Bulk Barn takes promising step toward reusable containers

Bulk Barn storefront
CC BY 1.0 Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine [CC0]

Canada's largest bulk food retailer is notorious for not allowing customers to use reusable containers, but now it appears the outdated policy may change.

Earlier this year, there was commotion on Instagram when Bea Johnson, author of The Zero Waste Home, posted a photo of a Bulk Barn location in Quebec, praising the store for its impressive array of dry goods. She used hashtags “bulk is beautiful” and “bulk is everywhere.”

For Canadian zero waste followers, this came as a shock, since Bulk Barn, the country’s biggest bulk food chain, is notorious for its flat-out refusal to allow reusable containers. Instead, customers are forced to use their super-thin plastic bags and plastic containers.

Commenters on Instagram were understandably irritated, pointing out Bulk Barn’s inconsistency and suggesting that perhaps Johnson was allowed to use reusable containers because someone had recognized her. Johnson apparently wasn’t aware of the policy, replying, “We filled our containers there this summer with no problem. No questions asked.”

Whether Bulk Barn finally caved to consumer pressure, or realized the benefits of keeping up with the times, the company has finally made a very exciting step forward. On September 23, it launched a pilot project for reusable containers at its Liberty Village location in west Toronto.

Customers are allowed to bring in reusable containers, which must be fully sanitized, for visual inspection and weighing by staff. A yellow sticker with the weight is put on the bottom, then the container can be filled with food. The weight is subtracted from the price at the cash.

I spoke with a supervisor named Larissa at the Liberty Village location. She was enthusiastic about the project, telling me that there’s no end date in sight because it’s “probably going to become an ongoing thing. It’s really flown out the window. People are really, really, really liking the way we’re doing things.”

She said that many people are bringing in reusable containers of all kinds, from Mason jars to glass-bottom snap-top containers to plastic Ziploc boxes, etc. Staff have had to reject a few on the basis of not being clean enough or having cracks in the plastic lids (all containers must be resealable, although drawstrings and clip closures do count), but for the most part, it’s a huge success.

Liberty Village was chosen for its high density of environmentally-conscious Millennials. Metro News cites Bulk Barn’s executive vice-president, Jason Ofield:

“There’s a high population of [Millennials] in the area and they are very aware of what’s going on with the climate and cognizant of how it impacts their shopping experience. If they can reduce waste from food because they can buy as little or as much as they want and eliminate packaging weight, it is really exciting for them.”

According to Bulk Barn’s website, the purpose of the Liberty Village project is “to help us collect the necessary information required to launch a national campaign.” This sounds very hopeful for other locations, especially if Toronto residents are taking advantage of it and showing Bulk Barn how much reusables matter. Larissa sounded confident on the phone: ”It will likely be implemented eventually. This is the direction things are moving, and people love it.”

This is hopeful news for many Canadians, since Bulk Barn has 230 locations throughout the country, many in small communities that do not have access to other bulk or zero-waste-friendly stores. For such a major chain to adopt reusable containers would be a huge step forward, as it sells a wide range of products that are not easy to find in zero-waste formats, such as spices, spreads and condiments (peanut butter, tahini, coconut oil, etc.), pasta, even candy.

Way to go, Bulk Barn, for being willing to try this new approach! Once these changes have been made across all the nation’s franchises, then Bea Johnson will really have something to write about.

Bulk Barn takes promising step toward reusable containers
Canada's largest bulk food retailer is notorious for not allowing customers to use reusable containers, but now it appears the outdated policy may change.

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