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Zero Waste Stores: Your 6 Questions Answered

Shopping at a zero waste store

You may have seen a zero waste store in your area. You know, these stores that feature gallons of refillable supplies, and mounds of dry goods. Staff letting shoppers fill their containers, and no plastic bags in sight! It's a shopper's dream, and the best part is, it's a lot kinder for the environment!

Zero waste shops and refilleries have been gaining ground these past years, as more consumers hone in on a more sustainable lifestyle. The goal in these bulk stores is simple: eliminate as much packaging and plastic waste as possible. Dispense and refill is the name of the game!

Chances are, you have one nearby (check out our zero waste store finder here). If you're interested in learning if these bulk stores are for you, we want to share a few details about these dispensaries. As they don't operate like a typical supermarket, not everyone who enters the store might be prepared. Here are a few of our answers to common questions about zero waste stores:

What is a zero waste store?

The zero waste store concept was first seen in Europe in the late 2000s. The concept is now embraced in most parts of the world, in line with the increasing awareness about the environmental impact of packaging waste and food waste.

Photo by Anna Oliinyk on Unsplash

The main idea is to get shoppers to bring their containers to replace plastic packaging when buying dry goods, produce, and other home supplies. These bulk food stores focus on selling goods that are package-free, have low-impact packaging (e.g., plastic-free), and can be sourced locally.

Many zero waste shops across the U.S. and Canada are created through a community co-op. If shoppers directly support farmers, beekeepers, soap makers, and other suppliers, it's better for the local economy. It closes the loop, so to speak.

Aside from that, many co-ops make the stores a venue for community activities. Food drives, cooking classes, and the like can boost community ties and help every member.

What goods can I buy here?

Shops vary in the goods they carry, but you can always stock up on essential dry goods like pasta, rice, lentils, and grains. There are baking supplies, coffee, dried fruits, and nuts. Aside from these, some stores carry ready-to-eat meals.

These shops also have an array of reusable products. Reusable kitchen wipes, stainless-steel straws, eco-friendly laundry detergent, makeup wipes to diapers - products that help lessen the throwaway stuff we’ve been so used to.

And there are usually locally sourced zero waste products, organic items, and packaged products from small businesses that aren't necessarily available in major supermarket chains. Some places also sell liquid soaps, shampoo and deodorant bars, and other plastic-free toiletries.

What should I bring?

Your grocery list, and BYOB/BYOC: bring your own bag/bring your own container.

Bringing your bags and containers is one key characteristic in a zero waste store. These businesses ask customers to bring reusable bags to round up their groceries. If you're not prepared for that, there may be some reusable bags in the store. But most shoppers bring their own.

It takes a bit of planning: dry foods are easy; they can fit in reusable plastic containers, cloth bags, or boxes. For liquids, old bottles are helpful, and you'll be guided by the volume on the label (e.g., a 1L bottle will indicate just that). A great strategy is to scour your house for reusable containers. Here’s where your plastic bags and containers come in handy - there’s no reason why you can’t repurpose Tupperware containers, silicone bags, and such.

You may wonder how the store manages to give you the right price if your packaging isn’t standard. Well, the store assistant first has to weigh your containers before you can start filling them with goods. Containers with measured volume make it easier for the staff to know how much to charge you per container of goods.

Try to find used bags and bottles in your house that can store only what you need to keep from being too bulky.

Do zero waste stores really help the environment?

Zero waste stores are more sustainable for several reasons. There's less plastic packaging - both seller and buyer adjust how the goods are sold and bought to make plastic packaging not part of the picture.

Aside from that, lessening food waste is another huge benefit. Zero waste stores generally have a smaller inventory. You won't find large volumes of goods or mass-produced options; these places carry local brands from small businesses.

Forget about getting exotic fruits shipped from the other side of the world. You have an array of excellent local produce instead. Because shopping locally can significantly lessen transport, it's one key solution to easing carbon footprint. Supporting local is a great way to promote seasonal goods while producing less waste.

The caveat is that this could mean more expensive costs for shoppers or less product variety, but it does benefit everyone in the grander scheme: less carbon consumption for supplies transport and less waste. Studies on zero waste businesses suggest that these stores support resource-efficient behavior in both the supply and demand side of shopping.

Lastly, zero waste stores also tend to plan for more sustainable disposal of goods. They may contact a food bank, a compost site, a farming community, or any other service that can collect byproducts and the like to reduce food waste.

Can I save money if I shop here?

There's no cut and dry answer; a zero waste lifestyle can undoubtedly help you pare down on your consumption and just focus on the essentials you need every day. However, most zero waste products are a bit pricier than their mass-produced counterparts. Many factors contribute to that, including more ethical practices, smaller-scale manufacturing, and more expensive raw materials.

You can check out our previous post that looked at how much money you can save from shopping in bulk, including which items to buy in bulk, and which to pass on. This way, you can examine how bulk buying can translate in the most practical sense for your family.

Do these stores take precautions?

Things are improving, but most bulk stores still promote basic precautions. Masks, distancing, and disinfection - these steps ensure that the shopping experience stays safe.

Most refill shops are open even in lockdowns as they sell essential food items. And if you prefer online shopping or curbside pickup, these stores also have these options. Even with online purchases, they still offer select package-free and plastic-free shop goods.

Zero-waste store finder near you

As consumers demand more transparency and responsibility when shopping, zero waste stores are likely to thrive even more. With this model, shopping can be more intentional and need not harm the environment. These bulk stores can offset plastic packaging, provide local suppliers and brands opportunities, and create a more sustainable relationship between sellers and consumers.

Check out Palanan’s zero-waste store finder across North America here. You can simply input your country, state, and city to locate different zero-waste stores, refilleries, and co-ops near your area.

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