Embrace the Risk: Shop With Recycled Containers

If, like me, you are awash in reusable cloth shopping bags, you no longer choose between paper and plastic. It feels good. But, like me, you probably still fill those totes with new plastic packaging at every trip to the store. Isn’t there an alternative?

Colin Beavan thought he had figured one out. In his book, No Impact Man, he describes walking to Integral Yoga Natural Foods in New York’s Greenwich Village, his totes loaded with pre- weighed recycled containers for his rice, peanut butter, and other bulk purchases. He goes to check out, expecting admiration and praise. Instead, the cashier sighs and rolls her eyes.

It was one of many moments when Beavan asked himself whether his experiments were noble or merely ridiculous. Across the country, though, unbeknownst to Beavan, the Good Food Store in Missoula, Montana, was ready for and in fact two steps ahead of him.

For some years, the Good Food Store has not only has encouraged customers to bring in used jars and containers, but even made it into a convenience. Drop your containers into a special bin and the store will sort and sterilize them, mark them with their packaging weight, and arrange them on a shelf for other shoppers to use (see photo above). Voila! This reduces the consumption of new plastic or glass and creates a sense of collaborative conservation among the customers—all for the low cost of remembering to put your recycling into a bag. (Which I hope you do anyway!)

Is this simple practice scalable to our nation’s largest grocers? A Whole Foods representative tells me no. He points to local health codes that prohibit the use of reusable containers. The fear is that contaminants might transfer from the mouth of a container to the spout of a bulk bin. Presumably, even if Whole Foods sterilized donated containers, it could not guarantee that cracks in the containers weren’t harboring pathogens. In what may be an inconsistent policy, however, the representative says that Whole Food customers are welcome to bring in used plastic and paper bags for their bulk goods purchases.

I called my own city health department in Columbia, Missouri, for the low down. The inspector said that nothing in our local food codes explicitly addresses any of this, but only because it hasn’t come up. “If we knew people were bringing their own containers, we probably wouldn’t let them.” As far as a store sterilizing donated containers goes, “we would have to consult with the State.”

Instead of calling the State, I simply biked down to Clover’s Natural Market with three big yogurt containers and a couple of glass jars. (Tip: The lightweight clamshell packages aren’t as useful—the ones I had originally intended to bring warped in the dishwasher.) The yogurt manufacturer, Nancy’s, had even provided a space on each container for me to mark with a re-purpose.

I handed my containers to the long-haired cashier and asked him if he could mark them with the packaging’s weight (known as the “tare” weight). “Uh, sure,” he said. After conferring with a colleague, he figured out how to note the tare and how it would be discounted upon checkout. Clearly this doesn’t happen every day at Clover’s, but nobody rolled their eyes. In fact, they were very sweet about it.

There may be some health risks associated with reusing containers, but surely they pale in comparison to many practices that are allowable and even encouraged in our food stream (including using canvas shopping bags, which most people wash infrequently). My advice: You already reuse tote bags… why not reuse containers, too? Let the health codes catch up after this becomes common practice.

For more ideas about reducing packaging in our food stream, check out the Plastic-Free Guide and this complaint about Trader Joe’s packaging practices.

Jake Giessman is a teacher in Columbia, Missouri, and a guest blogger for the Center for a New American Dream.

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I live in KC and skip across the border to Whole Foods in Kansas for my bulk food— apparently the laws are a bit more lax in the Sunflower State. in Missouri, I’ve tried to use my own containers in a couple stores, but the confused looks and inconsistant conclusions about my jars gave way to a manager quoting the health department. The more we demand change, the faster we’ll get it! Let’s write (not email… WRITE) to the CEO’s of grocery stores and tell them they need to furnish sanitized containers for bulk needs. Just look at glass jars for milk— TONS of people buy their dairy, bring the jars back to the store, and keep the cycle moving. Why not do this with meat, cheese, and bulk items? would be a great place to start a petition to persuade the CEO of a specific store to “go green.”

Posted by Caitlin at February 20, 2013 at 8:57pm

As a happy Good Food Store customer, I’m delighted to see this shout-out for this wonderful program. I’m grateful for it every single time I shop and am really puzzled by those who don’t take advantage of it. The best part is when you get home—you just put things away and don’t have to waste time decanting things into the storage containers (and spilling things). This program is even more important since we don’t have glass recycling.

Posted by Jodi at October 27, 2012 at 6:23pm

What a good idea! I had a long talk with a deli manager at Whole Foods who gave the explanation you cited in this article – contamination and health code issues. What if many of us suggested this to Whole Foods- and maybe wrote them at corporate? Could we start some kind of campaign? I think we should have the choice of bringing our own containers and should even get a discount for not using theirs.

Posted by Dale S. Brown at October 26, 2012 at 11:34pm

Once upon a time, I used to bring my own containers to Whole Foods. They were weighed at customer service, then I filled them with honey and maple syrup and other bulk goods. I assumed this was available at every Whole Foods.

Any potential worries about the cleanliness of the containers could easily be addressed by offering customers information (post something right by the bulk goods, have it on the website, etc.) or asking them to sign a waiver. I’m quite satisfied that my glass jars, washed and put in the dishwasher, are just fine for me.

Posted by Elizabeth at October 25, 2012 at 1:12pm

Well, sounds like your next step should be to see how the Good Food Store is getting around or working with the health code laws in their area, then see why they couldn’t be applied to your own area.

Posted by Good idea at October 25, 2012 at 9:24am

I used to be a cashier at a health food store that has since been bought out by whole foods. It was rare but not unheard of that we’d get someone in reusing jars and asking me to weigh them (which was easy, actually). Unfortunately, our local Whole Foods doesn’t have much in the way of bulk and their major competitor, Vitamin Cottage, pre-packages their “bulk” into individual servings, which maybe is cheaper but otherwise defeats the purpose for most of us. I’m hoping that Trader Joe’s (which is soon going to be built near me – I think it might be the first one in our state) has a better bulk selection. :)

Posted by Wren at October 25, 2012 at 12:22am

This is a great idea for non food items too like shampoo and household cleaning products. I’d love to see stores set up ‘refilling stations’ for all your personal and household cleaners. Think what it would save on packaging and transportation.

Posted by Laurie Lemmlie at October 24, 2012 at 11:06pm

Thanks for sharing this info! I’m glad to hear that at least some small markets are embracing reusable containers for the bulk isle (it may be a very small step, but we’ve got to start somewhere).

I use my mesh reusable produce bags in the bulk isle at Whole Foods and a local market in my area. The mesh on the bags is very fine, so I can use it for most of the things I buy from the bins (steal cut oats, grains, nuts, quinoa, etc.). That way, I don’t have to weigh the container first and I can transfer the food into jars when I get home.

Posted by Felicity at October 24, 2012 at 4:04pm

What is missing is standardized container sizes – 0.5 Liter, 0.75 L, 1.0 L, 1.25 L, 1.5 Liter and so on. Use break-resistant glass (glass + boron) that comes shrink-wrapped (wax paper) in case lots and you’re good to go.

Posted by Scott Kruse at October 24, 2012 at 2:06pm

I attempted to do this at my local grocery store in Portland, OR for the deli counter, and was told by the attendant that it was against the law for her to put the meat and cheese she cut for me in these bags. Disappointing! Maybe in the future this will start to catch on. I’ve heard of this practice in California, so maybe it’s a state by state thing.

Posted by Rachel at October 24, 2012 at 1:46pm

This is such a creative idea! We bring our own containers to the store and our store has started to sell refillable containers that they have pre-programmed the tare weight for. We still have to remember our containers and bags though. It takes an extra few moments, and though anyone could do it, most don’t remember. This would be a great alternative and reminder for folks who might not think about this on their own. And it would be great for those times I was just one bag short!

Posted by Sarah at October 15, 2012 at 11:07pm

I often take my own containers. A program of collecting and sanitizing used jars would take alot of effort. And I doubt a store like Whole Foods would do something like that because it isn’t keeping with their upscale image. Though they could encourage it with a small discount for bringing your own container like they do with bags.

I’ve never had a problem — not even rolling eyes — when I take my own containers or produce bags. Just make sure you get a tare weight on your jar before you fill it. If you’re re-using a plastic bag make sure you use something to block-out the UPC code or you’re likely to get charged for what was in the bag originally.

Posted by Karen Steiner at October 15, 2012 at 9:29pm


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