Zero-waste stores battle plastic packaging

From Brooklyn, Sicily and Malaysia to South Africa, Vancouver and Toronto, a growing number of supermarkets are selling food without packaging in an effort to curb the toll of plastic on the environment.

Even the milk's on tap!

Unboxed Market co-owner Michelle Genttner pours some milk from the tap at her zero-waste grocery store. (Rachel Matlow/CBC)

This story was originally published on March 29, 2019.

An alarming 58 per cent of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted, and only about 11 per cent of plastics are recycled in Canada. So with plastic and food waste becoming a mounting problem, perhaps it's time to change the way we shop.

From Brooklyn and Sicily, to Malaysia, South Africa and Vancouver, a growing number of "zero-waste" supermarkets around the world are selling food without single-use plastic packaging.

Michelle Genttner is the co-owner of Unboxed Market, Toronto's new zero-waste grocery store, which opened in February. "The response from people coming into our store has been amazing," Genttner told Spark host Nora Young. "There is a community that doesn't really see the benefit of one store doing this, but to that I say we need more stores."

Besides feeling good about being environmentally friendly, Genttner notes that there are many other benefits to shopping at zero-waste stores. "It's very much an ability to be concise in what you're purchasing," she said. "If you are a single person and you only need two eggs, why are you buying a case of eighteen?"

You can even buy milk on tap!

Spark host Nora Young and Michelle Genttner talk about the problem with single-use plastic. (Rachel Matlow/CBC)

What does Genttner hope the future holds for curbing single-use plastic packaging? "I would love it if the chains follow suit. That is the ideal," she said. "If more stores like ours open – and they are – that gives voice to the smaller grassroots community, to individuals, who can then more easily put more pressure on government, larger chains, manufacturers and producers, so that we can change [the system] top to bottom."

Emily Matchar is science and technology writer, who recently wrote about the rise of zero-waste grocery stores. She is currently based in Hong Kong, where she says plastic is king. "You can go to the grocery store and literally buy a single Japanese strawberry that's sitting in a foam net, inside a box, wrapped in plastic wrap," said Matchar.

Matchar recently stumbled upon a new supermarket in her neighbourhood in Hong Kong called Live Zero, part of the growing movement of zero-waste stores. "We started seeing it in Europe about ten years ago, and it slowly spread and gained momentum, and now you can find these kind of stores in countries all over," said Matchar.

Bulk food offerings at Unboxed Market. (Rachel Matlow/CBC)

It would appear that consumers are becoming more conscious of the impact of plastic waste on the environment. "There's absolutely a much higher level of awareness of the damage plastic is doing to our environment," said Matchar. "Some people call 2018 the 'year of the straw' because that was the year this move to get rid of plastic drinking straws gained momentum, and you saw companies like Starbucks and McDonald's start to take it seriously."

So is this new eco-consciousness here to stay? "It's no longer a niche, hippie fringe issue," said Matchar. "While I don't know that we're all going to be shopping in zero-waste supermarkets next year, I think it just shows that an interest and awareness of cutting down on plastic is starting to stick in the mainstream."

To see more of Unboxed Market and how it works, check out the photos below:

Unboxed Market is located at Dundas Street West and Dovercourt Road in Toronto. (Rachel Matlow/CBC)
Shampoo, soap and detergent on tap at Unboxed Market. (Rachel Matlow/CBC)
Olive oil and vinegar in bulk. (Rachel Matlow/CBC)
Unboxed Market offers Canadian milk in bulk. (Rachel Matlow/CBC)
Customers can weigh their jars before shopping. (Rachel Matlow/CBC)
It's not that hard to start shopping zero waste. (Rachel Matlow/CBC)


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