National Geographic: Grocery stores are packed with plastic. Some are changing.

By Alejandra Borunda, for The National Geographic


Food packaging makes up a huge proportion of plastic waste in the U.S. Some stores are beginning to wean themselves off it.

Brooklyn, New YorkAt Precycle, an airy grocery store in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, shoppers can find spices and fruit, grains and pastas, fresh olives and tofu, toothbrushes and floss, and many other household basics. What they won’t find? Plastic.

Precycle is one in an expanding cohort of grocery stores that use little, if any, plastic packaging. As awareness of our ever-growing plastic pollution problem has swelled, some shoppers have looked for places where they can buy food free from the cling wrap and Styrofoam trays that fill many modern grocery stores.

“I opened the store because I had this little blister on my brain telling me there was a different way to do things,” says Katerina Bogatireva, the founder and owner of Precycle. Once she saw how pervasive plastic was in her life, she wanted to do something to help herself and others break free from it.

“It was like I was dropped in the middle of the sea and I couldn’t see the coast, but I had to swim forward toward a solution,” she says. And what she came up with was a plastic-free grocery store.

For Bogatireva of Precycle, the challenge was to figure out how much plastic snaked through normal supply chains and into the hands of consumers—and then get rid of it. Providing bulk foods that customers can scoop into their own containers to take home was a central concept.

But she also looked upstream. It wasn’t enough for her that customers didn’t see the plastic, if it was just lurking behind the scenes, secretly peeled off before their eyes could land on it.

Plastic-wrapped fruits and veggies were a no-no, so produce would have to come from local sources who could deliver bushels of apples in reusable crates. Then, she tried to find tofu that didn’t come in a throwaway plastic container. No luck, for individually sized blocks. Eventually, she linked up with a manufacturer who will deliver big blocks of tofu in a five-gallon bucket that they’ll pick up after it’s emptied and refill. So there’s still some plastic in the chain—but it’s far from single-use.

The other part of the challenge was helping her customers maintain a sense of ease and convenience. It’s better if they come in with their own empty jars to fill or egg cartons to re-stock, but if they don’t, she has ones they can pick up. Since the produce options she has are often dependent on what the farmers bring in, there’s a shelf of cookbooks to browse for ideas.

“It’s learning to think about shopping in a different way,” she says.

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