How Bulk is Bulk? Are we really avioding packaging?
So in my quest for zero waste one issue always looms in the back of my mind. What sort of packaging is used to transport the goods in these "bulk" containers? Some of the bulk items at my local stores are in such small quantities that they were likely filled with packaged items you can buy in the store. For example the bulk dog food bin looks like it holds about 10 lbs, when you can buy 25 lb bag of dog food in the store, the same goes for spices, and several other items. Coffee for bulk comes in 5 lb bags,
and the the castile soap in a gallon jug.
The questions I would like to discuss are these....
Are we avoiding packaging by bringing our own containers for all items?
Would it make more sense to buy large quantities of non-perishables in packaging, to make sure it gets recycled, or just to see where it came from?
Are large packages more likely to get recycled?
Finally, can we trust the stores who provide bulk to make thoughtful choices about packaging?
Re: How Bulk is Bulk? Are we really avioding packaging?
I have wondered the same sorts of things and haven't quite gotten to the researching point, yet.
Ultimately, I believe Bea's point is to put the 'burden' of packaging and the subsequent waste/trash on the manufacturer and the retailer (and so on) in an effort to change behavior at those levels.
Perhaps I am missing something, though?
I'm not a minimalist, but I am interested in living more simply than the average American and have been doing so for most of my life. I did go through a 'more is better' phase, but I grew up with modest belongings/lifestyle and I returned to that.
The key for me is to only buy what you need and need what you buy. Do I really need (or want) this item? If so, how much will I use in a reasonable amount of time? Carefully consider those questions and answers. This alone is a foreign concept to most of the people I know. It's usually tied into monetary means and "having options or choices" versus any real consideration of quantity or need.
I don't have any magic answers, but I have seen firsthand with young children that more options/choices thwarts creativity and slows down the decision-making process and often leads to confusion and overwhelmed feelings and/or anxiety.
Anyway, for me, the "reduce" part of the equation is really where it all begins and ends. Exactly what is being reduced seems to be personal preference and political motives. I'm good with ALL reducing strategies and am not as picky about the details.
I was wondering the exact same thing! But last time I was at my "bulk store" I saw an employee fill up a small bin with an already open huge bag. So I am guessing that they don't have to open a bag and empty it all in a bin.
I think part of the issue is the level of efficiency. Where we can only go through a relatively small amount of say, yeast in a given time, a store should be able purchase in larger volume knowing that their turnover time *as a store* would equal or exceed what happens in a single household. Thus the large packaging pays off and makes tremendous sense. It's the principle behind the classic co-op, the precursor to stores such as WF. I think, as Natalie pointed out, even small bins are probably restocked from large packages, and bin size has more to do with display issues.
Another thought: If you logic it through, in most instances a larger volume should have a lower product to waste/packaging ratio. A concern I've expressed before, though, is when going to a larger size, the tendency might be for packaging to be plasticized. I don't know if this is true with some of things we can get as bulk, but honey, agave, tamari quickly come to mind. If so, do you buy bulk and force the packaging dilemma onto the store, or buy small, glass containers?
Finally there is the space issue, which relates back to my original point of efficiency. How much of your home are you willing to give over to your supplies? That's what the store DOES, but your home? I would think the less space you have to dedicate to storage, the happier all will be. More open space, less clutter, perhaps living more comfortably in a smaller footprint, etc. Personally, I live in an urban setting, and don't need to keep much more than a week's supply of anything. It sounds heretical, and I'm not there yet (actually not even close), but it's a very liberating thought!
Ultimately, you will want to do the work and ask your store the relevant questions: what do their bulk products come in, what size, what's the turnover, how do they deal with waste. Part of the ethics of ZW is supporting others who have the same goal...
Re: How Bulk is Bulk? Are we really avoiding packaging?
A related question: is paper packaging really better than plastic?
In the '80s when grocery stores went from paper bags to plastic, it was billed as an environmental move because now forests would no longer be destroyed to bring your groceries home, so I find the shift back toward paper as an environmental option a bit ironic. I do understand that the paper will biodegrade, and that reusable bags are even better, but I wonder if we aren't taking two steps backward by encouraging people to prefer paper packaging over plastic?
A good argument for no packaging at all (or as little as possible). Nevertheless, this thought does perplex me sometimes...
I think one difference between the paper bags from the 80's and the ones currently in circulation is the greater percentage of recycled content used. Widespread use of recycled paper only started to take off in the mid-nineties. The paper bags you see in supermarkets like Whole Foods contain 100% recycled content. For paper products such as toilet paper, I try to get the one with the highest percentage of recycled materials, with as much "post-consumer" recycled content as possible. I see what you mean, though. This does ultimately increase our demand for paper. For me, this is an extra incentive for bringing the reusable bag.
Re: How Bulk is Bulk? Are we really avoiding packaging?
I think the key is really pushing the retailers to deal with this problem. Like Bea explained, if enough people choose bulk and bring their own containers eventually the stores will increase the size of the bulk bins. They will demand larger packages from their wholesalers and they will try to find solutions to their own waste problems. We need to put pressure on them.
To some extent I answered one of my own questions...
If you need to buy a non-perishable product that comes in packaging e.g. Soap, Vinegar, Shampoo (depending on your bulk options) it is better to buy one large container. Large containers are easier for recyclers to sort, it saves them time and doesn't clog sorting machines, therefore they are more likely to get recycled and use less energy. So if you must buy an item in a package buy a big one!