What is bulk shopping and why aren’t bulk bins zero waste?

What is bulk shopping? Why isn’t it zero waste?

A fully-loaded bulk aisle: a zero waste dream. I’m sure we all have visions of popping by a little nearby co-op and finding everything – from free range quinoa to artisanally-crafted granola – to pour into our pristine reusable bags.

As always, though, let’s look at the dream with a little more nuance than the usual “mason jar full of trash” brigade like to do. Because bulk bins aren’t actually zero waste – and that’s OK.

what is bulk shopping?

For people practicing zero waste, bulk shopping usually means being able to access bulk bins, ie. large amounts of dry and wet goods that they can take away in their own containers. This also includes having unpackaged produce. 

Bulk shopping is an important part of the zero waste experience. It allows us to see a very visible reduction in our personal waste, which can feel very empowering. It also lets the average consumer takes a stand against inefficient packaging and begin to opt out of a system they want no part of.

“‘Packaging is inextricably linked with modernity and convenience,’ says Elizabeth Balkan, the food waste director at the National Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group, which means zero-waste stores are unlikely to replace supermarkets anytime soon.” (source) For those of us with access, bulk shopping is a powerful way of engaging with an alternative values system.

The obvious problem with this is many people have only limited – or no – bulk options nearby. The other problem is more difficult to see: namely that trash that continues to exist, even if we don’t throw it into our own trashcans. Let’s be sure we’re getting the full story about zero waste and bulk shopping.

What is bulk and why aren't bulk bins zero waste? - Polly Barks

Bag with easy tare information c/o Green Life Trading Co.

what packaging is behind bulk shopping?

It’s important to remember that just because we’re not putting packaging into our trash can or recycling bin, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in someone else’s bin.

Two kind friends and shop owners were kind enough to share what goes on behind the scenes of the most conscientious low-waste companies around!

Takeaways from Callee of Bestowed Essentials:
  • On the packaging behind bulk orders: “When we order in bulk, which can be anything from 1 lb, 1 gallon or 50 lbs, it almost always comes in a plastic bag or plastic container. The plastic bags, we try to rinse + recycle if possible (of course just because we take it to the recycling facility doesn’t mean it actually even gets recycled), but some things just can’t be cleaned enough for that. Many of our 50 lb products come in a paper bag that tears really easy… we can ask for it without the plastic protection, but then there’s the very high likelihood that it will leak all over the place while it’s being shipped, and then that’s just wasted product.”
  • On reusing packaging: “When things come in a plastic container, we either reuse those in the shop as storage containers, or when sending out our own wholesale items to other zero waste stores, but that’s really just passing off the responsibility of proper disposal to the next guy, despite our efforts to keep it out of the landfill for as long as possible.”
  • On the fact that zero is never zero: “We, and almost all zero waste stores I know, put A LOT of effort into our vendor research + relationships… Something else I take into consideration is distance traveled. Is it worth having something imported from say China just because it’s plastic-free, or is better to buy something with a little plastic that’s made in the next state over? Should I get these non-vegan products made in the US or the vegan products made in Canada? What has the lower carbon footprint? There’s no magic calculator, so you just have to make your best guess.
Takeaways from Sophie of Society Zero:
  • On asking for what you want and making sacrifices: “Some products that have came in unnecessary plastic packaging, we’ve spoken to suppliers as I would encourage every company to do so. We also stock product lines that come in as little packaging as possible e.g our toothbrushes – you get two choices without packaging and they come in great big boxes in bulk, whereas we could expand our range of colours but that would mean excess and unnecessary packaging.”
  • On why zero is never zero: “Nothing flies through the air to us package free, it has to be transported in something, but we reuse and reuse as much as possible and encourage everyone we speak to and sell to to do the same until it’s really not fit for purpose anymore.”

Clearly if two of the most anti-waste people in the biz can’t avoid waste, there’s a major problem with our system. Zero waste will never be zero for anyone until we drastically reimagine our economy. That being said, how much of an impact does all the behind-the-scenes packaging have?

What is bulk and why aren't bulk bins zero waste? - Polly Barks

What’s the impact of packaging?

Despite the hype, pretty minimal in the scheme of things, to be honest. Making the packaging that encases so many foods accounts for 10% of all food production emissions, or about 655 pounds of CO2e annually per American. (source) To put that into context, that’s the same amount of CO2 emissions for an average US person’s diet for about a month and a half.

But let’s keep putting “minimal” impact into context with two more comparisons:

  1. A 500ml plastic bottle of water has an approximate carbon footprint of 82.8oz of CO2. Using one gallon of gas creates around 20lbs of CO2. Driving to three different stores to get zero packaging has a far more damaging effect on the planet than getting the plastic packaging.
  2. A medium meat eater diet produces 5.63kg of CO2 everyday, whereas a vegetarian diet 3.81kg and a vegan diet only 2.89kg. Sourcing unpackaged meat (very difficult and time-consuming) has almost no impact versus just not consuming meat.

Of course the effects of plastic on marine life, water/soil/air quality, and so many other things can’t be overstated. Sustainability is so much more than carbon emissions, but I found this a useful comparison when I was exploring zero waste on a budget and couldn’t avoid packaging. It didn’t mean I was a bad environmentalist, it just meant I could make up for plastic packaging in other, more productive ways.

Avoiding plastic whenever possible is critical. That being said, plastic is not the be-all-end-all of our environmental efforts. Don’t reduce your environmental activism to pieces of plastic.

Shopping unpackaged isn’t unimportant, but can make us forget there are other, bigger forces at work.

Plus, if we frame zero waste and sustainability as simply being a plastic problem, we alienate huge segments of the population for which buying goods in plastic is simply unavoidable due to systemic inequities. What about BIPOC, who are routinely placed near toxic facilities and denied access to fresh food by being forced to live in food deserts? What about people with disabilities who don’t have the capacity to prepare everything unpackaged, and aren’t given appropriate support to do so?

Zero waste must be inclusive; if our brand of zero waste is only centered around the packaging we see, it’s not inclusive at all.

What is bulk? Why aren't bulk bins zero waste? - PollyBarks.com

so should we just give up on bulk shopping?

Of course not, although it’s always important to note that even the best bulk shoppers can’t brag about a “Mason jar full of trash“.

So what is bulk shopping? Pushing waste further up the supply chain; as we all know, just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Still. The chance that you reduce your waste by shopping bulk is pretty much guaranteed. It’s better to have bought from one large bag than many small ones. Larger plastic bags are more likely to be reused and recycled than a tiny, easily destroyed plastic bag that will just gum up a recycling sorter.

It’s also a way to keep yourself feeling like you’re living your values on a day-to-day basis. In a world full of systems conspiring against us, it’s nice to feel like we’re controlling our lives in some way.

All of this is not an indictment on bulk shopping, just a perspective change:

Allow this knowledge to free you from the constraints of needing to produce zero waste. It can’t happen. Embrace harm reduction, not perfection.

And of course, I’ll never leave you without some practical ideas:

How to bulk shop like a pro

  • Make sure you go prepared. By committing to bring your own containers, you actually have to prepare yourself. (I’m still working on this after four years.) Be sure to think ahead and bring enough produce bags for bulk goods and produce as well as jars for fine powders and liquid goods. It’ll take practice, but coming prepared always helps me feel more confident when approaching a new cashier who I’m not sure will know what to do with my own containers!
  • Copy bulk if you don’t have bulk bins. As you learned from the behind-the-scenes peek from companies, they’re not magically sourcing 100% unpackaged goods delivered by carbon-free transport. So instead of bemoaning a lack of bulk, mimic what bulk bin stores do and buy the largest amount possible of an item. I really like Azure Standard for online bulk ordering. (Too much product or too expensive on your own? Split it with a friend or family member!)
  • Decide on your harm reduction alternatives. Know buying a bunch of plastic packaging at the store will make you feel like a failure? Find other ways to mitigate your impact! Some ideas include: going plant-based as much as possible, reduce travel by petroleum-fueled transport, volunteer your time to a local environmental or social-based organization, and so many other ways!

Further reading: