March 17, 2015

Using Reusable Containers to Buy in Bulk


Update:  I added two more hints below, in red.   

Definitely read this post then click here for liquid-bulk specific tips.

It has been 13 months since I Grinned and Tared It, or started bringing reusable containers to the grocery store.  I'm going to say it's a bit like changing diapers.  It's still unpleasant but do it enough and you don't mind so much.

It's certainly an obligation that requires a fair amount of logistical effort.  Like getting your kids to school and back everyday, there's so much to remember.  Chose and don appropriate clothing, braid hair, make lunches (nuts or no nuts?), complete and remember homework, and THEN, head to school.  But once the routine is established, it becomes...routine, right?

It's the same for going to the grocery store with a Zero Waste agenda.  Your reusable bags are in the car.  Your containers are clean, weighed and labeled.  You know exactly where the hemp seeds are in the vast sea of bulk containers (next to the Hulled Millet, btw).  You get used to taking the sticker from the butcher and putting it on the back of your shopping list for the cashier to scan.  You know a few cashiers by name and sight - because they're the ones that can manage a tare without a calculator.

Heavenly indeed!
Some hints I learned:

  • Sometimes cool things come in bulk.  You might be surprised at some of the things you find, like protein powder for smoothies, fig newtons, more types of rice than I have underwear.  Perhaps you can can find a new, Zero Waste snack for the family.  Chocolate-covered pretzels anyone? 

  • If you can, use the same container for the same product (for example, my dried apricots always go in the same plastic Tupperware bin).  When I run out I already know what container to use and the PLU is already on the lid.

  • Develop a shelf-to-car routine.  When I'm out of, say, dried apricots, the bin goes in my shopping bag that is in proximity to the pantry.  When it's time to hit the grocer, the bins are ready to go.  Note:  It took me nearly a year to get this down.

  • Bring a sharpie to write tares and PLU numbers on new containers.  You can also take a picture with your phone in a pinch.

  • Use mason jars or clear containers instead of reusable bags so you can see what's in them when they're lining your pantry.

  • NEW:  OR...you might consider using bulk bags at the store for dry goods like rice and lentils.  You can't see through them but they are easier to manage than these large, glass containers I use at home.


  • It's not necessary to go out and buy new, matching containers.  I'm certainly not working on a Martha photo shoot with my collection.  This hodgepodge came from years of attending potlucks, making baby food and occasionally scoring at the thrift store.

  • Do try to bring clean containers, though.  It's hard enough making this bulk thing work without involving the health inspectors.  No leftover takeout boxes, please.  

  • Have an extra, empty container hanging around your pantry for when you have a little bit of something left but need to refill the container.

  • Profile cashiers.  Seriously.  It'll save everyone time if you find a trusted agent that can quickly figure out how to subtract the tare from the actual weight before your toddler figures out how to unsnap her cart strap.
$9 for a quarter cup of chili powder?  I don't think so.

  • NEW:  Along those lines, make sure they tare it correctly.  Yesterday a quite confident young cashier tried to charge me $9.00 for some chili powder instead of $ 1.80 because he "didn't realize the jar weighed more."  Oh yes, I educated this young grasshopper.

    Problematic.
  • And if you plan to buy bulk spices, find something wide-mouthed.  Those old McCormick jars are way too narrow to fill.  Trust me on this. 

  • If you are using a container that once contained store-bought food, like this yogurt bucket that is perfect for bulk spinach, take a Sharpie to the bar code so it doesn't scan and charge you $5.99 for $1.50 worth of greens.  **Draw WITH the lines, not across the lines.  Don't ask me why, but it only works that way.  A Whole Foods cashier told me that once.**  



  • Maybe you don't need four kinds of rice and three types of lentils this rotation?  How about sticking to red lentils and basmati this month and changing it up next month?  Just a thought.

Issues I still encounter:


  • Scaring the crap out of a cashier unfamiliar with the tare process.  It's the modern-day version of giving someone $5.14 for something that is $3.89.  

  • Or getting the 'look' from a new butcher or deli attendant.

  • Or worse, getting told, on occasion, "We can't do that here." 

  • Forgetting my containers.  

Room for improvement:

  • Know what I want to buy!  This was a Zero Waste New Year's Resolution that I have yet to address let alone achieve.  In order to save on packaging you need to bring containers.  In order to bring containers you need to know which ones to bring.  In order to know which ones you need to bring you NEED TO KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO EAT.

  • Forgive myself for bad weeks.  Stress-meter gets pegged and I end up with boxes of Wheat Thins and Lucky Charms.  
How did Pringles end up back there?!

It took me a year to get here.  I took it slow and tried to make a little progress each time.  I allowed myself PLENTY of FAILs and tried only to pay attention to the victories or lessons I could learn from my mistakes.  Goodness, I sound like a self-help book!  Imagine if I were to treat all aspirations with such patience!

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