Buying clubs and ‘zero waste’

In the final years of the last decade, there was a really welcome buzz about ‘zero waste’, rejecting throw-away culture and embracing the principles of reduce – reuse – recycle. Bulk buying clubs have long applied these 3Rs in practice without necessarily using the terminology.

Before Covid-19 hit, ‘bring your own container’ vendors sprouted up widely – outlets and stalls that would sell you a few scoops of beans, rice, oats, pasta or nuts ‘packaging free’. They did so by focusing on sourcing bulk wholefoods available in 20-25kg paper sacks – or smaller pouches in the case of spices and loose teas.

The principle is sound but, of course, saving waste and saving money are not necessarily connected when it comes to buying wholefoods. To cover wages and other costs, zero waste vendors need to add a fair chunk onto the wholesale prices they pay. This is something that non-profit buying clubs can readily avoid, giving them a major advantage on price.

Equally, they can also offer a greater degree of flexibility. Groups using the ‘pop-up wholefoods’ model generally go well beyond sourcing minimally packaged bulk staples to include other everyday items, ranging from tinned tomatoes to toothpaste – and it’s here the zero waste vision has its biggest challenge because so few products truly fit the definition. So, a nut butter jar may be reusable and the glass recyclable, but it may well come wrapped tight in thick plastic with five other jars to make up a ‘six case’ for transportation. Members of buying clubs have the advantage of being able to assess how manufacturers package their products for distribution, not just how they want their products presented on the shelves, thereby gaining a more rounded view of many thorny questions around minimising waste.

Groups can make their own collective decisions about acceptable packaging – they make their own rules and can be selective about which products go on their available for purchase list while offering a wider and more pragmatic range than is possible within the full constraints of ‘zero waste’.

About this site

This site aims to encourage and support the setting up of further bulk buying clubs and small food co-ops in Ireland by sharing the experience of individuals who have operated a ‘pop-up wholefoods’ model over a number of years.