My immigrant grandmother used to describe for me the little general store her father owned in their small town in the early years of the last century. Dry goods—flour, sugar, rice—and dried fruits like raisins were kept in bins or barrels. Customers scooped as much as they wanted into a paper bag, weighed it, and paid by the pound. “Can you imagine!” she’d tell me. “People just reached right into the bins with their hands. Very unsanitary.” She admired the sleek packaging in American groceries.
So I wonder what she’d make of the “zero-waste” grocery stores cropping up today, which aim to eliminate all packaging, especially plastic. Several have been in the news lately: Precycle in Brooklyn; Nada in Vancouver, BC; and ZERO Market in Denver. Customers are expected to bring their own clean, product-appropriate packaging, such as glass jars, and weigh it before and after filling.
Precycle, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, sells produce, spices, eggs, oils and vinegars, nuts and granola, and dry items like beans, pasta, and rice, but no raw meat or fish. Nada stocks similar items and also sells toothpaste from glass jars and live herbs from which customers can pinch as much they need. Nada’s founder is a marine biologist who got the idea for her store after being appalled by the amount of plastic she found in the ocean.
Some of the stores, as the article notes, have run into problems with local health codes, including one in Denver that frowns on customers to bring their own containers. These same codes, though, govern the storage of bulk items like rice and limit the ways in which customers can access them, addressing concerns like those my grandmother had.
The average American generates 1,600 pounds of trash, plastic and otherwise, each year. Small zero-waste grocery stores like these will not, realistically, make much of a dent in the total (although Nada’s website claims its method has so far diverted more than 30,000 containers from landfills), and they tend to be more expensive than mainstream stores. But people are becoming aware of the trend and are pressuring larger stores to reduce packaging as well; Traders Joes recently announced a plan to reduce plastic packaging in response to a customer petition, for example.
Have you visited one of these stores? Would you be willing to pay more for certain items if one opened up in your neighborhood? How about bringing your own containers?