The environmental impact of packaging is a huge problem.
Yet, food needs to be transported and stored in a way that is safe, combats spoilage and is cost-effective. All this while satisfying consumer desires and industry standards.
While some great minds are at work to create new methods of packaging (like water bottles made from algae), we still don’t have an easy solution.
Enter a new type of emerging retailer – the zero packaging supermarkets. They’re spreading across Europe and look set to become a global phenomenon.
That’s A Lot Of Pizza Boxes
In the EU in 2013, packaging waste was just under 157 kgs per person per year. In the US in 2012, Americans discarded their own weight in packaging every 30-40 days.
That’s a lot of take away tubs and pizza boxes.
I can’t remember a meal that didn’t involve some kind of packaging, whether from opening a bag of rice or a tin of tomatoes. Even coffee has become a packaging hazard with pods increasing in popularity.
The amount of food packaging varies by geography too.
When living in the UK, I was surprised to find fresh fruit and vegetables mostly pre-packaged in plastic sleeves, standardising amounts for easy scanning. In Australia, most fresh fruit and vegetables are sold loose. In Japan and Korea, packaging is even more excessive. Some foods come wrapped in three separate layers, particularly if the product is expensive.
It’s really no surprise that food accounts for two thirds of all packaging waste. It’s an unfathomable amount we’re producing and discarding every year.
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Trailblazers To The Rescue
While scientists and designers continue to innovate and improve packaging, there’s a different approach that’s gaining momentum: the packaging-free supermarket.
The idea isn’t new but has been taken off recently with the arrival of Original Unverpackt, a Berlin-born startup which launched after a hugely successful crowdfunding campaign.
The idea was simple. Reduce as much waste as possible by selling food and household items in bulk. That meant that Unverpackt needed to find suppliers willing to remove as much packaging as possible throughout the supply chain.
Unfortunately, some foods are more challenging than others.
As Unverpackt admit, “eliminating packaging is difficult to guarantee with bananas from overseas, but easy to ensure with the ‘Rosenrot & Feengrün’ jam from the Spreewald or organic honey from Berlin”.
They currently stock almost 600 products, from jams and pastas, to dishwashing detergent.
Go Get Unpackaged
It’s true that reducing packaging is only a small part of the answer to our food sustainability problem. But it is an important part.
There are a growing number of zero-packaging supermarkets around the UK, including London shops Unpackaged in Muswell Hill and Hetu in Clapham Junction as well as The Zero Waste shop in Devon. There’s also plenty of shops popping up across Europe, and in the US.
In Australia, I was happily surprised to learn that the local unpackaged store has 32 locations around the country – and is growing.
While it does mean I need to go prepared with your jars and tupperware, and the selection is relatively limited, it makes me more mindful of what I’m buying. I also have the flexibility to buy the amount that I actually need. This means I don’t have as many nasty surprises lurking at the back of the cupboards.
My pantry looks a whole lot more zen too, given that I don’t have hundreds of brightly-branded items trying to vie for my attention.
If you don’t have a zero-packaging supermarket just around the corner, you can always take small steps to reduce your packaging footprint through mindful shopping. See how much packaging you can avoid on your next weekly shop!