Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Letter Requesting Bulk Bins

Buying food from bulk bins is one of the best ways to get packaging-free foods, but unfortunately for me, it's pretty hard to find bulk foods in Chicago.

In fact, the Whole Foods where I usually shop is the only store with bulk bins within a fifteen-minute drive from my house.

That's why I've written the following letter. I plan to send it out to both the local stores where I shop as well the corporate headquarters of the companies that own them.

I encourage you to write similar letters and send them out to stores in your area. If you'd like, feel free to steal ideas from my letter or to use my letter as a form for your own.


Dear Store Manager, [or Dear (insert corporate executive name)]

The environment is really important to me, and when I go to the grocery store I always try to buy the most eco-friendly and responsible products available. For me, this translates to purchasing organic produce and additional foods with as little packaging as possible, usually sold from bulk bins.

With this in mind, I'd like to tell you that I no longer shop at your store because you do not offer food in bulk bins. Instead, I drive a few miles further to Whole Foods and purchase foods like oatmeal, cashews, and cereal from the bins there.

To be honest, though, I don't really like driving the extra miles. It's bad for the environment, and the traffic stresses me out.

Therefore, I would like to ask you to install bulk bins at your store. I know it's a lot to ask since I've heard that bulk bins can have low profit margins and are difficult to manage, but it's something that will attract customers, who will surely also buy higher margin items, to your store. Also, providing your customers with food in bulk bins is exactly the type of "green" move your company needs to be making to continue to attract customers in Chicago.

I hope you consider my request, and I look forward to seeing bulk bins in your store in the near future (and not having to drive so far to shop!).

Thanks so much.

[My Name]

Photo courtesy of Veggie Chic.


Nancy said...

I appreciate your quest to use less plastic. I'm trying trying that also. I like to buy from the bulk bins, but have found a problem with it in that they always have plastic bags for you to use. That leads to more plastic usage. How have you overcome that problem? I thought about taking in my own containers, but then the weight of my containers would be included in the price when it's weighed.
njones127 at tampabay dot rr dot com

LifeLessPlastic said...

Nancy, I use cloth bags to get my bulk items home. Since I didn't have any suitable bags for this when I started buying from bulk bins, I ended up buying produce bags from Ecobags. I like them A LOT and they only weigh .07 pounds, which I think is a little more than one ounce. They're a bit expensive (a set of bags cost $15 or $3 per bag), but they're a perfect example of the types of bags you can use.

LifeLessPlastic said...

Also, most stores should be willing to pre-weigh your containers so that you deduct their weight when your bulk items are getting rung up. This is what they do for me when I bring my own container for buying cheese.

Reenie Beanie said...

LLP, in large grocery store companies these days, everything tends to be VERY standardized. Store managers have very little influence in what the store carries.

Adding bulk bins requires the purchase of a bulk fixture, but that's actually the easy, less expensive part! The problem is finding a home for the bulk bins which often requires moving quite a bit of product in the incredibly costly and time-consuming process!

However, I would still definitely encourage you and your friends to start by bugging every last management employee at a store about this issue! Also, call the companys' customer service lines! If it's a Safeway or Kroger owned grocery store, let them know that many of their stores in Oregon have bulk bins why not where you live?

Like I said, this will be an huge uphill battle due to the cost. This is why although managers have little say in what goes in the store, you want them to be able to tell someone important that, "Everyone keeps asking for bulk food!"

If you can, find a way to get the names and email addresses of people that have actual decision making authority. Make some friends with employees or ask the manager (I can help you here...I will email you...)

One letter won't do the me here. Build an army! Lol!

Green Bean said...

I'll send a letter too, LLP, and also ask my health food store. My Whole Foods and a local grocery store both stock bulk items but, frankly, I'd like to see more of a selection. Greedy, greedy, greedy, I guess.

BTW, do you use the Ecobags for items like oatmeal? What do you use for flour and sugar? I've been reusing plastic bags that I've had since the dawn of time for all that stuff and so far I've had no problem but I'd like to have a non-plastic alternative when those bags do finally break.

LifeLessPlastic said...

Green Bean, I'm so glad you're sending a letter. That's great!

As for my Ecobags, I use them for everything, including oatmeal and the like. If I'm buying a lot of bulk bin items, I also end up putting them in old plastic grocery bags. I've still got quite a collection of those from the olden days.

arduous said...

You know, it might not be a bad idea to send this letter to Trader Joe's. I'm actually cool on the bulk foods front because I've got a bulk store only a mile from my house that I can even walk to. But Trader Joe's is trying for the more eco niche market.

N. & J. said...

That's a great idea. You can usually bring your own containers (we do) and have the store weigh them for you. When you go to checkout they will subtract the weight of your container and only charge you for the weight of the product you bought. Be careful of using glass containers though. At our Whole Foods they can only automatically subtract 1lb for the weight of your container. For our huge glass jars the cashier had to break out his cell phone calculator to figure out how much to charge us.

I was actually surprised at how few "natural" grocery stores use bulk bins. We just got a Natural Grocers down the street and decided to check it out since it is much closer then Whole Foods but when we walked in EVERYTHING that is normally in bulk bins at whole foods was in plastic bags with hand ties so there wasn't even an option of using your own container.

Anonymous said...

Having owned a natural food store for about 10 years I understand your wanting bulk bins.

But, here's my reason for discontinuing them in my store.
First - waste, customers constantly spilled and of course, I still had to pay for the contents. It always seemed they spilled the most expensive stuff. Plus cleanup - you can't leave it on the floor, you must move the bins at night to clean up under or you chance bugs or even rodents.

Second - cross contamination - customers would use the same scoop for more than one item. Also, customers would take some out, taste it, and return the rest to the container. You just can't believe what customers will taste test.

Third - in my state, CT, if bugs appeared in ONE bulk container, all adjacent containers had to be emptied, scrubbed and santized. This can result in a tremendous amount of monetary loss. Contamination, more often than not, comes within the bulk package. By prepacking, this can be avoided - contaminated product STILL in original bag could be returned for credit - much harder to do if it is in a bulk container as wholesaler can question where contamination came from.

Fourth - if an item does not sell within a specified time period, usually one month, the freshness of the product is compromised.
Instead, I prepacked product in normal amounts. I would only prepack what I felt would sell in 3-4 days, the rest was held in the back room refrigerators.

I prepacked in reusable, yes, food safe heavyweight plastic bags and requested customers reuse them. For those that brought them back, I would refill with same product while they shopped or waited.

Everyone who wants bulk bins needs to know that local/state regulations play a big part along with the monetary considerations.

LifeLessPlastic said...


Thanks for all of the interesting information. It's always good to hear an insider's point-of-view on stuff.

I can totally see why it would be difficult for a small store to have bulk bins since they're more work and selling a large volume is required to make sure things turn over fast enough to retain freshness. Not to mention the risk of meal moths and other critters.

Still, I think large stores can probably handle these sorts of problems. After all, they do it all over the West coast so why can't they do it everywhere? I think it just comes down to whether or not people demand it.

People, let's demand it!

The Minimalist said...

I love your letter idea! I noticed in the picture the containers were the ones you don't scoop into. I wish my local store would switch to the ones in the photo. I think more people would use them I think I'll write and suggest it!

Anonymous said...

good idea! email letter composed and on its way!

biopol said...

Nice blog!
Maybe you could be interested by a recent blog on biodegradable plastics and biobased materials at :

Anonymous said...

For those of you inquiring about reusable bags for bulk items... I use kootsacs for some of my bulk foods(

They're made of rip-stop nylon, so the finer items like sugar or flour don't seep through the weave like in a cloth bag.

You could also reuse your plastic bags until they develop holes...

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Gabi said...

Have you been able to find more bulk bin stores in the Chicagoland area? I live in Rogers Park and there are hardly any stores here that have decent bulk food sections. Please share!