If you asked me what shifted my lifestyle to go eco-friendly, I would tell you about “TRASHED“, a documentary film released in 2012 that greatly influenced my plastic-free habits today. The scenes where an endless trail of toxic plastic waste piled up in the landfills or washed ashore will make one wonder how much single-use plastics everyone in the world goes through every day to create such a big environmental mess. It didn’t take me long to raise the sustainable flag and begin my zero waste journey after watching the film.
Determined to weed out all single-use disposables and unnecessary (or unavoidable, in some cases) packaging waste, I turned to the family-run provision stores, traditional medical halls and wet markets in the neighbourhood as my less trendy solution to zero waste grocery stores, think bulk food stores minus the neat transparent dispensers, stylish canisters, and minimalistic decor.
Utility comes first. An array of food items is displayed in the bags or cartons that they are delivered in. Canned food and bottled sauces are stacked up to fill any space left on the shelves or walls.
Besides getting my regular supply of fresh produce and dry foodstuff from these stores, I also made friends with a seamstress (who has helped mend countless seams and replaced worn-out elastic bands) and a hardware store owner (who finds my love for old-school enamel wares and natural bristle brushes amusing,) What a vast ecosystem that supports a waste-less lifestyle!
These stores are only as zero waste as you allow them to be. These small business owners have also kept up with Marketing101, packaging their products in clear shiny plastic bags to attract customers. But there are still plenty of choices that don’t come prepacked or sealed, these are what I usually go for.
Not all stallholders are prepped for zero waste shoppers though, but thankfully the ones that I patronised are patient enough to accede to requests for purchases packed in my own containers or bags. To save the stallholders’ time so that they can attend to more customers, I usually make my zero waste check out system as less hassle as possible for them, I can do the organising when I reach home.
Here are some of the packing habits I have adopted over years of shopping at traditional wet markets:
1. Put all purchase on the table. Stand back and admire the produce at their prettiest, sans plastic wrappers.
// I usually buy just enough groceries to cook about four meals, so that I don’t overpack my fridge and end up blocking the much-needed air circulation to keep the air cold.
2. Remove these rubber bands before wrapping the vegetables with newspapers and storing them inside the fridge.
// I always stop the stallholder from packing the greens in plastic bags, they usually loosely cover the roots with newspaper to preventing soiling my shopping bag.
3. Wrap hardy vegetables like bitter gourd, carrot, lettuce, broccoli or cauliflower in homemade beeswax wraps or newspapers. Store in the fridge.
// I notice that produce kept in beeswax wraps stay fresh longer, but I don’t recommend buying and keeping vegetables for more than two weeks just because they are wrapped in beeswax wrap!
5. Store vegetables that need not be stored inside the fridge in a breathable paper sack on the kitchen counter.
// Includes garlic, onions, tomato, potato, and today, I also bought monk fruit aka Luo Han Guo to make cooling tea.
6. Rinse to wash firm tofu, add water to cover tofu, store in a container and keep in the fridge.
// Wet market sells firm tofu and regular tofu without plastic packaging. Just bring a container of the right size. I love tofu, explore tofu recipes here and here, differentiate different types of tofu here and here!
7. Button mushrooms are almost always sold in cling wrapped plastic boxes. On occasions when I see them in paper box, I will grab enough to make a meal. I will place the whole box inside the fridge. They brown fast, so best kept in its original packaging with enough space to breath. This site suggests storing in a paper bag.
8. Rinse and hang dry produce bags and shopping bags immediately, ready for the next grocery shopping trip.
// Why buy when there are free ones? I asked for these mesh bags which the stalls discard. Useful for buying fruits.
There you go, all nicely wrapped and organised. The next step is to start cooking and use up the groceries!