A Zero Waste Project: Shopping at the Co-op

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 The Willimantic Co-up allows customers to submit requests of bulk orders and pick them up at the bulk section of the store. Buying in bulk not only helps reduce waste but also supports the local community. Photo courtesy of Alex Houdeshell.

As several of my previous articles have already touched on, waste from food transportation and packaging is a huge obstacle to zero waste. Unless you live on a farm and grind your own flour and milk your own cows, sometimes it seems impossible to eliminate packaging. Within the zero waste community, the most common solution is shopping from the bulk section: Some grocery stores have a “bulk aisle,” that allows you to buy certain foods by weight, carried out in your own containers. Obviously, not every store can boast a bulk section; mostly they’re found in stores like Whole Foods or cooperative grocery stores. 

Lucky for me, it turns out we do have a relatively local co-op here in northeastern Connecticut. The Willimantic Food Co-op is roughly a 20-minute drive from the University of Connecticut, and although it’s made some adjustments to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it still features a flourishing bulk aisle. 

What’s a co-op? 

To begin, what does it mean to be a cooperative grocery store? Most businesses are owned by individuals, families, corporations and private investors, so profits can cycle back into the hands of a few. A cooperative business is collectively owned and controlled by customers and workers, meaning any profits go to those who are directly interacting with the business and its products. Because of this, co-ops liberally cycle money back into local communities, rely more on locally-sourced products and operate with stronger community-based values. This has several implications for zero waste living. 

Why make this swap? 

Not only does buying in bulk at a co-op allow you to eliminate packaging, but shopping local also eliminates waste accrued through transportation and storage of food products, lowering food miles and carbon footprints. The Willimantic Food Co-op features a number of local products, especially local produce. 

Plus, I find the values espoused by co-ops, like “autonomy and independence” and “concern for community” are some of the same values that drove me to zero waste. Caring about the people around you isn’t a far cry from caring about the planet. 

What I did 

Packed paper packages of beans and coffee from the bulk section of the Willimantic Food Co-op. Photo courtesy of Alex Houdeshell.

I made my first trip to the Willimantic Food Co-op just to scope things out. Because of COVID-19, their bulk section isn’t currently self-serve. Instead of bringing in your own containers to fill, customers write the amount of which items they want on a slip of paper which they drop in a basket. A staff member then reads the slip and puts the requested items in a paper or plastic bag. Unfortunately, this means the process isn’t fully zero waste right now. On the bright side, paper packaging is at least fully recyclable or compostable as opposed to any plastic packaging you might be getting at Price Chopper. Plus, buying in bulk generally reduces packaging from single-serving-sized packages. For example, if you buy several pounds of beans at the co-op, you end up with one paper package you can easily compost or recycle as opposed to several aluminum cans. 

In regular non-pandemic times, the process is much simpler. You bring in your own container (like a mason jar), weigh it to find out the “tare” weight, write that weight on the jar in Sharpie, fill it with however much you want of a specific item, and then when you check out the store employees measure the combined weight of the jar and the food, subtract the tare weight written on your jar and charge you for the difference. 

Bulk sections will normally include things like grains, oats, beans, rice, nuts and baking supplies. The Willimantic Food Co-op has laminated lists of all the items you could use to make your request slips. 

What this means for you 

If you’re living in an apartment on or near campus and you have access to a car, I recommend looking into buying from the co-op. While many items are more expensive than your typical grocery store, the bulk items are decently priced, and it isn’t any further than Walmart. Even if you don’t do all your shopping at the co-op, making a trip when you run out of some of those bulk items, like flour or rice, could do wonders to reduce waste in your life, and let you give yourself a nice pat on the back for supporting the local community. 

Coming up next: DIY cleaning supplies 

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