Without packages, boxes or bags: Your zero waste grocer

October 29, 2016 | By Craig and Marc Kielburger

A shopper with her reusable containers at a Zero Waste Market kiosk in Vancouver. (Photo credit: Brianne Miller)

What’s in your fridge? Perhaps there’s bacon. Or the fixings for an omelet with cheese and tomato.

But how much is actually edible? How much of it is packaging?

Bacon slices are peeled out of a disposable plastic packet, while the eggs stand sentinel in a Styrofoam carton. Tomatoes are locked in a clamshell box, those miniature plastic prisons for produce. Cheese slices come individually wrapped.

And that’s just what’s for breakfast.

Canadians send more than nine million tonnes of garbage to landfills every year—an estimated 35 per cent of that waste is packaging from food and consumer goods. And not all packaging waste makes it to the dump. Scientists have sounded the alarm about pop can holders and grocery bags polluting our waterways and oceans.

Eco-entrepreneurs like Vancouver’s Brianne Miller want to help reduce the rubbish produced by our daily bread. Miller is bringing a new global trend to Canada: the zero-waste grocery store.

A marine biologist, Miller often encounters water pollution and its effect on aquatic life around the globe. On a trip to Borneo, an island known as a pristine diver’s paradise, she was greeted by a floating carpet of litter atop the waves. Her resolve? Reduce the amount of garbage Canadians produce, and reduce the impact on our oceans. In 2015, she launched the Zero Waste Market, Canada’s first waste-free pop-up grocery store.

Miller’s market began with monthly kiosks that would “pop up” temporarily inside other (non-food) urban stores, like retailer Patagonia. Her sites became so popular that Miller is now working to get the Zero Waste Market a permanent home. Meanwhile, two other zero-waste stores have joined Canada’s scene. Green, on BC’s Salt Spring Island, launched in June, and Montreal’s Méga Vrac opened in September.

The idea has been around in other countries for almost a decade. The UK’s first zero-waste store opened in 2007. In 2011, the U.S. got its first waste-free outlet in Austin, Texas. Similar stores have sprung up across Europe.

Miller’s kiosks offer fruit and veggies, bread, and a wide array of dried goods like grains and nuts, all displayed in reusable containers. Shoppers scoop what they want into their own bags, jars and Tupperware, and pay by weight. (It’s like a bulk food store, but with fresh produce and without the plastic bags and twist ties.) There’s even cleaning products like dish soap and laundry detergent in large dispensers.

The Zero Waste Market has faced a few challenges. Sourcing locally-grown fruits and veggies supplied without packaging is easy. But for popular items like mangos and avocados that can’t survive Canadian winters, Miller had to hunt for suppliers abroad who were willing to ship in reusable bins. And for now, there’s no meat on the shelves. Canadian food safety requirements mean that selling meat without packaging is tricky, though Miller is working with regulators to accommodate this.

Although the trend is spreading, there isn’t a zero-waste store in every Canadian neighbourhood. However, most major chains are trying to reduce waste. They’re offering a range of reduced-packaging products (like cheese slices in a single, re-sealable envelope instead of individually wrapped). And of course shoppers are now encouraged to bring their own reusable shopping bags.

More ambitious ideas like fully compostable packaging, promoted by the National Zero Waste Council, a Canadian group focused on waste prevention, could help move the needle if consumers pressure big stores.

Miller is currently negotiating a lease and hopes to open the full-time Zero Waste Market this fall. When she does, Miller estimates her one store alone will reduce the number of food containers going to landfills by 100,000 a year.

They say good things come in small packages. Perhaps the best things come in no packages at all.

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