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Are we entering the new era of Zero-Packaging Stores?

Just about a decade ago it was rare to witness individual fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic. But today, almost everything comes packaged in a plastic film. Although such packaging helps to preserve products for longer period of time, we are often oblivious of the fact that they are the biggest irritants chocking our oceans.Globally, as little as 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2017, and each year, more than 8 million tons of plastic waste makes it into the world’s oceans (UNEP, 2017).

The root of the packaging wastage issue in grocery stores is attached to the way the food is packaged and sold to the end consumers. After being shipped in boxes, the food sits on the grocery shelf, often wrapped in plastic or cellophane. Consumers then carry the same food already wrapped in plastic in another plastic bag. Thus, there is a never ending trail of plastic wastage that keeps on multiplying from the producers till the end consumers.

The entry of the Zero- waste grocery stores :

As a consequence of the extreme packaging wastage issue, there is a tremendous public resentment and backlash against single-use plastic packaging in recent years. For instance there have been well over 100 plastic attacks around the world, mostly in Europe, but also in Hong Kong, South Korea, Canada, Peru and the United States (Tutton, 2018). It has compelled many retailers to start rethinking about their waste footprint and design stores with minimum plastic packaging. As a result, “Zero-waste” or package-free shops, which sell nothing wrapped in unnecessary packaging like plastic, cardboards came into existence. By offering people the option to buy bulk items in their own containers, or purchase refillable ones, these new package-free stores could change the way we shop.

The trend of zero-waste grocery stores is spreading rapidly all around the world. Several zero-waste stores have opened across Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore and mainland China (Brinkley, 2018). Thus the following sections will analyse the different formats of such zero waste grocery stores around the world.

The following are some of the popular design models of zero waste grocery stores:

1. Refill format:

One of the most popular zero waste design models amongst retailers is the refill format. Whereas non-food/specialty shops have remained successful in implementing such model in the past, grocery stores are still figuring out on ways to apply this refill model successfully. However many grocery stores are on the rise to aggressively commit themselves towards such a model, which can be evidenced from the following sections.

©Judith Olive Oil

Some of the characteristic features of such stores are as follows:

  1.  Selling food items in bulk rather than plastic:

Many stores have developed such an approach to encourage customers to bring their own bags. Usually, customers bring in their own refillable containers which are then filled up with bulk buy foods such as grains, pulses, spices, fruits, vegetables and more. Additionally, there are also refills for toiletries, cleaning supplies and other household items.

For instance, Green Parrot in Swaffham, UK is an independent health food shop which has successfully saved over 5,000 plastic bags and 1,000 plastic bottles during 2018 through its zero-waste refill rooms with dispensers (Hardy, 2019). At Nada store of Canada, a dishwasher-safe tag comes as part of their refill system, which makes it easier for returning customers. The tag will store the weight of the empty container, so customers can skip the “tap and weight” step the next time they shop. Big retailers are also slowly catching up with the trend of the refill system. For example, Marks & Spencer is set to launch more than 90 lines of loose fruit and vegetables free of all plastic packaging in a trial which will involve trained greengrocers on hand to help customers (Malley, 2019).

Other stores that are following the similar footsteps include Precycle, a zero-waste grocery store in Brooklyn,Delicious food,Amsterdam ,The Filling Station in New York and Slowood of Hong Kong.

  1. Offering wholesome zero wastage product and services:

Sustainable Non-Food items: Apart from providing a refill system for food items these stores also offer diverse, sustainable products and services. It ranges from providing packaging alternatives to sustainable non-food items. For instance, The Refillery in Newington, Edinburgh, stocks ethical detergents, beeswax wraps, cruelty-free shampoos and even toothpaste in a jar along with food products and is passionate about reducing plastic across different product lines. On the other hand Marks and Spencer(“M&S”) said it has committed to replacing plastic produce bags with paper ones and phasing out plastic barcode stickers in favor of eco-friendly alternatives in every one of its UK stores (Malley, 2019).

Straight@Amanda Palmar

Inculcating more sustainable lifestyle: Apart from alternative products these stores are going one step ahead by providing services which can facilitate sustainable lifestyle amongst customers. For example, Nada has already expanded the product offering and added a cafe that diverts what could otherwise become food waste from the market’s produce section to an ever-changing menu featuring soups and other dishes (Ottawa Citizen, 2019). Slowood store also has a vegan cafe that applies the same tread-softly philosophy to its menu and kitchen practices (James, 2019). Greengrocers of M&S will offer customers help to pick and weigh their products and advise on how best to preserve fresh produce and prevent food waste at home as M&S has removed “best before” date labels as part of the trial (Malley, 2019).

Supporting local charity with the proceeds :

Many stores combine their zero waste design model to support other causes in the local community. For instance, Hemp bags are produced for the Green Parrot store (UK) by a group of local women, who also send them to Starlings, another independent shop located on the Market Place in the town. All proceeds from these bags go to local charities. Nature’s Nutrition in North Devon,UK refill shop re-opened as a Community Interest Company some 18 months ago, and all profit goes back into projects in the local community (Howells, 2019).

2. Zero waste Delivery services:

Not many delivery services are currently able to adopt zero plastic waste model. However, The Wally Shop of Brooklyn is an exception which has ventured into such a model. It buys produce, grains and herbs from local bulk shops and farmers’ markets. The service tries to make sure food is as fresh as possible, ideally traveling from farm to customer the same day. Couriers drop off and pick up reusable packaging. Right now, the service only operates in some Brooklyn neighborhoods, but it’s looking to expand to the rest of New York, as well as other cities.

3. Reusable package model or the “Milkman Model”:  

A few big companies are also working on alternative ways to work towards reducing their waste footprint while also projecting their brand image as sustainable. Their efforts led to the durable packaging program, called “Loop” — a reference to a theoretical circular economy where nothing is wasted — making its debut at the World Economic Forum in Davos (WEF, 2019). Led by New Jersey-based recycling company TerraCycle, Loop will offer popular products from about 25 companies including Nestle, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo in reusable containers that customers order online or purchase in stores and return to the company when finished.

Loop will collect a refundable deposit that customers will get back when they return their containers. UPS will pick up the empties for no additional charge. Even allowing for the energy required to transport and prepare the products for reuse, the program reduces waste, TerraCycle says. By midMay, products from Loop will initially be available online to customers in Paris through Carrefour and, in the U.S., in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Why Should Consumers prefer such stores against the rest?

©The Zero Waste Chef

Usually, customers prefer convenience and affordability in grocery shopping. They might not be able to experience such zero waste stores due to lack of information, inconvenience in bringing a reusable container, time constraint or non-availability of different food items. But these challenges can be easily tackled once customers start experiencing themselves and understand the underlying intention behind such stores.

Also, there are numerous benefits of shopping at zero waste stores which are as follows:

  1. Cheaper and fresh food products: Using refill containers, bottles or bag helps to cut down on additional costs associated with plastic packaging. For instance, Slowood’s foodstuffs are cheaper than packaged supermarket versions, and bulk goods are priced per 10 grams, to cater to shoppers who want small amounts.

  2.  Super convenient: Many shoppers are still under the myth that zero waste stores will be burdensome regarding carrying your own containers. If the mere thought of switching the usual grocery shopping trip for a bring-your-own routine appears troublesome, consumers can start with small changes. It could be as small as carrying reusable shopping totes and skipping plastic produce bags — so no need to buy fancy jars to refill your food items next time. It’s that simple, and costs a lot less than buying a new one.

  3. Conscious shopping experience:  Shopping at such stores can create a new wave of thoughtful consumers by shifting them away from their current disposable culture. It will inspire more consumers to be conscious and responsible with their purchases and consumption to have a more sustainable lifestyle. Consumers will make informed choices about the quantity of food through pre-planning about the food inventory before leaving the house. It will make sure how much you need and have room for in your reusable bags and containers. Thus it can help in reducing food wastage at the same time.


Overall, the concept of zero waste is already adapted by a few small and large retailers. Due to a general rise towards a more environmentally friendly consumption (Global Web Index, 2018), it can be said that the zero waste trend will continue to increase in the future. The result would be the better management of our ecosystem through minimum wastage of water, oil and other natural resources used to grow and deliver food, as well as keeping our oceans free of plastic pollution.

In addition to that, such a model could be a viable, sustainable and cost effective option for businesses as well as consumers. Zero-waste saves companies money by reducing disposal, labor and energy costs. Also, such a model has the potential to encourage suppliers to adapt to plastic free delivery to retailers. It can result in less wastage even during production and supply chain. On the other hand, consumers are going to experience conscious shopping in a convenient and affordable manner. It ultimately supports a shift towards a circular economy, where there is no waste involved.

Though it is still at a nascent stage, we should remember changes take time. And even a small step like skipping plastic bags for a day can have significant impacts. But the trend must also be scrutinised against risks related to greenwashing- an act of spreading disinformation, largely by corporate interests, in order to present an eco-friendly public image. This way we can take a significant leap towards a sustainable future.



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