How to shop at bulk bins and refill stores

“Zero waste” may be the buzzword, but a goal of “low waste” is far more attainable for most families. And whether you’re aiming for a plastic-free kitchen or just cutting back on your overall packaging waste, bulk store shopping can help you reach your goals.

We’re covering everything from how to find a zero waste bulk store near you to what to bring and how to tare a mason jar.

How to shop at a bulk or refill shop

Just so we’re clear – in this case, bulk shopping doesn’t mean stocking up on 16 rolls of plastic-wrapped paper towels from Costco. We’re talking about refill and bulk bin shopping where items are stored in bins or dispensers, without individual packaging.

How Do I Find a Zero Waste Shop Near Me?

If you live in the U.S. you can find out if there’s one near you at Litterless. Just click on your state and you’ll find stores listed out by city. Some of these results will be stores where you can buy in bulk, and some will be plastic-free or zero waste stores.

You can also try searching plastic-free and bulk hashtags + your city on Instagram.

Editor’s note – some bulk stores have temporarily suspended their Bring Your Own Containers (BYOC) policies. Smaller stores are collecting and sanitizing containers and will fill them for you. Please continue to support them. We’ll need them more than ever to counteract all the single-use plastic the pandemic response has created.

The Benefits of Buying Bulk

Obviously, the planet benefits the most from this type of shopping. But there are some pretty useful perks for you (and your wallet) as well.

  • You only buy the amount of product you want or need.
  • You can fill your own containers, eliminating the need for packaging.
  • For a one-time purchase (ie: ingredient for a recipe), you can buy the exact amount needed.
  • You waste less food and household items.
  • You typically save money (especially if you were already purchasing nontoxic products).

How to Shop the Bulk Aisle for Food

Most grocery stores and co-ops have a bulk section. The key here is to use food-safe containers: reusable produce bags, glass containers with lids, mason jars, etc. Some people keep a stash of plastic containers for ease of transport (and lighter weight) and then transfer foods to their usual containers at home. 

  • If your bag or container isn’t already labeled with its weight, weigh the empty container (including lid) on a scale and write down the tare weight on top of the lid with a wet erase or china marker. You could also use one of the stickers provided.
  • Fill bag or container with your desired amount of food, either using a scoop or pulling the bin’s lever.
  • Write the item’s PLU# with the ingredient on the sticker or use a twist tie for bags.
  • Seal the container or bag (make sure the weight is visible) and bring it to the cashier to pay.

“Shopping plastic-free in the bulk section can be a little intimidating in the beginning,” explains Jessie Stokes from Tiny Yellow Bungalow. “Most bulk stores will gladly tare, or weigh, your containers, allow you to fill them up, then weigh them again when checking out.”

“I have a fun hack for newbies,” Jessie shares. “Instead of taring your containers, bring lightweight reusable cloth bags. You won’t have to go through the hassle of weighing jars. The weight of the cloth bag is so minimal, it doesn’t really affect the price.”

How to Shop At a Plastic-free or Refill Store

A refill shop operates similarly, but they sell personal care and household items instead of food. At many refill and bulk stores, you can refill laundry soap, cleaning products, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, toothpaste, mouthwash, liquid soap, and sunscreen.

How to Shop At a Plastic-free or Refill Store

You can also buy zero-waste items like bar soap, shampoo and conditioner bars, reusable sandwich bags, bamboo straws, deodorant in cardboard tubes or glass containers, menstrual cups, and plastic-free razors.

Generally, every item stocked is plastic-free and minimally packaged. Here’s how to shop at a refill store.

  • Bring in your old laundry detergent containers, milk jugs, mason jars, sauce jars, or bags. If you don’t have enough containers, they often have a stash of empty jars you can use.
  • The staff can help you weigh the empty container when you arrive. Use a wet erase marker (usually provided) to mark the container’s weight (tare weight) before adding the product.
  • Fill your containers. If you need help, just ask someone and they’ll give you tips or do it for you. If you’re not sure about something, the beauty of a refill store is that you can try  an ounce and see if you like it!
  • Take your filled containers to checkout to be weighed. Then – enjoy the feeling of paying for only what you use!

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