A Beginner’s Guide to Zero Waste Shops

A few weeks ago, Greenpeace released a damning report on what really happens to our plastic recycling.  It made headline news and rightly so; Greenpeace revealed that over half our plastic waste which the government claims is recycled is sent abroad, often to countries with very poor recycling rates themselves. What happens to it then is anyone’s guess, as no one really checks. Out of sight, out of mind, into the ocean?

What Greenpeace found was British plastic waste illegally dumped on road sides, illegal dumps and even being burnt in the open air. As the UK produces more plastic waste per person than any other country in the world, this is a massive problem and something to be ashamed of. As Greenpeace says, we shouldn’t stop recycling; a recycling system that works is an important part of the solution. However, we also need to drastically reduce our use of plastic, full stop.

This is where zero waste or refill shops come in. The basic idea of zero waste shops is that you take your own containers to fill, thereby eliminating the need for unnecessary single use packaging.

Zero waste shops usually stock a large range of dried store cupboard goods, such as rice and pulses, oats and cereals, dried fruit and nuts, baking ingredients and spices. They also often have refillable liquids, including laundry and cleaning products, toiletries, oils and sometimes even wine! On top of this, they may supply zero waste or plastic free products and accessories.

Zero waste shops have been popping up all over the place in the last few years and if you haven’t yet been to one, they can be a little daunting. So here is our beginner’s guide to zero waste shops.

1. Do your research – before you go take a look at the zero waste shop’s website. Often you will find a stock list, with prices. I find it useful to go through and make a list of what I need.

2. Get your containers ready – once you have your list, find suitable clean containers for each item. You really can use all sorts; I use a combination of plastic tubs, Ziplock bags (which I reuse), and jam jars of varying sizes. Remember, you will have to carry them to the shop and home again, when they will be a lot heavier. So, whilst large glass Kilner jars look lovely for storage in the kitchen, lighter but less glamorous margarine tubs or Ziplock frozen pea bags are a lot more practical!

3. Label your containers before you go – this saves you using up a useful large container on something like spices and being left with a tiny jar for a month’s worth of rice. I speak from bitter experience!

4. Take a few spare containers – you might spot something you hadn’t thought of. My favourite zero waste shop often has new products, including treats like mini eggs and honeycomb! But don’t worry if you forget, most shops will have a supply of spare containers or paper bags for exactly this situation.

5. Take your time – don’t go to a zero waste shop when you’re in a rush, particularly not the first time. It can take a bit of getting used to, as either you or a shop assistant will need to weigh your containers before you start filling. If you need to do this yourself, you will probably need to write the weight on the container or stick a printed label on it. Shops may also have changed how they do this due to Covid, so it’s worth checking when you arrive. Once filled, the shop assistant will usually weigh your items for you, taking off the weight of the container.

6. Remember your reusable shopping bags – to carry your goodies home and of course, don’t forget your reusable face mask!

If you’re looking for ways to really cut your household waste, zero waste shops are well worth a visit. But there’s still much more to be done. According to Greenpeace, the amount of plastic sent abroad by the UK every day for so-called recycling would fill 3 and a half Olympic size swimming pools. For more ideas on ways to reduce your waste, have a look at our previous posts available in the Zero Waste category.

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