Public Works: The Rise of the Zero-Waste Supermarket
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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.