Can You Be Zero-Waste Without a Bulk Store Nearby?

CC BY 2.0. Chun Kit To

When you live in the country, not everything can be purchased in a Mason jar.

When I first read Bea Johnson’s book, “Zero Waste Home,” she made it seem so easy. Just shop for groceries at your local bulk store with reusable containers and bags, and you’re set! Unfortunately, my small Ontario town (pop. 6,500) was not nearly as advanced as San Francisco when it came to shopping options and the only local bulk store refused to allow reusable containers at the time.

For years, I struggled to minimize my family’s packaging waste, sometimes driving long distances between farms, markets, and small businesses in neighboring communities to seek out minimal or refillable packaging. All that driving wasn’t terribly sustainable either, and it took a ton of time. Most of all, it was discouraging. I felt that the amazing urban bloggers I followed didn’t really grasp how challenging zero-waste living can be for rural dwellers.

When I saw Kathryn Kellogg’s article on this topic, called “Life Without Bulk Options,” I was thrilled. More of the zero-waste conversation should look at less-than-ideal circumstances and encourage people to figure out alternative solutions that can decrease their impact – something that’s worth celebrating, too. You might not be able to call yourself a strict ‘zero-waster’, but you’ll still be making a difference and influencing your community’s retailers to move in a greener direction.

So, what should you do if there are no reusable-friendly bulk stores around? According to Kellogg, you start by asking yourself some questions:

1. Can it be made from scratch?

There are a lot of things we buy automatically in stores that are easy to make at home, such as pasta sauce, hummus, guacamole, pancake mix, vinaigrette, granola, tortillas, and muffins. Learn how to whip up a batch of these recipes in less time than it would take you to drive to the store.

2. Can you buy it in a returnable container?

Some dairies offer milk and yogurt in returnable glass containers. You pay a deposit up front that’s reimbursed or transferred to your next purchase. Usually these are smaller-scale, privately-owned dairies that sell a better product.

3. Is it available in compostable packaging?

Always go for paper if you can because it’s biodegradable. This is especially easy for baking supplies, like flour, sugar, chocolate, and cornstarch. Some pasta and chip brands come in cardboard.

4. Does it come in glass or metal?

Kellogg is a big fan of glass, since it’s entirely recyclable – and it’s one of those few items that’s so costly to produce that recyclers and companies are willing to pay for recycling. You can buy many condiments, oils, and vinegar in glass bottles. Metal is also a better option than plastic, as it’s more readily recycled. Just be cautious of BPA in can linings.

5. Can you buy it in bulk?

Buying in bulk is always a good idea to save money (as long as you can eat it), but it’s especially smart if plastic packaging is the only option. Buy the biggest bag you can, like Kellogg did: “We bought a 25lb bag of rice when we first moved to California that lasted two years. That alone saved 25 plastic-wrapped rice bags!” I do this for feta cheese, olives, and apple cider, since they keep for a while.

The important thing is not to let perfection impede your progress. There are ways to reduce waste, even if they’re not as picture-perfect as the blogging world would have you think, but they are still worthwhile. If you live in a small town or rural location, how do approach zero-waste living? Please share any thoughts or advice in the comments below.