Survey Results: COVID-19 Impacts on Bulk Grocery Shopping and Take-Out

We have all been profoundly affected by the novel Coronavirus pandemic as we have stayed home as much as possible, seen friends and family members fall ill, lost employment, and missed out on concerts, weddings, and celebrations of life. We have relearned social norms and expectations.

We have also seen what for some felt like a total reversal of progress towards a more sustainable future as food purveyors reduced or eliminated bulk food offerings, ended indoor dining, and asked customers not to use reusable coffee cups or grocery bags. As we have all been learning about how the disease spreads, Recycling Advocates was interested to see how sustainability-focused community members felt about the balance between minimizing packaging waste and ensuring food safety, and we were curious to see what folks felt was the best way forward.

Our data set of 238 responses is drawn from the demographic group of Portland residents who were most likely to have been shopping from bulk sections and using reusable bags and containers for groceries and take-out food before COVID struck, and responses were collected during June and July of 2020.

Our takeaways from this survey:

A significant majority of respondents understand and support the implementation of increased safety protocols, but still highly prioritize waste reduction and would like to see a return to safe filling of reusable containers at restaurants and grocery stores.

When asked to check what practices they would like to see standardized going forward over half (60%) were in favor of pre-filled reusable containers. While 42% were in favor of eliminating scoop bins all together, 37% liked the idea of a staffed bulk aisle. Some respondents added additional thoughts including suggesting ways that innovation might help with hygiene in the bulk aisle. Some suggested that these improvements to hygiene of bulk departments could encourage more shoppers to use bulk, who had previously avoided it. There was high interest in reusables. Some respondents prioritized eliminating as much plastic as possible. A vast majority of respondents were concerned about increased waste from takeout food packaging.

The full survey results are publicly available and we hope they will help to inform grocers and restaurateurs as they do their best to provide the indispensable service of feeding our community safely while still aiming to reduce the impact of food packaging on our environment.

As an organization, we will continue to encourage everyone to find ways to safely reduce waste and use reusable goods, instead of disposables, whenever possible. One initiative we had tabled due to COVID was encouraging restaurants to designate counter or table space where their customers can conveniently transfer takeout food from the restaurant’s serveware to the customer’s reusable containers for takeout, in partnership with Surfrider recommendations. We are looking forward to working on that initiative in the near future.

Please download the survey results summary, and check out the initiatives we are currently working on, sign up for our newsletter, donate, and volunteer to join our efforts.

With gratitude,

Alaina Labak, Tara Knierim, Evelyn Amara, Brittney Wendel, Brion Hurley
The Zero Waste Team – Recycling Advocates