Is shopping at Bulk Stores or Co-Op's the best way to reduce packaging waste?

Is shopping at Bulk Store or Co-Op the best way to reduce packaging waste?

Have you ever walked into a bulk store or co-op with cloth bags and jars tucked neatly into your basket ready to do a zero-waste shop, feeling a little smug you won't be creating any rubbish? Only to spot an employee filling up the bulk bins from a plastic or paper bag. The realisation there is packaging in waste-free shopping has you turning away in horror, wondering if you are even making a better choice by trying to shop so called 'package free'. 

So if there is packaging at a bulk food store, is it this the best choice compared to buying packaged food at a supermarket? 

Let's compare cashew nuts packaging from the supermarket to those found at bulk food stores.

I don't normally buy cashews because they are not local to me but it was the only bag they had at the bulk store available on the day. 

Is shopping at Bulk Store or Co-Op the best way to reduce packaging waste?

On the left is a 200g packet of cashew nuts purchased at a supermarket in exactly the same way I shopped for food before I went zero-waste; grabbing the first bag of affordable nuts I saw and rushing to the cashier to pay.  Never stopping to consider the packaging at all or where they came from. 

To the right is a large plastic bag I collected from a bulk food store that originally held 2.5kg of cashew nuts. The contents of this plastic bag was emptied into a bulk dispensing bin at the store.

Both the supermarket and bulk store nuts were delivered in cardboard boxes, with the supermarkets version containing more individually wrapped packets of nuts within that same box. The bulk delivery contained this one bag.

Most cardboard boxes delivered to the supermarket are flattened and recycled, while bulk stores allow customers reuse these boxes first before they will be recycled. Some supermarkets are setting aside a small collection of boxes for customers to use as an alternative to plastic bags but again this is a small number. Already the bulk store gets extra points for reusing this component of the packaging before recycling.

Let's look at the packaging:

200g packet of cashew nuts purchased at the supermarket:
This packaging is brightly coloured with text and images. On the inside is a foil lining. The bag would have been produced first. To attach the colours, images and writing the printer would attach a film, printing ink, laminating adhesive and laminating film. Four seperate components to get those snazzy logos onto the plastic. Each one created and stored within its own packaging in the printing warehouse.

These are some of the ingredients need to make inks alone. A solvent made of an oil, either mineral, vegetable (hi palm oil!), fatty acid esters. Solvents can also be an ethanol base or an aqueous polymer is water based. There are resins needed. There are many others mixes depending on what kind of ink. And of course there are the pigments. The above components are in conventional ink production and the most widely used. Each of these needed to be made. Every single ingredient.

There are also adhesives or a heating mechanism used to keep the bags shut.

I also don't know if this packaging was created in Australia or made elsewhere. Same with each of the ingredients needed to manufacture the film, printing ink, laminating adhesive and laminating film. How much shipping was needed to create the many parts of the packaging alone?

It doesn't pass the scrunch test so it's not recyclable at any of the soft plastic drop off locations. I double check the back of the packaging to see if the new Australasian Recycling Symbol can confirm this. They don't have it - only the Do The Right Thing landfill logo. Even if it was recyclable it still has a bigger footprint over the clear plastic bulk bags.

Is shopping at Bulk Store or Co-Op the best way to reduce packaging waste?

This is the Australasian Recycling Symbol beginning to appear on packaging. It helps tell the shopper what can and can't be recycled. Especially handy when trying to figure out if there is sneaky plastic inside a cardboard box:

Australasian Recycling Symbol

2.5kg bag of nuts from bulk store:
The see through plastic is similar to a bread bag and passes the scrunch test. It can be recycled. Well down-cycled. What is worth noting is the lack of colours or other materials, meaning there is no ink used in the manufacturing process. No advertising. No logos. Just a simple (big) bag of nuts. Fewer resources compared to the other packaging.

The bag is large and with a wash in soapy water I can use them again to store clothes or other items. They are also super handy for rubbish clean ups instead of buying new rubbish bags. These hold alot of litter, trust me :) And bulk stores will happily give pass them on.

Is shopping at Bulk Store or Co-Op the best way to reduce packaging waste?
Is shopping at Bulk Store or Co-Op the best way to reduce packaging waste?

Most (not all) bulk food stores are founded with an environmental focus and make sure the packaging from their products is disposed of properly. I know many bulk food stores actively engaging with their suppliers on ways to reduce the need to even recycle or at worst throw away anything, instead working together to return and refill. They don't exist to make us feel better about shopping zero-waste. 

This 2.5kg bag of cashew nuts equals 12.5 of the 200g packets. 12.5 pieces of foil, plastic and ink ending up in landfill and that's if every single packet goes into a bin. 

Should the packaging have been recyclable, then we have to hope all 12 would even be recycled. There is no way we can guarantee the customer will make the choice to do so. And then it's only being delayed from landfill.

The single plastic bag from the bulk store is easier to manage since there is only one to take responsibility for. In this case it will be down-cycled into outdoor furniture such as park seats, bollards, play equipment, boardwalks amongst other items. It's not perfect but again it's a step in the right direction of resource value. And customers like me can reuse it.

Look at how this pancake mix is shipped to the store. Plastic upon plastic plus stickers galore. The inks and adhesives, the associated waste from those small often overlooked components.

Is shopping at Bulk Store or Co-Op the best way to reduce packaging waste?

I often hear the argument plastic packaging is needed to reduce food waste but this is more for vegetables and fruit travelling long distances. But when it's individually packaged like this i feel it it promotes food waste. Bulk food shopping allows me to dictate how much food I need. If a recipe calls for two tablespoons of cashews or one cup of lentils, then I can buy exactly what I need and not forced to buy more.

The lack of logos and advertising at bulk stores and co-ops is not only more pleasing on the eye making the experience relaxing, as I'm bombarded with gimmicky words or 2 for 1 deals telling me to buy more more more!

Bulk stores and co-op's are having a resurgence and with more people waking up to the packaging waste I can only foresee more change to come. It's hard to tell now if the answer will be bulk stores. Until then I'll happily support my local store pleased to know they are on my side when it comes to fighting the war on waste.