Buying in bulk: Could you go zero-waste?

Text, photos, and infographics by Sara Valle-Martínez

If you’ve ever thought about buying in bulk, you might’ve been put off because of the inconvenience of having to carry empty containers to the shops or the high prices of organic food.

But there are ways to make bulk shopping cheaper – while helping the environment at the same time. Not only you can get the exact amount of that herb or spice you’re never planning on using again but you can also reduce waste by reusing empty jars and even those Chinese-food plastic containers you probably have lying around.

What does zero-waste mean?

The UK throws away around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste every single year. That’s a shocking amount, especially if you take into consideration that 8.4 million people in the country are in food poverty, according to Business Waste.

We waste about a third of all food produce across the globe, which means we’re also wasting the fresh water, land, and labour it took to be produced, as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) says.

In fact, if it were a country, food waste would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Buying in bulk is a way of contributing to reducing these numbers.

Some other advantages include “being able to budget better by buying just what you need at a time, knowing that everything is sourced sustainably and that farmers are getting paid what they deserve for products”, said Jordan Perata, 28, the owner of Kilo, a zero-waste shop in 518 Holloway Road.

Kilo, zero-waste shop in Holloway Road

If you buy in bulk, you might still have to worry about leftovers and how to be thrifty with food scraps to be completely zero-waste, but you won’t have to worry about those pesky flour and rice weevils or the occasional rotting veggies in your fridge drawer.

“Generally, the products tend to be a lot higher quality too, because we are careful about where we source from and our customers tend to expect pretty high standards of quality from us, so we try our best to live up to that,” added Perata, who quitted her job as an interior designer to open the store.

Mary Duggan, 53, a health care assistant that usually buys in Kilo, said: “I [buy here] because you can save money and help the environment. It just works.”

The zero-waste lifestyle is all about reducing and preventing waste with responsible production, consumption and use.

100 billion pieces of plastic packaging are thrown away by UK households every year, so buying in bulk could dramatically reduce this number just by making easy changes in your life like refilling your spices or buying unpacked rice.

“We need more of these stores because plastic has to go. We have to look after the planet,” said Jane Bradley, 59, a makeup artist who likes to buy in The Source, another zero-waste shop in Crouch End.“It’s great to buy in bulk and buy what you want and not pay for all the cheaper packaging.”

How do I start?

Perata says a common misconception for people who are going to start buying in bulk is thinking that they need to get loads of beautiful jars and buy everything all at once.

She offered some tips for those considering becoming zero-waste: “Just bring an existing piece of packaging that you have and just refill it and […] every time you’re running out of something, bring it in and refill it and do it that way instead. And use containers you already have, packaging you already have. We love to see people reusing old bread bags and things like that. It doesn’t need to be a jar.”

Perata admits she made the same mistakes when starting herself but now she’s able to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

“Start with baby steps. Do the easy things first, like buying loose vegetables in the supermarket. Don’t feel bad if you can’t always do it. You’ll have times where your ability to do low- or zero-waste fluctuates according to your situation. Just do what you can, and don’t overload yourself,” said Nikki Kopelman, 35, a zero-waste freelance translator who also manages and creates virtual offices and events for her company ReuniVous.

“Many people’s initial thought is to go out and buy lots of replacements for the plastic items you already have but this actually goes against all the zero waste principles! The idea of using less begins with using up what you already have,” said Ellie Jackson, 43, a mother of four young children, teacher and environmental children’s author from Cornwall that has written a series of bestselling true stories about real global issues such as plastic pollution and climate change.

The author of the Wild Tribe Heroes series added: “Examples would be plastic tubs and wanting to replace them with glass mason jars, or throwing away all the plastic cutlery to replace it with bamboo. Although those are great replacements, it makes sense to only throw away things once they have reached the end of their natural life – so continue using your plastic items until they can be used no more and only then do you look for alternatives.”

Is it really cheaper?

The answer is not that simple. The zero-waste movement involves a bigger investment upfront. Also, most of the times, zero-waste and organic products go hand in hand. Organic products are usually more expensive, meaning premium prices (see graphic below; prices per kilo).

All prices were checked on the companies’ official websites on the same day, 19/02/2023.
“X” means the product was not available for sale.

“It can be [cheaper], it really depends on your living situation – it’s cheaper to do zero-waste or low-waste if you don’t have young kids, for example. It’s also easier if you have space and time to grow some of your own fruit and vegetables,” said Kopelman to those who find the higher prices out of their budget.

“You’d be surprised at what you can grow in even a tiny amount of space. You can grow salad greens on a window ledge, for example, and they’re super easy to grow, and it’s great education for young children. Cress and herbs are also low-maintenance and can grow in small spaces on kitchen windowsills. If you have a little outdoor space, you can grow carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes in pots,” she added.

Zero-waste shopping promotes the idea of buying what you need, which means you could potentially reduce monthly and even yearly costs. By eliminating marketing tactics and flashy packaging, you could also be buying with a more precise mindset – and help save the planet.

The Source, a zero-waste shop in Crouch End

Perata, the owner of Kilo, said that a lot of people realised how much packaging they were going through during the pandemic, as they would get all the groceries delivered in one go.

“It fights a lot of food waste because you’re only buying what you need,” Perata said.“If you only need 10 grams of a spice, you can just buy that. You don’t have to buy a huge start of it. So, it’s cheaper,” she added.

“A lot of the times it’s higher quality products because we’re sourcing it from sustainable businesses and people. There’s nobody along the way that’s being screwed over out of money or the working conditions, because we take a lot of pride in who we source from.”

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