Food packaging represents a substantial portion of the non-recyclable plastic (and waxed cardboard) waste that is rapidly filling our landfills. Whether you are concerned about food packaging and plastic for environmental reasons or worried that we are running out of usable landfill space, there is a lot you can do to reduce or eliminate the food packaging you bring home.
Recently, the opening of the new German “supermarket” Original Unverpackt received a lot of attention for its no packaging mission to reduce unnecessary waste. But many cities already have their own versions of a package free bulk store.
Finding the Bulk Scene
Having begun my journey to eliminate my home’s landfill contribution in Toronto, I soon discovered my neighbourhood was well-equipped with several Bulk Barns. Green grocery shopping was easy. When I moved to Montreal I was devastated to learn that the nearest Bulk Barn was in fact off the island. I needed to get more creative. I put in the leg work and began experimental visits to bulk stores all over the plateau, and mile-end. Frenco became a fast favourite. Others include Folie en Vrac and other hidden gems. Some may not even advertise that they offer bulk food and cleaning items…
The First Visit
I think that one of the most intimidating things about changing your lifestyle to shopping green involves finding the best bulk stores, and knowing what to expect the first time you go there. Afterall, we are creatures of habit. So I’m going to tell you exactly what you can expect to find at these stores and how to prep before your visit.
Happily, it is the habit of most people to carry large reusable fabric bags to car their groceries home. To be truly ecologically friendly, consider taking some time to make small lightweight reusable fabric bags that you can use to buy your dry goods too. This simplifies the process when the cashier is weighing your dry goods at checkout. The stores themselves do offer you three other options:
- Free small plastic bags (some recyclable, some not)
- Recyclable plastic containers on the spot (25 cents)
- Bring your own containers and ask the cashier to weigh them before you fill them
Show some style
I opted to make my own bulk bags. Because the bags are relatively small, you can purchase spare fabric in the scrap bin of your local fabric store, and it is usually much cheaper that way. They were relatively easy to sew myself on a rented-by-the-hour sewing machine at Effiloché on St Hubert near Beaubien.
For extra keen sewers use natural beeswax to line the bags and add zippers (optional) to create your own re-useable ziplock or sandiwch bags (shout out to my friend Ally for introducing me to such a stellar idea) You can find the tutorial here, and you’ll never run out of sandwich bags.
The liquid refill station at Frenco (pictured below) offers handsoap, shampoo, conditioner, dishsoap, and laundry detergent refills. You might even get your pick of natural scents. A word of caution, be alert and consult the price by weight. It can be hard to predict the cost of a liquid refill. I speak from experience having accidentally walked out after spending 28$ on a laundry detergent refill.
Most dry goods are reasonably priced. Dry fruit can end up costing you a lot. Though the price is comparable to what you would find in the grocery story, if you grab one large scoop you will be taking home a lot more volume than you find packaged in conventional grocery stores. So if you just want a little treat, and don’t want to break the bank, be careful. Quinoa is another item that is expensive virtually everywhere unless you can find a non-organic version. This is consistently the most expensive item on my bill, but after all I am buying in bulk so I take home enough quinoa to last me for a month!
On a recent trip to Frenco I acquired a week’s worth of rolled oatmeal for the morning, 3 cups of heavy molasses, 6 eggs, 4 cups of dark brown sugar (clearly I was doing some holiday baking) for a combined cost of less than 9$. I was admittedly suprised it wasn’t more expensive because it was my first time purchasing molasses and buying a new item at Frenco can result in a bit of sticker shock.
Things you won’t find
Meat, butter and milk, even the glass bottled kind. Meat is sort of an obvious one as many of these stores cater to vegetarians and vegans. But if you’re a meat-lover (I enjoy a great roasted chicken myself now and again) try to find a local butcher, you might just see major savings.
For dairy, if you can’t find it in the bulk stores you can consider an alternative. There are a lot of them. Indian Ghee, solid at room temperature, is sold in glass jars in most ethnic grocery stores. The Ghee is clarified butter and is especially bad for you as it is made up of the hydrogenated components of the butter. This means the Ghee is solid at room temperature, and contributes more to arterial plaque. If you choose this option, use sparingly. For baking, oil and applesauce and so many other alternatives exist, and taste great. They will also help keep you healthy.
Yogurt and kefir (a delicious yogurt-like substance) can easily be found in jars, and the jars can be returned Rachelle-Béry Epicerie Santé for cash. But these are expensive options. For the green shopper on a budget, consider making your own yogurt using a yogurt maker at home. Recently, friends introduced me to yogurt making. The process is fun and cheap, and serving sizes are up to you.
Whether it’s my cheerful red polka-dotted bulk bags and/or the feeling that I am doing some relatively easy things to preserve the environemtnal, I actually enjoy my bulk shopping. In fact I look forward to it, and to guessing at the bill.
So next time need to grocery shop, give the bulk store a try before you head to your conventional grocery store. Once you eliminate food packaging from your life you will be amazing at how slowly your garbage fills and how you look at the packaging of food products