Planning your first trip to a bulk store to shop zero waste can be daunting as a beginner. The first few times I went bulk shopping I felt like a complete idiot, but you don't have to.
Here is everything you need to now on how to bulk shop, what to bring with you and things to be aware of. It's ridiculously easy once you know what you're doing and a fabulous way to avoid plastic packaging.
Most bulk stores and zero waste shops operate in similar ways, but in my experience, individual shops can vary a little with their process which CAN be really confusing as a first-timer. A dedicated bulk store will operate quite differently from a supermarket that just happens to have bulk bins, and a market stall may be different again.
What Can You Buy Bulk Shopping
Almost anything can be bought from a bulk store!
Food is the obvious item and most foods can be found in bulk. You'll find a variety of legumes, cereals, grains, snacks, teas, chocolate, coffee, olive oil, herbs & spices, honey.....the list goes on.
You can also find places that stock shampoo, soaps, dish detergent, vinegar and loads of other useful items that you can refill your existing containers.
And NO you do not have to buy a giant quantity of everything. Items will be in bulk containers from which you can measure, pour or select the exact quantity you like.
Finding Places that Sell in Bulk (zero waste)
Look out for:
>Health Food Stores
>Whole Food Stores
>Organic Food Shops
>Zero Waste Shops
You might even find some other places like Lolly Shops, Bakeries, Green Grocers, butchers and more that will happily allow you to use your own containers or bags, although these aren't exactly considered bulk stores.
Search around your local area, google bulk stores, ask friends and maybe even join a local zero waste group on Facebook (they are a great place to ask questions and find products without packaging).
If you're in Adelaide then I've done a lot of the work for you put together a mega list of places to shop zero waste and plastic free in Adelaide.
What To Bring With You When Bulk Shopping
You wont need ALL of these things, but it will give you an idea of useful items so you can choose the most convenient.
Make a quick list of items you need and always shop your own pantry first. Only buy what you need and a list is super handy because you may get distracted by all the choices available.
You may also want to bring along notes on the cost of items (per 100grams or per kilo) you usually buy at the supermarket to compare at the bulk store. I do this so I can quickly compare prices even though I'm not necessarily seeking the cheapest option. This is really useful when it comes to items you might buy in small quantities like herbs or tea which may sound expensive per kilo but may even be cheaper than the supermarket.
>Clean Reusable Containers
Bring glass jars, plastic containers or tins to fill from the bulk bins. Make sure you have a selection of different sizes. Bulk stores generally carry a range of grains, legumes, breakfast cereals, pasta, loose leaf tea and more. Consider what items you will be buying and what size container is best for the amount you want. You don't have to fill them to the brim, just get what you need.
Remember to save any useful containers like jam jars, coffee tins and plastic items that could be reused instead of recycled.
>Paper Bags or Reusable plastic Bags
Paper and plastic bags aren't my favourite option, but they are light, easy to carry and can be super handy for some items. Lots of stores provide paper bags and some only provide plastic bags. My mum sometimes uses the biobags we receive from the council for our food waste. I have no idea if they are completely food safe, but it works for her and is perfectly fine for fruit and veg.
>Cotton Bags for Filling
Cotton drawstring bags are my favourite because they are light weight, machine washable and work with most products I want to buy. Bringing a few of these along with your containers is a great backup plan, especially if you end up buying more items than you planned. Remember, some stores won't weigh glass containers and you really don't want to pay for the weight of those.
>Reusable Shopping Bags
That goes without saying, but do bring spares in case your refilled containers are on the heavy side.
I have a super handy reminder that I hang on my door so I don't forget to take a host of reusables with me. You can get this in the member's area and use it too, just subscribe below.
Bulk shops stock a variety of items, so think about extra things you might need to bring. If you plan on buying organic produce, bread, having a snack, getting a coffee or a fresh organic juice, you will want to be prepared. (I hate missing out on great coffee)
Here are some additional items you may want to consider bringing with you:
>Reusable Produce Bags
>Linen Bread Bags
>Basket (for carrying)
>Small snack containers (glass, stainless steel, plastic)
>Reusable Cutlery and napkin
Do You Care to Tare?
If you don't know what taring is, you are not alone.
The tare is the weight of your container when it is empty. This is important to know before you fill so that this weight can be removed when it gets rung up at the cash register.
Some stores are happy for you to tare at home - this means you can weigh containers on the scales at home and write their weight on the bottom. Make sure you weigh it with the lid on, because that is how you will be bringing it to the counter.
If you're unsure or don't have scales, pretty much every bulk store I have been to will help you weight the container and write the tare weight down for you. Each container does need to be done as there can be variances between weights even for identical jars. (Remember, supermarkets and some stores can't tare your containers)
With cotton bags, I don't usually bother taring. Most of my large bags weight around 20-40 grams so even if I'm buying something that costs $30 a kilo (which is very rare!), I'm only paying about 6cents more and I don't really care. I figure they deserve the extra few cents and it saves my time when the store is busy. I keep them in my handbag so I can always pop in to get one or two items.
Doing Your First Bulk Shop
Once you have found a Bulk Shop you want to visit, check out their website or social media. It will give you plenty of clues as to what they stock, maybe some prices and also how they operate as far as taring and writing down codes etc.
Generally, you take your container to the counter to be tared and then go ahead and fill them up.
At small markets, the person behind the counter may fill them up for you and you just need to tell them what you want and how much.
Larger whole food stores you will likely be asked to write a product code on the container to make it simpler for ringing up on the cash register.
With supermarkets, they wont weigh containers and you will need to bring lightweight bags to avoid the plastic. Just fill them up, write down the code if required (most don't require this) and head to the checkout where it will be weighed.
If you cant figure out their rules online and there are no obvious signs in the store, go ahead and ask.
They want you shopping there and are probably really into plastic-free shopping too, so don't ever be afraid to say it's your first time there and can they explain how it works.
Some stores are happy for you to sample items from the bulk bins too (even chocolate things!)
Even if you stuff something up, it's really not going to be that bad...
>If you forget your bags, they probably have some there
>Forget jars for liquids, then ask if they have some for sale, most do
>If you forget to write the codes down, go back and try to find them
> If you fill your containers without taring, ask for some help to figure it out
>If you drop all the chic peas and popping corn all over the floor....well, make sure you tell them and maybe offer to help sweep up
(I really appreciate signs like the one below from The Simple Market in Adelaide)
>If your entire family decides to have umpteen samples of the super expensive chocolate coated freeze dried strawberries...….just explain you live with animals and can you please pay for what they ate
>If you go crazy buying everything because you cant believe how much plastic free stuff there is and then realise you can't possibly carry it? Some smaller stores may even offer to help you carry it if you are parked close to the shop. Alternatively, ask if they can stash it behind the counter while you make a few trips OR treat it as a workout and try to eat the good stuff to lighten the load.
Those are just a few of the things that happened to me bulk shopping and it all worked out perfectly fine.
So go ahead and plan your first bulk shop and get excited about all the plastic-free zero waste yummy things you're going to find.
Now you know how bulk stores operate, how to tare, what to bring and how to deal with embarrassing family members - You're practically not even a beginner anymore with all this knowledge!
Enjoy your Bulk Shop!
If you have questions, some more tips to add, or want to share your funny bulk shopping stories, I'd LOVE to hear them.
Don't forget to save this for later reference and share it around so we can get everyone to start having fun with zero waste shopping and supporting local bulk stores.
They'll realise just how easy it is to do and avoid single-use plastic. If everyone just bought a few items from the bulk bins, there would be a lot less plastic in the world.