How to shop for your food plastic-free

Plastic-packaged food and how to avoid it

The absolute best option is DIY as there's no plastic packaging when you grow your own.

You don't need much space, some things are happy to grow in pots.  In fact this one self-seeded!

Vegetables free from plastic wrappings

If you can't grow your own, or to supplement those that you do, buy your fruit and vegetables loose.  Get a veg box, use the greengrocer or independent shops.  Hound your supermarkets!  Some people say that if everyone avoided the plastic-covered veg and only bought it loose, the supermarkets would soon change their tactics; try avoiding plastic-wrapped veg and leave it on the shelves.  I spoke to the manager of a Sainsbury's this week and he was really helpful.  He'd had others talk to him as well and the more customers who ask questions regarding plastic, the quicker we'll see the changes.  You'd be surprised at how much influence you can have as an individual and you'll feel empowered.

Some items are sold ready chopped and in plastic, but unless you have a disability which makes this difficult, then it's really unnecessary to buy these.

Avoid plastic vacuum-packed vegetables 

Things like beetroot are often sold cooked and vacuum-packed ready for salads, but it's so easy to cook it yourself. Generally, I never boil beetroot because I find it messy and time-consuming.  I prefer to bake mine (when the oven is going on anyway) and I use a metal skewer if the beetroot are large.  They can be eaten hot or cold and they keep in the fridge for a few days ready to decorate your salads with an explosion of colour and flavour.  You can drizzle balsamic vinegar on them or pickle them yourself.  Incidentally, beetroot leaves can be eaten like greens and the stalks can be fermented - zero waste!

Organic vegetables without plastics

Apart from seasonal spring onions which thankfully often come in a bunch with an elastic band, organic vegetables in supermarkets are a big problem in terms of their plastics.  As most items are weighed at the tills, if they were loose, it would be up to the honesty of the customer to tell the cashier weighing them that they were organic (usually they are more expensive).  Veg box schemes, growing your own, begging family and friends who cultivate theirs, or using independent shops such as Ledbury's Handley organics, The Natural Grocery Store Cheltenham, or Field Fayre in Ross-on-Wye are all viable options.  These three sell only organic veg.

Some of the Natural Grocery vegetables are loose and others are in plastic in order to protect them, but, they are very happy for their customers to leave the bags and use their own.  They will then wash and reuse the bags.  Other reasons to pop in next time you're passing:

  • Apart from the Clipper brand, all other tea bags sold there do not contain plastic.
  • Some items eg. 5kg lentils can be ordered in bulk to save on packaging.
  • You can refill your empty washing-up liquid, laundry liquid, fabric conditioner and all-purpose cleaners there.
Stop press - From March 2018, the Aldi Store in Budapest has started selling loose organic bananas!  I tweeted Aldi UK to ask when it would be happening here.  If a lot of people ask, it's more likely to happen...

Drinks and drink containers that are not made of plastic

For drinks, containers and teabags (the majority of which contain plastic) see my previous blog: How to make sure what you are drinking is as green as possible.

Price comparisons for loose veg versus plastic-wrapped veg 

I did some research at Sainsbury's (on-line and larger stores) and found around twenty-one varieties which can be bought loose. Don't forget that loose is much better as not only can you decide exactly how many you would like (less waste) but you can choose or 'pick your own'.

The following vegetables were ONLY available loose - HURRAH and well done Sainsbury's:

  • Ginger
  • Butternut squash
  • Swede
  • Fennel
  • Fresh beetroot
  • Red or white cabbage (although sweetheart and savoy are plastic-wrapped).

The following vegetables were cheaper loose than plastic-packaged - good Sainsbury's:

  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Leeks
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Sprouts

The following vegetables were the same price loose or plastic-wrapped; may as well sell them loose:

  • Red onions

The following vegetables were more expensive loose than wrapped in plastic - BOO hiss Sainsbury's:

  • Baking potatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes (editor's note: why would anyone buy fresh tomatoes in the UK at this time of year?)
  • Garlic
  • Avocados
  • Courgettes
  • Parsnips
  • Peppers*

* Quite often the loose peppers are larger than the multipack ones and you have the choice of colour too, (green, red, yellow or orange are all available loose). How many poor green peppers are left to wither in multipacks?

Note to Sainsbury's: Why on earth do cauliflowers and savoy and sweetheart cabbages need bags?

Personally I don't use online shopping, so if you buy five loose onions I don't know if they turn up like that or if they arrive in a plastic bag.  Online shopping is still delivered in plastic bags which obviously isn't great, even if these are given back.

I also had a quick look at Waitrose, but unlike Sainsbury's their online options differ a bit from the in-store choices, so it's not so easy to compare like-for-like. One good thing was that their white cabbage - both organic and non-organic only comes with a bar code sticker - no plastic - yippee! The same applies to their organic red cabbage, but, their non organic red cabbage was shrink wrapped.  Oh my, this section has become far too cabbagy.

Aldi are really poor for loose veg and I keep tweeting them to say so. They still sell individually wrapped aubergines which is ludicrous.  With the exceptions of butternut squash and red peppers everything else is plastic clad.  Strictly speaking I know that peppers, tomatoes and avocados are fruits not vegetables, but today I'm concentrating on vegetables which includes fruits that we use like vegetables :)

There are other shops to consider and well done to Iceland who have recently pledged to ban plastic packaging in their own-brand products. It's a shame I'm not keen on frozen veg.

What can you use instead of plastic bags for loose vegetables

If you want to you could take your own paper bags to pop your unfettered veg into when they come rolling down the conveyor belt.  These can very reasonably be bought in bulk with friends and family from places like these Paper bags.   Biodegradable film-fronted paper bags are also useful.  The friend who recommended them suggested that they could be used afterwards as dog poop bags (or donated to a friend with a dog).

Frozen vegetables and plastic wrappings

Apart from petit pois, I'm not a fan of frozen vegetables and therefore I don't need to worry about the plastic wrappings.  That's not to say that frozen vegetables aren't useful when you don't have much time, but I prefer mine fresh then made into large quantities of soups, dahls, stews etc. and frozen in portions that way.

Buying pasta without plastic packaging

  • Sainsbury's Lasagne - sold in a box with a small plastic window
  • Sainsbury's Cannelloni - looks like the lasagne box
  • Sainsbury's Edamame spaghetti (made from soybeans), black bean spaghetti and Edamame and bean fettuccine are all sold in boxes.
  • You can of course also buy pasta in tins - Seriously though, please don't ever do this ;)

Buying rice without plastic packaging

  • Sainsbury's organic Arborio (risotto rice) - sold in a box
  • Sainsbury's Carnaroli - sold in a box
  • Sainsbury's Thai fragrant, sticky Thai and Thai black rice - sold in boxes
  • Gallo Arborio and three grains - sold in a box
  • Yutaka Sushi rice - sold in a box
  • Uncle Ben's long grain and Wholegrain rice are sold in a box. Beware though that some of Uncle Ben's boil-in-the-bag rice comes in boxes, but obviously they also contain what it 'says on the box' eg. plastic bags to boil ;)

How to avoid the plastic at Deli counters 

Take your own Tupperware pot to butchers, fishmongers and delis, including the deli counter in supermarkets.  Ask them to put the item in loose with no wrapping, (make sure you have a pot with a good seal). They will then pop the sticker on the top and voila.  

Buying in bulk saves some plastic packaging

We buy spaghetti and Basmati rice in bulk.  The pasta does come in plastic, but buying 5kg uses a lot less than 10x500g individual packs and also the plastic is different - not the 'crunchy' plastic, but the type that can be reused and then recycled.

The 10kg rice bags are foil-based and again I think it's much better than 20x500g individual non-recyclable, crunchy plastic bags. When finished, I convert the rice bags to potted plant carriers, using fruit and onion netting bags as handles and then I give them away, first putting a sticker on the side that asks the person using the item to give it to someone else for reuse.  Too much time on my hands?  Maybe, but I do things like this instead of washing my hair now :)

I'm told that the Chinese supermarket in Gloucester sells 10kg bags of rice which come in paper sacks.

Buying cereal without plastic packaging

There are quite a lot of choices here, especially with porridge oats and some mueslis which come in paper bags, sacks or boxes.  The first time we bought a 10kg paper sack of porridge we thought we'd never get through it, but that was several sacks ago now, especially as I also make smoothies, muesli and nut bars with the oats.

Tins and jars of food avoid plastic packaging

Some things such as tinned tomatoes are certainly (in this country), preferable to fresh tomatoes for about nine months of the year.  Italians use them out of season too.  They are said to contain as much if not more goodness.  I love fresh, organic corn on the cob, but the season is short, so for other times of the year I buy it canned which avoids the plastic that most frozen veg comes in. Beans and pulses are also good tinned, although I prefer them dried, cooked in batches and frozen which means that I can have exactly the right number required.

Things such as passata and olives are good in jars and I'm not going to talk about ready-made sauces as I think nearly every one is inferior to home-made, especially when using high quality ingredients.  Practise makes perfect and a basic tomato sauce can be made very swiftly, easily and cheaply.  Again a larger quantity can be made and frozen for later (instant) use, adding olives and fresh herbs etc. afterwards.

There are still many things to cover, but I've run out of steam for now and all this talking about food has made me realise that it's time to cook the tea.  For a few more ideas, here's another previous blog Alternatives to plastic.


  1. Tin cans are lined with BPA are they not? Plastic? Still better than plastic bags/packets?

    1. You're right, most cans are lined with BPA, otherwise acidic things like tomatoes would corrode their way out of the cans. They are tested and said to be safe and at least fully recyclable unlike the majority of plastic bags and packets. Most vegetables are better fresh anyway and beans and pulses can be bought dried. Perhaps where it doesn't make any difference to the recipe, it would be better to use half a jar of passata rather than a tin of tomatoes...


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