Skip the Plastic in the Bulk Section, Use Jars Instead

jars filled with bulk goods

I have been a bulk section shopper for most of my life. Growing up, my family was devoted to the bulk bins and it was always a great thrill when my mom would let me fill up the bags with rice or granola or grains. As I got older, it felt natural to keep buying oatmeal, dried fruit and beans that way. Of course, the bulk section has its inconveniences too. At Whole Foods, it’s far to easy to rip the plastic bags on the conveyor belt at check-out, leaving a trail of flour, sugar or quinoa all over the check stand. And, being that I’m not the most spatially minded person, I’ve never been good at determining exactly much product is going to fit in the assigned jar at home.

Lately, I’ve been taking clean, empty jars with me to Whole Foods for my bulk section purchases. This solves both issues of ripping bags and overestimating jar volume. It does require a bit more advanced planning than a spur-of-the-moment dash into the grocery store, but saves on plastic and frees me from some of those bulk section frustrations. I just pack up the jars and make a quick stop at customer service so they can weight the jars and make note of their tare prior to being filled, so that I’m not paying for the weight of the jars. Oh, and if I can just add a tip here, I recommend bringing a wide mouth funnel with you to the store. It will make your jar-filling life so much easier.

reusable bulk bags

In addition to my jars, I have a few of these very lightweight, reusable bulk bags that I try to bring with me each time I go to a store with a bulk section. They’re designed to hold bulk section food and be light enough so that they don’t need to have their weight subtracted from that of your food. They’re also washable, so I just toss them in the laundry after each use, to ensure I don’t mix nutritional yeast with my whole wheat pastry flour. These bags allow me to make a few bulk section impulse buys without reaching for a plastic bag, which I like.

I’m certain that there are some of you out there who have been shopping like this for years. However, it’s a very rare day that I see anyone else at my urban Philadelphia Whole Foods store with their own containers. Thing is, I think this is the direction more of us should be headed. It prevents waste by keeping plastic bags out of the system and means that you’re not buying more food that you can use (I confess that there were times in the very distant past when I would just trash the few spoonfuls of grain or fruit that made the storage jar overflow instead of bundling it up and saving it to use up). And it’s just one more chance to show off all those gorgeous jars I know so many of you have!

Let’s hear from you guys. Do you take reusable containers to the grocery store with you?

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108 Responses to Skip the Plastic in the Bulk Section, Use Jars Instead

  1. 1
    Jordan says:

    I do this too!! Some people look at me like a crazy lady and others think it’s awesome. I also love the reusable bulk food bags. There are so many cute ones out there (I’m a sucker for pretty things). I always feel a little smug when I buy bulk foods because I know how much that same amount of sugar/flour/etc. would be if I purchased it prepackaged in another part of the store. Yay for bulk!

  2. 2
    Lisa Fine says:

    I love bringing my own jars to the coop for bulk items, including nut butters, cooking oils, and liquid soaps.

    The best part about it? Once I’m done unpacking my [reusable] grocery bags, I’m done. No transporting my bulk goods from plastic bags to the jars at home.

  3. 3
    Susan says:

    I will have to see if they will weigh my empty jars and do the same! Thank you for the great idea.

  4. 4
    NMPatricia says:

    I also take my jars and homemade bags. I was proud of the fact that I just “used up” a plastic bag from a store I haven’t shop at for 2.5 years! However, I hadn’t figured out the part of the funnel. My WF has stuff in bins that one opens and it comes out. My narrow mouth jars weren’t making that. I may have to try the funnel thing. Thanks.

    And no, I don’t see others bringing jars. However, I have had checkers comment on it.

  5. 5

    I have always kept my bulk food in jars at home, but have never brought them to the store. I really like the idea but have never done it because I wasn’t sure that the store that I shop at would be willing to weigh my jars first for me. I should call them and check, because I’d really love to do this. Thanks for reminding me! 🙂

  6. 6
    Wendy says:

    I’ve done this for years, too, with the tags stuck right in there just like you did. Then one day I decided to paint the lids with chalkboard paint so I could write directly on it. And they look so nice.

    http://wisdomofthemoon.blogspot.com/2010/05/chalkboard-paint-and-yes-mason-jars.html

  7. 7
    C.D. says:

    Years ago, I would take my own containers to the Bulk Barn, but sometime over the years they started refusing it. They cite Health Canada regulations.

    • 7.1
      Jodi says:

      I’ve had the same thing, and the manager followed me around the store on 2 occasions to make sure I wasn’t using my own bags. But I overheard an employee telling a customer it was okay to dump unwanted product back in the bin, so I suspect the Health Canada thing is B.S. and they’re just worried about stealing. The owner of our neighbourhood Shop Eco store wrote to Bulk Barn head office about it and got no response.

      • Christine says:

        I’m having the same issue with the Bulk Barn and Goodness Me here in Ontario. I’m trying to find a loop hole right now so that I can stop wasting so may bags. In the meantime, I’ll keep taking the Bulk Barn bags back to the store in my pocket to refill them :s

  8. 8
  9. 9
    Kerry says:

    I buy all sorts of bulks in jars/reused soap dispensers/reused liquid laundry soap bags/ reused oil, vinegar, soy sauce jars, baby food jars for spices. At the old co-op I shopped at in Northern California, I could even buy tofu and salsa in bulk! At my current co-op in Colorado, they have an area where people leave clean, used jars so if you forget a jar you can grab one there instead of getting a nasty plastic bag. It may be a little more work, but it’s so much better for the environment!

  10. 10
    Denise M says:

    Great idea. Although, I can see some confusion happening if I took jars to the register and have to explain how to subtract the weight of the jar from the total amount weighed. I think I need to get myself some of those reusable bulk bags.

  11. 11

    I just got back from Whole Foods about an hour ago where I had used my Kootsac bag in the bulk section! I love how light they and durable they are. I realized when I got home, though, that I need more glass jars!

  12. 12
    Elizabeth says:

    I worked at Whole Foods in Seattle for a few years and there were a handful of people who would bring in reusable or repurposed jars and containers; more common were people who would reuse the plastic bulk bags and twist ties. I’ve gotten pretty good about saving and reusing plastic bags when I buy bulk, but I often want to stock up on things before I’m completely out, so I hesitate to go all the way to bringing my glass canisters (plus, a lot of them exceed the tare weights that can be easily entered by the cashiers, resulting in them having to whip out a calculator and do some hasty math whilst the line behind me taps their toes – not fun!). I love those reusable bags, seems like a few of those would help me a lot!

  13. 13

    What a wonderful idea. I just finished making reusable snack bags for my kids’ lunches, but this is another great use for some of my extra fabric! Thank you for reminding me that we can always find one more way to reduce our dependence on plastic!

  14. 14
    Melanie says:

    This is great, Marisa – I didn’t think it was possible to just go have your containers weighed at an average Whole Foods! Some friends of ours have an amazing co-op in Milwaukee where they do this, but I thought it was just a “thing” that store did. I will definitely have to ask the next time I head to the store! And I need to find some of those bags – what a great idea!

    • 14.1
      Dakota says:

      Which co-op in Milwaukee? Are you talking about Outpost or the Riverwest Co-Op? (Haven’t been to Riverwest yet.)

  15. 15
    Sandy says:

    I always encourage people to bring there own jars when I owned my organic store, but sadly, few did. It’s a great way to reduce so much waste from the plastic that they supply, unless that plastic can be reused (which I tend to do a lot if I don’t bring my own containers). Thanks for getting this tip out to others Marisa!

    BTW, where did you get the blue bulk bags from? I would love to get some for myself!

  16. 16
    Ciara says:

    at first, you think it’s more of a hassle to bring jars. but once you start, you’ll never go back! everytime i go, i wish that they had better signs to explain this process so it’s not so scary to newcomers!

    Most stores (even the local big box store – fred meyer) know how to deal with tare weights and help you weigh the jars. most of the stores here (whole foods, etc.) have a scale in the bulk section that you can weigh the jars yourself to get the tare weight. i also just write the weight and item plu code on my shopping list, or in my phone, so i don’t have to deal with extra tape or twist ties.

    when a jar of mine is empty (or near empty), i just place it on the counter next to my keys, wallet, and shopping list, so all i have to do is throw it in my canvas grocery bags as i’m walking out the door (which i also keep in this area). if i’m buying something new from the bulk bin, i try to either put a jar out or a (B) next to the item on my list, so i know it’s bulk.

    i live in super eco-green-friendly portland and am amazed at how many people bring their own grocery bags to the store, but not their own bulk containers! i know the type of plastic is different, but still.

    ALSO! JARS ARE SO MUCH EASIER TO CLEAN THAN BAGS!! I used to wash out bags to reuse, or bring cloth sacks. but now, i just have a bag of jangly jars that i love!

    • 16.1
      Marisa says:

      Portland is definitely more friendly to this type of shopping than other cities. However, the reason that Portland is so good about it is because consumers demanded it. I don’t see why that sort of demand couldn’t work in other places.

  17. 17
    Sara says:

    I have tried to bring my own jars to stores, but they will not tare them. So I either bring reused plastic bags, ziplocs that have been reused, or use bags that I made from curtain sheers with drawstrings. I use the sheer bags for produce as well.

  18. 18

    Thanks for the idea about the reusable lightweight bags! I loathe throwing away my plastic bags after a recent stocking of bulk bin products!

    P.S. Small typo: last paragraph “Thing is, I think this IS the direction…”

  19. 19
    Alison says:

    I used to check groceries at a co-op in Oregon, where tons of people brought in their own containers or used our recycled, sanitized ones. I am usually the only person using my own containers now that I’ve moved, and it is frustrating that Whole Foods, at least, can’t handle a tare weight of more than a pound without a little bit of hassle. I have recently noticed paper funnels in the bulk section there. I wish they’d give us reusable ones (and spoons!) that they could wash as needed, but it’s something. Trying to buy bulk spices without a funnel or spoon is a mess!

    • 19.1
      Alison says:

      Also, my Whole Foods claims they’ll give you 10 cents off for every container you reuse, but I’ve never been given the discount without asking for it.

  20. 20

    Great idea on the jars! And I love the bulk bags you have. I think I will make some to take to the store with me. They would work great in the produce department as well.

  21. 21
    Mama Urchin says:

    I hadn’t thought about having them weigh the jars. A lot of times I’m not totally out of something but I need to replenish so jar wouldn’t work then.

    I do however take fabric bags, just homemade ones I store bread in, after losing what must have been close to 5 pounds of barley through a tear made in the plastic bag by the shopping cart.

  22. 22

    I’ve thought about doing this, but dread the rolled eyes I’ll get when I ask the cashiers to weigh my jars and do the math. I still may give it a go, but for now I bring the bulk mesh bags I made and order anything I use a lot of (like oats) in bulk and just take the whole 25# bag home.

  23. 23
    Rachel32000 says:

    I never thought of this!!! Thank you for the idea, I will start to do this! Keep up the great work, Rachel

  24. 24

    I’d never thought of that – but now I know!! Thanks for the hot, hot, hot tip!

  25. 25
    Katie says:

    Ha! I keep meaning to sew up some simple bags that carry the same volume as my jars–but this is even easier. Now why didn’t I think of that…

  26. 26
    Brandee says:

    Ah, I still dream of a local grocery store that has bulk bins. I think the nearest one is an hour or so away.
    As far as reusing your jars… I’ve been doing that lately -more re-purposing than using my canning jars. Do you use new lids or old when using the canning jars? I’m afraid of messing up the seals on the new ones so I mark the (clean, non-pickly) old ones. Advice?

  27. 27

    Thank you for this explanation! I had heard of people doing this, but couldn’t figure out how to not pay for the weight of the jars.

  28. 28
    Anna says:

    I bring jars for bulk items like honey, soap, maple syrup (luckily our coop has all of these in bulk). I have homemade cloth bags that I use for other bulk items. The only thing I don’t put in those is flour because it is too fine. I usually use a paper bag for that (must remember to reuse my paper bag). I like the idea of filling jars so you don’t have to empty all the bags into jars when you get home, but I usually walk to the coop so it might get too heavy.

    I do love how many many uses there are for jars!

  29. 29
    melania says:

    Hi there,
    I am getting to the point of readying my glass jars for a trip to our bulk buy spots. At the moment I am trying to take along my own bags. They are light enough for all but the expensive items (i.e. treats) but the shop assistant happily weighed them so I could save .80c when buying dried mango!! (See http://anestofgentlefolk.blogspot.com/2011/03/bulk-buys.html)
    Thanks for sharing, I’m hoping to see more of this around our regular spots!!
    ~Melania

  30. 30
    Chelsea the Yarngeek says:

    I just did my bulk run and was beating myself up over the plastic bags. I’m going to have to see if my grocery store will allow reusable containers. Thanks for the link to the bags, I might have to pick some of those up too!

  31. 31
    Livia says:

    I just joined a co-op (Mariposa) that encourages that, and I’ve taken containers to my halal grocery (Makkah). Just recently, I even received an amusedly tolerant acquiescence from an Indian restaurant that let me persuade them to put this take out order in the containers I had brought back from the previous time (though they might just have been humoring me, since they took everything into the kitchen to fill it). But it did not occur to me the Whole Foods would have a tare option. Thank you for the heads up.

  32. 32
    Anna H. says:

    Love my cloth bulk bin bags. We also use mesh cloth bags for our produce. You can make your own out of old sheets, t-shirts, or any other scraps of fabric. And you can always re-use the plastic bags you still end up using.

  33. 33
    tigress says:

    brilliant post Marisa! 🙂

  34. 34
    Sean says:

    I see from the pic you’ve only used one of the Ball Jar re-usable plastic one-piece lids. Thought not suitable for canning, they are perfect after you open a jar. I always have them on hand after I open something. Perfect too for the bulk storage you’re talking about.

  35. 35

    Marisa, I love that you are spreading the word on reusable containers. I found yards and yards of muslin at a garage sale once, so I sewed up some lightweight, washable bags for produce and bulk items. (I’m not a great seamstress, so they’re pretty funny looking, but they get the job done!) I usually prefer those to carrying jars to the store, but I do occasionally tote along wine bottles because our local natural foods store sells oils — olive oil, sesame oil, and so on — in bulk. Thank you for this post!

  36. 36
    Candace says:

    Thank you so much for opening my mind to this new idea. This has been something that has been bothering me about my shopping. I want to get away from using the plastic bags altogether. I have never seen anyone bring their own jars/containers with them and had no idea that this was even possible. I need to call my Coop and see if they have a policy on this. I don’t know how to sew; but I would love some of the cloth bags, as well, for produce. I try not to use the ones for produce and end up with loose fruit and veggies a lot of times. A cloth bag would be helpful for those times and some for the bulk bins would be great, as well. I’ve got to see if I can find some of those. Thank you for all of the great tips!

  37. 37

    I do this, too! My husband and I have gotten enough of our jars pre-weighed that now we just keep a couple of extra tared jars in our market bag, so that even when we have impulse bulk bin purchases, we have our jars. We also have a few extra bags like what you show in your photos.

    I never thought to keep a wide-mouth funnel in our market bag – will have to get on that! Great post.

  38. 38

    I have muslin bags that I take, but I like your idea of bringing the jar right to the store. I store several dry goods in quart jars, so why not?

    -Brenda

  39. 39
    Kathleen says:

    Also, for the lids – you can re-use plastic lids from peanut butter jars for pint glass jars and larger lids (like from mayo jars) for your quarts! This works great on dry bulk products, but beware as they may not have the tight seal you would need for honey, olive oil, syrup, etc.

  40. 40
    Mavis says:

    Great idea! I always bring my own bags, but I hadn’t thought about jars. I think I might just start storing my nuts and stuff this way at home.

  41. 41
    Daedre says:

    Great idea! Sadly, I’ve yet to jump onto the reusable shopping bag band-wagon. I feel kind of guilty about this. Maybe I’ll have to make some cute handmade grocery bags…that would encourage me to use them more!

  42. 42
    Morgen says:

    Hi:) One of my customers this morning told me about my Kootsac bags appearing in your blog and I just wanted to stop by and say thank-you. Awesome article, and so thrilled to have found your blog to follow. Have a wonderful day!

  43. 43
    Rozenjoze says:

    This is a fantastic idea, but not only do I not have a co-op in my vicinity, it takes me more than 45 minutes to get to a Whole Foods or other natural food store, I’m also a person with both a herniated disk in my back and fibromyalgia. The thought of carrying the empty, then full jars seems a bit too much for me. I’m pretty picky about how much goes in each bag on a regular shopping trip, so I don’t cause myself more pain or drop a heavy bag due to pain.

    However, why not use a laundry marker on the reusable bags, slip them into the jar and mark where the food would fill up the jar? Then you only need to take the bags to the store? No having to stop at customer service to have the jars weighed and the marker should stay on the bag through laundering.

    I always have to figure out how to modify things…even the good ideas…so this could work for me! Now, I just have to find the bags…any resources out there?

  44. 44
    Christina says:

    Love the reusable bulk bags. I would think a pre-washed muslin would be tight enough to not allow leakage of fine stuff like flour. I was just at Goodwill and some of the napkins in the linen section looked good, finished edges and all!

  45. 45
    Lauren says:

    I just brought my own jars to the co-op for the 1st time this weekend! It was awesome.

    I was wondering that since I have my jars measured already (.99 lbs for a ball, wide mouth quart jar, with reusable plastic screw on lid) do you think I need to have my jars re-weighted every time i shop?

  46. 46
    Mary Koppes says:

    I make my own bulk bags. They are cute, functional, and earth friendly. Check it out!

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Random-Crafts-of-Kindness/209623145723079

  47. 47
    vanessa says:

    Thanks for sharing the Kootsacs and THANK YOU for doing a post on bulk buying! I reuse the plastic bags from the bulk section as many times as I am able, but reusable cloth bags are such a good idea!

  48. 48
    Stephanie says:

    I’m not close by any stores with bulk sections (my somewhat-local grocery store that had one took it out) so I’m usually only going to those stores that have bulk when I realize I’m close by, so I’m not prepared. Maybe I could keep some of the jars in my car like I do my reusable bags…

  49. 49
    Josee says:

    I love Kootsacs! I’m actually having a Kootsacs giveaway on my blog right now: http://thornstothestars.blogspot.com/2011/04/day-two-food-is-for-eating.html

    I’m actually posting about this topic tomorrow. I use Kootsacs at the store and then fill my mason jars at home. It takes a little guessing to know how much fill a quart jar but the store I go to isn’t open to the idea of pre-weighing jars. A bummer!

  50. 50
    Wendy A says:

    I just asked my Whole Foods whether or not we could bring in our own containers & the guy said no but I didn’t check at customer service. Ia m going to call today & ask. This will help me so much!!! i already come home & store all of my bulks in glass since I ahve been weeding plastic out of our lives for the past year. Thanks for the suggestion & reminder to check more than once. I am also going to look into those bags. They are great!!!

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