At my local supermarket here in Hong Kong, plastic is king. Avocados and oranges are individually swaddled in plastic wrap. Apples come in hard plastic clamshells. Bananas, despite having their own perfectly good natural packaging, are sometimes sold on foam trays. An English-language Facebook group I belong to has threads dedicated to the most absurd examples of overpackaging, like a single Japanese strawberry in a pink foam net, nestled in plastic straw, in a tiny cardboard box, wrapped in plastic wrap.
Packaging waste is a problem worldwide. In the United States, packaging, much of it from food products, makes up nearly a quarter of landfill waste. As we’re increasingly aware, tons of plastic winds up in our oceans each year, choking sea life and creating vast islands of trash in once-pristine places. Plastic fibers are now even contaminating our tap water. And it has become much more difficult to recycle packaging since 2018, when China, which once took in about half the world’s recyclable goods, stopped accepting many waste shipments.
That’s why I was so interested to stumble upon a new supermarket in my neighborhood. It’s called Live Zero, and it looks more like a wholesaler than a traditional grocery store. Goods are stored in clear self-service bins or dispensers, to be poured into containers you bring from home. You can buy all sorts of staples by weight, from raisins to flour to olive oil to shampoo, taking only as much as you need. There’s not a shred of plastic wrap in sight.
Live Zero is part of a growing movement of “zero-waste” supermarkets that aim to end packaging waste by doing away with packaging altogether. The concept began in Europe more than a decade ago, and has since spread globally. There are now zero waste supermarkets from Brooklyn to Sicily to Malaysia to South Africa.
Consumers are increasingly conscious of the toll of plastic on the environment, says Raphaël De Ry, the founder of Edgar, another zero-waste market in Hong Kong.
Last year was the “year of the straw,” De Ry says, referring to the 2018 anti-plastic drinking straw campaign, which had companies from Starbucks to McDonald’s pledging to reduce or phase out plastic straw use. The campaign is credited with raising awareness of plastic waste worldwide.
Zero-waste stores satisfy a growing desire to do something with this new awareness, De Ry says, showing me around one of Edgar’s two locations, in Hong Kong’s hip Star Street neighborhood. In addition to bulk bins of chocolate, oats and dried fruit, the store stocks package-free personal care items like solid shampoo bars. It also has a whole wall of reusable food containers and utensils—metal drinking straws, shopping bags upcycled from old flour sacks, reusable beeswax-coated food wrap.
Shopping at packaging-free supermarkets takes some extra planning. Car-less city dwellers like me can't simply carry around glass jars in case they need to pop into the supermarket. And toting a reusable container of pasta or lentils is much heavier than carrying a plastic bag.
“Packaging is inextricably linked with modernity and convenience,” says Elizabeth Balkan, the food waste director at the National Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group, which means zero-waste stores are unlikely to replace supermarkets anytime soon.
No packaging means no shelf-stable food, Balkan points out. This is lovely if you have time to pop into the market every day for fresh meat and vegetables, but impractical for the majority of us who rely on a pantry of canned tuna and Tetra Paks of soup. On the retail side, no packaging means you need to move inventory quickly before it spoils—sealed Cheerios last much longer than open bins of granola (and spoiled food means food waste, another environmental problem). It’s also challenging to reduce waste on the supplier’s side, as food needs to be shipped in bags and boxes.
“We still receive most of our products in plastics, and even if we recycle it—when we can—it is not the best practice from a zero-waste point of view,” De Ry says.
Balkan imagines we’ll see some of the concepts of zero waste embraced by more conventional retailers. We might see bulk or plastic-free aisles in supermarkets, much the way we see an organic aisle in stores like Walmart. Indeed, Europe's first plastic-free supermarket aisle debuted last year in Amsterdam.
In addition to package-free aisles, we’ll likely see more eco-friendly materials, Balkan says. There are compostable bioplastics produced with bacteria. British supermarket chain Waitrose now sells pasta in boxes made partly from recycled food waste. Last year, Pepsi unveiled “Drinkfinity,” a reusable bottle and recyclable pod system for flavored water.
There’s also the intriguing possibility of online zero-waste shopping, which could eliminate some of the hassles of physical zero-waste stores. A new zero-waste shopping platform called Loop has partnered with big companies—Proctor & Gamble, Nestle and Coca-Cola among them—to offer brand-name goods in reusable containers. Products like Crest and Häagen-Dazs arrive at your house in a reusable box; when you’re finished with them, you put the containers out for pick-up. Loop collects them, then washes and refills them for reuse. The platform is set to debut this spring in New York and Paris, with new locations coming soon after.
“Loop will not just eliminate the idea of packaging waste, but greatly improve the product experience and the convenience in how we shop,” said Tom Szaky, CEO of Loop partner company TerraCycle, in a press release.
There’s also an increasing call for legislative solutions to the packaging waste problem. The European Parliament has approved a ban on single-use plastics in the EU, which means no plastic cutlery, straws, stirrer sticks and the like. The ban should take effect in 2021. As part of her 25-year environmental plan, UK Prime Minister Theresa May has endorsed a strategy to eliminate avoidable plastic waste in British supermarkets, involving plastic-free aisles and taxes on single-use containers, though some environmentalists say it doesn’t go far enough. California bans single-use plastic bags at large retail stores, and a number of American municipalities have plastic bag bans or fees. (Unfortunately, some states are going in the exact opposite direction, enacting “ban the ban” laws that forbid cities from passing anti-plastic bag laws). Many stores already take matters into their own hands, charging a fee for plastic bags, or offering a discount for bringing your own bag or coffee cup.
Still, De Ry thinks zero waste will continue to grow. He envisions cities like Hong Kong having small zero-waste shops within housing complexes, perhaps run as co-ops by residents or building management. While initiatives like Loop are great, he says, people still like to see, smell and even taste their food in person before buying.
“Worldwide, I believe the zero-waste and bulk movement has a great future ahead,” De Ry says. “Shops, concepts, associations are popping up everywhere. Awareness is growing, and customers enjoy the interaction with the products and the people behind the operations.”