Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Beauty of Buying in Bulk

I never used to understand the bulk section of the grocery store. My mom always bought food that came in its own packaging, and thus so did I. Sugar, flour, rice, cereals, spices - everything came in its own bag, box or bottle. When the package was empty, we threw it away and bought a new bag, box or bottle of the same thing.

I dipped a toe into bulk buying 10 years ago when I found a store that sold premium coffee beans in bulk for much less per pound than those foil vacuum-sealed packages on the shelf. The store's frequent-buyer punch cards helped reinforce the habit.

The kids, of course, drooled over the nearby bins of candies sold by the pound. In this case, "bulk" was a misnomer, because we controlled quantity by getting them each one or two gummi worms, instead of a full 12 ounce bag of them. We adults, however, indulged in bulk cashews, and not just one or two each!

But despite frequent visits to the bulk area, I didn't think of bulk buying for staples until about 4 years ago, when we joined a food co-op.

Here I discovered real food sold from bins - not just sweets, treats and coffee.

The co-op encourages members to buy in bulk because that reduces the packaging that has to go into the waste stream. In fact, we get 5 cents off our bill for each bag or bottle we bring from home and refill in the store.

But for me, the real revelation was how cheap it could be to buy in bulk!

Here's an example from today: I needed dried basil. The last time I bought it, about 5 years ago, I paid probably $1.50 to buy a .375 oz (10 gram) plastic container. This time, I brought the same plastic container with me to the co-op to refill. I weighed the empty bottle first, marked its weight on a label (which I put over the UPC), then filled the bottle with organic dried basil that cost $14.55/pound. When I checked out, the cashier weighed the filled bottle then subtracted the original bottle weight - leaving me with .02 pounds of dried basil.

So - 16 ounces to a pound means that .02 pounds equals .32 oz. That's not too far from the .375 the container originally held (I had deliberately not filled it because I obviously don't use it too often). The price on the receipt came to $0.29 - and when I subtract the nickel discount for providing my own container, that means I got it for less than a quarter! And this was organic basil, not the non-organic kind I'd bought last time.

And this is why I have filled my pantry with items from the bulk section - because it's cheaper, because it's healthier, and because it helps to reduce waste in the world. To me, that's a beauty of a bargain!

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