Zero-waste grocers are coming to America

Last Updated Jul 15, 2016 10:53 AM EDT

Alarmed about the plastic piling up in our oceans and estimates that a third of the world's food goes to waste? If so, a move is afoot to give shoppers the option of tackling both issues at the neighborhood grocery store.

Already in play in Europe, the idea of a zero-waste grocery market stocked with products free of packaging became a reality in Texas in mid-2011, when a store called in.gredients opened in Austin. It offers area-sourced produce and bulk items, and lays claim to being the first package-free, zero-waste grocery store in the U.S.

The offbeat grocer, however, started offering some packaged goods in 2014, a decision that its store manager chalked up to a preference by customers for quality local products rather than package-free ones.

That's not all that surprising, given that many Americans aren't in the habit of bringing reusable bags when they shop. So making consumers bring along their own containers to hold their purchases could be a major hurdle for a few upstarts now testing the waters in Colorado and New York.

Still, the zero-waste concept is making its debut in Denver, Colorado, where Lyndsey and Jesse Manderson are opening Zero Market in September with a small 450-foot location amid a large gathering of local businesses. "Hopefully by next year, we'll have a larger location. This is our satellite store, our tiny, little 'get-the-word-out' location," said Lyndsey Manderson.

dsc2330.jpg
Steve Stanton Photography

"I get five to six emails a day from people around the country that want to start one," said Manderson, who noted a planned store called The Fillery in New York and a few in San Francisco that are trying to open. "It's really at the beginning stages," she said.

Manderson and her husband decided to pursue a zero-waste lifestyle after watching the Clean Bin Project, a 2010 documentary in which partners compete to see who can produce the least garbage. The film "is not all depressing, but also funny and eye-opening," Manderson said.

She added that "it was pretty difficult at first realizing how much garbage we were producing and figuring how we were going to bring it down. It took us several months to get the hang of it, to remember to bring our own to-go containers when we went out to eat."

Brooklyn resident Sarah Metz found herself thinking about a solution after finding herself in a small New York apartment with "10 different types of flour in my cabinet, approaching expiration, with probably a cup used out of each."

Hating to see food go to waste, not to mention all the packaging, Metz found herself thinking about a bulk specialty food store called By the Pound in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and that "nothing quite like that existed around here."

She's currently looking for a space to open The Fillery after several prospective sites fell through, delaying her hoped-for August launch four to five months.

While trendy, organic, environmentally aware products might conjure up adjectives such as overpriced and expensive, both Manderson and Metz contend that won't be the case in their stores.

"It's definitely less because you are not paying for the package, and if we're buying in bulk, we are saving money on our end, which we can pass along," said Manderson. "Low-income families that can't afford to buy an entire package of pasta or cereal can just get what they need for the next meal."

And for those who view the prospect of producing little-to-no trash as overly daunting, Manderson advises baby steps. "With any huge lifestyle change, it's all about taking it one step at a time," she said. "The idea is not that you have to sacrifice everything, but to make little changes, a lot of which can make a big difference."