The Australian comedian Tim Minchin once wrote a tongue-in-cheek song about that unlikeliest of topics – reducing polyethylene bag use. “Take your canvas bags when you go to the supermarket,” he mocked. “Why use plastic bags when you know you know the world can’t take it?” Drollness aside, legislators have caught on. Last April, the European Parliament ruled that EU member states must reduce plastic bag use by 80 per cent by 2025.
But why stop there? That’s the thinking behind Original Unverpackt, a German supermarket that has eliminated disposable packaging entirely. Forget canvas bags – their customers have to bring their own containers too. Having weighed their Kilner jars and Tupperware boxes, they’re then free to decide exactly how much of a product they wish to buy. All goods are bought in bulk, with the weight of the containers deducted from the cost at check-out.
Sara Wolf and Milena Glimbovski opened Original Unverpackt in September 2014. Their motive was simple. “We believe that shopping according to the current model is not sustainable,” they say on their website, adding that “shopping will never be the same”. At Original Unverpackt, disposable cartons such as Tetra Pak are verboten, as is the kind of pointless packaging that tries to go one better than Mother Nature.
Original Unverpackt isn’t the world’s first packaging-free supermarket (Austin has been home to in.gredients since 2010, for example) but it may be the most eye-catching. Based in Berlin’s trendy Kreuzberg neighbourhood, it now sells over 500 products. Besides the usual suspects – locally sourced fruit and vegetables, cereals, grains and pulses – it offers an array of household staples, such as loo cleaner, shampoo, soap, shaving cream, and – my favourite – individual toothpaste tablets. And the reward for all that shopping? They also sell gin, vodka and wine.
The economic case for packaging-free supermarkets is self-evident. Rather than falling for the dubious “special offers” of the traditional supermarket, shoppers at Original Unverpackt buy only what they need, and save money. The environmental case for Original Unverpackt is strong, too. German consumers generate some 16 million tonnes of waste packaging each year, with private households tossing out more than six million tonnes of food. The bulk of food waste occurs because people buy more than they can eat before it spoils – in part because supermarkets entice them to buy more than they need. And, by allowing consumers to buy package-free groceries, Original Unverpackt helps to reduce not just plastic, paper and cardboard waste, but food waste too. By eliminating plastic packaging, they’re also cutting the amount of potentially harmful chemicals in their customers’ food.
A word of caution: some food-waste campaigners say that zero-packaging means food is more likely to spoil and end up in the bin. Instead, they call for smarter and more sustainable packaging, such as rethinking cartons and containers to eliminate the kind of needless layering that makes unwrapping some products resemble an impromptu game of pass the parcel.
But why can’t we have both – smart packaging, where necessary, to prevent spoilage and the elimination of redundant packaging? Thanks to Original Unverpackt and the models it inspires – this summer sees the launch of a similar venture in Copenhagen – that might be possible one day. And who knows, Tim Minchin may even write a song about it.
This innovation is part of Sustainia100; a study of 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The study is conducted annually by Scandinavian think tank Sustainia that works to secure deployment of sustainable solutions in communities around the world. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at www.sustainia.me – Discover more solutions at @sustainia and #100solutions
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