The problem with facts

Armed with my new zero waste to-do list and a general air of purpose, I hit the grocery store last weekend with my eyes on a particular prize: Bulk laundry detergent.

I kind of hate my laundry room, not gonna lie — it’s boring in there. Plus we’ve got too much stuff we’ve inherited (Goo Gone) or thought we needed (spray stain remover) and it’s a nightmare. Here’s what I look at every time I open the main cupboard; you tell me if this wouldn’t stress you out, too:

I mean, right?

I mean, right?

Let’s see: Aside from the Goo Gone, we’ve got Lysol (I don’t remember buying that …) and bleach. Washing soda, baking powder, I guess that’s not so bad. The 409-looking bottle actually has some kind of homemade cleaner in it, I forget what, though, and that quart jar of white stuff? That’s when I attempted to make DIY castile soap and it was a complete disaster. I need to get rid of it, I just don’t know how.

So you can see how my tiny dream list of just bulk laundry detergent, homemade stain remover, homemade floor cleaner and a scrub brush is but a pipe dream at this point. On the upside, I have plenty of reusable spray bottles. On the downside, I have to actually deal with this mess.

Feeling overwhelmed, kind of forgot where I was going with this, oh, right, bulk laundry detergent.

In my store, the detergent is located between the jars of herbs and spices and the general bulk bins. I’ve also got one choice each of shampoo and conditioner, a couple of body washes, two kinds of dish soap and a lotion. And seven kinds of Dr. Bronner’s liquid castile, though usually I just get either unscented or peppermint. I’m not one for branching out.

I have a glass bottle that I bought years ago at Ikea (the one and only time I’ve ever set foot in that joint), just thinking it looked cool but without any real idea of how I would use it. It’s hard to clean, so I’m not really comfortable putting foodstuffs inside … but hey, soap! What could happen?

It is a pretty rockin' bottle, which is why I haven't managed to get rid of it in any of my minimalist cleaning sprees.

It is a pretty rockin’ bottle, which is why I haven’t gotten rid of it in any of my cleaning sprees.

I guess I should have read more carefully to make sure it's safe to use in my high-efficiency washing machine. Details. So boring.

I guess I should have read more carefully to make sure it’s safe to use in my high-efficiency washing machine. Details. So boring.

This laundry detergent costs 31 cents an ounce. How do I know? Because some nice person already has figured it out for me:

My kind of math.

My kind of math.

I filled the bottle up because I figured what the heck, I’m there, let’s do this thing, and my receipt shows that I purchased 2.25 pounds at a total cost of $11.23.

But how does that stack up against the detergent I usually get? (Fragrance-free, incidentally. I’m not joking when I say I hate manufactured smells.)

About 20-cents per ounce.

About 20-cents per ounce.

I have had a general feeling that it is more expensive for me to buy in bulk than in packaging, and unfortunately in this case, that is correct: I’m essentially paying 11 cents an ounce more for the privilege of bringing in my own bottle. This kind of galls me, I’m not going to lie. One of the arguments for zero waste is that you’re not paying for packaging, and thus your bills are lower.

That is actually a post on my list: Take five general items that I can get in bulk and then price them against packaged. But that day is not today. Mostly because I keep forgetting that is on my list when I’m at the store.

Now, price aside, I guess this detergent is fine. The smell is what I would describe as “very mild lemon,” and my clothes don’t reek of detergent when they come out of the dryer (they just smell like clothes), so we’re calling it a win. I haven’t used it enough to know if it consistently cleans well, and I have no idea how long my bottle will last. Those parts will have to be continued. I guess the good news is that at least this stuff isn’t tested on animals and, um, it only takes a couple of tablespoons to clean a regular load. And my cute jar is cute! And that’s one less package in my cupboard, which doesn’t win the war, but definitely wins a battle.

Just thinking out loud: I do have other options here, such as scoping out the availability of detergent at other stores and/or making my own (although I’m super cool with buying it pre-made. I’ve made laundry detergent before, and it’s a pain on multiple levels). I’ve also been researching soap nuts; maybe that’s another option.

So that’s the state of THAT. Out of curiosity, do you find bulk options in your area to be more or less expensive than their packaged counterparts? Do I need to just accept this as the price of being an environmentalist, or is okay that I’m a big fat whiner over 11 cents? (PER OUNCE. Good lord, I don’t know if I can get over that.)

Next up: A lightbulb moment at the meat counter.

22 Responses to The problem with facts

  1. Another great post! I have used soap nuts for about 3 years and they work really well. No scent but they clean well.

    • That’s good to know. Do you mind if I ask where you get yours / what brand (are their brands?)? I’ve been checking out the organic necessity dot com site, but it looks like there are a lot of options out there.

  2. This is a different Jodi.

    The 11 cents would be hard for me to get over too. The deciding factor for me would be, does the ounce last longer than my previous detergent?

    Maybe watch the sales add to see if it ever goes cheaper? Or does the store ever offer total purchase coupons?

    • Hey there! Starting with a tangent, but my name was also supposed to be Jody / Jodi — but my mother was making out a grocery list when she was four months pregnant with me and wrote down “Trisha,” and that was that. 🙂 (Oh, and sorry, not sure why your comment had to await moderation. Weird.)

      Our natural foods section holds semi-annual “20 percent off everything” sales, so if this stuff does end up taking the day, I will definitely be stocking up! I am hopeful that it lasts longer — that would at least justify it a little more.

  3. I find that even when it’s more expensive to buy in bulk, often the quality is better. I buy olive oil from the big metal vat and it stays much fresher the way it is stored than in the glass bottles on the shelves and it is much higher quality olive oil than most of the stuff on the shelves. At least that’s what I told myself last night when I bought $15 of olive oil and it’s about 50% more expensive than the stuff on the shelf.

    • LOL. I giggle because I can relate! And you make a good point — bulk is often fresher and better quality, and you have the option of buying just what you need. It’s just unfortunate, though, because if the prices were more comparable, more people would opt for bulk vs. packaged. (Thinking of my husband, who is a minimalist for economic reasons, while for me it’s an environmental — and mental, who am I kidding?, I hate clutter — thing.)

  4. I don’t mean this to be a critical type of question, more food for thought and to get others’ opinions on this… You are buying bulk laundry detergent from a 1 gallon jug. I know you are trying to be zero waste, so not bringing that gallon jug into your home is desirable, but does it really count as zero waste when the store has to dispose of that jug? What are the pros & cons of just buying the full gallon jug on your own? (I know it doesn’t look as pretty in your cabinet as the glass bottle 😉 ) I bet it would be cheaper per ounce.

    This is one of the things I struggle with. I actually looked for bulk castille/lotion/etc. the other day and didn’t find it, but now I’m thinking if it is “bulk” in gallon jugs, I would rather just purchase the gallon jug myself and then recycle it when it’s empty. I mean, if I go to the store 2-4 times and refill my container from the jug, it all works out the same, right? (the difference being me vs. the store recycling the jug) The jugs probably arrive at the store in the same amount of packaging. I used to buy CA Baby lotion and body wash/shampoo in gallon jugs…I think I’m going to go back to that method vs. continuing to search for this stuff in bulk since it seems even if I do find it, it will be in gallon jugs.

    • I think practice varies quite a bit from store to store, but at my local health foods store, they return all those gallon jugs to the manufacturer to get refilled.

    • Oh, no, not critical at all — but I’d be cool with it even if it was. It’s good to hear all sides. (And I’m no expert.)

      I think about this as well, and it’s one of the reasons why I believe true zero waste is actually impossible. Yes, I bring my cute bottle (and my jars and bags, etc.), so no packaging is coming home with me, but does that mean my impact is zero when that same detergent had to get to the store in a package? I watch them fill the bins from these huge bags and bottles all the time. And then there is the truck traffic for deliveries … It’s all far from zero waste.

      So it’s a fine line. By getting bulk, I’m voting for no packaging … but to get no packaging, I rely on other people accepting it (in this case, my grocery store). Ironic, right?

      I can see why you’d get the gallon jugs, then, and recycle them yourself. It would be a plus to not have to go to the store all the time to refill your bottles, and at the end, you could reuse it or repurpose it or just make sure it gets into the right bin for recycling.

      I haven’t actually looked to see if gallon jugs of detergent or dish soap or whatever are available to me here. We don’t have a Costco-like store in my area (and to be honest, I am not emotionally stable enough to handle that anyway — I get overwhelmed by too much stuff, thus my minimalist tendencies), so I have to rely on my grocery store. I’m also not big on ordering online. But maybe it is worth looking into … or at least ask how the store recycles / reuses their containers.

      Thanks for the comment! It definitely is food for thought!

  5. Bulk options in my area are just … non-existent. Here in Germany a few bulk-shops have opened lately, but only in big cities and not where I live. Perhaps in 10 years I might be able to buy in bulk.

    So I’m also unsure about DIY projects – I haven’t yet been able to find white vinegar in glass bottles here, for example, because seemingly almost nobody uses it – all other sorts of vinegar one gets in glass bottles, but white vinegar you often don’t find at all or only in plastic. Also washing soda and baking soda are sold in very tiny packages and expensive – or you have to order bigger quantities online in plastic containers. So perhaps I could just as well use the most ecological versions of cleaners I can find and quit trying DIY and zero waste?

    • I think that if you’re using the most ecological versions of what is available to you, then that counts as zero waste. It’s not so much about getting to zero as it is trying to reduce your trash output. Bonus points for trying at all — it would be super hard without bulk options.

  6. I started trying to live more ecological with my food choices, and that seems doable for me, buyng local biological produce is very possible in my area. But reducing waste defeats me somehow. Produce that is not pre-packaged mostly does cost quite a bit more, and for cleaning it doesn’t seem possible at all – bah, I hate that

    About soap nuts: I read somewhere that as more people in the west now use soap nuts, they are more rare and expensive in india or other countries where they grow, so that the people there can’t afford them any more and use chemical cleaners. I have no evidence at hand, but it would be worth looking into.

    • It’s weird that you couldn’t post it as one comment — I’ve written some pretty long ones and that’s never been an issue. I have no idea what’s up with that …

      It’s very easy to get defeated by the whole ordeal — I have struggled with it, too, which is why I’d never gotten very far before starting the project. Again, just do what you can do — buying local, that’s important too. Maybe just say no to the plastic bag. I really do think that you get credit for being aware of the issue and trying.

      That’s depressing about the soap nuts — I heard the same thing about quinoa in Central American countries.

  7. P.S. I wanted to post this as one comment, but when the comment gets longer I can’t get to the “post comment”-button at the bottom any more, don’t know why?

  8. I made my own laundry detergent over a year and a half ago and I still have a ton left! for less than $10, it’s worth the hassle for me. There aren’t a lot of bulk items available where I live so I can’t really say if they are cheaper or not. I will say that my farmer’s market is quite pricey! And they sold stuff with produce stickers. :/

    • Oh, wow — that’s awesome! Would you mind sharing your recipe with us?

      I am definitely lucky with the bulk aisle at my favorite store. I visited the one I broke up with five years ago just today and decided to check out its bulk aisle — one small row, half the bins were empty, about a quarter had stuff in them, and the rest were mostly gone. No liquids at all. It sucked. I left with a greater appreciation for my situation!

  9. This is a tough one. Some things cost less in bulk (herbs, spices, salt, dry beans), some cost more in bulk (flour, rice, tofu) and some are at least double the price of packaged (pasta!). I made my own liquid laundry detergent that was far cheaper than either standard or bulk detergents and lasted me two full years. I splurge on bulk fresh ground local organic peanut butter that costs more than packaged. I buy as much of my produce as I can from local farms – not always cheaper but worth it to get fresh produce and knowing all the money goes to the farmer rather than most going towards picking, shipping, store overhead, etc. I dehydrate quite a bit too. It really bothers me that so many stores are packaging more and more of their organic produce now. I try to make my decisions based on my values and that means some items only get purchased when on a really good sale to be able to also stick to my budget. I’ve wondered about the bulk liquids and the jugs they come in. I’ll have to ask how my co-op handles the plastic jugs.

    • We have an all-organic market in town and literally EVERYTHING there is packaged. They do it because it’s easier on their end not to have to weigh anything and just push buttons on the cash register (it’s a very mom and pop kind of store), but it doesn’t matter if it’s bulk items or veggies — it’s in a package. So I don’t go there.

      I love this time of year because we have farm stands galore, and my favorite one is 2 miles from the house. Some of the produce is more expensive, but what they don’t grow, they buy from local farms, and I’m all for supporting these guys — we eat very well because they work so hard.

      I have a food drier but I rarely use it. You’re making me think about dragging that out …

      And yes to this: “I try to make my decisions based on my values.” I think you hit the nail on the head!

  10. Certain things are cheaper for me from bulk bins: spices come to mind.

    For me, a lot of things end up being more expensive because the bins only stock organic versions of what I might otherwise buy conventional. I like to buy organic meat and produce when I can, but for stuff like dried beans I generally wouldn’t for budgetary reasons, so buying it from a bulk bin is more expensive because it’s organic. And stuff like bulk pasta is just prohibitive in cost, unfortunately; I buy it in a cardboard box, because pasta is supposed to be a cheap meal!

    On the laundry detergent issue, you might try finding a powdered version that comes in cardboard. Not package-free, obviously, but it’s not plastic. Is that better? Sometimes I don’t even know! Right now I have the Whole Foods brand of powdered laundry detergent (fragrance free), which was fairly economical and comes in a cardboard box. However, it’s in a plastic bag inside the box! Less plastic, and I can recycle the bag in my area, so… I’m not 100% sure it’s better, but maybe it is!

    • I personally think cardboard is a better option than plastic — it’s the plastic that really worries me — but I can’t get anything here that’s just a box and no scoop. And then I think, why does THAT bother me, but getting detergent in bulk from a plastic jug is okay? (Well, except for that 11 cents an ounce. Not over that quite yet, LOL.)

      Sometimes I don’t know, either. There are a thousand definitions of zero waste (or it feels like that, anyway). I think as long as we’re doing what we can, then we’re going to make an impact.

  11. Pingback: Zero waste DIY: Laundry detergent | The Simple Year

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