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.

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All Americans Should Visit a Landfill

There is no “away.”

I double dog dare you to visit your local landfill to see what happens to your garbage. Afterward, ask yourself how you can improve your own waste habits.

Think of touring a landfill as a cross between an interesting field trip and a civic duty. Add to the fun with a side trip to a materials recovery facility also called an MRF (pronounced “murf”).

Each week, you, I, and everyone else toss our solid waste into garbage, recycling, and green waste bins, perhaps without much thought about what goes where. Then, once a week, while we are at work, school, sleeping, running errands, or otherwise going about our day, the contents of these bins are magically whisked away.

U.S. Total Solid Waste Generation 2015 Pie Chart
Percentages of materials that made up U.S. municipal solid waste in 2015 – source U.S. EPA

The problem is that there is no “away” and the environmental impact of landfills is enormous.

Environmental Impact of Landfills

Nowadays, at least in the U.S., landfills operate under more stringent regulations than in the past. Environmental issues vary widely depending on a number of factors including landfill size, location, design, contents, age, and how it is operated and managed.

U.S. Disposition of Solid Waste 2015 Pie Chart
Disposition of U.S. solid waste in 2015 – source U.S. EPA
  • Landfills take up large amounts of land displacing plants, animals, and even people.
  • Slowly decomposing plant, animal and human waste produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than CO2. According to the U.S. EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country.
  • Rainfall and moisture can cause toxic chemicals to leach into streams, lakes, and groundwater killing aquatic life and endangering drinking water.
  • Air pollution is created by trucks collecting and transporting garbage and by dust and other particulate matter churned up at the landfill.
  • When reusable and recyclable materials are buried in a landfill, the energy, resources, and people power that went into making them is wasted.

To me, the biggest environmental impact of landfills is that they enable and even encourage consumerism and wasteful practices. Our waste is conveniently tucked away out of our sight so we do not have to think about it.

The Trash Trifecta

I acknowledge that I might be a wee bit more fascinated by garbage than many people. For instance, one of my favorite nonfiction books is Garbology by Edward Humes. I have also written at least 35 posts that have some connection to waste.

So, you can probably imagine my excitement when, recently, I had the opportunity to visit a landfill, MRF, and an anaerobic digester all on the same day. I was in solid waste heaven.

Below, you will get a glimpse into what happens at a landfill and a materials recovery facility. We will take a look at the anaerobic digester in the next post.

I live in a small town on the Central California Coast in San Luis Obispo County, CA where the entire population is about 285,000 people. My household’s garbage goes to Cold Canyon Landfill the largest of the three landfills in the County. Based on the permitted capacities of the three landfills I estimate that Cold Canyon Landfill takes in 60-70% of the County’s solid waste.

Aerial View of Cold Canyon Landfill and Materials Recovery Facility
This is an aerial view of Cold Canyon Landfill in San Luis Obispo County, CA using Google Maps. The red rectangle shows the location of the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).

Although landfills and MRFs operate in a similar manner across the U.S. there are differences and capabilities may vary considerably. For instance, some MRFs have equipment that enables them to process difficult to handle items like single-use plastic bags, but many like the one where I live, do not.

At the Landfill

At the Cold Canyon Landfill, my spouse and I joined students from the California Naturalist Program at Cuesta College. Our host was Mike di Milo. He is the owner of Science Discovery the company that runs education programs on behalf of the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority.

After donning electric yellow safety vests, we bundled into several vehicles for a short trip into the landfill and stopped on a section of road that overlooked the day’s activities. Mike had us stand in a group while he shared facts about the landfill and talked about how it works.

Engineering

You may think a landfill is just a pit, but that is not the case, at least at Cold Canyon. The landfill is carefully engineered and monitored.

Cold Canyon Landfill Garbage Dumping Deck
As soon as we stopped on the side of the road, I jumped out and took this photo of the Cold Canyon Landfill garbage dumping deck.

The excavated area currently being used was lined with plastic, clay, and gravel before any garbage was put in it. A drainage system diverts stormwater runoff to a settling pond to keep sediment out of nearby Pismo Creek. The compacted garbage is arranged into layers about 15-20 feet high and then covered with about 2 feet of compacted soil. The top is seeded to grow plants and grasses to reduce erosion.

Operations

Cold Canyon Landfill takes in about 1 million pounds (500 tons) of garbage a day six days a week. Our visit was during the morning before most of the municipal garbage trucks had come by to dump their loads so the pile of garbage was small.

We watched as pickup trucks pulled up alongside big garbage trucks at the edge of the garbage pile and dumped their loads. The bulldozer operator maneuvered nimbly around the trucks staying out of the way but constantly pushing the pile toward the pit. Another heavy equipment operator focused on getting the garbage compacted in a designated area.

On windy days, large litter screens are strategically placed to stop garbage from flying out of the landfill.

At the end of the day, the garbage is covered with tarps until the next day. This practice eliminates the need for a daily layer of dirt allowing the landfill to extend its useful life because there is room for more garbage.

Mike pointed out the above ground pipes running across the top of the covered landfill sections that capture and transport methane gas produced by the landfill. Burning the methane generates power for the landfill and the Arroyo Grande Oil Field in Price Canyon.

We learned that there is a section for collecting separated demolition and construction materials. Lower dumping (tipping) fees encourage contractors to do this, but it is not mandatory. There is also a place on site where residents can drop off their household hazardous waste like used motor oil, paint, and pesticides.

Environmentally Friendly Pest Control

After Mike filled us with information, we had the pleasure of meeting a falconer named Aaron and a magnificent Harris’s hawk.

Falconer Aaron with Harris's Hawk at Cold Canyon Landfill

Aaron cares for and works with this hawk and four other birds of prey. They keep the volume of seagulls flying around the open garbage pile in check. Swarming seagulls can make working conditions unsafe and present a health hazard when they pick up garbage, fly away with it, and leave it somewhere else.

After talking with Aaron and admiring the hawk, we got back in our vehicles to drive over to the MRF.

At the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)

As we drove up to the MRF, I spotted a truck pausing momentarily at a weigh station. Recycling and garbage tipping fees are based on weight. The truck is weighed again after it is empty.

Visitors are not allowed to go into the actual MRF so we gathered in the education center. This space has a large glass window where you can watch the action, interactive displays, and rows of chairs in front of a large movie screen.

Cold Canyon Landfill Materials Recovery Facility Education Center
Education Center at the Cold Canyon Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). The window on the left looks into the MRF. Photo – Science Discovery.

Mike lured us away from the window to watch live action feeds on the screen from various cameras mounted inside the MRF.

A heavy equipment operator used a big clunky grabber mounted at the end of an articulating arm to pick up materials from a huge pile and move them to the conveyor belt intake area. The operator also delicately selected unrecyclable materials like plastic bags, box strapping, and garden hoses and dropped them over a low wall into another pile. Later these materials would be picked up and transported to the landfill.

The facility was a maze of conveyor belts, machines, and bins. Materials were being separated by machines and people. Workers standing in small areas (kind of like waist high turrets) adjacent to the conveyor belts removed trash and recyclable materials and tossed them in nearby chutes or bins.

At the end of the process, separated materials enter a baler and come out as strapped cubes of materials like cardboard, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans. I did not see what happened to glass or paper.

The amount of garbage mixed in with recyclable materials was shocking. Mike said that as much as 25% or more of the materials that come into the MRF are not recyclable. In this facility, it was easy to see that it is not equipped to handle things like plastic bags or little bits of anything.

U.S. Recycling Percentages 1970-2015 Table
U.S. recycling percentages 1970-2015 – source U.S. EPA

The California Naturalists were on a tight schedule so we thanked Mike, carpooled back to the entrance, and dispersed.

My Takeaways

Seeing what actually happens to the contents of my garbage and recycling bins made a big impact on me. Faced with the reality I cannot hold on to my wishful thinking anymore. Here are some of my thoughts.

  1. The people who work at the landfill and MRF work in dirty, noisy, and smelly conditions and they know what they are doing.
  2. There is no one sorting through the garbage mound looking for and setting aside reusable or recyclable materials. Everything dumped on the landfill deck goes into the pit.
  3. The MRF is not a precision operation. Some recyclable materials end up accidentally going to the landfill. Some recyclable materials are contaminated by substances or materials that do not get separated out making them unusable and unsellable.

I came away committed to continuing to find ways to reduce the amount of solid waste our household produces and to sort it into the right bins.

It occurs to me, that every week, you, I, and everyone else have an opportunity to positively impact the environment when we take out the trash.

Featured Image at Top: A woman tossing trash over her shoulder is being followed by a wave of garbage – photo credit iStock/ pick-uppath.

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