Mar 6, 2017

Zero Waste Grocery Shopping: Bulk Buying Tips and Supplies

Glass bottle, wide mouth funnel, reusable bag

You don't normally think of grocery shopping as intimidating, but the first time you decide to go bulk shopping using your own bags it can be! I know I was certainly nervous: What do I bring? How do I do it? What if I do it wrong and they all laugh and point?

Ok, my insecurities aside I hope that some of the knowledge will make you feel more confident to SkipTheBag and do your own bulk shopping.

What is bulk shopping?

There are many different things that technically qualify as bulk shopping. Buying large amounts of food would be bulk shopping. For example, getting a 10 pound bag of rice rather than buying 10 one-pound bags of rice. You may find that food is cheaper when purchased in larger amounts. Also it can create less waste.

However this article is focused on bulk shopping by finding bulk bins where there are package-free foods. Hopefully you live somewhere that has an abundance of package free options, but if you are like me, you may have to hunt a little bit.

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What are the benefits of bulk shopping?

There are so many benefits to bulk shopping. 

  • You can get food without packaging. 
    • Eliminating packaging has a huge environmental impact. Not only is there less packaging to make, there is less to ship and store. It also leaves you without trash to worry about which is perfect for those trying to go zero waste.
  •  You can get the amount you need.
    • Say you are making a dinner that calls for a tablespoon of some spice you don't own. Rather than purchasing an entire container of that spice you can just buy a tablespoon! No more partially used containers of things you don't like or won't use. 
  • It may be cheaper.
    • Purchasing just what you need may mean your cost is lower, but also the price per ounce might be less than the package on the shelf. After all you aren't paying for that packaging. Now some people have found the cost per pound to be higher (which is so silly!), so if cost is important to you, do the comparison. 

What do you need for bulk shopping?


I primarily reuse containers. I have several mason jars in different sizes, I have some glass jars which I have repurposed, and I have some plastic containers I purchased with rice.

When reusing old containers be sure to remove the barcode. I had an issue once where I marked out of the barcode, but it still rang up on the register. Apparently the store sells that brand!

Mason jars make long term storage easy

Cloth Bags

If you get bags without holes you can fill them up with goodies. The nice thing about bags is they don't weight as much as glass so tare is less of an issue.

Cloth bags are nice since they are lightweight.

Wine bottles with screw caps

Unfortunately I don't have any liquids I can buy in bulk, but if you do, you might consider reusing a wine bottle with a screw cap. Other people buy ceramic flip top containers.

Screw caps prevent spills

Wide Mouth Funnel

This helps when the bulk container scoop or output is larger than the neck of your bottle. The one I've got is for canning so it fits perfectly into the mason jars and works alright for my other jars.

Wide mouth funnel prevents mess loading into jars.


You can write things on the containers. I generally say what it is (unless it is abundantly obvious), the code for the cashier to ring it up and the tare of the container. It lasts a long time, but will come off with some rubbing alcohol or soap and water and some scrubbing.

Sharpies are nearly permanent, but remove easily off
containers with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. 

Wine bottle holder bag or reusable bag

You wouldn't forgo all these plastic bags and then put them in a plastic bag to carry home! I really like using a wine bottle holder bag because they allow you to carry at least 6 containers without them clanking together. Some of the smaller jars I can stack on top of one another to hold even more.

Wine bottle bags will hold mason jars for easy transportation.

How does bulk shopping work?

This can vary a little bit by the store, but the general principles are the same.

First you weigh your empty container. This is called the "tare" weight. Then fill it up with food and get the code. Take them to the cashier and they will subtract the tare weight, enter the code and charge you for the product.

Some cashiers and stores do not have the ability to subtract the tare weight which means you are paying for the weight of the container. In these instances using the lightest container would be most advantageous.

Other stores have you weigh the product yourself. In this case you place the container on the scale, tare it, fill it and then print the label.

If you cannot write on your container, you can always take a photo of the code with your phone or write it down on your phone. I like the photo because it shows the cashier the product and the price and there is less chance of you writing it down wrong.

Ask your local store what their practice is to ensure you can bring your own bags, that they tare, and their process. For example at my local bulk store I can go to any cashier and get my container tared whereas others have you go to customer service.

What if they won't let me use my own bag?

Well first, talk to managers or corporate headquarters of the store. Often times there isn't a rule against using your own bags, people just don't see it very often so they are unsure. If it is prohibited, make sure you express that you would really like to use your own bag. If enough people do it, they may change the policy. In the mean time see if they offer paper bags rather than the plastic bags. You can write directly on the bag and compost it when you are done.

What food can you find in bulk?

The possibilities are nearly endless, but it depends where you live. Often times you can find dried goods such as beans, grains, and lentils. Baking supplies like flour and sugar are also available. If you are luck you can find chocolate chips too! Many places serve snacks like nuts, trail mix, yogurt covered pretzels, candy, gummies out of bulk containers even if they don't have the other items.

Hopefully this information has put you at ease and you are ready to tackle bulk shopping. And don't worry no one has laughed at me.

What bulk buying tricks have you learned?

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  1. Love this idea. I haven't yet ventured into the world of bulk shopping, but I can see us using this if we find a place nearby that offers it.
    Just think of all the packaging you'd keep out of the landfill! Wowzers!

    1. It can be tricky to spot places that have bulk. Nature and health food stores are more likely to have real food (versus snacks) than a typical grocery store (unless you have a Winco!)

  2. Hi Katy,
    Great tips and information. I try to do as part bulk shopping as possible. I buy my dried mangoes in bulk at our local Health Food store among so other items. They are the best tasting mangoes that I have found. I fill up separate zip lock bags and put them in my crisper in the refrigerator and they last or months. Sharing

    1. Yum! I'll have to see if my local store has any mangoes. I bet those are tasty. Thanks for sharing!

  3. This is a really great guide! I've definitely had to learn to be persistent. One time a woman took the unwrapped chicken, wrapped it up, and stuck it in my glass container! I kindly explained that that wasn't what I meant :)

    1. It's crazy how set in their ways some people are and it blows their mind that you want it a different way.

  4. Oh I'm so envious! We have so few bulk buy places to choose from in the UK. Although I just heard WholeFoods have opened quite near me, so I'm going to visit them. Your post is super helpful and timely as I've never bought things from such a place.

    I can take my own container to the butcher and deli and my bakery will sell without packaging, but I'd not thought that if I go somewhere like WhoelFoods I'll be buying several things! You're helping me get prepared by planning ahead - thank you! It was particularly helpful to think about taking a funnel - who knew!

    1. I hope your Whole Foods will have a large selection of bulk items! Yes, the funnel can come in handy. I'm jealous you have a butcher, deli and bakery to buy package free items from. I'm still on the hunt for those.

  5. Well written! I love how you organised the information here. It's so nice to see this kind of "how to" : there was none when I started my zero waste journey. :)

    1. Thanks. I'm hoping people won't be as nervous to try it out.

  6. This post was great! I like how you wrote about the many ways to use as transport containers from all different types and textures of food. I never thought about the wide mouth funnel, I might look into that. Great post!

    1. Yes a funnel can be a huge help. Those scoops are all different sizes!

  7. I love that you're encouraging people to talk to the management. In my experience, the employees only want to do the right thing and might think using customers containers / bags isn't allowed. But talking to the manager I often times found out that they are trying to go into a more environmentally friendly direction and the idea of using less packaging is welcomed. The info just hasn't made it's way all the way to every employee.

    1. So true, and even corporations have policies that haven't been rolled out to each store. There is a lot of misinformation out there.

  8. Glad someone else brings their own jars! Even at my very crunchy coop, I seem to be the only one doing it!

  9. I am starting to buy more and more from the bulk buy stores locally but am really annoyed to see that the smaller bags in my local organic store now have a strip of see through plastic in them .... presumably to allow the cashier to see what's in the bag. However I do have my own reusable bags and when I used these in the supermarket last week the lady on the till said it was the first time she'd seen the and she thought they were fabulous! I wonder if she'll go and buy any now? I do hope so. #WasteLessWednesday

    1. It's always unfortunate when things take a step backward and use more plastic. I hope she'll buy some bags!

  10. I do this where I can, but some markets don't take off for the weight of the container before figuring out the price. Wish there were standards for buying in bulk. Pinned this to two of my boards and will share on ohther social media too. You do a great job on raising awareness. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for sharing! It is annoying when places can't tare containers and remove the starting balance. When that happens I'd recommend bring bags rather than jars so it will cost you less. And don't forget to mention it to the managers, they may consider that option when they upgrade their system. Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Really? There are places that won't let you use your own bags?! That's bizarre. All our local groceries have started charging 5 cents a bag if you need to take theirs.

    However, the supermarket I most commonly use also just took out their entire bulk section! All the more reason to go to the other store and to Bulk Barn, I guess.

    1. I've heard such good things about Bulk Barn. I wish that I had one nearby.

  12. I never thought about just bringing my containers with me to the store -- that would make things SO much faster at home, too, to just put everything away on the shelf rather than transfer it all from bags to containers!