A First-Timer’s Guide to Shopping at Bulk Stores

Bulk stores make shopping plastic-free and zero waste so much easier. They allow us to avoid unnecessary packaging, and buy only what we need (no unnecessary food waste). But they operate quite differently to regular stores and supermarkets, and if you haven’t shopped at one before, the idea can be a little intimidating.

If you’re new to living plastic-free and zero waste, and find the idea of shopping at bulk stores a little nerve-wracking, I’ve put together a guide to help you out. No two bulk stores are exactly the same, but the principles are.

I believe that we should be embracing these types of shops where we can, and there’s no need to be intimidated!

Shopping at Bulk Stores – Before You Leave Home

The first thing I’d recommend you take is a shopping list. Go through your pantry and decide what you need before you get there. Browsing in a store you’ve never been in before can be a little overwhelming, and it’s easy to spend more money than you intend on ingredients that you didn’t really need.

Second, think about how you intend to buy your groceries. If you want to avoid packaging you might want to bring glass jars, containers or reusable produce bags. However not all bulk stores are set up the same.

For a first shop, I’d recommend taking reusable produce bags rather than jars or containers. (If you don’t have reusable produce bags and want to invest in some, you can find my online zero waste stores guide here.)

I shop at the Source Bulk Foods (and there are 50 of these stores across Australia and New Zealand) and these stores are set up for customers to bring their own containers. I can take a bag full of empty glass jars, the team will weigh them for me and record the weight on the jars, and then I can fill them up. When I get to the till the weight of the jar will be subtracted from the total, meaning I only pay for the weight of the actual products I buy.

Not all bulk stores offer this service. Maybe they don’t have the technology, maybe they don’t have the staff training, or maybe they just don’t want to. In these stores, using glass jars will be an expensive exercise as you’ll end up paying for the weight of the jar as well as the product. Reusable produce bags are the best alternative.

If you really want to use containers, consider ringing ahead and asking if they will be able to tare the weight, and how it works.

Shopping at Bulk Stores – Once You Arrive

Shopping at a bulk store is a very different experience to shopping at a supermarket. It’s extremely likely that the staff are as passionate about reducing waste as you are, and they will be more than happy to help. If you’re unsure in any way, I’d recommend going straight to a staff member and explaining that you’re new to this way of shopping, and asking how their store works and if there’s anything you need to know.

Ask them about different containers, and if they have preferences. Ask what other customers do. Start the conversation!

Some bulk stores might allow you to weigh your own containers. Some might ask that you write the code number of the product down (many people using their own jars do this by writing the numbers in their mobile phone as they go) to present at the till.

Some might print their own labels which just need scanning at the till. Ask to find out how your store works.

Shopping at Bulk Stores – Other Things to Consider

If we are used to supermarkets, we are much more used to unit prices (such as x price for a jar of peanut butter) rather than price per kilo. Even though supermarkets will list these prices, we don’t tend to pay much attention. This can be confusing at the start when shopping at bulk stores, because we often don’t have much idea how much things weigh. For example, chocolate coated nuts are quite heavy, so they might not sound expensive per kilo but a bag full can be more expensive than expected! On the other hand, items like tea can seem very expensive per kilo, but a full jar will not weigh much and be more affordable than the price suggests.

If you’re on a budget, for the first few shops I’d recommend getting a receipt, and tracking how much things cost, and making adjustments next time. I learned the hard way that big jars full of chocolates hurt my pocket!

Most things sold at bulk stores are sold by weight, but occasionally products are sold per unit (priced “each”) and some liquids will be sold by volume. The price label will always tell you how you will be charged. If a liquid is sold by volume, you will need to know the volume of the container rather than the weight (such as knowing the jar is 500ml or a litre).

If you do make a mistake, the store will help you sort it as best they can. They deal with a lot of containers and will have a good idea of the weight (if you forgot to weigh it) or the volume (if it doesn’t say on the container).

Whilst I’m shopping, I like to take note of the other ingredients that I see. If I see something interesting, I’ll head home and read up on how to prepare or cook it, and look up some recipes. If I decide I’d like to try it, I add to my list for next time. This works better for me than buying random ingredients that then sit in the cupboard untouched.

We’re often used to heading to the supermarket every week, but bulk stores can be approached a little differently. If you live far from a bulk store, getting super organised can mean you only need to head there every few weeks – the products they sell have a long shelf life, so there is no need to head in weekly. On the other hand, if you prefer to pop in every few days rather than stockpile, that works too.

Whichever you prefer, bulk stores offer more freedom than supermarkets to choose how you’d like to shop. They’re also friendly places, selling real food, and owned by real people rather than faceless corporations. What’s not to love?!

Now I’d love to hear from you! What practices does your local bulk store use? Are there any quirks that you’d like to share? Any other tips on bulk shopping?  If you’re new to the idea, any questions we haven’t covered? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

5 Tips for Less (and Better) Screen Time

This year I want to focus more on returning to living a little more simply, and feeling less busy, rushed and stressed. When I think about what this looks like in my life, I’ve realised one area I’d like to work on is the amount of time I spend online: I’d like to spend less time looking at screens.

I know it isn’t good for me to be staring at a computer screen for 8 hours a day, only to switch off the laptop and open up my phone to see what’s going on over there.

I love writing my blog, and I love social media, but all things in moderation.

It’s something I’m always conscious of, and often think about, but this year I intend to be more proactive with it. Whilst I don’t feel that I spend a huge amount of time on screens (and I don’t have a TV), there’s always room for improvement.

I don’t have all the answers, but I wanted to share some of the tools and some of the techniques I’m using to unplug a little. And ask for your help in telling me your own experiences and tips. I’m far from perfect, so if you have your own suggestions I’d be over the moon if you’d share them!

Less Screens

For me, screens can be divided into two: my laptop/computer, and my mobile phone. Because the way I use them is quite different, I’ve divided them up to talk about each separately.

Less Laptop / Computer Time

When you work for yourself and you don’t have a defined work day, it’s easy for laptop time to extend into evenings and weekends. I’m definitely guilty of keeping my laptop on well into the evenings. It’s not that working in the evening is bad per se, but without boundaries in place, it can feel like all I do is stare at the screen.

It’s also incredibly tempting to open the laptop for a few hours on the weekend to “get ahead”. Sadly “ahead” isn’t a place or something solid and attainable, it’s just an idea that sounds good.

Changing this is the challenge for the year.

What it’s going to look like, I’m not sure yet. One reason I like working for myself is that I don’t have to subscribe to the rigid 8am – 5pm model, so imposing that restriction doesn’t really make sense.

Yet the idea of saying “whatever happens in the day, the computer is off by 6pm” is incredibly appealing.

I’d like to reclaim my weekends, and keep the laptop turned off for at least one day, and ideally both. I’d like to keep my work day to a reasonable amount of hours, so if I start work early, then I don’t work late. I’ll let you know how this works out!

Less Mobile Phone Screen Time

When I first decided I wanted to reduce my mobile phone screen time, I realised I didn’t actually have any idea how often I used it, or what I was spending the most time looking at.

To figure this out, I downloaded a (free) app called AntiSocial. It tracks usage (number of minutes per day), number of unlocks, number of minutes spent on each app, the most used app, number of minutes on social media, and more.

I found it quite insightful, and think it is a good place to start when wanting to reduce phone time. The app also has the ability to block or restrict certain apps, by setting a daily limit, schedule or timer. Personally, I haven’t needed to use these.

There are plenty of other apps that offer these blocking services too.

When it comes to restricting my phone use during the day, I use the oldschool approach of turning my phone onto silent and putting it into another room, unless I am expecting a phone call. If someone calls and I miss it, I can always call them back, and not being able to hear the bleep or vibrate of a notification stops me being distracted.

I’m also conscious of the apps I use on my phone. I do not have Facebook on my mobile phone, meaning if I want to look at it I have to log onto the laptop. This works for me.

I also noticed recently that I have started reading the BBC news app more and more, which tends to tell me about all the terrible things happening in the world and puts me in a bad mood. I’m considering deleting this app too. AntiSocial tells me I spent 4 hours using the BBC News app in the past month. Was that a good use of my time? I’m not sure. Sometimes I’d rather not know what is going on in the world!

Less Ads

When I am on my computer I want to keep distractions to a minimum, and removing ads is one way that works for me. I’ve installed an adblocker on my laptop (you can also install them on your tablet or mobile). They work by removing advertisements from the sidebar and content, and replacing with white space.

I use AdBlocker Plus: it’s free to install.

Removing adverts remove the temptation to click away from what I’m trying to do, and stops me finding myself inadvertently shopping for stuff I don’t really need. It also means that if I do look at a product or service online, I’m not followed around by said product or service through retargeting adverts, trying to encourage me to make a purchase.

Another tip that’s worked for me is to unsubscribe from all shopping websites or anything that sends high volumes of sales emails. I find the constant “sales” and “limited offers” arriving in my inbox to be incredibly distracting, and the temptation to click through is always higher than if the email simply wasn’t there.

Better Screentime (When It Can’t Be Avoided)

I do not want screen time to take over my life, and more importantly, I do not want it to interfere with my sleep. Sleep is important to me, and a good nights sleep makes all the difference between a good day and a bad one.

Computer screens have a lot of blue light, which can affect sleep when we use them late at night. One option is simply not to use screens at night, but it isn’t always practical.

To help with this, I’ve download some apps that reduce the blue light, to help with sleep. On my phone I download the app Twilight, and on my laptop I’ve downloaded the app Flux. I can tell the app when the sun sets, and when I get up in the morning, and it will adjust the amount of blue light.

The screen looks a little strange at first, but I definitely feel that it strains my eyes less. The science says it works, and if I can’t avoid using screens late at night, it seems like a better option.

As I said at the start, I don’t have all the answers, but slowly I’m finding solutions to help me unplug. Freeing up my time from screens is going to let me embrace all the off-screen things I’m dying to do but simply never seem to be able to fit in! Not that I want to fill all the time. White space is good too.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How do you reduce screen time? Are there any apps you recommend? Any old school techniques and tips you recommend? Anything you tried that didn’t work at all? Please share your knowledge and experience in the comments below!

5 Ideas for Donating Stuff You Don’t Need (But Is Still Useful)

We all end up with stuff that we don’t need. Unwanted gifts, stuff that we upgrade or replace, stuff we realise we don’t use or don’t like, duplicates. The list goes on.

Getting rid of stuff, when we don’t like waste, can be a challenge. Especially when this stuff isn’t really fit for selling or donating to the charity shop. Things that are broken (even if they are repairable), items with parts missing, things that have low value, stuff that has been used, opened or are worn.

We don’t want to throw it out, but we know in our hearts that the charity shop doesn’t really want it either.

The thing I love about challenges is that whilst they can be difficult, they are not impossible. Someone, somewhere, will want what you have. Whatever it is. (I mean that. You’d be surprised.) The challenge is finding that person.

It can take time, and effort, but if you succeed it is such a good feeling. You’re saving something from landfill, and making someone happy in the process.

Remember: it’s only waste if you waste it.

I’ve put together a guide of what to do with some of the random bits and pieces that you have that you know are useful… but don’t know how to find them new homes.

Ideas for Rehoming Items Responsibly

Donating to the Charity Shop

This is most people’s go-to when letting go of unwanted stuff. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best place for the stuff. Most of us would rather donate something than throw it in the bin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the charity shop will want it.

Charity shops want things that they can sell! If you wouldn’t buy it, and can’t imagine that anyone else would either, don’t donate it. Charity shops get so many donations – far more than they can handle. In Australia it’s estimated only 15% of all donated clothes are resold.

Don’t kid yourself that the charity shop will want your moth-eaten old clothing with buttons missing.

Two ideas when donating to charity shops to ensure a better chance of the item being onsold:

  • Call ahead and find out if they take (and need) the things that you’re donating. Some charity shops have the capacity to test electrical items and will accept them for resale, others don’t. Some don’t have space to take toys, or may have a shortage of certain things. Calling ahead is a good way to find out what they need – and what they don’t want.
  • Think seasonally. Stores need to turn over goods fast to make money. Donating winter jumpers in summer or Christmas branded items in February will mean stock sitting around, and it may end up in landfill, even if the quality is good.

Donating on Gumtree or Craigslist

Gumtree, Craigslist and other platforms allow us to list items for free for others to take. How effective this is can be dependent on where you live (it’s easier in urban centres than rural locations). It’s also more effective for certain types of items, such as homewares, furniture and electrical goods.

That doesn’t mean that what you have won’t be wanted though, so it’s worth listing things anyway. Things like spare coat hangers, old bubble wrap, moving boxes and crates of old jam jars all shift surprising well.

Bear in mind that the more obscure the item, the longer it will take to shift.

(If you’ve never listed anything on Gumtree before, I’ve written a guide to selling second-hand to help you get started.)

Buy Nothing Groups and Local Online Community Networks

The more local something is, the easier it is for others to collect it, and the more likely it is to find a new home. That’s why community exchanges work so well. My local area has very active Buy Nothing Groups (a group that operates through Facebook, where goods can be taken and offered for free, with council boundaries determining whether someone can join).

Other Facebook groups include Swap & Barter groups and Zero Waste groups, or groups for exchanging specific items (fishing equipment, childen’s toys, craft supplies).

Outside of Facebook, my parents (who live in the UK) use and love a local community network called NextDoor, which allows them to connect with other members of their village.

There’s plenty of others, so explore what is local and active in your area. The global platforms might have better looking websites and thousands of members worldwide, but if there’s only two people living within 25km of you, that isn’t going to work.

If you use Facebook, that’s a great way to track down local and active groups. If not, see if you can contact community groups and ask if they have any knowledge or suggestions.

Real Life Community Groups

Community groups are another great place to consider. Craft and arts groups may be collecting certain items for projects (broken crockery is great for mosaic making, half-used paint tins may be wanted for other projects), community gardens may be able to use offcuts of materials or old tools, playgroups will accept all sorts of things for children to play with (small boxes that held electronic items are popular, as are old plastic loyalty cards (for playing “shop”).

For specialist equipment for a particular hobby, it may be worth finding an enthusiast’s group and finding out if any of their members can use what you have. For example, finding an Apiarist’s society to donate beekeeping equipment to is a much better match than simply listing on Gumtree or donating to the charity shop.

Charities and For-Purpose Enterprises

Different charities have different needs, and can be a great way to pass on unwanted items that aren’t suitable (or are too “niche”) for charity shops. Some ideas include:

  • Animal refuges often accept towels, sheets and other bedding, pet food and possibly other equipment and accessories;
  • Refugee centres accept donations of clothing, books, food, furniture, whitegoods and more (here’s a list of refugee organisations in Australia and the donations they accept);
  • Women’s refuges, homeless centres and hostels accept clothing and blankets and may accept toiletries and sanitary items (be aware that refuges do not publicly list their addresses for obvious reasons, so you will need to connect with a local charity serving these centres to find out what they will and won’t accept).
  • Charities (such as Fair Game in Australia) accept used sports equipment and clothing to redistribute to underserviced communities.
  • Opticians often accept used glasses to send to underserviced communities.
  • Food banks accept food but at Christmas or other times of year may accept toiletries, sanitary items and other non-food items – check with the individual organization.

Thoughts on (Shabby) Second-Hand Donations

Whilst I think it is brilliant to donate second-hand items, I also think that it is important to be mindful of their condition and respectful of where we donate them.

I once met an enthusiastic and well-meaning guy who was trying to set up a shoe enterprise donating second-hand shoes to Africa. He had collected thousands of shoes but didn’t have a warehouse, and was storing them in his garden in the open under a tarpaulin. They’d been there for 18 months.

He hadn’t given that much thought to where he would send them, whether there was an existing industry in the country that might be adversely impacted by an influx of shoes, or whether the shoes were appropriate for the climate or recipients.

His colleague said in the presentation “people in Africa deserve high-heeled shoes too!” That might be the case, but the intended community where these shoes were to be donated hadn’t actually been consulted as to their needs.

I don’t know what happened to the enterprise, and I hope they were able to have a positive impact. I think sometimes enterprises can be well-meaning but ill-considered. Sometimes we can be guilty of not really thinking through our choices.

I do think it’s important when donating to charity to consider if the recipients will really want our stuff, as tempting as it is to want to keep things out of landfill.

For example, I know that there are charities that collect used bras. I personally wear mine until they are stretched, misshapen and there is barely any life in them. I do not consider it appropriate to then donate it. That’s my opinion and my choice.

I think it can be tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that underprivileged people will want our shabby stuff. Actually, they might not.

Final Thought on Donating Unusual Items

This is not a complete list by any means, and with enough grit and determination it is possible to donate most things – not always for the purpose they were originally intended, but a purpose nonetheless. If you have something that you think is too good to throw away, get creative and start asking questions (zero waste Facebook groups are great for this).

You may be happily surprised.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What’s the craziest or strangest thing you’ve successfully donated to a happy recipient? Any other tips for where to donate unusual items? If you work in a charity shop or a for-purpose enterprise, are there any “no-no”s that you see donated often that aren’t suitable? Anything else to add? Please comment below.

5 Mistakes That Beginners Make When Going Zero Waste + Plastic Free

I don’t know about you, but when I set out to tackle a new project or challenge, I begin by feeling pretty excited about what I’m going to achieve. I feel good about making the commitment, I anticipate how great it’s going to be when I get there.

Only… not long after that, the doubt starts to set in. I realise the enormity of what I’m trying to tackle. I hit a stumbling block, and realise that the goal I set myself isn’t going to be such easy sailing.

It’s going to be hard work, and progress isn’t going to be a straight line.

It can be pretty disheartening after the euphoria of the beginning.

Can you relate?

However, progress is never a straight line, and there’s no need to give up just because things get a little tough. It’s all about practice, and chipping away, and bouncing back after we’ve been knocked down.

Time is always on our side.

No-one learns how to play the guitar in a few days, or speaks a language fluently in a week – so why should other habits be any different?

If you’ve set yourself the goal of really trying to live plastic-free and/or embrace zero waste, chances are you started out feeling great about what you want to achieve, only to feel deflated and overwhelmed as the days roll on. Whether you’ve struggled to find a good bulk store, argued with an obstinate customer service assistant who rolled their eyes and refused to let you use your own containers (or insisted on bagging them afterwards) or simply forgot your reusables because you were in a rush and took the single-use packaging without thinking – I promise you, we have all been there.

When that happens, dust yourself off, file it away under “experiences” and keep going.

We all make mistakes. If you’re a beginner on the zero waste journey, here’s 5 more common mistakes that people make, and how you can think differently about them.

Five Mistakes that Beginners Make When Going Zero Waste or Plastic Free

1. Not Starting Small.

It’s easy to focus so much on the end result that we forget this: big changes are really lots of small changes added together. Yes, the end goal is important. But the small actions are how we are going to get there.

If we want our expectations to meet our reality, we have to start small and achievable.

It’s much more motivating to pick a small, attainable goal and actually achieve it. That’s what spurs us on to take another action. Picking a wildly ambitious goal and then failing to meet it just makes us feel guilty, miserable and more like giving up.

If you’re new to zero waste and have never done anything to reduce your waste in the past, deciding that you’re going to go straight for the “all-my-waste-fitting-in-a-jam-jar” challenge in week 1 might be a step too far.

Why not start with sourcing a good set of reusables, and work on remembering to take them with you when you head out? Or choose one item that takes up a huge amount of space in your rubbish bin, and decide to find a low waste solution to that?

You’ll find some inspiration for micro actions you can take to reduce your waste here.

2. Feeling Bad About the Successes of Others.

Comparisonitis is very real. We see other people doing things that we want to be doing, possibly better than we could ever do them, and we feel bad about ourselves. Social media makes it worse, as we are much more exposed to what others are doing.

But comparing ourselves to others isn’t helpful, especially when we feel miserable or disheartened as a result.

Rather than feeling bad about the successes of others, we can choose to celebrate with them. People make progress as a result of hard work, determination, and courage. Anyone ahead of us on the journey can share their experiences, help us make progress and shine a light on the path to take.

That’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

Personally, I think that social media is a tool for good, connecting us with great ideas and inspiring people. We can choose to follow people who motivate us and lift us up. People who write kind words, share ideas freely and build supportive communities.

If you find that you follow people who make you feel bad, you can stop that immediately by unfollowing them.

If we find that social media gets a little overwhelming, we can take time out.

If it doesn’t feel good, there is no need to do it. We have the control and the power to change it.

Try to celebrate the success of others. If you find this too difficult, choose to disconnect from it. It’s all a choice.

3. Letting the Negative Opinions of Others Influence Your Journey.

We all try to make the best decisions we can based on the knowledge we have, the time and resources available to us and our experiences. There is rarely a perfect choice, so we do what we think is best in that moment.

That doesn’t mean that our decisions are right for everyone, or are what others would choose.

I think the most important thing is to understand why we make the choices we make: to know why they feel right for us.

Others will have different ideas. Sometimes this feedback can be very useful. We can learn about other (and maybe better) ways of doing things. We can consider new perspectives, and factors we hadn’t considered before.

This can help us make better, and more informed, decisions next time.

Sometimes, although people are well-meaning, these comments can come across as overly critical or negative. It might not be what they say, but the way they say it, or what is implied.

You don’t make your own? I do.

You bought something new when you could have made do/found it second hand? That’s not zero waste.

Do you know it contains palm oil/is made in China/some other thing that’s terrible for the planet? I thought you cared about that.

I believe that most people mean well. Sometimes our passion and excitement for a subject can get in the way of thoughtfulness. Just remembering this fact can help us see past any unintended negativity.

Of course, sometimes people do try to catch us out. To point out our flaws and imperfections. Really, that says more about them than it does about us.

Regardless, there is often (but not always) an element of truth to consider in any negative feedback or comments. It’s worth taking a step back, considering the message and taking any feedback on board for next time.

It’s not worth dwelling on it, though. Or getting upset by it. Or letting it negatively influence our efforts.

Remember, people have no idea about your life. It’s your journey, and you’re figuring it out as best you can.

Negative feedback can be useful. Just don’t let it derail your plans.

4. Not Seeing Making Bad Choices as a Learning Experience.

On any journey we make decisions and choices that, with the benefit of hindsight, we wouldn’t make again. That’s part of the learning experience.

Bad choices are not a reason to give up. We all make them, and we will all continue to make them. Hopefully, the more we progress the less we’ll make, but there are no guarantees!

Making a bad decision, and realising that it was a bad decision, is what helps us make better decisions next time round. I would argue that making a bad decision is better than making no decision – taking action is how we get clarity.

Most decisions will be good, some will be not so good. It doesn’t matter.

5. Making Things Harder Than They Need to Be.

Going plastic-free or zero waste is not about going without. That said, it can take time to find workable solutions for everything. There has to be balance, and in trying to find that balance we can tip a little too far the other way.

To find balance, we need to push things in order to find out just where the equilibrium lies.

However, if we go too far, we need to recognize that, and bring things back, or we will stress ourselves out and the whole thing will become unsustainable.

There’s plenty of ways that we can unintentionally make things harder for ourselves. Creating an unmanageable amount of work for ourselves by trying to make every single thing from scratch. Trying to ensure our entire family is zero waste or plastic-free rather than just focusing on ourselves. Tackling multiple challenges at once, like going zero waste, plastic-free, vegan, organic and local all together. Forgoing things we love (and that make us happy), or letting our health suffer for the “cause”.

We can only do what we can do. Some things we can maintain in the long-term, some things we can strive for only in the short-term, and other things just won’t work for us at all – at least not in the present.

Zero waste, plastic-free and sustainable living is not meant to feel like a chore. Its not meant to feel like a struggle. If it does, it might be time to take a step back and let some things go. There will be a time to try again.

There’s no benefit to anyone in making things harder than they need to be.

If you have any mistakes you’d like to add to this list, I’d love to hear them so please share! Were there any mistakes that you made when starting out? Are there any mistakes you see others make at the beginning of their journey? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts below!