February 9th, 2011

To Use or Not to Use? Reusables for Bulk Food and Produce

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One of my favorite spots at our local Whole Foods Market is the bulk food isle.  I love filling endless amounts of containers (at a bargain price of $9.99/lb) with all sorts of grains and snacks, while simultaneously hoping that a previous customer didn’t sneeze in the bin.  Yesterday I was in the bulk food isle filling up my plastic containers and plastic bags with all sorts of goodies when a woman passed by gathering her own collection of bulk treats. As her cart cruised by I peered in and noticed that she had several reusable containers and bags to transport her nuts, oatmeal and rice.

She scooped her bulk oatmeal into a bag that looked just like this (but empty):

I then glanced into my own cart only to find lots of fresh fruits and vegetables (I needed to supplement what was already delivered to us by our CSA) bagged in those ridiculous plastic bags off the rolls.  All of my bulk foods were also in plastic bags or plastic containers.  There were so many plastic bags and containers in my cart that I could hardly see what was what.

I then began to question my dedication to bringing in my own reusable bags each time I shop.  I am committed to bringing them with me, but find myself filling those reusables with fresh produce and other foods wrapped in single use plastic bags. Our Whole Foods stopped using plastic bags at the checkout, but continues to have them available throughout the store for produce, meat and bulk foods.

Should I add reusable produce and bulk food bags to my supermarket routine?

I know I have to be realistic-it has literally taken me years to figure out a system where I can actually remember to bring my reusable bags into the store. My system isn’t fail proof, but it does work on most visits to the market. Now I am contemplating adding a new dimension to my reusable routine-bringing in my own containers and bags for the food before it is placed into my reusable bag at the checkout.

Container ideas

If I do decide to change-up my routine and add reusable bags/containers for produce and bulk foods, I’m just not sure what container or bags to bring. Here are a few  ideas:

I like this glass container because it’s not plastic. But it could shatter at some point during my bumpy trek to or from the market.

This plastic container could work.  It is originally from Whole Foods but could be used as a reusable container for other food.

I could also invest in a few Organic Cotton Reusable Produce Bags. They aren’t very expensive and they could be stored inside the other reusable bags that travel with me to the store.

I’m just not sure I can handle adding anything else to my supermarket routine.

Do you bring in your own containers or bags for fruits, vegetables and bulk foods? I need a little help here.

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**Top photo used under Creative Commons from BCMom

33 Responses to “To Use or Not to Use? Reusables for Bulk Food and Produce”

  1. I bring my own washed plastic ziplock bags from home every time I shop for produce and bulk. I wash them out when unloading groceries, let them dry, and toss them back into my bag of reusuable bags.

  2. I don’t bag fruit or vegetables but i will use the plastic bags for bulk trail mix. I don’t unload the food from the plastic bag once i get home – I carry it around and eat out of it until it’s empty. Then I use the bag for cleaning up after the cat or putting other food into until it ultimately ends up getting used as a trash bag.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Virginia Doyle, Lori Popkewitz Alper. Lori Popkewitz Alper said: I need your advice. To Use or Not to Use? Reusables for Bulk Food and Produce http://t.co/E150TBO […]

  4. I remember to bring reusable containers for bulk bin items about 75% of the time — working on being better! I have no problem with not bagging most produce; unless it’s really fiddly and hard to handle (like cherries), it goes straight into my reusable bag as is.

    I’m not very methodical about bringing containers/bags, but I alternate between
    reused Green Bags (the plastic kind that extends the life of your produce), mesh and cotton bags (I have a purse-sized Chico bag set of three), and the glass jars I keep my bulk bin items in (not good if I’m walking!).

  5. It’s so funny this same thought just occurred to me a few hours ago at the Bulk Barn. I was at the check looking at the insane amount of plastic bags I had accumulate and thought there has got to be a better option than this.

  6. Hi Jackie. I like how you keep them with all the other reusable bags. That would be key for me-or there is no way I will remember them. Reusing Ziplocks is a much better option than using the bags on the roll and tossing them.

  7. I really don’t need to bag the fruit and vegetables-why didn’t I think of that? I buy a lot of apples, oranges and other loose fruits in large quantities. Does the cashier have to weigh each fruit separately? I could be at the market all day if that’s the case! I like how you re-purpose and reuse the plastic bag for the trail mix.

  8. I have to give not bagging produce a try. I have a family of 5 and I am envisioning spending all day at the checkout counter unloading each piece of fruit. I have a few Baggu bags in my purse that would be perfect for produce. Where do you keep your reusable containers for bulk foods? Just trying to figure out how I can remember to bring them along.

  9. Hi Virginia-the amount of plastic bags is insane! Let’s figure out a better option….lots of good ideas here.

  10. http://www.reuseit.com/store/reuseit-produce-snack-organic-cotton-p-747.html

    I recently bought cotton mesh bags from reuseit.com for this exact purpose of dealing with produce. Once I bring the produce home (like kale or cilantro), I transfer it to those Green bags that extend produce life. I don’t bag apples, pears,kiwis etc. The cashier weights them all at once. I’m not sure how to deal with the small produce like fresh mushrooms, for they would fall out of the mesh bags. I use plastic then. For stuff like barley and bulghar, I usually bring a reuseable plastic container. When I forget, I use the brown paper bags that are usually in the bulk section. Great topic!!!

  11. Hi Joan-some great ideas thank you! Do you find the green bags do extend the produce life? I have never used them.

    I always forget that there is a paper bag option in the bulk food isle. Maybe for smaller pieces of produce a solid, reusable bag would work, since they are falling out of the mesh bags? Just a thought.

  12. Ack!You hit the nail on the head! I’ve been struggling with this dilemma for-seemingly-ever! It is a nightmare reconciling my contamination fears with my desire to be plastic bag free.
    Here’s what’s worked for me so far, but there’s definitely room for improvement:
    Resuable shopping bags:(though I have less now since reading your lead-laden piece (http://groovygreenlivin.com/2011/01/lead-lurking-in-reusable-bags/)

    2 crates from a previous purchase of clementines for fruits & veggies.

    Plastic bag for meats/fish (Yes I know, but I am neurotic!!)

    I am still terrified of the bulk grains aisle…it’s post traumatic buffet syndrome..but I’m working on it.
    Super post mama!!

  13. PS My supermarket has a nifty system where you grab a scanner, scan your own items as you shop and scan the scanner at the end of your trip (though you are subject to random auditing…) Because you weigh your own fruits and veggies and print the price tag, it’s easier to reconcile your product then rolling those babies across the conveyor belt. Hoping Whole Foods gets that system soon- the kids have a blast with it too!

  14. Thanks for the laugh-“post traumatic buffet syndrome” really sums it up perfectly. I cringe every time we go to a buffet and just have to let it go. I am a bit neurotic with meats and fish too-how many times have they leaked all over everything? Not sure there is a substitute for the plastic here.

    I love the idea of using crates from your clementines-that is brilliant! I buy clementines all the time. Thanks so much for your wonderful suggestions!

  15. I think one of our local markets has this too. I have never tried it. Let me make sure I understand-once you weigh everything and print out the price tag you don’t have to unpack your cart at the end? That would be great!

  16. The cashiers seem OK with just scooping all your apples/cucumbers/eggplants on to the scale and then scooting them off again. They don’t seem to be slowed down by the lack of bags for easy to handle, bigger items. (They might hate you if you go bagless with, say, spinach leaves!)

    My reusable glass containers for bulk items are at home. When one is empty, I’ll put it in my reusable bag so I remember to bring it with me. However, it’s not a perfect system, so maybe you could keep empty containers (margarine tubs, bread bags) in your car for back-up.

    The Green Bags are OK. I’m not sure I’d buy them again. They do preserve the life of your produce, especially things like celery that you don’t tend to use all of at once, but they’re annoying to wash out and eventually go kind of sticky and gross.

  17. OK Jennifer-I’m ready to try to go bag-less for as many things as possible (I’ll save the reusable bags for mushrooms and spinach leaves!). I’ll start saving up reusable containers to bring along with my reusable bags. I’ll need a cart to get all my gear into the store…..lol. Thanks for all the great suggestions.

  18. Bags! I have totally revamped my use of them. I use pretty mesh produce bags (see http://www.carebagsonline.com) and rinse out all my other plastic bags for reuse in the kitchen, and for my bulk items. I have not brought my glass containers to the store yet – won’t the weight throw off the scale? I like to open up my cupboards and fridge and see no plastic. It IS possible!

  19. I think you’re right-the weight of the glass containers will definitely add to the cost of the bulk food. Great point! I would love to see no plastic around my kitchen. You have given me inspiration to give it a go. Thanks!

  20. I have started to be better about this, but I’m not perfect. I have an Esse Carry All Tote – http://www.essereusablebags.com/mm5/merchant.mvc? that I won. I LOVE IT! It helped me remember to bring my regular reusable bags. It also came with 2 small prodcue bags that fit in the side pockets. After using the 2 prodcue bags, I would resort to the plastic ones. But depending on what I used them for, I would shove them back into the tote and use them again next time. I then bought 4 inexpensive mesh bags with drawstrings. Depending on what I am buying I may or may not bag it – no need to bag 1 or 2 lemons or a head of garlic. Trying to be better about other bulk items like oatmeal or beans, I’ll get there eventually. The great thing about Whole Foods is that they will weigh your containers so they can deduct that weight at the check out. I still use plastic containers for this – I do not trust myself to keep glass intact for such a trip! If you come across anything that works for you Lori, please pass it along!

  21. Just ask the customer service desk at Whole Foods for a tare weight for your empty containers. They’ll write it on masking tape, and you won’t have re-tare your container unless you take it off. 🙂

  22. Hi Kristina-thanks for all of the great suggestions. The Esse Tote looks great-an all-in-one tote. I didn’t realize that WF would weigh your containers and deduct the weight at check out. That really helps out if I end up using glass containers.

  23. Great piece of information Jennifer. I had no idea that WF would deduct the weight of the container.

  24. My girlfriend gave me these awesome mesh produce bags from Crate and Barrel. Machine washable and durable. LOVE THEM! http://tinyurl.com/4vmuozn

  25. Thanks Rebecca! They look great. I think I am going to invest in some. I like that there are 5 in the set-so when I loose one there will still be 4 left!

  26. I bring my own reusable, washable fruit & veggie bags. i want a bread bag, too. I hadn’t thought of the other idea of bringing in a used resealable bag like the sugar bag! That’s a good idea. I use the bulk bins at Whole Foods, too. I wish we had more stores with even more bulk offerings!

  27. Ooooo-a bread bag is a great idea! Let me know if you find a good one. More bulk would be great. I only know of our local WF-no others around. Business idea??

  28. I’m undecided on what to get, but there are a couple of reusables specifically for bulk. I think for things like nutritional yeast,chia seeds and bread yeast, it might be a little tricky with seams. This is one that I found, although I’d like to find a sealable option without the plastic window.

  29. Thanks for sharing the reusable bulk bag option Sylvia. I have a hard time finding options with a tight seal that don’t contain plastic. We’ll have to do a bit more research to see what’s out there.

  30. I hear you ladies. I have moved to mesh bags and I forget them roughly 50% of the time. Better 50% than nothing though. Hopefully I’ll get it soon.

    I’ve tried glass jars for bulk items too, but I didn’t know about the tare weight thing (thanks Jennifer) – and the additional cost was significant. I try to store dry goods in glass, so, if my Bulk Barn allows this, it will save me a step. Hoorah!

  31. I still forget mine too Andrea. I try to keep extra bags in my purse so they are with me all the time-that way there’s no excuse! You are lucky to have a Bulk Barn nearby. The only bulk food section I’m aware of is at our local Whole Foods. Yes, tare weight is a great thing to know about since the glass jars can add on quite a bit of weight.

  32. […] to purchase bulk foods once a week during the month of April, Earth Month (remember to bring your reusable bags!). If you’re interested in taking the pledge head on over to the Love Bulk Foods pledge […]

  33. I do bring my own bulk and produce bags. It really cuts down on the amount of plastic I use. I also bring my own jars to refill my olive oil and vinaigrette bottles. I just give them a quick wash in the dishwasher, after I’m done with them, and bring them in to refill. I have to go to another store for this, because we don’t have whole foods. I also have to go to another store for my glass returnable milk.(But I don’t have a car, so I’m not using any extra gas for this.) I just keep the bags in my bigger shopping bags, and I understand that it can be intimidating at first but it’s really not a big deal when you get used to it. Sometimes I don’t use produce bags at all. But I have a shitload of bulk bags so I don’t run out. When they need washing, I put them in with a whole load with my bigger reusable bags, cloth napkins and tea towels, and then I hang dry them. I don’t bring containers for my bulk shopping to the normal grocery store because they don’t do tear weights here. But there is a local grocer that does, so I usually buy bulk spices there, and just refill my spices directly into my spice jars. As for berry containers, you can’t get away from those, but I do wash them out and keep them for when I go to the farmers market, then I just give them back their own container and fill mine up. (They will reuse their own containers, but not someone else’s.)

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About Lori

Hi! I’m Lori, a recovering attorney, writer, and mom to three boys. Join me as I uncover and share the latest info on healthy living. Learn more.

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