Package-Free Grocery Shopping Guide

Food and food packaging make up a large percentage of the average American’s household trash. In fact, food is the largest component of the municipal solid waste stream sent to landfill. The second-most landfilled material from households is plastics (containers and packaging). By reducing and diverting food waste, and reducing food packaging waste, you can significantly reduce your waste footprint.

To learn about reducing food waste, click here, and check out our article on composting to learn how to divert food scraps from the landfill.

To address food packaging, we have created this step-by-step guide to shopping in the bulk section package-free. To get started, you can use this bulk locator to search for stores in your area that offer food in bulk.

How to Shop Package-Free in Bulk

Dry Foods:

  • Obtain reusable produce bags. You can repurpose old pillowcases to make produce bags yourself, or purchase reusable produce bags in some stores and online.
  • Bring your reusable produce bags when you go grocery shopping. Store them in a place you will remember them, such as in your purse, in your reusable shopping bag, in your car, etc.
  • Locate the bulk section in the store. Not every grocery store has a bulk section, but many have at least a few bulk bins. Middlebury Natural Foods Co-Op has a good selection of foods in bulk. There are also various stores in Burlington that have fairly extensive bulk sections.
  • Use the bulk bins to fill up your reusable produce bags. Fill with items such as flour, rice, beans, pasta, granola, etc.
  • Write down the PLU number (the item identification number, located on the bulk bin near the item’s name). Stores with bulk sections typically supply stickers or tape to write the PLU number on. You can also use your phone to make note of the PLU number.
  • That’s it! At the register, the cashier will weigh the item and input the PLU number to price it.

Bulk Dry Foods Video Tutorial

Liquids:

  • Obtain jars or containers to hold liquid items. You can typically buy these secondhand at thrift stores or repurpose old food containers (such as peanut butter jars, jam jars, pasta sauce jars, etc).
  • Bring containers when you go grocery shopping. As with the reusable produce bags, make sure to store them in a place you will remember them.
  • Weigh the containers while empty. This is called getting the tare weight. It is important to do this BEFORE filling up the containers, so cashiers know how much weight to subtract when ringing an item up. You don’t want to end up paying for the weight of the jar as well as the item itself! You can do this a couple different ways. If you have a kitchen scale at home, you can weigh your jars at home and write the weights on the containers before coming to the store. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, some stores (including the Co-Op in Middlebury) have scales in the bulk section available for customer use. If the store does not have scales, go to the customer service counter or an available cashier and ask them to tare your containers.

Tare Weight Video Tutorial

  • Once the container has been weighed empty, fill up the container with your item of choice from the bulk section. Most bulk sections have items such as oils, peanut butter, and some soaps that you can fill your containers with. You can also use containers to purchase dry foods, if you’d rather use jars than produce bags.
  • Write down the PLU number (the item identification number, located on the bulk bin near the item’s name). Stores with bulk sections typically supply stickers or tape to write the PLU number on. You can also use your phone to make note of the PLU number.
  • That’s it! At the register, the cashier will ring up the item based on the PLU number, and subtract the tare weight you wrote on the container.

Bulk Liquids Video Tutorial


Package-Free Grocery Shopping Without Bulk

If you do not live near a bulk store, you still have options to reduce your waste! Shopping at farmers markets is a great way to reduce waste and support sustainable and local agriculture. Also, most grocery stores offer loose produce—simply bag in your reusable produce bags instead of using plastic produce bags supplied by stores. Read this article about zero waste shopping without bulk bins to learn more.

Farmers Market Video Tutorial