The neighborhood of Kreuzberg is a mecca for Berlin’s hipsters. It’s multicultural, hyper and covered in street art. It’s the also the home of Original Unverpackt, a zero-waste supermarket where customers shop for fruit, vegetables, grains, spices, pasta and even cosmetics. Everything is sold in bulk, and absolutely no plastic packaging is allowed. Shoppers bring their own reusable cloth or glass containers to carry the food, or buy reusable containers at the store. When they’re done, they take their food home in paper bags.
The basic concept isn’t new. The first zero-waste shop, Unpackaged, opened in London in 2007. Today, there are around 150 packaging-free markets around the world, according to Bepakt, a web index tracking their spread. Most of them are located in Europe, but there are also stores in the United States, Canada, Taiwan and South Korea, and the niche retail concept continues to spread across the globe. 27 new zero-waste stores opened their doors in 2015. Another 60 did so in 2016, while 24 opened in the first half of 2017.
According to the European Commission for the Environment, citizens of European Union member countries used 198 plastic bags each, on average, in 2010. Of those, about 89 percent were discarded after the first use. If the entire European Union abolished the use of plastics, it would save about 899.5 billion euro.
Germans produced about 485 pounds of packaging waste per person in 2014, about 71 percent of which was recycled, according to the European Commission.
Zero-waste shop owners aren’t just concerned with plastic. They’re also said to pay extraordinary attention to how the food they stock is produced. Organic options are a must, and some stores stock only organic items. Owners are also said to be careful not to buy food from producers who exploit their labor force or are indiscriminate in their use of natural resources.
Although it may seem like a business for a dedicated few, zero-waste entrepreneurs have shown that the dream is within reach for others. The initial investment necessary to open a shop depends on its potential location. The owner of Original Unverpackt, Milena Glimbovski, began with 25,000 euros raised through a crowdfunding platform. She stocked 300 products when the store opened in 2014. Since then, she’s doubled the selection.
Original Unverpackt produced an online course for anyone interested in starting up their own zero-waste shop. Here are some of the key points:
● No plastic: The food is displayed in bulk, and customers bring their own containers. Not everyone leaves the house prepared for that, so it is a good idea to leave free paper bags and recycled glass containers – or even have them available for sale.
● Zero waste: All food that is set to expire should have a destination, such as a food bank.
● All products bought in bulk: The warehouse look is appealing given that shoppers are faced with so many stores full of plastic and artificial smells. The way grain is distributed in zero-waste shops usually follows a pattern. (See photos).
● Be aware of products’ origins: Having a zero-waste shop means dealing with suppliers who have the same priorities as you. It is important to understand certifications and to visit producers’ farms to understand the processes they use.
● Local products: One of the most sustainable acts is buying from those around you.