How to Shop the Bulk Aisle

Earlier this week, I shared my guide to grocery stores throughout the United States where you're able to purchase food from the bulk aisle without packaging, in containers brought from home. If you're working toward going zero waste, buying food in bulk is a central part of reducing the trash you make. And, I don't mean buying huge quantities of food at a time - not that kind of bulk. Instead, I'm referring to the bulk foods aisle that some groceries offer, where they have large bins or canisters of unpackaged foods that you can decant into smaller containers for purchase. This system allows you to purchase food in the same containers again and again, eliminating single-use packaging. In case you're new to bulk shopping, the how-to guide below can help you master it quickly and easily!

Here's how to shop the bulk aisle:

1. While at home, gather a few clean, empty jars and cotton produce bags that fit with the items on your shopping list. For example, if I plan to purchase bulk olive oil, I'll bring a glass swingtop bottle or Mason jar. If I want to purchase a spice, such as paprika, I'll pack a small glass spice jar. For dry goods such as beans or nuts, I'll typically fill up a small cotton drawstring bag, but a jar would also work well. You can carry all of your empty containers to the grocery in a reusable shopping bag.

2. At the grocery store, find the bulk foods aisle - where foods are dispensed from larger containers into smaller ones. Not all grocery stores offer foods in bulk; most Whole Foods markets do (though not all of them allow you to bring your own container from home). To find a store in your area that sells bulk food and will allow you to bring your own container, click here.

3. You'll need to tare your containers, which means writing down the amount they weigh when empty. This ensures that once you fill them with food, the cashier can subtract the original weight of the containers so that you only pay for the weight of the food you buy, not the container. Find the scale near the bulk aisle, and place each container (and lid) on the scale one at a time, weighing them one by one and recording the weights. You can either write the tare weight on the jar or bag with a marker, or record the weight in a note on your phone. If there's no scale available, tell an employee that you'd love to fill up containers from home, and ask if they'd help you tare them.

4. Fill your containers with food, and record the PLU (price look-up) code for each different type of food. The PLU is a code that you'll see next to the name of each food; it tells the cashier what's in your containers. You can write it down beside the tare weight so that you have both numbers handy.

5. Bring your purchases to the front, and check out! Thank the cashier for letting you bring your own containers. Congratulations - you've just shopped waste-free!

In addition to reducing packaging waste, shopping in bulk also saves you money (you'll no longer have to pay for packaging, just food!), and often the food is fresher because turnover is higher.

Do you have a favorite grocery store where you like to shop for package-free foods? I'd love to hear, and I'll add it to my national guide so that others can find it, too!