When I talk about buying in bulk, I’m not talking about huge containers of dried oregano from Costco or massive bags of chips. I am talking about this…
Rows of bins containing pasta, beans, grains, flour, sugar, chips, dried fruit, cereal, and sometimes tofu, peanut butter, olive oil, and personal care products like shampoo or soap, from which you can fill up your own reusable bags and containers, eliminating packaging waste. Last Week, Chicago blogger Jeanne from Life Less Plastic wrote about being envious of San Francisco Bay Area stores that provide so many of these bulk options.
But even here in the Bay Area, we could use more bulk options. Just this week, I wrote to a co-president at Whole Foods asking that they expand their bulk section to match some of the other bulk food stores in the region. (I asked, of course, for my own selfish reasons. Whole Foods is closer to me than Berkeley Bowl, the king of bulk in the East Bay.)
And then I got to thinking… if Whole Foods did expand their bulk offerings, would shoppers buy? And would they bring their own containers and bags? We have such opportunities to live with less packaging out here, and yet I still see so many customers buying their granola in boxes (with plastic inside) or choosing olives in a jar vs. the olive bar or plastic bags of dried fruit. And of the folks I see buying from the bulk bins, most are taking new plastic bags each time rather than bringing their own reusable bags or containers from home. Why is this?
Two reasons come to mind. The first is convenience. Bringing your own containers requires forethought. You have to plan your shopping trip and bring the appropriate containers with you. One woman I met at Berkeley Bowl had an ingenious system. She told me all about her “plastic bag file” in which she files her plastic bags in alphabetical order (based on what product she puts in that bag) and brings the same bags back to the store to refill with the same product each time. That way, she doesn’t have to wash them as often. For instance, why rinse out her white flour bag when she’s just going to refill it with white flour each time? I’ve started a version of this, keeping the labels on my glass jars and bringing them back for prunes, trail mix, couscous, etc.
Well, this washing or lack of washing brings me to the second reason consumers might avoid bulk bins… the perception that they are not sanitary. Some bins are located up high and have an opening on the bottom, under which you hold your bag or container to catch the food as it runs out. These are probably the most hygienic since human hands never touch the food in the bin. But the bins lower down are another matter. These are the ones where you measure out your portion with a big scoop or tongs, and into which you could stick your whole hand if you wanted to. And I think these are the ones that freak some people out.
I’m not really worried. Certainly not about food that is going to be cooked anyway. Dry pasta? Rice? Beans? Go ahead and run your grubby hands all over them. They’re going to be boiled! But what about my prunes? Not going to cook them. And not going to wash them as I would fresh produce. I guess I just choose to assume most people will be responsible, and I don’t worry about it too much. Should I? I’m not the best example of health, what with all the illnesses I’ve picked up this last winter, but I attribute those more to lack of sleep and burning the candle at both ends than buying food from bulk bins.
What do you think?
Do you have these kinds of options for buying with less packaging in your area? Have you checked to see what’s available?
If you do have some bulk bins available, do you use them? Why or why not?
If you do, do you bring your own bags or containers? Why or why not?
I’d love to be able to ask for more options in bulk, but it won’t happen if we don’t support them.