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Bulk Shopping Facts And Fiction

Posted by on Apr 7, 2015 in Food & Recipes, Lifestyle | 3 comments

Bulk Shopping Facts And Fiction

Next time you’re putting your groceries away, pay attention to how many items have a plastic component to the packaging. On a recent trip to the grocery store I bought about 35 items and only a handful were completely plastic-free. My cereal was double-packaged in a plastic bag resting inside a cardboard box. My rice, nuts and hummus were all packaged in plastic too.  

Plastic Is Downcycled, Not Recycled

I never thought this was a big problem until I stumbled across an article that changed the way I think about plastic recycling. It said that recycling plastic is better than throwing it away but only “barely.” That’s because plastic can only be reused a finite number of times and the process of recycling it is relatively inefficient.  

So I started thinking about ways to consume less plastic and packaging at the grocery store. First, I went for the low hanging fruit like buying orange juice in a cardboard container and choosing glass jars when the cost difference is reasonable.

I also decided to do more of my shopping in the bulk bin section. If I brought my own bags, this shopping would be zero waste. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Bulk Shopping Mythbusters

I’ve long been reading about the advantages of bulk shopping, I wondered if the claims were all they were cracked up to be. Through the last month, I’ve been putting some of the myths to the test. 

It’ll save you money. 

bulk-nutsThis is the big one. Who doesn’t want to save money? But if bulk bins are so much cheaper why do so few people shop them?  I did some bulk bin comparison shopping and here are my field notes from my local stores:

  • Yes, some items can cost significantly less. Pecans cost $7.99/lb in bulk and $9.99/lb prepackaged, a savings of $2 per pound.
  • Organic is the only option for some items which can drive the price up. For example, I typically buy conventionally grown peanuts for $3.49/lb in a plastic jar but the bulk bin only has organic peanuts for $5.99/lb.
  • Grains and rices seem to be fairly priced. For example, basmati rice costs $1.99/lb in bulk and $2.30/lb prepackaged. 
  • Spices can be a good deal. I bought herbs de provence for a specific recipe at $1.99/ounce in bulk. The amount I needed cost me less than $0.50. The same spice pre-packaged in a spice jar would have cost $4.69 for less than one ounce.
  • Even when the item costs more, the ability to buy only what you need can make a big difference, especially if you’re making something for a special occasion or trying a recipe for the first time.

This myth is PLAUSIBLE but you need to know what you’re buying.

TIP: Compare one or two new items each week so you can become familiar with the price differences. 

The food is fresher.

While I don’t know how long the food sits in the bulk bin, it seems likely that the bulk food would be fresher than the stuff on the shelf. More importantly, you can buy just what you need which means that you won’t be adding peanuts you bought in 2013 to a dish in 2015 (true story).  With spices, teas and coffee where freshness has a tremendous impact on taste, shopping in bulk can be a big win. 

This myth is CONFIRMED

It’s environmentally friendly.

There’s little difference between filling a plastic bag with rice from the bulk bin or buying rice prepackaged in a plastic bag off the shelf. If you’re going to shop bulk, you can have the biggest impact by bringing your own reusable bags for dry goods. We like Flip & Tumble’s bags for bigger items and Simple Ecology’s bags for fine items, like flour.

If you’re buying liquids, look for stores where you can use your own glass jars or buy them from the store with a small deposit. 

This myth is PLAUSIBLE … it’s really up to you! Most shoppers I see in the bulk bin section are using plastic bags. If you’re reading this blog, set a good example for the other shoppers and bring your own bags!


  • Most stores have twist tie labels for reusable bags. Usually the store supplies a pen to write down the code but you may like to bring a back up.
  • If you plan to bring your own jars, call ahead to confirm it’s an option and learn the process. Some stores and states will may not allow it due to health codes. If you can bring your own jars, you may need to go to the customer service desk to have the jars weighed before filling them so they can subtract the weight at the register. 

What Can You Buy In Bulk?

At most grocery stores, you’ll find:bulk-olive-oil

  • Grains
  • Beans
  • Rice
  • Oatmeal, granola, and trail mixes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Candy

At specialty shops or eco stores:

  • Tea
  • Spices & herbs
  • Olive oil and balsamic vinegar (I found this at a wine shop of all places!)
  • Beauty products like clays 

I’ve only been bulk shopping for about a month, but it’s already changing how I eat and cook because I’m having to substitute what I would normally buy for what’s available in bulk. That’ll likely be a topic for a future post!

Kim is an eco enthusiast who tries to make small changes that will add up and make a difference.

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  1. Christina H

    Great post! I googled “freshness of bulk compared to packaged” and it brought me here. I want to transition to bulk and bring my own bags but was concerned about the freshness. Thank you addressing this. I’m also wondering, do you need to get the tare of fabric bags like the “Flip & Tumble Bags?”, or is there no difference in weight compared to the plastic bags the store provides? Thanks 🙂

    • Kim

      Thanks! Usually the bags have the tare right on them. However, not all grocery stores are prepared to deduct the amount because they’re not set up for shoppers with their own bags. When I buy larger quantities or heavier items, I don’t worry about it because the bags are pretty light and wouldn’t add much to the cost. If you’re buying spices and the store can’t deduct the tare, you may still want to use the plastic bags. I’ve never compared the weight of a plastic bag to the cloth bag, but the cloth does seem heavier.

  2. Michelle

    I live in a smaller city and will be driving about 40 minutes to get to a Whole Foods where I can buy food in bulk. I have many glass Ball jars and for $30 on Amazon I bought a Food Saver wide-mouth jar sealer and a handheld vacuum sealer (mine’s electric). I plant to put the rice, GF oats, quinoa and such in the jars and seal them. I have kept food in original plastic packages before, but not only do I dislike the plastic, but it’s attracted mice and bugs. So, since I have some home food storage, I have spent time switching all beans and these types of food that are in bags to glass jars.

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