Bulk Barn Finally Ditches the Mandatory Plastic Bags

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A little under a year ago, inspired by zero-waste gurus Bea Johnson and Lauren Singer, I tried to live zero waste for a week. I wrote about my experiences here — the good, the bad and the ugly.

Before starting out on this weeklong experiment, I’d interviewed Singer, the sharply intelligent 24-year-old darling of the zero-waste movement, who told me that one of the most effective ways to reduce the amount of waste that leaves your home is by preventing the waste from coming in in the first place. For this reason, zero-waste aficionados typically frequent bulk stores and farmers markets, and hand-make many of their own products to avoid needless packaging.

Thus advised, I downloaded Johnson’s (now-defunct) Bulk App and found my nearest bulk store, a Canadian chain called Bulk Barn. I loaded up with my reusable bags and jars and went merrily on my way. But, as I soon found out, sometimes zero waste is easier said than done.

I’ll be obnoxious and quote myself to explain what happened when I arrived at the till, containers in hand:

“… the cashier eyed my bags uneasily. She told me that I wasn’t allowed to use cloth bags because she can’t tare them (taring means removing the weight of the bag, and just charging me for the contents). My bags are super lightweight and I don’t mind paying a few extra cents to avoid the use of plastic, so I told this to the cashier. She continued to look at them uneasily even after she rang them up.

Finally, I decide to double-check. ‘So, I’m a bit confused. Am I allowed to bring these next time?’ I ask, gesturing to my bags. “No,” she says apologetically. “Customers have to use the plastic bags provided. It’s a hygiene issue.”

Another customer (who looks like a seasoned Bulk Barn shopper) leans over from her lineup and says in a conspiratorial whisper, ‘You can’t bring your own bags. It’s for hygiene.’ “

In an instant, I went from being awestruck at the range, variety and sheer quantity of bulk products that Bulk Barn offered to feeling incredibly disheartened. What was the use of all of that glorious package-free product if you then had to decant it into flimsy plastic bags or containers?

I was so worked up by this bewildering experience that I even went home and signed an online petition asking Bulk Barn to allow customers to bring their own containers — it was the only thing I could think to do at the time.

My attempt at a zero-waste trip to Bulk Barn didn’t go so well the first time around. Photo: Shutterstock

Times Are A-Changin’

Well, far be it from me to take credit for something which in reality probably had nothing to do with me, but I’m here to tell you that with that signature, I single-handedly convinced Bulk Barn to accept reusable containers!

In September 2016, Bulk Barn announced that they would be running a pilot project at their Liberty Village location in Toronto, Ontario, allowing customers to use their own containers. When the initiative was met with resounding success, it was rolled out to another 37 stores at the end of the year.

Now, on Feb. 24, every single Bulk Barn location in Canada will become part of the reusable container program.

I took a trip back to my local store last week and the process was absolutely fantastic. I took my jars to the cashier so she could tare them; busily filled them up with flour, peanut butter, chickpeas and, yes, candy; paid for my purchases; and was on my way! It was absolutely brilliant.

The new reusable containers from Bulk Barn. Photo Facebook/Bulk Barn

Will Other Stores Join In?

The trend to package-free shopping has increased in recent years as the zero-waste movement gains in popularity, but large-scale chain grocery stores seem reluctant to get on board, or at least create a comprehensive system to accommodate and encourage those wishing to reduce packaging waste.

Niche shops continue to emerge, like America’s first zero-waste grocery store, which opened in Austin, Texas, in 2011, but traditional grocery stores have been slow to follow suit.

Whole Foods offers bulk refills of some items like liquid soaps and shampoos and joins most grocery stores in having a bulk aisle. But still, plastic bags proliferate. There’s no way to tare your container, so if you’re bringing a heavy jar, you risk overpaying for the product you’re buying.

And, in what is perhaps the biggest stumbling block for those beginning their zero-waste journey, large-scale grocery store chains have remained mum about their policies on reusable containers. Often, policy seems to differ based on the location or even the employee — some allow them, some don’t, and newbies are often shy to ask.

My zero-waste week changed my shopping behavior for good, but even I sometimes feel strange when I approach the deli counter with my glass container asking for it to be filled with chicken breasts for my daughter. I often feel like I’m doing something sneaky or slightly frowned upon when I fill my cloth bags with nuts or popcorn.

Not at Bulk Barn, however. Every customer who enters their stores will now be greeted with a large green sign stating that they are in a place that supports the reusable container program, clearly outlining how to participate:

They even sell empty jars for $3 to $4 each if you’ve forgotten to bring your own.

No arguing with cashiers, no nervousness, no fumbling with scales and wondering how it all works. It’s immediately clear that zero-waste shopping is easy, organized and, most of all, welcome in their store.

Thank you, Bulk Barn, for taking such a massive step to support waste-free shopping. We hope other stores will be joining you soon.

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.