I have a monthly column in the Boston Hassle devoted to zero-waste living. Trash is Tragic offers practical tips on how to live no-trash/low-trash.

April 2, 2018 Trash is Tragic, Part 1: Grocery Shoppin'


I decided to stop making trash in 2013. My commitment to reducing waste and consumption is a daily practice, stemming from ideals related to environmentalism, human rights, and a desire to live simply. Striving for "zero waste" mean that my partner and I:
- prioritize waste-busting habits  through refusal and re-use
- minimize our reliance on disposables and recyclables
- reduce our energy and water consumption through efficiency
- re-think the expression of "convenience" in our throw-away culture

Do we make some garbage? Yes. About a shoebox worth of trash every 6 - 12 months. We always strive to make less trash, but perfection is not required. It's not possible to reach absolute zero waste in a culture that relies on single-use packaging and products. But it is possible to change your mind about what’s “convenient” (as in: America, is it convenient to haul around 250 million tons of trash each year). And it’s certainly possible to question WTF “disposable” means (uhhh leaving your personal orbit does not equal gone forever). 

In this trashy world, small efforts can equal big benefits - for the environment, yes, but also for your life. Zero-waste is a meaningful practice with many rewards. It provides focus in a culture stuffed with consumer choices. It amplifies positive attributes such as empathy, efficiency, and resourcefulness. It means eating healthier, learning a whole lot about cooking and growing food, and saving money. Spending more time creating and less time consuming. The goal of trash-free has greatly improved our lives because, in many ways, it has simplified them. I can't imagine going back to our old wasteful ways.

Below is an outline of resources that have helped my partner and I reduce waste over the past several years. Use it as an entry point to a low-waste or zero-waste lifestyle.

 Bea Johnson's methodology for zero waste - via  Zero Waste Home .

Bea Johnson's methodology for zero waste - via Zero Waste Home.


 These drawstring bags are made with fabric scraps from my studio: hand-marbled cotton and binding. They come with me to the grocery store, where they're filled with dry bulk items such as coffee (left) or oats (right). The 7x8" bag above holds 47 oz of organic fair-trade coffee beans. Filling it costs me about $7 and produces 50-60 cups of high-quality coffee. 

These drawstring bags are made with fabric scraps from my studio: hand-marbled cotton and binding. They come with me to the grocery store, where they're filled with dry bulk items such as coffee (left) or oats (right). The 7x8" bag above holds 47 oz of organic fair-trade coffee beans. Filling it costs me about $7 and produces 50-60 cups of high-quality coffee. 

By now, most people are familiar with the concept of reusable grocery bags. This basic principle can be extended into the practice of buying the groceries themselves :-0 . Refill your own containers with bulk groceries to cut waste and save cash.

Before we go further, I’d like to clarify what I mean by “bulk food.” I’m not talkin Costco here. Bulk food is sold loose in bins, without packaging, and purchased by the pound. This shopping model allows customers to refill their own containers, purchasing as much or little as needed. Bulk foods are usually found in health food stores like Harvest, B Fresh, and Whole Foods. They costs less because you’re not paying for brand names or single-use packaging.

Before Leaving Home…

  1. Grab your grocery list. Keeping a list is a simple organizational practice which prevents over-buying. It also saves time at the store. In our apartment, The List hangs on the cupboard door and we add to it throughout the week as pantry staples run out. Keep a pencil nearby because your list is as good as dead without one. Looking for a pencil is a one-way ticket to Distraction Central and all roads there lead to internet.

  2. Pack enough reusable containers to purchase what you need. My reusable container collection includes: glass jars, old wine bottles, homemade cotton bags, and watertight stainless-steel “tupperware.”

At the Store…

  1. Weigh your containers. Bulk food is charged by the pound rather than with a SKU. Containers must be weighed by a cashier before food goes into them. The weight of the container will be deducted from its total weight during checkout.

  2. Fill your containers with food.

  • Put produce directly into your cart, instead of a plastic produce bag. The bags are mindless garbage. Do not use them. Use cotton bags for the babies (mushrooms, peas, brussels). Or whatever - a handkerchief, a reused brown bag, etc.

  • Bulk items (oatmeal, almond butter, beans, coffee) go in jars or bags.

  • Fill yer bottles with liquid bulk items (olive oil, dish soap). Empty wine bottles with a cork stopper, or empty Grolsch bottles with the pop top, will serve you well here. Dark glass is best for oils, as it prevents light-related spoiling.

  • Fill cotton bags with loose loaves of bread from the bakery.

  • Check out the salad or antipasto bar for tasty unpackaged delights.

  • Containers can be filled with meat or cheese at the deli counter. Politely ask the counter worker to place your order in the jar instead of a plastic bag. If they refuse, work it out. Say, “I’ve done this here before without an issue” or “Can I see your store policy on this” or “I’m allergic to plastic.” If they still say no, consider going without.

Can't find it in bulk? Go directly to the source by finding a local supplier, such as a bakery, deli, ice cream shop, brewery . . . Or make it!

The Intimidation Factor...

Do you feel like people are staring at you and your jars? They're probably just curious. Trash-free grocery shopping isn't the norm. Own it. You are an inspiration to us all.

At Home…

  1. Store food properly so it doesn’t rot. Did you know a carrot will stay snappin’ fresh for weeks if stored in water? For more tips, read Beth Terry’s How To Store Produce Without Plastic.

  2. Replace bottle stoppers with spouts (optional). See those beautiful refilled bottles of olive oil and dish soap? Replace the cork stopper with metal pour spouts. Spouts allow liquids to flow freely, reducing mess and waste. Your bartender friend may be willing to sneak you a few.

  3. Freeze food scraps to repurpose later. Simple scrap recipes include: vegetable broth, bone broth, and here’s ten ideas for what to do with citrus peels.

  4. Compost what you can't repurpose. Learn more about composting here.

  5. Pay attention. When it's time for another trip to the store, be thoughtful about how much you need. Did any of last week’s groceries go bad? If so, buy less.


1. Re-useable drinking container.
2. Re-usable cutlery.
3. Re-usable bag.
4. "No, thanks." Use in response to: would you like a bag, a straw in your drink, a bunch of soy sauce packets, a free sample, etc. Refusing what you do not need is an important element of waste reduction.



These sites provide strategies and inspiration for developing a zero-waste lifestyle. It's a process, so go slow, and remember that everyone - even the authors below - make some trash. It's not possible to reach absolute zero in a culture that relies on disposables. Start with modest goals and then keep going. By picking and choosing accessible strategies, you'll eventually build your own unique practice that is low-waste, if not zero-waste.

Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson (see: 100 Tips for Reducing WasteBulk Finder app)
Zero Waste Chef, Anne Marie
No Trash Project, Colleen Doyle
My Plastic Free Life, Beth Terry (see: 1oo Steps to a Plastic-Free LifeHow To Store Produce Without Plastic)
Trash is for Tossers, Lauren Singer (see: zero-waste alternatives to trash-creating products)
My New Roots, Sarah Britton - friendly to zero-waste cooking (also a cookbook)

BOOKS - available in your local library

Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science, Philippe Squarzoni
Generation Wealth, Lauren Greenfield
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
Trashed, Derf Backderf
Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson - a very comprehensive guide


Koyaanisqatsi directed by Godfrey Reggio




BFresh - In Somerville and Allston. I haven’t been yet, heard it through the zero-waste grapevine, but I have seen photos and yes: they have bulk.

Breweries - Buy beer in growlers, which are filled at breweries and returned for re-use. On average, there is a $2 deposit which is paid at purchase and then refunded when you return the jug. You might also bring your own container and ask for a fill-up - check with the brewery to see if they’ll do it. Check out this list of all the New England craft breweries.

Cambridge Naturals, Porter Square - This natural health store has a comprehensive selection of dry bulk items related to health and wellness, making it a great spot for witchy types who make medicinal/nutritional supplements and beauty products. They carry unpackaged soaps and trash-free menstrual products. Sexy!

Central Bottle, Central Square - This wine merchant has loose loaves of locally made bread, a dope cheese counter, and an olive oil fusti where you can fill a bottle. They’re accommodating to customers who bring their own containers. One time, I got a jar filled with meat and a small boy drew a picture on it.

Find a supplier - Visit your local bakery, fish market, or butcher for unpackaged specialty foods. See if they will cram your jar with meats : < 0

Food for Free, Cambridge MA - Food For Free rescues fresh food that might otherwise go to waste and distributes it within the local emergency food system where it can reach those in need. Free produce is offered to anyone each week on Bishop Allen Drive in Central Square.

Harvest Co-Op, Central Square & Jamaica Plain - I might starve to death when this place closes. Harvest boasts a diverse, inexpensive bulk section which includes: cooking oils, castile soap, laundry detergent, lotion, shampoo, honey, maple syrup, nut butter, grains, cereal, beans, legumes, various flours, and a large spice section. Recycle old plastic bags here (plastic bags CAN NOT be placed in curbside bins, but can be dropped off at designated recycling spots).

Mass Farmers Market, various locations - These pop-up grocery markets sell locally grown produce directly from the farm to consumers, often at a lower price compared to grocery stores.

Whole Foods Market, Inman Square - Here, deli and fish counter workers will gladly put fresh cuts into containers you bring. My jars have been unwelcome at some WFM locations (I’m looking at you, River St). Apparently some WFMs are more afraid of being sued than others. Regardless, all locations in Boston/Cambridge have a bulk section.


Ace Hardware, Central Square - This small hardware store carries unpackaged nails, bolts, nuts (you name it, they have it), as well as wire, chain, and rope by the foot.

Boston General Store, Coolidge Corner- A good stop for compostable and long-lasting cleaning products such as the Redeker dish brush and sea sponges.

Online Suppliers - When you can't find good local options, several home goods stores exist with the explicit purpose of providing products to reduce your waste output. Check out Package Free Shop in NY or Life Without Plastic.

The Works, Cambridge - Learn all the ways to compost and where to donate or recycle just about anything. The Works gives away finished compost at their location on Hampshire Street - bring your own bucket to haul away free, unpackaged, nutrient-rich humus for your garden!


40 South St.,  Jamaica Plain - Mid-to-upscale vintage boutique.

Bobby from Boston, South End - Upscale vintage.

Boomerang's, Central Square & Jamaica Plain - Thrift. Accepts donations.

Buffalo Exchange, Davis Square - Second-hand and vintage. Buys clothing - but keep in mind, their buying methodology is erratic.

Craigslist Boston, online - Buy, sell, barter, or find free from locals looking to downsize., online -  "A grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns and neighborhoods."

The Garment District, Kendall Square - Vintage, contemporary, costume, and dollar-per-pound clothes. Buys clothing and awards $5 store credit for donations.

Global Thrift, Waltham Center - Thrift. Accepts donations.

The Great Eastern Trading Company, Central Square - Mid-to-upscale vintage and costume boutique.

Goodwill, Central Square and Davis Square - Thrift. Accepts donations of most items for resale, reuse, or recycling, including ripped clothes (given new life as rags), broken christmas tree lights (the copper wire is recycled), old glasses, single shoes - see this list of 9 things you didn't know you could donate to Goodwill, this list of acceptable and unacceptable donations, or check with your local store.

MassArt ReStore, Longwood Medical Area - The ReStore is a free, public store that carries used and unusual artmaking supplies. They accept donations of "most objects that won't mold or explode." 

Nike Reuse-a-Shoe Program - Bring worn-out athletic shoes of any brand at a drop-off point (located in most Nike stores) and they will be recycled into courts and playgrounds. 

Oona's, Harvard Square - Mid-to-upscale vintage boutique.

Second Time Around, Harvard Square, Coolidge Corner, & Newbury Street - Upscale contemporary. Buys clothing.

Shelters and Charities - Many accept donations of canned food, used towels and sheets, toiletries, electronics, and much more. Google it!

Urban Renewals, Allston - Thrift. Accepts donations.

Where to Compost (via The Works)

Where to Recycle or Donate Anything (via The Works)