Faux Pas in the Bulk Aisle

There is no reader question this week. Helena has a topic she’d like to address.

If you’re like me, you always feel pleasantly smug when you’re at the grocery store and you pull out your reusable cloth bags. But the groceries you put in those bags still feature a lot of wasteful packaging. So why not go one step further and bring your own jars and produce bags too? Before you do, however, you should know that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Here are some pointers:

Use the Right Containers

Catherine Conway is the owner of the London store Unpackaged, which sells bulk foods exclusively. Customers bring all kinds of containers, she says, “including Chinese takeaway cartons, Ziploc bags, even a used envelope.” But if you’re shopping at regular grocery stores, the guy behind the deli counter is more likely to fill up your container if it’s clean and sturdy. Here are some options that are durable and easy to clean.

Mesh bags for produce: They’re cheap and can go in the laundry. You may already wash and reuse plastic produce bags, but they look unsightly draped around the kitchen and take forever to dry.

Cloth bags for dry bulk items: Bea Johnson, author of the blog the Zero Waste Home, made hers from old sheets, but you can also buy them. You’ll need a large one for bread.

Glass jars and bottles for wet items: These are for foods like meat, fish, cheese, honey, and peanut butter, and for liquids like vinegar and oil. “Get a supply of glass canning jars in different sizes from the hardware store,” recommends Myscha Theriault, coauthor of 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.

Weigh Your Jars First

There are typically three places in a grocery store where you can get bulk food: the bins of dry foods such as flour and nuts, the produce department, and the meat, cheese, and deli counters. You’ll have to ask the staff to weigh your jars first, so you can tell the person at the checkout counter how much the jars weigh without anything in them (this is called the tare weight). In some stores, you can also have this done at the customer service desk, says Johnson.

Brazen It Out

Be prepared to talk to the manager if the person at the deli counter refuses to fill your jar with ham. Then act blasé, says Johnson, while subtly threatening to defect to the competition. “At [one store], I showed up with my jar and they had to go to the manager and ask if it was OK. I said, ‘Look, I do it all the time at Whole Foods.’”

As more shoppers begin bringing bulk containers to stores, retailers and producers will take notice. In the future, we may see a growing number of foods—like butter, for instance—offered in reusable glass containers. Until then, you can revel in the rush of ecosmugness you will feel by creating no extra waste at the grocery store. Even if other shoppers do think you’re a little eccentric.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.