Food shopping in bulk refill is one of the main ways I am able to reduce my household trash to nearly nothing (composting is another).
I love to cook and like to have a variety of healthy ingredients at my fingertips for my random fits of kitchen inspiration. Only, I hate the orgy of waste that is the typical trip to the supermarket. These days, even if you avoid single portioned ‘convenience’ foods, like I do, many regular ingredients now come ridiculously over-packaged or in material that can’t be recycled.
My answer to this is to buy my edibles packaging-free whenever possible and to also make what I can from the raw ingredients. To do both of these things, I rely on bulk refill wholefood stores (which are not the same as Whole Foods stores, North American friends).
Bulk refills reduce over-packaging and plastic waste
We now have many more opportunities to buy our food without packaging than even a few years ago, when healthy bulk foods were mainly the realm of co-ops – far outside the periphery of most. For staple pantry items – which for me are flours, beans, nuts, seeds, chocolate miscellany, cereals, grains, coconut, oils, the occasional powdered superfoods, and a variety of spices – I am lucky enough to live in a city with a number of good options for refilling.
Shopping by bulk refill helps reduce plastic waste, obviously. There is no reason we need a new container every time we buy a bag of oats or walnuts. But shopping this way can also help reduce food waste by letting us only buy the amount we need. It’s also just a nicer, calmer shopping experience – as long as you know the basics.
If you’ve never shopped for food this way, it may well seem daunting or inconvenient. I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about shopping for bulk wholefoods so that it’s simple and painless.
My tips for a hassle free bulk refill shopping experience
Take your time // Shopping in a refill store may take a little longer than usual as you get used to a new shopping process. It’s not harder, it’s just a different sequence. Doing things you’ve never done before creates new neural pathways in your brain, so embrace the change. On balance, by shopping this way I’ve reduced how often I need to shop for staple foods since I am putting a bit more forethought into what I actually need.
Go with a list // My advice always seems to involve making a list. I love lists! But seriously, go with a list. Why? The idea with bulk refill is to bring your own container, so you’ll want to plan for how many to bring along. Bonus points if you label these with what you’ll refill with. If you’re not sure what the stores have, do a dry run without containers, or look online, or call to ask.
Mason jars aren’t mandatory // Confession – in a fit of Instagram envy, I bought a set of Weck jars. Those ones with the little clips to hold the glass top and seal together. Very pretty. And they are lovely and solid and great for things like making salsa or kefir. But let’s be honest, they are terrible for taking to the refill store. Fussy and heavy, especially if I’m biking, walking or transiting. Don’t be a hero – if you have a jar fetish, just fill them up when you get home and use another container for shopping. I will use small jars I’ve got on hand from condiments I haven’t learned to make myself, or just whatever is around and looks like it will work…. see my next point.
Any container can be refilled // Yes, even plastic containers. I am a firm believer in using what I have, even if it’s not beautiful or made of glass. This includes plastic zip top bags that I collect from people I know who are not (yet) on the Zero Waste train. In doing so I’m either saving them from the landfill or soft plastics recycling, so why be pedantic about the material itself? They are also lightweight and waterproof. I know, I know, I just raved about the convenience of plastic – but I’d rather be real, and I’d rather reuse than adhere rigidly to a label of ‘plastic-free’. To me, this is better than using new paper bags each time, or killing myself lugging heavy full jars around.
Weigh containers before filling // When you buy from a bulk refill shop, you most commonly pay by the total weight, minus the weight of the container – this is the net weight. If you don’t pre-weigh your container (the tare), you’ll be paying for the weight of the jar. If you don’t see a scale, some masking tape and a writing tool, ask the friendly person at the register – they know the drill, and are there to help (not to mention, people who run bulk refill shops are usually excellent humans).
Liquids are often sold by volume, not weight // Refill shops sometimes sell liquids by volume instead of weight. If you’re not sure, ask before filling to avoid any confusion at the till. You’ll also do well to bring a container that lists a volume on the jar.
Buy only as much as you need // Buying bulk doesn’t mean you have to buy a lot. In fact, if you’re trying something new, try a little to see if you’ll like it before committing to a haul. This can help avoid overbuying and food spoilage.
Living in Sydney? Check out the waste free shopping options I’ve found so far.
If you don’t live somewhere with unpackaged options, you could try….
- looking out for co-ops or buying groups.
- letting your local shops know you’d like bulk options and why.
- buying foods in packaging that can be recycled most easily.
- starting a refill shop yourself.
I’m not even joking about that last one.
Zero Waste food shopping is going mainstream
More and more shops are opening to serve people like me, who prefer to pre-cycle than recycle. I can avoid adding hundreds of containers to the recycling bin each year by reusing the same containers over and over. In doing so, I’m putting less strain on overused waste management systems that cost us in tax money and opportunity. I’m probably also healthier for it, because by shopping for what are typically packaged pantry foods in bulk refill, I rarely ever find myself in the middle aisles of large supermarkets.