As mentioned in last week’s post, 5 Zero Waste Mantras here are my thoughts and advice for utilizing the bulk food aisle of your local co-op/whole foods/other awesome slightly granola crunchy food shop.
Buying food from the bulk bins using your own containers eliminates any packaging that needs to be thrown away. This is very exciting when/if you’re reducing your household’s waste. I’m not suggesting to ONLY shop in the bulk food aisle but instead finding a balance between packaged and bulk food shopping that fits your lifestyle and household needs.
Buying bulk food has always been a small part of my life, kinda.
Growing up my neighborhood had a small co-op with bulk food bins. I remember my mom getting granola and I loved my rice dream ice creams on a stick. Then my college had a snack shack with bulk candy bins- those gummy strawberry things got me through many an assignment. (Sweet tooth, party of 1!)
When I started food shopping for my own household I would occasionally shop in the bulk food section because it was fun and different (food is my hobby)- but I wasn’t comfortable doing it nor did I ever consider it’s eco-friendly nature.
When we moved to WA last year we lucked out to be close to a PCC which is the co-op on steroids in this area and I adore them, not least for their entire aisle of bulk options. It is here that I’ve spent the last year getting more and more comfortable with buying in bulk as a part of a sustainable daily life. Here’s the advice bit:
Once you’ve found the grocer with the bulk food (not always easy), just start by taking a browse through the available items without feeling pressure to buy anything.
Check the prices and the ingredients, maybe even take notes in your phone or on paper, or take pics for future reference. Think about what size jars you would need for each item- small for spices but larger for flour or rice.
If something sparks your fancy, forgive yourself for using one of the available plastic bags and try it out. You can reuse that plastic bag later if you’re worried about it.
I started with just a few dry goods like quinoa, lentils, and chia. I used my produce bags which worked fine for these dry goods. I eventually amped it up with dried fruit, chocolate covered raisins, and chocolate chips because I had seen them on a previous trip and knew in advance to bring enough bags.
Eventually using my produce bags was more annoying than anything because of the transfer process from bag to storage container at home- chia sticks to muslin and scatters everywhere.
One day I mentioned the chia mess to a kind PCC cashier. They told me that they/cashiers are more than happy to tare weight your empty containers before you fill them.
So I tried it. I brought empty containers and my first stop in the store was the checkout counter to ask for help with tare weights. It still feels odd/backwards BUT the cashiers have always been welcoming and open to the request.
I’ve felt comfortable bringing more and more containers and adding more items to my bulk list purely because I asked for help.
Tare weight is the weight of the empty container, which is noted and subtracted from the weight of a filled container so you only pay for the weight of the food.
Does it feel unusual to bring empty containers to a grocery store and ask a cashier to weigh them for me? A little.
Is it a worthwhile and temporary discomfort knowing that I’m actively reducing my waste by cutting out some packaging from my shopping? ABSO-FREAKING-LUTELY.
I choose to harness and shift any social anxiety I feel about it into an almost superhero power-trip in my mind thinking like “I’m both saving the planet AND feeding my family today, what are you doing?” I (hopefully) don’t act that way outwardly but internally I’m a BAMF.
- Glass or upcycled plastic containers with lids and wide mouths.
- Ball jar dissolvable labels: amazon link (not affiliate)
-Collecting these tools harkens back to last week’s mantras- start by using what you have, perhaps now saving and reusing containers from other items. My vegan protein powder and my green powder come in great sized plastic containers for flour and sugar and oats. I also save my glass spice jars. PCC has a great bulk spice selection that I’m just recently getting into.
The wide mouth on containers is helpful for when you’re scooping from the bulk bin into your container. Before I had those larger plastic containers I brought tupperware containers because they were easiest to scoop into of what I had.
-I love love love the dissolvable labels- I use them on my bulk containers but also for labeling leftovers in the freezer. They very easily wash off containers and full dissolve which is weird science.
-I also tend to use my own pen at the bulk bins whenever possible. There should be a pen available somewhere in the section for you to use if needed. When I see that pen I can’t help but think of that mythbusters episode where they simulated how germs can so easily spread from one person at a table of 5. blegh, I digress…
Buy Only What You Need
No more half bag of wild rice in the back of your pantry leftover from that one recipe but you haven’t used since. If the recipe calls for a cup of wild rice, in the bulk section you only have to buy a cup of wild rice.
This is great for trying new ingredients you’re curious about but its also great for keeping ingredients as fresh as possible in your kitchen.
My most recent additions have been oil, sugars, flour, and spices and it’s so stinking cool to bake knowing that the majority of the ingredients didn’t have any packaging for me to toss.
It took a year for me to fully explore the bulk food aisle- casually browsing what was available while I was there getting my chia and chocolate chips.
Bulk takes marginally longer to shop with tare weights and scooping ingredients but that is outweighed by the BAMF vibes.
All I ask is that you try it out and see how you like it. You are going to buy food one way or the other, so why not have fun with it and actively choose the eco-friendly option?