How to Shop Without Bulk Options

How to Shop Without Bulk Options

What happens when you don’t have access to bulk bins or bulk food stores? Can you still live a zero waste life? Can you still go zero waste food shopping? This topic is actually really important to me, considering I don’t (technically) have a bulk food store where I live. I have a health food store that has a bulk bin section, which I’m very grateful for. But what if I didn’t have that? What if that health food store decided it was going to shut its doors (hopefully it never will, oh my god)? Does that mean I can no longer live a zero waste life? No. It’s not the end of the world, actually. You can still be zero waste with no access to a bulk food store. There are ways to purchase food and shop without bulk options that are still very low waste. 

Today, I’m going to go over those options. And also, be mindful that there are plenty of other ways to lead a zero waste lifestyle, outside of bulk food shopping. You can contribute by shopping at the farmers market plastic-free, making your own beauty DIYs,  switching to a zero waste period or going paper free in your kitchen. So never feel what you’re doing isn’t enough, just because you don’t have access to something that’s defined as “zero waste.” Without further ado, here’s how to shop without bulk options.

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How to Shop Without Bulk Options
shop without bulk options

Here’s the thing about zero waste grocery shopping – there are so many ways to do it! When you’re first going zero waste, making that transition, you want everything to be perfect. But the truth is, not everyone has access to a bulk store! And guess what? That’s okay. Bulk stores aren’t the end all. So what if you don’t have access to dry goods package free? So what if you can’t fill up your produce bags and mason jars with ingredients for zero waste DIYs? Zero waste living doesn’t have to be cookie cutter perfect. It’s not a “do it this way, or take a hike.” I never want you to feel like that. Here are helpful options for when you have to shop without access to bulk bins.

Ask yourself – can I make it myself? 

The grocery stores have trained us well into compulsive buying for ‘convenience’. But did you know so many of the things we buy can actually be made at home, from scratch?

Items like tomato paste, tomato sauce, brown sugar, powdered sugar, chips, hummus, guacamole, salsa, muffins, granola, coconut yogurt, pesto, gravy, croutons, pasta, bread crumbs, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, peanut butter, cashew milk, almond milk, and so much more can all be made at home. You just need to get a little creative.

Related: Zero Waste Snacks: 33 Plastic Free Snack Ideas

For starters, did you know powdered sugar is literally the easiest thing in the world to make? Just grab some regular granulated sugar and blend it for a few seconds in your blender! Brown sugar is super easy to make too – just grab 1 cup of granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon of molasses – combine in a mixing bowl and you’re ready to go!

It’s simple little hacks like this that really change your life and let you avoid purchasing so many products unnecessarily (in plastic packaging, no less).

Of course, not all food items can be made. I personally never make tortia chips – I just get them at my local Mexican restaurant in a cloth bag! I do make my own salsa though, and it is totally delish when paired with the tortia chips!

Opt for paper, cardboard, glass or metal packaging

When in doubt, your best bet will always be to go for plastic-free packaging whenever possible.

Paper or cardboard packaging is great because it’s pretty easy to compost or recycle. A lot of baking products like flour and sugar still come in paper. If you have an at-home composting system, you can just rip up the paper when it’s done and add it in.

Related: The Ultimate Guide to Composting in an Apartment

Same with cardboard – just make sure to remove any plastic windows or bags that may be inside the cardboard packaging before composting (pasta is guilty of plastic windows).

Pasta can be made from scratch, but you’d definitely have to set some time aside for that. I really recommend the pasta brand Jovial – they use cardboard and they have a compostable window wrapper instead of using plastic. Plus, their pasta is organic and amazing.

Glass is also my number one go-to when I need something in packaging. It’s 100 percent recyclable and can be reused over and over again. I have so many emptied out glass sauce, jam and salsa jars I reuse on the daily! I totally recommend doing the same. You can get a bunch of items in glass jars, like olive oil, soy sauce, marinara sauce, sesame oil, buffalo sauce, wine, pickles, mayonnaise and salad dressings.

Metal is another option, but I do advise you be mindful that aluminum cans tend to have some sort of plastic lining inside. Still, it’s a better option than plastic, when nothing else is available. You can get a lot of food in metal cans such as beans, soups and preserved veggies. I recommend opting for organic whenever possible.

See if it’s returnable packaging

Sometimes, certain bottles can be returned to the store you bought it at. This is true for some dairy companies that offer yogurt and milk in returnable glass containers. I believe you have to pay a deposit up front that’s reimbursed or transferred to your next purchase. Some will even pay you for bringing the glasses back.

You might also have access to a local milk man. They’re starting to make a come back. See if you do near you and sign up to get deliveries! My grandmother loves telling me stories about how the milk man would come and take the glass bottles back every week – plus the milk was ten times better than anything sold in stores!

Bring your own containers

Some places, like delis, bakeries, butchers, fishmongers and cheese shops may allow you to bring your own container. If so, this is a great alternative to purchasing items in packaging.

Simply call ahead of time and ask if it’s okay to bring your own container. More than likely, they won’t have an issue with this, but it’s a good idea to explain why you want to. It’s also a great way to get a conversation going about living a more plastic free life! The more the merrier, am I right?

You can also simply walk in with your own (clean) container and tell them to “please put (item of choice) in my container.” Explain why, so they understand. As long as you’re confident and act like you’ve done it a million times before, they shouldn’t say no.

If for whatever reason they do say no, it may be because a staff member is afraid they’ll get in trouble with the manager. In moments like these, you can politely ask to speak with the manager about it – a quick conversation should sort things out.

Also, please bare in mind they may say yes, but have certain restrictions (such as, you can only bring your containers on certain days, etc).

If all else fails, you can always ask if they can wrap the product of your choice in paper, and then allow you to put it in your own container. At least this way, it’ll be plastic free and less waste, as paper can be composted.

For bread – which you can get at most local delis or bakeries – I recommend taking a cloth produce bag with you, by the way. You can even ask them to cut it for you on site. To store it and make sure it doesn’t get stale, freeze some and use the rest the day of purchase.

Buy it in the biggest packaging you can afford

Okay, so lets say all else fails and you cannot get your products in any of the means mentioned above. It’s not the end of the world, I assure you.

In times like this, you may have to resort to plastic packaging. But fear not! There is a solution: Try to buy it in the biggest packaging you can afford to get.

For example, I don’t have access to package free liquid castile soap. So, instead, I get the biggest plastic bottle I can find. Does this cost more? Yes. But it’s certainly better for the planet (and my wallet) than buying several mini plastic containers over the course of the month.

The same applies to everything else – be it food or other items you cannot buy package free. Buy it in the biggest packaging you can afford.

Perhaps that means buying rice in a huge plastic bag? Or, perhaps that means buying a bunch of potatoes in a large plastic mesh bag? Whatever that looks like for you, do it. It certainly beats purchasing smaller bags. Smaller, numerous plastic bags just create more plastic waste! And think of it like this – you won’t need to purchase the items in bigger packaging for a while.

The same goes for packaged yogurt, chips, and individual sweets – try to get the biggest containers/bags you can find so there aren’t ten mini plastic bags/cups floating around – just one big one.

There are some places that offer plastic film recycling as well, so it won’t go to waste if you do have to purchase something in plastic film (like rice or beans).

Final thoughts

If you still have a lot of food packaging waste at the end of the day, don’t beat yourself up over it. Ultimately, it’s not your fault – rather, it’s how companies and brands design packaging without giving any thought to its end of life.

You can always write to your supermarket or talk to a manager at your local health food store about possibly opening up a bulk bin section. You have a lot of say as the consumer, and I’m sure they’ll be willing to at least hear you out.

Speaking of which, if you recall I mentioned in the introduction I don’t technically have access to a bulk food store. It’s simply a health food store with a bulk bin section.

I love the fact I have at least that, but I’d also love for them to expand on what they offer! So I recently talked to them about possibly incorporating more bulk options (especially liquid goods) in there. The person I talked to was just a staff member, but they didn’t seem opposed to it. I’ll definitely talk to the manager at some point! It helps I’m really friendly with the people in there.

But do you see what I’m talking about? Don’t be afraid to vocalize what changes you’d like to see. If they value your business, they’ll definitely hear you out!

Related: Zero Waste Pantry Essentials
Related: Zero Waste Farmers Market Essentials
Related: Zero Waste Food Shopping: How to Use Bulk Bins Without Creating Waste

How to Shop Without Bulk Options

Do you live in an area where you have to shop without bulk options? How do you deal with it?

For more zero waste kitchen tips, be sure to check out these 10 zero waste kitchen swaps and these 5 alternatives to plastic wrap.

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By Ariana Storniolo (Palmieri)

Ariana Storniolo is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste and sustainability. Her work has also been featured on Going Zero Waste, Green Matters, Mother Earth Living and several other online publications.


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