The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

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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74 Comments on "Bulk Bins: If you had them, would you use them?"

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We have few bulk options- costly whole foods, a few supermarkets with a few bins for nuts/ trail mixes, and we just got a 90% or so bulk store, but almost everything is MORE expensive than packaged goods. The spices are a bargain, and some items are when on the ground nut butters and honey. But thats about it. :(

I’ve been reducing plastic for the past few months, have been hunting out my local farmers markets and taking my own produce bags BUT here in the UK I’m struggling to find bulk bin stores like the ones you mentioned. Many years ago a local Heath food store refilled my Ecover bottles & had a few bins but sadly shut down a few years back when pound land opened up next door. Apart from going into London or starting my own I’m a bit stuck.
Cheers jules

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!

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… Read more »

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, 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… Read more »
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… Read more »

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.)

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… Read more »

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!

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… Read more »

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!

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! or

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 musli 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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »

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

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… Read more »

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.

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.

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… Read more »

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.

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.

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

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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »

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(

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!

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… Read more »
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,… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »

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.

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… Read more »

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.

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… Read more »

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.

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… Read more »
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… Read more »

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.

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… Read more »

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!

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.

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.

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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »

I purchase some bulk bin items at Whole Foods, but not others. I get pecans and beans mostly. Sometimes granola. I think I get a little skeeved about the bottom bins with scoops. Also because of kids being close to them and little sticky fingers playing with them when mom isn’t looking (but I was looking!) I need to get more glass containers to transfer the bulk items into (from my reusable cloth bags). So, yes I use them and should use them more.