New 'zero waste' B.C. businesses battle tide of pandemic packaging
Growing number of B.C. entrepreneurs eliminating consumer packaging waste
From a rise in online shopping to an increased appetite for takeout food, the pandemic has added to the growing problem of packaging waste.
With more time spent at home, it's hard ignore the mountain of plastic and cardboard — even if you're diligently recycling.
"It's in your face a little bit more because it's not just being absorbed by businesses that we're going in and out of, or in an office space," said Tamara Schulman, director of community partnerships for the food systems lab at Simon Fraser University.
Schulman, who is also an independent zero waste planner, says this heightened awareness, coupled with a desire to shop locally, could create opportunities for businesses with a sustainability focus.
A growing number of B.C. entrepreneurs are rising to the challenge.
Reducing grocery packaging, one jar at a time
Emily Sproule runs Jarr.co, an online zero-waste grocer. The East Vancouver-based company delivers everything from soap to nuts in canning jars. These are rotated through the company's customers, who pay a small deposit on each jar. Most items come from local suppliers, who deliver package-free bulk goods to Jarr's warehouse. Orders are packaged on demand using strict COVID-19 protocols, and delivered to doorsteps once a week.
Sproule started planning Jarr in April 2019, after she became frustrated by the amount of packaging waste coming into her home. The business launched in May 2020.
The pandemic added some unforeseen obstacles to the launch, from dealing with home learning when schools closed, to a boom in home canning that led to a shortage of jars.
But it also presented a silver lining: an increased appetite for online grocery shopping, which has worked in Jarr's favour.
The company now has several hundred customers and has expanded from Vancouver to Burnaby, North Vancouver and Bowen Island. Sproule says the business has helped eliminate over 5,000 pieces of plastic packaging between June 2020 and February 2021. There are similar companies sprouting up in other regions.
Self-serve refills, close to home
In 2018, Andy Chou started Drinkfill, a self-serve artisan beverage dispensary, because he wanted to cut down on single-use packaging. When the pandemic pushed pause on the refillable kombucha and cold brew stations, Chou turned to cleaning products.
Enter Soap Stand. The self-serve dispensary resembles a bank machine with a spigot for dispensing locally-made dish soap, laundry detergent and other liquid cleaning supplies into reusable containers.
Chou, who describes himself as someone who cares deeply about the environment but can be kind of lazy, says he wanted to "make it super easy for someone like me to go downstairs or to go around the corner to the grocery store to fill up with cleaning products that are reusable and that don't have any single-use plastic."
Soap Stand products run about 35 per cent cheaper than their off-the-shelf counterparts. Currently, you can find Soap Stand at Famous Foods in East Vancouver. Chou says he's in talks to bring Soap Stand to other independent grocers around BC.
Taking the waste out of take-out food
With indoor dining either on hold or very limited, depending on pandemic restrictions, restaurants and customers have been relying on take-out meals. The growing mountain of packaging waste inspired Anastasia Kiku to start Reusables.com, a zero-waste restaurant takeout option.
Customers pay a membership fee, which allows them to order from participating restaurants. Food is delivered in reusable metal containers, which customers rinse and return to any of the member restaurants. There are currently four restaurants in the pilot, which has been running since February.
Kiku hopes to bring the program to a wider audience.
"I'm hearing a lot of people just feeling so guilty about ordering takeout because of all the waste, at the same time they're really trying to support local restaurants. So it's kind of a catch-22 situation for many people [and] they are super happy to have a solution like this."
Kiku's goal is to create a program that is economically comparable to what restaurants would pay to packaging suppliers. She likens it to bottle-sharing within the brewing industry.
Schulman says the value local zero-waste businesses bring to consumers goes beyond the products offered, because they tend to have a "triple bottom line" approach.
"They want to look at environmental, social and economic considerations. If you're looking at who's going to be sponsoring kids, sports groups and different initiatives, those are the folks that tend to put the extra effort in. And they do a lot to educate and raise awareness for people ... and how people can set up their systems at home to make it more sustainable and affordable."
To listen to On the Coast's audio version of this story, click the audio labelled On the Coast: Retail Therapy: zero waste