Save Money and Plastic with Bulk Bins

>> Saturday, April 11, 2009

This post was included in the Festival of Frugality. Check out all of this week's frugal posts at The Paycheck Chronicles!

One of my goals for this month was to take the plunge into buying organics, and according to my careful calculations, one of the most affordable ways to get organics is by buying from bulk bins.

By bulk bin, I mean the bins of grains, nuts, and dried fruit at Whole Foods and other natural food stores. The bins are priced by unit (for example, $1.49/lb for organic oats), so you can buy as much or as little as you need. Less Is Enough used the bins to purchase very tiny amounts of food for her $1/day food experiment, but you can also buy very large amounts from the bulk bins to keep your pantry stocked.

I've bought a little here, a little there from the bulk bins for awhile now, but since I'm committing to organics, I thought it was time to commit to the bulk bins.

How Much Can You Save with Bulk Bins?

Check out these price comparisons:

  • organic pinto beans - $1.15/can (2 cups) vs. $1.99/lb (5-6 cups cooked)
  • organic raisins - $3.99/one pound bag vs. $3.29/lb
  • Quaker Oats @ $0.11/oz vs. organic oats from the bulk bins @ $0.09/oz
The potential savings are clear, but there's one little problem...the packaging.

I know, technically bulk bins don't have any packaging, but you have to have a way to get the food from the bins to your house, and the method provided by the store is not one I'm very fond of: plastic bags.

As I've written before, plastic is filling up our oceans, killing fish and birds, and all around making the earth an ugly place, so I'm trying to avoid it whenever possible. I've read about other people who bring their own containers for the bulk bins, especially reusing glass jars, so I took a trip to Whole Foods this morning to investigate.

Can You Bring Your Own Container?

I started by approaching the unsuspecting employee nearest to the bulk bins. "I was wondering, if I wanted to use my own containers for the bulk bins, how would I go about doing that?"

She replied, "I don't think you can, but let me go find someone else who might know."

She sent over another helpful employee, who said basically the same thing: "You can't use your own containers because you would have to pay for the weight of the container. The plastic bags weigh practically nothing, and that's why they work."

I was feeling pretty bummed and wishing I lived in California or New York when the guy came back and said, "I just asked someone else to clarify, and it turns out that you can bring your own containers. You have to take them to Customer Service to weigh them first, but then you can fill them, and they'll subtract the weight when you check out. I didn't know that because I've never seen anyone bring their own container before."

Besides this hassle, I've also read that the cashiers more often than not forget to subtract the weight of the container.

I concluded from this little excursion that you can bring your own containers if a) you live in California, Seattle, Portland, New York City or any other city that's taken great strides in environmentalism (betcha could in Carrboro) or b) you're the type of person that doesn't mind to stand out or stir the pot.

I don't fit either one of those criteria, so until bringing your own container becomes more popular around here, I'm moving to Plan B: bring your own bag.

What Kind of Bag Should I Bring?

There are several different options to chose from:
  1. Reuse the plastic bags provided by the store.
  2. Reuse plastic bags you already have such as bread bags.
  3. Buy lightweight cloth bags.
  4. Make your own bags.
I'm leaning toward these drawstring produce bags. With a tare weight of only .07 lbs per bag, they would only add $0.10 to $0.15 to the cost even if the cashier doesn't subtract the weight of the bag.

Because I'd be using at least 5 plastic bags per trip to Whole Foods and I shop there once a month, cloth bags would keep me from using 60 plastic bags a year or more.

The math is simple: Cloth bags + bulk bins = Super Savings! Save money and save plastic. It's a Conscious Shopper no-brainer.


Peggy April 13, 2009 at 11:49 AM  

Long ago I bought some light weight sheer curtain material from the sale bin at the fabric store. I made bags and use those for my bulk purchases. Some cashiers take a few cents off some do not. I figure they do not weigh that much and I feel good not bringing home extra plastic.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper April 13, 2009 at 9:00 PM  

Peggy - I saw instructions for something like that while I was researching this post. Cool idea. I think I have a spare curtain somewhere - maybe I'll make some too.

Yvo August 3, 2009 at 4:15 PM  

Hi there! I stumbled on this post while looking to see if Whole Foods in NYC has bulk bins (they do, but only one location). I'm curious why you say that it's okay to bring your own containers to the NYC store - like if you talked to someone who did it all the time, or something gave you this conclusion. Not that I know either way, I was just curious mostly because I'm pretty new to bulk bins... because no one around me talks about them! And the singular WF location in NYC that has bulk bins is a bit more out of the way than the other WF. Anyway, thanks for breaking down the math, though, that is incredibly helpful :)

Erin aka Conscious Shopper August 4, 2009 at 2:36 PM  

@Yvo - I don't know from firsthand knowledge - I've just read of other bloggers in New York City who use bulk bins and bring their own containers. (No Impact Man is one I can think of offhand.) They may not be shopping at Whole Foods, though. My suggestion would be to see if there's a small health foods or natural foods store closer to you that has bulk bins. The workers at those small stores are usually more helpful and accommodating than the workers at Whole Foods. (Unfortunately for me, Whole Foods is the only store in Raleigh that has bulk bins.)

If you end up going out to the Whole Foods with bulk bins that's farther away from you - I'm pretty sure it's Whole Foods' policy that you can bring your own container, but if you live in an area where not very many people do, you might have to stand up for yourself with the WF employees.

I ended up making bags out of shower curtains - they're lightweight so I didn't bother to get them weighed - and it has worked out perfectly.

I hope you'll update me on what you end up doing!

Musa December 15, 2009 at 8:25 PM  

I have found a wonderful solution to this problem. I use Moukisacs when I shop for bulk items, including fine grain products such as amaranth or even flours, fruits and vegatables. They are designed and produced in Vancouver BC and are reusable, strong, durable, easy to wash and clean. I have even used the bags as salad spinners, putting in washed, organic lettuce in the bags and giving a few quick spins. Kids love that! I have also used them for sprouting organic seeds and found it to be superior to using glass jars, because of the greater ventilation and ease of cleanup.You can check out the website and order on line. Musa :)

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