Why should you bother buying bulk food?
In this quick guide you will learn the advantages and disadvantages of buying bulk and find solutions to common problems related to buying in a bulkform store.
The concept behind buying bulk food is simple.
Save on packaging, reduce unnecessary waste.
Save precious resources (paper = trees+water+energy) and reduce the output of harmful resources (plastic, alminium, etc).
The store achieves that by buying bulk food and other goods in big bags/amounts.
The customer than can take as little or much (I once bought a bag of 22kg of oats for my muesli) as he/she requires.
By doing that it’s possible to avoid the usally prepackaged goods and greatly reduce waste.
Buying bulk food is an essential part of living a zero-waste lifestyle.
The advantages & disadvantages of buying bulk food:
- You as the costumer have full control over how much of each good you want to buy.
- This helps you to reduce food waste from buying too much.
- Very useful when you just want to try something or need only a little bit for a recipe.
- Lower your carbon footprint as you reduce less waste from packaging.
- To ensure this applies you need to be able to bring & use your own containers!
- Conscious bulk food stores will allow you to bring your own containers (and weight them there) !
- The general rule is:
The smaller the item and weight, the more packaging is needed. Especially as producers of processed food seem to like to double package everything.
- In general, buying bulk food is considered to be cheaper.
- But to be honest with you, I’m not quite sure if that stands true for every store and for every item that can be bought in them.
For me it is more important to reduce my environmental impact than to save a few cents and pollute the environment even more, but I am in a situation where I can afford that. Yours might be different.
So just try your best.
- Small stores might carry a lot of green products as well as fresh (usually local and/or organic produce) which will save you time as you can buy it all in one place.
- Unfortunately, there are still many stores selling bulk food, that have not caught on the idea of reducing plastic waste.
Meaning, they offer plastic bags in all kinds of sizes to put the food in, therefore spoiling the great opportunity to reduce plastic waste.
- Many unaware consumers will happily use the provided plastic bags. And go crazy on them, using a lot of plastic for very small amounts, which clearly is contraproductive and creates more waste than it saves. (Hint: Try not to be that person! 😉 )
- You might find more stuff that you would like to buy than the amount of containers you brought with you.
- Carrying around too many containers can be tricky to unpractical.
- Some smaller bulk food stores might not have as great a variety of products as a bigger (chain) store can support. (But I found these local stores usally have very friendly and helpful/knowledgeable staff as everyone cares about living sustainably.)
- Chain stores usually specialize on staples, sweets, tea, spices and other goods that can be bought in bulk. You likely won’t find any fresh produce in here, meaning you likely can’t do all your grocery shopping in one place.
Problems & Solutions when buying bulk food:
1. Problem: I don’t know if we have a bulk food store in town. I tried searching for ‘bulk food’, but no results showed up.
Solution: Some stores might not use such an obvious name. Try looking for the following:
- ‘Zero waste’ store
- Try these both in English and your native language.
- If this still brings no results: Look if there is a zero-waste facebook group for your area. Join them and I’m sure they can tell you all the best places to shop plastic-free. (Besides all the insider tipps they figured out!)
2. Problem: What if you are not allowed to use your own, but only the plastic bags provided by the store?
Three possible Solutions:
- 1. Ask. What if it only appears like it? Double-checking can never hurt. At the very least the store might become aware that this is what their customers want. The more people ask if they could use their own, the more likely they will work on fullfilling the demand.
- 2. Try to compensate by getting only what you really need and need lots of.
Then fill up the plasic bags as much as possible.
Buy things (like cookies) that often get double packaged.This way, you can at least reduce the amount of waste you create.
Reuse the plastic bag. Clean it and bring it back to reuse it next time.
Tipp: Store a few of them in your handbag/daypack, this way you won’t forget them and will also be prepared for more spontaneous shopping sessions.
- 3. Find a different store.
Ideally one, that is run by an owner that cares about the environment, not just about money.
The advantage of such stores is, that you very likely will find more environmentally-friendly goods there. For example: Soaps made of only natural ingredients, bamboo
toothbrushes, green cleaning supplies or books about green living.
If yo can find such a store in your community: Congrataltions! Stores like these are very conscious about what they buy and usually exist to provide solutions to all kinds of environmental everyday-life problems. Meaning, they are your ultimate stop to help you life more
Tipp: Support them by shopping there, even if you might get some things a bit cheaper online. This will help the shop to continue to exist and help your community.
3. Problem: I always seem to run out of containers or space to carry everything.
Definitely a problem I had many times.
The key here is Organization:
- Make a list of what you need.
Think about how much you will need beforehand and bring containers of the right sizes.
Then buy only what is on the list.
If you see a great discount of something that is not on the list, make a note (What? For how
long will it be on sale?)
Then come back with the right amount of containers (and your list) another time.
- Consider buying more bulk food at once.
This will work well for staples that you use a lot.
If you are really organized, you might have to buy it only once a month.
- Have one bulk food shopping day a month.
One that day you will be buying all the bulk food that you use a lot at once.
If it is more than you can carry, come by car and do all your shopping at once, to minimize
4. Problem: I don’t have enough containers so I’ll have to use their plastic bags.
Solution: Save containers instead of buying new ones.
- Chances are, you are still buying supplies that come in plastic or glass containers. Just keep
these. Clean and weight them and you are good to go.
Tipp: Make sure you only keep things that close well to avoid spillages.
- Make it a habit to collect any ziplock and other usable plastic bags that you might use at
home. Clean, weight and label them and you are good to go.
Tipp: For hygienic reasons don’t keep anything that contained liquids, meat, fish or chicken.
5.Problem: The plastic containers are too bulky. And I don’t have or don’t want to use a car.
- Use reusable bags for the transportation. You can always refill the supplies in more
sturdy/protective containers at home.
- Same as Problem #3: Keep used ziplocks and plastic bags and reuse them.
6. Problem: Buying bulk food is too expensive for me.
Bigger stores will often offer discounts. If they have a website or app you will likely find discounts on there as that is one way to attract customers to their store. Make use of it!
- Memberships/ Student discount days:
Some stores also offer student discount days or exclusive deals for members. By knowing which one applies and when, you can save money.
Buying bulk food (and other goods) is a good alternative and important step to living and eating more sustainabliy.
The biggest advantage is that you can reduce your carbon and plastic footprint considerably by skipping on packaging.
On the flip side, buying bulk can feel very restrictive.
But this widely depends on the options you have available for buying bulk food.
If you are interested in zero-waste living you should definitely look for bulk food stores in your neighborhood / community.
There will be almost no way around them if you are serious about it.
Either way :
“Producing less waste that will end up in our landfills or worse, pollute the environment, is always a desireable thing, even if it limits our possibilities.”
I personally think that is worth the ‘sacrifice’ of having less comfort.
In addition to buying staples as bulk you can purchase all your fresh / perishable groceries at farmer’s markets.
Combined these two places can fullfill pretty much all your needs.
On top of that it will help you to live more sustainably and eat more healthly as it will be easier to avoid processed and crap food.
If you have never been, give it a try! (Curious abot my first time experience in a bulk food store? You can read it here.)