Can You Live Plastic-Free without Bulk Stores?

Can You Live Plastic-Free without Bulk Stores?

One of the most common challenges I hear from people who would like to embrace plastic-free or zero waste living, is that they don’t live near a bulk store. Access to bulk stores definitely makes plastic-free living infinitely easier – but that doesn’t mean that without them, it’s impossible.

In fact, there are still plenty of things that you can do to reduce your plastic footprint, wherever you live, wherever you shop and however busy you are. Here’s a list of my top 8 (as always, feel free to add your own ideas to the comments below).

Don’t make the mistake of doing nothing because you cannot do everything.

This is so important! Just because there isn’t a bulk store near you, that doesn’t mean that you should give up before you begin.

Remember that every single piece of plastic that has ever been made is still in existence today, so every single piece of plastic you refuse is one less piece entering our environment.

We just need to start where we are, with what we have, and do what we can. Even if you can only refuse a few things, or make a couple of changes, it all counts. If we all did the best we could, think how much better the world would be!

Don’t stress about what you can’t change, look for what you can change.

Eat more fresh vegetables!

Apologies for sounding like your Nan here, but seriously – food packaging accounts for such a significant amount of the waste we produce, and one of the easiest ways to reduce this is to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.

Look for unpackaged fruits and vegetables, or if you still need to buy in packaging, try to choose the bigger packs (there will be less plastic overall).

Potatoes and sweet potatoes are a great high-carb alternative to pasta and rice, and are easy to find plastic-free.

If you don’t know how to cook something, look on the internet for simple recipes. This is where I’m going to offer different advice from your Nan – you do not need to boil everything for 30+ minutes! Plenty of veggies can be roasted (try carrots, broccoli and cauliflower), stir-fried, broiled, baked, sautéed – or eaten raw.

Zero Waste Vegetables Plastic Free July Treading My Own Path
My local veg box delivery comes mid-week and direct to my door (convenience shopping with a difference) and it’s an easy way for me to get produce that’s plastic-free and locally grown.

Also, many veggies can be frozen once cooked. If you live in a small household and don’t want to eat an entire pumpkin this week, chop into cubes, roast it as usual and freeze what you don’t need. Other vegetables, such as leeks and broccoli, can be blanched for 1-3 minutes, and then frozen.

This guide lists how to freeze a number of vegetables and might be a helpful starting point.

Bring your own reusable bags – not just your main shopping bags

As well as your own shopping bags, bring reusable produce bags for all your loose produce items, and a cloth bag for any bread you need.

You can find produce bags available for sale online (made of cloth or mesh, some pre-labelled and others plain) – or you can make your own using your own fabric or even old net curtains!

Fruit and Veggie Produce Bags Treading My Own Path
Reusable produce bags are a great way to buy loose products at the store without needing to take those pesky plastic bags!

If you forget, and you’re buying too many items to simply pop them in your trolley loose, you can often find paper mushroom or potato bags so use these as an alternative to plastic.

Look for packaging in glass, cardboard and paper, and adapt where you can

When I first started out with plastic-free living, I continued to shop at the supermarket. Whilst I found most of the pre-prepared products were packaged in plastic, I found many wholefoods and single ingredients that were packaged in glass and cardboard. For example, in my local store I could buy pasta and couscous in cardboard packaging, as well as oats and rice, but I could not buy quinoa or bulgar wheat.

I began buying more oats over breakfast cereal; eating porridge for breakfast and using more oats in baking. In glass jars I found passata so I began to buy this rather than chopped tomatoes in Tetra-Paks (which are difficult to recycle) or tins (which are plastic-lined and contain BPA).

After all, passata is just chopped tomatoes that have been blended! (Later I discovered that simply using fresh tomatoes and quickly chopping saved packaging dilemmas altogether.)

How far you take this will depend on whether you have dietary restrictions or fussy eaters in your household, but even one change is a step in the right direction.

Remember, you can still buy bulk within the store

I’m not talking about buying huge quantities of food you probably won’t eat here, I‘m referring to choosing one product over individual portions and single serves. Even if the bigger one still comes in packaging, it will be far less than all those individual portions added together.

Rather than buying individual pots of yoghurt, buy a 1kg tub (or bigger) and split into smaller containers at home.

Rather than snack portions of raisins or crackers, buy a big pack and divide up yourself.

Rather than buying individual slices of cheese, or grated cheese, buy a big block and chop or grate at home (tip – you can freeze cheese so there’s no reason why you can’t buy a big block and freeze what you won’t use straightaway for later).

Aside from saving the plastic, you’ll save a huge amount on your grocery bill. Check the price per kilo of the bulk items versus the “convenience” items and you’ll find that convenience comes at a price – and you won’t just be saving the environment with these choices!

Supermarket or not – bring your own containers!

It’s possible to take your own containers to the counters at the supermarket or your local stores: the butcher, fishmonger, cheese shop or deli. Make sure they are clean, and explain why you’re doing it as you hand your containers over.

Confidence is everything – act like you’ve done it a million times before, and it is the most normal thing to do in the world!

If you’re unsure that they will be accepted, or feel really nervous, you can always phone the store in advance and ask if they’d be happy to take your own clean containers (be sure to tell them why).

You may find the odd place that isn’t willing to help, but most are happy to support this kind of shopping. If they have restrictions, find out what they are. (They may be happy to use containers for pre-cooked products, but not raw, for example. They may be happy to fill your own containers, but only if you drop them off by a certain time, or on a certain day.)

Reusable containers. Simply take to the shop and ask the server to put your goodies directly inside!
Reusable containers. Simply take to the shop and ask the server to put your goodies directly inside!

If a staff member is unwilling to comply, it may be that you simply need to check with the manager (they may be fearful of losing their job, and a quick conversation can sort this out).

If the store is definitely against it, you could push higher up if they are a chain or have a Head Office, or simply take your business elsewhere. If you do receive a “no”, keep it in mind and try again in a few months – something may have changed!

If places aren’t willing to comply, there may be the option of the staff wrapping your item in paper and you putting the paper-wrapped product into your sealed container yourself. It’s always worth asking if they have paper behind the counter.

Refuse single-serve and single-use items

“Refusing” is such a big part of the plastic-free living journey, and we can remove so much plastic from the environment just by making this simple choice. Refusing bottled water and carrying our own bottle and refilling from the tap; choosing to dine in rather than get takeaway or bringing our own containers; refusing straws; refusing individual sachets of sauce, butter or those tiny little portions of milk… it all makes a difference.

Carrying your own water bottle or coffee cup and a reusable straw is a great alternative if you’re often out, and a great way to start conversations. Simply asking at the cafe if you can have a splash of milk directly into your tea or a little bit of butter cut directly from the block rather than the single-serve portions is a surprisingly easy way to avoid plastic and make a point.

Go outside and pick up litter

No matter where you live, what shops are available to you or what your budget is, or how much time you have to spare, you can do this. Simply go out of your front door and onto your street with a bag, and pick up all the plastic litter you come across.

You may prefer to go to the beach or alongside a river, if you have one close by, but wherever you choose to go, I guarantee there will be some litter. Whether you opt for a 2 minute beach clean, simply commit to pick up 3 things, or decide to take a 30 minute walk and see what you come across, it all makes a difference.

Pick up any plastic items that you find, and then dispose of them responsibly. You’ll be stopping that plastic getting ingested by wildlife or making its way to the ocean, and making your local environment a more pleasant place to be. You’ll probably feel a lot more determined to avoid single-use items afterwards, too!

Treading My Own Path 30 Minute Litter Pick Up Litterati Take3 July 2016
I picked this up in 30 minutes simply by walking around my local streets.

Whatever you can do, you really must know that what you do makes a difference. The smallest actions can have the biggest impacts, and choosing just one thing to change is better than changing nothing at all.

The planet, the turtles and the plastic-free community; we will all thank you for it. Don’t let a lack of local bulk stores stand in your way. It really doesn’t matter how far you take this.

What matters is that you try.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you struggling to find bulk stores near you? What items do you struggle to find without plastic packaging? What have been your biggest dilemmas and challenges? What have been your best successes and greatest a-ha moments? What are you currently working towards changing? Any other suggestions for those who live far from bulk options? If you are lucky enough to have bulk options near you, are there still items that you struggle with? Do you have any others that you’d add to this list? Any other thoughts or comments? Please tell me what you think in the comments below!

47 Responses to Can You Live Plastic-Free without Bulk Stores?

  1. These are all great reminders, though “go outside and pick up litter” may be my favorite– we so seldom hear that advice.

    For me, I think the biggest change will be improving my diet. While I enjoy baking, I don’t care for cooking, and a zero waste life is guaranteed to involve more cooking and fewer convenience foods.

    After that, reducing my cosmetic use is the most daunting. My routine and product collection are relatively simple, but we’ll see how it goes…

    • Thanks Rebekah! Yes, you’re right. I think because so much of our focus is on buying stuff (or not buying stuff) – but it is definitely not all about shopping ; )

      Yes, this lifestyle is definitely healthier! The convenience foods that aren’t in plastic (premium products in glass, deli counters etc) are far healthier and better for us, but yes, they come at a price! So making our own is more cost-effective. It doesn’t need to be complicated though. Stir-fries and roasting veggies don’t take much time at all (or effort, at least) and they are plastic-free, good for us and good for the planet : )

      With my cosmetic use, I ditched a whole lot of products. Not all at once, but the effort to find them (and I tried making mascara once – what a pain that was!) wasn’t worth it. It’s all a journey!

      Good luck Rebekah and keep me updated with how you’re getting on!

  2. Thanks so much for this post! My nearest bulk store is over an hour away one way so it’s definitely not becoming a part of my weekly shopping routine. It’s a good reminder than any step towards less plastic is a step worth taking. I’ve been loving my reusable shopping and produce bags!

    Living with someone who’s not 100% on board with removing as much plastic as possible from our lives is a bit challenging. But while I’ve been researching zero waste and plastic free, my husband has been doing his own research on healthy eating to help with some of his medical problems. He’s been requesting more fresh fruits and veggies and less packaged, processed foods which is a win win for us!

    My current biggest challenge is that I love to do various sorts of crafts. And a lot of crafting supplies come wrapped in plastic or contain plastic parts. And all of them create a lot of waste! Currently, I’m focusing on reducing waste in the kitchen and bathroom so I can have more time to think about those things that I know will be harder.

    • My pleasure Stephanie! Woah, that is a bit of a commute! It’s completely true, every step is a step in the right direction. I see so many people get disheartened because they can’t do everything, or they worry about the tiniest little bits of plastic that sneak in – and then want to stop! There’s really no need!

      I think if you adopt a healthy diet, then the plastic just slips away! Health food shops tend to have lots of overpackaged “goodies” but they are often so expensive it can be worth just making at home, and that saves so much waste too. Sounds like you are both going to meet in the middle – no nagging required ; )

      I agree, a lot of craft stuff comes in fiddly little packets, but you could look at using waste items to make craft stuff. I’m not talking about anything tacky or cheap – there are some amazing artists out there creating beautiful pieces using waste. There is a local girl here who makes jewellery out of those Nespresso coffee pods and they are fantastic – you’d never guess what they were made from. Nurdle in the Rough makes beautiful jewellery out of plastic she finds at the beach. Have a google or look on Instagram for some inspiration and you will be amazed!

      It is all small steps. The bathroom and kitchen are where the biggest wins are, and then you can work towards all of the other things. Sounds like you’re going great!

  3. Yes, yes, yes. This is great advice! It’s definitely good to remember not everyone has access to bulk, and there ARE ways to reduce waste even within a “regular” grocery store. In a pinch, I’ve totally taken my glass Pyrex to our non-bulk grocery store for deli cheese, and while I got some strange looks, they were able to put it in my container.

    • Thanks Elizabeth! Yes, there are options. There are always options! Great work taking your own containers to the deli – it definitely can be a little nerve-wracking at first, but in time you just shrug off those strange looks, I think! Or you reverse it and look at them with a strange look like – well, why wouldn’t I want to put it in my own container?! ; )

  4. Yogart and sour cream seem to be a major problem here around Belleville, Mi. I can only find it at the local grocery store in 2 lb and 1 lb plastic containers so far. Milk in glass containers are double the price of what it cost in a gal of milk in the plastic jugs, but I did cut down on buying the plastic jugs, maybe only 1 a month and the rest glass.

  5. Fabulous post. Thank you. I wish more people did what they could and tried rather than giving up because it’s all too hard and they feel they can’t make a difference.

  6. Hi Lindsay, just wanted to say I’ve only found your blog recently and I love it. I consider myself a minimalist and have been interested in zero waste for a while but have found other blogs off putting. I like the ‘just start somewhere and don’t try to make it perfect’ attitude in your blog.

    I live in a small town in Austria and don’t speak German, which makes progress slower but these are the things you have inspired me to do: have another more dedicated go with reusable nappies, order a moon cup, find a low waste store I can visit fortnightly, buy in glass over plastic, avoid veggies wrapped in plastic (surprisingly hard), I’m trialling oil instead of skin lotion. I already did basic things like recycle, pick up rubbish on walks, bring my own bags to the store, and I’ve tried different hair washing techniques but none have worked so far. I’m trying to get baking soda or natron so I can make my own cleaning products (only found it in tiny plastic wrapped sachets so far!) and I’m trying to get rye flour for my hair.

    I’m also inspired by your house. We live in a kind of community here with two other families and we love it. I’d love to build an eco community like yours when we move back to Wellington. Any tips where to find out more about eco communities? I’d love to see a home tour when you have time and hear more about how the community is working out.

    Thanks for a great blog

    • Hi Mel, thank you so much for your comment and for your kind words! I don’t think anybody is perfect – but if we all just do the best we can, how awesome would that be? ; )

      Wow, it sounds like you have made heaps of changes! That is so great. Each one of those things will save so much waste : ) My whole bathroom routine was trial and error – trying one thing, then another, and seeing what worked and what didn’t. I was lucky that when I stopped using shampoo and conditioner my hair adapted straight away. Just keep trying things and you will reach a compromise you are happy with.

      My friend Eugenie who build the place we live in has a passion for sustainable communities like this and knows far more about the different projects both here and overseas than I do. You could email her and ask? Her website is http://thegreenswing.net/. I’m sure she’d be able to help in some way when you do move back too.

      Interestingly, there is not much community yet as most of the places are still empty. We have the neighbours upstairs who moved in when we did, and a couple who are renting moved in just on Monday. That means 4 homes are still empty. The community is building…but slowly!

  7. Love this! Great ideas as usual, we are lucky to live only about 15mins from a bulk food store, but sometimes we pick a few things we can get in minimal packaging at supermarkets instead. One of the roads I drive on 3 times a week was absolutely peppered with rubbish and it’s been bothering me for months, I have been wanting to pull over on my way home and pick some up, but being a remote road adjacent to a prison I wasn’t sure about the safety. On the weekend though, my husband came with me and together we picked up 5 big canvas bags of rubbish and recycling, sorting as we went. We will have to return as I underestimated the amount of bags we would need or the sheer number of icebreak bottles (at least 50) with the caps firmly attached and fermented milk coffee remnants in them. :/ Our recycle and rubbish bins haven’t been this full or stinky in at least 6 months. A reminder of how far we’ve come :)

    • Thanks Sarah! I think litter picking really connects (and reconnects) us to the issue. I’m so glad you did it! That is so awesome! And yes, we often underestimate how much we can carry too! (Or the time it will take. Or both.) How did you feel? I find it a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions, actually. But definitely I feel satisfaction afterwards. And more determined to do what I can. Great work – and thanks so much for sharing. You made my evening!

      • Thanks Lindsay :) I am getting so much inspiration and information from your blog. Yes definitely mixed emotions. Felt good to get it off the road where there was so many storm drains, but also a bit overwhelmed again by size of the problem and a bit angry about the carelessness. I have drafted an email to management at my work reminding staff not to litter, but haven’t worked up the courage to send it yet…

  8. Hi!

    So i pick up litter or just plastic…and then what?

    a lot off those plastics cannot be recicled…I was shoccked when I found out most my plastic does not get recicled. Where do i put it?

    • Hi Julia! Yes, lots of plastic cannot be recycled. The stuff that can, recycle. What’s left has to go in the trash. But at least it is not getting into our waterways, being eaten by birds or ingested by fish, and polluting the environment. Plus rubbish breeds rubbish. A clean space makes people less likely to litter. It all helps!

      • I know that …i was frustrated…but going in the garbage produces methane gas…its a terrible cycle. Have to stop using plastic. Our grandmothers didnt we shouldnt either :)!

  9. Hi,
    Great post and blog! A couple of grocery store chains in my area (NYC) have bulk bins for dry goods, which is great, but they have plastic bags to put the goods in. Since they are sold by weight I assume I can’t just put them in my own container unless I want to pay a lot of extra money. Do you know any way around this? I have often though it would be great to be able to eliminate the step of putting it in a plastic bag just to take it home and move it to a storage container.

    • Hi Kaarin, thanks for your comment! : ) Some places are happy to weigh your containers and they will deduct the weight at the till. You’ll have to ask and see what they say! Otherwise, you can buy or make your own produce bags using mesh, netting, mosquito netting, old net curtains etc so that they don’t weigh anything on the scales, and you can wash and reuse them. (They don’t need to be mesh, you can use cloth, but some stores prefer to see what’s in the bag. I have a couple of cloth ones for flour and really fine stuff!)

      Hope that helps! Let me know how you get on! x

  10. Hi Lindsay, you have a lot of great tips here. Since my move I’ve found it harder to locate foods that aren’t packaged in plastic. The grocery store sells everything wrapped, including potatoes. Now if I wanted to live on melons that I can get without plastic. Our bulk food stores are run by Mennonites and they have everything measured out and in plastic bags or containers so even that isn’t an option. I guess it all depends on where you live. I still carry my own bags and have my own produce bags I made a while ago to carry to the farmers’ market. Now to be able to use them again.

    • Hi Lois, thank you very much! I can’t believe your grocery store wrap veggies in plastic! It must feel so frustrating going backwards. I remember you telling me about this when you first moved – it’s a shame that nothing has changed. Yet ; ) At least you’ve got the garden cranking so you can grow some of your own food!

  11. I recently started to go zero waste,but one thing I struggle with is finding cucumber and other veggies without plastic wrap. But hopefully when the farmers market in Stockholm starts in August, I’m going to find veggies plastic free wrapping! About Bulk stores,I have found one 40 minutes from me with commute traffic! Keep upp the good work!

  12. Great ideas. It’s important not to get discouraged because you can’t do everything. I like bulk stores but they are not accessible. The tip about buying loose vegetables and eating more fruit and veg is great – will be doing that. Also avoiding individually portioned items and buying cardboard packaging. Thanks a lot!

    • Thanks Alexa! Glad you found this useful. I always recommend looking at either your till receipt from the supermarket, or your rubbish/recycling bin when looking at where to start or where you’ll have the most impact. For example, if you find your entire recycling is full of yoghurt pots, maybe you can look into making your own or even buy the big tubs and portion yourself into old jam jars. If it’s snack foods, maybe you can start choosing different ones with less packaging. It also helps us decide where it is worthwhile to buy big quantities. For example. if you eat rice every day, you might find it worthwhile buying a 20kg sack. If you eat it once a week, maybe not – you don’t want it getting weevils whilst in storage.

      I remember the first time I found sesame seeds in bulk I purchased about 2kg – except I only ever used thm a few teaspoons at a time! I tried all sorts of things – making sesame seed milk (not great), attempting to make tahini (my blender wasn’t good enough and it was a disaster!) and finally baking the tahini disaster into cookies. Ah well, this is how we learn! (And have some fun along the way!)

      Good luck! x

  13. Thanks Lindsay, this is really useful for me ..just started to hear about plastic wast idea!

    I am international student lives temporary in Perth and obviously new to Perth. you said there are heaps of bulk food stores here; could be please list some nearby stores I can bulk buy my grocery from?

    I live in Nedlands with my family a wife and two kids and I am happy to start our journey to reduce plastic from my life

    Thanks

  14. Thanks for such an encouraging post! I’m new to this zero waste thing but I’m making changes slowly and getting frustrated at the same time so that was so helpful! I’m in shoreham in the U.K. there is only 1 shop I know of that does some bulk buying ..

  15. Thanks for sharing. Think I’m doing pretty well, but overlooked cardboard pasta and such, seems obvious now! So thanks. I’m struggling with berry punnets / frozen berry plastic bags atm. Not near farmers markets these days (though often still in plastic), but love these in our diet….

    • Hi Alison, my pleasure! I always find that these things are so obvious – but we took years and years to think of them! We grow a few berries, and freeze fresh berries out of season that we’ve picked or bought from the Farmers Market. I definitely eat less than I used to.

  16. Yes these things are taught in boy scouts when our boys were in it. We have reused, recycled, reduced, composted for decade’s. We have cut back on plastics whenever possible. Thanks for giving suggestions, help to those who want to start, continue to limit thier footprint.

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