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May 21, 2009

Bulk Bins: If you had them, would you use them?

 

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.
 



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72 comments
Gabi
Gabi

How do you find local stores with bulk bins and eco-friendly packaging? Like you mentioned above, Chicago seems to be completely lacking in this department! I've found a select few stores with bulk bins of very minimal items! Please help!

SC
SC

What about the plastic containers that the stores are getting the bulk items in? When I was at rainbow to get a refill of apple cider vinegar I noticed the large plastic jug it came in and wondered if it wasn't better for my health and the environment to get a smaller glass jar with a plastic cap instead. If I add those jars up the caps equal much less plastic unless the store is shipping back the plastic jugs for refills. Which seems like an expense most businesses would be unlikely to take on. Also dry goods may well be arriving in plastic bags.

Amanda E
Amanda E

Beth, I know this post is really old, but I hope you read my comment... I have a question. If you bring your own jar to the bulk section and fill it, how do they weigh the product for purchase? I would love to take things like my spice jars in and refill them, but I am unsure how this would work. I wish they had more bulk food stores where I live (in Idaho). A couple of stores have them (two that I know of), and although one has good prices, the other one's prices are crazy high and way more than their prepackaged counterpart. Amanda

Christine
Christine

I feel that there must be a way to reduce the risk of cross-contamination in bulk food stores and introducing standards for storage (which hopefully does not involve plastic) . If they can do it for plastic packaging when they're packaging different things in large factories(food must come in bulk in the first place from somewhere, unless there were some plastic-bearing grain or plants that I'm not aware of), they must be able to do it in grocery stores. (Then again, most things are cross-contaminated with allergens even in plastic packaging--Most foods have labels that indicate that they may not be safe for peanut/wheat allergies, and very few say that they are.) As for bad behavior around the bulk bins... I feel that people can learn. We have to have faith in the human capacity to learn. Instead of saying, "oh, no way," it's more productive to think instead, "how can we make this better?" Waste is not an issue only for bulk bin stores, all grocery stores have this problem. They have to plan ahead and figure out how much food they actually need to stock, how long they can stock them, what are the conditions required for storing them safely, and what the demands are, the same goes for restaurants, and every ounce counts. We're not groping in the dark here. We have ALL this accumulated knowledge and science to help us make this happen. People in America seem to feel okay with open bulk vegetable and fruit sections, even though everybody is touching them, and you don't heat them up to eat them. (People touch peaches to see how hard and firm they are so that they can pick the ones with the desired ripeness.) Do people demand that grocery stores package every single vegetable in plastic? (Oh, I shudder at the thought of individually wrapped bananas, and peaches and cherries.) No, because they see other people doing it, and it's the norm. And norms can change, it just depends on how you view it. In Taiwan, housewives prefer open markets not only for fruit and vegetables but for dried noodles, meats, and prepared foods because the quality is better and you get cheaper for more, and they're always full of people. It's not perfect and it can benefit from more standardization (like making the floor less gross, for example) but as it is, it's not the sanitary nightmare that people in America imagine it would be, and we do just fine. You are welcome to bring your containers, the person weighs them for you, and he or she often adds everything in the head, cross-check the amount with the customer, and the customer pays, while the other customers are free to shop around and leave their filled counters at the counter until they're ready to pay. If you think America's supermarkets are busy, Taiwan's population density is way higher, and service clerks service a lot more people in a day. Contamination (like that pig-disease scare I forgot the name of) mostly comes from upstream, when the farms mess it up with their practice of crowding too many livestocks(we have so little space in Taiwan, and landfills are overflowing, why can't we try to free up the landfills?), and(!) in food packaging(finding bugs in the plastic), oh yea, and let's not forget DEHP, the plasticizer that nobody knew was being added to sports drinks and fruit drinks because of the secrecy surrounding the food industry. And why were they adding them? because it was a magically cheaper alternative to another drink additive that the industry add to their packaged drinks so that fruit juices don't have natural condensation at the bottom. If you DON'T KNOW what to test for then you won't find it, for each new compound you have to develop a new indicator that is reliable and shows up most of the time and can be separated from other chemicals. In our case, it took us 20 years before some sharp-eyed inspector realized there were abnormal wavelengths corresponding to the DEHP in the drinks. Usually they just run a test of known chemicals, so nobody ever found out that some OTHER thing was in there. Just imagine the amount of waste that came from taking all this food off the shelves and incinerating them. Some of the foods were innocent in the sense that it was not the manufacturers who deliberately put DEHP in them, but they had unacceptable levels of DEHP due to packaging. Oh, yea, and it's great that because of these food additives, people think fruit juices "naturally" come with neon red coloring and have no condensation of fruit pulps on the bottom and have to be taught to separate something that is really natural from something that has DEHP in it. I'm all for local bulk food stores. I wish they were more widely available in the US.

Daniella
Daniella

Oh, and most of my grocery items are bought from the bulk isle, I always buy from there if I can. On my once a month trip I usually come out with only one (cloth) grocery bag full, it's mostly quinoa, pasta, nuts, some spices, etc.)

Daniella
Daniella

I might have a bulk store "near by" but it's long drive for me (compared to the short walk I usually take...) and it's not in an area I ever go to on even a semi-regular basis. I've never been to this store so I'm not actually sure what it's like and if it's a bulk store like I'm looking for. I would LOVE if I had a bulk store close to me, and I would love it even more if I could take my own containers without having to pay for the weight! Currently I shop at the vegetable store (farmers market in the summer) once a week, and the grocery store once a month or less. I always bring my own bags, I have mesh bags, nylon bags, and cotton bags depending on what I need them for. I used to just toss all my produce on the counter but it was so awkward, especially at the vegetable store, so now I use various bags.

Eco-Vegan Gal
Eco-Vegan Gal

The bulk section is my second favorite part of a market (1st is produce). I wish more stores have bulk options. Rainbow Grocery takes the cake as most impressive bulk selection - I wish all stores were like that!

Jane
Jane

I was delighted yesterday to find all the bulk bins at the Sprouts store and plan to start buying there. I'm very new to the program but VERY excited about it. A friend gave me a copy of Sunset magazine which had an article about Bea Johnson who has a blog called The Zero Waste Home. I've been obsessed with plans to live a greener lifestyle ever since and subsequently found your website too. You are an inspiration! I live with my husband and his dad and that may hold me up a little but buying most staples in bulk is one thing I'm sure I can do. Sprouts stores are springing up all over Colorado and there are two about ten miles from me. I live in a rural area so everything is a distance; I'm used to driving. I didn't see bulk pasta there but maybe Whole Foods has it. I have a few after holiday sewing chores to finish up but then I'm off to buy muslin for making re-useable bags for the bulk flour :-) Happy to be on board!

SGiles
SGiles

If your environmentally conscious, and are searching for a larger-scale bulk container, you should look into RPP Containers. They buy your used bulk containers and container scrap, grind them down and make new, enviromentally friendly containers. Their product is called DuraGreen. I can really appreciate what they are trying to do here!

SGiles
SGiles

If your environmentally conscious, and are searching for a larger-scale bulk container, you should look into RPP Containers. They buy your used bulk containers and container scrap, grind them down and make new, enviromentally friendly containers. Their product is called DuraGreen. I can really appreciate what they are trying to do here! http://www.bulkcontainerrecycling.com/ or http://www.usedbulkcontainers.com

Josefine
Josefine

Oh, I most definitely would use bulk bins if I had them close-by. The only thing I can buy in bulk at a reasonable distance from my home is müsli though, which I use for buying cereal, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and similar. Also many different kinds of nuts are available in bulk bins in almost every store in Sweden, as a part of "Nature's Candy" (freely translated, probably erroneous). I have found a small co-operative business which has several different kinds of beans, rice, quinoa and even sundried tomatoes in bulk bins. Sadly, however, this store is located quite far away from me, approximately four hours of train ride. It is closer to my sister's home, though, and I visit it each time I visit her, stocking up on items available in bulk there. It feels as though this limits my shopping since I cannot do without immense planning, and it is fairly irritating. I have searched in vain for a store offering bulk bins and located closer to me for about six months, but I am very close to giving up. The bulk bin way of shopping is generally considered unsanitary in Sweden, I'd say. Unfortunately. :/

Stefan
Stefan

I use various sizes of light cotton (gauzy cotton fabric) drawstring bags that I sewed myself and bought at our local co-op. Good for a couple of reuses with dry bulk goods and easily washable in the machine whenever necessary. Incredibly convenient--easier than bringing jars or other containers. Keep jars at home and empty cotton bags full of bulk whatever--soy beans, rice, lentils, quinoa--into them as soon as I get back from shopping. No plastic contains my food in the whole process, it feels good, it looks good (unbleached cotton bags full with beans or rice look cool, like grains and legumes in little burlap sacks) and i have nothing to throw away. Ever. Since I started not buying any food that's in packaging and started buying only bulk and fresh food using reusable bags and containers, I've been learning to cook, am getting better and faster, slowly, and am enjoying the hell out of life lately. Regarding sanitary issues, not too concerned. Sometimes I dig at the back of the bin if it seems especially well used, but I don't buy into the market-fueled hysteria for hyper-sterilized conditions that appears especially disproportionate to the risks in this country. I wash my hands regularly and keep all my cooking and eating utensils and living conditions washed and clean, but I don't think Purell is a necessary accoutrement to bulk bin buying. Many don't realize that hyper-sanitary living can actually undermine the immune system which tends to weaken without occasional stimulation. There's also a line of thought that a little bit of dirt in one's food provides probiotic (healthy for beneficial gut bacteria) and mineral benefits most people who eat processed food don't get anymore.

Barbara
Barbara

I am a bulk buying addict. Buying packaged good, particularly whole foods like beans or rice, seems so silly and wasteful, not to mention expensive. It's all about branding and marketing. What I care about it good, whole foods without a lot of waste. However, I just moved to Germany (way up north in Kiel!) and am desperately seeking bulk bins. I lived in France last year and managed to find some at a "bio" market, but here I have yet to see any. Anyone have any suggestions or know of any particular store or type of store in Germany I should look for? Or does anyone have any other ideas? I just can't go back to packaged food... It would break my heart. :-)

therese
therese

wow. that is something we don't have here in norway. i'm madly envious.

Andrea
Andrea

The small health food store near me pre-packages all of its bulk foods into platic bags (i.e. no bins and no option for re-using bins). I have started buying a lot of things by the case through my co-op, such as spaghetti, red lentils, quinoa, green tea, cinnamon, flour, coffee, canned tomatoes, etc. Mainly things I use frequently or a lot of. The interesting thing about doing it this way, is that you get to see where the food comes from (the quinoa is from Bolivia or Argentina, oh my), and you get to see what kind of packaging it came in before it gets transferred to bulk bins at big health food stores, or little baggies at my health food store. Usually this involves a cardboard box with a plastic bag inside. Less plastic than dividing 10 lbs. of spaghetti into 10 one pound bags, but still plastic. Canned tomatoes come on a cardboard flat and then are shrink-wrapped together. The whole co-op order comes wrapped up in yards and yards of cling film, to keep it all together on the truck. Sometimes I buy part of a case, or "split" with other people in the co-op. Depending on what it is and who is doing breakdown, this may get repackaged into paper or plastic. If I'm breaking down, I try to use paper exclusively, hoping to lead by example, and I've been considering a group email to encourage others to do the same.

Allison
Allison

We recently moved from Los Angeles to suburban Philadelphia, and our choices for bulk were better at the gigantic Whole Foods stores we had out in LA. I'm desperately trying to find good and reasonably priced bulk food options in our area. I am envious of your options in NorCal. I love bulk! I'm such a bulk nut that I make my own reusable bulk and vegetable bags, selling them on etsy for a little extra cash on the side.

Green Fundraising
Green Fundraising

I think I have to be honest here and say I steer clear of bulk bins. They really give me the chills along with most buffets. I just don't like other people having access to what I serve my family. Conversely, I don't think most people are like me. I think it would serve others well.

Lara S.
Lara S.

In Argentina we only have bulk bins in health food stores, there you ca get the products you mentioned: many types of beans, rice, flour, nuts, dried fruits, honey, etc. I use the bins as much as I can, and bring my own jars, and I generally get a good response from the employees, but it does demand more attention from them since they have to weigh the jar first in order to get the real weight of product I am buying. A few times it has happened that they didn't want to use my jars, then I just walked out of the store. I really think I'm the only person taking my own container in Argentina, or so it seems to me, but it's ok.About the sanitary aspects of bulk bins: yes, there really can be problems especially when the bulk bins are surrounded by the weather conditions that benefit FUNGI. That is, if the weather you live in is wet (high relative humidity), fungi can grow happily in the bins and create micotoxins. These are toxins which in most cases are resistant to heat and therefore will still be toxic if you boild the food. If you eat food contaminated with these toxins you will have a big nasty diarrhea, nausea, etc. It's not mortal or anything but it is a factor to consider. This information comes from Mycology teacher (University of La Plata, Argentina), she actually warned su about bulk bins, she said that micotoxins had been found in bulk bins by herself during a research. My teacher said bulk bins would be safe only if kept under the right conditions of temperature and humidity - and those conditions were absolutely NOT kept in Argentina's health food stores, where the store's door is always open. So after hearing that, I warned everyone against bulk bins. About 2 years later, the eco-conscious person in me made me go back to bulk bins regardless of possible micotoxins. I have never had any problem so far. Besides, taking my own containers makes me feel great :-)Thanks for the inspiration, Beth!Lara S.

Martin
Martin

So, city folks understand that human hands may have touched many of their food items before they were packaged and put on the shelf, right?I have gotten my sugar from a big open barrel in a shop just up the street. I found a few bits of 'stuff' in theirs, so now I get it down the street where the shopkeeper scoops it out of the 50kg woven polypropylene bag that it is shipped in.

andiscandis
andiscandis

Another problem with the bulk bins: potential allergen contamination.I don't care about germs from hands in the bins. I care about stray almond bits migrating in or peanut dust from the bin's previous contents. I really, REALLY want to buy in bulk, but I also don't want my kid going into anaphylactic shock.I'd be happy if they sold cereal in 20 lb bags like dog food.

Lisa Sharp
Lisa Sharp

I would use them if I had them for sure!!

bpod
bpod

The store I most frequent (I can walk to it) has a small bulk food section. My most common problems are: a) most of the items they carry are not those I want to buy (I don't eat tons of nuts or granola). The one item I do regularly buy (oatmeal) is often sold out. There is a new Whole Foods that's opened up across town and they do have a more extensive selection, they're just not as convenient.I definitely like the idea of buying food in bulk, but just haven't gotten into the habit of trekking across town for what I need.And honestly, I hadn't considered reusing bags for the same foods--what a great idea!

Mary Kay
Mary Kay

I guess I'm lucky because I've always had access to bulk options. When I lived in Portland, OR I shopped at New Seasons. Then, in Davis, CA I shopped at the co-op. Now I live in a suburb of Sacramento and I've gotten out of the habit of buying bulk, but I should do it more often. The Sacramento co-op has lots of bulk options. What I like about the co-ops is that so many people use the bulk bins that the food is rotated a lot. We also have Whole Foods although I don't think that their selection is the best. The grocery stores Raley's and Nugget also have bulk bins, but they are not used as much. We also have a Win Co near my house that has a ton of bulk bins, but I have a hard time shopping there because it is so busy.One way to get around the sanitary concerns is to buy some things in large quantities. The Sacramento co-op sells large quantities of their bulk items (e.g. 20 lb bags used to fill bulk bins). I was thinking about doing this for things that I use a lot: oatmeal, rice, laundry det (they sell Country Save in bulk, which I use to wash all of my laundry, including diapers).

Rosa
Rosa

I forgot to say this: As a very visual person, one of the benefits of buying in bulk is that I use the same containers for the same stuff all the time.So when (for instance) we run out of whole wheat flour, when it's time for me to go to teh store I open up the cupboard and on the shelf of empty containers is my whole wheat flour container, and I put it in my bad and when i get to the coop I know I need whole wheat flour. If we get to the checkout with empty containers, I know I forgot something.I'm not a list person, so this is REALLY helpful for me.

Rosa
Rosa

For the folks looking for glass jars for bulk buying because of moths - metal cookie tins are mothproof, don't break, and don't weigh as much as glass. You have to be a little bit more careful carrying them because the lids just stick on, they don't screw on (i always put the tins of beans in my saddlebags instead of my backpack, or lately in the back of the burley, upright.)Thrift stores often have them, especially after holidays, they come in a variety of sizes from about 2 cups (harry & david's somethign or other) to gigantic popcorn tins. I don't think i've ever paid more than 50 cents for them. We still get meal moths occasionally but if they're in the tins, they don't spread, so we only lose 3 pounds of flour or whatever. You can also kill off meal moths by putting whatever you buy in the freezer for a few weeks - or, here, if I'm buying something in a giant bag I do it in winter and leave it in the garage for a few weeks to freeze good & kill off any insect eggs.

Sweetproserpina
Sweetproserpina

I live in Canada, and just as Stacy mentioned, have this great chain called The Bulk Barn nearby. They have everything, spices, sunflower seed butter, flours, kamut pasta- everything, and we shop there often. Today I finally got up the nerve to ask about bringing my own containers as the cashier double bagged my peanut butter in case it leaked out of their flimsy plastic containers (it would have been so much easier if I could just bring in a jar) and she said the Health officer said 'no way'. I feel like I use so much plastic when I'm there. I wish they had a paper bag option, that would be a bit better. At least we can recycle the bags here though...

Coccinelle
Coccinelle

I have just seen Jill's comment and I can't understand.I was sure your bulk store was a kind of new eco-friendly store.But Jill said that her bulk stores are going away... I mean in my town, bulk in groceries vanished 20 years ago.I was hoping for bulk to reach my town in the future ;o( But now I don't know what to think ;o(

Coccinelle
Coccinelle

I would like to have this option, but sadly, I don't. But I am wondering for children, do the prune bin is accessible for the reach of children? Except for household cleanser. I go about 6-7 miles and I can buy laundry soap, bodywash etc... And they even give you a refund if you brought your own containers! And it's all biodegradable! I love that!! I think it's far for my home but since I just go there 2 or 3 times a year, I think it's ok!

jill
jill

I used to buy the vast majority of my food from the bulk section of several different stores. Last year, however, they smaller stores eliminated the their bulk section entirely and the larger stores have cut their offering by 50 to 70 percent. Most everything is now offered in hard plastic throw away containers or those "convenient" zip lock plastic bags. When I asked,I was told that this is saving the store money from waste and spillage but how can paying help to pack and measure bulk offerings be a savings??I'm thinking that as more people were forced by the ecomony to start cooking from scratch that stores were afraid to appear "to counter culture or hippie commune"for their new shoppers.

simplesavvy
simplesavvy

Would I buy from bulk bins? That's a big no. Amber addressed this a little already, but I don't buy from bulk bins because of cross contamination. I am gluten free, and it's not even the scoops that worry me -- it's that there's no way to guarantee that the bulk bin I'm using this week didn't contain flour last week. And even if they washed it out, gluten is so sticky that I would be doubtful they got everything.It's quite depressing, actually. I started reading FPF about six months ago, and then went gluten free three months ago, and my plastic intake has INCREASED. Most of the gluten-free flours come in small plastic bags, and they sell them in smaller quantities than regular staples. Now if there was a nearby store dedicated to gluten-free food items that installed bulk bins? I'd be right there.

Stacy S
Stacy S

I'm in Canada, and there are indeed Bulk Barns everywhere (2 within a 10 minute drive - although none I can walk to). The problem is they won't let you use your own containers for "sanitary" reasons. They're a franchise, and the managers at both stores say it's policy. The upside is that I reuse the bags and can eventually recycle them in my area - better than the non recyclable packaging from the grocery store. They sell lots of things, every kind of flour, tea, coffee, even honey, p.b. and pie filling (of course you must use their plastic bags/tubs to get it). They carry a line of soap bars called The Soap Works that has no packaging. But still it seems there is plastic everywhere I look...

Billie
Billie

Please, please , please provide more bulk bin shopping. I live in the Northern Virginia area and there is almost nothing! I so miss living in Canada where even fairly rural areas have a Bulk Barn and maybe one other choice.I go to Whole Foods for most of it. Their selection is not the greatest but is the best that i can do. I have a Healthway Store that provides whatever spice your heart might desire and cheaper fresh peanut butter than Whole Foods. I have been told that a Healthway store in a nearby suburb has a much better selection than the one by my house. I will have to stop by and see how true that is.I mostly use old plastic Chinese takeout soup containers for my bulk purchases. I realize that they don't hold much but I don't need much at any one time. Since they are all the same size, they stack nicely in my cupboard. The tare is written on the bottom and the number of the item is written on the top. For spices, I bring in my old spice jars and fill them. My spices are now much fresher because I buy in much smaller quantities.I would love to have more options and hope that we will have them one day.

Anonymous
Anonymous

I'd love to have a bulk option over here in Europe, but unfortunately there is nothing like that. I would do the whole thing: bring my own bags (as I already do now) and choose bulk before packaging. I don't know why nobody here gets it and starts to offer this shopping option.

mudnessa
mudnessa

I buy in bulk but I have not gotten my own bags yet. I really need to get my own bags. I do reuse the bags for my coffee but the other bags I can't keep track of and do reuse them for cat litter. Also I don't see a lot of people using their own bags, actually I never have, but I doubt they would have a problem with it. My old coffee bag is quite crinkly looking and I do get looks sometimes when I use it. I would love there to be bulk household products, soaps and things. I don't buy sugars and a few other things in bulk because they are not organic or fair trade. The local store also doesn't have bulk dry pasta's, I would love to buy bulk dry pasta.

Anonymous
Anonymous

I love bulk bins! And I wish that Whole Foods or other LA stores had more selections in their bulk bins. It makes me crazy that I can't get pasta in bulk.No problems with containers - I have tons of reusable bags and glass containers.

Amy
Amy

I live in Texas... a very not-green Texas. My local "HEB" (we don't have any health food stores locally) sells bulk, but I don't believe we can bring real containers... they don't have a weighing system (I recently emailed them).I've also seen the bags they fill the bulk containers from. They are foil bags, but I think they are lined with plastic. Although likely much less plastic than non-bulk alternatives.I'm pretty new to this no plastic stuff. I've been using cloth bags for my produce for a long time, but I'm young and don't like washing them... (Plus my bags tend to shrink when I was them!) so I haven't been brave enough to put bulk stuff in them yet. I'm considering it for next time... I've also been considering making bags from old sheer curtains for this too.More options, and a system in place for bringing my own containers, and I'd definitely do more. (THis isn't relevant to this topic, but I've seen on Terracycle that they are accepting corks (natural and synthetic...) I know you love wine, but I dont know what you do with your corks, so you might check into this! http://www.terracycle.net/cork/cork.htm )

Deanna
Deanna

We don't have ANY bulk bins here in our little town but I have used some on the rare occasions I'm in a city with a Whole Foods. I would definitely use them if I could.

knutty knitter
knutty knitter

There is something to be said for the old style grocery shop where all the measuring was done by the staff and all the dried goods came in bulk. Paper bags were the norm not plastic and lots of the items were locally grown etc. They were also smaller and local. Supermarkets are probably the worst thing to ever happen to shopping.We used to phone in an order for the week and it would be confirmed on thursday and delivered by van on Friday. Milk came in a large can and was doled out with a measure into a billy can with a lid which was at the gate - no bottles! Meat was locally grown and killed and ordered and delivered weekly. Everyone knew the delivery men and society was pretty close knit. It meant that people could help out in crisis, look after those who couldn't cope, keep an eye on the elderly and all those other useful things communities provide.Perhaps the demise of cheap transport will help reinstate local grocery shops with their ubiquitous bulk bins.viv in nz

Emily
Emily

I really enjoy buying staples from the bulk bins at Whole Foods. I collect tin coffe cans and fill them with rice, beans, grain ect... I label them with the tare and the contents so that when they are empty I will just bring them back. I think it's pretty easy to grab them and put them in my shopping bags that I am already bringing. Also, I wrote my neighborhood grocery store a letter asking if they could offer some bulk bins. I'm not holding my breath... but you never know. It would be cool if everyone that was interested could write - even the chain grocery stores and let them know you desire bins.I have little kids and the super low bins make it tough for me to shop the bins uninterrupted - my youngest always wants to have a 'sensory experience'. If they could just keep the bins higher than 2 year old reach? My 4 year old knows that she is not supposed to reach into the bins.Thanks for your efforts, Beth!

monkeyjen
monkeyjen

One more thing... Glass jars - I am not about to make my own pasta sauce. It's just not going to happen.. but the Progresso sauce is usually the cheapest AND it come is beautiful mason jars that I have been saving/washing/de-labeling for just these purposes. Also - this keeps coming up here and I know this was addressed - you weigh your container 1st - and label it with the weight. Cashier enters tare weight [appears on receipt] and you only pay for contents weight.

monkeyjen
monkeyjen

Funny you should mention this today - I went to Rainbow just last night! This was going to be my [our] big experiment - to see if we saved money or not [apart from the other benefits].It was very involved - 1st, I had to go on a Tues or Wed to use 20% off coupon. 2nd - I planned ahead [as you must] and brought my shopping bags, empty glass jars, giant empty oatmeal can, etc etc etc. Basically prepared for the things I knew I needed and whatever else.To complete the experiment - when I got home I went on the Safeway website and started comparing prices - which involved very complex computations as I had to deduct 20% of each line item and then covert all the per lb price to per oz.... fascinating - to be sure. To make a long story longer - I saved BIG TIME!! Saved approx $24 on a $38 bill vs. safeway - including a 50 cent credit for using all my own shopping bags and packaging. Coffee and fresh tortellini were kind of a wash - but I didn't overpay.As for sanitation... I guess I not a hyper-germaphobe. WHATEVER you do, don't sample the Vulva Balm!In conclusion, I certainly see why people are not bringing their own containers [convenience and such] but it was kind of fun to do. Who else has a 1 liter Jaegermeister bottle full of olive oil?

Robj98168
Robj98168

I would love to have a store nearby with bulk bins! We use to have them years ago- the old "Mark It" food chain. Larry's Market an upscale grocer that closed sold their south end store to an outfit that hasn't had a sustainable idea since day one. Out went the glass milk bottles, out went the bins and pffft. I don't think we will ever see a whole foods or PCC open up in this area. It is too depressing to think about. It would sure help out with my Plastic Gauntlet total!

N
N

I don't know any bulk bins around here in the UK, but if we had some I would definitely use them (well, as long as the price isn't ridiculously hiked up, I'm not rich).I think people overreact about the hygiene aspects. We have immune systems and stomach acid for a reason.

Kellie
Kellie

I'd love to buy in bulk, but live in a small mountain town where we don't have that option. Our grocery store has a small bulk section, but it only contains nuts, trail mix and a few other things - no flour, sugar, oats, etc. When we get down to the "big city", the store we go to has a slightly larger selection, but the prices are so high that I always resort to buying prepackaged anyway.I'd love to see some reasonably priced options in our area.

AJP
AJP

I LOVE bulk bins!! I'm originally from upstate NY and there is an excellent co-op in Albany that I discovered just before I moved. That place has a whole huge room with bulks, and everything that I can buy in bulk, I do buy in bulk. (Except for pasta, which is the only thing I have found in bulk that is more expensive, by several hundreds of percent, than non-bulk.)Here in Boston the co-op that has bulk has a much smaller variety, but I still buy in bulk all the time. Some things I just wait for until I go back home and visit my parents and work in a trip to the co-op in Albany.The Whole Foods near me has a very limited amount of bulk bins just because it's in a small store. Property is at a premium here so WF doesn't have a large bulk section until you go out into the 'burbs, and it's not fun to bike out there. I just go to the co-op in Cambridge instead.Like I mentioned, I have found that everything (other than pasta) in bulk is cheaper. Plus I can get exactly as much as I want. If I want to experiment with a new type of flour I don't have to pay for a 5 pound bag. I can just get 1 or 2 cups. Same thing with spices.I always bring my own containers, usually old plastic produce bags. I also have a bunch of old plastic take out cups (the kind you get soup in) that I will put some items in. Usually everything goes into washed glass pasta sauce jars when they get to my kitchen. When I buy oil they go straight into my old glass jars with removed labels. I make sure to have these glass jars weighed first.I have been thinking of buying some cloth bags for bulk buying, flour and nutritional yest, etc, because they are easy to wash and I don't have to worry about them getting holes. A lot of my old plastic bags are getting holes just because I use them so many times. They have to be a fine enough mesh but I'm sure I'll get a lot of use out of them to justify the cost.

Chris
Chris

I use the bulk bins all the time at our local organic grocery. Nuts, rice, beans, oats, sugar, herbs and spices, etc. Almost everything is cheaper (except the premade granolas and trail mixes - stick with the raw ingredients) than even Walmart and I love the reduced packaging. I do typically use the thin plastic baggies but I've been trying to find some cheap cloth bags to replace those. I generally put the bulk items in mason jars when I get home and reuse the plastic baggies for salad greens and things like that from my garden. Keeps the lettuce from getting wilty. Don't have any concerns about sanitation with the bulk bins, but then again, I've never seen anyone do anything unsavory around them either. Most everything I buy is to be cooked anyway so I can't imagine I'd ever stop for that reason.

Kim
Kim

It's a mixed bag (no pun intended) in Anchorage, AK. We definitely have a lot of good options for dry goods in bulk-- even at mainstream grocery stores like Fred Meyer and Safeway. But anything beyond dry goods is much harder to come by. We have no stores that carry personal care or home care products in bulk...and even the smaller natural food store is pretty unwilling to let you use your own containers if it means subtracting the tare weight. So for any wet items for which I can easily my own light weight bag, I'm stuck using their plastic packaging anyway.

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Yes, it's true that some bulk products are shipped to the store in plastic packaging.  I address these issues in my book, in fact.  In general, the benefit of bulk is that one large plastic bag or container uses much less plastic than several smaller ones.  But you're comparing plastic to glass, which changes the equation.  From a health perspective, I would choose the glass over the plastic.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Hi Amanda. It depends on the store. For example, out here, Whole Foods has you take your containers to the customer service desk to have them weighed before you fill them up. Then, the cashier deducts the weight of the container at the checkout. But other stores let you weigh your own containers and they will deduct the weight. The best thing to do is to ask a store employee when you first arrive, and they will let you know how they handle "tare weights" at that store. I have a whole section on bulk bins and how they work in my upcoming book. :-)

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Stefan, I totally agree with you about our society's recent germ-phobia. Children need to be exposed to a certain amount of germs for their immune systems to develop. All these toxic chemicals we are using to create sanitary conditions are poisoning our children and destroying the very mechanisms they need to fight off infection in the first place. Also, I love how when we give up packaged, processed foods we start to eat so much more healthfully.

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