By Maya London-Southern
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BULK! It’s so important that I’m writing my entire second blog post about it. Even if everything you need isn’t available in bulk where you live, chances are this is where you can find a lot of things you do need or want.
When it comes to shopping sustainably, bulk is the ultimate lifesaver. While items bought in bulk likely still came in disposable packaging, the customer’s choice to buy in bulk as opposed to individually wrapped products reduces the amount of packaging used. The truth is, unless you’re growing all of your own food, it’s practically impossible to buy food without someone producing some type of trash along the way. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and by refusing this unnecessary packaging in everyday shopping, a consumer is voting for change.
You might be thinking about the paper and plastic bags that many grocery stores have for customers to put their bulk products in, and you might be thinking these bags aren’t very sustainable and don’t really align with the Zero Waste movement. You’d be right to think so. Paper is always better than plastic, but because the bag is made to be used only a few times at most, it is an unnecessary waste of resources. Some grocery and health food stores even charge you extra for using their bags and give you money back if you bring your own containers. There are several sustainable alternatives to the bags at the store:
The perfect container for so many things, especially liquids—it can even be a to-go cup for cold drinks. If you plan to use a jar for liquid, it’s not a bad idea to test to make sure it won’t leak—Mason jars have always been reliable for me in this regard.
When using it for bulk, weigh the empty jar and lid (called collecting the tare or unladen weight). Write the tare on the lid or type it in your phone—you can type the PLU (product look-up) number into your phone as well. This way, you can tell the cashier the weight to subtract from the total weight of both the jar and the bulk product in it, so you won’t be overcharged. I love using jars because they’re easy to clean and easy to unpack—I just move the jar from my shopping bag into my pantry. Jars are easy to access as well. Many grocery stores sell empty ones, but you might already have a few in your house already, they’re just filled with food. Once they’re empty, hold on to them rather than tossing them in the recycling (you can scrub the stickers off with white vinegar or olive oil).
Jars are great, but sometimes it’s easier to bring lighter, more compact containers. Reusable cloth bags are perfect for this. Some grocery stores sell them, but you can also make your own using old pillowcases. I cannot stress how simple this is. As long as you have access to a sewing machine and know the absolute basics on how to use it, you can do this. Believe me, I CANNOT SEW and I did a sufficient job.
To make it, you will need a pillowcase, a safety pin, and either ribbon or string. I’m writing my own instructions that I adapted from http://sewdelicious.com.au/2012/02/pillowcase-to-drawstring-bag-tutorial.html.
- Turn the pillowcase inside-out.
- Think about how big you want the bag to be and cut accordingly. When cut into fourths, a standard pillowcase will make four bags that are a great size for bulk shopping.
- Sew the cut sides so that three of the four sides are sewn, but leave a slit (about an inch or two long) unsewn at the top of one of the sides near the opening.
- Fold the top of the opening the length of the slit over itself and stitch all the way to create the casing for the string.
- Turn the bag right-side out.
- Pin the safety pin to the string or ribbon. Pull it through the bag’s casing.
- Once the pin is out of the other end of the casing, determine how long you want the drawstring to be and cut the string or ribbon accordingly.
Other bulk products to watch out for
Grocery and health food stores range in the amount of bulk they carry. It wasn’t until I was actively trying to only shop in bulk that I realized my food co-op in Middlebury, VT had oil and liquid soap in bulk. The Brattleboro Food Co-op has an even wider selection: along with all the food, there are soaps, oils, shampoos, vinegars, honey, nut butters galore—there’s even beer on tap in refillable growlers and soap bars for you to cut for yourself.
Now that I’m regularly shopping in bulk, I can’t imagine going back to buying packaged products. I have so much fun filling my jars and bags, and I’ve saved a lot of money because it’s cheaper (not to mention I can no longer buy those packaged snacks or drinks I used to impulsively grab off the shelves). I honestly love bulk, and I love knowing that I’m not bringing any new garbage into my house that would eventually end up in a landfill. Not to mention, I’m avoiding unhealthy food, because that usually only comes in packaging. Altogether, I feel so much healthier, thriftier and better organized. I cannot recommend bulk shopping enough!
Thanks so much for reading, check back for more Zero Waste posts soon!