My tips for buying food in bulk refill

bulk food shopping

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.

Join me?

I give a F#g

figs on toast

Or, how I brought three little figs, all the way home, unpackaged.

It’s fig season here in Australia. A juicy, ripe fig is the stuff of dreams.

I eat them in salads, with spinach and goat cheese. Or for breakfast, as the showstopper finale in the ensemble hit that is the breakfast smoothie bowl. One of my favourites is figs on toast with a spread of labne.

I was shopping for figs today and, to my utter dismay, could only find them sold as a trio, wrapped up in plastic and seated on a polystyrene tray.

Now, I know where to recycle soft plastics and polystyrene, the efficacy of which we can talk about some other time, but that’s for emergencies, a last resort.

I had been daydreaming about figs all day and wasn’t about to leave the green grocer empty-handed. But there was no way I would buy them in all that unnecessary packaging.

Then I had an idea. I found a fellow who was restocking the produce.

Could I buy three figs without the packaging? I asked.

He didn’t understand at first (and this is normal, and where a smile and some patience will serve you well). I clarified – I’ll buy the same amount in the package, for the same price – I simply want three unpackaged figs. Oh! His face brightened as he registered understanding. We went to the back of the shop together, and three unpackaged figs were proffered. Smiles.

Upon checkout,  I nestled the little fellas in with my bulk spinach, itself collected in a reused paper bag. Safe and sound.

No unnecessary packaging, no hard feelings, no sweat. All I had to do was ask. Maybe if all of us pointed out that no, we don’t need any excess packaging thanks, grocers will start offering them this way by default.

This story has an even happier ending. Those three figs were f#%king delicious.

Waste-free shopping in Sydney

Bulk refill Sydney

I now keep a page for waste-free shopping in the Sydney area. You’ll find it over here

When I first moved to Sydney from Vancouver, I felt lost without my carefully cultivated go-to shops for refill and bulk goods. Luckily, the trend for unpackaged foods is catching on, and if you live in Sydney, there are now a decent number of shops where you can refill your nuts, grains, seeds, beans, spices, baking supplies, superfoods and many other edibles. Don’t forget personal and home care products – many of the shops below cater to the Zero Waste lifestyle more fully by offering a small selection of packaging free cleaners, soaps and shampoos.

The Source Bulk Foods
Various locations around the Eastern Suburbs, Inner West and North Sydney, as well as many others across Australia
thesourcebulkfoods.com.au

The source
image source: Instagram

The Source Bulk Foods started in Byron Bay and has expanded to over 20 locations and counting. They offer 400 bulk reasons to visit, including food, home and laundry.


Naked Foods
Various locations in Eastern Suburbs and Inner West, the Sutherland shire, and Canberra.
nakedfoods.com.au

This fast growing chain began as a market stall and now offers four storefront locations in NSW and ACT + continuing market appearances.  In Sydney, try Bondi Junction, Newtown, or Cronulla.

You’ll find (most) staples, including basic and speciality flours, grains and cereals, dried fruit, spices nuts, snack foods, oils and vinegars as well as more obscure ingredients that are a challenge to find unpackaged. I’m talking hemp hearts, chia seeds, spices rice pasta, vegan chocolate, bee pollen, and ahem, maple syrup. Also try their unpackaged soaps for home, body and laundry.


Scoop Wholefoods
Bondi Beach, Mona Vale, and Mosman
scoopwholefoods.com.au

Scoop Wholefoods Bondi

Another bulk food chain. They really do focus on foods – the only personal care item I found at the new Bondi shop was epsom salts. The stores are well-organized, with plenty of ingredients to inspire.


Alfalfa house
113 Enmore Road Enmore, Newtown
www.alfalfahouse.org

Alfalfa House

This cozy co-op has been in existence longer than I have, and offers a small selection of personal care and household cleaners. This is where I first met and fell in love with the humble coconut husk dish scrubby.


University of Sydney Food Co-op
Level 2 Wentworth Building, Corner of City Road and Butlin Avenue, Darlington
www.usydfoodcoop.org.au

I haven’t visited this co-op, but it sounds pretty perfect for those looking for organic and ethical foods, grains, spices and more in the Redfern area.


The Health Emporium
263-265 Bondi Road, Bondi
www.healthemporium.com.au

The Health Emporium is a health food store with a small, but good bulk section that focuses on mainstay nuts and grains. They have a small selection of soaps for home and laundry.


Energy Scoop
2/19  Victoria Avenue. Castle Hill, NSW
www.energyscoop.com.au

This place look awesome. They carry whole foods and the elusive bulk oils (jojoba, argan, rosehip, etc.).


Manly Food Co-op
21B Whistler Street, Manly
www.manlyfoodcoop.org

Picture a waste-free, bulk, not for profit supermarket in one of Sydney’s loveliest beach suburbs. It totally exists, it’s the Manly Co-op.


Sam the Butcher
129 Bondi Road Bondi, NSW, 2026
www.samthebutcher.com.au

Olive oil and preserved lemons on offer, as well as a range of biodynamic meats. Olive oil is refilled by volume (apparently this works out to the same as by weight), so just bring a container with one or the other listed.


Cha Cha Kombucha
Various markets (Bondi, Double Bay, EQ Village Markets)
www.facebook.com/CHACHAKombuchaSydney

You can return your Kombucha bottle for refill to their market stall, or refill around town at places like the Fruitologist on Bondi Road, where it flows from the tap. If you want to try making your own, $10 will get you your very own SCOBY (message Cha Cha a few days prior to arrange).


Perfect Potion
Various locations.
www.perfectpotion.com.au

Perfect Potion is a chain with a focus on aromatherapy. The goods are mostly packaged, but there is a small selection of body care ingredients like clays, cacao butter and beeswax that can be bought in your own container.


Dr. Earth
Various locations in Eastern Suburbs and Inner West.
www.drearth.com.au

While not necessarily a mecca of packaging-free goods, Dr. Earth is a place to find items like beeswax food covers and bamboo toothbrushes. Their Newtown store has a tiny bulk refill area for laundry powder if I recall correctly.


Toby and Rosie
Various Sydney markets
tobieandrosie.com.au

I met Toby at the Bondi Farmers Market, where he sells a variety of soaps (including shampoo bars), scrubs, and oils. He will refill essential oils upon request. Send him a note a few days prior to arrange with him. So far this is the only essential oil refill option I’ve found.


Flame Tree Co-op
1/374 Lawrence Hargrave Dr., Thirroul, NSW
flametreecoop.blogspot.com.au

You’ll find healthy, organic food with as little waste as possible at the Flame Tree Co-op. If you, like I did, stumble upon this place without your arsenal of refill containers – rejoice – for they have a pile of clean, donated jars to use, free of charge.

Bulk food, home and laundry supplies, as well as local food organic produce.


This not an exhaustive list, simply the places I know about. If you know of someplace good in Sydney, post in the comments below!


 

My perfectly imperfect reusable shopping bag.

I have a handful of reusable bags, but my most cherished is my large canvas tote bag.

It’s a little bulky by some standards, with its thick cotton construction, but it works perfectly for me. I can carry heavy things, sharp things, messy things and this bag doesn’t quit. A wash with the towels now and again keeps it looking tidy, though I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s a looker.

Now cotton has an extremely pretty poor supply chain, it’s true. Replacing all the plastic bags in the world with canvas 1:1 would be a poor solution. But that wouldn’t actually happen. I’ve used my canvas bag at least once a day, often twice a day for the past five years. That works out to around 2700 uses. Ergo, I have never thrown away my canvas bag.

The most important feature of my reusable bag is that it enables me to refuse single use plastics bags while shopping.

SRV_bag

A single use plastic bag and a durable reusable bag are barely even in the same category.

They have the same shape, and when reduced to a single transaction, may appear to accomplish the same thing (carrying goods) but after a few years of re-using my canvas bag, I realize they are not the same thing.

A single use disposable plastic bag is more akin to a fast food wrapper. Designed to be discarded.

Sure, single use plastic bags may be convenient on a basic, mindless level. But how sad that even though our society uses so many of them every day, they are essentially valueless. No one’s life is improved by the acquisition of yet another flimsy, noisy, soon-to-be-trash plastic bag.

They transition far too easily from bag to trash bin, or worse, beach. There is no consistent or ideal way to recycle them, and their flimsiness excuses them from any real expectation of reuse.

Plastic bags are also this perverse combination of fragility and indestructibility – only, they are so in the opposite way we actually need them to be. We’ve all felt the uneasiness of carrying a plastic bag that strains against its contents, threatening to bottom out. And when the time comes that we wish they would just go away and stop billowing out of our cupboards, they somehow inevitably escape and tumbleweed toward the waterways, for eternity, essentially.

My canvas reusable bag, on the other hand, is like a well-seasoned cast iron pan. I’m going to have it for a long time. I cherish it. I almost always carry it with me. It is a tool that helps me live a better life. It is invaluable. I am not trying to throw it away all the time.

There really is no perfect bag.

I’m open to the invention of a miraculous material that is lightweight, strong, and can be used once and responsibly discarded, with minimal environmental impact during resource harvesting, production and disposal, but I’m not holding my breath. Plastic isn’t it and neither is paper. Neither is bio plastic, for that matter.

So in the meantime, imperfect as it is, my cotton canvas bag is the best bag for me. I’ll use it over and over and over, and revel in its quiet strength.

If you’re using a bag that you don’t feel the need to throw away all the time, that’s really – if not a perfect solution – at least a great start. The key thing is to use a bag that you’d rather keep than toss.