How to Shop in the Bulk Section Like a Pro

One way to really cut down on your packaging waste associated with grocery shopping is by utilizing the bulk section at your grocery store or coop. This takes a little practice and more time than what you're probably used to but is a great way to reduce your packaging waste (and focus on eating more whole, natural foods). This is definitely one of the things I get asked about most, so I've compiled a little how to. 

1. Plan ahead. 

The disaster of shopping in the bulk section with your own bags or containers can come when you're not prepared. I make my list ahead of time, use the same sized containers for the same products most of the time, and always bring a few extra bags and jars for the things I might have forgotten to add to my list. The more prepared you are the less likely you will feel like an idiot while doing this (at least that's been my experience). 

Here's an example of the list I made before going to the Wedge Coop on Sunday. 

- oats

- sea salt

- two kinds of alternative flours to try

- castile soap

2. Bring your own jars and grain bags. 

I have a bunch of pint-sized, quart-sized, and half gallon jars. I also have some thrifted jars that have weird sizes. It's fairly easy to guess which jar will work best for the product your getting. I also have some cloth bags similar to most produce bags, but that are a finer consistency and work great for beans, some grains and flours, and the miscellaneous things that don't fit well in jars. 

3. Tare the jars ahead of time and keep a list of their tares (or take pictures). I think it helps to have several jars of the same sizes so the tares are a little more consistent. The tare is the weight of the empty jar with it's cover. This is the amount that is subtracted at the register scale so that you don't end up paying for the cost of your jar or bag. Most reusable produce or grain bags will have a little tag that has the tare weight on it, so that's a helpful reference. To measure your jars, just place them on the scale at your coop while the jar is empty (make sure your lid is on too), then note the weight. This is your jar tare. Make sure to double check the unit on the scale. Sometimes they will be set to grams or oz depending on who last used it. You want to use pounds as your unit because this is what they will use at the register.

4. Take pictures of the PLU numbers and pull them up at the checkout to avoid using the plastic stickers.

Most coops will provide small stickers that you can put on your jars to label them with the tare and the PLU number of your product. Because I shop with my own containers in the bulk section frequently, and because I think it's generally annoying to use small stickers like that when I'm trying to be minimal waste, I've started taking pictures of the tares and PLUs instead. 

I simply put my jar and lid on the scale while still empty and take a picture that shows the jar and the weight. This way I am able to remember which jar each tare is associated with and I have it for handy reference. I've even started a photo folder on my phone for jar tares. This makes for easy access and saves me the trouble of having to recheck the tares every time I go. Then I go and fill up all my jars with my products. I take a picture of the PLU number and make sure that I have a way of keeping track of which jar is which (this can get confusing if you are buying multiple types of flours that are similar in color. It's that easy. 

The check out can be the stressful part, especially if your coop is busy or your cashier seems annoyed. However, I have found that the majority of the time the cashiers are super kind and supportive. On a few occasions, I've even had people behind me in line ask me questions about how I do this and they have been really encouraging. I think this is one of the benefits of shopping at a local coop that prioritizes providing minimal waste options. You're more likely to run into likeminded people who are also trying to minimize their waste at places like the Wedge Coop. 

So put all your items on the conveyor belt and don't panic. Open your phone's photo app and pull up the first tare weight for the first jar the cashier rings up. Then flip over to the picture with the PLU number for that product. Continue in this way until you've checkout all your items. It can be a bit tedious and can feel like you're annoying people, but I find that it helps to remember that I'm making an intentional decision to steward the earth through my buying power and that's an honorable thing. If other people are annoyed by that, it's something I'm willing to stick to anyway. 

5. Be nice to yourself and don't worry so much about it. 

You're doing a great job. The fact that you are taking the time to make a shift toward minimal waste is simultaneously a big and small thing. It's a small, easy change to make to adjust the way and the types of food we buy. But it's a big thing when we consider the lifetime of waste we would otherwise be creating. It's also a big deal to do the hard work of living out your values. So stick with it. Be willing to look silly or frantic. Give it a shot. The beauty isn't just in the end result; it's absolutely in the process as well. 

If you're too nervous to try a zero waste trip to the bulk section on your own, let me know. If come to the Twin Cities I'd be happy to have you tag along and see what I do!