(I've noticed that few if any are downloading the pitchbooks I posted so I assume most don't notice the links. To remedy this issue I uploaded the files and you can use the links below to download either a PDF or ePub version)
I’ve been playing with the idea for some time of towns and even neighborhoods working collectively. Buying products collectively to reduce costs and waste. This can scale from everything from dish soap to buying pallets of solar panels to reduce per unit costs. Even things like community farms where families can collectively raise organic food and potentially turn it into a business. This model can be applied to small quantity distribution. Most are suggesting bulk bins and dispensers in supermarkets but there are numerous downsides. Liquid dispensers get messy and require maintenance. Name brands also dislike selling in this manner because they depend heavily on packaging to brand their items and encourage consumers to buy their products. Either way most systems would require containers to transport the goods. The market providing containers gets rid of the advantage in reducing waste but bringing your own can cause problems in weighing or measuring the products being purchased. Organizing people to either buy in bulk or do a prepurchase where people buy just what they need off the person managing the central hub of distribution can get rid of this problem. Small towns can even organize to set up a kind of food bank for things like cleaning products to cooking oils. An entire 55 gallon drum of Extra Virgin olive oil or a 5 gallon bucket of vanilla costs a fraction of what small quantities costs and the collective member can pay for just what they need. You can buy an ounce of vanilla for the 5 gallon price or a quart of olive oil or even a cup at a time. We need to stop focusing on what’s good for the corporations and their profits and concentrate on what’s good for the consumer and the environment. Working collectively created the modern middle class and working collectively can solve many of the world’s problems.
Collective purchasing is the simplest and cheapest way to reduce plastic wastes from packaging. Most plans involve extra costs to consumers which will be a hard sell. Budgets are tight and even a few extra cents added to each product adds up. Buying collectively achieves bulk rates without people having to buy cases or pallet loads of products at a time. How many people can afford to spend $1,500 on a 50 gallon drum of extra virgin olive oil but divide that up it’s $30 a gallon or $7.50 a quart. Even if the container is glass it will have a plastic cap and the glass is unlikely to be recycled. Most olive oil comes in plastic containers and they are rarely recycled. Bulk Vanilla runs around $100 a gallon which adds up to $13 a pint, that's $0.81 cents an ounce. All common products from flour to baking powder to honey and dish detergent can be bought in bulk getting rid of the need for separate containers.
The downside with bulk buying is the up front costs which can be considerable. By buying collectively through a club a neighborhood or even an entire town the savings can be huge. 50% savings are often conservative and can run much more. Look at the example of vanilla. A one gallon container has 126 ounces of vanilla. That’s one easy to recycle container replacing 63/2 ounce containers that probably were headed for the trash. With olive oil you’re replacing 400 16 ounce bottles by buying a 50 gallon drum and most tend to sell 12 ounces at a time so the numbers are likely higher.
A side benefit is since you are buying less from the grocery store you’ll need fewer plastic bags.
How to structure the system
A town would be the easiest. A small storefront would work as a distribution center. Another option would be to convert a shipping container into a distribution center. The benefits are a lot of storage space and easy access. A 20’ container can be purchased for $2,500 or less and would mostly need a door and windows added. For security windows can be left off and the interior be lit artificially. A small charge would be added to the bulk prices to cover the costs of operating the distribution center. Even with a small town the extra expense would be tiny compared to the savings. In some cases people could be paid in free goods reducing the costs even more.
For groups and neighborhoods volunteers would have to organize the distribution of products but once again free goods could add an incentive.
How to breakdown the products
Depending on the product limits should be set as in ounces, cups or pounds for the smallest quantity but unlike traditional bulk buying there can be a lot of flexibility much like with bulk bins. Rounding the amounts just makes the calculations easier and limits errors but potentially some one can buy any amount. Here’s an example. I almost never am able to use a full dozen eggs before they go bad, eggs often come in plastic containers so they do apply to the challenge. People that need 2 eggs for a recipe could purchase the 2 eggs getting rid of any waste and leaving the container where it will be recycled.
The other model is to run it like a CSA, although in this case it would be Consumer Supported Purchasing. In a CSA style model everyone gets a share. Although easier to organize this model lacks flexibility and can lead to waste where people end up with more than they can use before it goes bad reducing the savings. Even with something like laundry detergent if you end up committing to just 10% more a week than you need every 10 weeks you get a week ahead. By the end of the year you end up with a closet full of laundry detergent. Allowing people to purchase what they need when they need it gets rid of waste and keeps costs down.
A wide range of containers can work. The easiest would be mason and jelly jars. Even with wet products they’d last for years then only the metal top would need to be replaced, glass can last indefinitely. Reusing product containers is the cheapest and easiest. Bring in an old laundry detergent bottle and have it filled up. Just adjust the tear weight on the scale and they get exactly what they pay for. For smaller amounts of dry products even ziplock bags can work.They wear out eventually but I’ve used some for months to hold salt and flour or baking powder. I use them all the time for herbs and I’ve had those last a year or more then just throw them in the recycling bin. For dry products like flour in the old days every house had containers for flour, sugar and coffee. A set of those labeled containers are stylish and can be used to transport your bulk items.
Making it Work in Third World Countries
Using collective distribution third world consumers can have flexibility in their purchasing while avoiding the small package waste and costs. A member of the community can act as a distribution center for the goods that are collectively purchased. Unlike in first world countries where people would be buying entire containers of items third world consumers would have the option of buying just what they needed for the day or week at a time. Even bar soap could be cut into 2, 4 or 8 pieces so even a few cents could give some one access to soap. Cooking oil could be sold in quantities as small as a tablespoon allowing people to buy enough oil for the evening meal but at the same bulk pricing.
Where as in first world countries it’s mainly a need to organize people to work collectively in third world countries seed money may be needed to allow for the initial purchases. In some cases tens of dollars could start the ball rolling while in other cases where it makes sense to buy an entire drum of cooking oil a few thousand dollars might be needed. Say a $2,500 investment could start a small community into working collectively then a million dollars in investment could fund 400 communities getting started. If a $1,000 was sufficient then a 1,000 communities could be funded. It’s hard to imagine the impact of giving the poor access to bulk priced goods at the same cost only in individual sized servings.
Congratulations, you just established a recycling center! The location of your distribution center can double as a recycling center for everyone's waste plastics. Since the bulk containers would be sent to a recycling center anyway there would be little extra effort needed to create a neighborhood or town recycling center.
As mentioned earlier fewer bags would be needed at the supermarket reducing that plastic waste.
The reduced plastic waste is in fact a side benefit. Telling people recycling helps the environment will get a percentage of the population interested in recycling but tell them they can reduce their grocery bill and everyone is interested.
No one would benefit more from collective buying than the poor including the struggling part of the middle class. Ironically the poor often have to pay top dollar for cleaning supplies and basics like soap because they end up buying them from smaller markets or even convenience stores. Instead of getting a 50% discount by buying bulk they end up spending 50% more at the local convenience store. Even in this country many people are eating on as little as a $1 or $2 a day. Saving even $5 a week on soap and detergent as well as other dry goods is more money to spend on food.
Much like in third world countries it may be necessary to provide starting funds to get a neighborhood collective established but once it is established it would be self perpetuating. It’s a modest investment that can change lives and dramatically reduce plastic wastes. Collective bulk buying can reduce millions of tons of plastic waste and save people tens of millions of dollars a year.
How the grant would be used
The primary goal would be education on how to organize collectives. A book would lay out how to structure collectives and give resources like places to order products in bulk.
In poorer communities some seed money could be provided to jump start the process. A small amount could make a huge difference.
With corporate help it would be possible to expand the program to third world countries where it would likely do the most good.