A typical day of bulk shopping can often leave you with more packaging that you bargained for.


Purchasing jumbo-sized products in the name of saving money can lead to food spoilage which offsets the savings you were going for. The next time you go to a big box retailer, take a moment to look at the packaging the items you are buying comes in. Is there more than necessary? Is the packaging recyclable? Truly embrace zero waste by buying in bulk with reusable containers, such as mason jars, Tupperware and cloth produce bags.

A photo posted by Jonathan Levy (@zerowasteguy) on

The original concept of bulk shopping is using your own containers to purchase only what you need, but not more.

Last week I was in Costco with my dad to do some shopping for my birthday. I don’t go in Costcos often, so I was in a bit of shock when I realized just how much of the store is containerized in unnecessary packaging. When I saw how much of the store, I really mean to say that the entire store is containerized in unnecessary packaging. Well, to be fair, the only product I found that wasn’t banded to another or made with unnecessary packaging was a (plastic) jar of Best Food Mayonnaise…but, since we are being fair, it was 64 ounce jar. Who the heck needs that much mayo? But I digress…

Now, before the naysayers can correct me, I will acknowledge that the literal definition of bulk means a large amount or quantity or something, so to be fair, for a technical/legal/semantics perspective, sure Costco is bulk. But, however, for the sake of traditional bulk shopping, Costco does not fit the bill.

When I think of bulk shopping, I think of bulk bins, farmers markets and bazaars. The original concept of bulk shopping is using your own containers to purchase only what you need, but not more. While traveling in both Costa Rica and El Salvador, bulk shopping is quite common. I have a memory of riding the bus with a woman traveling with live chickens and reusable sacks that carried the various beans and grains in which she purchased while at the market.

In reality, all grocers are guilty of excess packaging. Heck, even the farmers markets are bad about it.

I shared a photo recently from my trip to Morocco. The narrow streets of each medina were vibrant and full of life. Carcasses of entire animals hung from meat hooks so that you could purchase the exact cut and quantity of the meat you wanted. Street merchants would carry on their backs fresh produce from their family farms into the medinas. When they found the best spot, they would open the blankets full of produce up and spread it out. And unlike the farmers markets of the States, they would not insist that you take a plastic produce bag with you. Why would they? It would be an additional cost to them as well as an additional load on their back.

Okay, now back to Costco. Here are the reasons why Costco is not a true zero waste bulk shopping experience:

  1. Banding individually wrapped items together increases waste, not reduces it. For a true bulk buying experience, head to your local farmers market or a grocer who has bulk bins. Refill your own containers and rest easy knowing that you are not contributing excessive packaging to the waste stream. Buying in bulk only reduces waste when you reduce packaging. Buying 48 individually wrapped one ounce servings of trail mix is more expensive and generates way more waste than buying 48 ounces of the same product from a bulk bin.
  2. Purchasing larger portions than are necessary increases food waste. We are often lured with discounts and shopping bonuses to purchase more than we need. If you end up throwing food away because it spoiled you are oftentimes canceling the perceived savings you were seeking in the first place.
  3. Fruit and veggies have a natural skin, so why are you containerizing them or otherwise wrapping them in plastic? Costco, Trader Joe’s and many other grocers are notorious for this practice. When I was a kid there used to be produce scales in grocery stores. I (in my pre-zero waste childhood) would grab a handful of produce bags and fill them with the fruits and veggies that I wanted. There were produce scales spread throughout the area so you could estimate how much of a given product you would be purchasing. Go into Costco and you instead find apples in plastic containers and most other produce in mesh plastic sacks. Trader Joes in infamous (or notorious) for placing two cucumbers on a Styrofoam tray that is then wrapped in Cellophane.
  4. People can read: If the price is contingent upon buying two or more of an item, trust that your customers can remember to grab the right amount. Do we need to band items together with hard-to-recycle plastic that won’t be recycled?
Manufacturers and retailers only fill market needs; they sell what they know we will buy.

I typically keep it positive and don’t mean to put Costco specifically on the spot; this was just something that was right in front of me which made me compelled to blog about it. In reality, all grocers are guilty of excess packaging. Heck, even the farmers markets are bad about it. You would think that a farmers market would be a safe haven for purchasing package- and processed-free produce, but man do they love those produce bags. I practically have to fend the farmers off with a stick to keep them from putting my produce in extra bags. Even worse though, has got to be buying berries from the farmers market. If you want a flat of three baskets, they put three plastic baskets in a paperboard box which they put in a plastic bag. Sheesh.

This won’t change overnight. Manufacturers and retailers only fill market needs; they sell what they know we will buy. So long as we accept excess packaging they will continue to “market” products with said packaging. If you want to have an immediate impact now, start refusing to accept that packaging. Maybe that means shopping at the farmers market with your own produce and grocery bags instead of the bags provided by the store. Maybe that means stopping at Sprouts instead of Costco. Rethink your actions. Rethink what is possible.

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