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Reducing Waste with Bulk

by Mike Burns, Product Placement Manager

Since the very first grocery stores, food goods have been sold in bulk quantities. I’m not talking about big box Costco-like bulk. I’m referring to barrels of dried goods (grains, flours, nuts, etc.), bushels of produce, flats of eggs, cheese and meat cut to order and liquids by the vat. One of the things that makes a Co-op unique is that this original concept of buying goods in the quantity you want with the freshness you desire is alive and well. Of course, we have a wide range of packaged goods that our Owners want and need, but our commitment to high-quality bulk items with minimal packaging is what makes us stand out.

Bulk Food Not Bulk Packaging

Let's make a clear distinction of the difference between buying 12 giant plastic honey containers wrapped in plastic in a cardboard tray and filling a giant glass jug of honey from a bulk container. Buying in bulk can have two different meanings these days with the ever-growing popularity of big box stores. The bulk coming from those retailers are often heavy on packaging and have actually been found to dramatically increase the packaging and food waste associated with purchasing food. Sure some staple pantry items can play a positive role in waste reduction (think large bags of rice or pasta), but even the giant bags of frozen fruit I bought had servings individually wrapped in plastic.

The point is, think bulk food, not bulk packaging. Just because you are getting more of something, doesn't mean there is an associated waste reduction. 

Top 5 Reasons to Shop in the Bulk Department

1. Waste reduction

The major benefit for me is the extreme reduction of packaging waste produced by shopping in the bulk aisle. While the Bulk aisle is not completely free of waste, it dramatically reduces the amount of single-use plastic when shoppers use reusable containers. Also, most of the containers used to deliver our bulk dried goods are either paper or plastic, both we recycle, that hold a very large amount of product.

2. Food waste reduction

While at first glance the Bulk aisle would appear to waste a larger amount of food than packaged foods, there is actually a lot of evidence that the majority of preventable food waste happens at home. The major cause for food waste in our Bulk department is spillage or overfilling containers, both of which are preventable. We move through so much bulk at our stores that very little actually ever gets close to the expiration date.

3. Cost savings

This reason is often touted as the best reason to shop bulk. The reduction of cost in packaging is reflected in the lower cost of the product, which means we can sell it to you at a lower price. One study from the University of Portland states that shoppers could potentially save up to 89% percent when purchasing bulk foods instead of pre-packaged foods. Plus, you can buy as little or as much as you want.

4. Flexible amounts

As I stated above, with the Bulk department you are not limited to what is in a box or bag or forced to buy more than you want. Need a cup of something for a recipe but don’t want to buy an entire package of it? Buy exactly what you need in bulk so you don’t let the rest of it go to waste—and you don't have to pay for that extra waste!

5. Healthier options

I have always found that I eat better when I buy in bulk. The majority of the bulk items have one ingredient with no additives or highly processed ingredients. It also forces me to cook with my family and plan out our meals instead of eating out or popping something in the microwave.

An American Bulk Food Dream

An NC State University report claims that if all Americans purchased certain foods in bulk throughout a single year, the material (packaging) savings would be as follows:

Bulk coffee would save 240 million pounds of foil packaging waste.

Bulk almonds would save 72 million pounds of packaging waste.

Bulk peanut butter would save seven pounds of landfill waste per family per year.

Bulk oatmeal would cut packaging waste by one fifth.

This is just a very small snapshot of the items offered in the bulk department. Think if we could get ALL food staples purchased this way what the material savings would be!

Even though buying food in bulk was the way people bought groceries historically, today only a limit amount of groceries can be found in bulk in most standard groceries stores. It's not weird to buy produce by the pound or to order meat items from the counter. But an entire bulk department made up of dried goods and various liquids can be quite intimidating to most shoppers these days. I assure you, once you make a few bulk pantry purchases, you will start to wonder why you’ve never done it before.