Zero waste shopping

Waste hierarchy

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The amount of waste produced around the world is simply mind-boggling, for example, the daily municipal solid waste production for each person in the U.S. is 2.58kg!  The numbers have been rising as a result of increasing population, economic growth and shopping habits.  Consequently, waste is a significant issue for all nations.  Probably at some point, you will have heard the phrase: reduce, reuse, recycle; this is the waste hierarchy and is often used when considering how to live more sustainably.  Reducing waste is the priority; buying goods through this lens means you consider materials used, packaging, longevity and recyclability.  The waste hierarchy can be extended; the Zero Waste International Alliance places redesign at the top of the hierarchy.  Straws, for example, needed to be redesigned when plastic straws became outlawed; they are now manufactured in materials such as metal, silicon and paper.  It seems to me that humans are pretty good at finding solutions, but sometimes they need a nudge to do so – or in this case the law.  Once you have bought an item, using it as much as you can is the next best thing; repairing it when it’s broken, if possible.  Where you can’t, ideally you recycle it, leaving landfill to be the last resort.  Sometimes, rot is added to the pyramid, for waste that can be composted, such as paper and food waste.  Waste destined for landfill needs to be further considered, if we want to place greater value on resources.  Are there further materials that can be recovered?  Can we change systems that would reduce/remove these discarded items?  Perhaps it also raises questions on policy surrounding materials that cannot function in a circular economy.

What is a zero waste shop?

Zero waste shops are a relatively new phenomenon.  According to Greenpeace, in 2019, there were about 400 shops worldwide.  They have continued to pop up all over the place particularly in Europe, but also in the United States, Australia and Singapore.  In the UK, there is an online directory of 194 shops and The Sustainable Collective maps more stores across the world. 

These shops are largely independents and sell a range of products, such as grains, pasta, nuts, seeds, spices, toiletries and cleaning products.  They remind me of traditional sweetie shops, with foodstuffs being displayed, aesthetically enticing in transparent jars.  The zero waste shop centres on the ‘reduce’ element of the waste hierarchy, as items are purchased with minimal packaging in comparison to what you might ordinarily find in a supermarket.  Shoppers can bring in containers from home to refill, buy reusable containers or take their food home in paper bags.  You get to buy the quantity of produce you wish, whilst hopefully having a pleasant chat with the shop staff.  My podcast conversation with Marisha Kay, co-owner of a low impact living shop, can provide further insight.

Common principles apply

As these shops are set up with the environment in mind, you will often find they adhere to the following practices:

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  1. No single-use plastic packaging.
  2. Unsold fresh produce is directed to a suitable destination such as a food bank or compost bin.
  3. Products may be bought in bulk by the shop and portions dispensed to each customer.
  4. Origins of products are considered, suppliers are likely to support environmental, social and governance best practice.
  5. Products are often sourced locally to reduce transport miles.

What about the supermarkets?

Supermarkets are certainly recognising the need to address plastic packaging.  In the UK, Waitrose initiated a trial in 2019, known as Unpacked, starting with one store.  They have now expanded the programme to a further 3 stores.  Marks and Spencer also first trialled their ‘Fill Your Own’ system in 2019 and are now expanding into 11 stores covering 60 lines.

The major UK supermarkets are all signed up to The UK Plastic Pact,  where they commit to eliminating problematic plastics, stimulate innovation and are part of a movement towards an improved recycling system.  The European Plastic Pact has support from 20 countries.  It seems that in the U.S., supermarkets have been slower to progress reducing plastic packaging, as can be seen through Greenpeace rankings, based on plastic policy, reduction, initiatives, and transparency.

The future

Thankfully, less plastic packaging is the direction of travel and consumers will increasingly have more choice in acquiring goods without it.  Hopefully, too, the more difficult plastic to eliminate on food wastage grounds will have better recycling streams, so that we can be confident that it doesn’t end up as pollution.

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