What does “bulk” mean, anyway?
No, it’s not just the sound someone makes when they are ill. And we’re not talking about Costco sized pallets of peanut butter pretzels: 5 barrels for $12. That’s wholesale, not bulk.
In zero waste terms, bulk food means totally package free. Maybe you’ve seen bulk stores or a bulk aisle in a grocery store now and again. You can identify it by the wide variety of dry foods, anything from dried beans to all-purpose flour, stacked in bins, ready for you pour into bags and purchase.
When I was a kid, these didn’t exist. In many towns, they still don’t. But they’re slowly becoming more common, so let’s learn how to master them, because they are highly conducive to living a zero waste lifestyle. Why? Because they are not only free of plastic packaging, they’re free of packaging all together!
So first things first, a big fat rule number 1.
RULE NUMBER 1:
Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT use their plastic bags to fill bulk items with. This literally defeats the entire purpose of shopping package free. No, no, no. Go home and get your bags and come back. You naughty little Sasquatch.
And I hope that if you do happen to forget your bags, you DO go home and get them, and in that annoying process, it drills the message home that you cannot leave your house empty-handed. Be prepared!
This is me sloooooowly pouring pistachios into a bag because I wasn’t sure if he was recording yet or not.
Rule Number 2:
This is more of a strong suggestion, but I still highly recommend it:
Make a virtual list (e-mail, text, note app, etc.) and stick to it. Don’t be tempted by items you might not normally eat just because it looks interesting. If you want to be adventurous, just buy a little, and make sure you actually like it. For example, don’t buy Azuki beans just because they’re bright red and pretty. If they’re just going to sit around forever, that’s just an edible decoration. Why waste the kitchen space? More importantly, why waste the food?
Having a list makes sure you don’t forget any items. Why is that important? Well, if you forget the buy sugar, and you really needed it that night, you might be tempted to run to a corner store or someplace more convenient and end up having to buy packaging. Maybe that sugar was packaged in paper. Great. But there’s a good chance it’s now going to be packaged in single-use plastic, that’s not recyclable, and hey guess what, you probably just paid double for that sugar versus the bulk brand, which is usually almost half the cost of packaged sugar.
In fact, you’d be amazed at how much you will save buying bulk. Then you will be appalled by how much you were spending on single-use packaging materials. Literally pieces of trash that you pay for, and then pay to dispose of.
Rule Number 3:
This is also just a strong suggestion. Excluding the bulk aisle, which can sometimes just be a section somewhere near the produce area in a grocery store, only shop the perimeter of the store. So try to avoid the center aisles.
Why? Well, that’s where you’ll find the most packaged…everything, food, cleaning supplies, you name it. That’s also where you’ll find the most processed food: sodas, snack bars, bags of chips, sugary concentrated juice, and the worst of them all: shelf stable packaging, AKA tetrapaks:
If you’ve ever seen a carton of soy milk or even regular milk on a shelf outside of a refrigerator, it’s most likely in a tetrapak.
Think of the Horizon’s brand milk cartons, or even cartons of soups or soup stocks. These cartons are notoriously hard to recycle and most recycling facilities simply cannot process them. Why? Because they’re made of a combination of foil, plastic, and paper that is really difficult to separate.
Supplies to consider:
Bulk Bags/Produce Bags:
These work best in place of plastic bags for both fruit, vegetables, and dry bulk ingredients, anything from dried beans to even flour. The flour process can be a bit dusty, and I feel like you end up wasting a bit more residual flour powder than you would if you used a mason jar, but it’s up to you. I’ve used both. Just make sure to tie the cotton bag tight so it doesn’t spill everywhere.
For produce, mesh bags work wonderfully.
These bags are available virtually everywhere. You might have even gotten a gift packaged in one of these cute tote bags. If it works, use it! Cotton or hemp bags are preferable. See if your supermarket already carries them. Otherwise, you can easily make some with a bit of time and craftiness. But as a last resort, you can certainly find many options online. Conveniently, some of these bags have the tare weight already indicated on the bag.
100% Organic Cotton Reusable Produce Bags (mesh)
Reusable Organic Cotton Mesh/Produce Bags (Set of 9) Large, Medium and Small
Better for flours/sugars/powders:
Cotton Muslin Drawstring Bags 6-Pack (different sizes)
Jars might be the preferred way to fill the above mentioned flours… anything from all purpose flour to coconut flour, or even bulk sugars. For seasonings, which is more expensive by weight, I recommend smaller pre-weighed jars. Or even re-using old spice jars, just make sure you take the labels off before arriving at the store to avoid confusion. If you don’t have a scale at home, weigh the jars in on the scale in the store, and use the glass marker to write the weights visibly on the top of the jar or bag, this will help the cashier tare the weight quickly.
Don’t let our zero waste habits hold up the line!
Of course, if you’re using tote bags, and the weight doesn’t matter, say you’re buying 5 bananas that are priced by the item, not weight. Or say taring this one item is so nominal it doesn’t really matter to you. If that’s the case, I don’t require carrying a glass pencil at all.
And I’ll show you how I write down the PLU (the product number the cashier punches in to ring you up – they’re printed on each bulk bin) in just a second!Where do you get these jars? Craft stores, grocery stores, even second hand stores will have a surprising supply of jars. Just keep checking.
Of course, the best thing to do is to reuse jars. Buy a big mason jar of glass pickles and save the jar, same with peanut butter. We are trying to avoid buying plastic items anyway. So if you can buy your food in glass jars, boom, now you have a glass jar. I mean, once you finish all the peanut butter. Or pickles.
To read the pros and cons of various jar labeling options, check out this post: Labeling Jars and Containers
Glass pencils –
these are generally available both package-free (sold individually) or sold in a paper box at craft stores. I’ve found them at Michael’s and A.C. Moore. However, if you aren’t having any luck, they’re also available online as a last resort.These are the pencils I recommend using for mason jars in place of say, buying a new set of plastic sharpies.
Pencils for Glass, Cellophane, Vinyl, Metal
Glass pencils are a great way to temporarily label jars. They take a bit of elbow grease to smudge off, but are more environmentally friendly, and less permanent than sharpies. Label makers look nice, but there’s nothing zero waste about them. The labels themselves are plastic, they lose their stickiness in the wash and fall off and then have to go to landfill. The cartridges the labels are stored in are wrapped in plastic film, the labels print out on a plastic backing that gets peeled off and tossed, and the cartridges are, yes, non-recyclable plastic. If you already have a label maker and labels, you might as well use them, but I don’t recommend buying these products. They create a lot of landfill waste.
Where do you write the food item number?
SKU, PLUs, barcodes, whatever you want to call them…. these are the printed numbers outside each bulk bin that the cashier will punch in to ring up your purchases. Of course, stores provide tags and pencils to label these items, just as they provide flimsy plastic bags for your bulk food. But all these items are unnecessary and just create waste. Instead, I suggest using your phone. Utilize some variation of Note-pad App, or even open a text or email and write the PLU number and short hand description of the item:
You can also just take a picture of the item code and show it to the cashier.
If that’s not an option try using a scrap piece of paper, or even some old mail. Just try to avoid using new materials, like a fresh piece of paper, just for this purpose.
Now, when you get to the cashier, you can confidently and quickly read off the numbers as they scan each bag.
They will look nervous at first, thinking that they’re going to have to fumble through that big binder looking for the code because they don’t see it written on a tag. Just flash them a confident smile and before they panic, say “Raw almonds, 60897.”
They will breathe a sigh of relief. They will often thank you. You can say “I gotchu.” or “I am efficient.” And they’ll probably high five you and tell you your hair looks amazing today.
By the way, your hair looks amazing today.
What would be the point of spending all this time buying bulk food and loose produce in reusable totes only to have the cashier package them all in a $0.25 paper bag or *gasp* a plastic bag. I don’t care if it’s thicker plastic and says its recyclable. Trust me, it’s not. It’s not sustainable.
Don’t fall for it!
All this effort will be in vain if you don’t carry a reusable bag – or realistically, several. These need to be in your possession when you shop, always. Make it a habit.
No. Make it an addiction.
If you can remember your keys, wallet, and cell phone, you can remember a reusable bag.I can confidentially say almost every supermarket will carry reusable bags for sale. They’re often stationed at the checkout counter just in case you forgot and need one in a pinch.
Of course, some are better than others. Some are flimsy and made of plastic. You usually pay for quality, so don’t be lured by a $1.00 reusable bag with a cute picture. If it only lasts two trips and breaks, that’s not zero waste.If your struggling to find sturdy bags from sustainable materials.
I recommend these 100% reusable cotton totes:
Organic Cotton Reusable Grocery Shopping Bag
Where to buy in bulk in the Bay Area
section written by Stephanie @fillgood.co for the Plastic-Free Challenge
(picture credit: Wastelandrebel)
Rainbow Grocery (San Francisco): the best bulk shopping place ever, you can find almost everything over there! I only go a couple of times a year though, it’s too far for regular grocery shopping.
Berkeley Bowl (2 locations in Berkeley): large choice, including some skincare/haircare products. There’s not enough organic food in bulk though.
Whole Foods: I believe all locations have a bulk corner. Mainly dry fruits, cereals, sweets. No liquids, no non-food products.
El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company / Berkeley Natural Grocery Company: great selection of organic bulk food, more in El Cerrito than in Berkeley. This is my favorite place to shop: they have a local olive oil, vinegar, honey, peanut butter in bulk. They even accept containers for meat and fish.
Monterey Market (Berkeley): large bulk section but they don’t accept jars and bottles. Bags only and they don’t take into account bag’s weight.
Andronicos (Berkeley): I don’t go often but they have a pretty large bulk corner. Mainly dry fruits, cereals, sweets.
Sprouts (Albany, San Jose): same kind of bulk corner as Andronicos.
For a list of bulk stores throughout California check out:
California Bulk, Zero Waste, and Refill Stores List!
helpful and on point, thank you
I m going to open my zero waste store in Pakistan but i need the storage jars which u are using in shop.
Kindly give me some advise and also recommend me the supplier for this.
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Great question. To be truly zero waste, and to save some money, try to use containers or cloth bags you already have. A cleaned out peanut butter jar, pasta sauce jar, or mason jar… just as long as it has a lid that can seal. It’s a good idea to weigh the jars before filling them and write that weight on the lid so the cashier an tare the weight off the total amount appropriately. If you are interested, I have a video with some more bulk food shopping tips here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEBYO4j7BPo
Hope this helps!