When building up a zero waste or low waste pantry, it’s difficult to know where to begin and what you might need. For a start, use up what you already have (i.e. boxes of cereal, bags of rice, plastic-wrapped snack bars, etc.) rather than throwing out uneaten items simply because they were in non-recyclable packaging. Next, determine what supermarkets and stores offer the lowest waste options for pantry staples (for example, places like Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and Kroger in the U.S. and Pak N Save and New World in New Zealand are regular supermarkets that offer a variety of bulk options).
The two things I needed to get my zero waste pantry started were bags for the bulk bins at the supermarket and containers to store the items. I happened to have a lot of large glass jars and containers to store my items in, but you can also reuse any type of plastic containers or any sort of glass jar that once held other items. I do love my reusable cloth bulk bin bags for package free purchases, but don’t worry if you don’t have any. You don’t have to buy new, expensive, or specially crafted bags for the bulk bins. You can reuse brown paper bags, bring in your own jars (just get the tare weight before filling them up), make your own out of scrap fabric, or even use lightweight pillowcases. If package free options aren’t accessible to you, always try to buy things in bulk to avoid excess packaging and look for packing that can be recycled or repurposed.
Without further ado, here are my favourite zero/low waste pantry staples.
Oats are my absolute
Second to oats, rice and quinoa are probably my most purchased staple. As rice and quinoa are easy to buy package free and are generally inexpensive (especially rice), these grains have become a staple in most of my meals.
I always keep a variety of legumes on hand, too. You can soak beans overnight and cook them in the morning or soak them during the day while you’re at work and cook them once you’re home. While switching from packaged/canned beans to bulk beans does add a little bit of cooking time, very little of that time requires active work and attention. High in protein, full of fiber, and super filling, I love to add beans and lentils to my salads, soups, sandwiches, and curries.
White, wheat, gluten-free — what kind of flour you purchase is up to you, but I’ve found flour to be a key essential in my pantry. Going low/zero waste meant making a lot of things I used to buy in stores from scratch. Thankfully, if
Many health and bulk food stores offer peanut butter from their own machines, and all that you have to do is bring your own jar to make it zero waste. Otherwise, it’s super easy to make your own peanut butter (and various almond, cashew, etc.
Going zero waste meant cooking and baking a lot of items from scratch and I’m always up for a bit of sugar in my oats and smoothies. Combined with the amount of baking I like to do, the plastic bags sugar tended to come in really started to add up for me. Although it was a bit difficult to locate, I managed to find a shop selling sugar in bulk bins. If you can’t find sugar in bulk bins where you live, try to opt for sugar in paper/cardboard packaging rather than plastic to reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste.
I have yet to find oil in bulk bins/containers where I live (I have heard olive oil can be found in some stores, and all you need is a jar to collect the olive oil), so I try to buy it in glass jars which I either reuse for food storage or recycle. What kind of oil you purchase is really up to personal preference. I personally like to use coconut oil as it’s great for cooking and for toiletries like conditioner, body scrub, and deodorant.
If you’re anything like me, your day doesn’t really begin until you’ve had a dose of caffeine. Loose leaf tea and coffee are much better for the environment than the plastic packaging most come in, but if that isn’t available, look for options with the lowest amount of waste. Especially with tea, make sure that the tea bags don’t contain plastic (many do and are therefore not compostable).