The recent wave of zero-waste stores—think Brooklyn’s Precycle and Austin’s (now-closed) In.gredients—may be well-designed, airy, and Instagram-worthy, but their novelty belies an important truth. While there’s no doubt that it’s time to reduce the quantity of plastic and other packaging waste that comes home with us from the grocery stores, shoppers don’t need to seek out stores made only of bins and jars to reduce their impact.
In fact, more and more mainstream grocery stores are turning to good old bulk bins—an age-old staple of the hippie co-op—to help shoppers cut their waste. And it’s about time.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging make up 30 percent of what we dispose of annually. What doesn’t get recycled—and it’s a lot—ends up in ever-expanding landfills, air polluting incinerators, or accumulates en masse in the oceans. Pollution from single-use packaging has become a global crisis. And scientists predict that the amount of plastic will increase four times by 2050.
Although bulk groceries are emerging as a low-tech solution to our garbage crisis, a great deal of obstacles remain on the path to success. Laws surrounding food safety increasingly encourage single-use materials over reusable containers. And confusion among shoppers who have long been encouraged to grab-and-go makes shopping in bulk an intimidating affair. To truly reduce waste, advocates believe bulk must be more than just an aisle in the store—it must become a deliberate system that starts at home and continues seamlessly into the supermarket.
The End of Recycling and the Rise of Bulk
Today, reducing unnecessary packaging waste is no longer a fanciful environmental ambition. For the first time since the introduction of cheap plastics into the supply chain, it no longer makes economic sense to use a material once and throw it away.
“Long term, I’ve seen a pull away from doing a good job of sorting our materials and instead, moving towards single stream, where everything’s going into one bin. That’s destroyed the value of the materials, and our recycling markets have kind of fallen apart,” explains Kirstie Pecci, a senior fellow at the Conservation Law Foundation, who has been leading the Zero Waste Project since 2017. “Short term, I think people are paying attention to the waste system way more because the markets have collapsed abroad.”
In 2018, China implemented a new policy severely limiting U.S. imports of recyclable materials. Since then, the conversation about waste management has changed. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, close to 30 percent of the market for U.S. recyclables dried up nearly overnight. Municipal recycling costs have skyrocketed. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, there has been a 1,400 percent increase in cost, from $5 a few years ago to $70 per ton this year, says the city’s Recycling Director, Michael Orr.
While well-to-do cities including Cambridge can afford the increased costs relatively unscathed, many others can’t. According to the Recycling Partnership, 66 towns and municipalities across the country have cut their curbside recycling programs. Among the latest large municipalities to do so is Jackson, Mississippi, home to 165,000 people.
In response, public opinion on plastic in all its forms is changing rapidly. “Only in the last two years have people really begun to wake up to how plastic is interacting with our environment—land pollution, river pollution, ocean pollution—and how plastic is appearing now in our bodies,” explains Pecci. “People have started to recognize how dangerous and unsustainable it is.”
Some supermarkets, responsible for ordering, distributing, and commissioning countless packaged goods, have taken preparatory action. In December 2018, Trader Joe’s—a chain criticized in a petition for selling customers “as much trash as food”—announced its goals to eliminate a million pounds of plastic in its stores in 2019. Halfway through the year, the chain announced that it was implementing changes, including biodegradable bags for flowers and recyclable trays for meat, that would eliminate 4 million pounds of plastic per year. Walmart followed Trader Joe’s lead in 2019, unveiling an initiative to swap out its private brand’s packaging with “material that is recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable.”
But both of these cases mark less of a shift away from packaging, and more of a gravitation to a different kind of packaging. For many consumers, who are concerned about the dangers of plastic pollution and remain skeptical about the headlong rise of single-use biodegradables, it’s a few steps too short.
Even the chains most leading the charge are some distance from eliminating plastic waste. The Colorado-based supermarket Sprouts—which now has more than 300 locations in 22 states—says bulk foods make up 30 percent of their stores. In January, the company started selling reusable glass jars and cloth bags to encourage a culture of refilling, and Bonnie Meyer, Bulk Category Manager at the chain says the company has already sold 125,000.
Yet even at Sprouts, promotional videos designed to introduce customers to the novelties of the bulk section demonstrate scooping and filling in disposable plastic bags—to the distress of nearly every single YouTube commenter on the video. Recent PR images show informational zero waste signage hanging, ironically, above almonds swaddled in plastic packaging—an entirely commonplace yet completely mixed message.
Bulk shopping has emerged an unwilling hero of sustainability: A hero because those rows of refillable gravity dispensers are the centerpiece of every zero waste store in the world. But unwilling, because outside of the small world of zero waste shopping, buying bulk to reduce consumer packaging is almost never encouraged by American businesses, and a good chunk of the time, it is even prohibited.
Food Safety Concerns, Real or Imaginary
Last June, Whole Foods opened a new location in the beach town of Malibu, California, just north of Los Angeles. The press release promoting the store’s grand opening touted all its newsworthy features: an extensive prepared foods section, hundreds of local brands, a bakery, and even a juice bar. But the release entirely omitted the store’s exemplary—and no doubt expensive—bulk aisle, home to hundreds of bulk offerings ranging from grains and nuts to flours and beans.
Jeff Wells, a journalist and editor who follows trends in the grocery industry at Grocery Dive, has observed this phenomenon. In a lot of stores, he says, “[bulk sections] are just kind of there. No one is talking about it. There are no press releases going out [in the grocery industry], saying things like ‘We’re bulking up on bulk!’”
For large chains like Whole Foods, bulk is a liability that even its environmental virtues cannot outweigh. For years, the company has insisted that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) food code forbids customers from refilling their own containers in the bulk aisle to avoid cross contamination. (The FDA, on the other hand, describes the food code as more of a suggestion; a “model… offered for adoption” for local and state governments.)
Fears of food-safety violations keep bulk in the background of many mainstream retail stores. But small, independent natural foods stores have made bulk a mainstay. At The Good Food Store, an independent grocery store in Missoula, Montana, bulk has long attracted customers both for its affordability, healthier, less-processed options, and buy-only-what-you-need appeal.
Far from discouraging customers from bringing their own refillable containers, The Good Food Store has for 20 years recycled and reused them them, too: Two large black bins stationed at the store’s entrance contain shoppers’ old glass and plastic jars, which employees collect, sanitize, and place on store shelves for customers to use.
The system made quite an impression on Matt Gray, a former employee of the store who now runs his own small grocery business, Neighborhood Produce in Somerville, Massachusetts. While he worked there, he said Good Food was home to the largest bulk section west of the Mississippi River. “At that time in Montana, we didn’t have glass recycling,” recalls Grey, “So that was a way to recycle glass and fill that need.”
The Good Food Store’s container recycling system wasn’t built overnight, emphasizes Layne Rolston, the store’s current communications director. It required extensive back-and-forth communication with the city’s local health department, and today, they still get regular check-ins from officials to ensure everything’s up to snuff.
“Ideally, I would like to think that as we discover the benefits of reducing packaging, health departments and government entities will adjust their thinking and use a process like ours as an example for what can be done safely and effectively. And maybe incorporate those guidelines to allow others to do the same,” says Rolston. However as regulations seem to grow stricter each year, he suspects that were staff to pitch the bottle-return program to regulators tomorrow, he’s not sure if it would fly.
When and Where Bulk Works
While the U.S. embeds disposability into its regulatory, economic, and cultural fabric, countries in Europe have recently made headway on normalizing a culture of refill and reuse. In many cases, it’s supermarkets taking the leap.
After six years of running a small, package-free grocery store in downtown London, Catherine Conway launched a consulting agency in 2013 to help businesses large and small develop fully integrated bulk sections. She has developed branded, packaging-free sections for Planet Organic and Waitrose—which Conway likens to the U.K.’s version of Whole Foods, which launched Waitrose Unpacked in June.
Minimizing packaging waste is an explicit goal in Conway’s work. “I think the difference between a zero waste bulk section and a supermarket one tends to be that in a supermarket, you’re offered a disposable paper or plastic bag and told to fill up as much as you want and take it away,” she says. “A lot of people think zero waste is like the emperor’s new clothes, like, ‘What’s new here? We’ve seen bulk sections for years!’ And I always say, ‘Yeah, but what packaging did they give you?’”
Often, when bulk sections fail to attract a refillable audience, it is because the supermarket in question has not allotted the proper resources—supervision, marketing, maintenance, employee training, and sometimes special infrastructure. Conway sees it as her challenge to convince stores and their customers that efficient refill stations are not just doable, they’re necessary. Making them work just needs a little creativity.
She trains stores to consider the logic of what they put in bulk. She offers chickpeas as an example: “I always ask them, ‘Well, how many chickpeas do you actually sell? How many people still take dried chickpeas home, soak them overnight, cook them for 40 minutes, and then blitz them up into hummus? And how many people just take your pots of hummus off the shelf?” In this scenario, supermarkets should not be filling gravity containers with chickpeas, she argues, but cut out the steps in between, and offer refillable hummus.
Conway says Waitrose, her biggest client thus far, has invested heavily in the design and messaging of bulk throughout the entire store. “Unless you’re into the world of zero waste, people won’t look for a section, and they won’t know what to do,” she says. “Also, you spent the last 30, 40 years telling them all they should care about is convenience and price, so currently all they care about is convenience and price.”
In a literal sense, retailers need to drive the point home. “You need the customer engaging with this concept [outside the store], because they’ve got to remember to bring the right containers.”
There currently aren’t quantitative analytics to determine just how many tons of garbage could be eliminated by shifting to a bulk-refill model of shopping. Supermarkets don’t even monitor this information, though Conway says that through some of her projects, comprehensive data may soon be available.
Despite the many challenges to widespread zero-waste shopping—and the urgent need for it to scale up—Conway remains hopeful. “I always tell people that the kids in school now that are being taught to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ are your employees and your consumers of the future,” she says. “And they cannot go through all of this schooling … and come out of it wanting to live how we currently live. So we are going to have to change how we do things. And those that do survive in the packaging industry will realize that they have to go with it.”