I am really fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay Area with stores like Rainbow Grocery and Berkeley Bowl that sell so many foods in bulk bins without any packaging at all. It would be much harder to live plastic-free without these kinds of stores. So I thought I’d take an aisle-by-aisle tour of my local Safeway to see how I’d minimize my plastic consumption if I had no other place to shop. The exercise was enlightening.
I planned to write this post in the same way, as an aisle-by-aisle assessment of Safeway’s offerings and how to shop there while consuming the least plastic possible. But writing the post that way became so tedious tonight, I just had to stop. You don’t need me to tell you what products are on the shelves of Safeway. Anyone who shops there can see for themselves. But there are some important principals to keep in mind when shopping at any mainstream grocery store, so I’ll list those, as well as a few other things I discovered during my trip to Safeway.
- Bring your own grocery and produce bags. This should be a no-brainer for us at this point. The produce section is the easiest place in Safeway to shop plastic-free. Bring your own produce bags or don’t use any at all. Most of the produce is sold without packaging. Stick to the “naked” fruits and veg, and you’ll be fine.
I did write a letter a few months ago to Safeway CEO Steven A. Burd asking the company to switch to biodegradable produce bags and also asking why the Vons store I visited in Anaheim this September had only plastic grocery bags at the checkout. Here is a copy of his response (PDF). As you can see, Safeway has no plans to eliminate plastic produce bags and wouldn’t be eliminating plastic grocery bags if cities didn’t force them to.
- Have meat and seafood wrapped in paper. Find out if you can have your meats wrapped in paper by the butcher. Our Safeway has a seafood counter with fish and other shellfish on ice. If you ask, you can get your fish wrapped only in brown coated paper. Of course, the paper is coated with some kind of plastic, which keeps the liquid from leaking through, but if you don’t ask for the paper, the fish will be handed to you on a Styrofoam tray covered with plastic wrap. I’d go for the coated paper.
Our Safeway does not have a meat counter. With the exception of whole birds and some sausages and hams which are shrink-wrapped, all of the meat and poultry is pre-packaged in Styrofoam trays covered in plastic wrap. But you can get meat wrapped in the same brown paper if you come to the store early while the butchers are still working and request a special cut of meat wrapped in paper. If they have it in the back, they’ll cut it for you. But make sure you specify that you don’t want them to simply remove the packaging from a cut of meat and wrap it in paper.
And come to think of it, it’s not much different from how I buy organic meat at Berkeley Bowl or Whole Foods: wrapped in coated brown paper. To avoid this type of plastic, I just don’t buy meat very often.
- Eggs are not just for breakfast anymore. They’re nutritious in place of meat and can be bought without any plastic packaging. And if you get cage-free organic eggs (of which my Safeway does have some), they are even more nutritious.
- Buy larger sized containers. Many products, such as yogurt, cottage cheese, and puddings come in plastic tubs. The only way to go plastic-free is to avoid these altogether. Otherwise, the best rule I can think of is to avoid individual-sized cups and buy the larger containers in order to minimize your plastic usage. This goes for cereals, too. Skip the individually-wrapped granola bars and stick to boxed cereal. You’ll save a lot of packaging overall this way.
- Buy concentrates. When you buy concentrated products, you not only save plastic but also the fuel it would have taken to ship the extra water. Instead of stressing about whether to buy refrigerated juice in a coated paperboard carton or a plastic jug, choose the frozen concentrate and add the water yourself. Or better yet, buy the whole fruit and juice it yourself. That way you get all the pulpy goodness as well as the sugar without any packaging at all.
- Ask yourself if avoiding plastic is always the best choice. Cheeses are wrapped in plastic, as I’ve mentioned before. The only exceptions seem to be boxed cream cheese (But I wonder what the foil around cream cheese is made from. I e-mailed Kraft to find out if it was 100% metal foil or some plastic, but the rep would not give me an answer, citing trade secrets!) and Laughing Cow, which is processed cheese food wrapped in foil. Cheese is the one product I’m willing to purchase in plastic because I’d rather sacrifice some plastic for a higher quality cheese. And Safeway does have some organic cheeses, although what that means is in doubt, according to the Organic Consumers Association.
- If you are going to buy a product packaged in plastic, choose the most nutritious choice.Lunch meat is always packaged in plastic, either shrink-wrapped or in plastic-coated paper at the deli counter. I don’t eat it, but for those who do, there is one new brand which seems better than the rest, and that’s Hormel Natural Choice, which has no preservatives. I think if you’re committed to eating plastic-packaged lunch meat, this is probably the way to go.
- Avoid disposable paper products. My Safeway doesn’t have any paper products that are not wrapped in plastic. By avoiding these products as much as possible, we can save trees as well as plastic. We can use cloth napkins and real plates and cups. We can use rags and cloths instead of paper towels. Most of us are not willing to give up toilet paper, so we can either buy the largest package of plastic-wrapped recycled TP we can, or order plastic-free brands online.
- Avoid commercial cleaning products. This is a scary aisle in my Safeway. You can pretty much forget everything here. We use vinegar and water for all-purpose and glass cleaning. Baking soda is a good abrasive. And any other natural cleaning products you might want are available online. No reason to buy any of this stuff at mainstream chain grocery stores.
- Avoid canned fruits, vegetables, and meats. As I’ve said before, most cans are lined with plastic, plastic which has been found to leach the hormone-disruptor bisphenol-A. I avoid this aisle for the most part, except for the occasional glass jar of apple sauce or can of tuna.
- When possible, make your own. Before buying a container of sauce, dressing, or condiment, ask yourself if you could prepare it yourself. My Safeway does not have one single brand of ketchup in a glass jar. Wow. Times have changed. Either buy the biggest bottle you’ll consume before it spoils or make your own ketchup. You can make your own mustard and mayonnaise, too. I haven’t tried it yet, but I know an 80-year old lady whose been making her own mayonnaise for years and has never had it spoil.
- Avoid mystery boxes. You know the aisle with box after box of mac & cheese and hamburger helper. You can read the label to find out how much nutrition is inside (usually not much!) but you can’t tell by looking at the box how much plastic is inside. These foods are loaded with additives and preservatives that we probably don’t want to be consuming anyway. Skipping this section altogether could be good for our health.
- “Think outside the bottle.” Skip bottled water and other bottled drinks. Opt for tap water, filtered if necessary, and make your own juice drinks.
- Ask for what you want! If your grocery store doesn’t carry the types of products you want, speak up. Ask the manager to order things for you. Or write to the company headquarters. Here’s the address to write to the CEO of Safeway, if you’d like him to know how you feel:
Steven A. Burd
Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer
5918 Stoneridge Mall Road
Pleasanton, CA 94588-3229
Yes, we vote with our dollars, but also with our voices. The more these stores hear from us, the more likely they will be to stock the kinds of products that we want and to operate in a more environmentally-friendly manner.
So, that’s my Safeway report. We can all minimize the amount of plastic and other packaging we consume, no matter where we shop, if we make a few sensible choices each time we visit the grocery store. We all consume. It would be nice if we all consumed mindfully.