Bulk food shops – buy a little or a lot

Inertia to start: Moderate to high
Difficulty once you get going: Easy
Time: No extra time. You just swap the time emptying plastic bags of rice and pasta into your tupperware once you get home for time working out which containers you need to take to the shop.
Plastic saved per year: Approximately 400 plastic packaging bags each year.
What’s the catch?: You do need to have a good supply of storage containers.  Drawstring cotton bags are also useful.

Say ‘buy food in bulk’ and many people think of large sacks of flour, sugar and rice. But while those sort of quantities have an advantage in that a sack of flour requires less packaging than 20 small bags of flour, for me that is not what bulk buying is about.

Rather, buying in bulk allows me do two things;

1) Fill my own containers, and hence avoid packaging; and
2) Buy the amount that I need.  No more filling up your Tupperware only to have a little bit left all lost and lonely in the package.

Plus buying food in this way is more economical, plus it means I’m supporting a local person, which I believe is all part of being in a community.

Moving to buying dry food in bulk was one of the changes I made quite early on in my journey to less waste and I have to confess to being fortunate on two counts: that I have a bulk foods shop locally, and that the owner is very supportive of my initiative and is happy to tare my containers for me. Not everyone has easy access to a bulk food shop, and if they do the shop may not support customers bringing their own containers. Whether this is for you will therefore depend upon your particular circumstances.

Here’s what a typical haul from the bulk food shop looks like.  I take my own glass storage containers, or sometimes my Tupperware.  The sorts of products I buy are rolled oats, nuts, seeds and grains to make my own toasted museli, flour, sugar, as well as sundries like baking powder and salt.  You can see the drawstring bags on the right?  I’m no seamstress, but with with a little effort I was able to run these up on the sewing machine.  I made different sizes, small ones for nuts, and large ones that hold two or three kilos of flour.

A typical haul from the bulk food shop.

Here’s my local shop. It’s part of the Bulk Barn franchise in Auckland, this one is in Totara Ave in New Lynn.  It is own and operated by Yen, a Chinese expat.  The products on offer have everything you’d expect, plus a few extras catering specifically for the Chinese community.

Shop front

And allow me to introduce the lovely Yen, who owns and runs the shop.  While she offers the usual plastic bags for her customers to use, she is wholly supportive of me bringing in my containers each week.  She tares them on the scales at the counter, and I go around the shop filling each one.  She is always cheerful and it’s so nice to go shopping and to know the person who is serving you, rather than a different checkout operator each week.


Yen’s shop has a good selection of nuts and dried fruits.  Almonds, raisins, sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds are regular purchases as they are museli ingredients.  I also buy peanuts to make peanut butter, and I often get cashews, the kids eat them in their lunches and for snacks.


The shop also has a good range of herbs and spices…

Herbs and spices

and some large bins for the real bulk items such as flour, rolled oats, and cornflakes.

Large bulk bins

And I’m learning to cook the odd quinoa dish.


All in all, I enjoy buying as many dry grocery goods as I can in this way.  I save a ton of packaging, I save money, and the shopping experience is so much more personal and genuine.

I hope you have a bulk foods shop near you…if you do, I encourage you to give it a go.





Recycling soft plastics at the supermarket!

I discovered something very exciting this weekend: my local supermarket, New World) is now offering a service that enables customer to recycle their soft plastics.

What are soft plastics?  Essentially any plastic bag or plastic wrap, any plastic that you can scrunch up into a ball in your hand. Examples include:

  • Bread bags
  • Cereal bags and cereal box liners
  • Biscuit packets
  • Nappy packaing
  • Chip bags
  • Confectionery packets
  • Pasta and rice bags
  • Frozen food bags
  • Plastic shopping bags

Bags are being collected at Auckland New World, Countdown, Warehouse and Pak’n Save stores, and currently are being shipped to Australian company REDcycle who process it before it gets turned into outdoor furniture and signage.

landfill plastic

This is a boon for reducing non-compostable waste going to landfills, and also reduces soft plastics getting into waterways and oceans.  I  know this will reduce what I send to landfill, as there certainly are products that come in plastic packaging for which I have not found non-plastic alternatives as yet.  Think bacon.  Wasabi peas. Sigh.

While I’m all in support of this initiative for the reasons stated above, I’m cautious for two reasons:

1.  Its effectiveness may limited as it is not a kerbside collection

Although this recycling initiative has Government support, it is not being run by local councils.  Any recyclable scheme is likely to gain greater traction if it is a household kerbside collection.  This system relies upon people remembering  a) to collect their soft plastics and b) to take them to the supermarket.  While this may not appear onerous, many people report major difficulty in remembering to take reusable shopping bags to the supermarket, and this is just one more thing.  Some will make the effort, but many may not.   This scheme does not make recycling as easy as it needs to be to be the most effective.

2. It legitimises plastic use

My biggest concern for such a system is that it legitimises plastic use when the greater goal should be phasing out plastic altogether and replacing it with a sustainable (compostable, no-trace) alternative.

There is a feel-good factor knowing that the plastic packaging I use is not longer going to landfill, but it is still plastic and the fact that I’m now recycling it is not a good reason for me to stop reducing my plastic consumption.  In turn the companies that use the packaging to wrap their products are likely to also breath a sigh of relief:  now they can correctly say ‘But look how environmentally friendly we are, our packaging can be recycled!  We no longer have a need to seek alternatives.’  They can continue to use plastic with impunity as ‘recycling’ it usefully removes the waste problem they cause.  But let’s not forget that recycled plastic food wrap cannot be turned into more plastic food wrap: it has to be ‘downgraded’, it has to be turned into something more basic.  Here it is being turned into paving and outdoor fitness trails which themselves are unlikely to be recyclable (?). In this way the life of the plastic is being extended but the net result is plastic stays plastic and it is likely to end up in landfill at some point, albeit in a different form.

What is the alternative?

An alternative approach from the government would be to place a levy on plastic shopping bags or to ban them altogether.  Such measures have been implemented in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, California, with England recently introducing a plastic bag levy, Porto Rico due to ban all bags from mid-2016.  Rwanda is exemplary, having banned plastic bags back in 2008.   These real-life examples show us how effective even a levy can be, reducing plastic bag usage by 70-80%.  The key is that these measures are changing that thing which is the hardest of all to change: people’s behaviour.  People are suddenly going out of their way to avoid the extra charge: they are persuaded into finding alternatives.  This is the change that is really needed: thinking differently, acting differently.  Not creating the demand for the plastic in the first place, so stopping plastic bags from becoming a problem by stopping them from being.  It’s the more grass-roots approach.

The good thing about the recycling option that New Zealand have chosen is that it includes plastic packaging that would not be impacted by a plastic bag ban:  potato chip packets, rice and past packets, cereal box liners, biscuit wrappers and so on.  The bad thing is that it encourages us to be accepting of plastic packaging, it doesn’t force us to change our behavior to seek alternatives.

I think it is a first step.