Zero waste vs. regular packaging: The chocolate chip cookie challenge

Instead of going down grocery store aisles willy-nilly, choosing random items to compare prices when it comes to unpackaged and packaged items (because I’m convinced bulk items are more expensive than their packaged counterparts at my favorite store), I decided we needed to be working towards something.

Something like my favorite chocolate chip cookies.

This particular recipe comes from Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book (Betty didn’t know it was spelled “cookie” when this thing came out in 1963) — my mother (hey, Mom!) has an original, much loved copy, while mine is just a 2002 reprint. This is the chocolate chip cookie I grew up with, ergo, that’s what makes it the best. I feel that’s a pretty solid argument, to be honest.

A prized possession. Also, is there anything more hilarious than food photography from the ’60s?

Anyway, “The Best Cooky of 1935-1940” was the chocolate chip, and the recipe is as follows (we’ll compare items below):

Chocolate Chip Cookies

2/3 cup shortening (part butter or margarine) — um, no, Betty, margarine will kill you

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped nuts — we use walnuts

1 package (6 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate pieces (1 cup)

Heat oven to 375º F. Mix shortening, sugars, egg and vanilla thoroughly. Measure flour by dipping method (Trisha’s Note: I have no idea what that means, although my lack of knowledge has not been detrimental) or by sifting (who sifts, seriously?). For a softer, rounder cooky, add 1/4 cup more flour. Stir dry ingredients together; blend in. Mix in nuts and chocolate pieces. Drop rounded teaspoonfuls of dough about 2-inches apart on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, or until delicately browned. (Cookies should still be soft.) Cool slightly before removing from baking sheet. Makes 4 to 5 dozen 2-inch cookies.

Now that we know what we’re making, it’s price check time! We’re starting with the chocolate chips because why would we not?

Ten ounce package, $3.99 per bag; 33.2 cents per ounce (thanks for doing me a solid and figuring that out for me ahead of time, grocery store!)

$10.79 per pound equals 67 cents per ounce (don’t worry, I had Eric check my math).

Well, you don’t have to be a math major to know how that one was going to end, even without crunching the numbers.

Ten pound bag, 4.9 cents per ounce.

Not that it matters because the available sugar at my favorite store is never in stock, but it’s 17 cents per ounce.

So far, my theory is proving correct. I’ve never actually been able to buy the bulk fair trade stuff because I’ve never seen more than the dregs in the bin. I’m not sure if that means it’s incredibly popular of they just don’t refill it very often.

The flour in our natural foods section is all in those plastic packages, so I went conventional aisle. Organic, 5 pound bag, 6.7 cents per ounce.

Another 5 pound bag of “regular” flour, 3.7 cents an ounce.

6.1 cents per ounce.

To be honest, I think I’ll just get the packaged organic stuff from now on, since I’m paying just about as much for “regular” unpackaged at this point.

11 cents an ounce.

4 cents an once!

Well, we’re talking pennies, but this is encouraging.

6.1 cents per ounce.

8 cents an ounce.

Interesting. I thought this would go the way of the salt and be a couple cents less.

93.6 cents an ounce.

87 cents per ounce! 

Well, that makes me feel better. We go through a lot of walnuts.

I don’t buy vanilla anymore because I make my own (tutorial at the bottom of THIS post), but for kicks I decided to compare bulk versus packaged just because I have that option:

I picked the 4-ounce bottle to compare since that’s probably what I would buy: 87 cents an ounce.

$2.25 an ounce. Maybe it also contains gold?

(Not pictured: Shortening, eggs and brown sugar, because, as follows: I am no longer buying organic shortening and am just using butter now — finally used up the last of my container, so that’s exciting; eggs come in a carton, but when I can get them, I like to buy my friend Beth’s — her chickens are happy and their eggs are fantastic; and brown sugar is something I make myself now because I can only get it in plastic, and I’ve been really happy with that change. Alternatively, I’ve used sucanat sugar, but my store doesn’t sell it anymore.)

Anyway, huh — I guess I was right. Bulk items do, in general, cost more, and what IS cheaper isn’t really enough to add up to much of a savings. Although I’m stupidly excited about the walnut math.

Of course, this is just one recipe; not really a thorough study. Maybe I need to try this with a dinner or lunch item? Let me think about that one …

Next up: I broke down and made a reusable coffee filter out of one of Eric’s old t-shirts. I’ll tell you why and how (not that it was hard) on Wednesday.

8 Responses to Zero waste vs. regular packaging: The chocolate chip cookie challenge

  1. Tricia, Have you considered looking into how the bulk bins are refilled? If they are just dumping plastic bags full of nuts (or whatever) in the top so you can pick how much or little to buy then you may not be reducing trash – just moving it from your trash can to the store’s. I respect this project SO MUCH and am a real fan – I was just wondering from a practical perspective. Also it would be interesting to know the percentage difference in amount of trash bulk vs. shelf.

    • Sharon! You’re nice.

      I know how the bins are filled — I’ve seen employees in action. Some of the bigger stuff, like flour and oats, are in what look like paper bags, although I’m sure they’re lined inside. Spices are in foil-type bags, and things like shampoo and lotion in plastic jugs.

      Yours is a very valid point. The thought is that, even though you’re trading trash for trash, you’re voting for no packaging by taking in your own bags and jars. (Does that really make a difference? I would say no. I mean, bulk bins have been around forever, and it’s not like manufactures are reducing packaging because of it.) Then there’s the argument that, even if it comes to the store packaged, at least you’re choosing something that comes in a bigger package, which means less trash than buying several smaller packages. That one makes sense to me.

      I figure everything comes to the store in a package, bulk or otherwise; there’s no getting away from that. So, in buying bulk, I’m going in with other people to divide a huge package of something and therefore make less trash as a whole.

      I agree, it would be very interesting to know the difference between bulk and regular aisles and the trash associated with each. Unfortunately, I’m not a numbers person. (Um, that’s probably obvious.) When you look at traditional packaging, it seems like there are packages in packages — a plastic wrapped plastic bottle, or bags of something in another bag — so my gut says bulk is generally less. But I have no proof.

      I appreciate the question! I don’t think that you have to buy in bulk to be zero waste, incidentally, as there are plenty of options that aren’t plastic / are reusable, compostable or recyclable. I saw an article recently, too, that basically said we’re all wasting our time with this “conscious consumerism” because voting with your dollar at the store doesn’t make much of a difference and we should be focusing on larger, more ambitious goals. So … yeah, downer.

  2. Thank you for doing this! Cost is something I don’t see a lot of discussion about in zero waste circles, because I think the assumption is that you can spend more on food if you’re saving so much in other areas (like paper towels). Also, though, I keep hearing about how 15% of an item’s cost is the packaging, which you are theoretically no longer paying for when you buy in bulk, so you should be saving 15% by buying in bulk… But this is really not reflected in the actual cost of bulk goods in my experience! Except for spices, as you found also.

    I’d like to know a store manager’s perspective on this. Does refilling bulk bins have more labor cost or something? Or do they know that people who shop there are buying out of conviction and not for price?

    • Those are excellent questions. I’m going to write them in my ZW journal and if I run into the head bulk aisle lady, I’ll ask her. She’s terribly candid, so that will be an interesting conversation.

      I’ve heard the 15-percent theory too and it just doesn’t add up. It’s like there’s a tax for choosing unpackaged items, not just in the bulk aisle, but everywhere (produce aisle, beauty aisle, etc.).

  3. I am shocked at how much some of your bulk costs! Do they put things on sale there? I usually get nuts cheaper down here, right now nuts are on sale for $5 a pound (not organic). Have you looked at your grocery spending overall, compared to last year, to see if you are gaining savings on changing your diet, to compensate for crazy-expensive bulk nuts?

    • Yeah, we’re stupidly expensive here. I don’t keep track of how much I spend on groceries — or I should say, I only just recently started — but I do know that it’s gone up over the last year. How much of that is just cost increases (for example, our milk went from 3.99 to 4.29 in the last six months) and how much is my new shopping habits is hard to say.

      Well, some of it I can say. Meat at the counter is more expensive than its packaged counterparts. Bulk can be more expensive, but produce isn’t necessarily more — unless I’m at a farm stand and choosing the $2 a pound local carrots over the 79-cents a pound store carrots. I also tend to choose the GMO free and all-natural or organic stuff, which tends to be more expensive, and I make a lot of things from scratch vs. buying them packaged and pre-made — also more expensive to buy individual ingredients (my chocolate chips cost more than an entire package of cookies). Periodically the natural food section has a straight 20-pecent off sale, which includes bulk. I missed the last one. Sometimes individual items go on sale, too, but not often.

      I can’t even imagine $5 walnuts. What magical land are you living in?

  4. San Diego. Home of the $6 a gallon organic milk. Our nuts are on sale this week, so I’ve stocked up — I still haven’t put everything away because I bought so much (I know. Pretty!)

    My credit card used to issue a report every year, breaking down how much we spent on home improvements (Home Depot, etc), entertainment, groceries, etc. It made comparisons really easy! Unfortunately, my credit union changed cards and we no longer get that report, so it’s not as easy to compare spending year to year. As I become more involved in minimalism, I think I’m spending less as I focus on food, but I haven’t gone back and looked for proof.

  5. I want to try your cookie recipe. I’m wondering if some of the bulk products are more expensive because they are organic and/or fair trade certified and you are comparing them to packaged products which aren’t (and may not be available at your store, so you can’t do an exact comparison). I love reading your blog posts!

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