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  • Writer's pictureAtiqah Nadiah Zailani

Zero Waste Shopping & Dining Out

Eliminating, substituting, reducing and/or recycling the waste from our shopping and dining trips.

shopping bags

While I like to think that, as an adult, I have left behind the awful habits of mindless shopping and endless eating out that I did a lot of in my teens and twenties, the truth is I still very much enjoy strolling through a mall for hours and eating food that I didn’t cook myself.

These activities, however, can generate a significant amount of trash - especially if you have a habit of snacking your way through a mall like I do!

Arguably, a lot of what we use and end up throwing away 30 seconds later are completely unnecessary trash that can be avoided with some thought and preparation.

The challenge, though, is not in the thought and preparation, but in the changing of ingrained habits.

The solutions I’ll be proposing down below are nothing new, and you would have definitely heard of them countless times before. It’s not that you don’t know, it’s that you don’t do.

So, let’s tackle that issue first.

“Uggghhh, but it’s so inconvenient!”

Reusable bags, reusable water bottle, reusable Tupperware…etc - they all have one thing in common: you need to remember to bring them with you to actually put them to use.

This could mean having to pre-plan ahead each time you plan to go shopping or dining out, or it could mean constantly carrying all that stuff around with you to cater to your unpredictable impulse to buy or eat something NOW, like right NOW.

Either way, the response is almost aways a disgusted whine on how much trouble it would be.

And yes, I get it, it can be inconvenient to have to actually remember to bring all these reusables, on top of your very hectic life and a million other things that need to occupy your memory and brain space.

And yes, it can be so embarrassing to be the only weirdo asking the barista to fill the coffee into your own cup when everyone else is happily chugging out of the disposable plastic cups. To make matters worse, while others simply throw their cups away, you actually have to carry that thing home and wash it! Ugggghhh!

ugh, but like, effort

Convenience = disposable

We live in a time in which convenience is king. And while there is nothing wrong with wanting to make things easier for ourselves, it is a problem when our convenience results in major problems for others.

Unfortunately, ‘convenience’ these days often take the form of disposables. Don’t want to do dishes? Use paper plates and throw them away. Don’t want to have to lift your glass to your lips for a sip? Use a straw and then throw it away. Use and throw. Use and throw.

Out of my life and into yours

While throwing things away takes them out of our lives, those things don’t just magically disappear into a convenient black hole. They go somewhere, and often to a place that causes a lot of damage.

Turtle with straw stuck in nose

Plenty of our trash end up in the ocean.

Here's a turtle having to get a straw surgically removed from its nostril.

Trash landfill

Not your backyard, maybe, but definitely someone's backyard

Our convenience has a price, and it’s helpful to take a moment to understand what it means when we (and another 8 billion people just like us) decide to use and throw yet another plastic thingy that will continue to exist as trash for the next 100 years or so.

"I try, but I just keep forgetting!"

Some people wait for a technological solution - robots to pick up our trash for us or plastic that will degrade faster or a new strain of bacteria that will eat up all the crap we throw - but the truth is, the solution is a lot simpler than that, and a lot closer to us right now.

All it takes is us shifting away from the ‘throwaway’ mentality to a more sustainable frame of mind. And you can start by avoiding unnecessary everyday waste and opting for reusable items.

It will be inconvenient, sure, for the first few weeks or so, as it is with any new habit you are trying to form. But, like any new habit, keep at it and it will stick. There will come a time when you don’t even have to think about it.

And if you forget once or twice or ten times, so what? Use that disposable cup or disposable plastic bag, and remember to do better next time.

I have been carrying reusables around with me for years, and I still find myself caught in a situation where I end up using disposables (because I forgot to bring it with me that one time or I was a little too late to inform the cashier or the waiter about how I don’t need them, etc). It’s okay. I move on and vow to do better next time.

The important point is: start, and do better and better as you go. Don’t overthink it.


So, with that out of the way, let’s go straight to the solutions and substitutes:


Choose wisely: Whenever possible, buy things with no packaging or recyclable packaging. Check out stores like The Hive and Lush.

Bring reusables: Carry a set of reusable bags with you in your handbag, or keep a stash in the car. Put them to use.


Refuse & Eliminate: Say no to plastic bags. Sometimes I get snarky comments from the cashier: “Jeez, the bags are free!”(which is no longer true, by the way, many shops now charge for them), so I have to explain that ‘free’ is most certainly not the issue here. Most times I just get very confused looks. However, that is changing now, and of course, the more of us that do it, the more others will get used to it.

Substitute & Buy To Last: Reusable bags vary in quality, but if you get good ones, they last a very long time and can handle very heavy loads. They also come in super tiny, super light foldable versions that barely take up space or weight in your bag. I always have two in my everyday bag, and I’ve had mine for years. The only time I had to replace them was when I actually lost them.

reusable bag

My favourite - super light, folds super small and has been able to handle all the weight I've put into it with ease.


Eliminate: When at the produce section, opt to not use the flimsy plastic bags to hold your broccoli or apples together. For big things, like a watermelon or a bunch of bananas, take them as is. Put the price sticker right on them.

Substitute & Buy To Last: For small things that you need a lot of, use a reusable produce bag. These are simply drawstring bags made of transparent cloth or any other suitable material. The price sticker can be used to seal the bag if the staff is worried about you cheating and adding more to the bag after it’s been weighed.

Produce bag

I made and sewed this myself!


Choose to dine-in: Whenever possible, opt to dine in instead of doing take-outs or tapau. This will cut down on food packaging waste, as well as the ten bajillion tissue paper and sauce packets. Avoid fast food restaurants - not just because they use disposables even if you dine in, but also because it’s better for your health.

Choose wisely: Whenever possible, buy food or snacks that come in recyclable packaging. That being said, food containers soiled with oil or food bits are not acceptable for recycling, so don’t put those in the recycling bin!

Refuse: Say no to unnecessary items such as straw or tissue paper. Drink from the glass itself or bring your own reusable metal/bamboo straw, and use a handkerchief.


Eliminate: Opt to dine in and skip all the unnecessary food packaging that comes with takeaways.

Recycle: Whenever possible, buy food or snacks that come in recyclable packaging. That being said, food containers soiled with oil or food bits are not acceptable for recycling, so don’t put those in the recycling bin!

Substitute & Buy to Last: Carry your own food container, like the ubiquitous Tupperware or the stylish Tiffin (they make them in cute colours these days!). There’s also ten million cool-looking water bottles you can choose from, and if you’re a coffee fiend, coffee shops also offer a selection of reusable containers for their coffee. If you don’t want to lug around bulky stuff, they also make these collapsible containers and water bottles that take me less space but can fold out into its proper, full size.

Be an activist: Write to the companies of the products you buy and request/demand that they take responsibility for their products and packaging. Encourage them to explore no-packaging alternatives, or reusable and recyclable alternatives. Gang up with friends, family and the entire neighbourhood and let the companies know how you feel.


Eliminate: Opt to dine in and skip all the plastic or biodegradable cutlery that come with takeaways.

Recycle: If possible, opt for recyclable (if any) or biodegradable cutlery. However, make sure you dispose them in the right place! A biodegradable fork is not going to biodegrade in a trash can or a landfill. It should be placed in a compost bin with access to water and air and microorganisms that will break it down.

Substitute & Buy to Last: Carry your own reusable cutlery when eating out - they have these convenient small sets that are light and easy to bring with you. And if you must drink out of a straw, get a reusable straw - they make them in metal and bamboo, and are actually quite fashionable these days.

reusable cutlery

My array of reusable cutlery: fork, spoon, chopsticks,

metal straw, bamboo straw, straw brush, cute case



Achievement Award: Eliminate altogether the use of disposable bags, containers, straws, cutlery, etc. Substitute with reusable and long-lasting alternatives, and never have to go find a trash can in the mall ever again.

Points For Effort: Opt for recyclable or biodegradable materials when out shopping or dining, and ensure they go to the right bins.

Um, Maybe Not: Can’t be bothered to change your shopping and eating habits? That’s okay, continue as you do, and find some other waste to eliminate! Check out other recommendations here.

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