Shopping from bulk food or bulk bin stores is an excellent way to avoid a lot of single use plastic. It also has other advantages such as being able to buy just the quantity of food you need. If you have access to one, and they seem to be popping up in many cities and large towns now, I encourage you to check them out and consider changing your shopping habit to take them in.
I am lucky that I have two bulk food stores near our home, both part of a chains which have lots of stores around Australia. They are The Source and Naked Foods. I have to admit, however, it has taken me a while to start shopping at them. In today’s post I want to explore why that was and why I am trying to change my ways.
Barriers to bulk shopping
Not knowing how
The first thing that held me back from shopping at our local bulk food stores is that I didn’t know how to it and felt awkward about it. My awkwardness was completely irrational because of course the shop staff wanted to welcome me and help me shop from them! I ventured in several times first up just to buy a few of the loose chocolates available (they have paper bags to collect the produce). This did give me confidence to step out of my comfort zone and eventually ask about how to use my own containers. They were, of course, very friendly and helpful.
Another factor that held me back was cost. I had hoped that bulk food would be cheaper since the retailer bought it in bulk and it did not need packaging. That isn’t the case, however, at my local which is a standard retail operation. Another model such as a cooperative may offer savings.
I had to weigh up to what extent I was prepared to pay more in support of my environmental values. More on that below.
Not having a system in place
Essentially, it was simply more convenient and familiar to shop as I always had. I needed to make an effort to work bulk shopping into my routine, including making, sourcing or repurposing containers to use for collection.
The Advantages – Why it was worth overcoming the barriers
The huge advantage for us of buying from the bulk store, as we try and eliminate the plastic streaming into our house, is purchasing our staples package free. Even though we now recycle soft plastic grocery packaging, recycling is not the ultimate solution – a topic I will cover in another post. For me, the first line of defence is to not buy plastic packaged goods and the bulk store makes that possible.
Buy what you need
I love that, at the bulk store, I can measure out and buy exactly the amount of an item that I need. If a recipe calls for 375g of freekeh, I can buy 375g of freekeh and not a 500g packet. Yay to no food waste!
Reuse your containers
Even though paper bags are provided at the bulk store to buy goods, they encourage customers to bring their own reusable containers. They might be plastic ‘Tupperware’, glass jars or cloth bags – it doesn’t matter so long as it is clean and fit for the purpose. When I enter the shop, I take my containers to the checkout so they can be weighed and the weight recorded on the container. My shop writes on a piece of tape and sticks it to the container but to avoid this small amount of waste too, you can write the weight on the container with wax crayon or permanent marker.
I fill the containers with the product I need, note down the product code and when I return to the checkout, the weight of my container is deducted from the total weight so I only pay for the product inside.
Although my motivation to shop at the bulk store is mainly around shopping with zero waste, many of the stock at my local bulk food stores are organic products which is an added bonus.
Waste free snacks
In my bin audit, snack wrappers were a significant component of our waste. My bulk foods store has a wide selection of sweet and savoury snacks available for me to buy wrapper-free.
The Disadvantages – and how I rationalise them
Yes, the cost by weight of the goods at the bulk store is usually more expensive than the supermarket alternatives but I still intend to shop there. Wanting to stick to our food budget, however, for the time being I will probably only buy products that I’d normally buy in plastic from the bulk store and buy, for example, flour packaged in paper at the supermarket. I also hope that, in the long run, the reduction in food waste by shopping this way will bring savings. And, in the process of greening up our lives more generally, I hope to find savings that will balance out spending a little more on some products at the bulk store.
Range of products
My bulk stores pack a lot into a relatively (compared to a supermarket) retail space but they don’t stock everything which means my shopping trips are now broken up into different shops. I don’t really mind that. For me the benefits outweigh the inconvenience and I have a routine that works for us but I can see that it might bother someone else.
All-in-all, I encourage you to search out a bulk food store near you and investigate if shopping this way would suit your family. If you do shop in bulk now, what have been your discoveries? What is your routine? Tell me in the comments below.