Monday, 9 March 2009

Day 1: Rubbish Shopping

Now what's that old saying?

Ahh, that's it.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

I love that phrase and when it comes to shopping it seems very appropriate somehow. For instance, have a look at the photo and tell me what you see.

Is it just a week's shopping for a family of four?

Or is it a whole load of treats?

Perhaps it's a whole bunch of healthy ingredients?

Maybe it's not just this week's food, perhaps it's next week's wasted leftovers?

Now look at the packaging.

Do you see recycling opportunities?

Or are you looking at a pile of potential rubbish, like the picture of landfill below?


When I look at that photo of my shopping, as well as anticipating the taste of the food and the satisfaction of a good meal, I am also staring at a table full of stuff that could end up in the bin. And that's what it's like when I go shopping these days, trying to avoid creating rubbish while I fill my basket. So, I try and buy loose wherever I can to avoid creating waste in the first place. After all, if it comes loose, that's one less thing to bung in the bin at home regardless of whether it's landfill or recycling. But if something comes in packaging, I always consider the opportunities for recycling as well as a complex combination of other facets including price, quality, shelf life, origins and its versatility as an ingredient.

Now I know focusing on zero waste isn't normal behaviour in many people's eyes and most people would think that it is a huge inconvenience to shop in this way, but the reality is that it doesn't actually take that much time and more and more people are following the simple methods.

Okay, I'll be the first to admit that when you start out with a zero waste challenge you have to look at things carefully and read the labels to find out if you can recycle certain packaging, but after a few more visits to the shops, you gradually become comfortable with the brands that serve you well and indeed the places and routines that help make a zero waste or minimal waste lifestyle a real possibility.

In business terms, it's as simple as "Outcome Thinking". You just look at your goal, which is a slimmer bin and then you make changes accordingly and most importantly you take small steps to incorporate rubbish-free choices into your life.

It just takes a little time and some research and very soon you'll find the ability to focus on products that create so little waste you'll be wondering how you created so much rubbish in the first place.

And a whole year later, you'll find yourself not looking back.

Well that's what happened to me, until I found myself wondering what it would actually be like to go back to my old shopping habits, like journeying through time to explore the kinds of things I would have bought on what would be a normal visit to the supermarket.

Don't get me wrong. My zero waste lifestyle hasn't meant that I've abandoned supermarkets, but where I used to rely on them 100% and NEVER visited the market, I now flirt between the market, supermarkets, farm shops and the farmers' market, depending on my routine.

So what I'm trying to say is, I fit shopping around my routine, instead of creating a routine specifically for shopping, picking things up "en route" on the way to somewhere else and buying little and often in accordance with what we really need. Shopping this way has been very liberating to say the least and has meant it's been easier to cope with my family's eating habits and has contributed to a life of less waste. With a monthly online delivery for basics and picking up fresh ingredients as I go along means it has become less of a chore.

So when considering going back to my "old ways", I was intrigued what it would be like if I did a whole week's shop in a supermarket, just like I used to. And my port of call just had to be our local Sainsbury's store not least because it's on my doorstep, but it's also supporting Red Nose Day too.


So on Sunday morning we pitched up and Little J and I were raring to go shopping in style.

But we'd not even entered the supermarket and we were already breaking away from my zero waste habits. You see, zero waste shopping is all about planning!

No.1: Never go shopping when hungry. It makes sense really. If you don't want to splash out on unecessary treats, always go shopping AFTER you've eaten. But oh dear, by the time we'd got ourselves sorted and got out of the house, our arrival time was 11am. I'd hoped we might make it home by 12pm, but the truth is we were at the supermarket for 2 hours...yes TWO HOURS ... shopping through lunchtime. Now that's a guaranteed way of buying more food than necessary if ever I've seen one!

No.2: Avoid taking the kids. It's a great idea to leave the kids at home, because they have an amazing way of making you buy more than you need. So the top tip is to leave the little people with your partner, family or friends allowing you to avoid anything from gentle persuasion to full blown pester power. I didn't quite manage to go child-free yesterday, but Little J came along to pester me in every aisle and indeed he did!

No.3: Choose the smallest trolley you can.
The smaller your trolley, the less you'll fill it up. With my infrequent visits to the supermarket, my weapon of choice is normally a basket or a small trolley. But yesterday was different. We were on a mission to fill it with loads of goodies so we needed a cart that could hack it.

No. 4: Take a list. Now if you don't take a list, you're at risk of buying the whole shop and a whole load of packaging to go with it! I never used to write lists and I really used to bring home half the shop. Yesterday I was on a mission to achieve this ambition, so the list went on vacation to the black hole.

No.5: Take some reusable containers. Now it might be bizarre, but whenever I go to the farmshop, I take a container for the meat cuts and the butcher is happy to use them. They think it's a great idea and are alway happy to oblige. But when I go into a supermarket, I get put off by their health & safety regulations and corporate policies and the fear of feeling a freak. So I didn't bother with the containers yesterday and headed off to the meat aisle for alternative products.

No.6: Take some reusable bags: Oh dear, this was a toughie. I can't believe how long it took to train myself to remember my reusable bags and these days I don't leave home without them when I am off shopping. It's just an automatic action, like picking up my handbag and keys. But the only bags I have are for Waitrose, and I felt embarrassed taking them into a competitor's store. It's like taking in an advertising billboard.

So I thought I'd leave them behind and see if I could use the flimsy ones from the checkout instead. After all the challenge was to create as much rubbish as possible. But despite my bravado, it felt strange going shopping without bags and it was as if I'd forgotten something really important like my credit card or handbag, or indeed the children. It was an uncomfortable feeling indeed and I didn't like it. And as I walked through the store I really couldn't bear the thought of picking up the free flimsy ones at the check-out, even if I could reuse them or indeed recycle them.

But look at my discovery - special bags for Comic Relief. And the best thing was, they were made from 100% recycled plastic. Just look at that grin - what approval!


So when I went shopping yesterday, I was on a mission to find out two key things.

1. Whether I could shop without considering the packaging and forget the concept of zero waste
2. The role of the supermarket in making waste reduction choices easy.

No wonder it took me so long.

Checking out the packaging!

Before I got into the store I had images of me breezing through the supermarket, popping things into my trolley without considering the consequences of what I bought. That is how I used to shop before I started my zero waste challenge last year. I used to walk right in and I would put stuff into the trolley without looking at the packaging, not interested in the recycling symbols and not even thinking about where the packets end containers would end up.

I can't help wondering if this is how most people shop these days, or if much of society has changed too.

And could I hack it? Did I really manage to go all the way around the supermarket without considering the packaging at all, just like I used to.

Well, I'm afraid the answer to that is NO!

From the fruit and veg section to frozen foods, I still gave thought to whether products were loose or packaged in materials that could be recycled locally.

When I envisaged this task, I bravely thought I could grab a bunch of bananas and pop them in a plastic weigh bag and do exactly the same with other produce such as oranges and broccoli. Well that's what I used to do. That used to be my normal behaviour!

But the reality is, these kinds of products don't need to be put into bags. They can just be placed in the trolley loose and that's what I did. I'm afraid my automatic response of REDUCE was still working, as you'll see in the photo above.

And when it came to smaller produce such as grapes and tomatoes, I couldn't even bear to consider the option of punnets, and pulled out my Onya weigh bags, which I bought a couple of weeks ago and which were conveniently tucked away in my handbag for emergencies. Tomatoes in one bag and grapes in the other...and Bob's your Uncle!

But then came the carrots.

Blimmin' carrots!

At first, I popped just a few large ones in the trolley. Then I spotted that a bag of washed carrots was cheaper than buying loose. I couldn't believe my eyes.

How could that be?

So like a game of hokey-cokey I put my left arm into the trolley and pulled a carrot out, then in-out, in-out, I put them each and every one of them back in the box, replacing the loose produce with a packet of pre-washed carrots.

Sold to the woman with the price-sensitive head on her shoulders!

And the same happened with the Buy One Get One Free bags of apples. With two boys who can eat me out of house and home on the apple front, it was cheaper to buy pre-packaged than loose. Well I thought it was, I found it quite hard to compare with the price labelling.

What a palaver!

I normally get my fruit and veg from the market where I hand over my bag to the stallholder, saying "fill her up". No packaging in sight apart from the odd paper bag that ends up in my compost bin. No decision making needed.

Blimmin' 'eck. No wonder I felt exhausted by the fruit and veg section. Decision, decisions, eh. I really could have done with a cup of tea!

And that's what it was like for the rest of the two hours, with me not being able to forget about the packaging.

And as for purchasing things I don't normally buy, well that's another story!

One thing I have discovered from our zero waste experience is that I now concentrate on buying the things that we really need and avoiding the things we don't. I used to go to the supermarket and regularly spend £120 on a trolley full of treats, but through poor time management a lot of that used to go to waste. These days, our weekly groceries bill just comes to £60-£90, depending on whether we need cat food or toilet paper or other incidentals.

And shopping this way means I have become naturally focused and not distracted by the usual goody-bag top-ups. A good job really, because my willpower is virtually zilch!

And can't you tell.

With a combination of free-rein and pester power my inner shopper was most certainly unleashed!

In went the Sunday Newspaper - which I still haven't opened - along with a box of fresh cream cakes and a few ready meals, including a pizza and quiche. Well I have got a busy week this week, with no time to cook, so a busy mum needed an alternative solution. And thanks to my 7 year old companion there were biscuits, snack bars, crisps, chocolate mousses and a couple of chocolate eggs. And then some mini-cheeses, all individually wrapped up in a little net bag.

And I took advantage of the 3 for 2s in the juice aisle, filling up the trolley with juice cartons, which is something I gave up ages ago, because I don't have the space to store them for recycling. So in they went, six cartons, carefully placed in the trolley.

But there was one thing I just couldn't manage to buy, one particular product that I used to throw in my trolley week-by-week before doing the zero waste challenge.

Strawberry shaped yogurts, in a little net bag.

Lovely looking things and perfect for kids.

But to consume the contents, you have to suck the yoghurt through a teeny tiny opening at the top of the moulded packaging. Convenient for consuming but more cumbersome for recycling.

I was right on the brink of putting them in my trolley and they were just teetering on the edge when I reconsidered the consequences. Could I lazily throw out such packaging to landfill, when an ordinary yoghurt pot could be rinsed and at least have a chance of survival in Suffolk's recycling system?

Oh dear. I decided I couldn't but neither could I be bothered to cut them up to wash them out either.

So they went back on the shelf for someone else to buy.

I'm not very good at creating rubbish am I?

Out of everything, it was the strawberry shaped yoghurt pots, that highlighted I can no longer go shopping without considering the packaging that I put in my trolley.

I was still switching products in accordance with their recyclable credentials.

Oh the relief and cries of "Thank Goodness"!

But how easy was is it to shop waste-free at the supermarket?

The answer to this question is wholly dependent on where you live.

For me, I am confident that having bunged a whole range of goodies in the trolley, there is still hope for a zero-waste result. That is because we have such excellent recycling facilities in Bury St Edmunds that even pasta packaging can be taken to our Household Waste Recycling Centre as well as the plastic used for Cathedral City cheese - our little 4 year old's favourite.

But it's also due to improvements in package labelling, which is vital. And I couldn't help but notice how Sainsbury's packaging has changed and the majority of products I handled, particularly own brand goods had recycling advice for the consumer.

And you can't get bigger or bolder than the instructions on their own brand of Wholewheat Biscuits. The message is loud and clear!

"If every Sainsbury's customer recycled their cereal box, 750 tonnes of cardboard would be reused every year. That's the equivalent to 101 double-decker buses."

It also states that they were the first to make their cereal boxes smaller and are making sure that more of their packaging is environmentally friendly, indicating the box is now made from at least 85% recycled cardboard.

What a great message to pass onto the customers.

But it's not just the the message that's important.

In the words of Frank Carson, it's the way you tell 'em.

And on that packet of Wholewheat Biscuits, Sainsbury's got it just right.

You see, I went to pick up a normal packet of Weetabix, but my 7 year old bag of pester power stopped me in my tracks, clutching Sainsbury's own label alternative. He begged me to buy it because of the lovely picture of the double-decker bus! And he even had the cheek to say "Remember to recycle this carton", happily reading the picture of the post-it note on the back of the box as he held it gleefully in his hands.

Surely that's pester power at its best and if companies like Sainsbury's continue to harness the full potential of this bundle of eco-marketing fun in an ethical manner, then it's an all-round winner, I'm sure.

As I wandered around the store looking at the recycling messages on each item of packaging I picked up, it was encouraging to see the number of references to recycling polythene packaging in-store. And as for using the weigh-in bags, there were even reminders, asking customers whether they really need the bags in the first-place.

However, I couldn't help wondering if there was more that a supermarket could do to help encourage customers to reduce waste. Not just Sainsbury's but other supermarkets too.

Wouldn't it be great if they sold reusable Onya Weigh-in bags, or at least removed plastic bags from sections where they are not needed, such as next to the bananas. Branded containers would be great too, for people to reuse at the deli counters. Just like my local farmshop, it would be fabulous if they could trust customers with the responsiblity of washing them carefully before reuse.

I also think it would be invaluable if they worked more closely with the local authorities and displayed more useful recycling information around the store, promoting details that are relevant to the area. For example in Bury St Edmunds, we can recycle meat trays in our wheelie bins, as well as Tetrapacks at our recycling centre and even rice packaging can be taken there too. I couldn't help think that a few carefully placed signs would help raise awareness of this and add to the council's efforts. After all we're all in this together and it would be a prime example of joined up thinking

But at the end of the day, no matter what role the supermarkets play in waste reduction, it all comes down to individual shopping choices and the personal responsibility for recycling once you pack your boot and take the trolley to the trolley park.

"Your Rubbish Your Choice" is the slogan used by the Norfolk Waste Partnership, just over the border from Suffolk.

And they're quite right.

I couldn't quite leave my Zero Waste head behind yesterday but I still have an issue. When the food is gone I'll have some extra rubbish to deal with this week

But this rubbish is my responsibility. And with our excellent recycling facilities can I really let it all end up in landfill, where it will all go to waste, buried into the ground.

I really don't think so, but let's see at the end of the week shall we.

In the meantime, here's a reminder of what could actually happen to it.

Perhaps it's time to have a look at that picture of my shopping again.

And remember that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

Then look back at the photo of landfill, with the bin lorry regurgitating all that rubbish onto the ground.

I can safely say, I don't think I've really seen anything so ugly!



Anonymous said...

wowee - that's quite some epic travels you have been on there - both in the supermarket and in your heart and conscience.

I think you're going to have a fascinating week - it's amazing how we can turn our lives around in a year, isn't it?

Best of luck,
mrs G x

Maisie said...

Fantastic article Mrs A.

I totally agree that the supermarkets should be working alongside the councils and promoting all the recycling facilities in their area.

Also thanks for the heads up about Sainsbugs, I don't often go there even when I have to go to a supermarket as it it is the furthest distance but I do like certain of their products.

Had to laugh at you with the bags that is my DS1 as well "can't use an Asda bag in Tesco"; I CAN!!

Karin said...

That's a marathon post, Mrs A, but you are clearly a new woman and cannot go back to your old ways, however hard you try.

One reason we couldn't achieve zero waste is because I don't know of anywhere to recycle plastic packaging around here. I checked the bag from the tagliatelli I recently bought from Sainsbury's (no free range egg either) and it said it could not be recycled.

However, I must go down to our branch, which I haven't been in much recently, and have a really good peruse as soon as time allows, just to see if they will recycle more than old carrier bags.

I don't think our council recycles yoghurt pots, either, and I wouldn't want to be guilty of contaminating the recycling so that it ends up in landfill.

Then there is the fact that I do buy some meat from the supermarket. Even the mince I've had from the farm shop and locally produced food delivery service has all come in those rigid plastic packets, as do the locally produced mushrooms in my veg box.

There is a butcher in the town I should try, but I've never been too keen on them for some reason. There is also an excellent butcher a short drive away, but it's a bit out of my way as a rule and the roads are full of parked cars and tedious to negotiate. Hmmmm.

In your shopping I also spotted something else I buy occasionally in a weak moment, cakes, in a nice, recyclable cardboard packet, which hides the rigid plastic insert holding the cakes in place.

A review of my shopping yesterday was going very well until I realised those custard tarts I'd picked up quickly, are packed in rigid plastic inside that environmentally friendly (-ish) cardboard box. Just as well I don't go shopping every day.

I should bake more, but working 18 (actually 15 or 21) hours a week and trying to get my NVQ done, not to mention spending more time than I should reading people's blogs, ;) means I don't have that much time to do so.

Karin said...

P.S. Re your comment over on Zero Waste.

I can't think of any incentives for an independent, almost 20 year old who works full time and does his own cooking, most of his own shopping and some of his washing up.

If you can, I'd be interested.

Anonymous said...

Hi Karen, good effort on the epic! Just a quick tap to let you know the Rubbish Diet is mentioned now on Ecoboom - in the household waste & recycling article at

Have a look and feel free to join the community - become part of the all new, exciting and expanding world of Ecoboom!

bin diver kate said...

Wow, that was epic, I'm glad to see that it was a proper struggle!! Your readers may be interested to know that they can read Your Rubbish Your Choice online at:


Spk soon,

Kate xxx

Anonymous said...

Hi Mrs A,

To think I used to shop like that. How things have changed.

Sainsbury's is one of the best. I shop there irregularly and try to find Zero Waste items.

We can only encourage progess and highlight best practice. Container use is discouraged but they should realise that we, consumers, provide reusable packaging for nothing. Think of the money we are saving you in packaging cost.

Katy said...

Wow. There's certainly lots to take in there! I completely agree that the key is planning. We seem to have shifted to a world where "freedom" and "spontaneity" are valued very highly, almost in a rebellious "you can't tell me what to do" sort of way. Planning for the week is seen as a bit dull and boring, I think, but maybe with the resurgence of old fashioned thrifty values it will also see a comeback.

One thing that has really made us think twice about how much we buy is going shopping by bike :) Okay, it's just for two, but we can easily fit a week's food in four panniers. If we ever have kids we will just have to get a trailer ;) It also encourages local shopping! No zooming along the bypass for us.

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

Wow Mrs. A it looks like we're attached at the hip. Last weekend I went to the big supermarket instead of my smaller one we wanted to buy a few things to add variety to our diets, some other toileteries we can't get at the smaller store, and ended up with a few not so wonderfully packaged items too.

Since my city requires me to bag my pet waste, I save and rinse out those bags from carrots, frozen food etc. to use as pick up bags in addition to the biodegradable bags we normally use. Yes, those bad bags go off to landfill but at least I get another use out of them before I send them on their way.

Almost Mrs Average said...

Hi folks - so sorry. It looks like I've done a disappearing act on you. How rude of me, especially having given you an epic to digest. I'm afraid it's been a very mad couple of days. But at least I've not got lost in the bins.

Mrs G - you're so right. Reducing waste was just one of the new year's resolutions that I made the Christmas before last. And I can truly say that the results have gone way beyond what I expected. The key was the Zero Waste challenge set by the council. If I hadn't done that I expect that I'd be doing the same old thing, buying the same old stuff and chucking the same amount of rubbish away. Blimey, what a wake up call and what a great opportunity it's been for positive change. :-D

LOL Maisie - love the name Sainbugs. And I know I am a funny old thing with my sensitivities on the bag front. Great thing is, as I walked around the store, it was absolutely BRILLIANT to see so many folk with their own bags. Times have changed :-D

Hi Karin - Yes we are very lucky in St Edmundsbury and Suffolk that we have such wide facilities and that is the key reason how my rubbish is so low. I'm afraid is is really down to location and the waste management contractors that are in place. On the yoghurt pots front, you could always check with a friend in a neighbouring authority if their council collects them, or do what Mrs G does at MrZeroWaste and collect them for GHS or Impact Recycling. I know Mrs G also sends polythene bags to Polyprint - see links in the blog sidebar. However does take extra commitment and I'm not sure what I would do if we didn't have such good facilities.

Glad I'm not the only one who falls for the tasty treats. Yes, that is indeed why Iused to spend so much cash. These days we normally indulge, only when I'm in the mood for baking, with the exception of chocolate. Yes chocolate could be my downfall.

Now as for butchers, next week is National Butchers Week, where people over the land are being encouraged to visit their local butcher. So it may be just the opportunity you need. You can find a butcher at

Hmm - now for your son. He's obviously an independent chap and I've got no experience of such an age. Would he rise to the challenge of a competition between friends or family? With a decent reward for the winner. If not, what else makes him gadgets, nights out, or anything else. If you think there's a glimmer of hope, then drop me a line. Between us we could indeed have some fun :-D

Hey Angus - at last you've made it over here...hooray...thanks so much for the link. I'm going to be piling on over and join in the gossip at Ecoboom. Great work by the way ... and thanks for reading the epic :-D x

Hi Kate - thanks also for the link to Your Rubbish Your Choice. LOL at"glad to see it was a proper struggle"...just look what you've started....did you ever think you'd end up with such an infectious result on your hands LOL. It's a good job you're now in Norfolk or I'd be joining you in your bin diving escapades :-D x

Hi John - it really is incredible isn't it and just shows how habits and priorities can change. And I would have thought I was one of the last people who could have experienced such an impact. One thing I have learned is that life is full of a whole load of surprises and there is noone more surprised than me...or Mr A...or my sister or indeed my mother. It's great that you've been able to use your local Sainsbugs (to pinch a quote from the lovely Maisie). As it's my nearest supermarket, I can now see a future in me cycling there from now on, instead of hiking across town. Now that's another challenge in itself :-D

Hi Katy - you go shopping by bike! So it looks like I could take the lead from you there for tips on how to balance my frozen peas and bottles of wine LOL. But you're right about convenience, spontaneity and because we live in such a busy world, living slowly and planning does come second best. But for me, I'd like it to come naturally and I am now on a mission to slow down. I've promised LMG I'm going to use my bike more. Let's just hope I can keep my word :-D

Hi Condo Blues - what a great way of using those bags. As you say,it's great to get a second use of them and it will save you money having to buy special ones for the job. Glad you managed to survive the trip to the bigger supermarket. It's most definitely an eye-opener if you haven't been to one for so long, but it looks like you coped very well. :-D

Karin said...

Chocolate may be an indulgence, and too much is a bad idea, but at least they aren't going to tax it, and lots comes in recyclable wrapping, plus there's quite a bit of Fairtrade chocolate around these days.

Just checked the 'find butcher' link and our High Street butcher is not mentioned, but the out of the way one is. He is good, but looking at his website made me realise the meat I buy is no less local than what he offers. Waitrose meat is regional and Farm Fresh Express is more local in some cases.

Almost Mrs Average said...

Hi Karin - LOL, it really is a good job that chocolate isn't taxable...shows that it must be considered a necessity then (hee hee). Great news about Cadbury going to convert its Dairy Milk to fairtrade. That's the kind of news that makes my eyebrows dance (LOL). Shame about the news on the butcher though. It just shows you can never tell until you ask. Waitrose is fab at supporting local meat though. :-D x

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