Waste not, Want Not

Can Zero Waste shopping ever be truly viable?

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My grandmother did her food shopping by bringing baskets, egg cartons and bottles to be refilled. For my mother, it was a relief to buy products with durable packaging. And me, now I despair every time I come back from the supermarket with more plastic than produce.

Plastic – a material that has revolutionised the way we shop, consume and store food – has become a large-scale problem.

Today we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic every year. Of this, 40% was used for packaging, and half of that for food and drink.

An abusive use, with a huge environmental impact: 90% of this plastic will take more than 500 years to decompose and the remaining 10% will be recycled using systems that are not yet fully efficient.

The situation is alarming, and has prompted an ongoing search for solutions that began some time ago: new packaging materials, alternative consumption initiatives and purchase models that encourage breaking bad habits.

That’s how ‘zero waste’ supermarkets and bulk shops came to be: establishments in which the customer can fill up their own containers, or those provided by the shop – which are, of course, recyclable. Returning to the way our grandmothers shopped, these shops connect with consumers who are concerned about waste disposal, the environment and health, as most of the products on sale are organic and aims for an eco friendly consumption.

The formula led to the opening new establishments in countries such as Germany, France, Belgium and Spain, and continues to be successful. It is, however, a niche concept. In other places where the market isn’t large enough, the formula fails.

Stores without plastic containers to promote eco friendly consumption
A Zero Waste store in The Netherlands. Image courtesy of Unverpacket

This is what happened in the Netherlands, where, of the ten zero waste shops that opened a few years ago, only a couple remain – saved by their specialised and high-quality products. “It’s an eco friendly model that requires a change in consumer habits and if this doesn’t occur, the numbers don’t add up”, explains Jeroen Scharma, ex-owner of a bulk shop in the Leiden district that closed a few months ago. “Many people rooted for us, but at the end of the day, they bought very little”, he adds.

There are several arguments in favour of going plastic-free: you only buy what you really need, there’s complete product transparency, unnecessary spending on packaging is avoided, and what’s more, you’re protecting the environment.  But that’s not enough. “The product has to be of very high quality and in good condition to be able to justify the higher price”, says Björn van Dongen, Director of vom Fass in the Hague, a shop that sells oil, vinegar, wine and spirits in bulk.

Those opposed to the plastic-free and eco friendly concept speak about the environmental pressure related to the washing of packaging. They add that, on certain occasions, packaging is still the eco-friendliest option. It’s the controversial cucumber case: when wrapped in plastic, they last three months longer than when not wrapped.

The organisations who head up the anti-plastic campaign are still looking for alternatives. If the ‘zero waste’ supermarket isn’t the perfect solution for everyone, why not try a plastic-free supermarket?

The project was thought up by British company A Plastic Planet, who, along with its Dutch counterpart Plastic Soup Foundation, and the ecological supermarket chain Ecoplaza, launched the first plastic-free supermarket. What started out as a pop-up shop in Amsterdam selling 800 products, has grown into 75 shops selling more than 1,500 plastic-free products. That is, products packaged in glass, cardboard, metal or bioplastic – a material with the same appearance and function as plastic, but which is biodegradable.

Buying food without plastic containers is a key for an eco friendly consumption
A branch of the Dutch organic food chain Ecoplaza. Alamy stock photo

“We’re at an early stage – building up awareness – that’s why there are still only a few people who come specifically to buy plastic-free and eco friendly products”, explains Rutger Koene, director of one of the Ecoplaza supermarkets in the Hague.

Lack of awareness, surprise and enthusiasm are some of the customers’ reactions. “For the first time, I’m realising that this packaging is not made of plastic and I think it’s a great initiative”, explains Monique, an occasional Ecoplaza customer who opts for healthy, environmentally friendly products. However, there are still some customers who are guided by price. “I prefer to buy plastic-free – it seems to be healthier and fresher. But if it’s much more expensive, I’ll go for the plastic-packaged equivalent instead”, explains Akkia, a frequent customer.

“The change in mentality isn’t only happening on a consumer level. Brands are also becoming aware of the necessity to adapt their packaging material to that of the competition,” adds the shop manager.

According to the company, the next phase is to increase sales volume so that the price of plastic-free packaging can compete with that of plastic packaging. This means that plastic-free packaging will go from being an alternative for a minority to a trend adopted in large supermarket chains.

This is the current aim of plastic-free retailers, though there are other aspects to be considered to. “It’s essential that we make recycling regulations clear and create ways to make bioplastic compost as simple as possible”, explains Harmen Spek, Innovation and Solution Manager at Plastic Soup Foundation.

These are the first steps towards plastic-free consumption. Though they are small and experimental, they are fundamental if we don’t want future generations to accusingly ask us: how did you let this happen?

Main Image: An exhibit at the Design Museum, London by A Plastic Planet and Made Thought for Ecoplaza. Alamy stock photo