Tips for Smart Shopping

You have the consumer power to make a difference with each purchase you make. Smart shopping is an easy thing we can do to significantly reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Through smart shopping, you can advocate for higher standards, persuade producers to cut unnecessary packing and more. All it takes is making simple behavior chances like consciously choosing sustainable products/less packaging when we shop.

Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do I really need this product
  • Is there too much packaging
  • Where was this product made, and can I purchase a similar product that is locally sourced
  • Can this product be reused, composted and/or safely recycled
  • Does this product promote higher socio-economic and environmental standards

What Makes a Product Sustainable

Choosing a sustainable product isn't always easy. We don't always take, or have, the time to read through product labels, let alone check the "green" certifications and labels out there, before purchasing a product. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the process of working with private sector standards developers to create ecolabels and standards for greener products. In general, sustainable products are those products that provide environmental, social and economic benefits while protecting public health and environment over their whole life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials until the final disposal.

Examples of logos for green labelsSome recognizable green labels include:

  • The recycling symbol
  • Energy Star
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic
  • Smart Choice
  • Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) Certified
  • Green Seal Certified
  • Whole Trade Guarantee
  • Fair Trade Certified
  • Forest Stewardship Council Certified
  • Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or Green Building Certified
  • Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT)

For more information on these and other ecolabels, visit the U.S. Ecolabel Index.

Buying Recycled Content Products

Buying products made with recycled content material creates long-term markets for recyclable materials. When possible, ensure the products you purchase (and the packaging in which they come) are not only recyclable, but are also composed of recycled content material! If you find yourself confused over the difference between products made entirely or partially from pre- and post-consumer recycled content, here is the gist of it:

  • 100% Post Consumer WastePre-consumer material: Material such as manufacturing scraps, rejects or trimmings that never actually made it to the consumer and is repurposed into something new rather than being trashed (e.g., paper mill scraps that are recycled at a paper mill)
  • Post-consumer material: Material or a finished product that has been used by a consumer and then recycled and recovered (e.g., aluminum cans and newspapers that are placed out for curbside recycling)
  • Then there are also "recycled content" products without the pre- or post-consumer differentiation. If a product is labeled as being made from recycled content, then it contains either pre- or post-consumer material or a combination of the two

Remember: The higher the post-consumer recycled content, the better it is for the environment. Why? Because it means that the material used to make that product on the shelf that you're considering was at the end of its intended life and was headed for the landfill before being diverted to be reused. Still, if you're out shopping, purchasing products made from any percentage of recovered material is preferable to those made from virgin resources!

Buying Compostable Products

BPIAs more composting options become available, it becomes increasingly important to understand what items are truly compostable. If an item such as a bag or food service ware is advertised as "biodegradable" or that it is derived from "bio-based plastics" or "plant starch", it isn't necessarily compostable, as it still may contain a blend of petroleum-based plastic in the material and may contaminate the compost stream.

Look for the universally-trusted Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) certification logo on either the packaging or the individual item you're looking to purchase. The BPI program applies science-based testing to prove a material will compost in a municipal or commercial facility and leave no toxic or lingering plastic residues in the soil, making it easy for you to determine what items are truly compostable.

Smart Shopping Tips

  • Planning is the key to avoiding waste. Check your house to see what you have on hand and make a shopping list before you go to the store to avoid unnecessary purchases
  • Avoid single-use or disposable items and opt for silverware or reusable eco-ware instead. Americans use 120 Billion Disposable Cups (PDF) each year in the form of paper, plastic and foam; this habit generates 2.2. billion pounds of waste, 35 billion gallons of water, 4 billion pounds of CO2 equivalent and costs more than 11 million trees. Many cups aren't recycled because they are made of hard-to-recycle plastic-coated paper or foam
  • Buy used items whenever possible. Consider visiting thrift stores, browsing online classifieds websites such as Craigslist and borrowing or trading with friends. If you need something that you'll only use a handful of times, such as a power tool, see if you can borrow or rent instead of buying it
  • Buy products made with recycled content (e.g. recycled-content kitchen towels) or items in recyclable packaging (e.g., glass and plastic containers with the #1 or #2 recycle symbol stamped on the bottom). Look for the recycling symbol and the statement "Made with post-consumer recycled paper." When choosing compostables, make sure items have been certified by a third party like Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)
  • Avoid polystyrene foam packaging and food ware. Polystyrene foam, commonly know as Styrofoam, is non-renewable, non-biodegradable, and is difficult, uneconomical and sometimes impossible to recycle, especially if soiled by food. Due to numerous human and environmental health concerns, over 100 cities in the U.S. have banned products made with polystyrene foam material. Consider purchasing safer alternatives including those made with:
    • Paper
    • Cardboard
    • Molded or rigid pulp or plastic
    • Certified compostable "starch peanuts"
    • Loose fill or foam
  • Buy products that use less packaging. (e.g., loose fruit or frustration-free packaged electronics). Of all the garbage we generate, one-third is packaging that gets thrown away immediately. Companies use less raw material when they use less packaging, which means they can ultimately reduce waste and cost
  • Buy non-perishables in bulk (e.g., detergent soap)
  • Buy eco-rechargeable or refillable products
  • Check the country of origin and purchase locally-sourced products whenever possible. For food, eat and buy seasonal products in your area
  • Don't forget to bring your cloth totes or bags into the store. These are more durable than paper and plastic bags, and won't contribute to unnecessary waste in our landfills since it can be reused

See our Food Waste Tips page for tips for food waste prevention.