Shrink your waste.
March 19, 2017 8:08 AM   Subscribe

Zero Waste: coming soon (hopefully) to a grocery near you. Valérie Leloup, a French-born 45-year-old was an executive with food giant Danone for several years in Germany and then in Montreal. Inspired by Bea Johnson's book Zero Waste Home, a gift from her mother last Christmas, she set out to start NU, a zero waste bulk grocery store in Ottawa.

Several bulk grocery stores have sprung up in Europe and are doing well. Day by Day, in Lille France, Granel, in Barcelona Spain, Lunzer, Vienna Austria, Original Unverpackt, Berlin Germany.

In the U.S., about 30 percent of total waste is food containers and packaging, such as cereal boxes, milk cartons, and potato chip bags. We already know the scourge of plastic & plastic bags. The Anti-Packaging movement combined with the one-or-two-alternatives movement makes for simpler, more conscious choices. Some are calling it "Precycling".

Is the US ready? Well, there's Zero Market in Aurora CO opening this month. There's The Fillery in Brooklyn NY.

There's also lot of choices for getting stuff from store to home (and back): Jean Bouteille makes glass liquid dispensers, Freund has wide mouth glass jars, mason jars, glass air seal jars, you name it. There's also, and good ol' Ball jars.

Don't forget your bags! How about some mesh washable ones?
posted by yoga (26 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
It's much less hoity toity than NU appears to be aiming to be, but Canada already has a long-standing chain of bulk food grocers -- Bulk Barn. And last year, they started a program that would allow people to bring their own containers, rather than get new ones each time. So, the only thing this store is significantly adding is fresh produce -- which are already sold in pretty minimal packaging for most things.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:18 AM on March 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

Does WinCo count?
posted by oceanjesse at 9:06 AM on March 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

Seconding jacquilynne, and it isn't like Bulk Barn is an obscure, niche outlet - they have 250 stores across the country
posted by Flashman at 9:15 AM on March 19, 2017

I remember back in the 70s that my father would complain about how everything had gone prepackaged, he thought that this was an example of a nominally progressive regulation (food safety, who could be against that) that was used as a club to drive out small producers (especially jewish bakeries, RIP Silber's) in favor of corporate processed foods. For a long time there was zero bulk food available (at least in Maryland), we would drive to Delaware and go to an Amish store, they could avoid the regulations because of religious reasons.
posted by 445supermag at 9:43 AM on March 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

There was a short lived bulk food place in the US suburb where I grew up - probably from about 82 - 85. They only had dry stuff and you could but one generally did not bring one's own containers. They had a peanut butter machine which I always wanted us to try but we never did. They also sold focaccia, which I had never encountered before. It was a huge thrill to go there because they sold bulk candy and you could get a little bit of several kinds of candy instead of one candy bar - which I'm sure drove the cashiers nuts, but I was a little kid at the time.

We didn't go there too often, and knowing how strapped for cash we were, that makes me wonder just how cheap and useful it really was. Of course, US diets have shifted a lot since then - we were very much a cheap meat/starch/veg family and didn't really cook with a lot of spices or fancy add-ins, so anything beyond bulk pasta or rice probably wasn't going to do it for us.

Still - happy memories! The co-op is all right, but everything is so expensive.
posted by Frowner at 10:08 AM on March 19, 2017

I wish we had Bulk Barn in the US! Wonder why she didn't just join up w/ them? (She being the NU lady)
posted by yoga at 10:55 AM on March 19, 2017

I mean I get the sentiment but a glass jar can still become waste that's not easily returned to nature.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 11:02 AM on March 19, 2017

it isn't like Bulk Barn is an obscure, niche outlet - they have 250 stores across the country

I import Bulk Barn reusable bags to Chicago because they are the perfect reusable bag with two sizes of handles so i can use the long ones to slling bags over my shoulder or the short ones for carrying at arms length. The bags are also the perfect size for carrying two 12 packs of cola.

I buy extras every chance I get because I am terrified they will go away.

I also like to think that people read 'bulk barn' on them and assume it is for a body builder's supplement shop that is doing me no good at all..
posted by srboisvert at 11:11 AM on March 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I wish there was more detail about how (or whether) this works for things beyond your basic dry goods. I'm thinking especially of foods where the packaging serves a preservative function.
posted by enn at 12:10 PM on March 19, 2017

I love Bulk Barn, but it's only cheaper for some things. It can get very spendy very quickly!
posted by Kitteh at 12:10 PM on March 19, 2017

Also, it's frustrating that many of these waste-reduction schemes make it less convenient to do your shopping any other way than by car. When they passed the plastic bag ban in Chicago it became much more of a hassle to get groceries on foot (it's awkward to carry several empty reusable bags with you if you are making a number of stops before the grocery store, and paper bags really aren't built to survive a walk of more than a block or two with handles intact) or by bike (you really have to plan ahead and bring panniers or similar bags, whereas a plastic bag can easily be be strapped to a rack on its own, or carried for a short distance hanging from handlebars). This seems doubly true of any shopping system that requires your to bring your own heavy, bulky, breakable containers with you.
posted by enn at 12:17 PM on March 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I can make a bag recommendation for biking, at least: I like Baggu ones pretty well, and they come in little pouches so you can, if disciplined, tuck them back into the pouch and carry the pouch in a pocket (they will fit in men's standard pockets or the back pocket of jeans if wearing women's jeans) or bag. They can travel by handlebar.

That doesn't help with the "be sure to bring lots of jars to the store" part, of course.
posted by Frowner at 12:39 PM on March 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

My local food coop has lots of things in bulk, including beer, maple syrup and every kind of herb, spice and botanical you can imagine. The herbs and spices work out to around one-fifth the cost of supermarket spice jars, by weight. They have been selling that way for years. This is definitely not a New Thing.
posted by beagle at 12:40 PM on March 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

A second thought: it seems like actually durable plastic containers would be a better bet than glass - not only are they not breakable, but they are lighter for their size and if you get Rubbermaid ones, you can stack them in your bag and they take up less space. Glass jars are very virtuous indeed (and I bring my daily coffee in a mason jar) but carrying lots of them at once doesn't work very well.
posted by Frowner at 12:41 PM on March 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

Also, it's frustrating that many of these waste-reduction schemes make it less convenient to do your shopping any other way than by car.

I agree with this. My ideal grocery shopping situation is to stop off and get a few things on my way home from school on nights when I don't feel too tired by the end of the day, rather than making a special trip for groceries. But I don't want to carry a bunch of reusable bags to school and with me all day, either. I have a couple of those thin fold up ones, which work okay, provided things don't get too terribly heavy. There's no way I'd start also carrying around all my empty jars and ziplocs in case I decided to stop at the store on the way home.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:47 PM on March 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Bulk buying alongside veggies-on-the-way-home works for me by not doing all the bulk shopping at once -- I usually have a Chico bag with a couple of clean plastic bags for damp veggies in it and a heavy plastic bag, say a extra heavy Ziploc. Whatever bulk needs refilling gets bought in the Ziploc and poured into its glass jar at home.

Not that I manage anything like zero-waste, but this helps. Also I like a kitchen without ads and logos and, generally, any print but the book I'm reading.

My local grocery is a QFC gently borg'ing into a Kroger and has a couple of bulk walls -- one of Frontier herbs/spices/tea, one of mostly snacks but also grains and beans.
posted by clew at 2:38 PM on March 19, 2017

Here in western Canada we have Bulk Barn as well as Nutters (super old school), and bulk bins at the Superstore too, but I have the same problem at all of them: more than half of the bulk goods are stale. Boo. It's really the only thing stopping me from buying more bulk.
posted by bluebelle at 4:20 PM on March 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I like International Foods in Manhattan (9th at 40th) who sell all manner of loose groceries, and I come home with an armful of reusable paper bags.

A visit there, Terra Market for fruit and veg and Espositos for excellent meat and sausages, and I'm very happy (and packaging free)
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 4:20 PM on March 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm always telling people that Ottawa is a miserable black hole. Nice to see something interesting happening. Gonna' check this out next time I'm down.
posted by constantinescharity at 4:28 PM on March 19, 2017

it seems like actually durable plastic containers would be a better bet than glass

I was thinking that too. Post-consumer plastic isn't very recyclable, but I suspect the overall energy use for a plastic jar from production to disposal is going to be less than a glass jar - even if the glass jar gets recycled, which is not necessarily a given. The glass jar is also heavier and more breakable, so it costs more to transport and may need to be replaced earlier.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:00 PM on March 19, 2017

Ooooh, my favorite bags for stuffing into a pocket or purse empty, and carrying long distances full, is a traditional string bag from ecobags. The baggers at checkout are always commenting on them! The long handle slings over your shoulder, the short handle is a hand carry. A mix of two and two makes for a very decent walking carry home that can carry a LOT without destroying your arms/back. I mostly grocery shop with my car (using a mix of totes and string bags); the long handle ties more easily and baggers like to tie them. The string bags are especially good for produce.

Ebags also sells very lightweight produce bags. I have tested them at my Kroger during quiet hours, and on VERY RARE occasions I pay an extra penny because I was right on the cusp of the weight, but mostly they're so light they don't make a difference -- just like the plastic bags you get in the produce section. (The cashiers were totally willing to do the weighing twice with the same four apples so we could see.) You have to be fairly diligent about washing the bags, and some produce I transfer to plastic grocery bags when I get home anyway (which are always around despite my best efforts), but they're pretty useful! And the supermarket has never batted an eye about it.

(Also most of my friends who bulk-shop from the bulk bins with bring-your-own containers use gladware, not glass.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:43 PM on March 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

my understanding is that plastic bags can sometimes actually better for the environment, especially if you use them multiple times. Because of the gas and energy involved in creating, shipping, and then recycling the re-usable bags. I mean, a recycled plastic bag that weighs 3 grams, vs. 10 oz of cotton, spun and coated with wax... I'm not saying all bags are bad. Just, some bags are worse than you'd think.

And by that logic, I wonder what the difference is between shrink wrap vs. glad ware.

My true hope is that the "industrial compost" gets amped up to the extent that industrial compost can be done on a personal scale. I'd love to see some sort of high-tech paper/corn starch combo that can be used to individually-contain goods (because who can afford a whole room devoted to bulk goods these days?) that can be eaten. Or at least thrown in a bin and churned down to good-for-the-grass sludge.
posted by rebent at 7:53 PM on March 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've always wondered the same. I'll readily admit I have too many reusable bags (and I caught a want for string bags now, whoops). Because of that, I've probably used the less-convenient ones a dozen times or less. Judging by weight and materials, I'm sure that a dozen plastic bags have less environmental impact than one reusable bag (especially when you consider that I can use dog poop bags, although I do prefer the [biodegradable] ones on a roll...). In addition to that, I'm sure I could come up with plenty of other examples of handy reusable things that I just don't reuse often enough - where the lightweight disposable version probably would have been the less impactful option. How many paper coffee filters do you have to replace in order to make the metal-and-plastic reusable version worthwhile?

I'd love a better understanding of the relative environmental costs of different disposable things, because sometimes I feel like in the rush to replace disposable I don't know which ones really need to be a priority. For instance, I learned on the green that plastic wrap is like 100x better than foil and now I've pretty much stopped using foil altogether. Maybe that should have been obvious, but it wasn't obvious to me.
posted by R a c h e l at 1:11 PM on March 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

One of the many reasons to want energy externalities to be properly priced is that we'd find out (pains-takingly) what really was the efficient way to do a thing.

I expect it's going to take a lot more time and attention than the rich societies now are used to -- I've been reading Angela Thirkell's books set during WWII recently, and the scrap-reusing is thorough. Also people disagree in the books about what the efficient ways are, though if everyone is on their own ration-cards it's no skin off anothers' nose.

Waxed cotton seems like a really dubious reusable-bag choice, even though it was a poacher's pocket standard back in the day. Hard to clean to salad-greens standards, heavy, doesn't pack up small. String bags and reused waxed paper are common in WWII memoirs. I think the Chico bags of lightweight recycled recyclable washable quick-drying synthetic are probably the best compromise we have now, and accordingly have half a dozen.
posted by clew at 1:22 PM on March 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just a suggestion, but when I grocery shop I try to avoid the little thin produce bags altogether. I find that the cashiers at the stores I go to (Food Lion, Trader Joe's) will ring up produce just fine without the plastic bags, even when there are groupings of them. I do my own bagging, too, and usually just hold out the produce and then carefully stack it on top of whatever I am bagging (in reusable bags). One cool thing about my '05 Mini is that the trunk is about the width of a grocery bag, so it's easy to have the bags be snug enough not to fall over while driving. I also wash and reuse our Ziploc bags as much as possible. I've favorited this thread as our family is always on the lookout for ways to use less stuff!
posted by Slothrop at 6:19 AM on March 21, 2017

My mom and I once took an aunt who was visiting from out of the country to Bulk Barn, a few days before she was scheduled to fly home. She said "Why didn't you bring me here first? This is the best place I've seen."

But Bulk Barn is hardly zero waste even if you DO bring your own containers. A couple of months ago, I had to pee while shopping at a bulk barn, and I learned their dirty little secret! So I asked if they had a public washroom, assuming they'd say no, but they actually let people use the washroom in the storeroom. So I got to walk through the storeroom. And do you know what I saw? I saw boxes of Cheerios. These were name-brand cheerios and they were regular old family-size -- not crazy-ass industrial-sized -- boxes of cheerios that you can get at any supermarket. You wouldn't even have to go to Costco.

So I pointed this out the employee who pointed the way in and she said that yeah, the stuff they sell comes in the same packages you buy in other stores. They just open the package and dump it in the bins. So as the customer, the advantage is that you can buy exactly as much as you need (pinch to a pound is their motto, I believe), but waste-wise it's the same cardboard box that gets thrown out, even if you brought in a reusable container. I've since been keeping my eyes open in bulk barn and if you watch employees refilling things like Candy, you will see it comes in the same bags you'd be buying the candy in at Shoppers if it were Halloween.

Besides the fact that they don't buy barrels of food using some special deal with manufacturers, what surprises me most is that they're selling name-brand stuff but not labelling it as such. So they're selling actual cheerios (exclusively, said the employee), but they're labelled "oat circles" or whatever.

Oh, and I use the peanut butter machine and feel very good about myself when I eat peanut butter that has no corn syrup in it.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:43 PM on March 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

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