Just last week, Huffington Post alerted us to "a whole new kind of grocery store" coming to the U.S. This new vision is all about zero-waste stores based on packaging reduction—a trend that has already taken root, they say, in Europe before hopping the pond the Vancouver, Canada (aka. Europe-west), Brooklyn (Portlandia-east) and Denver (the latest "it" city).
Really? I mean, I am excited by this, even as I'm also perplexed by its purported newness. This Treehugger article identified the same brand new trend five years ago, calling Austin's In.gredients, "the first packaging-free, zero-waste store in the U.S." and stating, "If it succeeds and the bulk trend catches on, the environmental footprint… of our country's grocery runs could be slashed pretty quickly."
There, they said it. The b-word: Bulk. It just doesn't sound as sexy as "zero-waste." Bulk has been around for decades, after all, and is now a crucial part of the natural channel, and a growing part of mass. The Bulk is Green Council's sixth annual celebration of this new trend rolls around later this year. Also years old is Longmont, Colorado's Simply Bulk, which opened more than a year ahead of Austin's In.gredients. (Comment below if you know of an even older shop.)
"The funny thing is we've been here for six years, so it's not so new to the U.S.," says Heidi Quince, who recently bought Simply Bulk from founder and natural grocery veteran Phil Bratty. Even so, she says, "It's new to a lot of people, so it seems to be catching on." To be sure, all of the newly publicized zero-waste stores (Vancouver, Denver, Brooklyn) are yet to open. It's seems as though 2016 will close with more than twice the zero-waste stores it opened with. Those are growth numbers worth keeping an eye on. (Note: with aisles of packaged goods, neither of the Florida companies Bulk Nation nor Bulk 'n' Natural fit this zero-waste model.)
So a "new trend" it is—even if not a new idea—and it's possible that waste reduction's time has come. "I am obsessed with how much waste we, especially Americans, produce," Quince says. "Not only the food that we leave on our plates, but all of the packaging. For me, it comes down to: how can we make people aware of how much packaging is involved, and how can we cut down?"
Indeed, Americans generate 254 million tons of waste, two-thirds of which ends up in landfills. In food alone, a remarkable 70 billion pounds is wasted annually while, by tragic irony, one in six Americans lives in a food insecure household. (Awareness is growing, though. If you haven't yet seen the cute-yet-profound Ad Council/NRDC video, stop reading right now and watch it.)
What these zero-waste stores are endeavoring to do is to change consumer perception of, and relation to, waste. This means an entirely new shopping experience, not just a bulk section surrounded by linear miles of packaged goods. Denver's The Zero Market will offer workshops on waste reduction. Vienna's Unverpackt offers chewable toothpaste to eliminate the tube and paperboard carton traditional paste comes in.
They also represent another arm of the renaissance of smaller specialty food retailers. "Because it's a small store," says Quince, "we can't offer everything." With this comes a more carefully curated selection, brilliantly identified in a recent New York Times article:
In an age in which we simultaneously expect and are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice at the grocery—this brand of whole-grain pasta or that one?—these stores offer something defiantly old-fashioned: one or two alternatives, selected by a member of a righteous cognoscenti. "There's one kind of rice in my store," said Andrea Lunzer of her eponymous Viennese shop. "I don't have rices fighting with each other. I've chosen for you—that's why it's called Lunzers.''
Each of these stores, through their own obsessions, is also likely to be more tuned into reducing its own waste—and even the minimal packaging that gets bulk goods to consumers homes.
Most stores are not set up for customers to use their own containers, Quince says. Especially not partially full ones. "We are. No matter how much is in there," she says, "we weigh it and take that weight off." (One woman even brings in a grease pen to eliminate the tared—weight sticker.) When consumers participate on this level, there is no packaging leaving the store. "That's ideal!"
Ideal, yes. And maybe not idealistic. This whole new way of shopping—new or not—shows that food and packaging waste are finally getting their day in the sun, a hopeful prospect compared to getting their eons in the compacted depths of the landfill.