Grocery shopping is laced with trash; both behind the scenes with what goods get shipped to the store in and also what we take them home in. The good news is that you can have some control over the amount created. The amount will vary greatly depending on where you live and what is accessible to you. The point we’ll try to emphasize here is doing what you can, that fits in with your circumstances, in a way that’s the most sustainable as possible at this time. Start by assessing your situation, then take the action steps provided. I’ve added a bit at the end about how to reduce impact without access to bulk bins, too.
why shop bulk?
Other than the obvious sustainability reasons- voting with your dollar for reusable, buy what you need model of shopping- buying bulk breathes fresh air into your life by simplifying. My pantry used to be crowded to the hilt, plastic packages of all shapes and colors with various quantities of ingredients inside, not sealed tightly, the packaging making it hard to see exactly what I had. I’d often buy something only to realize I still had a half or quarter package of it left in the fridge or pantry- frustrating and wasteful. Here’s my favorite side effects of buying bulk goods and loose produce:
Shopping is more efficient + I avoid impulse buys. Seeing the goods in their whole, natural state (not obscured by packaging) and being able to examine them thoroughly means that I can choose based on taste, quality, freshness, and not by packaging/advertisement.
I save money. On average, bulk bin prices are much less expensive than their packaged counterparts. Packaging cost is often embedded in the price. For example, organic + local rice here costs about $5 in the package, but the same brand and amount in bulk costs $3. There’s also the added benefit of only buying the amount you need- so if you only need a handful of dried cherries for a recipe, you can buy that amount instead of the fixed, more expensive amount in a package.
Buying in bulk saves me time and mental energy. No disposal of packages when I get home, no organizing the pantry, no wrestling with tough to open packages, pantry and fridge is clean, clear and organized- inspiring me to cook and making me feel good and calm in the kitchen.
The ingredients I purchase are fresher. Instead of sitting on the shelf in plastic for who knows how long, bulk ingredients are rotated through quickly. The manager I spoke to at a local store mentioned that they cycle through the bulk bin contents in a few days. Bins are cleaned regularly, a few times a week, with ingredients emptied and bins sanitized with high heat water. They’re required by law to keep the bins clean. Moreover, after bringing them home, they stay fresher longer from being kept in airtight containers instead of folded down plastic packages. I can easily see what I already have on hand through the clear glass. Less waste, more hygienic.
I eat a healthier and more varied diet. I am encouraged to cook with whole, fresh ingredients and make my own food- fresher and avoids contamination from chemicals in packaging, tastes better, no preservatives.
I’ve become a better cook. Not only do I cook with whole ingredients and experiment with making my own foods and products, I can easily cook bulk grains and legumes, make nut butters, nut milks, hummus and the like without much thought since I’m used to doing it regularly.
i. what stores around you offer bulk foods? what are their policies?
Call or explore around to find your spots. It’s good to know where in your town you can get the things you need sans packaging. As much as possible, make these places your hub. If you are in the USA, try using the Zero Waste Home bulk finder at https://app.zerowastehome.com . Otherwise, try calling around to grocery stores in the area, searching online, and searching the Instagram tags for your area ie #zerowastetoronto. Don’t overlook places like international markets, latin supermercados, Korean markets which often have bulk items as well. It can be helpful to also find out the policies of the stores you will purchase from regarding containers. Most all stores allow reusable bags. With reusable jars it can be trickier. Some stores cannot remove the weight of the jar, and some stores flat out refuse jars or containers at all. If they refuse, ask to talk to the manager if you feel comfortable. Explain in a non confrontational way about what you are trying to do (shop using reusable containers to eliminate excess plastic) and that you are bringing in sterilized containers, why shopping this way is important to you (and the planet). Remember that you are the paying customer! You deserve to be heard.
ii. do you have access to a farmers market?
You may have a market that goes year round, part of the year, very small, very big, but if you have any access to a local farmers market I recommend supporting them. Not only is it an excellent way to give back to the community where you live, its also an excellent source for fresh + local foods, often without packaging + stickers. It connects you back to the food cycle, the earth, which is so grounding and beautiful. If you have kids, this is such a rich experience for them to experience. Try googling “ farmers market in” with the name of your town. Take note of the day(s) and time when it runs. If you can’t make the time it’s at, see if a friend or family member might be willing to pick things up for you. Another alternative is searching out and signing up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) box which supplies you with a weekly box of fresh produce and farm offerings.
This week, I’d like you to put into practice what you researched by taking a bulk shopping trip. It doesn’t have to be a large one- it could be as simple as buying bulk chickpeas in your own cloth bag. Here’s how.
i. get your shopping kit ready.
Half the battle here is just getting in the habit to bring reusables with you. For that reason, I like to keep a few multiples of totes and bags stashed away at different places- in my car, in my purse, in my home- so that I (most) always remember. Perhaps also worth mentioning if you’re a person driven by beauty, like me, is that I’ve found it helpful to choose styles and colors of bags and totes that are appealing to me, making me remember and want to use it more- leading to implementing and rooting in these habits faster and easier.
cloth bags for produce + dry bulk bin goods. Either purchase or sew them from excess fabric, old sheets, thrift store fabric. It is useful if you mark the tare weight on these in some way. The ones I use have the tare weights printed on the tags, but you could mark it yourself on the tag with permanent marker, or embroider it onto the bag itself.
plastic shopping bag alternative: a straw tote, a canvas tote, knitted string tote, anything that you will use to put groceries in at checkout instead of a single use bag. I keep a string tote rolled up in my purse or car in case I forget a bag, and generally use my straw tote for everything else as it’s sturdy and large.
glass jars/bottles for wet bulk goods, such as oils, vinegar, nut butters, meat + cheese if you eat them, olive bar. Reuse washed out food jars, thrift canning jars. I like to use canning jars because they have uniform weights, meaning that from the shape/size of the jar, I automatically know the tare weight of the jar off the top of my head and thus I do not need to fuss with weighing the jar beforehand. For example, a quart wide mouthed mason jar has a tare weight of 1. A pint regular mouthed mason jar has a tare weight of .65, and so on.
ii. shop the store
Head out and shop! Gather up your kit and head to the store. If you do not already know the tare weights of your bags and jars, you will need to weigh them at the store. Either: weigh them in the bulk section, if your store has a digital scale for that purpose there, OR head to a cashier, service counter, bakery or deli counter and ask them to weigh the jar for you. You can use a bit of masking tape, a china marker, watercolor crayon, or sticker they give you to mark the tare weight on the container. Record the tare weight in pounds (for the USA), for example: a tare weight of .65 lbs you would record as T = .65 OR tare = .65. Alternatively, you can write it on your phone or next to the corresponding item on your list. Once you’ve gotten the tare weights of your vessels, it’s time to fill them up. When using the bulk bins, be sure to exercise proper hygiene, using utensils provided and trying not to touch your containers/bags to the openings out of courtesy for other shoppers. Don’t forget to write down the bin codes for the items you buy- the easiest way i’ve found is simply to take a picture on my phone. You can also use a watercolor crayon to write it directly on the bag or jar.
For produce items like fruits + vegetables, either put them into your cotton produce bags or place them directly into your cart. If you’re concerned about hygiene, you can bring a tea towel with you to lay down on the bottom of the cart and/or the conveyor belt to place the items onto. I prefer to put smaller items (brussels sprouts, mushrooms, green beans etc) into bags and larger items like lettuces, bunches of greens, squash, directly into the cart.
If you’re purchasing meat or cheese, walk up to the counter, order what you need, then confidently stick out your jar and say, “May I have that in my sterilized jar please?”. You can also say something to the effect of you having a plastic allergy if you feel uncomfortable. If they say they’re not sure, or refuse, you can ask to speak with a manager.
Once you’re finished shopping and are checking out, read off the tare weights and bin codes to the cashier as they ring the corresponding item up (if you haven’t already marked the numbers on the container). Hand over your totes to the bagger (or bag them yourself). Head out of the store and pat yourself on the back. You did it!
iii. shop the market
If you have a farmers market and would like to shop it, it can be a little different to navigate than the store. Take pleasure in being able to connect with the people that grew your food- ask questions, ask about their favorite way to prepare what you’re buying, how much longer a certain item will be in season, how they farm (if they use chemicals, how they take care of soil health, how they pay their workers). What they recommend buying that week. Be open to new things and you will be richly rewarded with new favorites and varieties.
bring your kit of reusable bags and a large tote. If you plan to buy large amounts or are walking to and from, a rolling cart can be very helpful.
bring small bills + quarters to make transactions easier, so that you can give exact change.
if an item is already bagged in plastic, ask if you may put it into your reusable bag and if they can then reuse the plastic bag again.
bring back any berry baskets, rubber bands, egg cartons and such for the farmers to reuse.
iv. if you don’t have access to bulk
If you can’t find any or enough bulk/unpackaged foods in your area, it’s ok. Here’s what you can still do to reduce impact at the grocery store:
use your voice. Reach out kindly in a way that you feel comfortable (email, in person, over the phone) to local stores, asking them to expand or create their bulk offerings. Explain the why’s and the how’s, giving them concrete ways they can take actionable steps to be more sustainable. Try contacting both the branch and the main business. Remember that they exist because of customers (you!) and are probably open to change if they see a demand in the market.
choose the biggest package. One big package is less wasteful than many tiny packages. A bulk buying club, or buying large packages of staples like rice, dry beans, oats etc and then splitting up the product and cost among friends are great options.
avoid individual packaging. Same idea as above, but individual packages are not only wasteful, they’re more expensive. Instead of buying individually wrapped packs of portioned almonds or crackers or yogurt pots, buy it in one large amount instead and then dive it out as needed into reusable containers if you need to take it on the go.
choose sustainable materials. Choose packaging materials that can be recycled, reused, and/or composted. Metal, glass, paper, cloth. If you need to buy something in plastic, try to choose the most recyclable number (check which numbers are accepted in your area).
bring your reusable totes to bag goods and choose loose fruits + veg over prepackaged ones when possible. Sometimes stores have much cheaper prices on prepackaged produce, such as 10 lb. bags of potatoes, or those mesh bags of onions, as a discount for buying a bulk amount. If you feel comfortable, speak with the manager and often they will match the price if you buy the same amount of loose in your own bag.
shop the discount sections. Even though these foods may be wrapped in plastic, by buying discounted foods which are close to their expiry, you’re saving them from the landfill. Food is too precious to be wasted, plastic or not, and food inside landfills creates methane gas pollution.
shop small businesses- ask a taqueria if they will sell you tortillas or salsa or chips in your container, if the local ice cream shop will sell you a pint in your own jar, if the local bakery can sell you a loaf sans bag.