When I decided to do more to help the earth, I brainstormed- and I Googled. It didn’t take long to discover the concept of waste-free living- an entire community of people striving to produce loads less trash. I was impressed- and eager to become one of them. Of course, one of the pillars of this lifestyle is purchasing food from a store’s bulk section in your own containers brought from home. This reduces packaging consumption. However, for me there were a number of deterrant factors:

  1. I didn’t cook. I subsisted almost entirely on foods that came in convenience store packaging. Prepared sushi, plastic wrapped cheese sticks, individual portions of yogurt, packaged hard-boiled eggs, hummus and pretzel snacks. You name it- if it came in an easily consumable, no-need-to-cook format, it was at the top of my menu.
  2. “Tare” was not part of my vocabulary. What was it & how did one find it for their personal brought-from-home bulk food carrying container?
  3. Checking out seemed scary. I was not thrilled at the idea of needing special treatment from the cashier or incurring the ire of the busy urban shoppers in line behind me.

For a lot of people, these might not be issues at all. For others, some of these may sound familiar. Either way, I decided to dip my toe in with a particular type of purchase, and I’ve come to believe that it is an excellent gateway to a new lifestyle of bulk, waste-free shopping: herbs & spices.

I didn’t cook back then, but I loved dousing my plastic-encased convenience foods in cumin, cayenne, salt and pepper. So I strapped on my tree-hugging bottle of courage, washed some of my boyfriend’s discarded 32-oz yogurt containers, and headed over to my local food co-op to explore their bulk foods section. In practically no time at all I emerged with a yogurt size container of cayenne pepper that I am still using to this day.  Here are the lessons I have since learned about shopping in bulk:

  1. You can start somewhere, even if you don’t cook. My Whole Foods doesn’t have much for bulk herbs and spices, but they have a ton of snacks like veggie chips, dried mango, granola, energy bites, nuts and dates. The food co-op in West Philly has unique things like laundry detergent and baking soda, while the other co-op north of the city has an incredible medicinal herb, spice and tea bulk section.  All of these are things I use on a daily basis, even if I’m not cooking. Reducing the waste from the packaging on these absolutely counts.
  2. The tare is the weight of the container and you only have to get it once. You can bring any kind of container in, and typically you can go to the customer service counter and ask to have it weighed. They will usually write the tare on a piece of tape or something similar and stick it to your container.  From then on, any time you take that container in, it will already have the tare on it. That way you don’t get charged for the weight of the container when you buy your bulk item.
  3. Other customers do notice, but they are usually interested in a good way. I’ve been approached by a number of other shoppers to ask me for details about how my system works. It makes me really happy to think that they might start doing the same thing.
  4. The cashiers don’t mind. It’s just part of their regular routine.
  5. It is way less expensive. Buying herbs and spices in bulk was one of those watershed moments when I realized that living sustainably might actually save me money. Yes, there are absolutely things I spend more money on. But there are also lots of places where I save, and this is one of them. There are a few items for which buying in bulk does not offer huge savings, and in rare cases it is more expensive, but it is generally much less expensive than buying packaged.

Making a choice to live more sustainably will ultimately mean making lifestyle changes. Some of these can be big; others are smaller. They are all important. For me, deciding to purchase my herbs and spices in bulk was one simple, small way that I could begin to adopt a new lifestyle. It led to much bigger changes. Today I buy most of my groceries without packaging. There are exceptions and one by one I’m knocking them out. My journey toward producing significantly less waste has been a longer one; I haven’t been able to do it all at once, but I’ve made a lot of progress. And I love to think how it all started with a 32 ounce container of cayenne pepper.