Avoiding packaged foods is great for the environment as well as your health and your wallet. I focus on whole, unprocessed foods, primarily shopping in the bulk section and produce section. Prior to my sustainable journey, I used to do a sweep of the snack aisle before checking out. I’d pick up impulse buys like chips and green pea crisps. Now I don’t buy those, which saves me money and helps me focus on healthier buys. I opt for rice snacks and whole wheat oat nuggets from the bulk section.
- Shop in the bulk section where you can buy foods without packaging
- Don’t use plastic bags provided for bulk items and produce
- Come to the grocery store prepared with supplies (see list below). Keep some in your trunk, for convenience.
- Bring a grocery list
- If you must buy something in packaging, choose the product with more sustainable packaging. It’s better to buy in glass or tin than plastic. For example, one of my packaged vices is Earth Balance buttery sticks, which is my go-to vegan butter. I used to buy it in hard plastic packaging, but have since switched to their baking sticks since they’re packaged in a paper box (the stick wrappers are landfill though, unfortunately). I've been eyeing recipes for homemade vegan butter and hope to make some soon.
Bulk Shopping: Benefits
- No packaging. It does ship to the store in packaging, but it uses far less packaging than individually wrapped products.
- Less food waste. Only buy what you need. Less chance for food expiring before you use it.
- Generally cheaper, especially spices. I've heard that about 15% of an item's cost is for the packaging, so with bulk you don't have to pay that.
- You get to choose what it’s stored in. Store it in your own safe, plastic-free containers to avoid plastic chemicals leaching into your food (granted, it probably came from a plastic bulk bin, but hey…I assume it’s still an improvement). Also, can I say it's beautiful? Seeing a pantry full of label-free glass jars is very appealing. Zero wasting makes a jar lady out of anyone.
- Generally, bulk items are essential foods and there’s less junk food. Sure, some stores do carry bulk candies and chocolates and those are lovely as an occasional treat. But, if you focus on bulk shopping, you’ll find there’s less temptation since there aren’t easy to grab bags of potato chips, packaged cookies, etc.
Bulk Shopping: Supplies
- Glass jars (Mason jars, reused packaged food jars, thrifted jars, etc.). Glass is ideal because they’re see-through and don’t leach chemicals (unlike plastic!). P.S. If they stink, clean them with vinegar.
- Bulk bags (ideally unbleached cotton)
- Reusable shopping bags
Bulk Shopping: How?
I get this question often while I’m shopping bulk section. The vast majority of people I see shopping in bulk use the plastic bags provided by the store. It’s a shame that more people don’t know about using their own containers. Here’s how it works (although note it differs by store):
Finding stores that sell bulk items
Shopping in bulk is so satisfying. But it can be frustrating at times. Shopping in bulk, with your own containers, isn’t mainstream enough yet so some stores aren’t equipped to streamline the process. There’s one grocery store I avoid because although they have a decent bulk section, all their cashiers look at me with a blank stare when I ask for a tare weight, and it takes a lot of waiting around each time for them to figure out how to ring up jars. Explaining it each time is a drain, and I happen to have other stores within a convenient distance so I choose those instead because their employees are better trained in bulk shopping. Find stores that make it easy for you to shop in bulk. Unsure what stores offer bulk items in your area? Here’s a directory. Be gentle with yourself—it’s a learning process to figure out what is sold in bulk at various stores. And if there aren’t any stores nearby, consider other ways to reduce your waste.
Choosing jars vs. bulk bags
I use these fairly interchangeably. I vastly prefer using jars when possible because it makes it very easy to put the groceries away when I get home. I don’t have to search for jars that magically fit the bulk contents; it is already done! I also prefer jars for sticky bulk items, like raisins and dates. It’s super gross when raisins stick to the sides of a bulk bag. Bulk bags though, are very convenient since they take up so little space. You can fit like 10 of them in your fist! They’re great for bigger quantities of things, like cereal or oats. I have bigger containers for that stuff at home that I don’t want to lug to the store.
Using jars (or any other hard container)
- Bring your clean jars to the store
- Go to the cashier to weigh your jars. This is called the tare weight. This lets the store know how much your jars weigh so you can get that amount subtracted from the total weight when you check out with your goodies. They’ll put a sticker or piece of masking tape on the jar with a handwritten weight. At some stores, such as Whole Foods, they do this at the Customer Service counter. At other stores, you have to wait in the normal checkout line (grr) or you can get it weighted by the bulk employees (the best—♥ Berkeley Bowl!).
- Fill your jars. It’s easy to fill jars with bins that have scoops. I typically angle the scoop as I pour, to create a narrow pour. If you want to get something into a jar from one of the overhead pull-spout containers, you can first dump it into a bulk bag then pour it into a jar from the bag.
- Write the number on the jar somewhere, like on the tare weight label. Some people use grease pencils and write directly on the jar. I haven’t tried that yet, but I’d like to. Less waste!
- At some stores, you need to get the jar re-weighed at the bulk counter where they print the official new label with a barcode. At other stores, the cashier handles that part. That's it, you're done!
Using bulk bags
- Bring your bags to the store
- Fill ‘em up
- Get a twist tie and write the number of the bulk item. I’d like to find a reusable solution for this part, but I haven’t yet. For now, I re-use the same tie by saving it after each grocery trip, crossing out the old number, and adding a new number to the empty space. I typically get about 8 uses from a single tie.
- Check out. When I use bulk bags, I don’t fuss with getting the bag weighed. It’s so light that it’s negligible. Some nice bulk bags are considerate enough to print the tare weight on a tag. I don’t have those kind unfortunately, but if you do then you can ask the cashier to subtract that weight. Otherwise, you can deal with the few cents extra the non-tare weighted bag costs you to buy oats. However, if you’re buying something that costs a lot per weight, I suggest using a tare weight for sure!
I used to think that every single vegetable needed to be in its own plastic bag. This seems absurd to me now. The veggies come out of the dirt, get handled by several workers, and get fondled by countless grocery store employees and shoppers. Why is a sterile bag needed by the time it gets to me? I put produce in my grocery cart as-is, without a bag. If it still icks you out, you can use produce bags (ideally unbleached cotton).
- Choose produce that’s not already wrapped in plastic. Some stores are worse about this than others (Trader Joe’s).
- Avoid cherry tomatoes and berries in plastic clamshell packaging. Stores are starting to carry these in cardboard boxes; choose those!
- Shop at your local farmers market to get seasonal, nearby produce. This cuts down on the amount of transportation needed (= environmental damage). Also, you can get produce without stickers (unlike grocery stores). Most produce stickers contain plastic and aren’t compostable. Farmers markets are my favorite way to buy berries, which are hard to find without packaging.
- Understand that imperfection is inevitable. Depending on what’s available in your area, your budget, time, etc. you’ll probably end up buying something with plastic packaging. Sometimes it comes down to a tradeoff—your health vs. the environment. There have been times I opt for frozen berries in plastic bags since there aren’t any fresh berries in cardboard packaging and I really want those antioxidants.
Some of my cooking utensils were plastic. After learning about the chemicals in plastic, and becoming concerned about them potentially leeching into my food, I opted to replace mine with bamboo ones.