Bring your own containers: Low- and zero-waste food stores try to go green
A Zero Waste Market staff member scoops granola at a pop-up shop in Vancouver in a 2015 handout photo. (HO-Amanda Palmer/The Canadian Press)
Lois Abraham, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, January 26, 2017 3:52PM EST
TORONTO -- A huge island of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean was the inspiration for two entrepreneurs to launch retail initiatives featuring low-waste packaging and bring-your-own containers.
They're joining an environmental movement found in many European countries in which stores and customers seek to reduce household waste, sending less to landfill.
Crystal Lehky opened Green Zero Waste Grocery on Salt Spring Island, B.C., about nine months ago, offering unpackaged groceries that have been grown or manufactured in Canada.
Meanwhile, Brianne Miller is holding pop-ups of her Zero Waste Market in Vancouver while she seeks a bricks-and-mortar location.
"I started to realize the impact that our food system has on the ocean," says Miller, a marine biologist who has travelled to remote beaches around the world in her work with a variety of conservation organizations.
"You can see how much plastic has washed up on the beaches, sometimes in really enormous quantities. The impact on the environment is really big, everything from animals ingesting them to chemical leaching.
"The problem is global and widespread. I just wanted to do something that would have a tangible, concrete solution that people could implement in their everyday lives."
Lehky, who had been a manager in a large Canadian grocery chain for two years in northern B.C., watched a documentary one evening about marine debris and decided on the concept for her store by the next morning. She and her husband, Kevin Feisel, had been looking to relocate and decided the eco-conscious demographic of Salt Spring Island, where they had visited, would work well.
Lehky and Miller, who offer package-free goods and fresh, local, organic and ethically sourced products, encourage customers to bring their own containers, though some are available for those who show up without.
"But people don't usually forget,"says Lehky. "We actually have a lot of people who carry their groceries away in their arms.... I have one customer who will only buy enough to fill his pockets. It's part of his sustainable-living theory."
Empty containers are weighed before filling and that amount is deducted at the cash register so customers pay only for what's inside. Lehky didn't want a scale that printed paper stickers as that creates waste, so the weight is recorded directly on containers with a wax pencil, which can be washed off.
Elsewhere in the country, Mega Vrac, which features more than 700 products with no packaging, opened in Montreal in September.
And Bulk Barn has announced that as of Feb. 24 it will allow patrons to refill their own containers at its 260 locations, says executive vice-president Jason Ofield.
"There is a zero-waste movement taking place right now," he says, citing Bea Johnson, author of "Zero Waste Home," as a strong proponent.
"Bea supports bulk food stores. She talks about how people can really reduce their waste in their lifestyles and we saw this as a good next step for the evolution of our brand. We wanted to do our part."
Bulk Barn has some restrictions listed on its website. Staff will inspect containers and bags to ensure they're reusable, resealable and designed for food. They must be free of chips, cracks, stains, debris, dirt, rust and residual food. Paper and plastic bags are not accepted -- so customers can't bring back washed-out Bulk Barn plastic bags.
"In the event that a consumer doesn't bring a container that meets our standard we don't want them to then go and use the container in the store," says Ofield.
"We would want to ensure that in the event that you used a washed-out bag and you decided you didn't want to make a purchase we wouldn't want to see that bag poured back into the bin."
Lehky stocks about 200 products that are manufactured nearby or in a way she approves. For example, she gets toilet paper rolls individually wrapped in paper from a Quebec company because no local source makes it without plastic packaging.
She chooses suppliers who accommodate her low-waste philosophy. She recently received a shipment of toothbrushes in a diaper box.
Her worm colony helps too by processing about 500 grams of vegetable and paper scraps daily.
"Some of our products have a little bit of paper on them -- so like our yogurt, for instance, comes in little glass jars held together by paper wrapping -- so we have to find a way to be responsible for that minimal amount of packaging we do have," she explains.
"We cut that paper up into little shreds and we give it to our worms and they think it's super tasty. The compost that they produce actually goes to one of our local farmers and he in turn produces vegetables that he sells to us."
She acknowledges customers might not find certain ingredients at her store.
"I do not always have celery. Sometimes celery is not in season. So shopping in my store means you're going to have to shop at another store also."