Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Thoughts on Zero Waste Grocery Stores

I recently read an article about a zero waste grocery store in Berlin called Original Unverpact. I really loved the idea so decided to write about it.

The idea behind the grocery store is that the only things that would be packaged, such as some liquids, would be packed in reusable containers with a deposit fee to encourage shoppers to return them to the store. For everything else shoppers would need to provide their own containers, which they could fill from bins containing the various items.

Perhaps I'm so interested in the idea because we already do some of our shopping in this way. We purchase several items from the bulk food section of the Good Foods Market, using glass jars as containers. This works out wonderfully for us.

As I see it there are many advantages to a zero waste grocery store.

First, buying from bulk food bins allows the customer to buy exactly as much as he/she wants. If you need a lot, just take a larger container. No more needing to buy multiple packages of the same item. If you need just a little or want to try something, get as little as  you need. No more buying more than you want because that is how the item is packaged. No more paying more because you bought the smallest package, which has a higher per unit price.

Second, it is entirely possible to use the same containers both in the store and at home. Instead of getting home from the grocery store and opening packages so the contents can be transferred to a storage container, why not just take the storage container to the store? We use various sizes of glass jars, depending on the items. These work just as well for storing the items as they do for transporting the items home from the store.

Third, this sort of store could work very well within a local foods movement, especially in allowing smaller producers to get their products into the store. One issue facing small businesses is that many grocery stores only want to buy large quantities of an item, rather than buying smaller quantities from multiple sources. In some cases this requires a third party be added to the system to purchase smaller quantities from multiple sources, then combine and package those and sell them to the retailer. This is not only inefficient, but negatively impacts the profits of both the producer and the seller, as those now have to be shared with a middle man. A zero waste store, however, could easily purchase smaller quantities of items from various producers and combine them into one bin.

Fourth, and somewhat related to the above, would be the movement away from "brands" within the grocery store. This also removes the need for brands to compete with other products on the shelves, so no fancy packaging (which wouldn't exist anyway in the store) and no in-store advertising. In fact, if the zero waste model became the norm it could put an end to the advertising for almost all foods, which would have many benefits.

Fifth, a zero waste store could, and should, change the way we approach shopping. Rather than just quickly going through a store grabbing packages of products we would be forced to slow down. While this may be viewed by some as a negative, I consider it a positive change. I believe it is worthwhile to slow down and really think about each thing that we buy. Our purchases should be meaningful, and this is especially true for food.

Obviously, in addition to the benefits I've listed, there is the big benefit of reduced packaging ending up in the landfill. That is the primary purpose behind the idea of a zero waste store, although I think the other benefits could be just as important.

I'd like to see the zero-waste concept applied to all types of stores, not just grocery stores. It could easily be applied in department stores for most types of products. The benefits in other types of stores might be different than those for grocery stores, but I still believe the concept could work. We just need for someone in the US to prove it can be done by opening such a store.

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