Bulk Bin Buying – Bring Your Own Containers

You, too, can become a bulk bin fan.

What if you could easily reduce packaging waste while doing your grocery shopping? Buying from bulk bins and bringing your own containers is one way to do it. Once you try it, you may never go back to your old shopping habits again.

How many times have you walked by the bulk bin aisles in your favorite grocery market without a glance? Has it been hundreds of shopping trips? Buying from bulk bins was not part of my normal grocery shopping routine either, until about five years ago.

That is when my spouse and I joined the SLO Food Co-op because we wanted to buy organic food that was locally and regionally grown and produced. My spouse, our family’s main cook, was interested in the stuff in the bulk bins so I grudgingly went along with it.

Two things occurred that turned me into a bulk bin fan.

The first was that we could buy a lot of great things from the bulk bins. The second was that I realized we could hugely reduce the amount of throwaway packaging coming into our home if we brought our own reusable containers. I really liked that part.

Over the years, we have converted more and more of our food supplies to items from the bulk bins. I am certain we will continue to find more products to purchase either in bulk or from the bulk bins.

Chris Banuelos at SLO Natural Foods Co-op Checkout Counter

Chris Banuelos knows where everything is at the SLO Food Co-op and he always greets us with a smile.

Chris drew our name out of the hat for the bring-your-own-container contest. We were thrilled to win a $250 gift card. Guess what we bought with it?

Buying in Bulk versus Bulk Bin Buying

As far a grocery shopping goes the term bulk can have different meanings.

Buying in bulk usually refers to buying a large quantity of something such as a 25-pound bag of rice, a 3-pack of ketchup bottles, or a case of toilet paper rolls.

We buy some things in bulk like toilet paper, facial tissue, and coffee beans.

Bulk bin items include food, personal care, and household cleaning products that are dispensed, scooped, poured, grabbed, or pumped from a store supply container into a container you take home.

Some of the many items you can buy in the bulk bin aisles include flour, sugar, granola, olive oil, honey, nuts, balsamic vinegar, pasta, peanut butter, vanilla extract, rice, dried fruits, spices, coffee beans, tea, snacks, dried beans, and salt. Many stores offer personal care items such as shampoo and lotion as well as dish soap and laundry detergent.

How Does Buying from the Bulk Bins Work?

Buying from the bulk bins may be slightly different from what you are used to but it is simple.

Choose an item and fill up a bag or another container with the amount you want to buy. Write the bin number on a label and affix it to the bag or container.

Stores supply bags, containers, labels, twist ties, and pens for shoppers or you can bring your own containers from home.

Before you fill up a container for the first time, it needs to be weighed and marked with its tare (empty) weight. You can do this using a scale at the store or in some cases a store employee will do it for you. At the checkout counter, the tare weight is subtracted so you do not pay for the weight of the container.

Click here for a 1-minute video in which Alana Looser from the SLO Food Co-op demonstrates how to weigh and label a container.

Voilà you are ready for the bulk bin aisles.

Pros and Cons of Shopping in the Bulk Bin Aisles

Like many choices in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to shopping in the bulk bin aisles.

You are the person in the best position to determine what is important to you and what works for you and your family. I will give you some examples from my own experience and then you can decide if you want to give the bulk bins a try or not.

Generally, the pros and cons fall into four main categories: packaging, selection, cost, and quantity. A single item can have both advantages and disadvantages.

Packaging

For me, a minimalist trying to live happily with less stuff while trying to reduce waste of all types, less packaging is the main allure of bulk bins for me. However, shopping in the bulk bin aisles does not automatically reduce packaging.

You could easily cruise through the bulk bin aisles scooping dried cranberries and brown sugar into single-use plastic bags and wrapping them with throwaway twist ties, repeating the same process each time you shop. This is an improvement over many prepackaged items, but not much.

When you bring your own reusable containers, you are substantially reducing the amount of disposable packaging often associated with grocery shopping. If you are thinking “But I recycle.” please take a few minutes to read All Americans Should Visit a Landfill.

Selection

Sure, instead of 15 brands of macaroni shells to choose from you will only have one or two options. Chances are that for many items, the products on offer will satisfy your taste buds or product requirements.

As an example, for breakfast most mornings I eat almond butter on toasted multi-grain bread. In a search for one that did not contain palm oil, I had tried many brands. I found one that I liked but stirring it up required a substantial amount of arm strength and took at least five minutes.

Almond and Peanut Butter Machines, Olive Oil and Honey Dispensers at SLO Natural Foods Co-op
The machines on the left grind fresh nuts into almond butter and peanut butter and the dispensers on the right hold olive oil and honey at the SLO Food Co-op.

One day at the Co-op my spouse suggested I try the almond butter machine. I put my reusable jar underneath the machine and pressed the start button. Freshly ground organic almond butter oozed into the container. No stirring required, ever. I was an instant convert.

You can always choose to continue buying the prepackaged version that you like if you cannot find a suitable bulk bin alternative. That is what we do. As you will see my fondness for Kirkland salted cashews has contributed to our container stash.

Cost

I have not done an extensive cost analysis of bulk bin items versus their prepackaged counterparts. But, I do pay attention to prices and I think buying from the bulk bins is a good financial choice for our family. Even if I had done an in-depth study, it would not be pertinent for you and your family so I suggest you do your own comparisons.

The purchase price is not the only cost I consider when shopping.

The price you and I pay at the checkout counter does not reflect the cost associated with the environmental harm caused by growing, making, processing, packaging, transporting, storing, and disposing of the food and other products that we buy.

If the cost of environmental harm was factored in, something like a 12-pack of single-use plastic water bottles would cost a thousand dollars or more. We take our reusable water bottles everywhere and do not buy bottled water.

Quantity

One thing I really like about buying from the bulk bins is that you can purchase as much (within reason) or as little of an item as you want. If you do a lot of baking, you can stock up on flour, sugar, and salt. Or you can buy a teaspoon of a spice you need for a new recipe you want to try.

Earl Grey tea is my favorite but sometimes I want to try out other blends. At the Co-op’s bulk tea section, I can buy just enough loose tea to brew a few cups instead of buying a whole box of individual tea bags.

Bringing Your Own Containers

Bringing your own containers for bulk bin items is one way that you can reduce the amount of waste that gets generated so that you and your family can eat. This is a simple action that almost anyone can choose to do.

Stacked Filled Reusable Bulk Bin Containers with Funnel
This is our collection of reusable containers for shopping in the bulk bin aisles at the SLO Food Co-op. We use the funnel to refill the spice jars (not shown) that we reuse.

Rather than buying special containers to hold bulk bin items my spouse and I decided to redeploy containers that had previously held other foods.

For us, bringing reusable shopping and produce bags to the store was already part of our normal routine so transporting empty bulk bin item containers was not a big deal for us.

And it won’t be for you once you get the hang of it.

I hope you will consider giving buying from the bulk bins a try on your next grocery shopping trip. Bring a container from home and fill it up with an item of your choice. The next week try two items, then three, and so on. Before you know it, you will be a bulk bin fan, too.

Featured Image at Top: This is part of the pantry staples bulk bin section at the SLO Food Co-op.

Related Posts

Resources

Coastal Cleanup Day – Why it Matters

If not you, who?

Volunteering to pick up trash during Coastal Cleanup Day will give you a sense of accomplishment and perhaps motivate you to take further action.

Coastal Cleanup Day is coming up next week on Saturday, September 21. Millions of people will be joined together by a common mission—picking up trash—making their small part of the world cleaner, safer, and more beautiful for themselves and everyone else. You could be one of them.

This worldwide day of action will be taking place on thousands of miles of coastline as well as the banks of creeks, streams, and lakes, and even at a few parks. Chances are you can find an opportunity to participate in your own community or nearby.

Taking part in Coastal Cleanup Day is an ideal activity for first-time volunteers because generally all you need to do is slather on sunscreen, fill up your reusable water bottle, and show up. Many, if not most sites, will provide equipment like grabbers and buckets. Then after picking up trash for a few hours, you are free to hang out on your local beach, hike along a cherished stream, or take pleasure in a lakeside picnic lunch.

Bring your kids or grandkids along to this family-friendly event giving them a chance to help do something worthwhile, engage in some citizen science, and have fun with you outdoors.

During Coastal Cleanup Day, you will be acting as a citizen scientist recording the type of trash you are picking up or sorting and categorizing it afterward. This data is useful for understanding the volume and makeup of trash so that we can collectively work on solutions to reduce and hopefully eliminate trashing our oceans and waterways.

Consume consume that’s all we do
We take and take and don’t regret
We need to know what’s best at end
Our oceans are at risk today
Because of all the things we toss away.

Robert Becerra, Grade 1, La Puente (2017 California Coastal Commission Student Art & Poetry Contest)

Why Should You Pick Up Other People’s Trash?

Humans seem to be the only inhabitants on Earth who litter, meaning that we produce waste that is not used by another organism for food, habitat, or other purposes and that we leave it lying about wherever we go.

Of course, you and I do not litter. It is the other people who do. So, why should you and I pick up other people’s trash?

Well, er, because instead of just being ticked off about litter we can empower ourselves to do something about it. I cannot think of any downside to there being less trash on beaches, along creeks, or in the oceans.

Perhaps you are thinking “Well, duh, I don’t need you to tell me that I can pick up litter if I want to.” Maybe not, but it is possible that you see litter without really seeing it or recognizing that you can do something about it.

That is how it was for me before participating in Coastal Cleanup Day in 2017.

Spending several hours with my spouse picking up and collecting trash on a beach where we live on the Central California Coast left an impression on me. If you are interested, you can read about it the post entitled Coastal Cleanup Day – Picking up Litter is Empowering.

Now, I see litter as something I can positively impact through my own choices and by picking up litter and throwing it in a recycle bin or trash can.

On the Way to the Post Office

Over the Labor Day weekend, our small town held its annual 3-day Pinedorado festival.

That Sunday, at the Pinedorado, my spouse and I bought some raffle tickets, savored slices of olallieberry pie (mine had vanilla ice cream on top), and purchased a potted plant from the garden club. Locals and visitors alike seemed to be enjoying the balmy weather, games, music, food, and the car show.

4 Clusters of Balloons Picked Up as Litter

A few days later, I encountered remains of the weekend as I was walking from my house to the post office. Beneath a bush, I spotted a couple of deflated balloons tied together with a ribbon. They had been part of colorful columns marking the Saturday parade route, but apparently, some of them had escaped the cleanup crew.

I picked them up and resumed my walk carrying them in my free hand. Within a span of a few minutes, I discovered and picked up three more balloon clusters. When I reached the downtown area, I put the balloons in the first trash can I came across.

Did anyone see me picking up these balloons, carrying them down the street, and then putting them in the trash can? Maybe or maybe not. It does not matter. What matters is that there are fewer balloons floating around town that could have been ingested by a toddler, a pet, or the local wildlife.

You may be scoffing or rolling your eyes thinking “She picked up a few pieces of litter. Big deal.” The thing is you could do it, too. Imagine if everyone did. Picking up other people’s trash shows that you care about where you live, work, or visit.

Sign Up for Coastal Cleanup Day in Your Community

Volunteers at ECOSLO Coastal Cleanup Day in Morro Bay, CA
ECOSLO Coastal Cleanup Day volunteers in Morro Bay, CA on September 17, 2011 – photo credit Michael L. Baird.

Where I live in San Luis Obispo County, CA, a local nonprofit called ECOSLO organizes and runs our cleanup days. This year we are having a Creeks to Coast Cleanup Day with events taking place at beaches, creeks, and lakes across the county.

My spouse and I volunteered to pick up trash along the banks of Santa Margarita Lake. After we finish our stint as volunteer trash collectors, we will enjoy the rest of the afternoon paddling our kayaks around the lake. Community service mixed with fun. What could be better?

To find an event near where you live type “Coastal Cleanup Day” and the name of your town into your Internet web browser, sign up for a location that interests you, and then show up the day of the event.

No beach, creek, or lake to clean up where you live? No worries pick a street in your neighborhood, a parking lot at work, or a local school playground and pick up trash there.

You may be pleasantly surprised by how rewarding picking up trash can be.

Featured Image at Top: a Fish sculpture made with pieces of trash found on a beach – photo credit iStock/SolStock.

Related Posts

Resources