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Zero waste shopping does not exist – is there a solution?

I usually wax lyrical, as do many other zero waste bloggers, on the virtues of zero waste food shopping. Those photos of us, filling up our jars or bags with bulk binned food, is one of the more popular visual associations people have with the zero waste lifestyle. See below.
Zero waste shopping does not exist – is there a solution?
But when the curtain is pulled back on the store room of these bulk food shops, you would find there is no such thing as zero waste shopping.

Yes, zero waste shopping does not exist! Hear me out, because I am going to talk about a solution further down. Don't worry, I'm not going to suggest we all start growing everything from scratch in our backyards either. 

Bulk food shopping allows the consumer (you and me) to buy food without packaging. We go in, collect our food, shampoo, cleaning products, honey, soy sauce etc from bulk bins. It's usually purchased in jars, plastic containers and cloth bags that are used each time we all shop. Bulk shopping is about the reuse of packaging by the consumer.

It's also about freeing up the responsibility of disposing the packaging. When I take my newly filled jars and bags home, I don't have any packaging to throw away. This type of shopping model is challenging the present supermarket individually wrapped system and I applaud it. Bulk food shopping puts the responsibility back onto the store where I bought it – it's up to them to find a way to deal with the packaging.

When I shopped at the supermarket or corner store, the food came individually packaged for us. Once I emptied the package of food, we disposed of it in our rubbish bin or recycling bins at the supermarket. I was making the rubbish and it filled up the bin each week.

Zero Waste shopping does not exist, because those bins of food we collect it from, is originally filled with food that is packaged, just on a larger scale. Large plastic sacks and tubs, that can not all be recycled or reused is what you would find in the back room of a bulk food shop. If that packaging is recycled, it would be down-cycled, meaning the plastic become another item of plastic and thats it. Down-cycling is the end of the road. Some items do come in paper, but not many. So while we the consumer are not making rubbish, our bulk stores are and that is why there is no such thing as zero waste shopping. It does not exist, yet.
Zero waste shopping does not exist – is there a solution?
At my wedding, we hired TAP. Wines to serve wine. We chose them because we loved their business model; to challenge the wastefulness of wine bottles in restaurants. In a nutshell, TAP. have stainless steel kegs, filled up at wineries and then fitted into restaurant/cafe/bars, providing wine on tap. Rather than a new wine bottle, that comes with a cork or metal lid, stickers, boxes etc, TAP. simply fill up a stainless steel barrel, drop it off at the venue and replace it when needed. The stainless steel barrels are cleaned between refills and will last for over twenty years. At the end of their life, they can be recycled completely, not down-cycled like plastic. One, 20 litre stainless steel keg, is the equivalent of 26 bottles of wine. That is a lot of resources saved. 

The business model got me thinking about bulk food stores. Could a third party company do the same, but for bulk foods and make the zero waste food shopping actually zero waste?

I'll explain how the idea works using chickpeas:

  • Farmer harvests and prepares chickpeas for sale 
  • Puts chickpeas into stainless steel barrels 
  • Third party business that owns the stainless steel barrels, picks up the packaged chickpeas, transporting them to bulk food stores 
  • Bulk food store empty the chickpeas into their dispensers OR let's them sit on the floor for use straight from barrels 
  • Once barrels are empty, third party business collects barrel from bulk store, takes it to another location where it is clean/sterilised
  • The newly cleaned barrels are then dropped back at the chickpea farm
  • The circle continuesZero waste shopping does not exist – is there a solution?
That's my idea to bring zero waste food shopping a step closer to zero, and make it more circular. My intentions when writing this blog post, was not to call out bulk food stores. As mentioned before, I applaud them for challenging the system. I'm merely putting an idea out there, hoping someone, say a millionaire that would like to launch or invest in a sustainably minded business, has read this. You are free to take this idea and run with it. Truly.

Tell me, what do you think of this idea? Or is there a simpler idea on how to make zero waste shopping truly without waste? How would you do it?

23 comments

  1. Katrien3/03/2017

    That is a great idea! Bulk stores do the best they can, but it's sad they still generate so much waste

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    1. Yes they do the best they can and they only have so much control over how the produce is sent to them. Bit by bit, I believe the system will change :)

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  2. Hi Erin, I want to thank you for giving me the knowledge I need to live a life with less plastic, single use or other wise. I have been reading and watching so much info on this topic and I feel good about the small steps I have already taken to reduce our waste. I love the idea of shopping at a bulk store but we don't have one within a reasonable driving distance and it wouldn't be economical in both time or petrol money to do so. It dawned on me one day while re watching Bea Johnsons clip about her zero waste life, that the bulk stores would produce a huge amount of waste and does it really make a difference who deals with the waste, it still creates this unending cycle of waste. I do love the idea of the producer having a reliable non plastic container for their produce to be used on the retail floor. It cuts out the need for packaging, it would probably make the product more expensive to begin with but then again maybe not over time. It's a great idea, now where is that millionaire that what's in on this new environmentally friendly way of delivering produce direct to the retail floor? Have a lovely weekend. Fi

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    1. You are right, either way there is waste being created, I guess this is why its good to have these conversations about it, rather than just sweep them under the rug. Hopefully this millionaire will come along and get it going :)

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  3. You are spot on. I always hope that the one large bag makes less waste than the oodles of smaller bags would if they were sold in separate batches. One of our local stores puts their large plastic container dispensers out for customers to take and use. I have always wondered why the producer can't take back those large plastic containers, clean and refill them. A third party could be the answer. Either way, we will have to pay more for the end product and, if we don't, we will pay for it in many more deadly ways. Rachel

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    1. I had not thought about the added cost; who would that fall upon? Perhaps the government could provide a subsidy, given that it would keep much of this waste out of landfill. A lot of landfill sites are used quarry mines, but as they fill up, valuable land that could be used for farming or housing, would be needed. Both of which would be more valuable to economic growth, compared to a landfill site, that becomes useless.

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  4. Great idea! It would also encourage more local food-sheds as you would only transport the containers relatively short distances. You might not be able to buy everything all the time depending on local farmers production schedules and crops. It would be very interesting to see this in action. I always think its a shame that few farmers sell direct to consumers also, that would save containers!

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    1. I don't know if the farmers would have the time or energy to sell direct. It might depend on the size of the farm. If farmers were paid properly (and valued!), then they could hire someone to organise this for them. But right now, I think most are just trying to make a living.

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  5. This post makes me have lots of thinky-thoughts. Once you've opened your eyes towards some of the ways your food and consumables make it to your home, there's no stopping considering the impact all along the supply chain.

    I'd be really interesting to see some info about the net impact of a zero waste store, with the waste it creates, vs. people buying individually packaged goods. I hope that it still works out a net benefit to buy bulk. I guess the question is what packaging is used to deliver to factories which package individually, and if it's less than 'packaging' for bulk zero waste.

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    1. You are right, once you start to understand how your food moves about, it's easy to become swept up asking questions. I do believe that bulk wins over individually packaged goods. When something like shampoo is shipped to the grocery stores, it's in cardboard boxes and shrink wrapped, will have stickers, pump lids etc. There is a lot more excess waste. When I used to buy my shampoo in bulk (i now wash with water only), the big container was sent back to the supplier and refilled numerous times. Unfortunately, most suppliers are nervous about cross contamination and choose to no reuse the larger containers and bags.

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  6. Hi Erin,

    I love your blog and understand the frustration that we as zero waste consumers we are simply displacing the packaging upstream as we ship in bulk stores.

    However replacing most goods with metal packaging rather than plastic is more environmentally damaging overall. The extra fuel required to transport the extra weight of the metal barrells would be much more environmentally damaging than transporting them in lighter plastic.

    Now I loathe plastic as much as every other zero waster but when I had a similar idea I had to concede that the current system is not evil at the core, it's simply based around efficiency in fuel resources. Plastic was introduced to make savings on fuel, which I know is ironic because the fuel and plastic both come from the same source!

    All I'm saying is that there is a much wider picture and of course unintended consequences of changing the way we transport food around the world.

    It's really important to think of the 'life cycle' effects of changes like this ��

    Hope that's not taken as a negative, it's just something that was pointed out to me time and time again when I suggested the same things to my friends and family xx

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    1. Hey Tegan, in no way did i find your response negative. Like you, I had those same points debated by family and friends. But i thought i'd put it out there, just to get a conversation going. I might look like a muppet but i believe It's good to have these conversations with people though. I think we should always be challenging for a better system in all facets of consumption. The idea I like about steel is that we can make those barrels from recycled metals and will continue to be recycled at their end of life, which will be upwards of 10 years. Sadly, plastic does not seem to last that long unless looked after really well. Even these plastic buckets have the potential to break apart more than a barrel made of something sturdier. I would like to see less food shipped around the world, instead buying food that is grown locally and in season. This would also help reduce the environmental impact.

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  7. So many things to consider.....the most important thing still remains reducing plastic use as it is such a deadly product both to the earth and our own health. I have been interested and active in this for a while now but just recently just kicked up my activity level. I started a FB page called My Life Without Plastic. I will also be giving presentations locally supporting others in their desire to reduce their plastic consumption.

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    1. I agree, being diligent on the plastic waste is important. If we don't focus on it now, the problem will only grow. That's awesome to hear you are looking to give presentations locally. Getting out there and spreading the word in our communities has a knockoff effect to make change effective.

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  8. Anonymous3/20/2017

    Hi Erin,

    I really like your model for transporting food. Although I can also appreciate the concerns around steel being heavier to transport, I think that just means the food has to be grown more locally so the weight doesn't have to be carried as far.

    Pre WWII two thirds of Britain's food came from outside of Britain. They managed to change this to two thirds of the food being grown inside Britain in order to avoid starvation if supplies were cut off. It just shows a change of mind set can reap big benefits.

    In my previous location much of my dry goods was available in calico bags. I didn't feel too bad about this as they could be reused, up-cycled or composted. I know that not everyone can grow food where they live but I do believe that everyone increasing what they grow at home is at least part of the solution. Aside from packaging, carbon miles also have to be considered, and if we reduce carbon miles by growing some of our own produce we are effectively eliminating packaging at the same time. Growing your own also saves money and brings you the many benefits of gardening - stress reduction, sunshine, exercise etc..

    Madeleine.x

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    1. We aim to buy all of our vegetables and fruit from within our state. Our bulk items are a little trickier, but it's something i'd love to commit more towards. Lucky a lot of the dry bulk goods we buy are grown in Australia. But we are such a big country, that yes the steel drums would weigh a lot and require more fuel. Australia has great farmland, that there is no reason why we can't grow more food locally or at least within our country, rather than ship it across the world. I remember looking at a photo from WWII, where the moat of London Tower was full of vegetable garden beds. Our whole food system is broken. Perhaps it's smarter if we aim for more local food, then maybe the waste created would reduce as a result.

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    2. the only problem with paper or fabric bags for bulk items is pests. mice,rats,roaches and weevils will all chew though paper or cloth bags infecting the food supply with droppings and disease. other wise I'd say paper and cloth would be a decent lightweight eco-friendly alternative otherwise.

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  9. Good post!You're very right,Zero Waste shopping does not exist. In that moment I think that's not possible.

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    1. You are right, at the moment it does not exist. But there is a possibility that one day there could be.

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  10. i was just thinking this when I started reading up on the "zero waste" movement. That's why I buy the large bulk bags myself and recycle large flour paper bags and reuse the large plasticy rice bags for other things. I hope that model you proposed can be made mainstream one day ! I love it !! I am from the US and I know for certainty that most of the crops grown here are only able to be grown in certain areas then shipped across the nation.. which would make it difficult here in the US but one can dream.

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  11. Hi Erin, have you ever been to the Manly Food Co-Op in Manly NSW. We sell lots of package free goods. From Grains and Flour, Nuts and seeds, Fruit and Veg, all the way down to Tofu, in fact we are one of the few places in Sydney that sell unpackaged Tofu. We would love it if you would drop in and say Hi one day.

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  12. Hi Erin,

    Nice post and great discussion. I had a similar idea, but replacing the plastic by fabric bags, like the ones they use to bring the crop to the mil in (although I didn’t think about the pest problem, mentioned above). The great thing with produce bags is that they would be light, easy to wash and would take up much less space to send back to the producer, so the truck could also transpose other stuff.

    I am sure there is a good solution out there, but it is hard to consider all the aspect without looking at the supply chain in detail. My idea behind shopping bulk, and zero waste in general, is that I take responsibility for my own waste and we need to go toward a society model where each individual or business takes responsibility of his.

    And the first step would be to increase the price of plastic, maybe with a tax or something, because using a raw material that took centuries to form for disposable items, just doesn’t make sense.

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  13. Sarah, excellent ideas (points). I fear the plastic manufacturers will (and already are) fight any tax, increse or attempt to put them out of business. Not everyone thinks like the people reading this blog, sadly.
    Your idea about being responsible for your own waste is how it was 100 years ago. Unfortunately many (oh so many) people would not take any responsibility for their own waste.
    I see this everyday as I just moved to Cincinnati (Price Hill) to be part of the green movement here. Everyday when I walk my dogs along the same route I pick up trash/litter. Everyday I walk the same route I have two grocery size plastic bags full. Obviously this means it is new litter and so many people do not give a crap.
    BTW, I do not provide the platic bags as I have used canvas for 25 years now. I find them along the way, retrieve and save them. I also reuse them until they rip so that they will no longer hold trash.
    Check out my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/My-Life-Without-Plastic-262266450896944/

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