Vegan Zero Waste Bulk Bin Shopping

Photo collage of New Seasons Bulk Bin Offerings.

#VeganMoFo18 Day 14 – Vegan Zero Waste Bulk Bin Shopping

Yesterday I discussed using Azure Standard as a means for buying large amounts of food items in a more zero waste fashion. But what about your everyday shopping trip? Starting your transition into zero waste bulk bin shopping can be a bit intimidating and confusing at first.

Reusable Shopping Bags

The first step is to simply use reusable shopping bags rather than plastic or paper grocery bags. We have amassed a ton of these bags over the years from different events, so while they are not entirely plastic-free (most are a LDPE-4 (Low Density Polyethylene) or Tyvek derivative), we reuse them over and over, and toss them in the washer and dryer to clean. If they wear out, we replace them with cotton or other non-plastic alternatives. Using reusable shopping bags is a great way to make a positive impact.

Dirty carrot shopping bag.

My Dirty Carrot Bag!

Keep reusable shopping you car, each car you have in your family, so you have them whenever and where ever you may have a need for them. That’s the biggest thing, having them with youyou’ll find they come in handy all the time (such as running across random free things on the side of the road). And, remember to bring them with you when you do non-grocery shopping too! I take them into the hardware store, clothing shopping, thrift stores, etc. It helps to have some bags that you don’t use for food to prevent any contamination, or just want them after transporting non-grocery items. I have a couple more decorative bags I carry with me all the time when I’m at places other than grocery stores that don’t look like grocery bags.

Reusable Produce Bags

The next step is to use reusable produce bags. For a long time, after I’d switched to reusable shopping bags, it really bugged me to put my produce in plastic. And then I discovered Earthwise mesh produce bags. I’ve used these for years and have even bought cases of these to give as gifts! In addition, they work great as nut milk bags, so they’re dual purpose. I did learn yesterday, however, that Earthwise Bag Company is now selling cotton mesh bags on Amazon that are marked with their tare weight and are biodegradable, versus the plastic-based mesh (they are BPA-free, but their website does not identify the exact material). I’m excited to get some of the new cotton mesh produce bags in addition to what I have now. There are other brands of reusable produce bags, and you can also make your own out of towels or pillowcases.

Besides produce, these bags are great for some bulk bin items, like large grains, dried beans, etc. I’ve used them for nuts, too, but the other day during a workshop I was at, someone mentioned not putting nuts in mesh bags due to the potential for triggering people with nut allergies while walking through the store with themI hadn’t considered that before, and I think it’s a valid point.

It is also important to note that while some produce can be stored in these mesh bags in your refrigerator, some things need more moisture and will wilt in these bags. It is the number one complaint I see on Earthwise Bag’s website. Take a look at my post on Zero Waste Fridge and Freezer for more info on storing produce.

Storage Containers

For nuts, nut butters, fine grains and flours, sticky items, and liquids, you’ll need some type of storage container. I use glass jars, whether they are repurposed from other items or Mason jars. Make sure they’re clean before you go and have a tight-sealing lid. I have a wide array of glass containers, including small glass spice jars, so I have size options for large and small quantities.

A Bulk Shopping Kit

I have one reusable shopping bag that is set up with all of my bulk shopping supplies, it just makes it much more organized and easier. My kit consists of:

    • Large reusable shopping bag to carry it all
    • Smaller reusable shopping bag that has all my mesh produce bags in it
    • Assorted glass jars and lids
    • Sharpie pen (I’ve recently learned they’re not vegan due to animal products in the ink, and they’re not zero waste due to the plastic case, but we have a bunch of them and I’m using them up and not replacing them). These are great for marking on glass jars. And believe it or not, Sharpie marker scrubs easily off glass jars, so you can do it over and over and over again!
    • China marker/grease pencil, the kind wrapped in paper, also for marking on glass jars.
    • Stash of large reusable shopping bags

Bulk Bin Shopping

Weigh station from New Seasons Market.

Weigh Station at New Seasons Market

Here’s where things get intimidating for people, and I totally understand, I was intimidated too! And the intimidation was all about the tare. Tare simply means the weight of the container, including the lid, alone, before you fill the container. Most bulk food areas have a scale where you can tare your containers, but some don’t; so I try to mark the tare on my containers before I go, using either the Sharpie or China marker (both of these wash right off glass later with a little elbow grease). I have an electronic scale a neighbor gave away for free on Facebook, but you can pre-tare a bunch of jars at a bulk area that has a scale in case you ever go to a store that doesn’t have a scale for you to use. I have learned to put the tare weight in pounds and ounces, because some stores use pounds, others use ounces, and some use the different units of measurement for different types of things (some even use fluid ounces). I don’t worry about the tare weight of the mesh produce bags because they don’t weight much at all.

Jar tare marked in lb./oz., pounds, and ounces for buying bulk foods in your own containers.

Tare marked in lb./oz., pounds only, and ounces only. You never know how it is in their system!

Once you have your tare marked, you can start filling your containers. Most places have different spoons or scoops for organic versus non-organic, but some have clean spoons to be used for each separate items, then you put that spoon into a dirty container after that single use. Fill up with what you want and then mark the bin/item number on your container. You can also write the name of the item on the jar so you remember what it is. Some folks write the price per unit on there too in case the cashier has trouble looking up the item number or there is a question about the price.

If you run out of containers or find you forgot them, most bulk areas do have containers you can purchase. Or you can choose to use a paper bag (if there aren’t any in the bulk area, look for them in the produce section by the mushrooms). Some folks use plastic bags and just reuse them.

Forgot your China marker? Sometimes they have masking tape or stickers you can use to tag your containers.

Troubleshooting Bulk Bin Shopping

Some stores don’t allow using containers, other than your mesh produce bags, for bulk bin shopping. Sometimes, stores who used to allow use of your own containers stop allowing it. So what do you do? In the case of a change in store policy, you can politely inquire about the reasoning, thank them for letting you know, let them know, politely, that this is disappointing because you’ve liked shopping at their store, and ask if they can ring up your bulk items that you’ve put in your containers already, this time. Some folks continue to go back and fill their own containers after being told this, pleading ignorance each time, but I don’t do that. I simply let them know I’ll be shopping elsewhere where I can use my own containers, and that it is too bad, because I did like shopping there. I also follow up with an email to the store manager.

In the case of being told up front that I can’t use my own containers, I use my mesh produce bags. Oddly, most places don’t have a problem with the mesh produce bags but do have issues with other containers. Most of the time, those stores don’t have registers set up to remove tare weight when checking people out, leading to that policy. I have found that they are ok if I use paper bags from the produce department for things that can’t go in mesh. For stores that won’t allow either jars or mesh containers, I personally don’t shop there any more. But, if that is the only place you can buy in bulk in your area, you have a dilemma. I do know some people that will reuse the same plastic bags from a specific store’s bulk area—they clean them out after each use and bring them back in a reusable shopping bag. It’s not something I do or recommend.

Bulk bin of Baking Soda and Sugar from PCC Market in Redmond, WA.

Bulk bins at PCC Market, Redmond, WA.

The final thing you will encounter is that not all stores carry the same things in their bulk bin areas, even different stores in the same chain! As you start your foray into bulk bin shopping, make a list of what things you like to buy and note which stores you can find them at. This will save you a wasted trip later. I keep a running list of what things I need at what stores so I can stop in if I find myself in that area of town. A shopping app can help with this. And, if you are buying the same things at a specific store every time, you can keep your jars marked with their tare weight and the bin/item number, which will save you time shopping.

I recommend transitioning step-by-step into bulk bin shopping. If you have already mastered the reusable shopping bag, move into reusable produce bags. Then try getting one item in the bulk bin section, learning how that works for your particular market. After mastering those things, start building up what you buy this way, and it becomes second nature. Jumping all-in can be a lot to deal with at first. Learn what works and doesn’t work for you with just a few items rather than a whole, full shopping cart.

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  1. Monique a.k.a. Mo on September 17, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    These are great tips. I get a lot of customers coming in and using their own bags or jars. I have always wanted to try doing the same but had no idea where to start. This is great!

  2. Firefighter Cindy on September 17, 2018 at 9:27 pm

    Oh fantastic! I was intimidated at first. I was afraid of making mistakes, of holding up the checkout line, of making cashiers cranky, but it really has gone well. I'm glad it was helpful and I look forward to hearing how your experience is! Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comment, I really appreciate it!

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