The rise of the plastic-free, zero-waste grocery store
Nada Grocery, a new packaging-free grocery store in Vancouver, Canada. hbrezden/Instagram

As hotels, restaurants and cities continue to cut down on the use of single-use items like plastic straws and bags, supermarkets are also addressing their waste output. With ubiquitous reusable totes for purchase and plastic bag taxes, grocery stores have increasingly nudged shoppers worldwide to do without single-use items. But sometimes, the encouragement isn’t enough.

A new shop in Vancouver, British Columbia, has reimagined the supermarket to combat plastic pollution. Nada’s concept is simple: All of the food sold inside is entirely package free. Shoppers bring their own clean containers and bags to fill with goods and can pay for bulk items by weight. The “tap-fill-pay” refill system aims to get rid of the overcomplicated process most bulk stores employ.

Nada’s tap-fill-pay refill system simplifies the process of paying for goods by weight while deducting the weight of the customer’s container seamlessly.
Nada’s tap-fill-pay refill system simplifies the process of paying for goods by weight while deducting the weight of the customer’s container seamlessly. Nada

A dishwasher-safe tag comes as part of this refill system, which makes it easier for returning customers. The tag will store the weight of the empty container, so customers can skip the “tap and weight” step the next time they shop.

Nada, which opened its doors at the end of June, carries a range of dry goods, such as grains, seeds, chips and beans; bakery items; produce; liquids, like honey and olive oil; toiletries and cleaning supplies; dairy products; and deli items — all package free. Beyond reducing container waste, the concept shop ultimately helps consumers waste less food at home — and save money while they do it. At Nada it’s possible, for example, for shoppers to purchase just a few leaves of basil rather than an entire basil plant if they want. The purchase will cost less and there won’t be leftover basil that shrivels up and gets discarded at home. Considering as much as 40% of groceries purchased in the United States get thrown away, this small shift could potentially make a big impact.

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Nada’s founder and CEO, Brianne Miller, is a marine mammal biologist. She has witnessed “firsthand the mass of harmful, unnatural plastic swirling around in our oceans – the majority of which was waste associated with food packaging,” she said in an email. She knew something had to change. Miller said she realized that nearly all the issues plaguing the ocean were tied back to our food system. The way we grow, transport, process, package, buy, sell, consume and ultimately toss food all contribute to climate change and habitat degradation, she said.

To disrupt the flawed supply system, Nada sources its items from suppliers who are transparent about the ethical impact they have on the environment. “We source consciously and responsibly,” the store’s website reads. “We believe in beyond-organic farming practices, transparent supply chains, a thriving local economy and a future without waste.” To have their products stocked at Nada, potential suppliers must disclose how they see their items fitting in with Nada’s greater mission. Nada has several criteria it refers to when sourcing, including “responsible farming practices, supply chain transparency, origin of products, contribution to a circular economy and support of better business models such as social or environmental mission and women- or minority-led ownership,” the website says.

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Nada isn’t the first grocery store of its kind; Berlin’s Unverpackt cites itself as the “first supermarket in the world dedicated to zero-waste lifestyle.” It sells more than 600 products, all of which are package free. Zero Market just outside Denver and Earth Food Love in the United Kingdom run similar concepts at their stores. “Package-free stores are perfect for people following a zero-waste or minimalist lifestyle because they help prevent you taking home a problem,” Rachelle Strauss, who runs a campaign about waste reduction and founded of My Zero Waste, said in an email. “When people want to know some of the first steps they can take [to reduce waste], I suggest they ask themselves what they will do with a product or packaging once they have finished using it. This helps instill a mindset of considering your choices before reaching the checkout.”

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Stores without packaging can impact waste beyond controlling what a consumer is taking home, since they are in direct communication with their suppliers. These places can influence how a product is delivered and “work toward a completely closed-loop system,” Kathryn Kellogg, founder of Going Zero Waste, said in an email. “So the olive oil tankards, once they’re empty, the store will drop off a new one, take the old one, and then refill it at their shop. This avoids so much waste in the upstream. A lot of the food delivered to bulk bins come in paper bags and boxes which can be recycled and composted.” 

Stores with practices like Nada’s can instill behavior changes in their customers. “You have to remember to take your reusable bags and containers to the store,” Strauss said. “You’ll be more likely to take a food inventory before you leave the house, so you know exactly how much you need and have room for. It invites you to menu plan around the items you already have at home. All these considerations subtly shift you away from our current disposable culture toward a more thoughtful consumer.”

When consumers aren’t privy to package-free stores, Kellogg said there are still many ways to cut plastic waste. “Opt for naked produce. Try to join a [Community Supported Agriculture program] or go to a farmers market. Look at smaller mom-and-pop shops where you can bring your own container, like a local baker or deli counter. Buy in bulk.” Everyone has a bit of power in reducing their consumption.