Bulk shopping 101

Alright, friends. Get your mason jars ready.

Like many things in life, the first time we try something new can be awkward, or even a little uncomfortable. We all know that feeling of not wanting to seem unprepared, or not wanting to appear ignorant, or even just not wanting to change our routine. And if you’re like me (or any millennial, really), you will Google it to death, even if it is something that seems completely trivial or straightforward. Eventually — at least I hope so — you will decide to exit your comfort zone and try something new. So find your local bulk/low-waste/refill store online, and read on to get a pep talk that will have you saving the planet and filling your pantry with confidence.

Why choose bulk:

There are three main benefits I’ll share about why my family chooses to buy what we can at low-waste bulk stores.

The first, obviously, is that it reduces waste! Not only are you avoiding the plastic bag at check out, but avoiding product packaging is a huge step in the right direction for collectively lowering our waste production. Product packaging is unnecessary and is mostly used simply for marketing purposes. A huge amount of money and resources goes into creating the wasteful packaging we see on every single isle of our grocery stores, and then eventually ends up in a landfill, or our oceans.

Second, shopping in bulk saves you money! I have yet to meet another mother, professional, or human being in general who doesn’t appreciate stretching their hard earned dollars. According to this study, packaging is the second largest component of the marketing bill, accounting for 8.5% of the food dollar. (And I’ll add that according to more recent data, only 50.1% of this packaging is “recycled”, and about 32.1 million tons of packaging still ends up in the landfill. Yikes.)

The third benefit is that it has improved our wellness. By buying in bulk and with no packaging, we are often avoiding over-processed and tampered with foods, and cook more from scratch. We are able to steer away from microwavable meals, and harmful preservatives because instead we buy bulk flour, sugar, rice, pastas, grains, produce, beans, lentils, nuts, dried fruits, seeds…. real ingredients that fill our pantries with more healthy options, and our wallets with more money. I’ve learned more about going back to basics through sustainable practices, and it has benefited my family in ways that I am proud of and that allow me to dig deeper into slow living. Don’t get me wrong — we all have those nights where a microwavable mac and cheese and a bagged salad is all we can muster up. But if you’ve ever had mac and cheese made from scratch, with a side salad of greens that were picked that morning… you know that it’s worth the extra 20 minutes, and your body will be grateful for real foods. Call it an exercise in gratitude; I encourage everyone to make at least one meal from scratch; find what ingredients you need and use that list to plan your first trip to the refill bulk store!

What to bring and what to expect:

For your first trip to the shop, I propose just bringing a few items:

1. A reusable shopping bag or tote.
2. A few mason jars in varying sizes.
3. A produce bag or two.
4. A marker or pencil to mark the weight of your containers and item numbers.
**Pro-tip: if you don’t have any glass containers, try the thrift store! We are always finding mason jars there for super cheap — I’m talking a dozen for $5! Wash them, and you’re good to go!

Before you go, let’s get familiar with how the weighing process works:

Step 1: “Tare”
The “tare” is basically the weight of your container. Weigh empty container and write it down on the container or on scrap paper. Most stores will have a scale you can use, or you can ask at the check out area before you shop and the attendant will weigh it for you.
Step 2: Fill
Fill your container with the desired amount of product. Use a clean funnel or scoop when needed. Look for specific instructions regarding filling policies, such as placing the scoop in a provided “dirty” bin (especially if there are changes due to covid19 restrictions)..
Step 3: Write item number
Each item typically has a unique number, so write it on the container or scrap paper before check out. This is so that the clerk knows what is in your container. Most stores will have paper or tabs and pens for you to write this down, but I typically bring a marker with me as well.
Step 4: Checkout and Pay:
The clerk will weigh your filled containers on their scale and calculate the cost. You pay, and head home happy to have had a new experience, and not to have contributed to any large-scale plastic waste!
**Remember that every shopper in there has had a “first time,” so don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help.

P.S. Check out and share this cute infograph I spent way too much time on 🙂

You’re ready — Let’s shop:

The first time you check out the bulk store, here’s what I recommend:
Toss your mason jars and produce bags into your reusable shopping bag. You may not actually use them at all, and that’s fine. Walk in confidently, and immediately wander towards the soaps. Don’t need soap? Just hear me out. While you are sniffing bars of soap, reusable tote over your shoulder, you’re only mission this first visit is to observe: watch how other customers are using the pull-down levers, look around and map out which products are where, peek at the weighing process at the checkout counter. Does the coffee smell enticing? Fish out one of your jars, and if you don’t already know the tare, ask the clerk to please weigh it empty — he or she does this multiple times a day, so don’t be nervous. Say thank you and go fill that jar with coffee (or honey, or quinoa, or whatever looks good). Buy one of the fragrant soaps you were hiding behind, and thank the clerk for his or her help. Go home and consider what you’ll need for your next trip.
Once you realize your store is not at all scary, and how satisfied you feel with committing to lowering your waste, you’ll be ready for next time. The key to bulk shopping effectively is preparedness: if there are items you know you are out of and need to restock, plan containers accordingly. Did you find that made-from-scratch recipe you want to try? Plan your containers around the ingredients you’ll be buying.

Thank you for taking the time to read and learn.
I’d love to hear how your experience in bulk shopping goes if you are planning your first trip, so don’t forget to comment or reach out. If you’re a seasoned pro, I’d love to hear any tips you have found useful in your own bulk shopping trips, so please post those in the comments as well! Happy shopping!

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