The key to zero waste in our modern society is bulk buying. I don't mean loading up on Costco palettes of canned soup, or buying economy-sized packs of toilet paper; but buying as much as we can from bulk bins, without any packaging. Even potentially reusable packaging, if we keep buying the same thing again and again, becomes wasteful. There are only so many second lives and craft projects for aluminum cans, spaghetti sauce jars, and Altoid tins before we've run out of ideas, but are still stuck with the product packaging.
Initially, I wasn't very resistant to packaging. I let cans and bottles slip into my house wrapped neatly in my canvas bags. It was easier and more convenient to buy ready-made food than it was to try to make everything from scratch, or find another way of buying it. But then I read somewhere (when memory recalls, I'll link it) that we are letting companies and their design teams decide the look for our homes. Sure, you may have picked the curtains in your kitchen, but if you buy food in any packaging, someone else is deciding what the focus of your kitchen will look like. For some reason, the design angle appealed to me more than the environmental one did, and gave me the extra push I needed to find everything in bulk. Now when I bring home purchases, finding a place for them is easy, because there's an empty jar or container waiting to be filled up. I've picked frosted jars, so the food becomes decorative in my home, and I can quickly take inventory before going to the store.
So, with beautiful Droppar jars on my shelves, I went in search of bulk food. Depending on the area you live, this could be easy for you, or it could be tear-inducingly frustrating. I wish all of you the former. A good place to start is your local health food store. They'll have a huge wall of pills and supplements in plastic bottles, and maybe a juice bar or a deli, but somewhere between these two things will likely be bulk bins. You should at least be able to find flour, sugar, oats, rice, and nuts here. A lot of places carry couscous now, which I've come to love for its easy preparation and versatile recipe use. Between these bulk bins, the produce section, and any local bakery, you'll find a lot of your food needs can be met.
It's nice if a grocer in your town has a deli, as they'll be able to slice meats and cheeses into your bulk containers. If your regular store doesn't have this, try an upscale grocer. Things here will be more expensive, but higher quality, and you'll savor and appreciate them more. Specialty grocers also often have olives, noodle salads, and soups that you can buy from the deli counter and put in your own container. Delis are also good places to go for roasted meats, picnic-style potato dishes, and whole chickens. If you can find a store with a butcher counter, you can buy meat, fish, and bones (for soup stock) for your family. Make friends with your butcher, and they'll give you the benefit of their knowledge.
When you're at the bakery, don't limit yourself to just the bread. See if they make bagels, cookies, crackers, cakes, dinner rolls, brownies, doughnuts, and cinnamon rolls. If you come at the right time, or if they are constantly baking, you can request all of these things straight from the cooling rack to your bulk bags.
Dairy products are a little tricky. If you live in an area that has Strauss farm milk or St. Benoit yogurt, you're in luck, as these companies pack their goods in returnable glass and ceramic containers. The next best thing (in my opinion) is if you can get raw milk. State laws vary on the legality of this, but I've found it doesn't irritate my lactose intolerance, and is easier to make into other dairy products. Whole milk will do just fine though. Personally, I buy milk and butter, make ice cream and yogurt, and end up only with the plastic milk jug, cardboard butter box, and wax-paper butter wrappers. I recycle the plastic and cardboard, and want to compost the butter wrappers (try to find out if the wrappers are true waxed paper or a plasticized version before you compost. I'm still waiting to hear back from the butter companies, meanwhile I have a growing collection of butter wrappers in my freezer). There are recipes out there for homemade soy and almond milk, but I haven't tried these yet, so I can't speak to their quality.
If you are lucky enough to live near a store with a large bulk food selection, you may wonder why people bother to buy food in packaging at all. The universe has blessed me with a Winco less than a mile from my house, so I'm able to buy candy, cereal, cookies, trail mix, and all manner of baking mixes directly from the bulk bins in whatever amount I like. I'd love to have a bulk section that also dispensed soy sauce, oil, vinegar, and various soaps, but that's not a reality where I live yet.
It's the things that aren't easy to get in bulk that provide the most challenge, and sometimes the most fun. I get my soy sauce bottle refilled at a Chinese restaurant, buy tortilla chips from a Mexican restaurant, and buy solid, packaging-free body products from Lush. See's sells me chocolate by weight. Teavana lets me enjoy specialty teas from my own refillable tins. Petco even has a variety of dog treats for my little furry friends.
Eventually, I'd like to create a bulk-buy directory to help people find the closest, most convenient ways to fulfill their needs in a zero waste manner. If you come across a bulk source, be sure to share it with us in the comments; perhaps with enough input I'll find the motivation I need to catalog and cross-check everything. In the mean-time, keep your chin up, and Google handy, and I'm sure you'll be surprised at just how many things you can buy packaging-free.
First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.