Can Package-Free Grocery Stores Offer A Solution To The Plastic Problem?

Local retailers are taking steps to change how the plastic-heavy grocery industry operates.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), packages and containers for goods are considered those that will likely be discarded within the same year they’re purchased. Walking into any traditional grocery store, consumers will find nearly every item on the shelf in some form of packaging or container. There are bagged salads, packaged snacks, bread bags, and frozen aisles filled with plastic packaging. Some grocers even sell fruits and vegetables wrapped in ceramic plastic. In fact, the food industry uses the most amount of plastic packaging. The average person may not think twice about how food is stored because it’s the norm. The package of spaghetti for dinner and the bottle of orange juice for breakfast requires plastic to make it safely to our kitchens. Or does it?

sponsored content
The Package Problem

In 1960, the EPA recorded 27.3 million tons of containers and packaging that found their way into municipal solid waste. Nearly 60 years later in 2018, packaging and containers accounted for 82.2 million tons of the total municipal waste in the US. That is more than three times the amount in six decades. Of that number, only half was recycled. There are several reasons why packaging and containers are so prevalent. Packaging can protect goods from any damage and containers help ship and store those goods. Both of these often serve as an additional means of marketing for companies too. The ad space on packaged goods can assist companies in distinguishing their brand through design, color, and copy.  However, packaging and containers are often made of disposal materials with no guarantee that consumers will recycle them after use. Anything that isn’t recycled ends up in landfills or oceans that can not safely maintain the waste. 

Eliminating Single-Use Plastics

Plastics exist in multiple forms in countless industries and many countries have turned to plastic bag bans as a first step in reducing production. By June 2021, 115 countries established some kind of ban on disposable plastic bags. France was among them, eliminating the production of plastic bags that were less than 50 microns thick.

In the US, some states have also made efforts to reduce plastic waste by banning single-use grocery bags and selling reusable bags and totes in stores. In 2016 California voters approved Prop 67 which proposed a ban on single-use bags in grocery stores and pharmacies. This also led to Senate Bill 270, which created standards for the types of bags retailers were allowed to sell to customers and incentivized shoppers to bring their own reusable bags. Any reusable bags provided by stores were required to be sold at a minimum of 10 cents per bag.

By June 2021, 115 countries established some kind of ban on disposable plastic bags.

Six years later in June of 2022, Governor Newsom passed a new law to phase out all single-use plastics in the state. Known as Senate Bill No. 54, the law dictates that all packaging be recyclable or compostable by 2032. Unlike the previous measure that focused more on the individual to bring tote bags or purchase bags for 10 cents, Senate Bill No. 54 places the responsibility on the plastic industry. This was done by requiring 65% of single-use plastics to be recycled by the industry and mandating a reduction in plastic packaging by 25%. The bill outlines several goals including a switch to refillable containers, using other materials for packaging, and mandating the plastic industry to create a fund of $5 billion to aid low-income communities that are impacted by plastic pollution by 2032. With a population of 40 million people, the state of California has the potential to make a significant dent in waste reduction through its legislative decisions.

sponsored content
Environmental Impact Of Traditional Grocery Stores

There is virtually no large industry that does not contribute to the global carbon footprint in some way. Grocery stores and supermarkets are no exception. Especially for nationwide chains, the system involves a lot of electricity, plastic, fossil fuels, and more. Food packaging alone makes up 50% of the plastics derived from fossil fuels. It’s no secret that plastic takes years to decompose. Even then, it breaks down into microplastics that eventually end up in the water supply and in animals like fish, which then enter the food chain.

Food packaging alone makes up 50% of the plastics derived from fossil fuels.

A study published in 2020 assessed the environmental impact of food packaging and found that better waste management is needed. Improved management may look like using paper over plastic for packaging. It also involves opting for glass containers that can be cleaned and reused. There has also been a push for biodegradable packaging like cotton sacks that won’t pollute the environment during its decomposition. To realize these huge changes, the government must mandate them or private companies must take it upon themselves to operate in a new way.

sponsored content
Making Changes with Re_ Grocery

Amidst the thousands of supermarket businesses in the US, Re_ Grocery has a straightforward mission: to contribute to a more sustainable grocery industry. The brand’s mantra, “Reuse, refill, rethink” can be found while scrolling along the website and posted outside its stores. Re_ Grocery is a package-free company founded in 2019 by Lauren and Joseph Macrino. Customers can bring their containers to fill or purchase reusable glass containers at the store. With three locations in Los Angeles County, their flagship store resides in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. During its first three years, the company expanded operations to two other locations where residents can refill their shelf-stable items. 

Re_ Grocery sells dry items like rolled oats, nuts, dried fruit, spices, herbs, protein powders, several dehydrated soups, pasta, rice, lentils, beans, and seeds. Each food item is stored in a large bin with a scoop. Among the store’s dry items are different seed oils, nut butter, eggs, tea, and brewed coffee. All are sold without any plastic packaging. Beyond food, the retailer also offers cleaning and hygiene products. Shoppers will find laundry detergent, dish soaps, hand soap, toothpaste tablets, shampoos, body scrubs, and more. The store is primarily organic with locally sourced products and most products are even shipped to the store plastic-free in durable paper bags.

sponsored content
The Shopping Process

Upon entering the store, shoppers are met with a clean design and a simple system. Customers will either choose containers from the store or use their own empty containers and bring them to the scale to weigh. The scale sends the weight of each container to the store’s computer system and shoppers will attach a microchipped tag to each one. The tag is later used to identify the container at checkout. Because items are priced by weight, there is the freedom to buy the exact amount of food someone wants.

Because items are priced by weight, there is the freedom to buy the exact amount of food someone wants.

Buying only what is needed is another way in which waste is reduced as customers are not obligated to purchase a fixed amount of food that they may not finish once brought home.

sponsored content
Efforts On The East Coast

On the east coast, a similar company operates with a package-free promise. Fifteen miles outside of New York City in Montclair, New Jersey, Dry Goods Refillery works with other sustainably minded companies to provide goods that are sold without plastic packaging. Launched by Rachel and Daniel Garcia, the couple began developing a business plan for a plastic-free grocery store after realizing their trash bins at home were mostly filled with plastic packages and containers from their own grocery trips. The desire to create a Dry Goods Refillery grew further after experiencing the operation of food markets in other countries. The prevalence of plastic packaging in the United States did not exist in such extremes in places like Argentina and Italy. Together, The Garcias brought New Jersey its first plastic-free grocery store.

The website shares the store’s general inventory for shoppers to quickly view. The products include snacks, candy, cereals, oats, legumes, pasta, seeds, dried fruits, oils, condiments, dairy products, and fresh produce. To further incentivize plastic-free shopping, Dry Goods Refillery offers a rewards program for its customers and gives a point for every dollar spent that can later be used for a discount on future refills and purchases. Package-free groceries are an inspiring testament that the current systems don’t have to be the standard. While these kinds of businesses aren’t readily available everywhere, those who are determined enough to start their own can also reach out to Dry Goods Refillery for consulting services.

Why Choose To Go Package-Free?

Although some traditional grocery stores offer dry goods that are purchased by weight, the key difference between them and stores like Dry Goods Refillery is the ability to bring your own container. At large grocery chains, filling up on dry goods requires shoppers to use thin, disposable plastic bags. The composition of these bags makes them single-use plastics that can’t be placed in the recycling bins at home. Instead, a person would have to go out of their way to find a facility that specializes in recycling this type of plastic. With the hustle and bustle of the average person’s day, in many cases, it isn’t likely that those thin plastic bags will ever find their way to a recycling center. Not only do package-free grocery stores cut down on plastic consumption and waste, but they also give customers a break from constant advertisements. There is a simplicity and ease that exists when there’s no branding to deal with. There are no longer identical products competing for the shopper’s attention through bold colors and labels. The paradox of choice does not exist within these grocers and instead customers can focus on what they need.

Accessibility & Affordability

Oftentimes, sustainable products are associated with higher costs and are something that only the privileged have access to. Certain levels of sustainable living aren’t always accessible for every person, but some companies are making efforts to close the gap. Pricing is often a topic of conversation that finds its way into the sustainable discussion and for good reason. How do the prices of refillable groceries compare to larger chains? When it comes to the prices at Re_Grocery, the cost varies depending on the item. Rolled oats at Re_Grocery are $2.95 per pound, while rolled oats at a nearby Trader Joe’s or Ralphs sit at a higher rate of $3.54 per pound. Red lentils at Re_Grocery, on the other hand, are at $3.95 per pound in comparison to traditional retailers that sell red lentils at around $2.97 per pound. Depending on what is purchased, choosing a refillable grocery store for shelf-stable items may save a shopper money on select items. Re_ Grocery stays competitive with traditional grocery stores by offering EBT as well, opening up accessibility to a demographic that may otherwise be unable to shop there.

Geography plays a huge role in having access to companies like Re_ Grocery and Dry Goods Refillery as well. Package-free stores are already somewhat of a novelty in the US and may not yet exist in places with smaller populations. In the age of the internet, there are some ways to get past location barriers by offering online delivery. For those that may live outside of driving distance or otherwise can not get to a store’s location, delivery is a great way to still be a part of the package-free grocery movement. Both Re_ Grocery and Dry Goods Refillery provide delivery services. Re_Grocery delivers orders to over 100 zip codes in the Los Angeles area. Items are delivered the next day in compostable paper bags, reusable glass jars, and boxes that are made from 100% post-consumer recycled content. At Dry Goods Refillery, customers can choose to either have their order delivered to a nearby address or have it shipped to further destinations. The company ships nationwide and even offers eco-friendly gift options for special occasions.

Package-Free In Other Industries

Groceries aren’t the only consumer goods that can be transitioned into refillable products. There are a handful of cleaning product companies and personal care companies that also work under this model. We Are Spruce is an online company that provides cleaning products that don’t use plastics or toxic chemicals. The company also avoids pesticides, synthetic fragrances, and optical brighteners. Instead, its Eternity spray bottles are made from aluminum and its refill packages are composed of compostable paper. The company also chooses the ship its bottles empty, to cut down on water use and its carbon footprint. In one starter kit, a customer receives two aluminum bottles and two concentration refills. To dispose of the refill packages, consumers can either compost them in the soil where they’ll function as fertilizer for plants or they can be disposed of in regular waste bins. Founder Mahira Kalim created the company as a way to keep people safe from microplastics and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC), which can cause cancer and infertility. Plastic-free businesses often provide benefits that surpass environmental concerns. In many cases what’s good for the planet is also good for people.

Looking Forward

Plastic is lightweight, convenient, and costs less to produce. It’s no wonder there’s so much of it. Yet, its convenience has been to the detriment of the environment and the global packaging market is expected to increase to $412 Billion in 2024. Out of the 50 states, at least 15 have zero-waste stores. Of those, California, Florida, and New York have the most businesses. Sustainable groceries should be available to anyone who wants to reduce their waste. Until refillable stores are the standard, supporting the few businesses that do exist by shopping there or spreading awareness is a great start. Re_ Grocery alone has avoided over 250,000 items of packaging from landfill since its opening day on Earth Day 2020. Supporting local legislation that wants to restrict and eliminate disposable plastics and patronizing sustainable businesses can help move the needle forward to a more eco-friendly industry.

Key Takeaways
  • A reduction in plastic can be addressed at both a legislative level and a business level.
  • Choosing to shop at package-free stores reduces individual plastic use.
  • People can contribute to the package-free movement by shopping at refillable stores or starting a refillable business in their community.