Zero waste shops have become more popular, but what is the financial cost of environmentally friendly shopping? Lily Canter finds out.
I live in a relatively small market town in the East Midlands and like elsewhere in the country have seen a growing number of refill and reuse shops and stalls.
These businesses sell everything from bamboo toothbrushes, to pasta and shampoo, and emphasise sustainability above all else.
But since they have less buying power than supermarkets and sell some fairly niche products, they can be expensive.
I decided to take on the challenge of zero waste shopping for a month to see what I could buy for my family of four and how it compared to our usual supermarket shop.
(Editor's note: Lily undertook this challenge shortly before the pandemic struck. We didn't feel there was much point running the article during the lockdown, but as things gradually return to normal we hope it will now be useful and relatable).
Rules of engagement
My husband and I try to keep our weekly shop to a maximum of £80 including food, drink, cosmetics, and household products.
Doing the equivalent shop 100% waste-free may not be realistic, so I set some ground rules.
In the first instance, I had to try and find a waste-free alternative and use my own tubs, jars, and beeswax wraps. If there was not a refill option in my hometown then I had to find something in recycled packaging.
But if this second option was not available, then my final choice was to only buy products in packaging that could be recycled via the council kerbside collection.
Overall, the aim was to buy as much as possible as a zero waste refill.
Whenever possible, I walked to the shops with a large rucksack but if I needed to get a lot of heavy items, I took the car and parked in a central spot. I then walked to different shops, coming back to the car park between stops, to unload.
Ultimately, I decided not to drive to larger towns to find waste-free items as this would damage the environment in a different way.
‘Much more personal’
The first thing I noticed was I really enjoyed going out on a Saturday morning and wandering between the different shops, talking to people.
It was much more personal than a trip to the supermarket and a pleasant way to start the weekend.
Where I live in Market Harborough, there is a new Eco Village with a refill shop selling dry goods and cosmetics plus a fruit and vegetable stall, mini farm shop and refill pet food supplier.
A few minutes' walk away lies an indoor market with a greengrocer, butcher, fishmonger, cleaning/laundry supplier and cheese stall, while up on the high street is a large health food shop.
These were my three sources of goods and none of them involved queuing at a checkout, meaning my weekly shop was just as swift as usual.
On the way home, I stopped off at a nearby house with my own egg box to buy half a dozen for £1, which was slightly more expensive compared to Lidl.
Blowing the budget
To be clear, buying refill products is more expensive than supermarket shopping but the quality is superior. You can also support small businesses, which can offer a more personalised experience.
On my first zero waste shop, between the Eco Village and market, I spent £100 – and calculated that this was similar to a £50 shop at Lidl.
But it’s worth flagging that I wasn’t able to buy everything I needed, so the costs could be even higher.
The main difference was the quality of items particularly the pasta, noodles, nuts, meat, and dairy, which were simply not comparable to supermarket products.
There were also more unusual products available such as organic UK spelt pasta and black turtle beans. But certain items were far more expensive at zero waste shops, especially dry fruits and nuts, which we eat a lot as a family.
For example, dry roasted peanuts were almost four times more expensive (compared to Lidl) at 95p per 100g. Even when compared to a non-discounter like Tesco, the peanuts were double in price.
Almonds were 70p more per 100g and dates were around twice the price at £1.10 per 100g, although these were organic.
I quickly realised that sustaining our dry fruit and nut consumption on a zero waste budget was going to bust the bank.
So, within a couple of weeks, I switched to bulk buying in wholefood shop Grape Tree to save money.
Frustratingly, all of their items are wrapped in single use plastic but by buying bigger bags, I was able to reduce plastic consumption. Here, it was possible to buy walnuts for 80p per 100g compared to £2.20 at the refill shop and 99p at Lidl.
I ended up saving £3.80 by buying 2kg, which lasted my family about 10 weeks – nothing was wasted.
Over at the market, traders were happy to put items like sausages or cheese into my containers or reusable beeswax wraps. But I did find their goods were generally around twice the price of our usual supermarket items at Lidl although far superior in flavour.
Sausages were £7.99 per kg and seven chicken fillets on special offer were £11. Even when compared to Tesco own-brand sausages and chicken fillets, the prices at the market were substantially higher.
Were there any deals?
Although some items were a lot more expensive, to my surprise, there were some bargains to be found.
At the market, I found a stall selling Boxrolls toilet paper, which is basically a large cardboard box filled with recycled toilet paper with not a piece of plastic in sight.
This was £8 for 24 rolls, which was cheaper compared to Tesco by around £2.
The market also sold environmentally friendly cleaning products in recycled plastic bottles at around half the price of popular brands like Ecover.
Fruit and vegetables at the market were also good value as you could get five avocados for £1 (59p and 79p for one at Tesco and Lidl, respectively, at the time of writing).
You could also buy 1kg of carrots for £1 and traders were happy to load them straight into my shopping bags loose, although these are cheaper at Tesco.
At the Eco Village, herbs were cheaper than some discounters as you could buy basil for 30p per 10g, compared to 33p at Aldi, while organic jumbo oats were a similar price to health food shops at 29p per 100g.
There was also a milk machine where we purchased a reusable bottle for £1 and then paid £1.20 for a litre of fresh whole milk from a local farm.
Although this was about 40p more than the supermarket equivalent, it tasted far better, and it was reassuring to know the profits were going direct to the farmer.
Impossible items and compromises
There were certain items I could just not get as zero waste or in recycled containers such as margarine, mango chutney, coconut milk, soft drinks, and mouthwash.
Fortunately, these come in packaging which can be recycled by our council.
Another sticking point was dental floss, which can be hugely wasteful and dangerous to marine life. The Eco Village did sell silk floss, but I felt that using floss manufactured from silkworm cocoons was morally dubious.
The product they sell is made from ahimsa silk, a method of non-violent silk breeding, but as someone who is practically vegan (my family is not), it didn't feel right.
As expected, zero waste shopping was more expensive, and this was due to many of the products being organic or simply better quality than supermarket produce.
While it was difficult to keep track of all my shopping for a month (and I had to stop trying to buy everything zero waste due to the cost), I estimate on average, it was 40%-50% more expensive.
But it’s worth stressing that this cost is being compared to my average Lidl shop, so it’s not a like-for-like comparison.
In the UK, the public have become accustomed to cheap food but much of this is highly processed and not necessarily healthy, so a balance has to be found.
This zero waste experiment has had an impact on some of our shopping habits, but admittedly not all, due to budget restrictions. For example, we will continue to buy fresh milk from the Eco Village and also noodles, pasta, and herbs.
On top of this, we have become loyal customers of the Grape Tree and now bulk-buy once a month to save money and I will be lobbying the company to look at their packaging.
Rather than a complete overhaul of our shopping habits, I feel we are making a gradual shift and hopefully in time as more people follow suit, prices will become more competitive.
Have you tried zero waste shopping? Let us know your experiences in the comments section below.
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