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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More Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste

How many plastic bags are hiding in your home?

If you are truly committed to reducing your single-use plastic bag waste, getting a grip on your household’s out of sight out of mind plastic bags is essential.

What I mean by out of sight out of mind plastic bags are those bags that you store in various places around your home and garage that you have every intention of reusing but forget are there.

The reason I am bringing this up is that while I was writing the previous post entitled Three Easy Ways to Cut Your Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste, I decided to conduct an informal assessment of my own household’s multi-year single-use plastic bag waste reduction effort and discovered a lot more plastic bags than I expected.

At first, I was dismayed, but I quickly decided that my spouse and I had been presented with an excellent opportunity to ratchet up our reduction efforts a notch or two.

Perhaps you have plastic bags hiding in your home, too. Consider doing your own assessment and then decide what actions you can and want to take to reduce your own single-use plastic bag waste.

I began my evaluation by sifting through our household plastic bag and packaging collection so it might help to provide some background on that first.

Plastic Bag and Packaging Collection

Our plastic bag and packaging collection has its roots in our decision to switch to reusable shopping bags back in 2010.

To deal with our now bag-less kitchen garbage can and other household wastebaskets we decided to save and reuse all kinds of plastic bags that had previously held food items like bread, bagels, and tortillas, as well as cereal box liners and takeout bags. We also collected bags that had encased clothing, vinyl sheet bags, and any bag that came in a shipping box.

Single-Use Plastic Bag Collection
The box holds small bags and the crate holds larger bags for us reuse. The round tin stores packaging like toilet paper wrapping or torn plastic bags that we periodically drop off at our grocery market for recycling. Family members put bags in the canister with the “Put Bags Here” sign for later sorting.

When the single-use plastic bag ban came to our town in 2012, it did not affect us because we had already converted to reusable bags.

To help readers facing plastic bag bans in their own towns, I shared our experiences in You Can Live Without Single-Use Plastic Bags – Here’s How and I wrote Kitchen Trash Bags — Green Alternatives about dealing with yucky kitchen garbage.

We also began reusing plastic produce bags and zip-top bags and my spouse made a handy plastic bag drying rack.

Single-Use Plastic Bag Waste Reduction Assessment

For years, we did not bring home disposable grocery shopping bags, did not buy kitchen trash bags, and rarely purchased a box of zip-top bags or plastic cling wrap. Our system seemed to be working. Yet, I was wondering if we really were doing as well as we thought we were in reducing our single-use plastic bag waste and could we do better.

Once I had emptied our plastic bag and packaging collection onto the dining room table, things quickly got out of hand. I found myself scouring the house and garage looking for plastic bags that might not have made it to the laundry room and asking family members if they had any plastic bags tucked away anywhere.

After piling all the plastic bags that I could find on the dining room table, I sorted them into categories and counted them.

Pile of Single-Use Plastic Bags and Packaging on Dining Room Table
I found more single-use plastic bags in our house and garage than I expected.

Of course, the list below is only a snapshot of the plastic bags we had on hand when I did the assessment.

1 – Trash bag (not used)
1 – Seed bag (at 2″ x 4″ this was the smallest bag)
1 – Full-size mattress moving bag (at 54″ x 48″ this was the largest bag)
1 – Extra large bag that had contained a 3D printer
2 – Large rectangular sheets of plastic
5 – 5-pound coffee bean bags
6 – Shipping items (envelope, bubble wrap bag, air packs)
8 – Large bags (big enough for a comforter)
10 – Warranty manual bags (with manuals still in them)
10 – Hotel laundry bags
11 – Food bags that had held things like hamburger buns and spinach
15 – Sheet bags (we reuse to organize clothes and shoes in our luggage)
18 – Produce bags (including zip-top, we reuse these at the market)
19 – Wrappings from things like toilet paper and paper towels
20 – Bags from items bought online like clothes and kayak gear
22 – Shopping bags (mostly for takeout food)
106 – Various size bags that previously held stuff for my spouse’s job
256 – Grand Total

Wow, that is a lot of plastic bags and packaging. Imagine how many plastic bags would have been passing through our house on the way to the dump if we had not been actively trying to reduce plastic bag waste.

Conclusions

First, I had to acknowledge that I had been naive to think we could ever reuse all the single-use plastic bags and packaging coming into our home, even after a massive reduction.

Second, our society definitely has a single-use plastic bag problem. Why does a t-shirt need to be put in a plastic bag before putting it in a plastic shipping envelope or a cardboard box? Who invented freezer burn and do we really need special plastic freezer bags? Why is the default position at most stores to put your purchase in a disposable plastic or paper bag regardless of if it is only one greeting card or a prescription bottle?

Third, I pondered why we were still holding onto the larger bags after more than a decade. Surely, we could have found a use for them or cut them up for other purposes. It was almost as if we were afraid we would never get a large bag again so we needed to hold onto them (for what?).

Lastly, I realized that our highest volume of bags relates to my spouse’s job as a lighting designer who builds prototypes in our garage workshop.  The hardware store in our small town is well stocked but it does not carry all the supplies, materials, and equipment my spouse needs for work. It would be difficult if not impossible to stop the flow of these bags into our garage.

Next, my spouse and I discussed what we could and should do to decrease our single-use plastic bag waste further.

Plastic Bag Reduction Challenge Round Two

Reusing a bag more than once does not wipe out its environmental footprint but it does decrease it and reduces the need for new bags.

To solve the out of sight out of mind problem, we decided to store all plastic bags and packaging in easy to access places in our kitchen and adjoining laundry room. I think any centralized place would work as long as your family members know where it is.

My spouse and I divided the hotel laundry bags and put them in our suitcases so that we will stop collecting new bags. When these bags wear out, we can switch to pillowcases or bags we already have on hand.

I put one of the big plastic sheets in each of our cars so it would already be there when we need to transport something dirty or wet.

To force us to reuse bags I cleared out our small supply of new plastic bags and packaging from a kitchen drawer and put them in the back of a cupboard in the laundry room. This included a box of sandwich bags, a box of freezer bags, and a roll of cling wrap. I filled the drawer with clean bags that had already held food or with other bags that I had washed out with soapy water and dried on my plastic bag dryer.

These are small incremental steps but imagine the positive impact you, me, and everyone else could have if we all cut our single-use plastic bag waste.

Now it is your turn to do your own single-use plastic bag waste reduction challenge.

Featured Image at Top: Earth Globe Inside a Single-Use Plastic Bag – Photo Credit iStock/Irina Krolevetc.

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