There’s no doubt that the waste generated by packaging materials is a tremendous problem. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging made up about 82.2 million tons, or 28.1%, of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018. Of that, just 37% was recycled.
Worse still, plastic makes up an increasing share of packaging waste, and it’s also the least likely packaging material to be recycled, with nearly 70% of plastic containers and packaging ending up in landfills. This makes sense given that so many foods these days are sold in plastic bags, packets, or wrappers (also known as soft plastics), which are difficult to recycle. These items generally aren’t accepted in curbside recycling bins and have to be taken to designated locations for recycling.
When you think about it, it’s actually pretty silly to buy a bunch of packaging, recyclable or not, when all you really want is the product inside it. The lifespan of most packaging portioned for consumers is extremely short. It’s really only needed for transporting items from the store to your home. By replacing single-use packaging with reusable alternatives, we could save a lot of waste from ending up in landfills.
This is where refilling your own containers from bulk bins comes in. By buying from bulk bins (not to be confused with buying in bulk), you can significantly reduce the amount of trash you generate. Shopping from bulk bins is often cheaper, too, because you’re not paying for packaging or branding, and you can buy the exact quantity you need, which reduces food waste.
To be clear, even though shopping this way is “zero waste” for you as a consumer, since it eliminates the waste that you would otherwise produce when you dispose of a package, it’s not technically “zero waste” in the grand scheme of things since the product is stored and transported to the retailer in some sort of package. Still, packaging a large quantity of almonds to transport to a store generates significantly less waste that packaging smaller quantities of almonds for individual consumers.
I’ve been shopping from bulk bins for a few years now, and whenever I share photos of the grains, beans, and other pantry staples that I buy in reusable jars, people always ask how I do it. Shopping from bulk bins with your own containers is actually quite easy, but it can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before. This is why I decided to create a step-by-step guide describing exactly how I shop from bulk bins. Other people may have different methods, but this is what works for me.
What You’ll Need
You can use pretty much any container you want to shop from bulk bins, but I prefer to use glass jars or cotton bags. Both are durable, easy to clean, and plastic-free. The advantage to using jars is that they can go straight from your shopping bag to the pantry. If you use cotton bags, on the other hand, you’ll need to transfer the contents into airtight containers for longer-term storage.
Using glass jars also doesn’t require you to buy anything new since you can clean and reuse the ones that food already comes in, such as pasta sauce, peanut butter, and salsa jars. It can be helpful to have several identical jars that all weigh the same amount, so that you don’t have to weigh every single one, although this certainly isn’t required.
I also like to use a reusable wine tote bag to carry my jars. Most jars fit easily into the slots without sliding around too much. I went bulk shopping many times before I figured out that wine totes are the perfect way to transport jars, so again, it’s definitely not required, but it does make the process a little easier.
Where to Shop
I’ve found that local, independent grocery stores are by far the best places to shop from bulk bins. It took some searching, but I was able find a small, local store about 25 minutes away from where I live. It’s too far to go every week, but it’s close enough that I can go once every month or two. My local store is part of the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association (INFRA), which includes more than 400 stores around the US. You can visit their website to find an independent grocery store near you.
Another great resource is the Bulk Locator App from Zero Waste Home, which helps you find bulk locations across a variety of categories in the US and Canada.
Even before the pandemic, I tried shopping from bulk bins at large chain stores, such as Whole Foods, but I found them to be pretty hit or miss. The Whole Foods near me wouldn’t let me use my own containers, but I’ve been to other locations that had no problem with it. In a post-pandemic world, many stores have done away with their bulk sections altogether, even though more than 125 experts from 19 countries agreed in a joint statement that reusable containers are safe to use during COVID-19.
Luckily, my go-to local store still has its bulk section, with the only change being that customers are required to ask an employee for help filling up from the bins rather than doing it themselves. It takes a little longer this way, but I’m happy that I can still shop with minimal waste.
What To Do
1. Call around to the stores in your area to see which one(s) will actually let you bring in your reusable containers to fill up. Don’t skip this step unless you’re certain the store is okay with it! This will save you time, gas, and potentially disappointment.
2. Bring your clean containers to the customer service area (if the store has one), or to the front register, and ask the cashier to weigh your empty containers to obtain the tare (pronounced like “tear a piece of paper”). The tare is the base weight of the container before you put anything in it. The cashier will subtract this amount from the total weight of the container after the food has been added. This ensures that you only pay for the weight of the food, not the container.
You can ask the cashier to write the tare on each container in permanent marker, or you can record it on your phone if you don’t want to write on the container itself. I’ve also seen some stores use designated stickers for this purpose. If you’re using super lightweight cotton bags, you might not bother weighing them in advance since the tare will be negligible.
3. Fill the containers with your chosen items. If the items have a PLU or bin code number, be sure to write this down. If you plan to reuse the same containers for the same items, you can write it directly on the container, or you can record it on your phone.
4. When you’re ready to check out, hand over your jars to the cashier and ask them to weigh the filled jars, making sure they remember to subtract the tare. My store doesn’t use PLU/bin codes, so I usually give the jars to the cashier one at a time and tell them the name of each item, i.e., “organic quinoa,” or “Swiss-style muesli.” It does take a little longer than when the cashier only has to scan pre-packaged items, so I try to let other people go in front of me if they are only buying a few things.
5. Bring your items home, and enjoy! If you used cotton bags, don’t forget to decant your food into airtight jars or Tupperware-style containers before putting them away.
Shopping from bulk bins couldn’t be easier, so if you’ve never tried it before, and you have a store near you that allows you to fill your own containers, I definitely recommend trying it out. Everyone feels awkward the first time they shop this way, but I promise that feeling will pass!
If you don’t have a bulk store near you, or if bulk shopping has been suspended in your area because of the pandemic, don’t forget to check again at a later date because more and more refill stores are popping up all the time. Personally, I’ve never had access to bulk shampoo, conditioner, and body care products near me before, but I recently read about a local store that’s planning to offer these items soon!
Finally, even if you do have access to a bulk or refill store, this way of shopping may not work for everyone. People with Celiac disease, for example, shouldn’t buy food from bulk bins due to the risk of cross-contamination. Fortunately, there are many, many other ways to help the planet. Eating less meat, composting, and growing your own food are just a few things you can do, regardless of where you live.