Bon Appetit: Could Zero-Waste Stores Be the Future of Retail?

By Aliza Abarbanel, for Bon Appetit

Photo: Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

Photo: Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

Even shopping for groceries is an exercise in avoiding single-use plastic, from cherry tomatoes encased in clamshells to pre-packaged chips. Customers have a choice: Find an alternative or take the hit and hope that yogurt tub gets recycled. (The chances don’t look good.) Breaking the status quo takes work, and modern consumerism is built on convenience. Big box stores like Walmart and Target built empires by providing an exhaustive array of products in one place, from groceries to office supplies. Low-waste stores are considerably less comprehensive, plus locations are largely concentrated in urban areas. And even if you live close, you may have to visit three or four places to get everything you need.

“Zero waste, in my opinion, is a full time job,” says Dobson.”I see these conversations online where families feel shame for using paper towels or plastic baggies, and I don’t want them to feel shame.” She chats with customers to assess where they can start swapping out single-use products, trading paper towels for antimicrobial cloth and plastic wrap for beeswax. “Every little step counts,” she says. “You don’t have to collect your garbage in a mason jar.”

But living low waste is starting to sound less utopian and more familiar. We’re in a time where Brooklyners can pick up silk dental floss and a bamboo toothbrush while filling up their Mason jars with laundry detergent at Precycle, then hop on the L train to pick up eco-friendly vibrators and biodegradable glitter at Package Free Shop. Soon, a new initiative called Loop will deliver Haagen Dazs, Tide, and other bold-name brands in reusable containers to doorstops across the country. The business is billed as a return to the milkman, but its practices look like an eco challenge to Amazon.

But you don’t need to get another subscription to start reducing waste. Health food stores have offered up lentils and other dried goods by-the-pound for decades, as do modern chains like Whole Foods. When it comes to produce, farmers’ markets are about as zero-waste as you can get. Find for a zero-waste store near you, or revamp your current shopping routine to buy loose produce and use bulk-bins when available. Make your own granola bars. Make your own yogurt! A journey of a thousand saved plastic bags begins with a single tote bag...or something like that.

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