I’m standing in a grocery aisle adjacent to the bulk bins, witnessing a sort of performance art. In one fluid motion, a guy whisks a plastic bag from the roll, positions it just right, and lowers the lever on the couscous, intuiting the exact moment he has enough by the weight in his hand. Next to him, a young woman furtively looks on, and then fumbles with the lever, clearly afraid that an avalanche of rice will come plummeting out when she moves the handle.
It wasn’t long ago that I, too, was a bulk-bin neophyte. Like many Americans, I grew up suspicious of all things unpackaged; bulk-bin items somehow seemed second-rate. Then, during a particularly idealistic phase, I decided shopping bulk was the right thing to do. I could save money, reduce food-packaging waste, and help protect the environment at the same time. With some trepidation I began to explore the bins, often staring blankly at the vast array of mysterious foods before me. But after a few dry runs, I was hooked. Now, whenever I have a choice to buy something in bulk, I head straight for the bins. So if you’re a bit intimidated by all the levers, barrels, and bags—or if you just want to glean a few pointers—here’s the inside scoop on how you, too, can be a bulk-bin geek.