I know too much about the state of our environment to shop comfortably at grocery stores. I can’t help but wince when I notice how many of us reach for plastic bags to wrap everything, and I mean everything — even items like bananas and onions that don’t need it. It’s happening every day in countless markets around the world, so is it a wonder that our planet is drowning in garbage?
That’s what prompted Brianne Miller, co-founder of Canada’s soon-to-be first zero waste grocery store to ask customers to bring their own containers or reusable bags to fill up with goodies. The pop-up store, currently a test lab for the store opening in the fall, drew lineups February 27 in Vancouver’s trendy Kitsilano neighborhood.
As a marine biologist, Brianne noticed that much of what ended up in oceans came from food consumption. “A lot of the species I was studying were impacted by different aspects of our food system. So plastic pollution is one thing, but it’s also habitat degradation, agricultural run-off, pesticides and fertilizers, shipping, noise. …” Brianne says. “This store actually allows people to make really simple, tangible, behavior changes that really do have big downstream impacts.”
In Florida, Brianne looked at how human interactions impacted dolphins. After the study was completed, one of the subjects — a dolphin named Beggar died a year and a half later. An animal autopsy found he had ingested a fishhook, particles, and plastics – all of which are becoming the common diet for marine animals, according to Brianna.
Because it takes hundreds of years for plastics to break down, we really should use less of it. But global production of the modern invention has increased each year to as much as 4% between 2012 and 2013 according to the Worldwatch Institute. The United Nations Environmental Program estimates that 22 to 43% ends up in the landfills.
At the pop-up store, visitors lined up along the counter with large glass jars filled with locally-sourced and ethically-made dried mangoes, nuts, chocolates, oats, soaps, etc. Nothing comes prepackaged. The items are chosen, then weighed on an electronic scale that neutralizes the weight of the container.
One customer who lined up was Kyle Gillespie, a scientist who has studied coral reefs and worked with small fishing villages in the central Philippines. “The amount of plastic that you see just covering every nook and cranny in some places of coral reefs and see animals carrying around pieces of plastic is totally shocking,” he says.
Shopping in a waste-free grocery market isn’t much different from the conventional grocery store experience. It takes minimal planning to prepare containers, and a few minutes longer at the cash register for items to be weighed. When the store opens in the fall, it will feature a clean design, reduce packaging from suppliers, bike racks, recycled materials as furnishings and paperless receipts. It will also sell ‘ugly’ vegetables that don’t make the cut at other supermarkets.
A zero waste shopping experience is possible now even without the presence of waste-free markets in the neighborhood. Save those plastic bags and reusable containers that would normally end up in the waste bin and bring them along in your next shopping trip.
Even for the most environmentally conscious among us, generating waste in the 21st century is difficult to avoid. From traveling on airlines to our daily routines such as eating and grocery shopping, generating waste is inevitable unless we’re mindful of our complacent behaviors and take steps to minimize the impact on our environment – zero waste shopping is a huge step in the right direction.
Jenny Peng is a Taiwanese-born, Canadian journalist with interests in international development and environmental, youth, and women’s issues. You can follow her on Twitter @jennypengnow