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.

The benefits of buying bulk

  • Savings. Perhaps the biggest advantage to shopping bulk is a lower grocery bill. “It’s much more cost effective to buy in bulk,” says Ben Litjen, bulk foods specialist at the Whole Foods Market in Boulder, Colorado. Many bulk items are cheaper per ounce than their prepackaged counterparts. For example, at Whole Foods, organic steel-cut oats cost 6 cents per ounce when purchased bulk compared with 10 cents per ounce when packaged; almond butter costs 31 cents per ounce bulk and 44 cents per ounce in a jar; and crystallized ginger costs 37 cents per ounce bulk compared with 68 cents per ounce packaged. If you purchased standard amounts of each of these items, you’d pay half the amount (saving nearly $6) by going with bulk. Spices are particularly good buys, says Litjen. “Customers can purchase just about any spice at about a fraction of the price it would cost bottled.” Plus, he adds, if you only need 1 tablespoon of a spice you’ll use once, why waste $5 to $10 on a whole bottle?
  • Variety. One of the myths of shopping bulk is that you’ll sacrifice variety. In fact, the opposite is often true. Many stores carry a wider variety of items, such as granolas and grains, in bulk. “We also carry a lot of alternative grains in bulk for people who want to be wheat-free,” says Chris Jordan, assistant store director at the Greenlake PCC Natural Market in Seattle, the largest natural food cooperative in the United States. And at some stores, including PCC, staples, such as dried beans and trail mixes, are available only in bulk. Some stores have so many bulk products to choose from it can be overwhelming. PCC, for example, carries more than 300 bulk items, while Whole Foods carries more than 600. Many shoppers aren’t aware that they can also buy specialty items in the bulk-bin section, such as whole-wheat pastry flour, biscotti, and spiced nuts, without all the fancy (and expensive) packaging.
  • Quality. You may also have wondered about the freshness and overall quality of bulk items. At PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods, the majority of bulk products are identical to their packaged counterparts. Plus, explains Litjen, “we go through so much product that freshness is the same if not better than in the package.” Many bulk items are sold so quickly that bins are completely renewed in anywhere from a couple hours to—at most—a week, says Jordan. Granted, not all stores have the foot traffic of a large Whole Foods store, but even smaller stores have a good way to ensure bulk-bin products don’t go stale. “Bins are designed to fill from the top and dispense through the bottom,” says Litjen. This means there is a natural progression of older product being sold before newer product. As for bins that use scoops, they aren’t refilled until empty, explains Jordan, so there’s never any old product sitting on the bottom.

In 2000, 32.2 percent of solid waste in America consisted of containers and packaging. Earth-friendly. Of course, for many environmentally conscious shoppers, the most important benefit of shopping bulk is the reduction in packaging waste. Despite the dramatic increase in the amount of recyclable food packages during the last few decades, packaging is still a significant contributor to the planet’s landfills. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2000, 32.2 percent of solid waste consisted of containers and packaging—about 74,730 thousand tons—including those from food products. Plus, recycled or not, packaging costs energy and resources in its manufacturing. “Think about all the boxes and cartons that are in the grocery aisles,” says Jordan. “All that gets thrown away once you use the products.”

Bulk-bin How-tos

Step One: Get to know the bulk aisle. If you’ve never shopped for bulk items before, it’s helpful to get to know your local aisle first. Some stores will even give tours upon request. Most bulk aisles are arranged in logical categories—snack items in one area, baking items in another—so it should not be too baffling. Note that you probably will come across some unusual items.

For example, you’ll be happy to learn that those little black shriveled things are not, in fact, bits of shredded car tire but are hijiki seaweed. And that mysterious grainlike item that looks like chicken feed? It’s actually quinoa—a South American plant seed renowned for its high protein content.

As you’re wandering the aisles, it helps to keep the following questions in mind: What grocery items that you normally buy packaged can you replace with bulk? What specialty items does the store carry in bulk for your occasional needs? Are some bulk items stored in a separate area, such as the cosmetics aisle or a refrigerator?

Next, it’s time to do some price comparisons (see “The Scoop on Best Buys” for tips) and gather a few samples. Yes, some stores will allow you to sample from the bins, while others prefer you purchase a small amount to try, so ask an employee about store policy. And if you’re not sure what you might like, ask. “We love to give recommendations,” says Litjen.

Step Two: Prepare at home. Successful trips to the bins actually start before you leave home. Most bulk aisles will provide plastic bags, but collecting and reusing bags from other trips gives you the satisfaction of further reducing packaging waste. Try keeping a stash of reusable plastic bags inside your cloth grocery sacks so they’re always on hand. Also, keep in mind that store-bought containers for nut butters or oils usually cost extra, so consider bringing your own, such as glass jars or plastic containers with airtight lids. (To optimize cupboard storage space at home, use square rather than round jars.)

It’s also helpful to keep a running list of items you’re out of, so you won’t forget what you need when you’re confronted by the wall of grains, flours, nuts, candies, dried fruits, and cereals. And, if you’re shopping for a specific recipe, be sure to jot down the amounts you need before you get to the store.

Step Three: Ready, set, shop. It’s time to hit the store—but before you start shopping, have your empty containers weighed at customer service or by a cashier. They’ll write down their tare (empty) weight on a piece of tape or label. That way, when you return to the register with filled containers, you pay only for the weight of the product itself.

Now, you’re ready for the bins—but what about those awkward levers and scoops? If you’re afraid you’ll make a mess, “be bold and ask for help,” encourages Jordan from Seattle’s PCC. “It’s much easier than you think it’s going to be.”

“Some customers do have a hard time with the peanut butter and the scoop bins,” says Litjen. “Others don’t know how to work the dispensers and get stuff all over the floor.” Just keep the following in mind: If you’re using a dispenser be sure your bag is in the right place to catch the product. Then, pull the lever gently for a slow release. Also, when obtaining items that don’t have a specific scoop attached to them (such as spices) make sure that you are using a scoop labeled “organic” for organic products. This keeps organic products contaminant-free. Finally, use a pen to write the product number of the item you’ve chosen so the checkout clerk will know how to charge you for your purchase (see “How to shop like a bulk-bin pro”).

And remember that in the bulk section, the old adage “haste makes waste” is particularly true. “One of the biggest pet peeves we have here at Whole Foods is people taking product out of the bin, deciding not to buy it, and leaving it there,” says Litjen. That product ends up in the trash, he explains, because they can’t put handled food back in the bins for health reasons. The lesson? Come to the bulk aisle prepared, knowing the items you want. And take the time to be sure you’re pulling the right lever.

Be a smart shopper

Despite its boons, shopping the bulk bins does have a few downsides. It can make shopping a bit more time-consuming, you have to remember to bring the right containers with you to the store, and you won’t have a convenient recipe to follow off the side of the package once you get home. Also, some people with allergies fear bin contamination or mislabeling. These fears are largely unfounded, says Jordan. Scoops are generally attached to their bins (so there isn’t any cross-contamination from bin to bin) and stores are very careful about stocking. “I’ve been working here since 1996,” says Jordan, “and no one has ever [reported] an allergic reaction from a bulk item.”

It’s also worth noting that a few bulk products actually aren’t cheaper—they may even cost more. You need to do your homework to know if you’re getting a good deal. For example, at Whole Foods, organic white basmati rice costs the same in bulk or packaged—9 cents per ounce; organic whole-wheat spaghetti costs 12 cents per ounce in the bins and only 7 cents packaged; and pecan halves are 44 cents per ounce in the bins versus 36 cents packaged.

However, in the long run, shopping bulk will almost always be best for your pocketbook, and it’s certainly best for the already-burdened environment. So go ahead and give your bulk aisle a try. Before long you’ll be a bulk-bin geek, too.