The Connection Between Food Waste and Zero Waste

by Katy on May 22, 2013 · 47 comments

Packaged oranges

I write a lot about food waste, and recently I’ve been adding a fair number of posts about zero waste. So naturally I’ve been thinking about how the two are connected.

Buying in bulk (the mainstay of zero waste) means that not only are you avoiding dreaded packaging, but you’re also able to buy precisely the amount of product that you need.

Require two teaspoons of garam masala spice for a recipe? Then scoop exactly that amount from the bulk bins!

And conversely when the grower/manufacturer decides the amount you need to buy, it’s inevitable that you end up with more than you would have intuitively bought. Case in point? The above oranges. (Keep in mind today is Wednesday, so six school lunches have already been prepared.)

Normally I do a big grocery shopping trip at the end of the weekend, but last Sunday was my son’s birthday, and every minute was dedicated to celebrating his fifteen wonderful years on planet earth. And since I worked Monday, my husband took up the slack and hit up our local Safeway. And like all married couples, we do things differently. Examples include:

  • My husband likes to watch soccer on TV, in person and if given the opportunity, through a chip implanted in his brain. I like to watch soccer when my kids are playing. Period. No other times. That’s it. Seriously. So boring.
  • I like make grocery shopping as complicated as possible. I buy toilet paper, wine and dishwasher detergent at Trader Joe’s; kale, lettuce, sale cheese, bulk spices and frozen shrimp at Fred Meyer; milk, eggs and meat at New Seasons; bulk items such as flour, pasta and grains at Winco; bread from the Dave’s Killer Bread outlet store, and so on and so on. My husband likes to buy everything at once from one store and get it the whole damned thing over with as quickly as possible. So yeah, we differ.

Which is how the unnecessarily packaged oranges entered our house. A random amount, not based on how many school lunches we have to make this week, and featuring a single anemic looking yellow-ish orange that’s at risk for drying out before being claimed.

But the offending mesh bag of oranges is just a single example of how packaged food often leads to food waste. Five-pound bags of whole wheat flour go rancid before being used up, large jars of spices lose their flavor and those last two hot dogs grow toxic slime before they can get eaten.

But when you buy in bulk and make a conscious choice about the amount you’re bringing home, then there’s a good chance that you’ll actually eat the food you bought.

Have you noticed that bulk shopping helps you to waste less, or are you guilty of scooping more than you can use? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Monica May 22, 2013 at 9:19 am

My husband does the Costco shopping each week and loves the ‘bargains’ of buying huge packages of items that will spoil before we ever use them. OTC medicines for example– Why not buy 6,000 caplets of pain reliever? (that expire in two years….well before we will EVER use them all). And then how are we supposed to dispose of the left over, stale medication? We don’t have community disposal for expired medicines in my community…I need to grab that Costco card and hide it from him! I shop weekly at the grocery store for our dinner menus, and try to buy only as much as we will eat in a week –small amounts of produce and fresh fish. Its extra trips to the grocery store, but I love the feeling of cleaning out the fridge each week and starting fresh each Monday.


dusty May 23, 2013 at 3:17 am

Recently I had to clean out my mother-in-law’s condo, she was going into an assisted living facility, found 2 grocery bags full of expired meds (even some of my father-in-law’s who died 17 years ago). I thought I could bring to local pharmacy and they would dispose of it, not so anymore, new rules (at least in FLA), they told me what to do. I took two cool whip containers, dumped the pills into them, and then over the next couple of days poured used coffee grounds over the pills, stirred them up so the pills would disolve, then secured the lids on with tape and put them in the trash. I know this sounds like a lot of work (and I am not too crazy about plastic at the landfill) but I feel better knowing they were not going into our water system (like a lot of people would do, just flush them). Hope this helps.


Linda M May 23, 2013 at 3:35 am

What we have available for disposal of medications is a program headed by the sheriff’s department. This is in a small town near my little bitty town where we live…..anyone can take their expired or no longer needed meds to have disposed of. They have a law officer there that co-ordinates this and they take care of disposal. You might call your local law enforcement department and see if they have such a program or can direct to where else might have one. Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with again soon. But if you or someone else could benefit from this, I thought I would share.


Diane C May 23, 2013 at 9:51 am

SHAME on the pharmacy that gave you such terrible advice! I can see that you thought you received “expert” instruction, but this defies common sense!

In my town, both the local hospitals and police station have drop boxes for expired medicines, OTC and prescription.

I’m sorry that you had to deal with this situation, but PLEASE contact that pharmacy’s headquarters and estabish a dialog with them. Your individual situation may not have caused our planet that much harm (shudder), but multiply your actions across the breadth of their customer base and there is a HUGE problem.

Disclaimer: When I was a kid, my mom was Director of Nurses for a large convalescent hospital. I remember that they flushed expired meds down the toilet on a monthly basis. It makes my skin crawl now, but that was the established medical procedure in those unenlightened times.

Please be the force for change with your pharmacy.


dusty May 23, 2013 at 11:36 am

I actually contacted two different pharmacies and was told the same thing and that this had just become law in FL, but you’re right, there should be a program of some sort to make it easy for people to drop off old meds. I had a bag full of dead batteries that we keep in the garage, no system in FL to recycle them, have to call a company out of state and pay $20 for a box to send them in to another state to be recycled. Imagine how many people are throwing them in the landfill.


JaneUlness May 23, 2013 at 11:16 am

It’s too bad on this country that you can’t pass on medications to someone who already has a prescription for them. It’s such a waste with the cost of meds. I read someplace that there is someplace where they take the, to other countries. Your idea is a good alternative!


dusty May 23, 2013 at 11:39 am

I thought the same thing as I was disposing of the meds, what a waste especially when there are so many people who have to choose between food and medicine. I have had many animals over the years and when one of them passed, I would take all the meds, etc., to the vet’s office and they usually have a bin where people can come in and pickup what they need, meds included.


Bernie August 9, 2016 at 5:44 pm

In my town the water company has a yearly drive to take back medications. On the one hand it sucks because you have to figure out when they are doing it (I live in an apartment where the landlord covers the water bill so I don’t get any notification from the company). On the other hand it is far better than the alternative. I have also had pharmacies tell me to mix the pills with kitty litter or coffee grounds and dispose of in a plastic container…


emily May 22, 2013 at 9:36 am

I wish it were possible to buy cilantro in some other way than by the bundle. I have never, ever, neverever used a whole bundle of cilantro. Ever.


Mr. Everyday Dollar May 22, 2013 at 10:28 am

Ha! That’s exactly why I skip cilantro in recipes! Shopping in the bulk aisle saves me money because the cost per ounce is less than its packaged counterpart, 53% on average….but not always, so you have to do the math to make sure.

Items I buy weekly from the bulk aisle are beans and lentils, grains such as steel cut oats and quinoa, spices such as salt, black peppercorns and cinnamon, arborio and brown rice, coffee and peanut butter.

Some of the other things I choose to buy bulk when needed are extra virgin olive oil, maple syrup, white clover honey, and shampoo and liquid soap.

I re-use the same containers over and over (and have somewhat of a container fetish too), preventing waste from entering the landfill and saving me dollars.


Heather Mason May 23, 2013 at 6:33 am

Yikes! How do you skip cilantro in salsa?


JaneUlness May 23, 2013 at 11:21 am

I use parsley and a little ground cumin.


Heather Mason May 23, 2013 at 6:35 am

Oranges keep fresh in the frig for weeks! Buying more than you need in this case probably cost you less. . . bagged fruit almost always costs less than individually-chosen pieces, and if you use the mesh bag for a scrubby, you’ve saved money!


chicknlil May 24, 2013 at 7:01 am

I take the extra cilantro, wash, and spread over a plate. I put the plate on top of the fridge. When dried, I chop it finely and store in a jar. It’s cheaper to buy fresh than to buy it dried.


Monica May 22, 2013 at 11:26 am

Just like we make pesto with our herbs and freeze it, I make a batch of chimichurri sauce with the extra cilantro, and freeze it. Then, next time I make a flank steak, I just thaw my little batch, dollop it on top of the grilled steak and, yum! You can also add some to salsa.


betsyohs May 22, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Another freezer option is to chop up the cilantro, then pack it in to an ice cube tray, stuffing as much into each “cube” as possible. Then add water to fill up each cube and freeze. It’s not quite as good as fresh, but you can add a cube right at the end of cooking, and the ice will melt and the cilantro will be tasty. Also, if you need the tray for making ice, you can pop your green cubes out and store them in a ziploc bag.


marie May 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Emily, cilantro seeds are the easiest thing to grow. I plant up a little pot every spring. The only trick is to keep cutting before it turns into corriandar.


Sara May 22, 2013 at 1:41 pm

I totally agree! I actually decided to just buy a little cilantro plant to keep so that I could do just that. I did the same thing with basil and parsley…I never used up whole packages of those either and now with a plant, I don’t have to worry about slimed cilantro at the bottom of my fridge.


Kelly May 23, 2013 at 2:56 am

Put the cilantro,in a coffee mug with water and cover with a damp cloth. Store in fridge. It will keep up to a month!


Susan May 22, 2013 at 9:39 am

I just buy what I need and I try to stick to my list. The fridge is nearly always bare on Friday but hey, that’s okay. Its a question of economics for me and I have to be frugal…but you know what? I plan menus, everyone knows what they are eating…it stops stupid battles over meal times. The menu might swap around but it makes life easier.


Joy @ Joyfully Green May 22, 2013 at 10:39 am

I don’t bulk shop, but ever since Hurricane Sandy (and having to toss out a full fridge of food–ugh!), we’ve been buying food mindfully. Not wasting food is a topic close to my heart–I blogged about it here: I also got the idea from another blogger (Beth at My Plastic-Free Life) to buy reusable produce bags, so no more of the mesh bags for oranges or flimsy plastic bags (which are such a pain to open!) for the rest of the produce.


Lindsey May 22, 2013 at 10:48 am

I make scrubbies out of the mesh fruit bags, so I never have to buy them.


Carla May 22, 2013 at 12:12 pm

We buy quite a bit in bulk, and also lots from a food coop and sometimes get extras at a farm store, but we have to be careful. Sometimes, we have the opposite problem – we buy too much of something and then it just lingers. This is not usually a problem, most things we get in bulk don’t go bad easily, but I’ve had twice a batch of poppy seeds go rancid on me. Sometimes, I think yea! I’ll do lots of baking and then life gets in the way, no baking and rancid seeds 🙁 I think that more than bulk vs. packaged buying the main thing is to be mindful of buying enough but not too much. I for one don’t like to buy very often, it’s too much work and time, but I also don’t like having to race against time to use up X before it goes bad. So it’s about the fine balance that is ‘just enough’ in between those two pressures.


Lindsey May 24, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I freeze all seeds and nuts as soon as I get home from the store. No more rancid ones.


Cheapchick May 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm

My husband shops like that too. The last time I drove to Mom’s for a visit I came back to 12 large jalapenos because he bought them to go with chips. And they only came in a large bag of 12. That was three weeks ago. I just finally threw one out that was molding and am down to the last two but those darn jalapenos have been going in every dish I can think of – tonight chicken salsa soup. I hate food waste. He just shops with his stomach. He is pretty good about eating up leftovers though which prevents waste so I can’t be too hard on him.


Jackie B May 23, 2013 at 6:42 am

Jalapenos freeze really well. I wash them and freeze them whole. Then when I need to use them, I let them partially thaw and grate with a Microplane zester, or cut with a knife. Being partially frozen makes them very easy to cut small.


JaneUlness May 23, 2013 at 11:29 am

When I was recuperating from surgery, I sent my husband to the store for the weeks groceries. he came home with two pomegranates and a case of beer! LOL. I sent my college age daughter with a budget. We actually had real food! I have storage solutions for fresh foods and Betty Crocker has an app on her website that suggestions on how to use up bits or the last of so,etching. not having anything in the fridge is not good in this part of the country where we can be crippled by a snow storm, and eight feet of water can cover the main highway and the groceries can’t get delivered to the store.


Sharon May 22, 2013 at 3:41 pm

The only stores with bulk items are quite a drive. I waver between under- and over-buying, because I want to buy mostly bulk, but if I run out, I’m stuck with the local option or doing without. Rats.

Some day the perfect option will appear here in my suburb, right? 😉


sage May 22, 2013 at 4:14 pm

We have food allergies to be mindful of, and the bulk bins are notorious for cross-contamination. So my version of bulk buying is to buy cases where I can get a case discount. It doesn’t address all the packaging (some is recyclable, some not), but the food never goes to waste. Usually I buy non-perishables with a LONG shelf life. I have a pretty big herb garden so I snip what I need, dry some (oregano, thyme, sage) and freeze other (basil pesto, sage pesto–which is awesome in Thanksgiving dishes, parsley pesto).
I also invested in reusable mesh veggie bags. I don’t like them for wet produce so I reuse a couple of plastic bags over and over. In the event something starts to go bad before it gets eaten, it goes in the compost (useful, but still wasteful).
Also, you can store flour in the freezer (and it’s the best thing for gluten-free flours). Lasts quite awhile that way.


Katy May 22, 2013 at 6:55 pm

I normally store whole wheat flour in the freezer, but this flour had just been bought a week ago. It was rancid before we even brought it home. So yes, I will be returning it.



sage May 23, 2013 at 8:50 am

Too bad you have to make another trip to the store. Here’s hoping it’s near Goodwill or somewhere else you need to go!


Wendy May 24, 2013 at 8:21 am

How can you tell when flour has gone rancid?


Mary Letters May 22, 2013 at 4:37 pm

I’m currently preparing for an international move so we have been eating through our pantry. Wow, what an eye opener as I continually find jars I purchased for one recipe way back when. It is a good experience to prepare me to shop differently when I move to my new home with way more shopping options but a tiny kitchen.


chris May 22, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Hubby and I plan lunches (even breakfast) based on what’s kickin’ around in the fridge/breadbox. Some combinations may be weird (leftover meat loaf with scrambled eggs) but tasty (with salsa!) Good thing we’re not picky. Worst case with those oranges, juice them and freeze the juice – great for when you need a little for a recipe!


Laura May 22, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Have you been to the Penzey’s spice store located by Winco (on 82nd)? All of their spices/herbs come in very small jars, they are priced lower than the spices in the store, and are way fresher and more flavorful than what you can buy in the bulk section. Their selection is *amazing*. Everything I have bought from Penzey’s gets used up, including things like garam masala – no stale spices or waste (except for the tiny jars, but they get recycled).


Katy May 22, 2013 at 7:32 pm

I’ve never even heard of it. I’m trying to not bring home food packaging, so maybe it’s better I stay away! 😀



hydra May 22, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Penzey’s is great! It’s all spices, herbs, and great spice mixes. I love their taco seasoning. I’ve been out, and had to buy the supermarket one, and realized how superior Penzey’s really is.

They’ve switched all their spice jars to glass (even the little ones). But they also sell in pre-packaged ‘bulk’ ziploc bags so you can refill your jars. (there’s also one downtown by Powell’s.)


Megan Sargent May 22, 2013 at 7:31 pm

I Buy some things in bulk and I have found that I only use what I need. There are some things that I use more of than others, but that’s why bulk is so great, you get what you need. Also, I don;t have to buy a whole package of that sweet treat I enjoy so much, I can get one maybe two pieces out of bulk, and not over indulge “just because it’s there”. I do wish more stores had bulk, and more variety. But I’l take what I can get.


Pat May 22, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Our local grocery store has bulk foods and thin, large bags to put items in. Of course you mark the item number on the tag and pay as you leave. I like to buy a small amount of things like peanuts ( for one salad I make) and don’t need the extra calories I would get if I bought a larger amount in the large bags … I always found even when buying what I thought was a small amount there was too much. Being a nut-aholic I avoid having nuts in the house!) I went around another counter a little further away, and there were the spices in bins. That’s when I had the Aha moment. I took the small spice bag and put in my nuts. I get a lot less ( but looks more), and I save waist line and money!


dusty May 23, 2013 at 3:25 am

My sister-in-law and husband shop exclusively at Costco, not sure why, it’s just the two of them, what they don’t use, they throw away. I tried to discuss with them once but they said they didn’t care, they were saving money, I gave up. I think it’s awful to throw away food, at least try to give it to someone before it spoils. Of course, these are the same relatives that had AC installed in their garage so the cars would be cool in the summer when they get into them. I just bite my tongue.


PoppyEcho May 23, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Its amazing how people can live close by but also in another universe.


ellen May 23, 2013 at 4:39 am

for the orange bag, couldn’t you use it as a pot scrub?


JaneUlness May 23, 2013 at 11:37 am

Shopping at Costco and buying anything that looks good is one of the worst things to do if you want to save money. No one grocery store
Has the best prices. the other way to derail your budget is to go to the store every two days and buy just what you need. Retailers work hard to entice you to buying what you don’t need. Or reuse it for bulk veggies!


christine taylor May 24, 2013 at 7:34 am

I have a rule against buy prepared foods. So, costco CAN be great. I buy organic frozen produce and many other good things there that would be much more expensive in small quantities elsewhere: coconut oil, raw honey, organic tortilla chips, etc..But, I do have a big family.


Diane C May 23, 2013 at 10:03 am

I combine Costco (nearby) and Winco (a major trip). I use Trader Joes’s (closer than Costco, but in the opposite direction) for “convenience store” shopping, albeit as seldom as possible. The answer as to what’s best to buy where relies on the judicious application of common sense. If you continually throw away spoils, stop buying it in that format! In the case of cilantro, I must say it’s so inexpensive that it’s not really worth stressing about.
As to your oranges, they will keep much longer if refrigerated and fit well into otherwise unused nooks and crannies. The bag does make a good scrubber. I also use a drawstring one to store all my old sponges that are now used for car washing and other dirty projects, eking just a little more life out of them before they die.


JaneUlness May 23, 2013 at 11:39 am

I like your thinking!


christine taylor May 24, 2013 at 7:28 am

I buy in bulk because I have 6 boys still at home. And they eat A LOT. Nothing ever goes bad at my house. I use it up before it can even hope to go bad. I use the freezer for things that might go bad.

Here is one example of me not wasting stuff: I collect the bones from chicken that we’ve eaten, save them in a container in the freezer until I want to make soup. I cook the bones covered in water in the crockpot to make broth. Then re-freeze the bones for the next time I want to make broth. After the bones have been used about 5 times, they are soft enough to feed to the dogs. They are soft because the minerals have been leached out into the broth. So, they won’t hurt the dogs…just mush them up. There, nothing wasted from those chickens.


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