Plastic Free July Day 11 : Shopping in Bulk

bulk shopping rainbow san francisco

(Picture credit: Nous Demain, Episode 2)

(Back to the challenge summary)

Shopping in bulk is a big step on the plastic-free lifestyle road! It avoids so many packaging and not only plastics.

Reducing single use plastics is absolutely necessary because of the tremendous pollution they generate. But it doesn’t mean that we have to replace them by single use paper, glass or metal.

The mindset is to reduce disposable in general, to waste less and recycle less, to Refuse/Reduce/Reuse more: this is the strategy to extract less from a planet with limited natural resources.

I’m going to share with you the different steps I followed on my bulk shopping journey that started in 2015. And then I’ll give you a list of places where Madison and I shop in bulk in the Bay Area. There are more and more, we don’t know all of them, feel free to add your favorites in the comments!


What you need to shop in bulk

bulk shopping bags jars bottles

Start with some of these, organize your shopping routine and see how it goes. After a while, you'll get used to your new shopping habit, you'll have more jars, maybe more sophisticated containers.

It all starts with organization, planning and these bulk essentials! Personally, I have a drawer full of clean empty jars, a shopping bag full of produce/bulk bags, and some empty glass bottles in my pantry. When I go grocery shopping, I know where my stuff are, all I need is 10mn to write my shopping list. 

STEP 1: Produce

Most produce don’t need a bag: bananas, avocados, mangos, cucumbers… you get it.

For the others, all you need is a stack of produce bags (natural fibers only to avoid releasing plastic microfibers in the water when you wash them).

The tough ones: berries. They often come in a plastic clamshell or a plastic basket. What I usually do: I avoid the clamshells and if I find some in baskets, I put them in my produce bag and leave the plastic baskets. I never had any trouble so far at the cash register, they just ask me how many I've put in my bag.

I’d recommend to have at least 10 produce bags, since you’ll use them for the bulk section as well.

bulk bags produce ecobags

You can buy new ones or make your own! It’s even better if you reuse pieces of old clothing (always in natural fibers, no synthetic fabric).

And don’t forget to write the weight on them, most grocery stores take it into account.


STEP 2 : Pasta, cereals, nuts, rice, dried fruits, trail mix, granola, lentils...

Most grocery stores have all these dry foods available in bulk. This is the easiest way to start buying in bulk.

Try once, with one or two bags and see how it goes. You’ll see, it’s easy!

bulk shopping rainbow san francisco

(Picture credit: Nous Demain, Episode 2)

Yes, it’s me, ahah, at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, with my Ambatalia bento bags that I use here for bulk pasta! I was lucky to be interviewed for a french TV channel, I brought them to Rainbow, a bulk shopping heaven!

STEP 3: Bring glass jars for sugar, flour, peanut butter, honey and bottles for oils, vinegars and more!

Now that you’re comfortable with bags, you are ready to bring jars for products like sugar and flour, and bottles for liquids! I totally recommend jars like the ones made by Goods Holding Company, the weight is already written on the jars, that’s one less thing to think about!

Again, if you prefer to reuse existing glass jars, you have so much choice! Personally, I love St Benoit yogurts, the only ones I know of that come in a glass jar. I have a whole collection at home and these jars are very handy. I store all my bulk teas in them!

bulk shopping peanut butter san francisco

(Picture credit: Nous Demain, Episode 2)

STEP 4 : Cleaning and skincare products

zero waste refill store san francisco

Now there are more and more places where you can refill your bottles with cleaning, laundry, skincare and haircare products in bulk. It wasn't like that a few years ago and that was very frustrating for me. I couldn’t find sustainable brands in bulk, I didn’t want to drive to Rainbow, it’s too far away. So I started Fillgood: I figured I wasn’t the only one who would love to get safe eco-friendly products delivered to my door, in refillable containers. Just like the old milk delivery service :-)

We can all save so many plastic bottles by buying these products in bulk. As an example, in the first 18 months of Fillgood, we have avoided almost 1000 lbs of single use plastics! 

STEP 5: Meat, fish, cheese…

This is the ultimate step, I’m not completely there yet: to be plastic free for these products, you have to bring your own containers. Some stores refuse to use containers from outside, they’ll tell you it’s not authorized by the Health Code. In reality, it looks like it depends on the store manager. I've never had any issues, I was able to purchase ham and meat in my containers at Whole Foods Berkeley and El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company. So my only recommendation is to ask your regular store.

Where to buy in bulk in the Bay Area

bulk store wastelandrebel

(Picture credit: Wastelandrebel)

Our store in Berkeley :-)

Rainbow Grocery (San Francisco): the oldest bulk shopping place in the city, you can find almost everything over there. I only go a couple of times a year though, it’s too far for regular grocery shopping.

Berkeley Bowl (2 locations in Berkeley): large choice of food, but only a few skincare/haircare products. There’s not enough organic food in bulk though.

Whole Foods: I believe all locations have a bulk corner. Mainly dry fruits, cereals, sweets. No liquids, no non-food products.

El Cerrito Natural Grocery Company / Berkeley Natural Grocery Company: great selection of organic bulk food, more in El Cerrito than in Berkeley. This is my favorite place to shop: they have a local olive oil, vinegar, honey, peanut butter in bulk. They even accept containers for meat and fish.

Monterey Market (Berkeley): large bulk section but they don’t accept jars and bottles. Bags only and they don’t take into account bags weight.

Andronicos (Berkeley): I don’t go often but they have a pretty large bulk corner. Mainly dry fruits, cereals, sweets. No liquids, no non-food products.

Sprouts (Albany): same kind of bulk corner as Andronicos.


That was a lot for today, I hope this will inspire you to start shopping in bulk!!


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