How to reduce food packaging waste

Discover BBC Good Food's tips for avoiding excessive wrapping, bags and boxes used for ingredients. Keep waste to a minimum by reusing, recycling and buying package-free foods.

Food shopping in brown bag

Who took the challenge?

James Lees, food blogger: I love to eat my way around Glasgow, but I also do a good bit of cooking. I try to be as healthy as possible, and rely on lots of beans, lentils, grains, fruit and vegetables, which usually come in some form of packaging. I also buy a lot of non-dairy milk. I had no idea how I’d go about sourcing all of this minus the packaging.

The challenge: avoid all food packaging for two weeks

A quarter of all domestic waste is packaging, which can be difficult or impossible to recycle. Plastic is particularly harmful to the oceans. My challenge was to avoid, when possible, buying packaged food for two weeks. If I did buy any, it had to be recyclable.

How to cut down on food packaging

Produce in canvas bag
I visited a few shops to assess what I could buy without packaging, and was pleasantly surprised by how much was available. I took my own containers, and was able to fill up on oats, nuts, rice, lentils and beans at Whole Foods and Harvest Co-op, a Glasgow shop that promotes sustainable, package-free food. I bought fruit and veg loose from my local supermarket. I wrote a meal plan and made my food ahead for the week. This challenge also gave me a reason to use the mountain of canvas bags lying around my house, as well as my travel coffee cup.

Week one

As I’d feared, it was impossible to find dairy-free milk that didn’t come in a container. Luckily, my preferred brand has recyclable packaging, but I still tried to limit how much I bought. On day five, I walked all the way to my favourite café before I realised I’d left my cup at home – that almost pushed me over the edge! But the rest of the time, getting coffee was a breeze, and my local even gave me reward points for bringing my own cup. Win-win!

Week two

Nuts and oats in containers
Going into week two, my waste bin remained close to empty and, aside from a few milk cartons and tins, there was barely anything in my recycling bin either. The number of plastic bags in my house fell too, as I took canvas bags everywhere – no more 5p bag charges.

By the end of the week, I was really enjoying the challenge. I was cooking more creatively, and even found myself getting annoyed when I had to buy packaging, like a carton of milk. Having to go to specific shops rather than popping to my local supermarket did get rather tiresome though.

The verdict

I will continue the package-free life as much as I can. However, the specialist shops I had to go to were pretty far from where I live. Going back to using my local shops made me realise how difficult it is to adopt a package-free lifestyle. This challenge made me realise just how much needless packaging we use – even fruit and veg aisles are chock full of rolls of wasteful plastic bags.

Top five ways to reduce food packaging

  1. Preparation is key. I don't think I'd have survived without a meal plan. 
  2. Avoid buying excess. Check recipes and only buy what you need. 
  3. Treat yourself to a coffee cup and canvas bags. You're worth it. 
  4. Don't worry about feeling awkward. Walking into Whole Foods with my Tupperware felt odd, but staff were happy to help. 
  5. Don't forget your coffee cup. If you do, I hope you have more patience than me!

What are your tips for reducing food packaging waste? Let us know in the comments below...

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