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Ask EcoGirl

A syndicated eco-advice column
Written by Patricia Dines

"Encouraging the eco-hero in everyone!"

"Making it easy to be green!"

This Month's Column:
Reaping the Rewards of the Bulk Bin

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Reaping the Rewards of the Bulk Bin

By Patricia Dines
Published in the Sonoma County Gazette
August 2010
(c) Patricia Dines, 2010. All rights reserved.

Dear EcoGirl: Do you have any tips for buying food from the bulk aisle? I want to do this more often, but sometimes it just seems easier to grab something packaged. Signed, Seeking Convenience

Dear Seeking: Thank you for your question, and for bringing up one of my passions, foraging in the bulk bins, which nurtures our health, wallets, and planet.

Specifically, buying bulk lets you:

• Save significantly on food costs, by cutting out the packaging expenses.

• Afford more organic items, because of these lower prices.

• Reduce the eco-impacts of manufacturing, shipping, and discarding packaging. Packaging comprises one-third of our country's overall waste!

• Scoop up only the amounts you need, and keep them fresh, because you don't have to commit to a whole bag at once.

• Try small quantities of new things, to bring more variety into your diet.

• Use fresher ingredients, including herbs and spices, for better-tasting meals.

• Make custom food blends, such as your own trail mix or rice combinations.

• Avoid the additives in packaged foods, and trim calories, fat, and salt.

• Lower your costs for health and beauty supplies, including lotions, shampoos, and herbal tinctures.

Sounds great, right? So here's how you can reap these bulk buying rewards.

Step 1: Getting started

Begin by exploring the bulk aisle of your local health food or grocery store. You'll likely find an enticing array of cereals, beans, rice, pasta, flour, sugar, nuts, raisins, candies, teas, popcorn, oil, honey, syrup, herbs, seaweed, fresh peanut butter, health and beauty supplies, and more.

For a quick start, use the bags and containers they provide to buy the goodies you need and store them at home.

Step 2: Set up your home storage containers

Your next likely step will be to set up a more organized home storage system. Quality containers can keep food fresher than shelf packaging, be more attractive, and protect better against pests.

1) Identify your approach to containers. For instance:

• Do you prefer to have matching containers or a more eclectic look?

• Would you like to coordinate new containers with styles you already have?

• How important is price versus style and quality?

• Do you want glass or plastic?

While I have some specialized containers (spice jars, tincture bottles, shampoo bottles), I mostly use glass canning jars for my food storage because:

• They're relatively cheap, easy to find in various sizes, and stack well together.

• The tops are standardized in two sizes, Regular or Wide Mouth, making lid storage easy. (You can make it even simpler by sticking to just one width.)

• Glass avoids the problems of plastic containers, and thus keeps chemicals (like BPA) out of my food, trims the eco-costs of petroleum, and is easier to recycle at the end of its lifecycle.

Tip: You can also get one-piece hard plastic caps to replace the standard two-piece canning lids; these are especially handy for frequently-used foods. I got mine at Sebastopol Hardware and feel their benefit warrants a little plastic.

So what if you're considering plastic containers, say because there are kids in the house? I think that the benefits of bulk make reusable plastic OK, but the trick is getting healthy plastic. So look for BPA-free options that are hard to the touch (to avoid softener chemicals that I feel get into food, especially liquids).

2) Buy your containers. You might start with a few basics (like flour, sugar, rice, and cereal), and add more later. You can find great options at garage sales, discount stores, cooking stores, and online.

3) Label your containers to avoid confusion. You can write or computer print product names on sticky labels, or onto paper secured with scotch or packaging tape. For plastic surfaces, you can use a permanent marker. You might also note any cooking tips. For instance, I taped the tablouli recipe on my bulgur wheat jar, so it's always there when I need it!

Step 3: Set up your bulk carrying containers

To be truly green, buy bulk items in bags or containers that you put in your cloth shopping bag, wash, and reuse.

I hope that this column helps you fill your kitchen with jars of healthy meals to come.... See www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl4a.html for more bulk tips plus information about my new Ask EcoGirl booklet, Healthier Housecleaning.

Ask EcoGirl is written by Patricia Dines, Author of The Organic Guides, and Editor and Lead Writer for The Next STEP newsletter. Email your questions about going green to <EcoGirl [at] AskEcoGirl.info> for possible inclusion in future columns. View past columns at <www.AskEcoGirl.info>.

You can also become a Facebook fan of "Ask EcoGirl", to show your support and stay in touch! Join at www.facebook.com/AskEcoGirl.

"EcoGirl: Encouraging the eco-hero in everyone."

© Copyright Patricia Dines, 2010. All rights reserved.

For more information


I'm delighted to offer you my Ask EcoGirl booklets, "Healthier Housecleaning" and "Detoxing Your Life." These unique, handy, and cheerful resources bring together key information you need to create a healthier home for your family and the planet. They make a great gift, and quantity discounts and wholesale prices are available. Plus all sales support my eco-healing community work. Tell a friend! Find out more at www.askecogirl.info/booklets.html.


Well, I hope that you had as much fun reading this column as I had writing it out. It's funny; when I started writing it, I wasn't sure I'd have a whole column's worth to say. So it cracked me up to realize how much I'd figured out -- way more than would fit in a column! I've been working on this for years in little pieces; I just hadn't seen it all as parts of the same project category.

So here's more about what I figured out for myself about doing bulk, which I hope makes it easier for you to create a system that works for you. Once you make a few choices and setup a few habits, I think you'll find that buying bulk can be simple, fun, and quite rewarding! (I also invite you to share what you've learned in your journey. I love hearing different ideas and approaches. Yes, eco-geek, that's me!)

Labeling containers

* You can also write down any cooking instructions that are on the bulk bin, to later note on the container, such as how many cups of water to use per cups of rice, etc.

Buying goods and transfering them home

* In my cloth shopping bags, I keep empty plastic bags, small plastic containers, and tincture bottles, which I refill as needed at the store.

Note: For years I just kept them in the same cloth shopping bags. I'm currently experimenting with a system where I keep the empties in one cloth bag and use another bag to put the groceries in, but that's just another option, when you get as many going as I do!

* I like using small plastic containers to ferry from store to home because they're easier to wash and dry than plastic bags. (These are the free containers they offer in the bulk aisle.)

* I also buy snacks in these small plastic containers (nuts, etc.). Then when I just stack them on the counter at home, and they're ready to use without any transfering at all. This keeps it simple!

* You can bring any container to the store. If it's not their standard style, or it's not totally empty, bring it to the register first for them note its "tare" (starting) weight. Then, after you fill up, they'll deduct that from the ending weight to arrive at your net cost.

* I buy and store my honey in a refillable small glass jar, which I periodically take to the store and refill. Bulk honey is usually so much fresher! Keeping it in glass avoids using plastic with liquids (which I feel impacts taste). Also, if my honey crystallizes, I can heat the glass jar in a pan of water, which I'd rather not do with meltable plastic. Any small glass jar will do for honey, such as an old honey jar or jam jar.

Note: It took me a while to realize that bringing the honey jar to the store was the best solution. I usually don't like carrying glass, but I do it with honey because the gooey deliciousness will stick to whatever container you put it in and thus doesn't transfer very well.

* I buy bulk olive oil in my refillable small plastic containers, then pour it into my lovely glass jar at home.

* I've also seen small cotton cloth bags for sale, that could be used to ferry dry goods (rice, etc.)

* Some folks also buy big bags of items they use a lot, such as rice, which they then store in big containers at home.

* Rosemary's Garden in Sebastopol is a great source of fresh herbs, spices and healing teas, including blends. They also offer bulk oils and lotions. They have a better variety than most grocery stores, and most is notably fresher. Plus, when you buy from them, you're supporting a local business! Tell them that EcoGirl sent you! :-) (707 829-2539 www.rosemarysgarden.com) Hey, I just found out that they do shipping!

Storing leftovers at home

* I also use those small plastic containers for DRY leftovers, like chopped onions and garlic, that I keep in the fridge. I like using them because they're easy to wash and store. I prefer not to use them for liquids however, because they are soft plastic which I feel gets picked up by liquids.

* I put liquid leftovers either in glass canning jars or some hard "non-staining" plastic containers that I found.

Buying plastic containers

* When I say get "hard" plastic containers, I mean that they have no softness or give to the touch. This is one of my informal ways of avoiding the chemical softeners. Until we get better labeling on plastic containers, these informal assessments are the best we have.

I also open the container at the store and see if I smell any chemical smell. The first whiff is often the best test, as we later get used to the smell (and taste!). I also liked that the containers I have said they were "non-staining" which I felt indicated they were less likely to merge with foods. You can now get BPA-free containers, although I don't know if this is sufficient, because some still seems soft to the touch and I'm concerned about the softeners.

* It's because of these vagaries and issues that I try to do as much as I can in glass containers, especially liquids.

Washing plastic bags

* I feel that, if I'm going to have oil used in my name to make a plastic bag, I should get full use out of it before discarding it. I think that one-time use is a ridiculous waste of resources all the way down the line.

* However, I also don't believe in being manic about washing plastic bags. Most bags wash pretty easily. If I run across one that's messy, I give myself permission to put it in the trash.

* If I'm going to have messy food, I try to put it into a reusable plastic container, which is much easier to wash and dry.

* I wash my plastic bags quickly by turning them inside out, dipping them in the soapy dishwater, running them under the faucet, then lying them in the dishrack to drain out. Later I put them in the drying rack.

* I dry plastic bags using one of two drying racks. The concept is just something with a post sticking up so that you keep the bag open to dry on both sides.

- First, I got a plastic bag dryer at Real Goods in Hopland CA. Put that on your shopping list if you're in the area (Mendocino County; they have lots of other great eco-goodies) or they do mail order. Here are two options:



- I also dry them on the spikes in the dishwasher racks, which I use as a drying rack because I don't generate enough dishes to warrant running it so I wash by hand.

Discarding plastics

When your plastics are at the end of their lifecyle (or usefulness for you), be sure to discard them properly.

* If there's still use left in them, can you give them to someone? (For example, I offer unneeded plastic shopping bags to thrift stores and they love it!)

* Recycle whenever possible.

For more about that, see this previous Ask EcoGirl column "Preventing Plastic's Pollution" www.patriciadines.info/EcoGirl2c.html

I hope that you find this information useful. Please let me know your thoughts; you can email me at [ecogirl [at] askecogirl.info]!

For more information on this and related eco-topics, see my other Ask EcoGirl columns.

For more about my writing in general, on eco-issues and more, see my What's News page. My latest big article is True Green, published in NorthBay biz magazine. It's mission is to readers avoid green imposters and choose to buy and be authentically green. I had so much fun writing this!

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