So much of what we buy is packaged in the ubiquitous plastic tub, bottle, or wrap. For decades, supermarkets have plied us with goods that come in all sorts of packaging. However, given growing concerns and consumers seeking less wasteful alternatives, new entrants are challenging the status quo. Doing their admirable bit to help address our plastic problem, we’re now witnessing the growth in popularity and availability of zero-waste supermarkets.
Here, the clue is in the name., providing consumers with an alternative place to buy everyday food items waste-free. And with that choice, the chance to help promote the environmental impact of zero waste. Whatever the waste, zero-waste grocery stores are making a stance and demonstrating that we can shop for our weekly groceries without the need for oodles of plastic packaging.
Supermarkets contain thousands of products. They supply them, people buy them, consume them and go back for more. This cycle of supply and demand renders both consumers and supermarkets significant contributors to our waste problem.
In fact, in the UK, the Guardian found that supermarkets and grocery stores are responsible for creating 800000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste. It's not just the plastic lining the aisles either, but also all the cardboard and plastic wraps used to ship pallets of food from warehouses across the country to our local supermarkets3.
Much of the problem is a lack of responsibility. Plastic is cheap to produce and possesses many qualities that make it perfect for containing our food. It’s food-safe, lightweight, and durable.
Related: 15 Best Zero Waste Kitchen Products to help carry, store and prepare items from zero waste supermarkets
As such, at least until recently, manufacturers and large supermarket chains have not taken up the mantle to reduce the amounts of plastic waste they generate. There simply hasn’t been enough reason or pressure for them to fundamentally change their ways.
Meanwhile, in recent years, consumers have become more aware of our global plastic problem. From pictures of beaches littered with the stuff all over social media to many studies and associated news reports highlighting the issue.
No one likes to experience our beaches strewn with plastic waste. People are now getting involved in beach cleans and most of us are aware and doing our best to reduce, reuse and recycle. Whereas it's unfair to say that the big supermarkets aren't making progress, for many, it's far too slow. And that's where zero-waste supermarkets step in.
Until recently, consumers have had their hands tied behind their backs. They had few options other than to purchase what was put in front of them selected from supermarket aisles stacked full of plastic-wrapped products. Thankfully, with the growth in availability and popularity of zero-waste grocery stores, things are now changing.
Before the 1960s, supermarkets were few and far between. As a result, consumers predominately shopped from smaller high-street grocery stores. They frequented local fruit and veg stores and bought bread and meat from local bakeries and butchers.
Often, these smaller local grocery shops were the beating heart of every community. There was a decent chance that the proprietor knew your name and your order and conversations were struck up over the counter between neighbors.
Back before the rise in large supermarkets, in these smaller local shops, plastic packaging to extend shelf life and protect goods across complex and often long-distance supply chains were less prevalent. Instead, they would supply milk in glass bottles. You could buy fruit, veg, and other items lose. Consumers would typically use their own bags to carry them home.
Whereas choices were more limited than they are today, life was somehow more simple back then. Today, supermarkets are in a constant race to offer wider ranges, better offers, and compete on price.
All of this is in response to our modern consumer demands and expectations of being able to buy pretty much everything at all times of the year. The result is a complex range of suppliers and logistics. Complicated supply chains, extended shelf life, and consistent packaging across literally 1000s of stores have all helped to create aisles full of plastic packaging.
So, back then, there was no such thing as zero waste as we know it. Rather, it didn't need or have a name simply because it was normal and just how things were done. Despite this, convenience has since taken over and, with it, a huge increase in packaging waste. This, in turn, has led many to look for solutions.
Essentially, zero waste stores began life decades or maybe even hundreds of years ago, and now they are staging something of a comeback. Waste-free supermarkets as we know them now prove a valid point that we can purchase goods without generating a huge amount of waste. They ably demonstrate a different way of doing things whilst providing consumers with the choice of shopping waste-free toward a more eco-friendly life.
In London back in 2006 Cathergin Conway founded Unpackaged, the first zero-waste store to open its doors.
She began trading as a market stall, selling zero-waste products across London. Using feedback and support, she then set up a store permanently in Exmouth and Broadway markets.
Eventually, in 2007, she opened a store in Islington, London, with more than 700 products available. This marked the beginning of the modern zero-waste grocery store. The idea was based on bulk shopping with the aim of providing a solution to packaging waste.
At zero-waste stores like unpackaged, you can scoop up dried foods and dried fruit from the bulk market aisles. At the refill store, if you bring your own reusable bottles you can leave with everything from shampoo to detergent without the need for a new container. All helping you go plastic-free in the bathroom. You can fill your store cupboard up with herbs and spices, baking goods, and more by bringing your own reusable container.
Related: If you tend to pass the supermarket on the way home from work or while out and about, a collapsible water bottle might be just what you need to stash in your eco-friendly backpack. That way, you can fill up without the bulk of a larger container.
Today, the company has since opened a number of concessions in the popular Planet Organic stores as well as across various farm stores in and around London.
Unpackaged was the real pioneer, with the founder Catherine Conway setting the tone. This paved the way for around another 150 zero-waste grocery stores to have opened since by entrepreneurs and people passionate about the environment who all believed that they could also make a difference.
As of today, there are a number of independent stores located all around the world. We can now find zero-waste supermarkets in Europe, America, Canada, Taiwan, and South Korea. Delivering this simple yet inspiring concept, each zero-waste grocery store helps people think and address waste each time they go to the grocery store. These pioneering zero-waste grocery stores all also help provide the means to change our behaviors as consumers.
Quite possibly, the next big player in this industry is Original Unverpackt in Berlin. They began opening one store in Berlin in 2014, and it is a plastic-free oasis. Offering unpackaged, bulk items, and other goods, it has since gone on to open a second store.
The company has a strong ethic and core beliefs that drive everything that it does.
Throughout America, zero-waste grocery stores are also popping up. In New York, Honest Weight Co-op has been offering bulk buy grocery shopping for consumers since 1976. However, this shop is not just about zero waste. It is also about ensuring we live more sustainably and responsibly in other ways.
Despite the success of zero-waste stores, some have struggled. This is proof that there is still a lot of work to be done.
In.gredients was the first store to open in the US that focused on zero waste in 2012. However, the realization hit that despite packaging improvements, it was proving hard work to encourage shoppers through one store to change their ways1.
Rather, they were going to other stores because they had not brought containers or produce bags. Due to their scale, the competition also provided a wider range of items on their shopping lists. Eventually, the business had to close. Perhaps before its time, but also showing that opening a zero-waste grocery store is no easy ride.
As disparaging as this might seem, more zero-waste grocery stores are opening across the world. New shops and concepts are popping up in our urban centers and close to organic growers and farms. Increasing consumer options one store at a time seems set to continue to be a growing trend. Providing the option to purchase goods in bulk using their own containers and buying zero-waste products looks here to stay.
There is one change that could make an even larger impact, and that was where the large supermarkets really move to become zero-waste. It’s fair to say that the supermarket has been a significant contributor to waste2. Aisle after aisle contains plastic from floor to ceiling and other such items. What’s more, in the UK, they also throw away 7.3 million tons of food each year that we can put to good use. As such, alongside plastic, food waste in itself is now a global problem.
A wander around the supermarket will present you with bananas in plastic packaging, cucumbers in shrink-wrapping, and pizzas placed on polystyrene bases. So, if we are going to reduce plastic waste and food waste, then supermarkets can do a lot.
What is promising is that many supermarkets are undertaking their own initiatives:
The German supermarket has created its own target. 2022 is when it will make the packaging across all of its own-label products recyclable, reusable, or compostable. Along with this, it has stopped selling its 5p plastic bags and has made the switch to paper bags in some areas.
Again, this is another supermarket that has removed the cheaper plastic bags. What’s more, it is also removing the plastic boards that come with all freshly made pizza products. This will remove 178 tonnes of plastic. The supermarket also has plans to introduce zero-profit re-usable coffee cups too.
When it comes to food waste, Lidl has been leading the way. We live in an era where our food has to look perfect. Odd-shaped food would be discarded and thrown to waste, but Lidl is challenging this. Offering slightly damaged and odd-shaped fruit and veg at a reduced cost, it aims to reduce unnecessary food waste.
Along with this, some stores no longer offer plastic bags. Instead, they are giving consumers the chance to use empty fruit and veg cardboard boxes to carry their goods.
Focusing on plastic bags, Morrisons has brought in new paper bags. Along with this, they have also increased the price of plastic bags.
We could consider Sainsbury’s as the leader in this area. Since 2005 it has been working to reduce plastic. It has already reduced its own brand packaging by 35%. What’s more, 40% of its packaging is made using recycled materials.
Along with this, it has recently announced the removal of all plastic bags for loose fruit, vegetables, and bakery goods.
From targeting its own-brand plastic packaging to using 100% sustainable paper and board, Tesco is certainly playing its part. It has also chosen to remove some plastic-wrapped fruit and vegetables.
There's no doubt it'll be quite a challenging shift for the big supermarkets to achieve zero waste, and as such none have made that commitment. However, almost every UK supermarket has signed up for the UK Plastics Pact. Following its launch in 2018, stores have been encouraged to deal with plastic waste. As a result, over 120 organizations and food brands have joined the pact.
There is a number of targets in place that have to be met by 2025, and these include:
Along with the pledge to reduce plastic use and waste, they are also targeting food waste. The UK government has set targets, and many food suppliers have signed up. Annually, as much as 10.2 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted.
Thankfully the growth in zero-waste grocery stores selling plastic-free products is good news for our planet. Given people are now more in tune with bringing their own bags, next we hope to see more and more bringing their own containers and buying in bulk.
Meanwhile, the bigger players are responding to consumer demands too. Whilst consumers have been forced for many years to purchase what is put in front of them, there's little reason why the bigger shops too can't start providing the means to us to fill up our dry goods and detergent needs in bulk using our own containers.
From large supermarkets to small independent shops, moving to zero-waste is possible. We just all need to work together, then a change will come.
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