By Guest post by Lindsay Miles, 6 Mar 2019.
Bulk stores are grocery shops that buy products in bulk (maybe 20kg or 20 litres at a time) and allow us, the customers, to buy exactly what we need. They provide bags and containers for us to use, and usually allow us to bring our own containers. Many bulk stores also sell non-food items like laundry powder, dishwashing liquid and other cleaning/personal care products.
Why are people increasingly choosing to shop at bulk stores? Well, a big reason is that it is an easy way to reduce our single-use plastic and other packaging. More than 8 out of 10 Australians are concerned about plastic pollution in the ocean, and choosing to shop at bulk stores is one simple way we can reduce the packaging we use. Yes, bulk stores still receive items in packaging, but one big container is far less than the equivalent in 100g pre-packaged portions. Plus they try to work with suppliers to reduce the packaging upstream.
Other reasons to choose to shop at bulk stores include supporting local businesses (almost all bulk stores are independently owned and operated), being able to choose healthier foods (processed food is usually kept to a minimum) and being able to buy exactly what we need. Only need 2 tablespoons of something for a recipe? With bulk stores, there’s no predetermined packet size. We buy only what we need, saving money and food waste.
Whilst no two bulk stores are exactly the same, the principles behind how they work are.
Before you leave home, make a shopping list of things you need. It’s always easier with a list, especially in a store that’s not familiar to us.
To avoid packaging you might want to bring glass jars, containers or reusable produce bags made of netting or cloth. You might have old paper bags or even plastic bags you can re-use. If you don’t have any of these things, make a note to see what options are in-store, and how other people are making do.
A note about glass jars and reusable containers: not all bulk stores are set up to take these. They need to be weighed before they are filled (because you don’t want to be paying for the weight of the glass jar!) and not all stores have suitable scales or systems.
Bulk store shopping is a very different experience to shopping at a supermarket. It’s likely that the staff will be as enthusiastic about reducing waste and eating real food as you, and will be delighted to answer questions. If you’re unsure of anything, head straight to a staff member and explain that you’re new to this way of shopping: ask how their store works and if there’s anything you need to know. Ask whether you can use your own jars and how it works. They might need to weigh them for you, they might have self-service scales or they might say no. Do not fill your jars until you’ve established how much they weigh!
If they aren’t set up for glass jars, you can use reusable produce bags or they may supply paper bags (which can be re-used next time). Start finding the things on your list and filling up your bags and containers. Sometimes a pen is provided for labelling, but if not you can write the codes down in your phone to help the checkout process out.
Some other things to think about: If we are used to supermarkets, we are used to unit prices (such as x price for a box of teabags) rather than price per kilo. Supermarkets list these prices, we don't tend to pay much attention. This can be confusing at bulk stores, because we often don't have much idea how much things weigh. For example, loose leaf tea may have an expensive kilo price, but is very lightweight, so a jar does not cost as much as the same jar filled with something heavy like nuts. Sometimes stores have scales, so we can add a small amount and then weigh to see how much it will cost before adding more.
And don’t forget, there’s no rule saying you have to fill the jar up! Half full or quarter full is just as acceptable.
For the first few shops get a receipt, and pay attention to how much things cost. You can compare with your normal place of shopping and making adjustments next time if things are wildly different.
Most things sold at bulk stores are sold by weight, but some liquids will be sold by volume. The price label will always tell you how you will be charged. If liquid is sold by volume, you need to know the volume of the container rather than the weight (such as knowing the jar is 750ml or one litre).
We tend to head to the supermarket every week, but bulk stores can be approached a little differently. If you live far from a bulk store, getting super organised can mean you only need to head there every few weeks - the products they sell have a long shelf life, so there is no need to head in weekly. On the other hand, if you prefer to pop in every few days rather than stockpile, that works too.
Bulk stores offer more freedom than supermarkets to choose how you'd like to shop; they’re friendly places, selling real food, and owned by real people rather than faceless corporations. Plus many of them sell Loving Earth chocolate in bulk. Is there any reason not to make the switch?
Lindsay Miles helps others take action to live with less waste and less stuff, and writes the blog treadingmyownpath.com. Her new book ‘Less Stuff’ is available worldwide from 1st May 2019. Follow her on Instagram at @treadingmyownpath.