Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Musings: The Bulk Section of the Grocery Store

When I needed some Grade B maple syrup, I remembered that I'd seen it in the bulk section of a local store. In the back of my mind was the mantra "bulk is better." I was feeling good about buying in bulk instead of buying something pre-packaged until I was actually dispensing the syrup into one of the provided plastic bottles.

Then the dispenser dribbled and spit and I got syrup on my hands. Wiping the goo off my hands, I asked myself, "How is this any better than buying a similarly-sized prepackaged container?"

I'd never taken the time to think about why so many people thought that the products in the bulk bins at the supermarket were better than their pre-packaged counterparts. And were they better, really? For whom?

There was a store in Chicago that sold almost everything from bulk bins and I loved the place. But what I loved most about it was that I could buy odd items that weren't sold in most grocery stores, like unusual flours and grains. But the bulk section of the grocery stores I shop at now aren't that comprehensive or exotic. I can find the same things on the store shelves. Sometimes I buy from the bulk section, sometimes I buy the same things prepacked. Often, there is no logical reason for my choice on any particular day.

But as I was trying to get the stickiness off the outside of the bottle, I was looking at the bulk bins and the bags, tags and scoops, I started thinking more about it. When is bulk better? Why? When does it make sense for me to choose one over the other?

A lot of people say that buying in bulk is better for the environment. I agree, if you're talking about buying a 10-pound bag of something instead of a thousand indvidually wrapped pieces. But is the bulk section at the grocery store really saving the environment? You're buying from a bulk bin, but you're not buying bulk quantities, most likely.

When I looked at the array of empty bottles that customers could fill with the maple syrup, agave, and honey, I wondered how that was any sort of environmmental benefit. In terms of shipping, the empty bottles and the bulk syrup were shipped separately, so there was no savings there. And then, if people didn't fill their bottles all the way, more plastic bottles were used than if the producer had filled them full.

So it cost more in fuel to ship it all, and there probably was more plastic used for the bottles, and then there was whatever container the bulk syrup arrived in. Overall, it seemed worse for the environment rather than better. If this was a co-op and you could bring your own gallon jug and fill it, that would be different. But this was a grocery store that expected you to use their clean, new containers.

For me, it wasn't such a great deal either. There wasn't enough syrup left the bulk dispenser to fill the container, but I had no way of knowing that until the flow sputtered and stopped when my bottle was about half full. So in the end, I had to buy prepackaged syrup anyway, along with my half-bottle of bulk syrup.

Okay, but that's just liquids. Most of the bulk section is dry stuff, like grains, beans, nuts, candy, snacks...and then there are some spices that are sold bulk. How do those fare in terms of being better?

Let's start with the environmental issues. The way I see it, it all depends on the packaging. If the prepackaged product is normally overpackaged in nonrecycleable materials, then bulk is better for the environment.

If the packaged product comes in a plastic bag and you're putting the bulk item in a plastic bag, which bag is better? Maybe at that point it depends on the amount of plastic per pound of product. So if you fill that bulk bag, it's environmentally better than if you're buying a small amount of product. As far as when it tips from bad to good, someone else can do that math.

What about prepackaged items that come in fully-recyclable containers? Is that better than the non-recycleable bags in the bulk section?

It might also depend on what you do with that bulk product when you get it home. Those bulk bags are thin, so I suspect that unless you're buying only what you'll use immediately, you'll tranfer the product to your own container. If that container is reusable, like a canister or a jar, then flimsy bag is the only waste. But if you're transfering the product to another plastic bag, then the environment isn't winning anything in that bulk purchase.

So, since the environmental winner depends on so many variables, I'm going to call that a tie.

But is bulk better for the consumer? The two main reasons I've heard people say they like bulk better is that it's fresher and they can buy exactly as much as they need.

First, the "fresher" issue. Here we have another "it depends." If the product gets purchased more often in the bulk section than in the prepackaged form, then the bulk stuff might have come from the distributor more recently. It also depends on how big that bulk bin is. But if more people buy the packaged product, then that might be newer from the distributor.

But determining when the truck arrived at the store doesn't tell you how fresh it really is. For example, if you're dealing with agricultural items, they might be harvested once a year, So the dried beans I bought today might be from the same harvest as the beans I bought three months ago. They might have just arrived at the store recently, but they were in storage somewhere since they were harvested, and there are probably a lot more beans in storage that will last until the next harvest.

Some agricultural products might be harvested at different times of the year in different parts of the world. But still, it's not like there's a new crop of navy beans every week.

For manufactured products like dried noodles, there's a greater chance that a newer batch at the store might have been manufactured more recently. But dried noodles don't go stale that fast, so whether the noodles were from the most current batch or the previous one probably doesn't make a difference. And whether the bulk noodles or the packaged ones are newer would be hard to determine. I mean, really, if you look at two dried noodles, could you tell which one was a week or two older? Or even a month or two? And if they're constantly refilling the bins, do you even know if all the noodles are from the same batch? Does it matter?

For things where freshness really does matter, like spices, it still depends on how fast that bulk container gets emptied and refilled, and you're still dealing with an agricultural crop that might only be harvested once a year. If no one is buying the bulk spice, that stuff could be sitting in the bin a lot longer than the jarred spices that are restocked regularly. Another problem that I see with bulk spices is that optimum storage is in a dark place, and those bulk bins are usually clear. Jarred spices at the front of the shelves get some light, but the ones behind are partially in the dark.

Also, there's a reason some products are packaged in vacuum-sealed containers or in bags with nitrogen pumped in, instead of oxygen: the lack of oxygen keeps those items fresher longer. Bulk containers aren't sealed, so the bulk items go stale faster. So the bulk items need to be sold at a faster rate than their sealed counterparts, just to break even in the freshness category. Of course, if the item isn't affected by exposure to oxygen, it doesn't matter.

So as far as freshness, we have another "it depends," or maybe more accurately, "no one can tell," so I'll call it another tie.

Next, we've got the idea that you can buy as much as you want. In general, people say that when they're talking about buying small quantities. For some people that may be important, but to be honest, there aren't too many things that I'd have a problem with buying more than a particular recipe would need. Most food items I use over and over again in different recipes. I suppose if it was an odd or expensive item, it would be nice to buy a couple tablespoons to test it, but that doesn't happen often, and those things are never in the bulk aisle, anyway.

I can see that if you're on an extremely tight budget or you have no storage space, or you don't want to invest in a whole bag of quinoa before you've tried a little bit, it might be nice to buy exactly enough for a recipe. But since there aren't measuring spoons and cups in the bulk section, chances are that people are overbuying anyway. Maybe not by a quart or a pound, but most people aren't going to accurately estimate a half-cup of something that a recipe requires.

So, as far as the ability to buy a variable quantity, I can see how some people would appreciate it. It's not important to me, personally, but I'll give the "win" to the bulk section, just because so many people have told me that it's convenient for them.

Now, I have a few personal quibbles about the bulk section.

First, some of those bins are open to everyone and their children. It's not a huge issue, and it depends on the product, but it's still something I think about at certain stores. Dried beans or rice that I'm going to rinse aren't as worrisome as that bin of prunes with a scoop in it. The bins that dispense instead of requiring scooping are much better, but still not perfect in terms of general cleanliness.

My next quibble is that when you're buying bulk, you don't really know where the product has come from. So if there's a problem with your particular batch, you don't know who to blame. Did the store mishandle, or was it the manufacturer? How do you avoid the problem in the future? Will the bulk item at another store be from the same distributor? If the product was great last week, how do you know it will be just as good this week?

Also, if there's a recall, it's a lot easier to figure out if you've got the affected product if you've got the manufacturer's packaging. If you buy bulk products from one store, you can find out if that store or chain had the bad product. But if you buy your bulk products from several different stores, would you really remember where the oatmeal or the peanuts came from two weeks ago? I sure wouldn't.

Last, since store employees are filling the bins, I sometimes wonder how often similar products get mixed up. Regular basmati rice looks just like the organic, and bread flour looks just like all purpose flour. And the bread flour looks a lot like the rice flour, spelt flour and oat flour, too. The rice mixup wouldn't make a difference in cooking, but trying to make a loaf of bread entirely out of rice flour would be interesting. I doubt those sorts of things happen often at stores, but they probably do happen.

So the total score is a some ties, a win for the bulk section, and some quibbles against the bulk section. I'm calling it a tie overall. Bulk isn't bad, but it's not always better for everyone and the environment, either. If it works for you, go for it. For me, if I need Grade B maple syrup again, I'll look for it in a bottle before I buy in bulk. As far as the rest of it, it really depends.