Inspiring German supermarket uses no packaging

Unverpackt ladies, adorned with food.
Photo courtesy of Unverpackt

There was a period of time back in the early 2000s when I may have been known by some Whole Foods Market Raleigh employees as “that girl who always brings her own plate (eyeroll).”  I had just read Derrick Jensen’s beautiful ode to the natural world, A Language Older Than Words, and doing so had rendered me almost physically unable to throw anything away that would eventually make its way to a landfill.

I was young, inspired and passionate, and so I took to biking everywhere, using cloth hankerchiefs instead of Kleenex, eating vegan, following the maxim: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow,” among other low-impact practices.  I also got in the habit of bringing my own reusable bags, plates, containers and flatware with me when I went to the grocery store.  Right when I’d walk in the door, I’d walk up to the customer service desk and ask them to weigh my ten empty containers and plates.

Shopping the bulk aisle. Photo by Jendrik Schröder.

I got the feeling I was getting on their nerves, but I wasn’t entirely sure, and I didn’t care.  I was saving the world.  I was also the only person I ever saw bringing my own containers to fill up with bulk raisins, nuts and rice, and I was definitely the only one using my own plate at the salad bar.  The Whole Foods in Raleigh didn’t have the reusable plates that Weaver Street or other Whole Foods Markets often have.

But at some point I grew weary of washing my plate in the bathroom after every meal, toting all that extra stuff around on my bike with me, and feeling like such an oddball.  So I started toning down my grocery shopping efforts just a bit.  I now live too far to bike to the closest natural foods store, which is a food co-op, so I drive up on biofuels but often fail to remember my own bag.  I do avoid putting my produce into those thin plastic produce bags though – they are really unnecessary for the most part.  Why can’t my apples touch my avocadoes?  But even though I buy in bulk regularly, I haven’t brought my own container to the store or farmer’s market with me in years.

Sometimes we need a little kick in the pants to get re-inspired.

So when I came upon this article at The Guardian last week, I was intrigued and inspired.  The article covered a new phenomenon (well, actually a very old one that’s apparently having a renaissance) of grocery stores stocking their shelves with items using very little packaging, or no packaging whatsoever.

A celebration at Unverpackt. Photo by Jendrik Schröder.

The article announced that Original Unverpackt, a new Berlin, Germany, grocery store, had just opened its doors and was selling foods with absolutely no packaging.  The walls are lined with bulk bins, and the center of the store is a collage of barrels and tables displaying fresh produce and other items.

From the Guardian:

It works like this. You bring your own containers and have those weighed. Berlin-based supermarket Original Unverpackt labels your containers. You shop. When you get to the till, the weight of your containers is subtracted and you pay for the net weight of your groceries. The label is designed to survive a few washings so you can come back and skip the weighing process for a while.

Founders Sara Wolf and Milena Glimbovski say there’s a rising demand for products and services that deal with sustainability and that people demand alternatives to the “lavish” handling of our resources.

‘Here, the customer only takes what they need,’ says Wolf and Glimbovski ahead of the launch of their Berlin-Kreuzberg shop. ‘We’d like to offer an alternative way of shopping – one where we offer everything you need but you won’t find hundreds of different types of body lotion or olive oil.’

How amazing would it be if this were how all of our shopping were done?

Inside Original Unverpackt: the clean lines and lack of packaging actually make shopping a soothing experience. Photo courtesy of Unverpackt.

That of course is how all our shopping used to be done.  Back when all humans were hunting and gathering, we had to make our own bags and bowls or trade other precious commodities for them.  We carried water in pig’s stomachs, or in hollowed out horns.  We made baskets out of reeds and bark, and we carried them with us when we went out foraging for mushrooms or berries.  Even a hundred or so years ago, we still carried our own bags to the market, and if the butcher wrapped up our meat, it definitely wasn’t hermetically sealed in a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic.

Some companies these days are luckily trying to reduce how much packaging they use – particularly when it’s made of non-renewable resources like plastic.  But why couldn’t we take this one logical step further and push our shops themselves to stock as few items that need packaging as possible?  Maybe some products do need packaging, but it can often be reusable.

Pastas galore in bulk at Unverpackt. Photo by Jendrik Schröder.

The Growler model, taken one step further:

When I studied abroad in Spain during college, my friends and I toured the Cruzcampo beer factory, where we saw hundreds of used beer bottles whizzing by, first being cleaned out, then being filled back up with fresh beer.  The way glass recycling worked for twelve ounce beer bottles in Spain was sort of like the growler model used by microbreweries in America.  The bottles are first made of thick enough glass that they are unlikely to break.  The labels are then printed directly onto the glass, making them washable.  After you finish a beer at a bar, the bartender slips the empty bottle into its slot in a beer crate, and the delivery person takes back the empties when he or she delivers the new bottles each week.

Then the bottles can be recycled in the simplest, least resource-wasting way.  They are just washed and refilled, rather than melted down and re-formed into something else.  I’m actually having a hard time right now thinking of many things that need to come in their own individual packaging that could not at least be reused in this way.  Prescription bottles could be reused.  We already find peanut butter and olives sold in bulk at many places.  Why not jams and jellies, mustard and other condiments?

in.gredients Neighborhood Grocery in Austin, TX, uses very little packaging.
in.gredients Neighborhood Grocery in Austin, TX, uses very little packaging.

The old Durham Food Co-op used to have oils, detergents, and other liquids in bulk.  Why couldn’t we adopt the growler model for almost everything we need?  There is one American store that has done just that.  The Austin, Texas, based shop, in.gredients Neighborhood Grocer, stocks most things packaging-free, but they explain that a few of their products are mandated by law to require packaging.

Check out this video about in.gredients, where you can see some of how the store looks, and how many things they offer in bulk.  The video also talks about an awesome city-wide composting program in.gredients participates in, called The Loop, something else we could copy here in North Carolina.

How about you?

Would you be personally willing to shop for most of what you buy, by bringing your own containers and bags?  Are people doing this somewhere in North Carolina in a way I don’t know about?  Should we be?

Let us know in the comments section below.

Ye olde Beth would have loved a specified tare station!
Ye olde Beth would have loved a specified tare station!

Read the article on Unverpackt in The Guardian: Berlin duo launch a supermarket with no packaging.