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Life without Bulk Options

Life without Bulk Options

Zero Waste Lifestyle

Last Updated on April 3, 2020

I’ve been wondering what my life would be like if I didn’t live in California? What if I didn’t have access to bulk bins? How would my life be different? 

Life without bulk options

I grew up in the South, and I’m very aware of the lack of opportunities to make packageless purchases, and environmentally friendly options in general. 

Surprisingly, even in California, I still can’t find everything I need in bulk. I probably could if I were willing to drive or travel almost 2-3 hours to get groceries.

But, that’s highly unsustainable. Who has time to do that? I also feel like traveling that much negates the positive impact of buying goods without packaging. 

If you don’t have a farmers market, I hope your supermarkets sell produce loose or at least semi-loose like the picture above.  

When I have to make a packaged purchase, I ask myself a series of questions. I hope these questions will help you make good decisions! 

Question 1: Can I make this? 

 MARINARA 

MARINARA 

Things like yogurt, hummus, tomato sauce, peanut butter, bread crumbs, stock, pesto, salad dressing, croutons, gravy, apple sauce, granola bars…. etc. 

Nine times out of ten, I can easily make it. I can make it faster than driving to the store, cheaper, and healthier. 

(two things I hate making: tortillas and tortilla chips.) Pro Tip: Go to your local Mexican Restaurant. They typically make it fresh in house. I go in with my cloth bags and fill up on tortillas and chips! 

Question 2: Can I buy it in a returnable bottle? 

Often times milk and yogurt come in glass.

The bottles are collected at grocery stores and sent back to the farms. They also pay you for bringing your bottles back.

Question 3: Can I buy it in compostable wrapping? 

A lot of baking supplies still come in paper bags like sugar and flour. Both of those are compostable.

If you have municipal compost, put them in your bin.

If you have a backyard compost, like me, I tear them in to small pieces.

Place them in your pile or feed them to your worms! Viola – practically packageless. 

Question 4: Does it come in glass? 

Glass is always my number one go to. It’s 100% recyclable.

It is melted down to make new glass.

Glass bottles I have in the house: Soy Sauce, Sesame Oil, and Buffalo Sauce. (If anyone finds Buffalo Sauce in bulk – CALL ME.)

If you’re not ready to delve into homemade mayo, salad dressing, marinara, wine, etc – glass is a great option. 

Question 5: Can I buy it loose in cardboard? 

This is becoming more and more rare.

Manufacturers are starting to wrap the contents in plastic or paper and then put them in a cardboard box.

But, occasionally somethings still come loose. 

Question 6: If it comes in plastic, what’s the number? 

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, all plastic has a recycle sign on it. It doesn’t mean anything.

The only thing that matters is the little number inside of the recycle sign.

The higher the number the more likely it is to actually be downcycled. Most of the time plastic is just landfilled. 

  1. PETE or PET (polyethylene terepthalate) most commonly used for cake trays, soft drinks, and pill bottles. Downcycled into carpet, furniture, and fleece. 
  2. HDPE (high-density polyethylene) most commonly used for cleaning bottles, shampoo, milk jugs, and yogurt. Downcycled into fencing, floor tiles, and park benches.
  3. PVC (vinyl) used for cooking oil, clear food packaging, mouthwash bottles. Downcycled into roadway gutters and cables.
  4. LDPE (Low-density polyethylene) used for bread bags, shopping bags, carpet, clothing, furniture. Downcycled into ???
  5. PP (polypropylene) used for cheese containers, syrup bottles, drinking straws. Downcycled into????
  6. PS (polystyrene) AKA styrofoam used in take away cups, plates, and egg cartons. *known carcinogen; high rate of leaching into food* Landfill only.
  7. Miscellaneous; Landfill only. 

Researching each type of plastic, almost everyone said: avoid. I have to say I agree with them.

But, sometimes plastic free options aren’t available.

Go by number. Avoid reusing the plastic containers and recycle if possible.

Check your cities curbside collection to see exactly what they pick up. 

Question 7: Buy it in Bulk?

If you run into any problems with what’s mentioned above, and you can freeze it or it won’t go bad on the shelf buy as large a pack as you can.

You’ll be getting bulk discounts and drastically reducing your waste.

We bought a 25lb bag of rice when we first moved to California that lasted two years. That alone saved 25 plastic wrapped rice bags! 

And, never buy single use yogurt cups, chip bags, individually packed sweets, etc. Always try to buy as big as possible, if it won’t spoil. 

  • You can freeze yogurt, cheese, bread, marinara, salsa, fruit, vegetables, etc.
  • Keep things like flour, sugar, rice, beans, and dry pasta in air tight containers

25lbs

1lb

Even at the end of the day if you’re left with lots of packaging from food, remember there are so many other places you can make an impact.

Bringing your own to-go container to the restaurant, making cleaning supplies, making beauty products, carpooling more, buying experiences, buying second hand.

There’s still so much you can do

Don’t be afraid to email your grocer asking for what you want. You’re the consumer.

They’re there to serve your needs. Don’t knock you’re consuming power.

And, if you really, really wanted, get together with some friends and open a co-op in your garage.

You wouldn’t necessarily have to sell to other people, but you could split the large shipments among yourself.

It’s all about making smarter choices!

Has anyone else struggled with this? Do you live in an area with out bulk bins? How have you overcome this? Have you ever called your grocer? 

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  1. This is awesome, friend!!! So helpful and well researched! I’m compiling a guide to bulk friendly stores around the country, and I’ll definitely send people to this post if there isn’t one near them!

  2. This is wonderful! Buying in bulk is very limited in my town and you offer some great options. Your explanation of plastics is an eye opener…great reasons to avoid buying them! Thanks for the info!

  3. I think some people get intimidated when they don’t have good access to bulk shopping (i.e., my family), and this is such a needed post. I really like how well you organized everything. I’ll definitely be sharing this with my family and friends!

    1. Yes! I think it’s a huge deterrent. It’s what I think we buy most. I don’t know of a single thing I shop for every week but groceries. It can feel overwhelming if you can’t cut your waste back in the area you purchase in most. Hopefully this will encourage people to do the best they can with what they can!

  4. Thank ypu for this article, this is very helpful for me as I live in germany in an area without bulk options. The next store with bulk bins ia about 60 to 70 kilometers away, which is too far.
    I try to get fruits and vegetables on the farmers market, where I can get it seasonal and from local farmers. I also prefer those supermarkets where they weigh the vegetables at the checkstand, so I don’t need to put them in any plastic bag.
    With the help of your tips I can take a more careful look at the other things I buy in the supermarket and try to find the best possible option.
    greetings, Nadine

  5. Great article! Thankfully, I have a few local options for bulk foods and discovered we have a co-op with bulk dry goods but also quite a few wet options. Pretty excited about this!

  6. I think there is a typo "The higher the number the more likely it is to actually be down cycled." Then you say that number 1, 2 and 3 plastics are down-cycled into other products, so it must be the other way around. The higher the number the less likely it will be down-cycled.

    I am really enjoying your blog! So happy I found it! I have just started this journey of reducing my waste.

  7. To add to Anna’s comment, all plastics are downcycled; it doesn’t matter the number. The numbers on the plastics are called the Resin Identification Code/Number and it basically just states what type of plastic it is so that recyclers can keep the different types separate, since you can’t mix numbers in recycling (each number is made from a different recipe and has a different melting point, different chemicals, and different additives).

    1 (PETE) and 2 (HDPE) have the highest scrap value, and are often the most recycled (downcycled) because they are easily identifiable and have the most volume; manufacturers who use recycled plastics prefer these plastics. 3-7 are much harder to recycle, and this is due to many reasons that I won’t get into too much.

    One thing I want to correct is that 3 (PVC) isn’t made into food packaging in the US anymore because of toxicity concerns. In the research I have done, this seems to be the most toxic plastic.Occasionally you might see it in a shampoo bottle or other non-food packaging, but it really falls into two categories: PVC piping, and PVC or "vinyl" plastic goods. PVC piping is the least toxic and the most recycled (downcycled) of the PVC family, as it has the least chemicals and additives. However, "vinyl" PVC is made into so many other things that can’t be recycled (downcycled) because they have so many additives (dyes, chemicals, plasticizers, etc). Things like jelly shoes, shower curtains, pool toys, vegan leather, inflatable beds, etc, are made out of this. Unfortunately, a lot of this plastic has phthalates (endocrine disruptors), heavy metals and other chemicals that are potential carcinogens, and actually leach into the skin with contact. I would suggest avoiding this plastic at all cost.

    Great blog! I’m enjoying reading your posts!

    1. I can’t control the ads. Everyone sees different ads based on their own search history. I have ads for Google Adsense and packaging materials due to research for blog posts. If you have an issue or see something like that please report it. There’s a button under the ad that says report.

  8. Where I live green glass can not be recycled. I make sure to buy products in clear glass but that means no red wine (haven’t solved that problem).

    1. See if anyone you know makes their own wine. Many people will happily take the green bottles off your hands. Also if you have a winery nearby they sometimes will have a recycling system in place for bottles.

  9. This is super helpful! Even though I live in a relatively large city, I’ve been surprised to find that my bulk options are rather limited. Food packaging is my largest issue… sometimes it’s simply unavoidable. Your note at the end is so encouraging! Definitely am making strides in other areas, so it reminded me to not stress too much about it. (Although, I will definitely keep searching for alternatives!)

  10. Thanks for this article. Some zero waste bloggers make you feel like everything has to be bought in bulk in a mason jar, or not at all. In reality not everyone has these bulk stores nearby, and it’s better to improve your buying behaviour in the supermarket rather than giving up. Looking for glass and cardboard packaging where possible is a great tip, as well as buying fruit and veg loose and buying large packs.

  11. I live in a mid-size city, and we have two bulk options. So I can buy what I want in bulk, but since neither will let you use your own containers for bulk, I’m planning on buying things like flour/sugar/etc., in paper/cardboard. I can use my mesh bags for noodles, beans, etc. from the bulk section. It’s all about small changes!

  12. went and compared my local grocery stores bulk food prices to their non bulk, and to another store….and the bulk was more expensive! I’m super discouraged! My grocery bill looks like it would increase 40-60% if I partook of their bulk section. :/

  13. We have a Whole Foods and Sprouts in my town, but they only offer plastic bags to fill bulk foods. What do you use when it comes to buying bulk foods?

    1. Some Whole Foods & Sprouts stores allow you to bring your own reusable containers. Sadly, I live in a state which prohibits reusable containers for food (supposed health/safety violations-our packaging lobby remains strong as the shipping/trucking industry is a significant portion of the state economy). But our WF/Sprouts allow you to bring your own cloth/mesh bags for bulk items/loose produce instead, which you can get tare weighed by a cashier before filling up.

    2. I emailed my local Sprouts asking if I could bring in my own containers for the bulk section and they replied all I need to do is have the cashier weigh my containers before I fill them up! This may vary store to store, so I would ask beforehand.

  14. I still go for glass over plastic jars for things like oils, vinegars etc., but it’s a hard choice where I live (Halifax, NS). Glass is one of the hardest materials to collect and recycle because of it’s weight and the fact that it breaks. In my city, the glass isn’t recycled into new glass, but crushed and used in roads. I’ve heard from other waste professionals that in other cities the recapture rate of glass is also very low because it gets broken during collection and is then not safe to handle. It’s always complicated 😛

  15. I love on country there is no recycling at all…and people think that plastic packaging is very cool so they put everything, I mean EVERYTHING in 2 or more plastic wraps….

  16. I have access to some bulk (though it sounds like not as exciting as some people’s bulk options!), so I guess I’m lucky in that regard. But the big thing I’m having trouble with is dairy: although I can find milk in glass bottles, I can’t find cream in glass. Cream cheese is only in plastic too and I was hoping to find a source for cream in glass to make my own cream cheese, but no luck. Trying to decide if I just give up and buy in plastic, though I really would rather not. The same issue with yoghurt…

    1. Anna: RE: Making cream cheese/yogurt. If you can’t find yogurt in glass, consider buying it in a plastic tub and using that as a starter culture for your next batch of yogurt. You’ll use your milk in glass or cardboard to keep it going from there on out. Search how to make yogurt on the stovetop/oven. You’ll just need sterilized jars and a thermometer. I think you can also order a culture by mail (packaging). Cream cheese, I’ve strained yogurt in a colander with a cotton napkin to separate the whey and ‘curds’ the curds (what’s in the napkin) make up the cream cheese. You can set it out overnight on the counter. It’s a little stronger than store bought brands (tangier) but you can add honey or herbs, pumpkin seeds, etc. The clear ‘whey’ liquid is a live cultured probiotic. You can drink it, or use it to start ferments like homemade sparkling sodas, sauerkraut, kimchee, carrots, etc. It is a live cultured food that you’d have with your meal. For more on this look into Weston A Price Foundation and Nourishing Traditions. For others following, this is a great zero waste style of cooking and how to prepare foods for maximum nutrition.

  17. I live in an area with little to no bulk. Plus it’s twice as expensive as packaged goods. I do disagree with the zero waste movement on recyclable plastic. All of my grocery shopping is done with clear lightweight large plastic containers which weigh nothing. I don’t have to do Tare and weighing because my containers have minimal weight. I simply tell the person at the meat counter what I want and they weigh the product, put it in my container. The put the price tag on the screw top. If I want a glass container to store it in I keep them at home.
    I have more problems at the recycle center with plastic packaging than I do at the store.

    1. The not-reusing-plastic thing is something that I don’t understand. I have some plastic containers I’ve gotten from ordering takeout or buying yogurt and such, and it seems to me that it would be a lot more beneficial to reuse those before disposing of them than to dispose of them right away, especially because my local recycling center won’t take anything not in a jug shape, so they would just be landfilled. I use those containers when I share dinner leftovers or desserts with friends.

      Given the choice now, I generally try to purchase things in glass containers. But I can’t change the fact that I have bought things in plastic before. Throwing those out instead of reusing them just seems so wasteful.

  18. Anna: RE: Making cream cheese/yogurt. If you can’t find yogurt in glass, consider buying it in a plastic tub and using that as a starter culture for your next batch of yogurt. You’ll use your milk in glass or cardboard to keep it going from there on out. Search how to make yogurt on the stovetop/oven. You’ll just need sterilized jars and a thermometer. I think you can also order a culture by mail (packaging). Cream cheese, I’ve strained yogurt in a colander with a cotton napkin to separate the whey and ‘curds’ the curds (what’s in the napkin) make up the cream cheese. You can set it out overnight on the counter. It’s a little stronger than store bought brands (tangier) but you can add honey or herbs, pumpkin seeds, etc. The clear ‘whey’ liquid is a live cultured probiotic. You can drink it, or use it to start ferments like homemade sparkling sodas, saurkraut, kimchee, carrots, etc. It is a live cultured food that you’d have with your meal. For more on this look into Weston A Price Foundation and Nourishing Traditions. For others following, this is a great zero waste style of cooking and how to prepare foods for maximum nutrition. Thank you Kathryn! Enjoying your blog and the community!

  19. I just learned that glass recycling in my town is actually NOT recycled, but is crushed and used as cover in the landfill :'((((((( I guess it costs too much money to ship the glass to the nearest recycling plant (I live in an isolated community in the north). SO instead I am slowly building my bulk pantry containers with old glass peanut butter containers. Very, very slowly…

    What do you recommend for a bunch of old kombucha bottles? Besides homemade kombucha of course. I have dozens and dozens of those lying around.

    1. I get your disappointment, but consider that the alternative to reusing glass is to mine gravel to cover landfills!

      Aluminium is almost as recyclble as glass but much lighter so more likely to shipped for recycling. I try to look for aluminium and other metal packaging (bulk olive oil).

  20. Thank you for this! We live in a remote rural area with very limited package free options. It’s just not environmentally friendly to drive 30-60 minutes more for shopping, so I do the best with what I can.

    My rural recycling center doesn’t take glass, so I reuse as many of my glass jars as I can and give the rest to a friend who lives in town, where curbside recycling accepts them.

    We’re working on cutting down on plastics, buying more durable items, and also have eliminated the vast majority of disposable items from our lives. The items that have to be disposable (i.e. kitty litter for example), we try to get biodegradable. Horse pine bedding works great for kitty litter and doesn’t need to be landfilled!

    We have been switching to lower impact toiletries. I have the Preserve razor and love it. We’re also planning to switch to bamboo toothbrushes and I just ordered some zero waste floss.

    I buy package free when I can, I take my own bags to the store, and recycle as much as I can. I also compost my organic waste.

    We’ve reduced our landfill waste by about 80%, so I’m going to celebrate that and not worry too much about the imperfect 20%.

  21. I live in a medium-sized city and I would need to drive about 2 hours to get to the capital, which is the nearest big city. There, I could buy many products without packages. Obviously, it is illogical so I’m trying my best to buy everything I can without plastic. The easiest option so far was not buying some products but it’s not a good idea because I’m already on a very strict diet due to my health issues. Your post really encourages me to keep going and even if I can’t change one thing, I can improve my zero waste habits in another, for example home-made beauty products 🙂

  22. Hi. I want to thank you for one comment in particular, as it really felt like a "saving grace" for me personally.
    You said that when there is no option than the one with plastic to remember all the other choices you are making.

    I have been, what I thought was at least, quite environmentally conscientious in my choices in many areas of my life… though a bit on-and-off over the years.
    But recently I learned about the "zero waste lifestyle" and that it, in one compact goal, with accomplish ALL my life goals!!
    I have been thrilled, so I’ve been researching like mad and watching where my waste comes from. I’ve been making changes wherever I can.
    We are a household of 4 people and only make about 4 bags of trash in an average week so I was happy with my starting point.
    But I live in a rural town in Australia – we have no bulk stores, no farmers markets and almost no one is interested in the environment; in other words, I am swimming against the tide all the time.
    I started feeling upset today because I really enjoy cheese but the local small business that makes gourmet cheese declined my request to provide my own container, explaining that it is all packaged in a town 30 mins away.
    But I read your comment and felt better about what I’m doing, even if I do decide to buy a block of cheese from the supermarket. And as I always buy in bulk and grate my own then freeze it, I got a little happier aboit my cheese delimna!!

    I have a solar panel and converter from when I was camping out of my car for 6 months and have set myself a new goal – I can only charge devices (my kindle, phone, tablet, daughters tablet, etc) from solar or the car when I am driving.
    In the last 2 days all devices have recieved a full charge from the sun 🙂
    I have a goal to get our household waste down to 2 bags of landfill waste, we have been growing veggies for a few months now but just assembled a compost bin this week (yay!), the kids have a bath as I shower and then we use the water for the plants, and now I am switching to products that come in glass jars instead of other packaging.
    My kids and I are competing to see who can produce the least waste and the one who wins is getting a piece of fudge from that local store with the cheese I mentioned before.
    My local butcher supported me and our local bakery offered paper until I get a bread bag. And the lady at the cheese place tod me it was really inspiring what I’m upto – so maybe I’ll start something here in my small town!

    But I am curious, how do you resolve things like parcels (I’m a big eBay fan) in plastic packaging? And party bags after a childs party? Or the packaging on a toy or other present for a child? Or even an adult for that matter??

    1. My family always reuses the party bags. So sometimes people get strange bags from us because we don’t buy new ones unless we have to…. But it works very well. The boxes clothes come in when they’re "gift wrapped" at stores also get reused. There are still a few floating around from when we were tweens (I’m now in my 20s). My mom also reuses some of the plastic packaging from her online purchases to send me things, return things in, etc.

  23. I love your articles! I’m trying to go zero waste in my shopping. I’m in FL where there isn’t a huge opportunity for these without at least a 50 min drive.
    I didn’t quite understand the recycle numbers you explained. You said the highest numbers are best, but in the list, the highest numbers were going straight to the landfill. So which number do I want to be getting if unavoidable? Thanks!

  24. Thank you so much! This has been very helpful with re-focusing myself about planning, shopping, storing,etc.
    I love to food prep , to share and to try and improve upon my habits( especially since they connect to everyone and everything else!)
    I am looking forward to a conversation with neighbors and friends about bulk shopping together since we do not live nearer a store with open bins.
    I love the idea of bringing my own take home container to a restaurant, thought never crossed my mind.
    Thank you!!!

  25. Just a note on something you’ve written here – LDPE cannot be recycled. It is the soft plastics that cause the oceans and earth so much trauma. In some cases, they can be turned into park benches and footpaths (this is common for hiking routes here in Australia) but often they just end up in landfill

  26. A huge source of plastic waste is laundry products. Anyone can make their own laundry soap! For people in the midwest, check out Country Life Natural Foods. They sell in very large quantities and the food is high quality. Please don’t forget to repurpose your clothing. There are so many videos about clothing waste. I’m on a roll–good night!

  27. Hi, I came here because of your recent post on insta. I must congratulate you on this helpful post. I wanted to share my experience with you. I am from Puerto Rico a US protectorated island in the Caribbean. Last year we went through catastrophic Hurr. María. A year has passed and our local agriculture hasnt recovered fully from the impact, so we are having most produce imported from other countries. Bulk buying is extremely limited, and the availability of recycling facilities are scarce. My mother always taught me to protect nature. Growing up we always recycled, we had a big compost, and we grew everything we could without knowing proper care. Now I buy mostly organic, but I constantly face the problem of limited availability of fresh produce, so I have to buy frozen. Forgot to mention, theres no facility for recycling glass. I’ve been tackling this issue for over 2 years and only managed to reduce my waste from 2 bags weekly to 1 bag weekly. It gets frustrating, and Im planning maybe I should be the one to take action and opent a bulk store.
    Thank you for taking the time to read. I wish you the best with all your new endeavors. <3 Kristal

  28. If you have to buy something in a container that cannot be recycled and must go into the garbage, take a few steps to protect animals that might get into them. If you buy canned beverages in six-packs, cut every piece of the plastic that holds the cans together so animals cannot get trapped in them. Also, when throwing away bottles or jars, always put the lid on tightly beforehand so animals cannot get their heads stuck inside. Remove lids from cans completely so the edge of the lid cannot close in and harm the animal if it tries to back out. Take plastic bags and fold them over to make a long "rope" and then keep tying into knots until you have one big knot. Always look at an item and the possibility it can be dangerous and destroy the potential for that.

  29. Hi, Kathryn. Very nice blogs. Thank you! I’m learning everything I can about zero waste living, so I appreciate your advice and tips. One thing I want to point out to you in this blog about buying in bulk is, I think you may have inadvertently stated something incorrectly having to do with the recycle symbols and associated numbers. You said the highest number is more likely to be downcycled but I think you meant to say the lowest number is actually more likely to.

  30. Great article. One small comment and I don’t know if you can edit or care to, but at one point you said Viola! I think you meant voila, French for look here!

  31. I know this is an old post but just wanted to pass on some new resources and info for Sept. 2019. Firstly, the Brian Lehrer radio show (available as podcast) on WNYC just did a plastic reduction contest…many good ideas and info for everyone not just NYC. Secondly single stream recycling is in trouble here in the US. Be sure to stay in contact with the recycling dept. in your town because changes happen frequently without notice. My town in NC is now landfilling glass from the single stream system but it does get recycled if I take it to one particular place…for now. And I write or call companies telling them that I’m not buying their products until they come packaged in compostable materials. But despite all the climate woes it’s good to know so many care!

  32. I think I’ve seen Frank’s Buffalo sauce at costco before in 1 gallon jugs. Unfortunately I think it’s plastic….. so maybe it’s better to keep buying smaller glass jars. I’ve made buffalo sauce from scratch before, maybe you can do that?