Green Shopping 101

Living green is much broader than simply disposing of products responsibly. Monitoring what items come into your home and how they arrive is just as important as how they leave.

Smart shopping habits are key to decreasing your carbon footprint and are often more gentle on the wallet.

Before You Go

1. Make a Shopping List and Stick to It. Dare to reject the carefully constructed displays and sales that beg you to buy unnecessary items. Be sure to go on a full stomach, so your brain does the shopping instead of your belly. A list also helps prevent an emergency trip for a forgotten item later in the week . A good way to make the list is to plan a weekly menu and purchase accordingly.

A study by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the University of Sydney found that, on average, every additional dollar of consumption is responsible for 720 grams of greenhouse gas emissions and 28 liters of water. Photo:

A study by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the University of Sydney found that, on average, every additional dollar of consumption is responsible for 720 grams of greenhouse gas emissions and 28 liters of water. Photo:

2. Take Reusable Shopping Bags. This is often a first step for those seeking to go green. It’s easy, inexpensive and makes a real difference. The truth is that both plastic and paper bags can be bad for the environment.

Reusables often hold more and are sturdier, putting an end to the days of heavy items bursting through the bag and onto the asphalt. The trend is spreading, and bags are becoming a fashion as well as an eco-friendly statement.

Sometimes the toughest part is remembering to take the bags into the store. Keep them in the car rather than the house. Get the kids involved. The assignment to remember the reusable bags will help them feel important and teach lasting environmental principles.

3. Carefully Plan Your Trip. Shop during low-traffic times of the day to decrease fuel consumption. Be sure to combine the trip with any other errands, saving grocery shopping for last if you plan to purchase items that need to be refrigerated or frozen. If you are only picking up a few items, consider walking or riding your bike.

4. Carpool. Take roommates, friends and family to the store with you. You will use less fuel, and you may not have to carry in as many groceries by yourself.

At The Store

1. Buy Products in the Largest Size You Can Use. A family of four can save $2,000 a year at the supermarket by choosing large sizes instead of individual serving sizes. About ten cents of every shopping dollar is used to pay for packaging, and small sizes use more packaging per ounce than larger sizes. Buying in bulk will help save money and the environment.

Try to avoid single-serving packages such as juice boxes and small cookie packs. These are especially convenient for out-of-home lunches, but use much more packaging than their larger-sized counterparts. Try buying bigger and separating the desired portions into reusable containers. Here are a few examples:

  • Buy juice concentrate and put the desired amount into a reusable water bottle
  • Buy chips and cookies in bulk and put a handful in a reusable container

Making a shopping list will make those last-minute items less tempting. Photo:

This rule not only applies to food items, but also to cleaning and personal hygiene products. Buy items such as liquid soap in large amounts to refill your smaller dispensers.

2. Patrol the Packaging. When possible, compare products and opt for the item with less packaging or packaging that is more easily recycled.

Glass can be a better choice than plastic, for example, because it does not downgrade when recycled and thus is more valuable.

Learn what is accepted at your local recycling center and makes choices based on that information. Get in the habit of checking all plastic containers to see if they are recyclable. A number surrounded by arrows should be printed somewhere on the item, often the bottom, which denotes the type of plastic and how it is recycled. Plastics #1 and #2 are the most commonly welcomed of the plastic family, but some centers accept all seven types.

3. Buy Reusable and Long-lasting Items. Save money, energy and the need for raw goods by making choices such as:

  • Rechargeable batteries instead of one-time use batteries
  • A long-term camera instead of a disposable (Also, a digital camera cuts down on the printing of unwanted pictures.)
  • Cloth instead of paper towels and napkins (Many families spend more than $260 each year on such items. )
  • Washable plates, cups and silverware  instead of disposable products
  • Electric or hand razors with replaceable blades instead of disposable razors

4. Buy Local. Buying products made or grown locally reduces the transportation associated with shipping items nationwide for resale. Also, the food is fresher, and it feels good to support your community’s economy.

Online Shopping

More and more people are choosing to shop online. Stay green at your computer screen with these tips:

  • If buying a gift for someone who lives far away, ship the item directly to the recipient’s home rather than your home first.
  • Order multiple items that can be shipped together in one purchase to decrease packaging material and transportation costs. To have ten pounds of packages shipped by overnight air uses 40 percent less fuel than driving yourself round-trip to the mall, according to the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions.
  • Ship products through the U.S. Postal Service because it is most likely coming to your neighborhood to deliver mail anyway.
  • Recycle or reuse all shipping material.

Label Watch

Not all products claiming to be green live up to their promises. The Natural Products Association, which represents more than 10,000 natural product companies and retailers, reports that Americans spent $7.5 billion in 2006 on personal care products that claimed to be all-natural but often were not.

You can feel safe with the term “organic,” which is monitored by state and federal agencies. Look for other trustworthy labels such as ENERGY STAR, Forest Stewardship Council, Good Housekeeping Green Seal and GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality.

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  1. Another tip. Don’t just reuse your shopping bags. Reuse every package possible. I reuse all jars and plastic bottles for as many times as possible.

  2. Two things:
    #1) If you’re going out and not sure if you’ll be making a stop at the grocery store, take some old plastic grocery bags from a previous trip and re-use them. They’re not as good as cloth bags, but they take up a lot less space, and you can re-use a bag about 50 times.
    #2) Let people who aren’t as motivated by moral incentives (as economists call them) know that re-usable grocery bags are easier to carry and don’t break. They can afford to be designed and made better, because they’re intended to be used more than once. Once my mother’s church convinced her to use reusable bags, she discovered this. (I had already been doing it for 10 years.)

  3. I just started buying the eco-friendly laundry detergent, which contains less phosphates that pollute water. I was surprised that it was cheaper than name brands of detergent, so I’d add that to the green shopping list.

  4. I have two reusable bags that are in my suitcase so that I can use them even when I travel. I also have some plastic grocery bags in my luggage in case I need them. I keep reusable bags in my car so that they are handy when I grocery shop.

  5. The big discount wharehouse stores often offer larger sizes, but sometime it is just several regular sized items packed in a larger box or shrink wrapped together. So sometimes what seems like buying in larger sizes actually increases packaging.

  6. Lots of good tips, however, with the exceptions of paper products, buying in bulk just isn’t practical for small households of fewer than four people. As for chips and cookies, I’ve got a better idea where they’re concerned, and that is, it’s better to not buy chips and cookies at all. It’s a lot healthier for all concerned if you don’t. Also, buying in bulk often ends up costing you more because you often end up buying more than you need, like at those warehouse stores.

    Instead of having to remember to take along reusable shopping bags, I just get the plastic bags and recycle them. I doubt that in this country we’ll ever completely stop using plastic and paper bags until the stores stop making them available.

    While buying local is a nice idea, not everything, such as certain fruits and veggies, is available locally. (I don’t know of anyone in New England, where I live, who grows bananas or citrus fruits, for example.)

    I still buy paper towels, but I use them much less than I used to, and, I usually use one sheet several times instead of just using it only once and then throwing it away.

    I’ve always liked the idea of rechargeable batteries, but their initial high cost (the recharger and the batteries themselves) prevent me from using them.

    Wiadana, your tip about reusing every package possible is excellent. I can remember when I was a kid, my father had a workbench in our cellar. Above the workbench was a wooden beam onto which he’d attached screw caps from baby food jars. He would keep small pieces of hardware such as nuts, bolts, screws, etc., in the empty jars that my mother had cleaned out, and he’d screw the jars into the caps and that’s how he’d store them. Then, whenever he needed a nut, bolt, screw, etc., he’d just unscrew the jar from the cap, take what he needed, and screw the jar back in. I always thought that was so neat, and it was, literally as well as figuratively.

  7. When I buy a gift for someone I also buy the store’s reusable bag as a gift bag, so when they go shopping at the store they can use the bag.

  8. Please don’t advise folks to look for the recycling symbol and let them believe that means the product is recyclable in their home program! Our city is currently struggling with this battle and it’s a huge contamination issue for our processor. Because of available markets, we can only accept BOTTLE shaped plastics, yet our residents throw everything with a recycling symbol in the bin (our literature, web, etc. clearly state we can only recycle bottles). We get cups, tubs, deli trays, clam shells, Styrofoam cups, plates, plastic bags, everything! The best message to give everyone is KNOW YOUR PROGRAM. They can only collect and recycle items they have a local market to sell them to! Thanks!

  9. Hi,

    As much as 25% of food waste from households consists of fruits and veggies. Make sure that you only buy what you can use in a couple of days. This can have a real impact on what is wasted.

    The web URL above is our City of Madison waste reduction site. You might find some other good ideas there, just like to good ones in this article.

    And, Linda is spot on about those $#%^ arrows on plastic.

  10. I love the discussion! I agree on the recycling arrows on plastic! I have two tubs for plastic, one that the county that I live in accepts which is #1 and #1, and another container that the county that I work in accepts which is all others, this seems to work well and the county that I work in doesn’t mind us using their facility. I use cloth napkins all the time, in fact my in-laws gave me a hard time just the other day about using them. I do use paper towels but I reserve them for things like drying off chicken. I do occasionally use paper towel for other things and I will then toss it into the composting bucket. As long as you don’t toss the ones in you used on meat you can compost the paper towels. Since my husband and I have started paying close attention to what we buy and the packaging and composting as much as we can, we have reduced or trash by a considerable amount. I used to use the 30 gallon trash bags now I am down to the 1 – 2 gallon bags and only have about 2 – 3 of those per week and it us usually because it contains meat containers. It is pretty rewarding to see what a difference you can have.

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