A beginner's guide to zero-waste grocery stores

Posted on: 03-20-2019 08:41:08

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The average Canadian generates roughly 668 kilograms of waste per year, according to recent statistics. These days, many of us are actively working to lower that number by ditching single-use coffee cups for reusable tumblers, packing litterless lunches, bringing cloth bags to the grocery store and forgoing plastic straws altogether.

If you're feeling inspired by the zero-waste movement — championed by Bea Johnson, the bestselling author of Zero Waste Home — and want to drastically lower your individual waste footprint, you may want to re-examine how you shop for groceries and other household items, too.

Beyond farmers markets and traditional bulk food stores, two reliably great destinations for zero-waste enthusiasts, a surprising number of waste-free grocery stores have opened across Canada in the last three years, selling consumables like kombucha, olive oil and tofu without packaging to eco-conscious customers.

We talked to the founders of three of these shops — Michelle Genttner of Unboxed Market, Brianne Miller of Nada and Sia Veeramani of NU Grocery — about the movement, the basics you should know about packaging-free stores and what you can expect in a zero-waste grocery shopping experience.

The concept

"It is a stripped back and simplified version of what you are used to," explains Veeramani, a co-founder of NU Grocery in Ottawa. "It is a stripped back and simplified version of what you are used to … products are not just available in bulk but are also carefully curated, and waste is being minimized along the supply chain through work with the suppliers, producers and farmers."

With some exceptions, products are sold without packaging; single-use plastics are avoided in favour of recyclable, compostable and reusable materials. And unlike traditional bulk-food stores, many offer fresh, ready-made, refrigerated and frozen items as well.

(Courtesy of Nada; Photography by Maxine Bulloch)

The environmental benefit

Many of these markets are not simply preventing waste at the point of purchase, but all along the supply chain. "Every single supplier and community partner that we work with is helping us reduce waste in the food supply chain in some capacity," says Miller, the founder and CEO of Nada in Vancouver, "shipping products to us in reusable containers that are swapped with subsequent shipments, working with recovered products as raw ingredients, changing their packaging to reusable solutions or rallying their communities for a beach clean-up."

She adds, "Our zero-waste café team also turns any surplus food into tasty recipes such as soups and smoothies, reducing our overall food waste to next to nothing."


Zero-waste grocery stores also help make the waste-free lifestyle more convenient, offering packaging-free alternatives for many food and household items all in one place. At NU, for example, there's eggs in bulk, kombucha on tap and canned food in returnable jars, as well as hard-to-find cleaning and personal care products.

"We have bulk toothpaste and toothpaste tablets ... face creams and body lotion and even sunscreen in bulk," says Veeramani. "We also carry a range of DIY ingredients — clays, beeswax, resin, shea butter — in bulk to encourage people to make their own products."

BYO packaging

Shopping at a zero-waste store can require some planning ahead, as shoppers are expected to bring enough containers and bags for their purchases (some stores do offer compostable paper bags, and containers or bags you can purchase outright or borrow on a deposit basis).

"At Nada, we encourage customers to bring their own packaging — anything they can use again is a win in our books," says Miller, who recommends empty spaghetti sauce jars and yogurt containers, mason jars and cloth bags. That said, she adds, "everything that's brought in must be clean and free from chips or cracks."


Only buy what you need

"A lot of the social posts that are out right now imply that in order to go zero-waste, you need to go out and buy all of these things [and tools], and I think that's incorrect," says Genttner, co-owner of Toronto's Unboxed Market. "The first thing that you need to do is go to your home and look and see what you have that you can use."

And, notes Genttner, at zero-waste grocery and bulk food stores, you can buy as much or as little of a product as you need for a specific recipe — or just to try it out. This can help reduce food waste and save you money, too. "A large proportion of the cost of traditionally packaged goods is due to the cost of the packaging," says Miller.

Refilling apple cider vinegar (Courtesy of Nada; Photography by Maxine Bulloch)

Every store is different

Each market, even from the same mini-chain, will offer a vastly different selection of goods and services. Often, organic and locally sourced products will be prioritized, and the selection may change often depending on the season and supplier offerings. "One thing [shoppers at Unboxed Market] should try, because it's fun, is the bulk milk dispenser," says Genttner. "And our hot table is amazing; it sells out every day."

A few stores, including NU, also offer zero-waste lifestyle products online, shipped in more eco-friendly ways. "We wanted to make zero-waste living available to people across Canada, not only Ottawa," says Veeramani. "We reuse the boxes that we get from our suppliers, and use only paper packaging that is 100 per cent recyclable, including the tape, the labels and any filler used to protect the product."

Many markets will also offer programming and services beyond what you'd expect from your average grocery store. "NU is more than a storefront; we are building a community," says Veeramani. "We have events every Saturday — hands-on DIY workshops, cooking demos and inspirational talks — and do outreach in local schools and universities, at events, government agencies and local organizations."