A girl's quest to live on the greener side.

Zero Waste Food Shopping: How to Use Bulk Bins Without Creating Waste

zero waste food shopping


By: Ariana Palmieri

Does your local health food store have a bulk bin aisle? Mine does, and up until a few weeks ago, I never used it. I live in Staten Island (New York) and Tastebuds (my local health food store) is pretty much the only zero waste grocery store near me that has bulk dry goods. They have one big aisle dedicated to bulk grains, coffee, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, snacks, dried fruits, baking goods and more. I've known about that aisle ever since I was little, but never actually knew how unique and essential it was to zero waste living until recent. Now, thanks to Tastebuds, I'm able to go zero waste food shopping whenever I want without creating waste. And guess what? I'm going to show you exactly how I do it.


If you want to try bulk food shopping too, I've created a guide to help walk you through it. This guide is designed to show you bulk shopping is not hard at all, it just takes a little prep before going. I cover everything from how to find a zero waste bulk food store to how to tare a mason jar. Here's how to start zero waste food shopping at the bulk bins without creating waste.


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List of sections:
1. What is bulk food shopping?
2. Finding a bulk food store
3. Zero waste food shopping supplies
4. How to use the bulk bins

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What is bulk food shopping?


zero waste food shopping

The term bulk food shopping is going to be referenced a lot in this article, so I feel it's best to clear up what I mean right away. There are many different versions of bulk food shopping. Conventionally, bulk food shopping refers to buying large amounts of food, like a 10 pound bag of rice instead of one pound or a gallon of milk instead of one pint. Bulk shopping, in this sense, is definitely a valid way to shop. It does save you money in the long run, plus reduces packaging waste. 

However, in regards to this article, bulk shopping means finding bulk bins that contain package free foods. I have several pictures of bulk bins throughout the article for you to reference. This form of bulk shopping is done by pound: Each bin will say how much a food is per pound. I'll be discussing this more later, but just wanted to get you familiar with the idea. I hope this clears up any confusion you may have about what I mean in terms of bulk food shopping.

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Finding a bulk food store: 

zero waste food shopping

First things first: You have to find a bulk food store before you can start zero waste food shopping. There are several resources out there to help make this process relatively painless for you. I recommend using this bulk food store locator app. It's how I learned Tastebuds was a zero waste grocery store. Just type in your location and then you're set: A bunch of bulk food stores will pop up, and you can even inspect what they sell by clicking on them.

Another option is using Litterless' list of bulk food locations. You just have to select your region and a list of different shops with their websites will pop up. Litterless also provides a description of what bulk foods the store sells. Zero Waste Nerd also has a U.S. bulk locations page which includes the address, city, and street of the bulk food store but no description of what it offers (so you'd have to research into it more or visit to see for yourself).

Pro tip: Before going bulk shopping, I definitely recommend scoping out the place. You need to know exactly what they have to get a feel for what you'll be able to buy from there. Once you know what they sell, I advise you make a list of all the foods you'll need, just like you would with conventional food shopping.


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Zero Waste Food Shopping Supplies

In order to shop in the bulk aisle, you'll need a few things. 
Here's what I take with me every time I go zero waste food shopping.


zero waste food shopping


zero waste food shopping


  • A wine bag (For holding the mason jars - It's got built-in dividers which keep the jars from clanking together - I got mine at Home Goods)


zero waste food shopping


  • A marker or wax crayon (for writing the tare weight of the jar and bulk Bin#)

Note: If you don't have mason jars (or any empty glass jars) you can use just about any container to do the job. Cloth bags, stainless steel tins, glass snapware, or even old plastic containers (which definitely beats single-use plastic bags). Make do with what you have and don't get too bent out of shape on being perfect. It's all about reducing your waste, after all.
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How to Use The Bulk Bins 
Step-by-Step Guide

Now that you have all your supplies, it's time to finally use the bulk bins! Head over to your local bulk food store (I get to mine via train) with all your equipment. Then, follow these steps: 


Step 1- Ask the cashier to tare your jars


zero waste food shopping


You're going to want to make sure your jars are tared. This is an essential step to zero waste food shopping. Essentially, taring your jars will ensure you're just paying for the food inside it, not the weight of the jar itself. This is extra important, considering bulk shopping goes by the pound. The more your jar weighs, the more it'll cost. 

As soon as you walk in to the store, ask the cashier to tare the jar for you. At this point, you can give them your wax crayon and tell them to write the tare weight on the lid. The wax crayon easily comes off, so they don't have to worry about messing up the jar. You could also substitute the crayon for a sharpie, if need be. 

They'll put the jar on a scale, get its tare weight, and write it on your lid. Depending on how big your jar is, it'll have a different weight. 

Here are the average tare weights for mason jars:

- 32oz Mason Jar: 1.02lbs
- 16oz Mason Jar: .65lbs
- 8oz Mason Jar: .38lbs

As you can see from my jar (pictured above) it doesn't exactly fit the mold of a 16 oz jar (it's tar weight is a few points above average). That's why it's always best to get it tared by the cashier so you know for certain how much it weighs. If you have a kitchen scale at home, you can also do it yourself before heading to the zero waste grocery store.

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Step 2 - Go to the bulk aisle and start filling up your containers

zero waste food shopping

Once you've got the tare weight of your jars, head on over to the bulk bin aisle. This is the fun part! Whip out your shopping list and find the bulk bins that have what you need in them. Once you've located the right bin, start filling up your container with the food. There should be a scooper of some sort, or a handle which releases the food. The picture above is one of the bins with a scooper - I just opened the lid of the bin, scooped up some organic cranberries, and put them in my jar. Done! 

zero waste food shopping

There a typically two kinds of bulk bins: One with a scooper and one with a handle. Here's a picture of me standing behind the bulk bins with a handle. See the black part? That's the handle. You position your container underneath the opening of the bin and then pull the handle. How long you hold the handle depends on how much food you want in your jar. It's super simple.


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Step 3 - Take a picture (or write) the PLU or Bin# for each food

zero waste food shopping

Every shop is different, so take that into consideration regarding this step. At my store, each bin comes with a label (pictured above) that says what food it is and how much it's priced per pound. Usually,  I just snap a picture of this and show it to the cashiers up from. I could also write the price and food type down on the lid using my wax crayon, but taking a picture is much easier.

With that in mind, many bulk food stores have a Bin# or Price Look Up code (PLU). The Bin# or PLU is what the cashiers type in to associate your jar with the food you chose. So, lets say you decided to get some popcorn in bulk and it's Bin# 1646 (got that off the top of my head). You would write that bin number on your jar with a wax crayon or take a picture of the PLU with your phone. Then, you'd just show the cashier when you're paying for your products. Which leads me to... 

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Step 4 - Head back over to the cashier, show them the Bin# for each item, have them weigh your containers, then pay!

zero waste food shopping


Once you've collected all your food, head back over to the cashier. Show them the picture you took of the Bin# if you took one (it makes their lives so much easier). They'll weigh your jars (taking into consideration the tare weight) and then you'll pay for your bulk haul. Then, just load up your wine bag (I got mine at Home Goods) with your filled mason jars. I like using a wine bag because it's got dividers inside it that prevent the bottles from tipping over, clinking, or possibly even breaking. 

A note on pricing: Bulk shopping goes by price per pound. So, if you're getting almonds for $9 per pound and buying two pounds, it'll cost you $18. However, it's important to note I've never paid more than $17.58 for bulk shopping. I typically bring only 3 - 4 mason jars in various sizes with me. So far I've never paid full price for an item (usually each jar never costs me more than $5, regardless of what the price per pound is). It all depends on how big your container is, how much you actually put in it, and the price per pound.

How to budget yourself: If it's your first time bulk food shopping, I recommend taking at least 4 mason jars with you and $40. This should be more than enough. The first time I went bulk food shopping I brought $100 with me because I had no idea how much things would actually cost me. I was relieved to see I only spent $17.58 (for 4 organic items: Popcorn, almonds, cashews and dates). It's better to play it safe and have more money on you than less of course, but don't get too worried about it. If you bring 8 jars with you, chances are you'll be spending around $40, so you might want to bring  more money ( maybe $60) with you. You need to leave yourself with some wiggle room, but not too much (because honestly, it isn't that expensive). It all depends on what you buy, how much of it, and your own comfort zone. 

Done! Now you can enjoy your food whatever way you please.

zero waste food shopping

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 Benefits of zero waste food shopping (in bulk)

zero waste food shopping

Now that you know how to go bulk shopping, here are a few perks that come along with it.


  • Package free food - Instead of buying food in packaging, you can eliminate it entirely by bulk shopping. This has a huge environmental impact and is perfect for those trying to go zero waste.
  • Controlled amounts of food - Lets say you only need one cup or one tablespoon of an ingredient for baking. Well, with bulk shopping, you can literally buy the exact amount you need: No more, no less. You're fully in control of how much product you get which results in less food waste and less expenses.
  • Cheaper prices - Purchasing exactly what you need instead of a whole container is definitely more cost effective. You're not paying for the packaging anymore - just the food!


I hope this article has inspired you to try out zero waste food shopping. It's really not that hard and very cost effective, once you get the hang of it. 

zero waste food shopping

Have you ever gone bulk food shopping before? It's also important to get fresh produce package free as well: Here's how to shop zero waste at the farmers market too. 

7 comments

  1. Very thorough post! For remembering PLU codes, I just have a list of my typical bulk buys in a note app on my phone. I write the item and the PLU code, adding as I go. Because I only buy about 8-10 items from bulk, it's a pretty simple matter to find them again :)

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    1. Thanks so much Polly! I definitely put a lot of work into it. :) And that's a great idea too. I never typically buy more than 4 items, though eventually I want to get my mom to go too (and I'm sure she'd want more than just 4 items haha).

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  2. Great post. I use some net bags, as well as jars, to save on the weight of taking my shopping home. Certainly a great tip to use what you have and not buy new things where you can help it. Some shops also have an area where customers can leave jars or bottles they don't need for others to use.

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    1. Thanks so much! Happy you enjoyed it. :) Net bags are a great idea too! The idea of sharing jars is super helpful too - I wish my bulk food store had a location for that. That way if I ever forgot mine, I could still shop in bulk, waste free! If you don't mind me asking, where are you based? I'm in Staten Island, New York.

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