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Public Works: The Rise of the Zero-Waste Supermarket

Don't expect to see cellophane or Tetra Paks at a new supermarket opening soon in Berlin.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Image by NAU Architects Berlin, courtesy of Original Unverpackt.

Canadians have been bitten by the squander bug. Each year, we waste colossal volumes of perfectly good food. Statistics Canada found that, in 2007 alone, over six million tonnes of solid food and 2.8 million litres of liquid consumables were thrown away somewhere between arriving on grocery store shelves and actually ending up on our plates. Torontonians are as guilty of this crime as anyone. The average single-family household in this city throws out 215 kilograms of food every year. A major cause of all this waste is the way in which our groceries are packaged. The Super Value, Extra-Large MultiPacks we buy for convenience or perceived cost savings often end up half-eaten, stuck at the back of the fridge until well past the expiration date, and then thrown away. The result is more plastic wrapping and casing in landfills, the release of more harmful methane into the atmosphere, and a greater carbon footprint for the food industry overall.

This summer, innovative food retailers in Germany will open a grocery store with the express goal of preventing waste. Original Unverpackt is a supermarket with zero packaging. Offering a mix of organic food and more typical stock (albeit at a lower price than at typical supermarkets), the store will sell nothing that’s wrapped in cellophane, sealed in Tetra Paks, or sold by the dozen on Styrofoam trays. Customers are invited to fill up their own reusable food containers or grab some recyclable paper bags available at the store. If you’re really desperate, you can even borrow a container from the staff.

Original Unverpackt will enable consumers to buy the precise amount of food they need, helping them control the amount of waste they create, both in terms of food and single-use packaging. As they prepare to open the first store in Berlin, and make plans for another location in the near future, Original Unverpackt founders Sara Wolf and Milena Glimbovski believe sustainable consumerism “will be sexy.”

Maybe sexy is the wrong descriptor for the place you buy your lunch meat. But with a mix of private investment, 100,000 Euros’ worth of crowdfunding, and a sugary puff of twee German hipness floating around it, Original Unverpackt certainly looks poised to make sustainable food retailing into a solid business.

Here in Toronto, we have no-package food retailers like Strictly Bulk, a three-location bulk food business that carries the irrefutable motto, “Because you don’t eat packaging.” We’re also enjoying a resurgence of more traditional food consumerism through farmers’ markets and food sharing. But what makes Original Unverpackt so enticing is its scale, accessibility, and, we hope, its ability to compete with regular grocery stores. It really is a supermarket without the wasteful excess.


  • nevilleross

    Great idea, but I don’t know if the retail conglomerates here could or even would implement such a progressive concept.

    • torontothegreat

      Greatly contrasted to your previous comments on “progressive” ideas concerning the environment.

      No, I believe in reality (remember that word?) and not in moonbat eco-emoprogressive scare/fear-mongering bullshit like you and others like you do

      Funny that, eh?

      • nevilleross

        This is a different topic that you’re now trolling me for based on my support of nuclear energy as an environmental power source in the other article? Like I said before, you believe in scare-mongering and bullshit instead of science like everybody else these days, and you also believe in environmentalism as a religion, just like everybody else these days. Don’t you have a mind of your own and can’t you engage in anything but groupthink?

        • torontothegreat

          Oh so you’re one of thooooosssseeee people. Picks and chooses based on what’s convenient to you.

          Groupthink? I’m Aboriginal. The environment is part of my culture. Are you telling me that I should give up my culture because more and more people are waking up to environmental issues?

          • OgtheDim

            “Picking and choosing” between things in order to decide what to do or not do is actually a cultural/religious trait for some people. And, contrary to what you say, deciding between choices is not always based on convenience.

            Kinda like last week’s election – the lesser of 4 poor choices.

          • torontothegreat

            You just made a comparison between environmental science and 4 candidates in a provincial election – go away.

          • OgtheDim

            No, I just used an example of how people make decisions to prove a point about how people make decisions.

            If you can’t see the continuity of thought in this, maybe you should consider that people think differently then you do.

          • torontothegreat

            Go away troll. I’m pointing out something to nevilleross, not you.


          • nevilleross

            I’m sorry, sir, but your status as a First Nations person doesn’t mean that I’m gonna be completely sympathetic to environmentalism as a religion; I’m an agnostic towards most of them. I believe in scientific truth, not fairytales, and I have a right to insist that a stable type of power is used for power generation, especially where the generating of power for trains is concerned. How nukes are handled depends how how safely they’re handled, and the problems mentioned by everybody could just as well happen with coal, oil, and gas. If you don’t want to listen to me, or what I’ve posted on the prior subject, that’s fine, but I must ask that you stop cyber-stalking me; it’s just making you look bad.

          • torontothegreat

            How nukes are handled depends how how safely they’re handled, and the problems mentioned by everybody could just as well happen with coal, oil, and gas

            There you go again, conveniently picking and choosing. Solar? Wind? I’m going to venture to guess you’re in your late 40′s or older?

            your status as a First Nations person doesn’t mean that I’m gonna be completely sympathetic to environmentalism as a religion

            Are you inferring that my culture’s beliefs about the environment is somehow a religion or liken to one? Holy crap dude… Wow… The ignorance is strong with you, isn’t it?

            I’m just trying to point out your blatant hypocrisy, but now I realize you have your head too far up your ass to figure it out for yourself. Good luck with that. (Cyber-stalking? Puhleeeze! Get over yourself)

          • nevilleross

            Get over yourself, first.

  • TristanTerrific

    In the Freshco where I shop, I see them throw perfectly good food into the garbage. A customer returned a styrofoam pack of 6 tomatoes. The cashier threw the whole thing in the garbage and the customer took a new 6 pack even though five of the tomatoes that were being thrown were fine.

  • rich1299

    There are small things all supermarkets could do to reduce packaging waste like providing more in bulk and using paper containers/bags for some bakery items, or even just not using elastic bands on leafy greens. I buy a lot of leafy greens for my pet rabbits and elastic bands have become a pet peave of mine, besides being un-needed in the vast majority of cases they’re usually ones too small for the greens and end up causing crush damage which will cause the top half to wilt at a faster rate.

    • torontothegreat

      Ugh, I hate the elastics and extra packaging on produce.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    Didn’t a store like this open in Austin a few years ago? I think it was the inspiration for a sketch on Portlandia as well.

  • Grant

    I used to work at a grocery store in Nova Scotia that did something similar: it had a smoothie bar. When produce, especially fruit but also some vegetables, was almost at an unsellable point and other grocery stores would be tossing it out, we’d freeze it in big reusable plastic containers, stored in walk-in freezers in the basement. Then the smoothie bar near the checkout would use the frozen fruit to make all sorts of different smoothies, about $5 for a large. We juiced fresh oranges every day to use as a base, and made our own froyo too. It was a great way to avoid waste and turn a pretty big profit out of what would otherwise be waste, and I’m always baffled as to why every grocery store doesn’t do this, especially with the big juice/smoothie trend lately. (We offered a variety of supplements too for extra $ – spirulina, hemp oil, protein, etc., to fully cash in on the craze.)

  • tomwest

    My local supermarket sells coconuts wrapped in cellophane. Not only are coconuts the produce least in need of packaging, the cellophane makes them sweat under the lights, so they go off faster. (And you can’t tell until you open them – so I’ve stopped buying them)

  • dsmithhfx

    What really ticks me off are things packaged in ‘clamshell’ plastic so tough you need a bolt cutter and the jaws of life to open.

  • Calamity

    I find it both ironic and disturbing that there is an ad for “” above this article.