Whenever I take a peak at the items in my trash can before bringing them to the dumpster, I am astonished by how much food packaging there is. My household is not unique: one-third of the materials in landfills consist of disposable food packaging. It is especially concerning when I consider that 40% of food is wasted from farm to fork, so much of this packaging might even be for food that wasn’t even consumed. Is it possible to go from 40% waste to zero waste? As it turns out, a pair of grocery purveyors are proving zero waste is possible.
Zero waste is possible
A couple of new zero waste grocery stores have taken on the challenge of food packaging waste, serving as pioneers in reducing waste in the industry. These stores have no bags or food wrappers, and virtually all food is purchased with reusable containers.
in.gredients in Austin, Texas
Considering how much packaging you commonly find in a grocery store, it is quite remarkable to have a store that is virtually free of disposable packaging. in.gredients is located in the Cherrywood neighborhood of East Austin, Texas-and is a grocery store offering anything from personal care products to local produce to prepared foods — even bug spray in bulk. They also offer wine, soda, kombucha, and beer on tap, and source many items locally.
“We foresee the food and grocery industry moving in the direction of package free eventually, and we hope to be pioneers when the time is right,” states the website. This zero waste pioneer has three guiding principles: zero waste, local food, and community.
in.gredients works with local vendors to encourage them to utilize reusable and returnable packing as well, thus removing disposable food packaging from the equation upstream. This does require some extra storage space, as the store waits for vendors to claim their food containers.
One of the prevailing themes of the store is BYOC (bring your own containers). in.gredients strongly encourages customers to bring in reusable containers from home, although reusable containers are sold at the location. Even charging a modest price for plastic containers discourages people from using as many, compared to free containers at most grocery stores.
The containers are then weighed, with the scale creating a printed sticker to put on the container. The tare weight is removed from the price of the goods. Shoppers can then write the item number of what is inside the container, using a grease pencil, which can later be easily erased. This allows even the sticker to be reused, and reduces the need to weigh the container on the next shopping trip. in.gredients will then donate $.05 to a non-profit organization for every reusable container customers fill.
What an experience
Interestingly, some of the items in the bulk bins have not been popular with shoppers. in.gredients is working on swapping these items out for more popular alternatives. Perhaps this is due in part to the lack of packaging, which promotes the positive attributes of a product.
“Let’s face it, branding and marketing works,” states the in.gredients website. “How a product is packaged definitely helps sell the product, particularly if it is something new or unfamiliar to the customer. Plus, some products that are very popular with customers aren’t available or feasible package free (chips, for example).”
The store has also had an issue with customers visualizing quantities. I know I cringe when I pay $20 a pound for organic bulk tea leaves. It seems very expensive, until I realize how many cups of tea I can make. The reverse is true with many packaged dried goods. A bag of chips or a box of crackers looks enormous until you consider how of the bag consists of empty space.
in.gredients isn’t completely packaging-free however. Meats, dairy products and some local items aren’t available without packaging. If the store one day has a butcher, meat could be sold using reusble containers. Currently there isn’t a local dairy offering milk in reusble bottles, thus limiting the reusable options in.gredients can offer its customers. As proponents of sustainable food, the zero waste grocery store also helps educate shoppers about the “real cost of food,” and the impact of monocultures, pesticide use, government subsidies, fossil fuel use, and more.
One interesting aspect of the story of in.gredients is the fact that owners turned their dream of a packaging-free grocery store into a reality with the help of crowdfunding, using the IndieGoGo platform. This concept allows many people to donate a small amount of money towards a venture or project, which collectively can become a large amount.
Original Unverpackt in Berlin, Germany
Guided by the slogan, “Let’s be real, try something impossible,” Milena Glimbovski and Sara Wolf realized their dream of opening a zero waste grocery store in 2014 — Original unpacked (or Original Unverpackt in German). German households dispose of 16 million tons of packaging waste each year.
Glimbovski and Wolf don’t believe grocery shopping is sustainable under the current model and they wanted to try something different.
The store now stocks an assortment of more than 500 primarily organic products. Unlike a typical grocery store, most items aren’t sold under brand names. All the products are either sold unwrapped or in reusable bins, with no disposable paper, plastic, or foil.
Like in.gredients, shoppers can fill their own containers with a variety of items, including milk, shampoo, sausages, and dried goods, with the weight of the container deducted from the price. Unlike Texas, Germany has strict food safety laws that require all reusable containers to be sterilized at the store prior to use. Instead of shying away from this obstacle, Glimbovski and Wolf rose to the challenge, creating a system for realizing this.
Solutions, small and large
“There is a solution to every problem”, said founder Glimbovski. “Most supermarkets shun such effort: it’s time consuming and expensive.”
There are a couple advantages to allowing shoppers to determine how much of an item they wish to purchase, as opposed to predetermined quantities. It saves money if they only wish to purchase a smaller amount of an item than is otherwise sold in a larger quantity. It can also help decrease food waste, particularly for perishable items because shoppers can buy the exact quantities they need.
Similar to in.gredients, Original Unverpackt also used crowd sourcing to get their project off the ground, raising 100,000 Euros, or roughly $113,000 and the store now has more than 63,000 followers on Facebook.
Be it Germany or Texas, Original Unverpackt and in.gredients are proving that zero waste grocery is right around the aisle corner — no matter where on Earth you live.
Are you a zero waste grocery guru? Have you been fortunate enough to shop at either of these? Share your experience with others in our comments section below.
Feature image credit: MNStudio / Shutterstock