So, you’ve made the decision to transition to a low-waste lifestyle. You’ve made a few swaps in your kitchen, in your bathroom, and now it’s time to brave the outdoor world and try your hand at bulk shopping. But where to start and what if there’s no bulk shopping store around you? Let’s explore.
Note: Since the outbreak of COVID-19 some stores have closed down their bulk sections and/or are no longer permitting customers to bring/use their own reusable shopping bags. I recommend calling stores ahead of time to get more info on their store policies and to find out when it may be safe to resume bulk shopping. If bulk shopping isn’t currently an option, don’t sweat it. I share some practical tips you can implement to help make your grocery shopping experience more eco-friendly regardless of whether or not you can bulk shop.
Where to bulk shop:
In a perfect world you’d live right next to a zero-waste bulk store. The reality for most of us of course isn’t that perfect. In fact, if you’re living in the middle of North Dakota finding a bulk store may not even be possible. But fear not, there are ways to shop more sustainably even if there’s no bulk store around for miles. Keep reading.
Find a bulk store in your area:
Ok, so let’s say you’re one of the “lucky” ones who has access to a bulk store. For the record, most stores aren’t completely 100% bulk. There are of course a few exceptions but, generally speaking, most “bulk” shopping will take place in a “regular” store that also happens to have a bulk section. For example: Whole Foods, Wegman’s, Sprouts, Mom’s, your local co-op, etc.
So how do you bulk shop?
Step 1: Bring your reusable bag/container. I always find it’s easiest to use a reusable canvas/cotton produce bag when I go bulk shopping (I always have about 4-5 on hand). Some people like to bring their own reusable glass or metal containers. That’s completely fine but make sure you weigh your container before using it, i.e. when it’s empty, so you don’t end up paying for your goods + the weight of your container. Basically, either you or the cashier will subtract the weight of your container from the weight of the items you’re purchasing. (If you’re not sure how much your empty reusable container weighs just kindly ask the cashier to weigh it for you before you fill it with goods.)
Step 2: Fill up your produce bag with whatever items you need.
Step 3: Once you fill up your bag/container, look for the price look-up (PLU) number on the bin. Write down the PLU number on your bag/container, sticker provided, etc. This will allow the cashier to look up the item you’re purchasing when she/he checks you out.
It’s important to note here that not all stores will allow you to use your own reusable bags. Generally speaking, it’s becoming more and more common to bring/use your own bags but some stores will require you to use the “provided” containers, etc. I find this to be annoying but, c’est la vie.
Can you bulk shop items like meat and fish or bread?
Again, this depends on the store. Obviously with COVID-19 this is most likely a hard “NO!” but in the future just ask. I’ve found some stores have absolutely no problems with it at all, some will think you’re a bit weird but do it (even if they hesitate), and some are a hard “No!” Remember, do the best you can with what you have. And when in doubt…just ask! People are normally nice. And if they’re not well then you just smother them with kindness (maybe share a few facts about plastic pollution), smile and then walk away. No need to get nasty.
While you may not be able to get everything in bulk, do your best. For instance, most stores will sell rice, grains, oats, flour, nuts, etc. in bulk. Finding a store that sells shampoo and frozen veggies in bulk is a bit harder.
Remember, transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle isn’t about being perfect. It’s about doing the best you can with what you have.
A few tips when you’re checking out.
- Thank the cashier for letting you bring/use your own reusable bags/containers. It’s sometimes a pain for them to have to subtract weight, etc.
- Offer to help them bag your additional items. I find most cashiers appreciate the help with bagging.
The good news is, there are things you can do to shop more sustainably even if there is no bulk store around.
- Shop from the outside in. Meaning, more produce — less packaged goods. Not only will this ensure you’re getting the veggies and fruit you need to be adding to your diet but most likely it will also reduce the amount of plastic packaging you bring home.
- When shopping for fruits and veggies, try to purchase single items rather than bagged items. For example, get 5 single apples instead of the apples bagged in plastic. Also, try to purchase produce that isn’t packaged. This isn’t always possible of course. Items like strawberries, berries, cauliflower, etc. always seem to come prepackaged unless shopping at the farmers market.
- Bring/use your own reusable produce bags rather than using the plastic produce bags offered by the store.
- When buying packaged goods see if you can’t find items that are packaged in glass or aluminum. For instance, instead of buying peanut butter in a plastic jar opt for the peanut butter in the glass jar.
- Ask yourself, can I make this instead of buying it packaged? Not only will this likely be healthier but it will also most likely be cheaper. For example, rather than purchasing store bought hummus buy a can of chickpeas and make the hummus yourself. Or, instead of buying packaged and processed salad dressing, make your own.
- Try to buy seasonal and local whenever possible.
- Shop at your local farmer’s market. The farmers market is a great way to get items that aren’t packaged in plastic. And most farmers/butchers are way more willing to work with you when it comes to using your reusable containers/bags, etc. than grocery stores.
- Find zero-waste/more eco-friendly items. Ok, maybe you can’t get your grains and produce in bulk. Check to see if your store sells shampoo bars, recycled toilet paper, or reusable paper towels.
- Shop online. If it’s in your budget consider shopping for zero-waste items online.
Final tip: Wash your reusable bags as often as possible. I just throw mine in the washer with towels after each use and then air dry them. Reusable bags are great but, as anything that isn’t washed, overtime they do get dirty.