Buy in bulk: Those big bins mean fewer recyclables

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My son recently told me that I recycle too much. And I have to say … I agree.

Each time I scoop up my recyclables I’m reminded that they’re just one part of the green rallying cry, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Reduce how much packaging you bring home and you’ll have less trash to recycle in the first place.

Over the last week, I tried to reduce the packaging entering my home by shopping at bulk bins — those big, self-service containers of yogurt-covered pretzels, garbanzo beans and cinnamon sticks, among other things.

National Bulk Foods Week begins Sunday, but I started the celebration early with trips to stores that have bulk bins. Despite a 10% growth in this market during the last two years, in my part of northeast Los Angeles the only bulk I could find was at Whole Foods, Sprouts, Nature Mart in Los Feliz and, to a very limited extent, Figueroa Produce in Highland Park.


In theory, bulk buying is a triple win. It reduces packaging waste and allows for portion control, which, in turn, prevents food waste. Best of all, it saves consumers 30% to 60% over the cost of buying the same item prepackaged, according to the Bulk Is Green Council, a food industry group based in Portland, Ore.

Some bulk buys offer a lot more packaging savings than others. According to a 2007 study from the Waste & Resources Action Programme in Britain, the products with the most waste-reduction potential come in heavy packaging such as cardboard boxes, thick plastic jugs and glass jars.

According to WRAP, 15% of a typical cereal box’s weight comes from the cardboard and plastic liner. Replacing the box and liner with the thinner-gauge polyethylene bag provided by bulk bin retailers saves 96% in packaging weight. Replacing 1 million cereal boxes with polyethylene bags could save more than 70 tons of packaging waste and as much as $47,000 in packaging costs, the report estimated.

The plastic bottle for a 2-pound container of liquid laundry detergent accounts for 9.6% of the product’s weight, according to WRAP. The reuse of 1 million of those bottles would eliminate more than 90 tons of packaging waste and almost $19,000 in packaging costs, the report said. (That’s Mimi Techentim shopping the bulk bins at a Whole Foods store in Pasadena.)

Nuts, dried fruits, rice, pasta, grains and other products are already sold in plastic bags, so they don’t offer significant reductions in packaging when bought in bulk. Unless, of course, you bring your own containers.

That’s what I did at Nature Mart. Although plastic bags are lightweight and can be recycled, the world doesn’t need more of them. Most of what I bought went into bags that I brought from home. For flour, I filled a Tupperware-type container. The cashier asked me if I knew how much the container weighed; I didn’t, so I ended up paying for the weight of that too. Next time, I’ll ask her to weigh it empty and adjust the price.

Of the bulk bin retailers I visited, Nature Mart was the only one that offered an extensive selection of nonfood items, including laundry and dish detergents, as well as liquid foods such as vinegar, olive oil, honey and maple syrup. I was able to refill my pump dispenser of Dr. Bronner’s castile soap at Figueroa Produce, where the cashier simply charged me based on the number of ounces on the original packaging.

The biggest problem with my bulk-food shopping excursions: I had to drive out of my way to reach Nature Mart — 18 miles round trip. Were the emissions I generated by driving offset by the emissions saved by reusing plastic bags and containers? I don’t know, but I’ve driven farther for lesser things.

I can say I saved money. My savings were generally less than the estimates by the Bulk Is Green Council; the highest came from unprocessed foods such as rice and quinoa, which are delivered to the store in 25- or 50-pound bags made from low-grade recycled paper or plastic. That’s part of the reason bulk commodities cost less: The packaging doesn’t need to be pretty. (That’s Cesar Holguin refilling the bins at Whole Foods.)

The more waste we produce, the more we’re going to pay for it, especially once 2013 rolls around. That’s when the Puente Hills landfill, among the largest in the country, closes after taking L.A. County garbage for decades. The landfill will be replaced by another that is more remote, so disposal costs probably will rise. Ouch for the little guy’s pocketbook.

Already, I’m tired of shelling out $36.32 monthly for my garbage pickup.

Earlier this year, I weighed a month’s worth of my recycling, which tipped the scales at 51 pounds. Since then, I’ve eliminated 30 pounds of newspapers every month — and the plastic bags that come with them— by switching one publication to a digital subscription. I’ve started composting my son’s homework and the non-glossy junk mail that I haven’t been able to stop through the post office.

I bring reusable bags to the grocery store. I buy organic fruit and vegetables from a community supported agriculture program, which packages my order inside a reusable waxed cardboard box. I make my own yogurt in reusable glass containers and squeeze my own orange juice with my Juiceman. I buy my eggs from a neighborhood friend who reuses my old cartons, and I just started buying milk in returnable glass bottles from my local grocer.

I realize I sound as if I’ve stepped into crazy, but crazy is how I’d also describe the status quo. Bulk bins are just another weapon in an arsenal to fight it.

Some stores have gravity-driven containers operated with levers; some have open bins with scoops. Sorry, Nature Mart, but that sprinkle of organic wheat flour on your floor a couple Sundays ago was me. And Figueroa Produce? I apologize I wasn’t able to pay for the squirt of castile soap that landed not in my bottle but on my face.

I’m still learning. But I will be back. ALSO:

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-- Susan Carpenter

Carpenter is L.A. at Home’s Garbage Maven, writing about household waste and recycling. Look for more Garbage Maven posts in the months to come.