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Bulk and plastics at the Olympia Food Co-Op

Here today, gone tomorrow?

It may surprise many people that sales in the Bulk Departments at both of Olympia’s Food Co-ops have been in steady decline for many years. Many of the goods that are in bulk can also be purchased packaged —often in plastic—in the aisles. Whatever the reason, the drop in bulk sales has consequences for the planet and may also have consequences for Co-op shoppers.

When we opt for goods individually packaged in plastic, we join the rest of the developed and developing world in contributing to the islands of plastic now floating in our oceans. We have come to rely on this petroleum-based material in almost every aspect of our lives. The downsides from this reliance affect us both environmentally and economically. We are trashing our planet.

Oceans of plastic

Worldwide, 13,000-15,000 pieces of plastic are dumped into our oceans every day. At least 2/3 of the world’s fish stocks suffer from plastic ingestion.
100,000 marine creatures die each year from plastic entanglement.

One million sea birds die each year from plastic ingestion. (Learn more about what is being found in the stomachs of dead albatross at

Plastic is forever

A plastic bottle can last 450 years in the marine environment, slowly fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces—eventually to microscopic—but never truly going away.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, twice the size of France (or Texas), off the coast of California, is a swirling soup of plastic in many sizes, being created by ocean currents (see for more information).

An invasion of plastic

Plastic is literally at our fingertips all day long: Plastic keyboard. Computer monitor. Mouse. Ballpoint pen. Toilet seat. Steering wheel. Beads in facial scrubs and toothpaste. And on and on, and much of this makes its way to our landfills and oceans (for more, see

Turning away from the plastic threat

Deep ecology proponents would have us go to the root of this human issue by asking us to find our way back to our love for the natural world, for our planet, for Gaia. Ultimately, this perspective on our human lives could well save us from possible extinction. In the meantime, however, there are some immediate ways we can walk more lightly.

The Staff Collective at the Olympia Food Co-op takes this challenge seriously, and has chosen to focus on how store operations can contribute to a more sustainable world as a primary theme for this coming year. There are numerous ways to address this issue, but in terms of plastic use at the Co-op, we opt to encourage our members to shop in the Bulk Department as much and as often as possible. We can reuse our own containers—preferably glass and biodegradable bags—repeatedly. By doing so, we contribute to the move away from insidious packaging materials.

How much time do we have?

It is possible that time, or more precisely lack of it, has become one impediment to purchasing in bulk. It takes more time to shop in the bulk aisles. After a long day of work, with daylight hours short and hungry children to feed, or even just needing to feed ourselves, taking the time to bring in containers, or find recycled ones in the store, weigh their tares, scoop-out or pour-in product, write down PLUs and take them to the register, might be just too much.

To counteract this, one staff member at the Eastside Bulk has found that if she packages some of the more snacky items, they fly off the shelves—symptom of a trend in member shopping happening at other co-ops. “Grab and Go” is becoming more and more popular. Yet we want to do our part to lessen our footprints on the planet, yes? We also appreciate the money we save by bulk shopping. What a dilemma!

Buying bulk means more than just avoiding plastic

An even more pressing concern is that with bulk sales dropping so drastically compared to other departments, a bulk reset may be needed in our stores. In order to move bulk product at the Co-op in a timely manner, and to help mitigate the financial loss caused when fewer of us buy in bulk, there may be a reduction in the kinds of commodities offered. Adjustments will be made for items that do not move well.

Our bulk managers are constantly working to keep a variety of staples in stock, at the best price and quality possible, while also working to maintain more interesting variety. But ultimately we make the decisions necessary for the Co-op to function in a financially sustainable manner.

In the end, toward what end

In the end, each of us must examine our own shopping habits and determine how best we can do our part in controlling the flow of plastics into our world. Whether you shop at the Olympia Food Co-op, or at any of the many markets that now supply us with organic, and sometimes local, products, it’s vitally important to be aware of how much plastic we bring home in our shopping bags. There are ways to minimize our contribution of plastics to the landfill that can help end the trashing of our planet — bulk purchasing in reusable containers is certainly one of them.

Desdra Dawning is a member of the board of the Olympia Food Co-op with a degree in creative writing. Her work appears in the Co-op Newsletter and has also been published in Works in Progress.

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