The Pros, Cons, and Environmental Impacts of Buying in Bulk
Follow along to learn about what we need to know when it comes to bulk buying: pros, cons, environmental impacts, and all.
There’s something particularly exciting about hitting a Costco or BJs on a Sunday afternoon — and no, it’s not for all the free samples. The rows and rows of massive collections of toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, and the largest bottle of Heinz ketchup known to humankind give the same feeling of safety that zombie apocalypse go-bags do. Just us? Moving right along then… But what does it really mean to buy in bulk instead of just getting things as-needed?
Before we dive in, we need to first make an important distinction between different types of bulk items. In this blog, we’re going to be looking at non-perishables (including food and non-food items), but we won’t be talking about perishable items, like produce. Why, you ask? The environmental impact of perishables is very different from that of non-perishables. In the United States, food waste is a huge (and growing!) problem — per capita, food waste has increased by roughly 50% since 1974, and perishable bulk purchases that go bad before eaten don’t seem to be helping.
Take the avocado dilemma, for example. Before you start to think that we’re anti-avocado, it’s worth noting that we would also love to eat avocados on everything from sandwiches, to salads, to toast. If purchased at a wholesale club, we could save up to 20% on all the avocados we might need. But, since we don’t each have a family of 12 ready to nosh on toast all day, upwards of 40% may go bad before we could eat them...hence food waste. In the instance of perishables, a study out of Arizona recommends shopping more often in order to waste less. But, for now, we’re talking about stuff that can hang on the shelf “indefinitely” without turning brown.
HERE ARE A FEW PROS AND CONS TO BUYING NON-PERISHABLES IN BULK:
First, the pros...
Pro: Fewer trips to the store
If we were to buy that 15-month supply of trash bags in one fell swoop, we wouldn’t likely be coming back to the store for a while to buy more. A survey from USDA found that in 88% of households, people drive to get to the grocery store, going an average distance of 4 miles. Assuming that each household in the United States makes at least one trip per week (in this instance for more trash bags), that would add up to roughly 42 billion miles, producing more than 17 million metric tons of CO2e (or the yearly emissions of every single activity and purchase of more than 1 million Americans, per year) — just from going back and forth to the grocery store. With a more stock-piled out and back, we would be making fewer trips to the store — which means less fuel and lower emissions. There’s a big asterisk though for this to hold true...you can’t buy enough trash bags to last for more than a year and then still continue to go back to the same store week after week to stock up on laundry detergent and other odds and ends. Moral of the story? If you want to save on fuel (and the related GHG emissions) from buying in bulk, try to stock up on all your household needs in bulk at once. Or bike, walk, or take public transportation when you need more.
Pro: Less packaging
Packaging has both a social and environmental cost. For every $10 spent on products, we’re paying $1 (or 10%) on what those products are packaged in. And, packaging is a huge source of household waste in the United States — roughly 65% of what is thrown away is attributable to packaging, which translates to about ⅓ of what ends up in landfills. While there is more product when we buy bulk, bulk purchases often require less packaging (per use) than their as-needed counterparts. Consider rolls of toilet paper: if each roll is individually wrapped in plastic, then that’s more plastic than a large pack of toilet paper without the individual wrappings. Here’s some quick math to prove the point: The surface area of a pack of 30 rolls is more than 7,200 square centimeters, whereas the surface area of 30 individual rolls is roughly 18,000 square centimeters. That means buying 30 individual rolls of toilet paper produces roughly 2.5 times more plastic waste than buying one huge pack of 30 rolls. Over time and across households, that plastic adds up. Sometimes these products are individually wrapped within the big packages — if that’s the case, there are no real savings on the plastic front.
Pro: Money saved
While it depends on the purchases we’re making, buying in bulk often saves money in the long term. On average, a package that is 10% larger will have a 5% decrease in the unit price. The ‘unit price’ is the cost of each individual item within the larger package as opposed to the larger package itself. Consider diapers, for example. Depending on how many diapers your tot goes through, buying in bulk could lead to savings of roughly 48 cents per day or $175 per year. A 2009 UK study evaluated annual savings across bulk, economy, and standard generic brand sales. They found that bulk purchases saved £224 annually, purchasing items on sale saved £96, standard generic brands saved £50, and economy generic brands saved £25. According to this study, bulk purchases saved nearly 43% more than the following category with the most savings.
Pro: Save on fuel
Bulk items are inherently larger than their standard counterparts; they are commonly defined as the two largest sizes available of any product. In general, products and packages that weigh more require more energy to move — which is why we hear a lot of companies talking about their emissions from transportation and distribution, or what we call the “Moving It” phase. For example, for the average car, every 100 pounds added increases the fuel cost and related GHG emissions by 1-2%. The trend of higher weight leading to higher cost and more fuel persists across all product categories, including liquid laundry detergent, where an average bottle weighs roughly 5.75 pounds and a bulk bottle weighs 9.6 pounds.
But fear not, the average small car weighs 2,600 pounds and the average large car weighs about 4,400 pounds, and most of the emissions from driving come from moving that huge amount of weight around, not from the bulk detergent in the backseat. As long as you are using all the stuff you buy in bulk, and you are reducing the total number of times you need to go to the store for more, you are actually doing better in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Buying in bulk cuts emissions from your car down by about 50%.
Curious to know why? Read on if you’re craving a middle school-style math problem. The average American drives 4 miles each way to the store, with a car that gets, on average, 25 mpg. Let's assume that in one month, you buy stuff in bulk at twice the weight that you would at a normal store, so you are walking out with 200 pounds of stuff, rather than 100 pounds of stuff. This means you only need to take one trip for everything, driving 8 total miles, using up roughly 0.326 gallons of gas, once you account for the added weight. In the second month, you only buy 100 pounds of stuff each time, meaning you head to the store two times, which uses roughly 0.646 gallons of gas. Ta da!
And anyways, bulk is getting...smaller. Introducing…*innovation*. Options like concentrated formulas and water-free products (aka options that remove excess water from the product formulation prior to shipping traditionally liquid products) have been coming to market with the goal of lightening the load and lowering the overall weight of the products we bring home, thereby lowering the emissions and costs from shipping. What does removing the water look like? Next to that giant jug of laundry detergent, you might find detergent tablets, laundry sheets, and more. Shout out to Blueland for being an early disruptor in cleaning products!
Now, the con…
Con: Limited access
While some serious money can be saved from buying in bulk, this isn’t an option available to everyone. There are some financial barriers at play, even from the get-go — annual memberships at Sam’s Club costs $45, $55 at BJ’s, and $60 at Costco. In addition to this membership cost, lower-income households often do not have the storage space, access to transportation, or financial capital to reap the benefits of bulk buying. Transportation is a big one we can’t take for granted — remember when we said you should try to fill a carload? Imagine trying to haul infinite rolls of toilet paper on public transportation or trying to stuff them into a smaller apartment without significant storage space. Many families don’t have access to a car to transport their items. Additionally, more money is required up front to make bulk purchases, even if the savings are significant over the long term. Overall, low-income households are less likely to buy in bulk than higher-income households, although the savings could benefit them more drastically. Seems like there’s an opportunity here for lower-cost subscription services that allow folks to get the benefit of bulk without the upfront cost burden...anyone want to start a business?
THE SKINNY ON BULK BUYING
While we hold our cons close, from fewer trips to the store, to reduced packaging, to innovation and spectacular savings, we stan bulk buying for household items. For those of us lucky enough to a) have a Costco membership (and not just for the famous hot dogs) and b) have access to viable transportation to get to and from, we can breathe a sigh of relief that our membership fees are worth the cost. Even if our purchases can't squeeze into our canvas totes, despite how hard we try.