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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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- Organic Food – What Does the USDA Organic Label Mean?
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- Three Easy Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste
- You Can Live Without Single-Use Plastic Bags – Here’s How
- 6 Ingredients That Are Cheaper in the Bulk Aisle—and a Surprising One That Isn’t – by Emma Laperruque, Food 52, 08/03/18
- A First-Timer’s Guide to Shopping at Bulk Stores – by Lindsay Miles, Treading My Own Path, 01/25/18
- Bulk for Beginners: How to Shop in the Grocery Store’s Bulk Section – by Stephanie Osmanski, Green Matters, 2019 (tare weight)
- How to Buy Groceries Zero Waste – by Megean Weldon, Zero Waste Nerd, 06/24/18
- How to Shop in Bulk – by Melissa Coleman, The Faux Martha, 02/28/19
- Is Buying Food in Bulk Cheaper? – by Laura Kumin, Mother Would Know, 02/11/13
- Make Your Grocery Game Zero-Waste – by Mukta Patil, Sierra Club, 02/04/19
- Save money in the grocer’s bulk bin aisle – by Val McCauley, Living on the Cheap
- Zero-Waste Stores Ask Shoppers to Bring Their Own Everything – by Cathy Erway, Civil Eats, 05/09/18