Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Bulk Bins (& Making Less Garbage)

I really wanted to blog about my trip, but I haven't gotten to it yet. I've had this post waiting patiently in the wings for awhile, and it wants to be read. Vacation posts (and photos) to come shortly! :)

One of the best ways to stretch your dollars while buying natural, whole foods is to use bulk bins as much as possible. Most of us are used to grabbing a prepackaged, premeasured, prepriced version of something off a shelf, but once you have a good system down, it's easy to use the bulk bins to
produce much less garbage,
spend only what you want,
buy only what you need, and
buy the very best you can. 

Bulk buying is part of my effort to create less trash (and not-recyclable-in-Lincoln trash at that). I've been thinking about this a lot: our culture is highly consumerist, and very disposable-minded. Even the clothes we buy are supposed to be disposable after the trend has run its course. Electronics and appliances aren't made to last; they're made to stop working in a few years, at which point we will assumably desire a newer model anyways. Creating less garbage should be a priority for all of usThe amount of trash we produce is shameful, and our perpetual carelessness with it demonstrates an inherent lack of respect, or even basic appreciation, for God's creation.  How is throwing it in a landfill any better than tossing it on the side of the road? If it's disrespectful to litter in your neighbor's lawn or in a pristine national park, it's disrespectful to trash any other part of God's world. Christians should be leading the charge in this area.  (More to come in another blog...)

When we get out of the habit of constantly buying packaging, in the meantime, we find ourselves saving money.  At our house, we don't use disposable cups, plates, silverware, grocery bags (most of the time), napkins or paper towels. And I've been trying to cut way back on plastic packaging - check out Fake Plastic Fish for some hard-core inspiration! This sort of lifestyle shift will really realign your perceptions about stuff in a lot of good ways. Not to mention you will end up with longer lasting clothes, less expensive food, and better quality things in general. (Or maybe even...dare I say it...fewer things? Hmmm...)

Now I will climb off my soapbox and wander back into the grocery store. Yes, bulk bins. I think people have this idea of "bulk bins" as a place where you get a 25lb sack of something, then throw it on your horse and ride back out to the farmstead. But 'bulk' just means the store has it in bulk, which lets you get however much you want. Need a quarter cup of something called ''teff'' for a recipe? Or want to try a serving of steel cut oats for breakfast before committing to a whole bag? You can use bulk bins to get whatever amount you need. And you don't have to use a horse.

Plenty of stores have bins, but by far my best experience in Lincoln has been at Open Harvest.  They have a huge section of bins with everything you can imagine. It's also a 'refill center' for lots more than just dry goods. I was a little intimidated by the bulk buying process at first, but now I'm so very glad I've gotten the hang of it.

(There is a general feeling that Open Harvest is a "really expensive health food store."  If it was, I wouldn't be shopping there! Yes, packaged healthy food is more pricey than packaged conventional food. Thank the government for that. But stay away from the packages and brand names, and you might be surprised at how many options you have.  Lots of things are actually cheaper at Open Harvest than Hy-Vee. Oh, and I've also found the bulk bin contents to be much fresher than the bagged stuff from a regular grocery store.)

With traditionally packaged foods, someone else has decided how much you get, and you are also paying for the packaging and marketing (and often transportation) that went into that particular brand. With no-name bins, you're foregoing those unnecessary elements that help make a teensy box of, let's say, Quaker steel-cut oats over $5 at the grocery store...which is more than three times what the Quaker rolled oats would run you. Steel cut oats are LESS processed than instant oats, right? So in a rational world, they would be cheaper.  But steel-cut oats are trendy amongst healthy types, so Quaker prices them higher.  When you buy that box, you aren't just paying for a very simple, minimally processed whole grain; you're buying all the research and marketing Quaker does for that type of cereal. And you have to pay for the box, and all the equipment and gas used to transport it across the country to your store. But you're smarter than that, right? Because you have just read Nikki Moore's blog on bulk-bin purchases. So you head to the humble bulk aisle. You can get about the same amount that would've been in the arrogantly priced Quaker box for less than a dollar. And they're even organic oats! Sorry, Quaker lady.

While each store will obviously be a little different, here is my process for shopping at Open Harvest. First, I round up my containers, bags and jars at home. (Yes, this requires planning and thinking ahead on my part.) Sure, there are bags at the store, but we want to use LESS garbage, remember?  So if you're not saving your jars already, START NOW!  You have paid for them already, so unless you're obsessive about everything exactly matching in your kitchen (creepy), no need to go out and buy OTHER jars. That would just be stupid. Keeping jars is is the best way to build up a collection of containers to store your purchases. I usually forego cans and plastics when I buy food anyways, so I have plenty of jars. They come in handy for so many other things, like salad dressing, spice mixes, marinades, cocoa mix, freezer jam, etc. When you make lots of stuff from scratch, you need places to put it.

Bringing jars to the store can get heavy, so I use a couple of good sturdy canvas bags -- wide, shallow ones, so the jars don't have to stack on each other. (I get a rebate for bringing my own bags and containers, too.)  Also bring a Sharpie. Forget not thy Sharpie.

If I have a jar I haven't brought in before, I first weigh it, with the lid, on their digital scale.  This is the tare (empty) weight. I write that weight on the bottom of the jar with my Sharpie, which I have not forgotten, because it is always in my purse. (At some stores, the employees might have to weigh and mark it for you.)  Then I go fill up my jar with whatever from the bin, and write that bin number on the bottom too. Then the checker will know how much to subtract off the total weight (for the jar weight), and he won't have to look up my obscure and unidentifiable flour on his chart. Repeat for each new jar.

It gets easier the more times you go! Because once you have established jars for certain things, you just refill them. All the info is already on there. And look at you. You reused a jar, produced no garbage, and in return you have super frugal food, and maybe it's even organic to boot. And jars look great in your kitchen, too!

Really Important Stuff I've Learned (mostly the hard way):
  • Make sure your jars have WIDE MOUTHS. More than once I've dragged in a huge jar with a 2" opening, while the bin spout has maybe a 3" opening, and that's a problem. Yep. You can use a wide funnel, but...I don't have one. Just...improvise...and promise yourself you'll do better next time. (I make this promise to myself each time. :)
  • Don't forget the Sharpie.
  • Try to freeze stuff for a few hours after you get it home. I haven't had any problems, but bulk bins, just like commercially purchased grains and flours and sugars, can harbor lots of baby bug eggs. This is totally legal.
  • Make sure all your containers have lids that fit TIGHTLY. 'nuf said.
  • Keep an eye out for cross-contamination, if you have allergies/intolerances. Sometimes I need to cook gluten-free, so if I've had flour in a jar, I make sure and wash it real well before putting pecans or something else in it.  Or just keep certain jars for certain things.
  • Make sure the jars and lids are completely dry before you fill them. 
  • Even if you think it's rather obvious, please label the jars with their contents. Green lentils start to look a lot like split peas when they're in clear jars next to each other (especially for a confused husband). 
  • Whole grains (brown rice, wheat flour etc) tend to go rancid more quickly than processed ones (Minute rice, white flour), because they still have the oils and nutrients intact. So if you're not going to be using it up in six months or less, keep it in the fridge.
  • Your Sharpie is black. Molasses is also black. You can't see your sharpie-marks when the jar is full of molasses. Use a label of some kind.
Here are some things I can get in bulk (most of these are organic and/or local): honey, olive oil, spelt, white and wheat flour, coffee beans/grinds, soy sauce/tamari, pasta, all kinds of beans, raisins, molasses, peanut butter, tahini, oats, all kinds of rice, wheat berries, split peas, corn meal, vital wheat gluten, citric acid, granola, cereal, all kinds of nuts, cereal, chocolate, all kinds of dried fruit, every spice I could think of, loose teas...well you get the idea.  I can also get some liquid soaps and shampoos refilled into my own bottles! I bring my own jars or containers for all of these. Oh, and eggs. They aren't in a bin with a spout, but I reuse the same egg box.

The point is that once you get a good system down, you can really save a lot of money, reduce the amount of garbage you contribute to the earth's landfills, and get high quality, whole foods for your family as well. Questions? Your own tips to contribute? Please comment! Thanks for reading, friends.


    1. Wow. I think I'd have to drive at least 45 minutes to find a store with bulk bins. (That's what I get for living in nowhere-land Texas.) However, driving that far every few months would totally be worth it! Thanks for the ideas... I'll be trying this *hopefully* soon!

    2. Great post! Gave me a lot to consider. I actually DO buy the great big sacks of flour and sugar but we use a car instead of a horse to bring it home! I love the bulk bins at the otherwise expensive market near us. I don't know if I can bring myself to lugging glass jars, but I do reuse the plastic bulk-bin bags when I "refill" at the bulk bins. Looking forward to reading more of your blog (found you through your comment at TheKitchn/AT)!

    3. LOVE bulk bins -- have been a huge proponent of them for a long time. My local co-op has a HUGE bulk section with virtually anything imaginable. I need to get better about bringing my own jars, though...

      "Forget not thy Sharpie...": duly noted.