In 2014, in Burley’s Kreuzberg district, Sara Wolf and Milena Glimbowski opened the city’s first package-free grocery store, Original Unverpackt. In 2007, Catherine Conway made a splash in London with Unpackaged, an entirely package-free store. Today, these two iconic examples are much in vogue: in France, there are package-free grocery stores in Toulouse, Nantes and Lyon. Elsewhere, consumers shop for products guaranteed without throwaway packaging in Austin (Texas, USA), Copenhagen (Denmark) and Barcelona (Spain).
The principle is simple: customers tote in their own packaging, weighed empty when they enter the store so that they only pay the price of the products at the exit. Consumers increasingly concerned about generating less waste are highly enthusiastic about zero packaging, focusing particularly on the first of the four “Rs” of the circular economy: Refuse, Reduce, Recycle, Rot. But there is still a long way to go. For example, in 2011, the UK produced 11 tons of packaging waste – the equivalent weight of 200 Titanics – and every day, products appear on the shelves with their natural packaging removed in favor of cartons and plastic : pre-sliced mangoes, peeled bananas, oranges already quartered.
The challenge: reaching out to all consumers
Appealing though it is, the idea of zero packaging is struggling to expand. Today, those who do their shopping in bulk are mainly those concerned with ecology, with higher-than-average spending power.
Original Unverpackt, as The Guardian points out, lies in a neighborhood that has been intensely gentrified, where cultural creatives are gradually replacing families on a tight budget. And while the supermarket says it wants “to offer this new way of shopping to a wide range of consumers”, the challenge has not been taken up entirely. For Unpackaged, in London, the problem is particularly linked with the cost of organic products.
One way would be to extend the offer in terms of location to include working class districts. In Brighton, the social enterprise hiSbe (standing for ‘How It Should Be’) offers a package-free section inside a conventional supermarket, taking it beyond the specialized shops of middle-class neighborhoods to reach wider categories of the population.
Reinventing the packaging that cannot be eliminated
There are categories of products that cannot do without individual packaging for practical reasons (like water in bottles). Above all, the issue of health and food safety is crucial for consumers, particularly with fresh products. More than the total elimination of cardboard, plastic and glass, it is thus a matter of working every lever to eradicate unnecessary packaging: doing without it when we can; optimizing it when we can’t.
This is where the three other « Rs » of the circular economy come into play. Refusing throwaway packaging is not enough: we also have to Reduce, Recycle and Rot. With the first, work on more economical packaging design would eliminate unnecessary materials and only consume the resources absolutely necessary to protect or transport the product. Next, recycling implies factoring in the packaging’s end of life at the design stage to foster materials that are easier to recycle. It also means raising awareness in consumers and organizing efficient recycling systems, especially in developing countries.
Lastly, when it comes to « rotting », it means developing a whole sphere of innovation, which is already working on biodegradable packaging : plastics that dissolve in water, edible packaging for fresh products , bio-sourced plastic bags and bottles that can be entirely composted, plastics made from mushrooms, etc.
There is a huge range of possibilities to ensure that necessary packaging does not become polluting waste at the end of the chain, but part of an economy that respects the environment while meeting consumers’ needs. Support for this area of innovation could mean truly fulfilling the promise of « zero waste »: eliminating all unnecessary packaging, and making the rest part of the circular economy.
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