Whenever I take a peek at the items in my trash can or recycling bin, 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 percent 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 curb this problem and get to zero waste? As it turns out, a few grocers are proving it is possible.
Zero Waste Is Possible
What is the best way to preempt waste? Grocers should not offer disposable food packaging.
From Berlin to Brooklyn, zero-waste grocery stores have taken on the challenge of food packaging waste, serving as pioneers in reducing waste in the industry. 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. Yet, these stores have no bags or plastic food wrappers, and customers take home the food they purchase in reusable containers.
Original Unverpackt in Berlin, Germany
German households dispose of 16 million tons of packaging waste each year. 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 Unverpackt (“Original Unpacked” in English).
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.
The Fillery in Brooklyn, NY
Sarah Metz moved to New York a dozen years ago and was confronted by the waste problem. Inspired by the motto, “Goods for your pantry, good for the planet,” Sarah is on a mission to reduce food and packaging waste locally. She launched a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds and is now providing the tools to help her neighbors live more sustainably. The Fillery offers dried bulk goods, syrups, oils, and cleaning products.
The Bulk Market in London, England
When Ingrid Caldironi adopted a zero-waste lifestyle, she discovered it was quite challenging. Companies don’t make it easy for people to avoid packaging waste. “When people change their behaviors, and they start demanding something different, then companies will need to change,” said Ingrid.
The Bulk Market was created to remedy that with over 300 goods to choose from, including fresh bread, dog food, bamboo toothbrushes, dairy, eggs, beer, wine, and spirits.
Nude Foods in Capetown, South Africa
Designed to create a plastic-free shopping experience, this grocery serves up all non-GMO foods from local suppliers. Shoppers pay by the weight and transport purchases in their own containers. Nude Foods is leading the nude food revolution and is the first such grocer in Capetown.
One of the prevailing themes of zero-waste grocery stores is BYOC (bring your own containers). Whereas some stores do not allow customers to use containers from home, zero-waste grocers encourage customers to bring in reusable containers from home, although locations do sell reusable containers. Even charging a modest price for plastic containers discourages people from using as many, compared to free containers at most conventional grocery stores.
The customers’ empty containers are weighed and the tare weight is noted on each container before the customer starts shopping. The weight is usually noted on a sticker or another durable mark so that the customer doesn’t need to weigh the container again on the next shopping trip. The tare weight is subtracted from the filled container’s weight at the register so that the customer pays only for the product purchased. Shoppers can also write the item number of what is inside the container using a grease pencil, which can later be easily erased, eliminating even the need for multiple stickers.
No Zero-Waste Grocer Near You?
If you don’t live in Berlin or Brooklyn, there may still be zero-waste shopping options in your area. Litterless has compiled a zero-waste grocery guide with shopping options across the United States.
Editor’s note: Originally published on May 31, 2016, this article was updated in July 2018 by Earth911 writer Sarah Lozanova.