My Plastic Free Life Goes on Paper! {Book Excerpt: Buying from Bulk Bins}

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I’m so pleased to host Beth Terry of My Plastic Free Life today with an excerpt from her new book. my plastic free life beth terry

Find Beth’s book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can, Too on Amazon, via Kindle, OR guaranteed to ship without any plastic packaging (how cool!) at

Here’s Beth, directly from the book, which, by the way, was made without the typical plastic-laden glues, bindings, or synthetic thread found in normal books nowadays:

Beautiful Bulk Bins

beth terry bulk binsThe biggest step in my plastic-free grocery shopping journey was learning to use and love the bulk bins. Most natural foods stores, as well as some conventional supermarkets, have a section of bins where you can buy loose unpackaged rice, grains, flours, soup mixes, beans, cereals, trail mixes, sugar, cocoa powder, chocolate chips, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, olives, herbs, spices, and teas.

Some stores offer liquids in bulk, like cooking oils, vinegar, honey, maple syrup, and soy sauce. Nut grinders allow customers to grind their own peanut or almond butter into their own containers. (Note: Treehuggers in Grand Rapids area actually offers some liquid bulk, even cleaning products!)

Out here in the Bay Area, independent grocery stores like Rainbow Grocery and Berkeley Bowl provide an even wider selection of dried pastas and crunchy snack foods. Rainbow even offers bulk fresh pasta, pesto, miso, tofu, and many other products you might not expect to buy packaging free.

Here are a few suggestions for making friends with the bulk bins:

Find Out What Resources Exist Where You Live.

It might require a little traveling at first to research what stores in your area carry the widest selection of bulk products. You usually won’t find much more than candy, nuts, and some dried fruits at conventional grocery stores like Safeway.

Chains like Whole Foods Market and local natural foods stores and co-ops will be your best bet. Take notes when visiting these stores, so you’ll remember what they offer and can plan future shopping trips to stock up on necessities.

Note: Smart Choice Market in Byron Center has a large selection of *only* gluten-free foods, AND they even offer paper bags, no plastic at all, for the bulk bins.


Bring Your Own Bags and Containers.

While proponents tout bulk bins as a way to generate less packaging waste, stores generally provide rolls of plastic bags for bringing home your purchases. Avoid the plastic bags. Just as you can use your own cloth produce bags for buying fruits and vegetables, many stores allow you to use your own reusable bags and containers for bulk foods.

If the store doesn’t sell reusable bulk/produce bags, you can buy them through beth terry bulk bins 2Eco-Bags Products, ChicoBag, ReUseIt, or Etsy. Another company I love is Ambatalia (, which offers gorgeous handmade, natural linen, multi-purpose bentobags, designed to carry everything from produce to popcorn. Ambatalia’s motto is “Hand-crafted textiles for a non-disposable life.” I love that.

Alternatively, try making your own bulk bags out of repurposed t-shirts and pillow cases. Or skip the bag altogether and fill up repurposed glass mason jars, which means you don’t have to pour the contents of the bag into a storage container when you get home. Pretty much any container will do, as long as you follow the next step.

Weigh Your Containers/Bags.

Bulk foods are sold by weight. You don’t want the weight of your bags and containers to be included in the price of the food, so make sure you weigh your containers before you fill them.

Different stores have different methods for dealing with the “tare” weight. At Whole Foods, customers first bring their containers to the Customer Service Desk, where they are weighed by a staff member, who writes the weight on a sticker. Then, at checkout, the clerk deducts the weight of the container.

Rainbow Grocery, on the other hand, uses the honor system. Customers weigh their own containers on scales provided in the back of the store and mark the weight on the container, which is deducted at checkout. If you haven’t used the bulk bins before, ask store staff the proper way to handle tare weights as soon as you enter the premises.

And by the way, most reusable bulk/produce bags offered for sale will indicate the tare weight on the label, so you don’t have to worry about weighing them.

A Funnel Can Help.

beth terry bulk cocoaI like to bring a funnel with me if I know I’m going to be filling up glass jars with narrow necks. Invariably, another customer will ask to borrow it, and we’ll end up having a conversation about buying in bulk and reducing waste.

Reuse Your Plastic Bags.

Some stores, unfortunately, do not allow customers to use their own bags and containers. And some stores are not set up to deduct tare weights. In that case, you can bring back plastic bags to reuse again and again.

Once, while shopping at Berkeley Bowl, I saw a woman who had devised an ingenious system for reusing her plastic bags. Each bag was labeled with the name of a product and filed alphabetically in a folder. As she used up products, she’d file her bags in a shopping folder that she brought to the store with her. The system was her shopping list and also allowed her to avoid constantly washing out bags that had contained dry foods.

Why rinse out her white flour bag, for example, when she’s just going to refill it with white flour? If you do choose to reuse plastic bags, be sure and empty the contents into a nonplastic container as soon as you get home.

While reusing plastic bags is one way to avoid consuming new plastic, we would be better off not having to use plastic bags in the first place. While you’re at the store, why not talk to the manager about the policy and let him/her know why going plastic-free is best for our health and that of the planet?

Take Some Bags with You Whenever You Leave the House.

Successfully relying on bulk bins to reduce plastic waste does require planning. You can’t just pop into the nearest store for sugar or cereal if you don’t have bags or containers with you to carry them home. I keep a few cloth bags and even some reused paper bags in my purse at all times, just in case.

Plan Your Shopping Trips.

If you live more than a few miles away from a bulk foods store, plan big shopping trips so you can stock up all at once and reduce travel miles. My friend Lisa Sharp, the Oklahoma recycling hero from chapter 4, buys most of her food from a natural grocery store many miles from her house. But she and her husband plan ahead, so they only have to go there once a month.

What’s your favorite thing to buy from the bulk bins? Any tips for organization and being plastic-free?

Thanks again to Beth for allowing me to post this excerpt. You will love the rest of the book just as much! Find Beth’s book, Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can, Too on Amazon, via Kindle, OR with zero-plastic packaging (how cool!) at

Find all the bloggers on the book tour here:

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Disclosure: I am an affiliate of both and Amazon and will receive a little kickback if you order there - but really, I just hope you read Beth's book. Ask your library to get a copy! The excerpt is reprinted with permission from the author. See my full disclosure statement here.

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16 Bites of Conversation So Far

    • says

      No Impact Man was the person who inspired me 5 years ago to try and live without acquiring new plastic. In fact, there is a little piece from an interview with him in the book.

  1. says

    I thought I was the only one who brought mason jars to the Coop! You laid this article out in an easy to follow format and inspired me to consider reusing the plastic bags when I forget mine. Thanks!

    • says

      So glad it was helpful. In fact, the entire book is laid out in this way. It’s the book I wish had existed 5 years ago when I decided to try to live without acquiring any new plastic.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      That’s a good point – Beth’s goal is not to use any new plastic, so I guess she has to use what’s already there quite often. :) Katie

      • says

        Hi Tina. Yes, the bins are plastic. And some of the bulk foods come in big plastic bags. But the point is to reduce my own personal plastic consumption as much as possible, and buying in bulk produces much less plastic waste than buying smaller sizes packaged in plastic. Further on in the book, I present an interview with a Whole Foods representative who explains how the bins are sanitized and which foods come in plastic sacks and which ones come in paper.

        • Tina says

          We are trying to reduce our BPA. We recycle all our plastics, but it seems as if everywhere I turn something is stored in plastic and we never know if the storage containers are BPA free. Did the WF interview include this question in the discussion?


  2. says

    One of the grocery store chains in my area, Meijer, is in the midst of eliminating all bulk bins (except pet items). The current thought is that there is too much liability in the risk of contamination. Anybody could dump anything in those bins. When bulk bins first became popular in the 1980’s we were a lot less worried about things like bird flu, noro virus, and H1N1. Stores now are worried about anybody with germy hands being able to touch the food in the bins, or some crazy person could poison them. Stores no longer want that risk.

    I believe the Meijer chain is not unique in this thinking. Smaller independent stores might be willing to do things in bulk bins, but the big chains are moving away from it.

    My hubby is an independent distributor for a cookie company and we recently lost all our bulk business at Meijer, which was very disappointing to us, but this is the direction things are now moving.

        • says

          That IS sad! Actually, Smart Choice Mkt in byron Center has an awesome gluten-free bulk section, and half his bins are the pull down kind, so you can’t put anything in them or touch anyone else’s food.

          Treehuggers in Easttown also has tons of bulk, and you can get together with friends to get a $400 order from Country Life Natural foods for some serious bulk buys! (50 obs of popcorn, rice, dry beans, etc in my basement!)

          :) Katie

  3. Rachel C. says

    We don’t have any bulk stores near us, but I’ve just discovered a co-op that does online ordering – which is a great option for buying bulk to avoid plastic. The pick-up about 45 minutes from our home, but it’s a great option for buying bulk, especially if I can partner with some of my neighbors to do a bi-weekly or monthly purchase; then we can split the travel by picking up for each other. The co-op focuses on local foods and ranges from flour and meats to fruit and specialty goods.

    They request that you bring your own bags and prices are reduced since its a group order.

    • says

      Buying in bulk with friends is a great way to do it. That’s also how I buy my cheese. I found a wheel of cheese out here that is not wrapped in plastic, but in order to buy it plastic-free, you have to buy the whole wheel, which is pretty big. So I go in on it with some other cheese-loving friends. :-)

  4. Amanda says

    Nut allergies and cross contamination pretty much eliminate bulk bins for us. But it’s interesting to know they have systems for dealing with the tare weight of mason jars, because I’ve always wondered about that.

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