Can Zero-Waste Grocery Stores Make A Difference? (#GotBitcoin?)
A growing trend in food shopping eliminates single-use plastic packaging. Here’s how it works—even when you forget to bring your own bag. Can Zero-Waste Grocery Stores Make A Difference?
BRIANNE MILLER was miles from shore when she realized she had to start a grocery store. As a marine biologist studying humpback whale habitats near Hawaii, she saw plastic wherever she looked: abandoned fishery nets, bottles, plastic crates.
In 2018, at age 30, she opened Nada, a zero-waste grocery store in Vancouver, B.C. It offers 750-plus products without a lick of packaging. No plastic around that cucumber. Toothpaste in glass jars. Herbs do not come pre-portioned in a plastic container. Customers take a sprig or two, exactly what they need.
Nada also has a café, which uses food from the store that would otherwise go bad. Customers are encouraged to bring cups if they’re grabbing coffee to go. If they forget, they can take one of Nada’s. Almost every borrowed mug is eventually returned. “It’s actually smart from a business perspective,” said Ms. Miller. “We don’t pay for single-use items and it encourages customers to come back to the store.”
One store won’t end plastic pollution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American generates more than 1,600 pounds of trash a year. But Nada is starting a conversation and a trend. There are zero-waste grocery stores in Brooklyn, Denver, London and Berlin, and dozens more specializing in beauty and household products.
In many ways, these stores are the progeny of the natural food co-ops that sprouted in the 1970s. But the women—and they are almost all women—opening zero-waste stores now understand that to succeed they have to build in convenience. There are no mandated work hours or membership fees. If you don’t have your own container you can buy or borrow one that’s been cleaned and sanitized. The Wally Shop, one of the newest startups, operates as a kind of zero-waste Instacart, offering customers same-day delivery by bike in Brooklyn and, soon, Manhattan. Founder and CEO Tamara Lim, 26, describes her company as a 21st-century milk man who delivers more than milk.
Zero-waste evangelists talk about their “journey” to a new way of living and shopping. Katerina Bogatireva, who opened Precycle in Brooklyn in December, took her first steps when she tried, and only partially succeeded, to reduce the trash she and her young son produced. “It was difficult to shop. You had to buy one thing here, one thing there,” she said. “And then there were the snacks. Try telling your 6-year-old that he can’t have a fig bar because it’s wrapped in plastic.”
Can A Zero-Waste Store Make A Difference?
Nada Grocery in Vancouver has eliminated single-use packaging and saves produce that’s reached its sell-by date from the scrap heap by cooking it up in the in-store cafe. Here’s what didn’t go into a landfill in a single month as a result:
Food Waste: 259 pounds
Plastic Containers: 21,428
Paper Cups: 1,228
And so Precycle aims to be a mostly one-stop shop. The bright, open-plan store in the hip Bushwick neighborhood sells fruits and vegetables, beans, pasta and rice, oils, vinegars, soaps, spices, eggs, even bulk tofu, which has been a surprise hit. For snacks, there are dried fruits, nuts, popcorn, granola. Only meat and fish are missing.
Like Ms. Miller, Lyndsey Manderson, who runs Zero Market in Denver, was inspired to take action after learning about pollution in oceans. She started selling zero-waste products at pop-ups in 2015 and in 2017 opened a 600-square-foot stall in a public market.
Ms. Manderson has had to navigate tricky health codes: one that prevents sale of bulk food in certain locations (which is why she hopes to move to a new space that allows her to sell more food); another that prohibits customers from bringing containers (ostensibly to prevent contamination). She also has learned that educating is essential. Zero Market offers workshops and consulting services to customers who want advice on how to change their habits and to local businesses that want to begin composting or training employees on how to correctly separate trash and recyclables.
“We have to somehow get into the minds of consumers and figure out how to change their way of thinking so it’s 100% worth it to make a change,” Ms. Manderson said. “That’s difficult. The future of the planet is so far off in all our minds and, right here and now, I forgot my bag.”
The Wally Shop, meanwhile, is working to offer convenience on parallel with Amazon Prime. (Ms. Lim, not coincidentally, started her career at the Seattle behemoth managing, among other categories, retail of packaging and shipping supplies.) Customers who order before 2 p.m. have their food delivered the same day between 6 and 8 p.m.
When the Wally Shop receives an order, it dispatches a shopper to buy products at local farmers markets and co-ops as well as at Precycle. Shoppers pay the price the store charges, plus a 5% service fee and a delivery fee. Vegetables come in cotton mesh bags, bulk grains in Mason jars. Customers also pay $1 per item for packaging but get it back when they return the container.
A test order on the site that included lentils, apples, broccoli, avocados, soba noodles, raisins and a jar of raw, local honey totaled about $50—not cheap, but neither are the Brooklyn markets where the items are purchased. When you consider the mere $5.99 delivery fee built in, and the time and money the shopper saves by having someone else do the legwork, it sounds like a bargain.
Currently, according to the EPA, only 9% of plastics are recycled; most of them end up in landfills or the ocean. To make a larger difference, food conglomerates and major retailers would need to rethink the way they sell their products. Some, such as Unilever , have begun to do that. And just this week, Trader Joe’s announced that, in response to a customer petition, it will work to eliminate more than 1 million pounds of plastics from its stores.
“Some people might say, oh, this isn’t going to make a difference,” Ms. Miller said. “But we see every single day how much of an effect this has in our community. People gravitate toward it because it’s something they can take control of.”
Brush Up / Ready To Start Your Own Zero-Waste Journey? Make Your Own Toothpaste:
Toothpaste tubes are hard to recycle. You can eliminate them from your routine with this recipe from Lauren Singer, CEO of Package Free Shop, a Brooklyn store that sells beauty and household products.
Measure out 2 tablespoons organic coconut oil into a small jar. Add 1 tablespoon baking soda and 15-20 drops essential oil, such as peppermint. Mix well.Go back