Here’s another quick way to make your lifestyle and your wallet a little bit greener: Buy groceries in bulk.
Packaging takes energy and resources to manufacture, which means the more of it you use, the bigger your environmental footprint will be.
Energy and resources take money, which means the more packaging you use, the more money you end up spending on stuff that isn’t really doing you any good.
You can reduce the amount of money, energy and resources you waste on packaging by purchasing basics in bulk whenever possible. Most health-food stores have a large assortment of bulk items, and in recent years, a lot of mainstream grocery stores have added a bulk aisle, too.
If you buy in bulk, you’ll need two things: reusable storage containers and common sense.
Paper bags — which fold up neatly when you’re done with them, making them easy to save and reuse — are good for bringing dry, oil-free bulk goods home from the store. (Choose plastic bags or those lightweight, disposable-but-reusable Ziploc containers to haul stuff like nuts, sunflower seeds or dried fruit, which can stain paper bags.)
Once you get your products home, however, you’ll need to transfer them into something sturdy that seals well for long-term storage. I’m a giant fan of Mason jars (which are cheap) and OXO canisters (which aren’t). If you don’t want to spend any money on containers at all, you can save glass jars with screw-on lids and use them to store bulk food.
You’ll also need a little common sense and restraint. When you’re staring at a wall of bins full of colorful beans and seeds and noodles, it’s tempting to buy umpteen pounds of each, but keep in mind that some products keep better than others, and buy only what you can eat before it spoils. You’re not really helping the environment — or your bottom line — if you buy six pounds of vegan gardenburger mix or 12-bean soup, only to end up throwing it out when you discover it doesn’t taste as good as you’d hoped or it takes longer to prepare than you’d expected.
As a general rule of thumb, I buy only one or two servings’ worth of unfamiliar products so I can try them and make sure I’ll like them before I commit to several pounds. Dry beans, rice and pasta will keep for years as long as they’re not exposed to moisture. Flour keeps pretty well, although you do have to protect it from grain moths; to be safe, I generally don’t buy more than a couple of pounds at any one time, and if possible, I keep it in a sealed container in the freezer. Trail mix, nuts, dried fruit, oils, herbs, tea and coffee spoil much faster: Nuts and oils will go rancid; fruits will get tough as they age; and highly aromatic products such as herbs, tea and coffee will begin to lose their favor the minute they’re harvested, so buy them in very small amounts to ensure you use them up while they’re still fresh.