By Asha Kreiling
The first time I walked into a Henry’s Market (now called Sprouts) and saw the aisles of bulk foods, I was a little perplexed. The only bulk food dispensers I was accustomed to seeing at the time were the ones of my childhood that were filled with gummy bears, chocolate covered pretzels, and maybe some type of flavored nuts. Today, a large portion of the food I buy at grocery stores is from their bulk departments. I frequently buy trail mix, granola, dried fruit, tea, nutritional yeast, and various grains and dried legumes. And my guilty pleasure is anything covered in dark chocolate: almonds, peanuts, raisins, and blueberries.
I like to keep my bulk foods in one-gallon glass jars because they keep the food fresh and safe from pests, and also so I easily can see how much of everything I have and whether I need to add anything to my grocery list. I enjoy the array of bulk foods at my local grocery stores and being able to buy just the right amount of various items, but buying in bulk is also cost-effective and good for the environment. Buying in bulk cuts down on product packaging and transportation costs, reduces waste, and it’s usually cheaper.
Food packaging serves the role of protecting food products from the external environment, helps to ensure hygiene and prolong the shelf life of food, as well as to reduce chances of damage during transportation. However, much of food packaging is unnecessary and is purely for marketing purposes. According to earth911.com, food packaging accounts for about 8 percent of food’s cost. A study by Portland University found that companies marketing bulk foods versus packaged foods would see an average of 54% reduction in material and delivery costs on items including bulk confections, dried fruit, nuts, and trail mix. (Read the study here:http://www.bulkisgreen.org/Docs/2012-PSU-BIGStudy.pdf).
It takes a tremendous amount of energy and a great number of resources to produce food packaging. Significant amounts of paper, water, aluminum, and plastic go into producing the wrappers, bags, and boxes for food products. Less than half of recyclable packaging material is actually recycled, and the rest is sent to the landfill. Even the materials that do get recycled still require energy and resources to reprocess into new products.
Less packaging also means less space is taken up in the delivery process to markets, so foods can be packed more densely on trucks, reducing overall transportation costs.
Bulk foods require minimal packaging. I’ve watched employees refill food dispensers athealth food stores, and food products are typically emptied out of giant plastic or thick paper bags contained inside a single cardboard box. A single bag would fill a dispenser several gallons in volume. This is trivial in comparison to the individually wrapped packages of nuts, grains, chocolate covered almonds, etc., that are commonplace in most grocery stores. Of course, customers also have to scoop out their bulk food items into plastic or paper bags to be weighed and paid for, but if you re-use the bags or bring your own reusable cloth bags, it greatly helps to cut down on waste. Check this site out for re-usable bulk food bags.
Without all that excess packaging and marketing labels and fancy logos, bulk foods tend to be more affordable than their packaged counterparts. Most bulk foods are less expensive per unit or are comparable to packaged food prices. But, you also get to buy as little or as much of your bulk items as you want, allowing you to spend just the right amount of money. Buying a large amount of a bulk food item means you would need to buy it less often, which also helps reduce overall waste.
Grocery stores like Sprouts Market, Whole Foods, and local food co-ops have nice selections of bulk foods. All you have to do is explore the aisles, find an attractive bin, scoop your desired food into a bag, label the item number, and pay for it by its weight per unit. It’s good for your wallet and the environment. Just try not to get caught sampling!