste goodies! If you’ve brought paper or plastic bags you can normally skip this step as they won’t weigh anything significant.

Once you have the weight, either write it directly onto the container or print a label and stick it to the container. Or, you could write the container name and weight onto a piece of paper and put it into the container.

If you’re going to use the container for future visits it’s a good idea to use a label or write on the container in a permanent marker. This will save you having to do this step on your next visit.

Some shops will do all this for you, especially if it’s your first time shopping in a zero waste store. So don’t be surprised if the shop assistant expects you to hand your containers over. Don’t worry, they will give them back!

STEP 2 – Shop to Your Heart’s Content

Browse the store and fill each of your containers with the items you need. Beside each item you’ll find a scoop, spoon or pair of tongs to transfer the product from the stores container to your own. Avoid using your fingers or hands for health and safety reasons.

You may find in some stores that the more expensive products have a sign suggesting that you ask for help. 

Not everyone is familiar with weights and how quickly the costs can add up. The shopkeeper can make you aware of the higher priced items. Fill up on these items sparingly! That way you can make sure you don’t underestimate how much it will cost when weighed. 

I’ve seen this with nut butters, chocolate covered mulberries and some nuts and seeds. And trust me, it really does add up quickly!

cookies and snacks in jars

STEP 3 – Weigh Your Filled Containers 

Some shops allow you to weigh your filled containers yourself. They will have instructions on how to use the scales and how to deduct the weight of your container. You might need to print a ticket for each item, or write the final weight and price on a piece of paper.

Other shops will take all your filled containers and weigh and price the items for you. This is often much faster, as they do this every day, so always opt for this method if you can.

STEP 4 – Pay

The shop assistant will then ring up all your containers like at any normal supermarket so that you can pay. I’m yet to see a self-service plastic free shop so there’ll always be someone on hand to give you a hand if you need it.

And that’s it, pretty simple once you understand the weighing system.

spices in jars

Planning for a Zero Waste Shopping Trip

One of the hardest parts of a zero waste shopping trip is knowing exactly how many containers you need to take, what size and what type. This is definitely where planning your trip can come in handy.

Here’s an easy way to prepare:

  1. Create a shopping list. Look in your cupboards and make a list of items that you definitely need. Add to that list things that you might like if the shop has them.  
  2. Calculate quantities. Write down how much of each item you need, for example: brown rice – 1kg. 
  3. Find containers. Try and match containers that you have in your cupboards with the items on your list that will hold the amount you want to buy.

It can take a little practice to learn what size containers fit what volumes. But don’t worry too much if you can’t get it 100% right the first time.

If you end up in a shop and you run out of containers, most shops will have a small stock that they’ll gift you. They often ask that next time you visit you repay the favour. You can return the container or add another for the next person who runs into the same problem.

pantry staples in jars

What to Take With You When You’re Zero Waste Shopping

If you’re walking with your containers or using public transport, consider the weight. They’ll weigh a lot more when they’re full! 

Take as many lightweight containers as possible. Hunt in your cupboards for Tupperware, old takeaway boxes or even ice cream tubs. 

It may seem strange to take plastic containers on a plastic free shopping trip. But it’s avoidable single-use plastic that’s the devil. There are some benefits of plastic, and filling old tubs with tasty nuts and seeds is one of them. 

Any plastic containers that you do have should be reused as much as possible. This makes use of the plastic that is already in circulation before sending it to landfill.

If you have mesh or fabric produce bags take them too, they’re great for larger items like pasta or nuts. You can also bring along paper or plastic bags – it’s the perfect opportunity to reuse ziploc or bread bags.

produce bags

While taking glass jars and bottles might seem like a good idea, they weigh a lot more and will clink around in your bag when you’re travelling home. 

I suggest only taking glass if you run out of reusable plastic containers, or if you’ll be driving home. 

Having said that, bringing small spice jars to refill are perfect. You won’t have to transfer spices into their rightful containers when you get home. 

And make sure that you have a bag that will fit all your shopping once you’re done. Imagine going to all the trouble of a plastic free shopping expedition only to find that you can’t fit everything into your bag(s) to carry it home. 

Here’s a top tip. If you have a small suitcase or a shopping trolley on wheels, they’re perfect for packing all your goodies if you’re taking public transport.

Go on, Plan Your Next Plastic Free Shopping Trip! 

Now you know how to prepare for zero waste shopping. And you know what to expect once you get to the store. So now it’s time to get shopping. 

Find your closest zero waste shop, make a shopping list, pack up your containers and set off to fill your bags.

At the end of your trip you’ll not only have food to stock your cupboards. You’ll feel confident that you’ve done your bit to help reduce packaging waste and plastic. And you’ve supported a local business. How’s that for feel good?!