A Hermon 3-year-old gets a bag of bulk food at the Natural Living Center in Bangor with his mom in 2017. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Break out your mason jars and your cotton totes. Bulk is back.

When the coronavirus first came on the scene in Maine in March 2020, there were many unanswered questions about how the virus spread.

In response to the fear and confusion — and the state mandates that followed — stores that normally encouraged a low-waste ethos had to prohibit customers from bringing in their own reusable bags and containers. Now, though, stores that had plastic-free principles are transitioning back to their pre-pandemic policies — and some are seeing more of a hunger than ever for the low-waste lifestyle.

Jamie Cermak, marketing manager at the Belfast Co-op, said the co-op’s member-owners had been discussing doing more to promote zero waste shopping in the store before the pandemic started through classes, promotions and outreach.

“Everything changed for our business,” Cermak said. “We put safety at the forefront, including temporarily suspending bulk shopping options and the ability for people to reuse bags for shopping.  We downsized most of our bulk service containers and even started bringing in options that had more packaging since people were concerned with safety. It was a hard time because these ethics of reuse, reduce and recycle are pretty ingrained in our co-op community.”  

Perhaps no one felt the pain of plastic’s grip on the pandemic more deeply than Laura Marston, who opened her zero-waste store GoGo Refill in Portland July 2019, only months before the pandemic began.

“We were open eight months before we had to go to curbside,” Marston said. “There was a swift and global reaction to just stop any reuse and to overly package things.”

As the pandemic went on, though, scientists revealed more about the transmission of the virus and realized that there was minimal risk to reusable products — and, in fact, they might be safer than their disposable plastic counterparts when it comes to how long the virus can live on the materials’ surfaces.

Marston reopened GoGo Refill in June 2020, after science showed that COVID was not primarily spread through surfaces. However, the business started doing things a little differently, and with great results.

Before the pandemic, customers would fill their own containers from bulk buckets, Marston said. After reopening, she rearranged the store and employees now do the filling themselves.

“At first it was a strategy to make people feel more comfortable that they weren’t going around and touching the same pumps people were touching all day, but it turns out people really like it better. They like that one-on-one service, they have a real one-on-one interaction with a low-waste specialist.”

Marston’s business has been consistently growing since then.

“People were just responding to the increase in trash in their lives that was a response to COVID,” Marston said. “We got a lot of new customers coming in after that.”

In spring 2021, most stores started transitioning to low-waste policies as mask mandates rolled back and vaccines rolled out.

When the Belfast Co-op allowed reusable containers, bags and other low-waste options again, customers were “very hungry” for their return back to normal, Cermak said.

“Awareness around plastic consumption is still very high, or more so since folks have learned about the recycling industry’s challenges, and our shoppers want us to follow suit every step of the way,” Cermak said. “At this point supply chain issues are one of the biggest obstacles to offering more low-waste or zero waste shopping options. The supply chain also has impacted our bulk goods like everything else.”

Stores have had to keep some new policies in place to keep customers feeling safe even as they bring back bulk buying and reusable bags.

At the Natural Living Center in Bangor, customers are allowed to bring in their own containers for bulk shopping again — a policy that had been suspended during the pandemic — but the store continues to provide single-use plastic gloves for handling bulk bin scoops for customer comfort and safety.

“Hopefully [we can end the policy] as soon as it’s possible,” Jesse Thulin, a manager at the Natural Living Center in Bangor, said. “It’s an added expense for the store and it is wasteful but I think it’s still necessary.”

John Crane, general manager of the Portland Food Co-op, said that their customers have been experiencing transitional pains as well. The co-op has not yet reopened its seating area, nor does it allow customers to self-serve soup.

“Our customers are not quite ready to ladle soup out of a shared pot yet,” Crane said. “We’ve been waiting to gauge where people’s sensitivities are. We all spend a year in such a hunkered down stay away from everyone mindset. I think it’s going to take a little bit of time for us to shake that.”

State policies that have been enacted since the beginning of the pandemic, like the bans on plastic bags and plastic takeout containers as well as legislation shifting the cost of handling waste to corporations, have helped the transition back to a low-waste business model.

“There’s been a lot of great legislation and Maine’s really leading the way,” Marston said. “I think COVID gave some extra time for conversations to happen so a different and more comprehensive bill came into the next session which is the one that passed.”

Marston worries that despite business being good for her, the zero-waste movement has taken a hit from the pandemic in general, including more online ordering and home delivery.

“Pre-pandemic I could take my container to local restaurants and say, ‘Hey can you put that in my container for me?’” Marston said. “Nobody seems to want to do that anymore and I don’t want to put any pressure on these struggling restaurants to do weird stuff for me. That seems like a bridge too far.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Laura Marston’s name.