Science·What on Earth?

Zero-waste grocery shopping: Tricky but not impossible

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we try a week of zero-waste grocery shopping and look at how climate change is likely to affect the farmable parts of Canada.

Also: Worldwide carbon emissions have levelled off

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Zero-waste grocery shopping is tricky but not impossible
  • Worldwide carbon emissions have levelled off
  • Climate change could make more of Canada farmable — but is that a good thing?

Zero-waste grocery shopping is tricky but not impossible

(Michael Wilson/CBC)

Around eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped into our oceans annually, ending up in the bellies of wildlife and along shorelines, according to Plastic Oceans International. And despite recycling programs, a lot of what you chuck in the blue bin can still end up in landfills.

But zero-waste living is a growing movement. Thousands of social media influencers are sharing their trashless journeys. Plastic-free shops are popping up and the phrase BYOC — bring your own container — is becoming normalized.

So last week, I tried a new diet. The only rule? Don't buy anything that comes in disposable packaging. That meant no containers, bags, wrappers or jugs.

I had some prior experience with this. A few years ago, I did Plastic Free July. It was a challenge for me — and food was the main culprit.

Many of us in Canada are used to one-stop grocery shopping. Going plastic-free, however, requires more planning and time.

I'm fortunate to live in Toronto, which has a number of stores that encourage a BYOC mentality, carrying the basics you'd find at a big-box store, minus the plastic. Many more have popped up around Canada, including in Vancouver, Charlottetown and Sudbury.

I had all the supplies I needed: reusable bags, containers and jars of various sizes — things most people have in their homes anyway. And so off I went on my plastic-free odyssey.

Quick win: fruits and veggies

The easiest feats were in the produce aisle, given that most fruits and vegetables have a protective layer. I used some cotton bags I had for smaller items such as brussels sprouts. Otherwise, I left them unpacked until weighed and paid for.

A timeless idea: buying in bulk

Bulk Barn has a reusable container program that allows customers to shop with their own containers — as a result, grains, spices and snacks were no sweat to gather. (Bulk Barn sometimes even offers discounts for BYOC.) Many other stores also have bulk sections, but may not be as accommodating. I found the bulk option was cheaper than buying these items in the grocery aisle, and led to more conscious consumption.

Trickier: Proteins and bread

For meat, bread and cheese, I visited a number of specialty shops as well as a major grocery store. All of the stores I visited accommodated my requests. I used a cloth bag for bread, which had to be bought fresh from a bakery. When buying meat and cheese, the employees weighed my items prior to placing them in my container and then labelled the price. 

That said, my items were almost double the cost of the pre-packaged equivalents, though fresher and higher quality in most cases. I also had to be sure to thoroughly clean these containers with soap and hot water after use, especially if I had stored raw meat in them.

Challenge: Oils, condiments, most beverages

I didn't find any waste-free alternatives to cooking oils or most condiments. Most beverages were off-limits, too, seeing as they come in cans, bottles and cartons.

I spotted only one option for milk — a brand with a glass jug deposit program. But since I stick to plant-based milks as a personal preference, that was out. Making it from scratch using a nut milk bag is one alternative, but it wasn't a realistic option for me. I caved mid-week and bought a carton of oat milk for my loose-leaf black tea and oatmeal at breakfast.

Another challenge: Anything instant or frozen

Frozen and instant foods are often wrapped in multiple layers of packaging, and that looks unlikely to change.

My takeaway

I concluded that the only solution for the problem items would be to make my own. But I can't be a one-woman brewmaster, chef, baker, barista, juicer and confectioner. 

I can, however, transition away from trash by incorporating new habits over time.

"The material is not the enemy. It's our addiction to single-use," said Vancouver-based marine plastic researcher Rhiannon Moore, who runs a blog documenting her low-waste lifestyle. "I want to support farmers and producers that are making things with less waste and travelling a shorter distance to get to me."

Isabel Terrell

Have you tried grocery shopping without plastic? Share some of your wins and fails by emailing us at

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Carbon emissions worldwide

Last week, the International Energy Agency shared some news that climate activists received with cautious optimism: after two straight years of increases, carbon emissions worldwide were flat in 2019. At about 33 gigatonnes, the figure was still significantly higher than what it was in 1995 (around 22 gigatonnes), which is why many environmentalists cautioned against complacency. According to the IEA, the biggest reason emissions didn't rise is that developed countries are becoming less reliant on coal power.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Climate change could make more of Canada farmable — but is that a good thing?

(Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

As the world's temperatures continue to rise, Canada will add a huge share of the land that becomes suitable for growing major crops, a new study suggests.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, predicts about 4.2 million square kilometres of Canada that are currently too cold for farming crops like wheat will be warm enough by 2080 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to climb.

"It may become our bread basket for the future," said co-author Krishna Bahadur KC, an adjunct professor of geography at the University of Guelph. Currently, only a million square kilometres in Canada are warm enough for growing crops like wheat, corn and potatoes, he said.

The research suggests that even much of the Northwest Territories and Yukon could get warm enough to grow wheat and potatoes, while corn and soy could be grown farther north than they are now.

By combining models that predict the future climate with those that show what temperatures are suitable for growing 12 major crops, the researchers showed that about 15.1 million square kilometres of new land around the world — more than 30 per cent of the land currently being farmed — could become warm enough for farming corn, sugar, oil palm, cassava, peanuts, cotton, millet, sorghum, rice, potato, wheat and soy.

But the study also says farming all of it could have serious environmental impacts: 

  • Huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions would be released from the soil — about 177 gigatonnes, or 119 times the current annual emissions of the U.S. 

  • It would destroy important biodiversity hotspots and many of the animals and plants that live there. 

  • It would degrade the drinking water quality for millions of people.

"We need to proceed to expand agriculture very cautiously," KC said, and "also [be] very mindful about possible environmental consequences."

Experts have long predicted that a warmer climate would make new areas of the world suitable for growing crops. But Lee Hannah and Patrick Roehrdanz of the U.S.-based environmental organization Conservation International wondered what the impact would be on biodiversity and water quality. 

And so they approached KC and his colleagues at the University of Guelph, who thought they could use models to answer that question. In the process, they realized the release of carbon from agriculture would be an issue.

In fact, it would be a major consequence of pushing agriculture into Northern Canada, where boreal forests and peatlands store huge amounts of carbon, the study says. Cutting down the trees and disturbing the peat would release a lot of that stored carbon, as would tilling the soil to grow crops, KC said.

"The magnitude of the potential release indicates that policies directed at constraining development of these areas are vitally important," the study says.

Johanna Wandel, a geography professor at the University of Waterloo who edited a book called Farming in a Changing Climate, doesn't think the expansion of agriculture into new areas is necessarily the solution to a growing population and increased demand for food in the near future.

She predicts the emphasis will instead be on better technology and productivity on the land we already farm and reducing waste to make harvests go further.

Emily Chung

Stay in touch!

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


  • In the story on zero-waste shopping, the writer referenced her difficulty in finding items like cooking oil and milk on tap. The Toronto store Unboxed Market, which is pictured in the photo, does in fact offer those services.
    Feb 21, 2020 4:24 PM ET


  • A previous version of this story said that around 800 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into our oceans annually. In fact, the number is closer to eight million tonnes.
    Feb 25, 2020 3:01 PM ET


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