Down to zero: How this Ottawa entrepreneur plans to change the way you buy food

An Ottawa teacher-turned-entrepreneur is preparing to open the city's first zero-waste grocery store and provide people with a whole new way to shop.

Teacher-turned-grocer Valérie Leloup plans to open store and grow a movement

Reusable glass and compostable paper will be the only types of containers on offer at Nu Grocery, the zero-waste, bulk food store Valérie Leloup plans to open this summer, the first of its kind in Ottawa. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

For most people, garbage day is hardly something to ponder, beyond remembering it's time to put out the trash.

For Valérie Leloup, though, the day is a stark reminder of just how much stuff we could avoid throwing out if only we made the effort.

"I just can't believe how much garbage some people put out, bags and bags of it," the Kanata resident said.

Leloup might well be one of those people today if not for a life-altering book her mother handed her two years ago.

Book changed everything

It was Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, the "simple living" guru the New York Times calls the "Priestess of Zero-Waste Living." The book is a guide to eliminating or at least shrinking the mountains of garbage we churn out of our homes.

Reduce that garbage and you also reduce the greenhouse gases emitted by both rotting dump sites and the production of packaging. 

The Lisgar Collegiate French teacher loved the book's message and no sooner did she finish it than she started practising what it preached. She said she is now down to one small bag of garbage every two weeks.

It is estimated Canadians produce more than 700 kilograms of solid waste per capita annually. Those dumps, in turn, produce methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. (CBC)

But with two teenage daughters at home, she soon realized it wasn't going to be easy to eliminate one of her major sources of garbage: food packaging. Grocery stores are filled with food products that are packaged, often in plastic or other materials, that aren't reusable or compostable.

That's when an (energy-efficient) light bulb went off in Leloup's head: a grocery store that would provide one-stop shopping and zero-waste.

"I started imagining a store where everything was there. Doing a little bit of research I realized that these stores already exist. They've been opening up in Europe in the last two to three years. This research turned into a business plan, and the business plan into a quest for money and one thing after the other led to me wanting to open this store."

Not your typical bulk store

The store is Nu Grocery and it marks a big life change for Leloup. The French-born 45-year-old was an executive with food giant Danone for several years in Germany and then in Montreal. But after arriving in Ottawa in 2003, she became a high school French teacher. She has never operated a store. 

The store will offer about 350 products and the idea is to produce zero waste.- Valérie Leloup

Leloup said the store will stock all sorts of food, from fresh produce, dry goods in bins, and cheese to prepared meals and milk. Only fish and meat will be missing. There will also be cosmetics and cleaning products. In all, the store will offer about 350 products and the idea is to produce zero waste. 

BYOC (Bring your own container)

There will be no plastic bags, wrap or containers available in the store. But shoppers will be offered either compostable paper bags or reusable glass bottles and jars, for which they will have to pay a deposit, or they can bring their own containers with the weight deducted from the price of whatever they buy.

Nu Grocery founder Valérie Leloup wants to move the zero-waste niche market into the mainstream. (Danny Globerman/CBC)
"My biggest challenge for this store is to find those things you cannot find in bulk. And if you look at the really hard core zero-wasters, there are a lot of products that they do themselves, typically something like hummus, pesto, even deodorant, toothpaste – products that are typically sold in single-use plastic packaging. So I'm trying to find solutions for that."

"So for example, we're going to partner with a great local business that does hummus. They're going to produce a big batch for us and we're going to serve it to our customers in their containers. We'll have something that is delicious, local and ready-to-use and also zero-waste.

Summer opening planned

Leloup has a location for Nu Grocery, but she's not revealing it until she finalizes the lease. All she will say is it's central and she loves the spot. Thanks to family, friends and the bank, she has the financing lined up, along with about two-thirds of her suppliers. She plans to open the grocery store by the summer.

For her, it's not just the opening of a business, it's the start of a local movement. 

"The last thing I want is for this to stay a niche. Right now, zero-waste is a niche, it's even a micro-niche if you ask me, so I want to move this into the mainstream."