I’ve been reading a lot about Zero Waste these days. (Highly recommended: Edward Humes’ Garbology.) Every zero-waster worth their salt will tell you that buying in bulk is the answer. No more packaging! No waste! Reuse your own container!

It’s great; don’t get me wrong.

But, you have to think. 

The line in the sand that I see drawn a good deal between regular thrifty people and true believers in zero waste is liquids. Liquid products like soap, shampoo, and oils can be very hard to find in bulk. Going out of your way to get bulk soap is some kind of zero waste rite of passage.

I ran across this mythical beast in the wild the other day–the bulk soap dispenser. And it was a commercial gallon-sized, or maybe slightly larger, container of Dr. Bronners. How much waste does it save, exactly, to buy bulk soap from a two gallon bottle, instead of walking around the corner and buying the (readily accessible, no special trips required) one gallon version on the shelf?

Example two: I watched, with my own two eyes, the employees of my local Whole Foods filling the maple syrup dispenser. And what were they using? The half gallon of store-brand syrup in a plastic jug that I could buy off the shelf. Again, how much waste is being saved? How much of it is just being handled by someone else, passing the buck out of your house (and, I might add, your careful recycling)?

Especially if you live in an area where stores frown upon reusable containers, you need to think about the packaging it took to get something into the bulk dispenser and weigh your options. Driving two hours to pump my liquid soap and shampoo from a big plastic bottle into a little glass one, instead of just buying the big plastic bottle myself, is hardly saving the world.


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