Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Buying in Bulk, Eliminating Trash


Buy in bulk and using reusable containers is one of those life changing, world view altering type lifestyle changes.   Fairly simple and straight forward, but radically different from the standard of our culture.  It is one of those things that can make me feel like I am in on one of the best kept secrets of food shopping there is.  Now you can be in on the secret, too!


Making bulk shopping a priority was one of the changes I was prompted to embrace by reading No Impact Man which I read last year.  Before No Impact Man I had bought a few things in bulk, but as I said, it wasn't a high priority, not say as high as buying organic was.  I also never brought my own reusable containers with me to the store relying instead on the plastic bags the store provided.  Thus, I hadn't ever broken free of the disposable packaging cycle even when I did buy in bulk.
After a visit to the landfill last week--where I was utterly shocked and horrified by the amount of plastic bags (both packaging and grocery) floating around and stuck in every bush, outcropping, and fence-- I am so, so, SO glad that I am not supplying them to the landfill willy-nilly, without a thought, any longer. 

Disposable one time use products now fill me with a sense of sorrow.  I can credit No Impact Man with that attitude shift. I can't believe we think it is perfectly acceptable to make everyday items out of petroleum to use once and then bury.  It boggles the mind, but I then remind myself that I'd never really thought too much about it until last year and I am a trained environmental philosopher.  In school we were more focused on wildlife conservation and water pollution, invasive plants and climate change, etc.   "Big things."  We didn't really talk about stuff like how much plastic we throw out everyday and how that might be related to all those "big things."   I'd figured that I was doing pretty good compared to the cultural standard so I didn't bother myself too much with what would become of the plastic wrapper around my organic, ready-meal.   I mean, it was organic at least!  But, as I've told Matt comparing yourself to something poor isn't exactly motivating.  I mean, of course I am better than terrible, but the question is can I still grow and expand myself beyond even further?  Can I do more?  Can I be happy with less?  But, I digress.

I suppose I thought it would be too hard or too expensive to buy in bulk.  That I'd never remember to bring my jars and bottles. That I'd never be able to afford it.  That it didn't really matter.

But, that isn't the truth of the matter I've come to learn. 
 
It is shockingly--shockingly-- cheap to fill your own jars.  Polenta is nearly twice as much at our local co-op when you purchase it pre-packaged rather than in bulk.  Montana-grown, pesticide free oats cost $.99 per pound, cheaper than you'd find Quaker Oats which are neither local nor pesticide free.  It cost less than $.50 to fill a standard spice jar with most of the green herbs--oregano, sage, basil, Italian seasoning.  That beats even Wal-mart.  And these are organic herbs, too!  Without any plastic waste!  Or any waste at all, really!  I am just giddy about this.  Wait, wait, wait....you mean its cheaper, better quality, AND better for the planet?!  How is that for awesome.  Even if you never buy anything else in bulk I seriously, seriously recommend you look into buying herbs in bulk.  Spices are a little bit heavier and thus a little more expensive, but it is still a bargain compared to similar quality and quantity of product.  And the uber-cheap herbs help balance things out.

It is easy to bring your own containers to the store once you develop the habit to do so (and you will develop the habit if you wish, especially once you've forgotten a few times and have to resort to plastic bags again with frustration and a twinge of guilt).   We just round up jars and tins and load them into the re-usable bag before we head out for the store.  Or, if we are really on top of things, we place the empty containers directly into the reusable shopping bag to await our next trip to the store without the risk we'll forget them since we NEVER forget re-usable bags any more.  Remember, you can train yourself to do anything....even eat broccoli!  : )
If you are of the creative persuasion  another perk of bulk shopping is that you can also make neat little labels for your bulk containers, like these I made for some of our spices.
In addition to herbs we are able to purchase bulk soap, soy sauce, oats, pasta, beans, tea, oils, honey, baking soda, popcorn, nuts, granola, carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, peanut butter, grains, lentils, seeds, cocoa powder, salt, and more all without disposable packaging, mostly organic, and some from local suppliers, too. 

I think that is amazing.  Just amazing.   It makes me happy.  It makes me feel a little delightfully quaint, too, as the shopping experience seems like a blast from the past compared to self-checkout stations at the chain markets.

Just in case you are truly new to this whole thing here is a basic breakdown of the procedure. 
#1  Bring in your clean, empty container.
#2 Take it to the checkout stand and ask the clerk to weigh it for you.  They will probably ask if they can write the weight (the tare weight) on the container.
#3 Fill with whatever it is you are buying and label the container according to the store's requests.  Our co-op uses the bin numbers of the product while our local health food store uses the price per pound. 
#4 Return to the check stand and go through the checkout process like normal.  When the clerk is ringing up your bulk items they should subtract the tare weight so that you are not being charged for the weight of the container, only what is inside.

And that is all there is to it.  It really is a simple and easy change to make and greatly reduces the amount of trash generated in the kitchen.  It might also save you a few bucks and improve the quality of the ingredients you are purchasing.  While I know this means of shopping isn't available everywhere I'd urge you to check out what is possible in your area.  It is one of those things that makes me shake my head and wonder why I didn't discover this sooner!

13 comments:

  1. I will have to check into this now - thanks for sharing the info. I'm trying to be better about how much we bring in packaging that has to go back "out".

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    1. Every little bit helps! I hope you can find some things in your area.

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  2. I looked for something like this here in Mobile, Alabama and was never able to find a good bulk source for most items. I can find a few things like herbs, but almost all those other things you listed are unavailable to me. I do what I can and find the largest single container possible. I read somewhere that 1 large container really uses a lot less trash than 4 small ones. And I buy a lot less premade things. Oatmeal (even Quaker), dried beans, and 5 pound bags of grits (an essential item for a Southerner) each have a great deal less packaging than single serve varieties of any of these.

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    1. That is too bad, but keep checking every now and again because you never know. The bulk options here have certainly increased in the past years. But, in the meantime I think you are doing a great thing by doing what you can and buying in bulk in your own way. I believe there is a lot less energy and water used to make one large package rather than several small ones as well.

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    2. I found a local health food store (because of this post) that offers all sorts of herbs in bulk. They simply refuse to do the tare weight thing, so the first time I brought already used ziplock bags. They applied stickers to each of my bags. So the next time I shopped there, I reused the same ziplock bags so the stickers would be the same ones. If I was using different spices, I simply scratched out the previous word. It's awesome! And look how long ago this post was written. Your words are still having an impact on me. Thanks.

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  3. Oh, and by the way, after reading No Impact Man, I began to feel guilty about eating individually packaged chocolates like Kisses. I didn't give up chocolate all together. I just switched to large bags of M and M's. lol. But it is an improvement over the individual chocolates.

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    1. Heaven forbid giving up chocolate! But, how wonderful to have come up with an alternative. I didn't list it above because I don't buy it really, but we can get candy in bulk as well. I am really more of a gummy candy person than a chocolate person though. But, I am really just an all around sweet-tooth...

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    2. Well, I am a real chocolate lover. Remember that struggle he and his wife went through about the coffee? I was able to get over the coffee, but chocolate? No way. I just did what I could to lower the impact.

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  4. You guys are awesome. My herb plants should be established enough this year that I can harvest and dry enough so I won't need to buy herbs anymore - I'm so excited about that! (Bet you are headed down that path, too, with Matt's gardening fever still going strong ;)
    -Jaime

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    1. We had a paltry excuse for an herb bed last year, but not much of it was preserved or for that matter really thrived. But, yes it is most definitely a part of the plan this year. Try, try again.

      What I am really committed to figuring out this year is making my own chili powder. We use it quite a bit and it weighs the most--way more than any herb--so it cost a bit more than I like....

      Good luck on your herbs this year. That is a super exciting prospect. If you have any great tips you be sure to share!

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  5. I so wish we had this. We used to have a scoop shop, but it's gone now :0( Really glad you have this facility though, and good on you for reining in on the plastic bags. xx

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    1. That's too bad.... I hate it when a good idea fades away.

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  6. This is a great idea! My husband and I live in a 1-bedroom apartment, so our storage space is very, very limited. Once we upgrade to a larger rental, we'd like to start buying in bulk. I'll have to see if a similar store exists near us. We'd also like to get a deep freezer. They're not too terribly expensive, just take up space we don't have :(

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Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas. I value the advice and friendship that you share with me!