BUSINESS
07/05/2016 07:10 am ET Updated Jul 06, 2016

A Whole New Kind Of Grocery Store Is Coming To The U.S.

Zero-waste retailers imagine a world with much less garbage.

Zero Waste Market/SFU Beedie School of Business

In recent years, a spate of no-waste markets have popped up across Europe. In cities like Berlin, Vienna and Barcelona, shop owners have a simple philosophy: Pre-empt waste from bags and packages by simply not offering them.

Now the trend is heading across the ocean.

Sarah Metz is working to open a zero-waste grocery store in Brooklyn, New York, where customers could bring their own reusable containers to measure out just the right amount of food items and other household products. 

“It’s hard not to notice how much waste is generated here,” Metz said. “You walk past piles of trash that are higher than you are.”

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At the Fillery, which Metz hopes to open sometime this year, shoppers would be able to pack dry goods like grains and spices into their own glass jars or cloth sacks. Dispensers would be filled with oils, vinegar, honey and syrup. The store would sell milk from Ronnybrook Farm, in upstate New York, in glass bottles, which shoppers could then bring back on their next grocery trip. Shoppers could even get dish soap in refillable screw-top bottles.

The goal is to encourage shoppers to buy only what they need, an approach that helps cut down on the amount of both unused food and unnecessary packaging. If you only need one cup of sugar for a cake, why buy an entire 4-pound bag?

Amanda Palmer/Zero Waste Market
Shoppers can use their own glass jars to scoop out dry goods at Zero Waste Market in Vancouver, Canada.

Metz isn't alone. Brianne Miller's Zero Waste Market is set to open in Vancouver, Canada, this fall following the success of various pop-up stores in the city. And in Denver, Lyndsey Manderson, co-founder of the store Zero Market, plans to set up a tracker at her shop so customers can see how much packaging they've kept from going to the landfill.

After all, plastic bags are a scourge. They’re often discarded after just one trip to the grocery store, they get caught in trees and they’re doing a fantastic job of destroying our oceans. In New York alone, people throw out almost 2,000 tons of plastic bags each week. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that Americans discard 100 billion plastic bags each year.

Metz, who raised $17,000 on Kickstarter earlier this year and is currently searching for a space in Brooklyn for the Fillery, said she was inspired in part by the success of zero-waste stores in Europe, where shoppers can pick up pasta in bulk, as well as olives and chewable toothpaste. There's even a company, Jean Bouteille, that "precycles" by making glass bottles that can be returned and reused.

In Vancouver, Miller is working with suppliers who can provide reusable shipping containers. Miller, a marine biologist who has studied coral reefs and tropical fish, says the urgency of waste reduction hit home when she found herself on a remote beach in Haida Gwaii, on the coast of British Columbia, that was strewn with plastic debris.

“All plastic ends up in the ocean, and the toxins are absorbed by animals and built up in the food chain,” Miller said. “We were on beaches in the middle of nowhere, and seeing the amount of plastic that washed up on them -- the density was bizarre.”

It's taken some time for suppliers to get used to the new requests.

"Things still show up triple-wrapped in styrofoam," Manderson said. "We need to be practicing zero-waste as a store, and it's about trying to find that line of when we're not being responsible with the products delivered to us."

Zero Waste Market
A shopper shows off her collection of glass jars at Zero Waste Market in Vancouver.

Shop owners say they want to undo the huge amounts of waste that are a by-product of a retail culture that emphasizes customer convenience. It’s much easier to grab that plastic bag (or two or three) at your local corner market than to remember to carry around your own tote in case you do a grocery run.

The popularity of food startups isn't exactly helping. Take the meal kit delivery service Blue Apron: By sending exactly what you need directly to your door, the startup in theory helps cut down on wasted groceries. But as BuzzFeed points out, nearly every ingredient comes in its own little pouch, generating an insane amount of packaging waste for just a two-person dinner. (Blue Apron said in an email that all of its packaging is recyclable or biodegradable.)

Getting people to embrace reusable containers in New York might be a challenge, since so many people in large cities are accustomed to the single-use lifestyle -- where everything from coffee cups to takeout trays can be tossed without a second thought. 

“People are in a very fast-paced city, and they’re looking for something that’s quick and easy,” Metz said. “That idea generates waste.”

But maybe it doesn't have to.

This post has been updated with additional comments. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the store Zero Market as "Zero Waste."

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