Zero Waste

How to shop at an unpackaged store

Shopping zero waste on instagram may look like this stylish effortless process which everyone else has somehow perfected, but when starting out it can seem intimidating and a pretty alien concept. The good news is that there isn’t one perfect way to do it, and you can try out a couple of options and see what works for you. 

This article will focus on shopping unpackaged in bulk shops but that isn’t the only part of zero waste food shopping. For the vast majority of people, you will not be able to find everything you need in bulk bins and most people, if they have access to unpackaged food, only have access to dried goods. I have another article about zero waste food shopping as a whole that you can check out to see an overview of the full food shop.

If you have access to a bulk unpackaged store or section, then this is a great way to reduce waste - although you will not be cutting it out completely as the food still needs to arrive at the shop in some sort of packing, usually in large paper sacks, or reusable containers. 

The premise behind an unpackaged store is simple - you buy the products loose, but obviously you’ll need something to carry the products home in. There are different options here, like glass jars, old plastic containers or cloth bags, and you will need to find what works for you.

Shopping unpackaged is a great way to supplement what you already eat with packaging free alternatives. However, you need to remember to only buy products you will actually cook with and eat or else you will just contribute to food waste. For example, I know that at this point in my life I am not organised enough to soak dried beans or chick peas before cooking with them, so buying them would be pointless and would cause food waste. I now either buy chickpeas in tins or I swap these foods for ones that I can buy unpackaged but can be cooked without soaking, like lentils. 


First I would recommend making a list of the foods you want to buy and the rough amounts. This is a great way to avoid food waste by not buying what you don't need, and can help you meal plan for the next week which is also a helpful way to avoid food waste if you will stick to it. If you're going to an unpackaged store for the first time you will likely feel a bit overwhelmed by all the options and knowing what you want to look for helps. It is also important to help you take the correct containers with you to the store. As you learn what you use you will be able to make a list pretty quickly as you know what you eat, how quickly you get through it and how often you're able to visit the store.

Example: We eat a lot of oats so every time I go I buy at least 1kg of oats so I need to take a big container to put them in.

Then you need to choose your containers. There are many options and you need to find out what will work well for you. If you are only buying small quantities of a few items, you could easily take glass jars with you to avoid decanting at the end of your shop. You definitely don't need fancy jars for this, any old ones that used to contain sauces or condiments will do. If you are getting more items then glass may be a bit too heavy to carry, especially if you're walking or getting public transport to the store. In this situation reusing plastic containers can be really good as they are lighter than glass and its a good way to continue to get more life out of these plastic items. If you're buying really big quantities or want to avoid any additional waste then bags would be the best thing. Cloth bags are lightweight and come in large sizes but can be folded really small when empty to save space between shops. You do not need specially made bags for a food shop, any only bag will do. However these will obviously not work for any sticky or liquid item. In the short term you can also reuse single use items you already have like plastic zip-seal bags and old paper bags to extend the life of these items.

Example: I use a combination of containers when I shop. I use lots of cloth bags, some were old shoe bags and dust bags, and some are pillow cases. I use old pillow cases that used to belong to my grandparents, they're pink and flora and very retro, and great for buying big quantities of food like oats and rice. I also carry some jars with me for liquid items or sticky foods.

"Top tip: take a few extra bags or jars with you in case you see something there that you hadn't remembered to put on your list."

When you get to the store, walk around briefly first to try to locate all your needed items and feel more relaxed in the store. Then go weigh your containers. Most stores have a set of scales and pens or crayons to write the weight on your container so that when paying they can deduct the weight of it from your food. Try to put the weight somewhere visible so you don't need to hunt for it later.

"Top tip: with bags, write the weight in one corner in permanent marker then you will not have to re-weigh it the next time you go to the store."
Bulk bins at The Source
Bulk bins at The Source
Gravity dispensers at Clean Kilo
Gravity dispensers at Clean Kilo
Bulk shopping with cloth bags
Bulk shopping with cloth bags
Unpacked shop from The Source
Unpacked shop from The Source

Bulk bins usually come in two varieties. The first is bins or barrels where you scoop the product out into your jar and it’s pretty self explanatory. I would recommend filling your jar over the container itself to avoid any overflow going onto the floor! The second type is gravity dispensers where you pull a leaver which allows the food to come down. These are notoriously more difficult to use and have a greater risk of spilling on the floor or over-filling your container. I would advise just going really slowly and only moving the leaver gently at first.

“Top Tip: if you have a small container and there is a funnel available to use - use it. You’re more likely to regret not using it than using it.”

If you’re filling up a liquid product then the containers usually have a tap or a pump like hand soap and are very simple to use. You also need to note down the product number for each food so they can charge you the correct amount. I recommend either writing the number on your phone or taking a photo to of the code as these generate no further waste.

Then once you have all your items go to the till and pay! Show the product code when they weigh each item and then you’re done.

As you can see it is a little different to shopping at a supermarket but it’s definitely not difficult. You get used to it so quickly that soon it will be second nature and you will be wondering why you were ever worried about the change.

So go see how much waste you can avoid by shopping unpackaged!

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