Six months ago, I dove into Near-O Waste headfirst, without really looking at the cost. This week, I had time to investigate. For each of our regular grocery items, I listed what we used to spend, and what we spend now (since we’ve eliminated most packaging and many trips to Costco). Then I compared the prices; packaged vs. bulk, old habits vs. new habits, store by store. And I got to refresh some rusty math skills along the way.
We shop at Whole Foods, Costco (although now rarely), two local health food stores called Staff of Life and New Leaf, and some local bakeshops and breweries. I do not have information on any other stores… at least not yet!
On some items, we’re spending less and eliminating packaging:
SPICES: We used to buy our spices in glass jars at Staff of Life. Chili powder, for example, is $5.15 for a 2.08-oz. jar (that’s $2.47/oz.). I can refill that same jar with bulk chili powder for $1.32/oz. Sure, I could buy a 14-oz. jar at Costco for less, but it’s plastic. And I could never use that much chili powder before it went bad. Total savings: 46%
TEA: The organic black tea bags I used to buy locally are $3.15 for a 1.1-oz. box ($2.86/oz.). In bulk at Staff, black tea is $1.50/oz. Total savings: 47%
RICE: I used to buy 2-lb. bags of organic brown rice at New Leaf for $5.49 per bag (that’s $2.74 per pound). That same rice is $1.99/lb. in the bulk bins at Whole Foods. Again, I could buy a 25-lb. sack at Costco and save even more, but that’s almost as ridiculous as the amount of detail I’ve put into this little comparison project. Total savings: 14%
PINTO BEANS: The 15-oz. cans of organic pinto beans I used to buy at the market cost between $2.15 and $3.09, depending on the brand. Dry pinto beans in bulk are $1.79/lb. Total savings: 42%
PEANUT BUTTER: We now buy bulk, organic, grind-your-own peanut butter (in our own glass jar) at Whole Foods for $4.99/lb. I was delighted to discover that the organic jars we used to buy at Costco work out to be $6.56 per pound. Total savings: 23%
SOY SAUCE: A 10-oz. bottle of our favorite soy sauce, Kikoman, is $4.19 (or $0.41/oz.). In bulk (we rinse and refill the original bottle), it’s $3.95/lb. ($0.24/oz.). Again, cheaper at Costco, but packaged in plastic, and it’s restaurant size. Total savings: 41%
MAPLE SYRUP: We rarely use syrup, and therefore I didn’t even bother to check Costco’s price, but bulk is definitely cheaper than bottled at the market ($9.99/lb. at Staff of Life vs. $12.19/lb. (bulk) at Felton New Leaf, $7.99 for a 12-oz. glass jar at Whole Foods, or $11.39 for a 12-oz. glass jar at Staff). Total savings: 33%
SALSA: We used to buy salsa in a plastic tub, either organic Emerald Valley (at $0.24/oz.) or organic Casa Sanchez (at $0.36/oz.). I can make organic salsa in 7 minutes using no packaging. Mine is the cheapest (at $0.20/oz.)! Total savings: 44%
TORTILLAS: The pack of tortillas I used to buy is $2.99 for 6 very small tortillas. Now I make them using this recipe, which calls for about $0.60 worth of flour (bulk price) and $1.48 worth of olive oil (bulk price). That’s $2.08 for twelve tortillas. Big savings, easy to make, and according to my meal plan, I only need a double batch once every three months. Total savings: 65%
COCONUT OIL: We didn’t buy much coconut oil before Near-O Waste. I think I bought it once in a 30-oz. glass jar for $23.69. That works out to be $12.64 per pound. Now we use coconut oil more often and buy it in bulk at Whole Foods for $10.99/lb. My kids love dispensing this one, especially because they get to cozy up to the warm jar. You can get it for half the price at Costco, if you want two huge plastic tubs totaling over 5 lbs. But I don’t. Total savings: 13%
OLIVE OIL: This is another item we use frequently, but pretty slowly. Wherever I go, olive oil’s cheaper in bulk ($5.49/lb. at Whole Foods) than it is in a glass bottle ($7.20/lb.), unless you’re at Costco. Then it’s much cheaper ($3.68/lb.), but it’s in plastic, and there’s so much of it. And it reminds me of motor oil; not so appetizing. We used to buy bottled olive oil at our local market. Now we buy it in bulk at Whole Foods. Total savings: 23%
VANILLA: The teeny tiny 4-oz. bottles of vanilla I used to buy are $8.99 a piece. That’s $35.96 a pound! In bulk, vanilla is “only” $14.95/lb. That still sounds expensive, right? But if I’m filling that little bottle up, it’s only $3.73. How many households really need the 16-oz. bottles at Costco anyway? Total savings: 58%
A few items cost about the same as they used to:
WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR: $4.99 for a 5 lb. sack at Whole Foods or $1.05/lb. in bulk at Staff. I’ve never bought flour in mass quantities at Costco anyway, and wouldn’t start now because of- you guessed it- the packaging!
JAM: We buy jam with no added sugar, and these varieties seem to be roughly the same price at my favorite markets. Costco’s options have added sugar, so we pass on those, except the time I spotted Randall Family (that’s our last name) organic mango preserves. Couldn’t walk away from that.
APPLES, SPINACH, and PRODUCE in general: Thank goodness organic apples cost the same at Staff of Life (loose) as they do at Costco (in a plastic clam shell). The price per pound is only a one cent difference. We used to buy spinach in a plastic tub at Costco for $3.69/lb. It’s much more expensive at a smaller market (a 1-lb. plastic tub is $6.49). My middle-of-the-road solution is loose leaf spinach, tonged by my five-year-old into my cloth produce bag at $4.99 a pound, with no plastic necessary. And I can’t tell you how many times we’ve bought the 2-lb. tub at Costco and it went bad because we didn’t use it fast enough. Fruits and veggies are by far the easiest things to buy without packaging. I shop for organic produce at small markets and farmers markets, where I might be paying more than I would at Costco, but there’s no packaging, and occasional sales I can take advantage of. Sometimes we discover an awesome Near-O Waste deal at Costco, when we make our once-per-season visit, like 6 mangoes in a cardboard box, for cheap! Leave the box at the register, and off you go (see picture above). They’re definitely not local, but they sure are tasty!
BUTTER: The organic, glass-bottled whipping cream I buy at Staff to make butter is cheaper than the organic butter at Costco ($3.59/lb. vs. $3.99/lb.) The downside is that 16 ounces of whipping cream only produces 8 ounces of butter (and 8 ounces of buttermilk). So, in the beginning, the cost is the less, but in the end, I’m technically paying almost double for homemade butter. But I make that money back with the fresh buttermilk that’s leftover for pancakes.
EGGS: I was very disappointed to discover that bulk organic eggs (at $0.39/egg) are more expensive than a dozen in a carton (which are $0.35/egg). New plan: I buy a regular dozen of our local Glaum eggs for $4.29 at Staff of Life (this is a dollar cheaper than the same brand at Whole Foods), then return the carton to the stack at the end of the aisle when I buy a new dozen. Yes, you can get organic eggs for less at Costco, but the cartons are plastic, and I prefer to support a ranch that’s just down the highway.
RAW MEAT: We’ve always bought our raw meat at New Leaf. The only difference now is that the butcher puts it straight into my glass container. Whole Foods will do this too, but Staff of Life will do it and give you a 50-cent discount!
CHEESE: If you read my “Kitchen Accomplished” post, you might remember that cheese is my nemesis. A 2-lb. package of organic cheese is only $9.99 at Costco. When I buy “bulk” cheese from Whole Foods (they will slice a piece off of a wheel and put it in my jar), I’m paying top dollah, like, $17/lb., and it’s not even organic. For the last six months (and the last six years) we’ve been buying packaged cheese at Costco. But I don’t want to rely on Costco that much. My new solution is buying just one package every season and springing for the “bulk” variety if we run out. My kids just decided to like tomato sauce out of the blue, so our pasta can have another option besides cheese sauce. That’s good for the wallet and the waist. Note: Even though cheese “in bulk” is way more expensive than packaged, I am leaving cheese in the “costs about the same” category because I am still buying cheese at Costco like I used to. But if I do buy $17/lb. cheese at Whole Foods, I’ll be paying 240% more. GULP.
CHIPS: We can cut back on chips and salsa, but we just can’t give ’em up. The jumbo bags of organic tortilla chips and Kettle potato chips at Costco work out to be about $1.76/lb. That’s compared to the $4.19/lb. and $6.19/lb. I fork over at The Food Bin for similar chips. When I realized how drastic this particular difference was, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Not to mention that bulk bin chips can be stale, often break when I’m transporting them into my jar, and sometimes I drive all the way across town to discover they’re out of stock. New chip plan: buy one jumbo bag on each Costco trip (4 times a year), and do without in between (or pay a pretty penny across town). Note: Chips are “the same” because we will continue to buy them once per season at Costco, but if we ever need to buy them in the meantime in bulk, we’ll have to pay 194% more. CRUNCH.
On other items, we’re spending *a little more now*, but eliminating packaging:
DELI HAM: I was happy to find that sliced deli ham at New Leaf is only a little bit more than the packaged kind we used to buy at Costco ($11.99/lb. vs. $11.19/lb.). Unfortunately it’s not organic, but it’s fresh, unpackaged, and doesn’t stick together in a disgusting, messy meat-liquid. We’re paying 6% more.
MILK: Our old Costco deal was $6.50 for a gallon of organic milk. Now we buy half gallons of organic Straus in a returnable glass bottle. They’re $4.19 a piece at Staff of Life (or $8.38 a gallon), which is a full dollar cheaper than Whole Foods. So yeah, we’re paying quite a bit more for milk now, but we only go through a gallon + one quart per week, and I love this plastic free, Near-O Waste option. We’re paying 28% more.
YOGURT: Old plan: buy huge plastic tubs at Costco (at only $0.09/oz., they’re definitely a great price). New plan: make my own yogurt, which works out to cost $0.13/oz. This is a pretty affordable option, but if I don’t produce it fast enough (and my starter goes bad) I have to buy a glass bottle at Staff of Life for $0.20/oz. to start my next batch. We’re paying 28% more in the best case scenario (if I’m using my homemade yogurt as the starter), but if I have to buy a glass jar for a starter, that jar costs 120% more per ounce than the Costco tub we used to buy.
BREAD: The organic multigrain bread we used to buy at Costco is $3.50/loaf. Whole Foods sells a sourdough round in a paper bag for $2.99, but it’s not organic. I’ve settled on a local bakery called The Buttery, for sourdough loaves ($3.95) and potato loaves ($4.50). They’re pricier, but delicious, and I like to support our neighborhood shop. (I also love Gayle’s Bakery and Companion Bakeshop, but they’re not in my ‘hood.) We’re paying 12-28% more.
BEER: We used to buy 22-oz. bottled IPA’s, which work out to be $0.18/oz. for the least expensive brands. Now we’re frequenting our local breweries, and buying beer that goes straight from the keg into our growler for about $0.25/oz. We’re paying 38% more. But it’s so fresh!
CEREAL/GRANOLA: This category is just too confusing to compare. There are so many types of granola and cereal, and I can assume without checking that it’s always cheaper to buy them at Costco. We’ve bought cereal at both Costco and New Leaf in the past, but now we get it locally from the bulk bins. I’m pretty sure we’re paying more overall, just not sure quite how much!
COFFEE: I didn’t think Near-O Waste required us to spend much more on coffee… until I did the math. Our old go-to was San Francisco Bay organic rainforest blend at Costco. It’s $17.49 for three pounds (that’s $5.83/lb.). Compare this to the best deal I’ve found in Santa Cruz on bulk coffee beans: $9.99/lb. at Whole Foods. So bummed. The compromise? I buy one bag per season at Costco, and fill in the gaps with more expensive trips to the bulk bins in between. Note: Coffee will cost the same initially, but if we have to supplement at local markets we’ll be paying 85% more.
Unfortunately, a few staples cost *way more* without the package, but we buy them anyway.
OATS: We used to buy the Quaker variety at Costco; a 10-lb. box at $0.89/lb. Now I’m paying $1.49/lb. in bulk at Whole Foods, and *bonus*; they’re organic, which makes up for the price hike. We’re paying 67% more, but oats are still pretty cheap.
PASTA: We used to buy packaged organic pasta at Costco for $1.42/lb. We now buy bulk pasta at Felton New Leaf for $2.99/lb. I don’t mind because it’s still pretty cheap, I only cook pasta twice a month, and I love filling up “Big Mama”. We’re paying 110% more (YIKES!), but pasta’s pretty cheap too.
CASHEWS: By far the most popular nut (seed) in our house. The little buggers are expensive, and especially when they’re organic, but that’s a must! I buy them in bulk at Staff of Life, which sells them for much less ($13.79/lb.) than Whole Foods ($15.99/lb). And we try to eat them s.l.o.w.l.y. Costco sells them for $5.99/lb. in a plastic jar (we used to buy these) but they’re not organic, so that’s no longer an option! We’re paying 130% more. OUCH. But I’ve set the maximum at one medium jar per month to cut down on the cash we spend on cashews.
HONEY: Oh, Honey. You are so sweet. But you are so much cheaper in the plastic bottle at Costco ($2.88/lb.)! I will keep paying more for you in bulk though ($6.39/lb. at Staff of Life), because I don’t like plastic, and I love the way you ooze out of the dispenser into my jar. And we really don’t use you that much, so you’re worth the extra cost, Honey. We’re paying 121% more. STING!
BAGELS and CREAM CHEESE: Bagged bagels at Whole Foods work out to be $0.54 each and (non-organic) cream cheese in a plastic tub is $0.24/oz. Our local shop, The Bagelry, sells (non-organic) cream cheese (they scoop it into my glass jar) for $0.41/oz. and the bagels are $0.76 each. We’re paying 40% more for bagels and 70% more for cream cheese, but we only buy them occasionally.
IN CONCLUSION: Many of the items that we’re spending less on are items we buy frequently. Some of the more expensive items are things we don’t buy often (or items we’ve cut back on), and vice versa. It’s hard to find a black and white answer, but I think amid all the higher prices and lower prices, the amount we spend on groceries has stayed roughly the same.
People who shop at Costco and don’t buy organic are probably spending less than me. But my goal has been to eliminate as much packaging as possible, and limit my contribution to the pollution of our soil and waterways. Despite our complex desire for less waste, organic produce, natural ingredients, affordable prices, and supporting local business, I’ve created a reasonable Near-O Waste grocery plan that works for our family.
THE TRUE SAVINGS:
While our grocery spending seems to be about the same, we’re saving a lot of money on kitchen items we no longer buy. Ziplock bags, saran wrap, and aluminum foil have been replaced with glass and metal storage containers and Bee’s wrap. Sponges and surface wipes have been replaced with wash cloths and rags. Paper towels have been replaced with cloth napkins. We will never have to spend money on these things again! We’ve also stopped buying plastic-bottled sparkling water and disposable dinner ware (plates, utensils, etc.). And we don’t buy juice.
And then there’s the huge favor we’re doing for our bodies, the planet, and the future of our children. We’re eating real, unprocessed food, helping to create soil for our vegetable garden, putting a lot less trash into the landfills, using less of the energy that recycling requires, and not contributing (as much) to the production of plastic. Hopefully, we’re inspiring other people to think about their choices too.
MY PERSONAL SHOPPING GUIDE:
What I buy at Whole Foods in bulk: Peanut butter, coconut oil, olive oil, oats, brown rice (+ coffee and cheese *if* we run out of the Costco pack).
What I buy at Staff of Life in bulk: spices, tea, soy sauce, dry beans, flour, vanilla, cashews, and honey. Also whipping cream in a glass jar (to make butter), milk in a glass jar, and yogurt in a glass jar *if* I’m in need of a starter. Plus Glaum eggs in a one-dozen carton (return carton when I need to buy more eggs). I buy raw meat here for the 50-cent “bring your own container” discount.
What I buy at New Leaf: Bulk maple syrup and bulk pasta (Felton store only). The raspberry granola at the Boulder Creek store is the only kind I’ve found that’s both organic and honey sweetened (instead of sugar-sweetened). I also buy deli ham from the sandwich counter. Unfortunately, if it’s already been sliced, the portions are pre-wrapped in plastic. Annoying. But if you ask your server to remove the plastic, at least it’s not going in your garbage! I buy raw meat here sometimes too, but there’s no discount.
What I buy at Costco: If you saw how much we used to buy at Costco, this is a drastic improvement. As of 2015, we only go once every three months, and our list includes: one package of organic cheese, one bag of coffee, one bag of chips (tortilla or potato), and three prized “packaged item compromise” snacks, which might be crackers, cereal, or road trip treats.
Where I buy beer, bread, and bagels and cream cheese: Seabright, Discretion, or Boulder Creek Breweries, The Buttery, and The Bagelry.
For produce, jam, glass-jarred condiments, pasta sauce, and bulk snacks, I get ’em wherever I’m at for the best price I see.
For special treats (cookies, chocolates, and ice cream), I love Gayle’s Bakery, Mackenzies Chocolates, and The Penny Ice Creamery.
This Near-O Waste thing definitely takes a lot of planning and organization. But to me, it’s all worth it!