An expert decodes what's important and what's not.

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sustainable grocery shopping with reusable bag
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The secrets to making smarter, greener choices at the supermarket may start with your trash. Seriously. "You can prioritize by going through your garbage," says Kate Bratskeir, the author of A Pocket Guide to Sustainable Food Shopping: How to Navigate the Grocery Store, Read Labels, and Help Save the Planet ($14.74, amazon.com). "Let's say you find that you have tons of individual yogurt cups," Bratskeir explains. "Clearly, your family eats a lot of yogurt, but how can you reduce that waste? There are several paths that you can take; maybe you start buying bigger yogurt containers; maybe one day you decide you're going to learn how to make your own, or maybe you find a new brand that has more sustainable packaging."

Grocery shopping can be exhausting: We know we should bring our reusable bags, reduce our plastic usage, and eat less meat, so add the necessity of making green choices to the mix, and it can feel like a herculean task. That's where Bratskeir comes in. Part guide, part label decoder, and with lots of food research to nerd out on, Bratskeir's book aims to make it easier to grocery shop sustainably, laying out facts about the food industry while providing relatable tips actionable in everyday life. "Being a consumer myself I found it incredibly confusing and it felt like it was worth making a manual or guide for people to be able to hear through the noise in order to buy things that are good for the planet," says Bratskeir.

Throughout the book, she shares small steps consumers can take that can add up to significant changes, starting with that waste audit where she gives instructions on how to sort through your trash and how to use what you find to assess ways in which you can introduce new shopping habits into your life. For instance, when it comes to food packaging, Bratskeir says to reduce, reuse, and recycle—in that order. "If you have the choice to buy a product in a plastic container or an aluminum can, go for the can, as these are 100 percent recyclable," Bratskeir said. "Plastic recycling is incredibly complicated."

As for what to stay away from? "The words 'biodegradable,' 'compostable,' and 'sustainable' are basically meaningless, especially when the label lacks any official certification," Bratskeir says. One to trust is the "BPI-Compostable" label from the Biodegradable Products Institute. The products they certify are generally safe for composting and will naturally break down in the environment over a year's time.

Finally, Bratskeir says to ditch those plastic produce bags once and for all. "They're a single-use item with such a short life: You use them to transport your produce from the store to your home, and that's it. If you think they're protecting your fruit and veggies from a gross conveyor belt, know that your food has already traveled miles in dirt and grime and has been touched by countless hands," she says. A better idea? swap them for reusable produce bags you bring with you.

Her goal with the book is to open people's eyes to how much power they have to create a greener world one shopping trip at a time. "We're at a frightening point where we don't have a choice but to do better for our planet but I'm hopeful because I hear from people every day that are making these small changes," says Bratskeir.

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