Monday, November 28, 2016

Beginner's Guide to Buying from the Bulk Bins


So you're interested in getting closer to Zero Waste, you want to reduce your grocery bill, reduce the amount of wasted food and packaging you have to deal with? You want to lower your environment impact and help keep our world cleaner and our bodies healthier?

Did you know that the individual transport and packaging can make the same items cost up to 20% more? Sometimes even more that that!

Did you know that you don't have to buy large quantities to save big at the bulk bins? If you only use a little bit of something, you can buy just a little bit. Keep it sealed in an airtight container it'll keep for longer!

Want to save money and reduce waste while living in an apartment with a hardly any cupboard space? 

Buying from the bulk bins and storing in clear glass containers or jars actually cuts down on the amount of space taken up by packaging - plus you can actually see what, and how much you have! 

Once you figure out what you like and use, you can save even bigger by buying more of what you know you'll use.

You've seen the bulk food bins, but how the heck do you get started? 

Photo courtesy of

Beginners Guide to Buying from the Bulk Bins

Even if you're a seasoned pro, you might find some tips in here. And if you have any other tricks, please share them with the rest of us in the comment section below.

Before you leave home:


In order to purchase from the bulk bins you either need to use the bags (if any) provided, purchase containers, or bring your own from home.

Glass jars with tight fitting lids and woven (such as muslin) cloth bags are the most useful.

Mesh bags are great for produce and some larger bulk items, such as snacks or bigger kinds of nuts.

Investing in reusables will save lots of money in the long run - you can even make your own bags and save jars from purchased goods.

Different sized jars and bottles can be really helpful - especially when you're getting started - try a small amounts of new products before filling your cupboards with something you might hate. 

I highly recommend the PopTop Lids (giveaway open until 2pm today!) from EcoJarz

Helpful but not necessary:

 Masking tape (often provided) and a marker. 

Most places I've been to have a pen or mechanical crayon available but bringing your own felt tip marker (like a sharpie) can make things a lot easier. 

Some people even recommend bringing water color pastels to write directly on the bags and throw them in the wash after. I liked the convenience of it but the hassle of the tin and the struggle with my artistic toddlers made it less than ideal.

An item I use every time I shop is a bag with a box in it (see above photo). 

It sounds simple, because it really is. I tried a handful of different cardboard boxes until I found one that fitted exactly into the bottom of one of our smaller cloth grocery bags. It provides a little extra structure and helps keep heavy or fragile items (like glass jars) safe on the journey home.  

I highly recommend bringing cloth shopping bags from home. Paper bags from the store do not do nearly as good of a job at keeping dry goods containers safe.

At the store:

1.) Mark the tare weight of your container or bag:

What is the tare weight and why is it important? 

The tare weight is the total weight of the container, lid, stickers, etc. when it's empty. At the checkout, the clerk will subtract the weight of the container and charge you only for its contents.

Before you fill your containers weigh them and mark their tare weight. This is the where the masking tape and marker come in handy.

Once you've gotten the tare weight, you won't need to re-weigh your empty container each time. Just make sure to transfer the tare weight to any new labels.

EDIT: some stores prefer you to have an employee mark the tare weight - I've run into this where the employee only knows how to use their tare system and was confused by the tare being marked as a weight. Most stores use the two decimals digits as a number (not knowing that it's just the weight), this person seemed not to know what they were doing. :shrug: 

2.) Mark the PLU code on your container: 

The PLU code or Price Look-up code (or occasionally product code) is the individual numbered code that identifies the exact product in the bin and in your container, it will be marked on the bulk container. 

The checkout clerk will punch in this number when they weight your item at checkout. It's handy to have it easily visible to expedite your departure.

This full (refilled) bottle of dish soap cost less than half of what the bottle of soap originally cost. I like to take the labels off as the containers feel better in my hands, look more simply beautiful, and make it easier to see how full they are. Plus then there's no confusion as to exactly what is in the bottle.

If there's any chance you won't be able to identify exactly what's in the container when you get home make sure to write out what it contains, especially if you're getting multiple items that looks similar.

3.) Fill your container or bag:

Trying a new product? Shopping just for one or two people? Have little to no storage space? 

Buying from the bulk bins (unlike buying bulk packaged goods which have large quantities) means you can get exactly how much you want, exactly how much you'll use. 

Need a snack? You can buy a handful of mixed nuts, one serving of granola, your exact container's worth of flour. 

Some bulk bin locations require you to weigh the purchase yourself. They will have signs clearly marking this. It seems to becoming more rare (in my experience) but you may still come across it. If the signs aren't clear, just ask for help from an employee. It's their job to help make spending your money there as easy as possible.

When you get home:

Anything that won't be stored in the container you bought it in (whether a bag or a purchased product packaging) should be put into an appropriate container at home. 

We reseal any dry goods in glass jars after we open their packaging, or immediately when we get home if we transported it in cloth bags. 

Here's a peek at our "snack drawer" with a mix of homemade, bulk, boughten, and repackaged, all in reusable glass jars. Only the few wire bail jars were actually purchased for food storage. All the other jars are used canning jars or reused product containers. 

I like to only have a few different sizes of lids to make it easier to find corresponding lids for jars. Did you know that BonneMaman jelly (red gingham lid at top) has the same size lid as Bubbies Pickles (brown and black lid at bottom)? Lots of products come directly in standard small mouth canning jars.

While I detest the plastic storage lids available for small mouth and wide mouth canning jars, until I learned about EcoJarz Stainless Steel Storage Lids (like used canning lids, they need the jar band) I didn't know there was a plastic-free option! (Pictured on jar at left and jar at top middle in photo above) They're dishwasher safe and you can write directly on them.

Sealing dry goods in airtight containers keeps them fresh for much longer, unlike a clip on a folded bag, even if you tuck it back in its cardboard box. Any food that's wasted means you've paid even more for what little you used!

Storing food in clear glass containers minimizes (or eliminates) your food's contact with plastic which is better for just about everything. It also makes it easy to see the contents, reduces the amount of storage space needed, and provides an easy way to cut down on your environmental impact and your trash bill. 

Final thoughts:

Similar to brining your own grocery bags or refillable water bottle, once you get past the initial switch, you may wonder why you ever thought this might be more difficult. 

Having less waste, less trash to take out, less recycling to deal with, and a lower grocery bill seems like a big huge win for me! 

Need help finding a store with a bulk section? 

From Bea Johnson author of Zero Waste Home (I highly recommend this book!) comes  Bulk Locator

It's a crowdsourced map (slowly gaining traction outside the US) of stores with bulk sections, including info about what kinds of things each store has in their bulk section as well as the user's opinion and experience.  Know a place that's not listed? Add it! Rate the ones you've been to!  

And finally: 

Reducing waste, lowering food bills, keeping our food healthier and better for longer, what's not to love? 

Any questions? Any tips? Any bulk bin hacks? Comment below and share!

*Disclaimer* While I was given a couple of products to test and review and am hosting a giveaway until 2pm today, I have not been compensated by EcoJarz in any manner. All opinions are my own experience. In any case, I only recommend products I've tested and fully believe in. 


  1. I often have trouble with flour moths when buying some bulk bin items. Do you ever have that problem?
    Are your reused jars sealed well enough so the moths don't get from one container to another?

    1. There's a couple things I do that prevent moths:

      Store things in airtight containers, store flour in the fridge for short term use, and store flour in the freezer for long term.

      Especially flours with any kind of germ in them (whole wheat etc) it's especially important to either buy small quantities that you'll use quickly or keep them chilled. The oils in the germ go rancid fairly quickly.

      I actually don't buy flour from bulk bins so I haven't gotten any moths from bulk bin shopping. I purchase 10lb bags of flour directly from the seller (paper bagged) and keep them in the freezer until I'm ready to fill my 1/2gal glass jar in the fridge.