By Lisa Biehle Files
How can we reduce landfill waste while putting money into our own pockets at the same time? The answer is simple. Buy from the bulk bin sections at our local stores. By purchasing staples such as beans, rice, granola, nuts, and even cleaning supplies from bulk sections, we reduce wasteful packaging and conserve resources used in its production. These savings are passed on to us through lower per pound/unit prices.
Bulk bin buying is decidedly the green way to shop. Bringing your own storage containers or small cloth bags is even better for the environment than using the available plastic bags. Stores will weigh your empty containers to determine the “tare weight” or container weight. Then after you fill your receptacle, the tare will be subtracted from the total weight.
Remember to write the item number (PLU number) for your selected product on the sticker or tag provided by the store to expedite the checkout process.
Let’s look at the best deals available in our local bulk sections.
Green Home Experts
Maria Onesto Moran has been selling green cleaning supplies in bulk at Green Home Experts, (811 South Blvd., Oak Park) for at least 5 years. Though there are no actual bulk bins to scoop into, these liquids are kept in barrels in the back of her store. She encourages customers to bring in their empty containers and fill them at a discounted price.
In particular, she sells Earth Friendly Products, which are manufactured locally, in Addison, Illinois. “I find that their products work incredibly well, plus they are non-toxic and not tested on animals. This is my favorite line of cleaners,” Maria explained. “What a lot of people do is buy the Earth Friendly bottle and then bring it back when it’s empty.”
Laundry detergent and other cleaning supplies are sold by volume rather than weight. The refill price for Ecos laundry detergent, by Earth Friendly Products, is 11 cents per ounce. When comparing prices, the cost was 13 cents an ounce at Whole Foods, and even Costco’s price for a large bottle of the same was 12 cents per ounce, both higher than Maria’s refill price.
Other Earth Friendly cleaners to refill are dishwashing soap at 14 cents an ounce and all-purpose cleaner at 13 cents an ounce. In fact, all the cleaning supply refills were about 20 percent cheaper than the typical price at other local stores.
Sugar Beet Food Co-op
Food Co-ops are known for their bulk bin sections, and Sugar Beet Food Co-op (812 W. Madison St., Oak Park) is no exception. They have almost 200 spices, over 50 teas, and 17 granola varieties (twice as many Whole Foods)—all in bulk. Snacks and baking supplies are extensive. Grains and seeds are priced well, with some of the best deals listed here:
Organic thick rolled oats at $1.09 per pound. Short grain brown rice at $1.59 per pound. Organic whole wheat flour at $1.19 per pound. Organic black chia seeds at $7.99 per pound. Fresh ground organic peanut butter at $4.99 per pound.
More than 10 items in the bulk bin section are marked down dramatically through the end of September. Keep alert to these monthly deals printed in the Sugar Beet flyer, as some of them are remarkable bargains. Here are a few:
French vanilla almond granola at $2.99 per pound.Maple pecan dream granola at $2.99 per pound.Organic small red chili beans at $2.19 per pound.Organic black turtle beans at $1.79 per pound.Organic, raw, shelled sunflower seeds at $2.99 per pound.
Front of store manager, Jerry Nash said, “You can get major savings over conventional grocery stores with spices and teas. In a regular grocery store, you can buy a half ounce of cumin and it’s, like, $6. You can get a lot more for that much money here.”
An interesting section is bulk liquids such as cooking oil, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, agave syrup, and sesame oil. At Sugar Beet Food Co-op, these are sold by weight rather than volume, which made it perplexing to compare unit price, since most bottles are measured according to volume. We will leave this conundrum to the mathematicians.
Whole Foods Market
If you are a dried fruit fanatic, then the Whole Foods Market (7245 Lake St., River Forest) bulk section is for you. They have typical golden raisins and cranberries as well as surprises like Goji berries, Turkish apricots and Black Mission figs.
Organic dark red kidney beans at $2.39 per pound. Lundberg’s organic wild blend rice at $4.99 per pound. Organic tri-color quinoa at $5.69 per pound. Organic golden flax at $1.99 per pound. Organic yellow popcorn at $1.69 per pound. Fresh ground almond butter at $10.99 per pound.
One employee commented that the bulk bin section is the most cost-effective, best aspect of the store. Signs posted in this area state that containers from home are not permitted. However, most store employees we talked to seemed unaware of this rule. Try bringing your containers to get weighed at the customer service desk and be sure the checker knows to deduct the tare. We heard that some customers have been able to use their own containers, despite the signs.
Whole Foods publishes a free booklet called "Bulk Basics" to help customers figure out cooking times and techniques for various beans, rice, and grains. Be sure to grab one of these from the shelf in their bulk section to answer questions you might have about quantities of liquid and cooking methods, especially if you are experimenting with something you've never cooked before.
An added bonus: buying from bulk bins also makes it possible to try something new in small amounts, without purchasing an entire container. For example, if you like to experiment with gluten-free baking, Sugar Beet Food Co-op has intriguing choices, such as coconut flour and almond meal flour. Or for some unusual grains, try Forbidden rice or French couscous at Whole Foods. If your experiment fails, then you won’t be left with a box of leftovers that eventually winds up in another sort of bin: the trash.
Researchers at Portland State University found that if all Americans bought their most common items in bulk, it would prevent tens of millions of pounds of trash from entering landfills each year. Together, we can make this possibility a reality and show our respect for Mother Earth.