How Packaging-Free Supermarkets are Changing the Way We Shop

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Bring your glass jars and paper bags.

The idea of “waste not, want not” has been drummed into us since we were children. We were taught to finish our dinner before we had to get up off the table and throw the scraps in the bin. Even at most Australian primary schools, rubbish monitors made sure everyone threw away their rubbish at recess.  

While most of us may have forgotten these small acts of environmental activism from our childhood, two women in Berlin certainly have not. Milena Glimbovski and Sara Wolf have taken that mantra to an entirely new level: creating Original Unverpackt, Berlin’s first supermarket without any disposable packaging. Original Unverpackt, roughly translates as “Original Unpacked”. “We’re not just another ‘option’ to the big supermarket chains; we are a real alternative. We think it’s time to redesign the shopping experience – no piles of packaging after every shopping trip. No fights over who’s going to take out the garbage,” said co-founder Milena.

Germany, an industrial powerhouse and the world’s fourth largest economy after China, the US and Japan, is the country which invented low-cost, high-turnover supermarkets, such as Aldi, where most items are pre-packaged and sold from pallets. Germany alone produces around 16 million tonnes of plastic packaging each year.

“We’re not just another ‘option’ to the big supermarket chains; we are a real alternative. We think it’s time to redesign the shopping experience.”

Taking as her inspiration the Seas of Plastic TED talk by oceanographer Charles Moore, documenting the destruction wreaked by plastic in the seas and our visual environment, as well as a trip that Milena took to Copenhagen, a city she previously thought was sustainable and environmentally friendly. She was shocked to find that almost every supermarket in Copenhagen had individually packaged apples and fruits. In 2014, the two won an SAP Social Impact Lab scholarship to refine their business plan. In June of that year, they embarked on a crowdfunding campaign on German platform “Start Next” to fund the supermarket. Their initial goal was to raise 45,000 euros and they more than doubled their goal, by raising 100,000.

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Original Unverpackt offers nearly 350 products. Indeed, there are not countless brands for each product, but only one. There are toothpaste tabs, wine in large barriques, metres-high canisters of dried chickpeas or oats. Even a music-festival-friendly female peeing cup (to save women from having to wait in lines). Its edgy location opposite Görlitzer Park in Kreuzberg attracts a range of clientele. The first thing that is striking is that it is akin to a corner shop in that it’s one room. There is almost the expectation of an old grocer with an apron and pencil behind his ear waiting to serve you.  Most of the produce is sourced locally from Berlin or the surrounding region of Brandenburg. Shoppers bring their own glass canisters or Tupperware to buy the quantity of what they need. Bulk shopping is becoming more and more popular along the east coast of Australia with the advent of The Source Bulk Foods  and Naked Foods. Customers appreciate that they pay and consume only what they need and don’t overspend on food that they might end up throwing out. Original Unverpackt’s ‘rubbish’ bin is the size of a domestic bathroom bin.

Zero packaging or “bulk foods” supermarkets and the growing consumer activism have, in part, been fuelled by a zero-waste movement at the local level, while at the government and political level, politicians scrambled to sign onto The Paris Agreement to Climate Change in November 2016, to pursue global efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In Europe, an EU-funded foundation called “ Zero Waste EU”  supports local groups with independent knowledge and speaks to EU policy makers with a unified voice.

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Across Europe, other bulk foods supermarkets include Effecorta (Capannori, Italy), Catalan Granel (Barcelona) and Mass Greisslerei (Vienna). Whilst bulk foods seem to be slow to take off in Asia, as of October 2016 there is now The Hive, in what may be Asia’s first, organic and zero-waste supermarket located in bustling Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The supermarket is in a compact yet light-flooded space overlooking a verdant tropical garden. Beyond selling produce, there are also cooking, urban gardening and zero-waste-for-kids workshops. Catering mainly to KL’s urbane expat community, locals have been hesitant to shop there, yet French founder Claire Sancelot notes the numbers are increasing. Claire admits she had no real appreciation for nutrition, was raised on processed food and suffered an eating disorder in her twenties. In her thirties, she became something of a local hero during the time she lived in Hong Kong with her family of three children, blogging about her zero-waste adventures in growing her own herbs on their small Hong Kong balcony and completely re-organising her household to suit apartment living. “The Hive sells raw food, such as cereals, seeds. Twice a week, our organic farmers deliver their organic produce in their own wicker baskets which we sell directly in that form,” explains Claire. According to her, there are other bulk supermarkets in Malaysia and other parts of Asia but they are not all organic and they are eager to give plastic bags.

While bulk food supermarkets are clearly here to stay and represent a real alternative to mainstream commercial supermarkets, it remains to be seen what the uptake will be in other parts of the world.

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